History of the Text
Reception and Publication History: First published in Century Magazine in 1908, “To Build a Fire” is London’s rewrite of a 1902 short story of the same title. In London’s 1902 story, the protagonist survives his journey, despite suffering from severe frostbite. Upon its 1908 publication, “To Build a Fire” was praised by both critics and audiences. It is celebrated for its sparse yet eloquent language, which uses poetic refrains in describing the brutal climate the protagonist attempts to endure. Some have cited the story as a stylistic inspiration for Ernest Hemingway, particularly due to its spare, understated quality. “To Build a Fire” is London’s most anthologized short story and has been heralded as “one of the best short stories ever” by the New York Times.
- The Klondike Gold Rush: In August 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon region of Canada, prompting over 100,000 people to travel to the dangerously cold mining regions of Canada and Alaska. Jack London was one such intrepid soul, and the stories he set in Canada and Alaska ignited his literary career. During his time in the Yukon, London experienced conditions similar to those portrayed in the story. By some accounts, he was stricken with frost-bite, which left him with permanent marks of his Arctic adventures. Though London admittedly wrote with the intention of earning money (and some critics argue that the quality of his writing varies as a result), his stories—with their thrilling adventures and vivid depictions of nature—brought readers with him to the exciting and dangerous Yukon.
Naturalism in American Literature: Naturalism, which was influenced by philosophical determinism and the work of Charles Darwin, developed as a literary movement in the late 19th century. Naturalism uses a detached, objective narrative lens, considering human behavior in the context of an amoral and impartial universe. Naturalist works typically examine characters whose lives are determined by heredity and instinct. Thematically, naturalism shows free will as limited by the intractable bounds of human nature and the indifferent dominance of the physical universe.