Friday, February 25, 2011

To Build a Fire

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels and Stories

In 1902 Jack London published a story in Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young boys. Six years later he recalled the story, wrote a new version, and sent it to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. It was accepted and published, but questions were raised about the provenance of the story. A few months later, after the magazine was printed, London responded to Gilder:
[The original story] was purely juvenile in treatment; its motif was not only very strong, but was very true. . . . As the years went by, I was worried by the inadequate treatment I had given the motif, and by the fact that I had treated it for boys merely. . . . I had no access to the boys’ version of it, and I wrote it just as though I had never used the motif before. I do not remember anything about the way I handled it for juveniles, but I do know, I am absolutely confident, that beyond the motif itself, there is no similarity of treatment whatsoever.

I can only say that it never entered my head that there was anything ethically wrong in handing the same motif over again in the way I did . . .
The stories are so dissimilar that it’s surprising the matter came up at all. Except for the basic premise and the title, everything about the second version is different: London’s more mature and confident style, the story's length (the “adult” version is nearly three times longer), and—most significant of all—the outcome. The version for boys is instructional and moralistic; the later version is a classic in naturalism (indeed, Nature is as much a character as the unnamed traveler of the story). And, while the original version of “To Build a Fire” would surely have been lost and forgotten in the dustbins of yellowing magazines, the 1908 version is still considered by many readers as the best short story London ever wrote.

This week’s selection was recommended by Story of the Week reader Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, who thought it “appropriate for the cold winter in the United States or anywhere the cold winds are blowing.” Fortunately (unless you happen to live on the northernmost shore of the continent), it’s still 50 to 120 degrees warmer than the temperatures endured by the man and his dog in “To Build a Fire.”


Get a free Library of America book:We encourage you to offer your own suggestion—a story, essay, narrative poem, or article from any Library of America volume (which can be found listed here)—along with two or three sentences noting anything that might be of related interest to our readers: a current event, a commemoration, a new publication, etc. Send your recommendation to lists@loa.org with the subject line, “Story of the Week idea.” If we use your suggestion, we’ll send you a free Library of America volume of your choice and (with your permission) acknowledge you in the introduction.

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

1 comment:

Jyothi said...

The abundance of of minute details makes the story graphic and vivid. I am from Bangalore, South India,relocated in Brookings,South Dakota.Ever since I came here I am experiencing sub zero temperatures and there have times when I have felt depressed. The story made me feel chilled to the bones, sometimes my teeth chattered. In short, I appreciated the story greatly. I appreciated the timing of it as well.
That apart, what was the protagonist trying to prove? That he was wiser than the Sulphur Creek man? Is he not endowed with the instinct that the dog had? A sad tale. He certainly had no business to undertake such a foolhardy feat.In short, he asked for it.Jyothi