“Never Travel Alone”: Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence
Jeanne Campbell Reesman
- Reesman suggests that London—in his attempts to master the great “White Silence” that is the hostile environment produced by winters in the Yukon—is making a statement about what it means to live and what it means to survive in is story “To Build a Fire”.
- London is champion at expressing that characters need to be adaptable to survive, as seen in the majority of his stories. Since “fitting into a community” also seems to be a theme in many of his works, adaptability to a community (regardless of the size of that community) often means survival (whether it be physical or social survival).
- Reesman also suggests that London, through his exploration of community in many of his stories, attempts not only to become a part of a community, but to know it “from within”. This is not to say that he “particularly admired any one community” (39), but rather chose to explore what made up said community and explore how mankind interacts within the dynamic.
- Reesman advises readers of London to read “To Build a Fire” in a new way, denouncing former speculations that this story was London’s most pessimistic and deterministic texts, as well as the idea presented by Charles E. May that London doesn’t deal with anything but the “things of life” (in his claim that London’s story lacks any real significance). The author suggests, instead, that we as readers consider what London is saying about our connections to community and to mankind, as well as explore the relationship between intellectual knowledge vs. experience/practical knowledge.
Re-reading “To Build a Fire”
- In the 1908 version of the story, the theme of man vs. nature is more complicated than it is in the 1902 version; in the 1908 version, London introduces three relationships that he explores more extensively than in the 1902 version (the man and the dog, the man and the boys at camp, and the man and the “old timer”).
- The protagonist, who is a newcomer to the land, is attempting to overcome nature instead of finding the value in adapting to it.
- The protagonist has an “assumed distance” from nature, which leads to his downfall. His theoretical knowledge of the wild and his practice are in opposition.
- Reesman notes the importance of recognizing London’s technique with irony (43). The protagonist is attempting to distance himself emotionally from his situation (he is always remaining “calm” or “cool” and does not panic) by obsessing over those details which can be quantified (Reesman notes his fixation with the number of twigs and matches he has and the way by which he obsesses over the hours and miles of his journey). All these little fixations, disguised as survival knowledge, serve as a means of distracting himself from the idea of death.
- “It must seem to the reader of such naively naturalistic descriptions that if London ever managed to write a good story it was merely by accident. Certainly he could not have meant to write anything but trash, and he could not have had the talent and energy to do otherwise” (35).
- “London’s naturalism consistently contains and implies manifold beliefs: Transcendental, Romantic, mythic, religious” (37).
- Dale H. Ross is mentioned as having stated “novelists like London, Norris and Dreiser display in their work a kind of eclecticism, seeming sometimes to be behaviorists, at others determinists, and at still other times almost neo-romanticists” (37).
- “London was always an outsider: poor boy, hobo, socialist, Westerner, correspondent, wayfarer in many worlds—but because he wanted to belong he vigorously entered into any community he encountered by describing it convincingly in his fiction… This does not mean he admired a particular community, just that he wanted to know it from within” (39)
- “Every word London wrote was an attempt to combat the White Logic and to reply to the White Silence; the belief in spirit (meaning) is in London’s mind a belief first in himself and his efforts and second in humanity as a vast community spanning time and space…” (38).
- “Indeed, even in London’s most “classic” naturalist stories we find these three important elements: the search for spirit, the desire for community, and the need to address the Other“. (39-40)
- “Although he may think in mechanical or technological images, he is not separate from Nature and able to quantify it: his body is Nature, as twigs/fingers, branches/wrists” (43).
- On the relationship between the old timer and the protagonist, Reesman suggests that “In spite of his arrogant determination to travel his way, the man at last has not traveled alone, if only in his dying moment” (45).
Questions for Discussion
- In what ways does London’s story “To Build a Fire” (1908 version) demonstrate the use of intellectual knowledge vs. practical knowledge, and the importance in distinguishing between the two?
- How is the theme of “man vs. nature” presented differently in the 1902 version and the 1908 version of “To Build a Fire”? In exploring these differences, what textual evidence can we extract from each version?