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Jack London's "To Build a Fire"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 29, 2022 3:01 am

Jack London's "To Build a Fire"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 29, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Jack London’s most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both set in the Klondike Gold Rush, as well as his short story, To Build a Fire. Here to narrate the gripping finale of Jack London’s masterpiece, To Build a Fire is Roger McGrath.

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800-832-7597. This is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about all kinds of things here on this show. And we love spending time on music, arts, and literature. Jack London's most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both set in the Klondike Gold Rush, as well as his short story To Build a Fire. Here's Greg Hengler with more on Jack London. Jack London carved out his own hardscrabble life as a teen.

In his free time, he hunkered down at libraries soaking up novels and travel books. His life as a writer essentially began in 1893. That year he had weathered a treacherous voyage, one in which a typhoon had nearly taken out London and his crew. The 17-year-old adventurer had made it home and regaled his mother with his tales of what happened to him. When she saw an announcement in one of the local newspapers for a writing contest, she pushed her son to write down and submit his story.

Armed with just an eighth-grade education, London captured the $25 first prize, beating out college students from Berkeley and Stanford. For London, the contest was an eye-opening experience, and he decided to dedicate his life to writing short stories. But he had trouble finding willing publishers. In fact, Jack London kept all of his rejection letters from the first five years of his writing career and impaled each one of them on a spindle.

The impaled letters, 600 of them, eventually reached a height of four feet. When White Fang was first published in 1906, Jack London was well on his way to becoming one of the most famous, popular, and highly paid writers in the world. In fact, London was the first author in the world to become a millionaire from his writing.

He died at his California ranch on November 22, 1916. He was 40 years old. To build a fire takes place in the snowy world of the Yukon, where it's so cold you spit freezes before it even hits the ground. After spending a very influential part of his young life mining for gold in the Arctic North, London returned to the States a changed man. He was certain that civilization and its modern conveniences had turned everyone, and men in particular, into a bunch of wimps, and he felt that people needed to reconnect with their natural instincts and common sense if they wished to remain strong against the pampering forces of the modern world.

Here to narrate the gripping finale of Jack London's masterpiece to build a fire is Roger McGrath. When it is 75 below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire. That is, if his feet are wet, if his feet are dry and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation.

But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is 75 below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder. All this the man knew.

The old timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice. Already all sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire, he had been forced to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly gone numb. His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities.

But the instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood willy-nilly to the surface. But now it ebbed away and sank into the recesses of his body.

The extremities were the first to feel its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its blood.

But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would only be touched by the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. It was feeding with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute, he would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and then he could remove his wet foot gear, and while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm by the fire.

Rubbing them at first, of course, was snow. The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old timer on Sulphur Creek and smiled. The old timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after 50 below. Well, here he was.

It had the accident. He was alone, and he had saved himself. Those old timers were rather womanish. Some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was keep his head, and he was all right.

Any man who was a man could travel alone, but it was surprising. The rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing, and he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger ends, all of which counted for little.

There was the fire snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice. The thick German socks were like sheaths of iron gaff way up to his knee, and the moccasin strings were like rods of steel, all twisted and knotted as by some caught filigration. For a moment, he tugged his numb fingers. Then, realizing the folly of it, he drew his sheath knife. But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault, or rather his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open, but it had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he pulled the twig, it communicated a slight agitation to the tree.

An imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree, one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them.

This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man in the fire, and the fire was blotted out. Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow. The man was shocked.

It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death. For a moment, he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been, and he grew very calm. Perhaps the old timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail mate, it would have been in no danger now. The trail mate could have built the fire. And we're listening to Roger McGrath, our in-house historian on all things frontier, reading Jack London's remarkable To Build a Fire.

And when we come back, we're going to hear more of this story here on Our American Stories. . Need life insurance but have diabetes, high blood pressure or on anxiety meds? If you're a 50-year-old male, even porky or with type 2 diabetes, a million dollars of life insurance may only cost you about 200 bucks a month. For affordable term life insurance, call Term Provider and speak with Big Lou at 800-700-6898, 800-700-6898 or visit

Remember, Big Lou's like you, he's on meds too, 800-700-6898. Fall is just around the corner and home is the center of it all. At Ashley, seasonal decorating's a breeze with their range of designs and materials. Snuggle up on a family-friendly sectional or an ultra-modern sofa. Or gather outside and enjoy the crisp, cool air with a new fire pit or conversation set. From minor refreshes to total overhauls, Ashley has the essentials to make your home fall functional and fabulous.

Shop in store or visit today. Get the full story at And we continue here with our American stories and Roger McGrath's reading of To Build a Fire. Let's pick up where we last left off. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again.

And the second time, there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now. And there would be some time before the second fire was ready. Such were his thoughts. But he did not sit and think them. He was busy all the time they were passing through his mind. He made a new foundation for a fire.

This time in the open, where no treacherous tree could blot it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs from the high water flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together to pull them out, but he was able to gather them by the handful.

In this way, he got many rotten twigs and bits of green moss that were undesirable. But it was the best he could do. He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the while, the dog sat and watched him. A certain yearning, wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire provider. And the fire was slow in coming. When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece of birch bark. He knew the bark was there, and though he could not feel it with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he fumbled for it.

Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it. And all the time in his consciousness was the knowledge that each instant, his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm. He pulled on his mittens with his teeth and threshed his arms back and forth, beating his hands with all his might against his sides.

He did this sitting down, and he stood up to do it. And all the while, the dog sat in the snow, its wolf brush of the tail curled warmly over its forefeet. Its sharp wolf ears perked forward intently as it watched the man. And the man, as he beat and threshed his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering. After a time, he was aware of the first faraway signals of sensation in his beaten fingers.

The faint tingling grew stronger till it evolved into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand and fetched forth the birch bark. The exposed fingers were quickly going numb again. Next, he brought out his bunch of sulfur matches, but the tremendous cold had already driven the life out of his fingers. In his effort to separate one match from the others, the whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick it out of the snow, but failed.

The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch. He was very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet and nose and cheeks out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches. He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch. And when he saw his fingers on each side of the bunch, he closed them.

That is, he willed to close them, for the wires were down and the fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on his right hand and beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both mittened hands, he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow, into his lap.

Yet, he was no better off. After some manipulation, he managed to get the bunch between the heels of his mittened hands. In this fashion, he carried it to his mouth.

The eyes crackled and snapped when, by a violent effort, he opened his mouth. He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the way, and scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate a match. He succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap.

He was no better off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a way. He picked it up in his teeth and scratched it on his leg. Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded in lighting it. As it flamed, he held it with his teeth to the birchbark. But the burning brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing him to cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. He fought in the moment of control of the spear that ensued.

After fifty below, a man should travel with a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation. Suddenly, he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands.

His arm muscles were not being frozen, enabling him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into flame.

Seventy Sulphur matches at once. There was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape the strangling fumes and held the blazing bunch to the birchbark. As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface, he could feel it.

The sensation developed in a pain that grew acute. And still, he endured it, holding the flame of matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame. At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart. The blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birchbark was alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the flame. He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel between the heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and green moss clung to the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he could with his teeth. He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly.

It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of blood from the snow was fresh. The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his shivering frame made him poke too far, and he disrupted the little nucleus of the little fire. The burning grasses and tiny twigs separated and scattering. He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of the tenseness of his effort, his shivering got away with him, and the twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke and went out.

The fire provider had failed. As he looked apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog, sitting across the ruins of the fire from him. In the snow, making restless, movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the other, shifting its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness. The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tail of a man caught in a blizzard who killed the steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved.

He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire. And you've been listening to Dr Roger McGrath and telling the story of To Build a Fire, Jack London's classic. And we like to do this periodically because these stories, well they must live on and they've been sort of almost eviscerated from the curriculum of most schools.

When we come back, we continue with Jack London's To Build a Fire, the final installment here on Our American Stories. Or visit Remember, Big Lou's like you. He's on meds too.

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And we continue with our American stories in the final installment of Jack London's To Build a Fire. Let's return to Dr. Roger McGrath. He spoke to the dog, calling it to him. But in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter and its suspicious nature sensed danger. It knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow in its brain arose an apprehension of the man. It flattened its ears down at the sound of the man's voice and its restless, hunching movements and the liftings and shiftings of its forefeet became more pronounced.

But it would not come to the man. He got in his hands and knees and crawled toward the dog. This unusual posture again excited suspicion and the animal sidled minceingly away. The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness. Then he pulled on his mittens by means of his teeth and got a and got upon his feet.

He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that he was really standing up for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated to the earth. His right position in itself started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog's mind. And when he spoke peremptorily with the sound of whiplashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him. As it came within reaching distance, the man lost control. His arms flashed out to the dog and he experienced genuine surprise when he discovered that his hands could not clutch, that there was neither bend nor feeling in his fingers.

He had forgotten for the moment that they were frozen and that they were freezing more and more. All this happened quickly and before the animal could get away he encircled its body with his arms. He sat down in the snow and in this fashion held the dog while it snarled and whined and struggled. But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and sit there. He realized he could not kill the dog, there was no way to do it.

With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath knife nor throttle the animal. He released it and it plunged wildly away with tail between its legs and still snarling. It halted 40 feet away and surveyed him curiously with ears sharply pricked forward. The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them and found them hanging on the ends of his arms.

It struck him as curious that no one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back and forth beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this for five minutes violently and his heart pumped enough blood to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was aroused in his hands. He had an impression that they were hung like weights on the ends of his arms.

But when he tried to run the impression down he could not find it. A certain fear of death dull and oppressive came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes or of losing his hands and feet but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This threw him into a panic and he turned and ran up the creek bed along the old dim trail.

The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He ran blindly without intention in fear such as he had never known in his life. Slowly as he plowed and floundered through the snow he began to see things again.

The banks of the creek, the old timber jams, the leafless aspens in the sky. The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe if he ran on his feet would fall out and anyway if he ran far enough he would reach camp in the boys. Without doubt he would lose some fingers and toes and some of his face but the boys would take care of him and save the rest of him when he got there. And at the same time there was another thought in his mind that said he would never get to the camp in the boys, that it was too many miles away, that the freezing had too great a start on him and that he would soon be stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused to consider.

Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be heard but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things. It struck him as curious that he could run it all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim above the surface and have no connection with the earth.

Somewhere he had once seen a winged mercury and he wondered if mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth. His theory of running until he reached camp in the boys had one flaw in it. He lacked endurance. Several times he stumbled and finally he tottered crumpled up and fell.

When he tried to rise he failed. He must sit and rest he decided and next time he would merely walk and keep on going. As he sat and regained his breath he noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not shivering and it even seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest and trunk and yet when he touched his nose or cheeks there was no sensation.

Runny would not thaw them out nor would it thaw out his hands and feet. Then the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be extending. He tried to keep the thought down to forget it to think of something else. He was aware of the panicky feeling that it caused and he was afraid of the panic but the thought asserted itself and persisted until it produced a vision of his body totally frozen. This was too much and he made another wild run along the trail. Once he slowed down to walk but the thought of the freezing extending itself made him run again and all the time the dog ran with him had his heels. When he fell down a second time it curled its tail over its four feet and sat in front of him facing him curiously eager and intent.

The warmth and security of the animal angered him and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears appeasingly. This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He was losing his he was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of it drove him on but he ran no more than a hundred feet when he staggered and pitched head long. It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. However the conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was that he had been making a fool of himself running around like a chicken with his head cut off.

Such was the simile that occurred to him. Well he was bound to freeze anyway and he might as well take it decently. With this newfound peace of mind came first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea he thought to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought.

There were lots worse ways to die. He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them coming along the trail and looking for himself and still with them he came around to turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself anymore for even then he was out of himself standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold was his thought. When he got back to the states he could tell the folks what real cold was. He drifted on from this to a vision of the old timer on sulfur creek. He could see him quite clearly warm and comfortable and smoking a pipe.

You were right old hoss you were right. The man mumbled to the old timer of sulfur creek. Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made and besides never in the dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. Later the dog whined loudly and still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew. Where were the other food providers and fire providers? What storytelling and what writing and we thank dr roger mcgrath for reading to build a fire by jack london here on our american stories. Enjoy the crisp cool air with a new fire pit or conversation set. From minor refreshes to total overhauls, ashley has the essentials to make your home fall functional and fabulous.

Shop in store or visit today. Need life insurance but have diabetes high blood pressure or on anxiety meds? If you're a 50 year old male even porky or with type 2 diabetes a million dollars of life insurance may only cost you about 200 bucks a month. For affordable term life insurance call term provider and speak with big lou at 800-700-6898 800-700-6898 or visit remember big lou's like you he's on meds too 800-700-6898. What up it's dramas you may know me from the recap on latv now i've got my own podcast life as a gringo coming to you every tuesday and thursday we'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life latin culture and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in listen to life as a gringo on the iheart radio app or wherever you get your podcasts brought to you by state farm like a good neighbor state farm is there
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