Jack London: Klondike Tales


This collection of Jack London’s writing that I am working through as part of my larger mission of reading the American canon from the libertarian left position, brings together twelve of his Klondike tales.  They are all drawn from life and were written between 1899 and 1908, and all but three were written before 1902.  They thus reflect London’s more youthful writing.  Most come before The Sea-Wolf, The Road, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden.  His first purchased and published story was “To the Man on Trail,” one of these Klondike stories.  Like Melville, London drew heavily from experience in his earliest writings.

The last of these tales to be written was “To Build a Fire”, which every American has read at some point in their education.  “To Build a Fire” speaks like so much of London’s work on the failure of radical individualism.  Here it is personified by a man who recklessly and against better advice ventures out in bitterly cold weather (-50 to -70 Fahrenheit), gets his feet wet and is forced to stop and build a fire.  He fails due to inexperience, the cold’s burdens on his body, and the brutality of nature.  He makes a final dash to his destination hoping running will warm his body.  He dies exhausted, cold, and alone as even his dog leaves him.  Reading this story after spending over a week on London’s major works strikes home his common theme of the necessity of socialism.  Without our brothers and sisters, we are all one failed fire from disaster.

Of course, the Klondike gold rush, that London participated in, was another in a long line of capitalist frontiers that promised advancement for all but enriched a small handful of people.  Only 1 in 10 “gold rushers” found any gold. It was in most cases impossible for people without capital to make money mining gold in the bitterly cold Yukon.  Only those who could afford the wood to burn and thaw the ground could really strike it rich.  It is not surprising that gold plays such a small role in London’s Klondike tales.  They are at best a background character and rarely play much of a direct role in the plot.  Many who found a small amount of gold wasted their wealth looking for more.  Most worked others.

Hydraulic Mining Required Capital

Hydraulic Mining Required Capital

I want to briefly introduce four themes I discovered while reading these short stories (and I read them at a darkening playground while my daughter played so I am going for broad analysis, not a detailed reading).  I hope my reader forgives my sloth.

Working Class Frontier

The Klondike tales show the vibrant and diverse life of a working class frontier.  Unable to settle into ethnic neighborhood like in Chicago or New York, these immigrant workers made a meager life together.  Like sailors on the ship, diversity was a part of a life (not a multi-cultural “celebration” of difference).  French Canadians, Indians, “half-breeds,” Americans, and, yes, canines of many breeds lived, worked, drank, fucked, and died near each others.  It was a multi-lingual environment and culturally flexible.  Like the ship or the French-Canadian fur trades, these workers could not afford to ignore anything that seemed to work.  This leads me to…

Morality Based on Context

In this frontier condition, with the law of the state distant and mostly useless, people were forced to move “beyond good and evil” as dictated by their religious traditions.  “Batard” a story of a vile man and his vile dog.  The futility of traditional religion and the tendency of these frontiersmen to embrace naturalistic religions is played with in “The God of His Fathers.”  Brutal frontiers justice is described in “The League of the Old Men.”  Even the morality of leaving the injured to die takes on new calculus in brutal Yukon frontier.  The stories open with a rejection of Henry Ward Beecher’s temperance through a “Bacchanalian chorus”: “There’s Henry Ward Beecher/ And Sunday-school teachers,/ All drink of the sassafras root;/ But you bet all the same,/If it had its right name,/ It’s the juice of the forbidden fruit.” (290)

Confront with Environment

London was an environmentalist, as suggested in some of the other works discussed so far in this blog.  The Call of the Wild and White Fang showed how violence emerged from a dog-eat-dog capitalism or a natural world of deprivation.  While not an ideal test case since these gold miners failed by the thousands and died by the hundreds in a climate and environment people lived and prospered in for centuries, London does seem to mistrust the potential of the natural world to provide what we need unaided.  When it has show up it created periodic famines (as in White Fang) or a type of primitive barbarism.  Look to my last entry for a bit more on my thoughts on the violence or egalitarianism of Paleolithic and Neolithic humans.  Writing in an era of Social Darwinism, “progress,” and industry a suspicion of the natural world would be expected.  I am not sure what this perspective teaches us in an era when it is clear we are the cruel, indifferent destroyers of nature.  If nature were to write a short story, I wonder if it would share the same bleakness, futility, and pessimism of “To Build a Fire,” but with man, not nature, as the threat.

Failure of Individualism

The editor of this collection of tales (Donald Pizer) placed them in chronological order based on publication date.  This means that the stories begin with a celebration of working-class solidarity in “To the Man on Trail” to the solitary death at the end of “To Build a Fire.”  We can perhaps account for a growing pessimism on London’s part but I will take from it a lesson that in modern capitalism – an environment no less harsh or indifferent than what faced these gold miners – we should choose community and brotherhood.

But for those who seek to venture out alone we have a hero in Wolf Larsen.  Stay tuned for The Sea-Wolf.

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