"To Build a Fire" (1908) is actually the second version of a story written in late 1901. In both versions, a lone white man in the Northland fights a losing battle against the cold that is coming over his body. London unquestionably turned the spirited but naive survival story of 1901 into a fascinating journey through the harrowed consciousness of a lonely man. In "Lost Face" (1908), a white man faces death at the hands of offended natives of the Northland, and their confrontation seems to partake of the frown and sarcasm of the frozen land. In "Koolau the Leper" (1909), not only do Hawaiian natives, gathered on the cliff-hemmed tip of an island, resist assaults by the white man, but they must also struggle against their own internal dislocation: leprosy, brought into the islands by white merchants and planters, is gradually deforming them. All these men fight not only for their lives, but beyond their lives for the ultimate survival of their dignity.
Thus these men, though sometimes giving up the hope of life, seem indissolubly linked with the rest of mankind, and strike the reader, now as in the late 1900s, as if they were standing close by and whispering eternal truths about ourselves.
The very birth of Jack London (1876-1916) in the midst of California's formidable population growth and social mutations, seemed to mark him out for passion and restlessness. For some time, while producing a wide range of adventure stories most of which were rejected by magazines, he dabbled in politics. However, he chose to answer the call of adventure and joined the 1897 gold rush to the Yukon in Northern Canada... And came back home with such powerful Northland stories as The White Silence (1898), To the Man on Trail (1898) and An Odyssey of the North (1899). After the international acclaim of The Call of the Wild (1903), the wolf-and-dog story full of that wistful vigour which became his trademark, he bought some farmland in his dear California, and set about sailing around the world in his freshly acquired boat, the Snark. Jean-Luc Tendil is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Avignon, France.