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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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Spatiality and Psyche: Surviving the Yukon in Jack London’s “Love of Life” and “To Build a Fire”

Steffen Wöll

Spatiality and Psyche: Surviving the Yukon in Jack London’s “Love of Life” and “To Build a Fire”

[O]ur expedition, running appalling risks, performing prodigies of superhuman endurance, achieving immortal renown, commemorated in august cathedral sermons and by public statues, yet reaching the Pole only to find our terrible journey superfluous.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard1

Abstract: This chapter argues that London’s short stories “Love of Life” (1905) and “To Build a Fire” (1902) demonstrate the elusiveness of unequivocal interpretations of the Northland as a one-dimensional space of white supremacy in naturalist literature during the turn of the century. Going far beyond those ideas, London’s placement of anonymous characters into a state of primitivism maps out mental geographies and trajectories of the white American psyche, which often counterpoint the racialist hierarchies that are regularly seen as dominating the era’s discourses. Energizing alternative and more complex conceptualizations of imperialism and racism in the United States, I propose that the literary struggle of Anglo-Saxon “blond beasts” in the unforgiving sub-Arctic territory unpacks a number of psycho-spatial place-making dynamics through adaptation, transfiguration, and synthetic reconfigurations of body and mind that may best be examined through the lenses of Donna Haraway’s “xenogenesis” and the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch. Ultimately, Jack London’s representation of the white psyche in the Northland reveals the many spatial frictions and philosophical pitfalls that are at the heart of a shifting American identity during the period of the nation’s imperial outreach, adding to ongoing efforts to harness literary geographies as analytical instruments of interdisciplinary significance.


When newspapers in July 1897 announced the return of a band of forty adventurers from the Klondike laden with gold worth around three thousand dollars, many self-declared gold miners and fortune seekers embarked on an ←75 | 76→onerous journey to the North. Among them was William D. Wood, the elected mayor of Seattle, who decided to resign from his office in order to ‘strike luck’ in the gold fields of the Yukon. The to-be celebrity author and social activist Jack London also fled the huddled masses of San Francisco in 1897, following the lure of gold and adventure (Wilma). However, he soon witnessed the relentless forces at play in the Yukon when he arrived at the foot of Chilkoot Pass, a steep bottleneck that marks the passage between Alaska and British Columbia on the most frequented route to the prospecting areas.

As he joined the ranks of a long procession of heavily laden men (some of whom had hired native packers and guides, whose services were in high demand) that climbed the narrow pathway single column, he learned about the harsh pecking order among the ‘stampeders,’ as the future prospectors called themselves.2 Jeanne Campbell Reesman relates London’s experience at Chilkoot Pass, noting that “if anyone fell out of step, the line refused to let him back in, so he had no recourse but to return to the bottom and start over” (Racial Lives 59).3 The stories that Jack London penned inspired by experiences like these have deeply embossed the American imagination of the North as a space of adventure and hardship. Susan Kollin suggests that this influence goes

to the extent that even today readers and critics misrecognize the Klondike as US terrain. […] Alaska and the Yukon were places to experience outdoor adventures and to test one’s strength and stamina. In an era when Anglo-Saxon males felt themselves overwhelmed by the new immigration and feared becoming emasculated by domesticated life in the cities, the Far North was viewed as a last refuge, a safe haven for beleaguered Euro-Americans in search of invigorating outdoors experiences. This understanding has held such power that today, Alaska is still regarded as a space uniquely set off from the rest of ←76 | 77→the country, a position that provides the region with much of its symbolic capital in the popular imagination. (423)

Having weathered the dangers of the northward trek, London was frustrated to learn that most of the promising gold claims were already taken. Even more disappointing to the self-taught socialist, most of them were run by workers who were paid daily wages by capitalists, instead of making their personal fortune by ‘striking luck.’ Disillusioned, London moved into a free-standing cabin as soon as temperatures began to drop. While he did not find any of his dreamed-up riches, the twenty-three-year-old still got lucky as his cabin was located near a much-frequented crossroads. Throughout the long Arctic winter, many fortune seekers and seasoned prospectors (who referred to themselves as ‘sourdoughs’) were invited to his cabin’s fireplace to share their, often incredible, experiences (Haley 110–12). It was during this period of simultaneous spatial isolation and intellectual stimulation that London’s career as a serious writer really began. In fact, his most famous and critically acclaimed works are set in the Yukon. As soon as spring came and the ice melted, London, together with two companions, started back south from Dawson City, floating down the Yukon River in a self-made boat to arrive at the Bering Strait, and finally California.

Back in San Francisco in July 1898, the novice writer, like many returnees, was suffering from malnutrition and scurvy. His disillusion grew as he observed the movement of Western civilization into the Northland, setting in motion its dilution as a ‘pure’ space of epic journeys and personal trials. As he lamented two years later in The American Monthly, the northern “[e]xploration and transportation will be systematized. […] The frontiersman will yield to the laborer, the prospector to the mining engineer, the dog-driver to the engine-driver, the trader and speculator to the steady-going modern man of business” (74). Upon his homecoming, he also learned that his father John had passed away during his absence and that he remained as the only breadwinner of the family. To make matters worse, the national economy was heading towards depression. London had barely any marketable skills to boot. From his journey to the Yukon, he brought back no riches, having found mostly iron pyrite or ‘fool’s gold.’ However, he carried home with him something much more valuable, namely a mind full of imaginations of the Yukon’s human geography, which should soon find its expression in a number of stories that emphasize the brittle humanity and ephemeral wealth of the Northland through a style both widely accessible and profoundly complex. The first of these stories, “The Devil’s Dice Box,” London finished in September 1898, but the breakthrough came with the publication of “An Odyssey of the North” in the January 1900 issue of Atlantic Monthly.←77 | 78→

Suddenly, Charles Walcutt notes, “he was called the successor to Poe, the equal of Kipling, a new voice rising above the prissy sentiment of the genteel tradition” (16). But London’s opposition to the ‘prissiness’ of the American Renaissance and his revival of white masculinity through the depiction of Anglo-Saxon ‘he-men’ is merely one possible, although extremely pervasive, interpretation of these stories. In fact, withstanding the urge of falling back to the same conclusions that have been made time and again and thus appear as almost normative seems a necessity when examining the following texts as spatial manifestations of the Progressive Era’s white and male psyche. Earle Labor gives a fitting example for such a conventional deterministic reading of London’s Northland as a space where “[t]hose who survive are made better because of their adaptation to its laws; those who are weak in physical or moral character do not survive. This is the Darwinian ethic at its finest” (“Symbolic Wilderness” 151).

The pervasive nature of such interpretations poses a number of questions. First, should London’s work thus be seen as an adulation of Nordic supermen who conquer and dominate the Yukon solely through their strength and courage? Second, does this space therefore turn into an idealized and ultimately sterile “zone of impregnable American innocence” (Blair 561)? Third, is the Northland’s hostile environment a deterministic place-making factor that weeds out the weak and that London utilizes as a deus ex natura to conjoin the discourses of Social Darwinism, racialist white supremacy, and triumphalism of Western civilization? In the words of William Morrison, is London’s spatialization of the Northland a literary avowal “that the Anglo-Saxon race, made especially healthy and vigorous by the bracing Canadian climate, would soon rise to take its rightful place of prominence in the world” (8)? While these issues are central for the following analyses of two of London’s short stories that chart the journeys of white male protagonists in the Yukon, the preceding interrogation of the native space in the Northland already foreshadows the parochialism which binary answers to any of these questions would precipitate. In this chapter, I suggest that conventional readings of London’s Northland as a racialized space of Teutonic triumphalism legitimized through the Spencerian survival of the fittest—while not entirely without purchase—should be revised to properly take into account London’s idiosyncratic interplay between race, space, and psyche. As will be shown in the following analyses, the sometimes superhuman feats and struggles of white protagonists are mostly not mere celebrations of whiteness but stylistic devices that represent complex textual negotiations of spatialization processes propelled by environmental, psychological, and socio-economic dynamics. These dynamics often surface in the figure of the ‘abysmal brute’ as a key element of London’s approach to naturalistic place-making and identity construction that ←78 | 79→refers to “a dormant regressive self […] that helps [his characters to] adapt and survive, because as ‘brutes’ they are aware of their situation” (Reesman 8–9). Seen through the lens of spatialization, this brutishness, however, appears less as a crude celebration of Anglo-Saxon tenacity or superiority and more as a parable on the regenerative yet potentially fatal psycho-social effects of entering the primordial terrain of the Northland’s human geography.

2 “Love of Life”: Helpless Supermen in the Land of Little Sticks

All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt.

Yann Martel4

Published in 1907, “Love of Life” tells the story of an unnamed protagonist lost in the northern wilderness. Struggling to make his way to the shore in the hope of finding an anchoring ship, he must learn the unforgiving lessons of survival in the Northland. Doing so, however, requires discarding or renegotiating of what society regards as ‘civilized behavior.’ In sober prose, the short story charts the struggle of its protagonist, referred to only as “the man,” which already implies the universality of his condition and archetypal dimensions of his predicament. His comrade Bill has left him behind because he was slowing him down, and now the man must face the wilderness without the help and comfort of a companion. With no food and ammunition, he lacks any technological assistance apart from a tin bucket, a pocket watch that he winds meticulously, and exactly sixty-seven matches that he guards vigilantly, desperately counting them again and again, aware that they mark the fine line between him and an outcast Neanderthal in prehistory. He also carries with him a heavy bag that contains gold as the actual motive and the reason for his being in this situation. Initially, he clings to the learned patterns of civilization, and his first action is to try and define his positionality in the Yukon:

He looked to the south and knew that somewhere beyond those bleak hills lay the Great Bear Lake; also, he knew that in that direction the Arctic Circle cut its forbidding way across the Canadian Barrens. This stream in which he stood was a feeder to the Coppermine River, which in turn flowed north and emptied into Coronation Gulf and ←79 | 80→the Arctic Ocean. He had never been there, but he had seen it, once, on a Hudson Bay Company chart. (“Love” 742)

This mapping-out of the territory could be seen as an act of imperialism as it points to the power of Western geography to measure and take (at least intellectual) ownership of the Northland as terra nullius. However, unlike Brigham Young’s famous act of Mormon place-making in 1847 by simply stating “this is the place” and thereby determining the location of what was to become Salt Lake City, London’s protagonist cannot make the Northland his home simply because he is utterly isolated in it. He has no choice but to overcome the threats of the Northland’s environment in order to make it out alive. After making up his mind, he decides to try and reach the Arctic Sea by traveling through a desolate region the natives call tit-chin-nichile, “the land of little sticks” (743). But rationality and technology, as becomes apparent, prove insufficient to cross this unsettled territory.

One morning the man wakes up and spots a caribou grazing right next to him; he then vainly pulls the trigger of his empty rifle driven by “the vision and the savor of a caribou steak sizzling and frying over a fire” (744). The man’s intellect and ‘common sense’ fail him after he later stumbles upon a small pool, which to his disappointment contains only a single fish. Still determined to ingest some protein, he tries to catch it with his bare hands only to stir up mud and thus make the fish invisible for him. Putting his mind to the problem, he finally resorts to painstakingly scooping out all the water, only to discover that the fish must have escaped through a hidden crevice into an adjoining, much larger pool. Next, he comes across a group of wild birds and desperately hurls rocks at them. In the process, he even abandons his erect posture as a central tenet of his humanity as he “stalked them as a cat stalks a sparrow […] till their ker-ker-ker became a mock to him, and he cursed them and cried aloud at them with their own cry” (746). Language as the differentiating feature between man and beast, it becomes clear, cannot help the protagonist in securing his ‘rightful’ place at the top of the food chain. This fact becomes even more evident when he vainly screams at a black fox that passes by carrying a bird in his mouth and refuses to surrender its prey to the man. As a consequence, the Northland in “Love of Life” becomes a stage for the spectacle of unfettered brutality of nature and humankind’s forced participation in the struggle for survival.

This is demonstrated quite graphically in one of London’s most disturbing depictions of the bestiality of a man stripped entirely from the vestments of civilization: Dizzy from hunger, the man stumbles and falls “squarely into a ptarmigan nest. There were four newly hatched chicks, a day old—little specks of pulsating life no more than a mouthful; and he ate them ravenously, thrusting ←80 | 81→them alive into his mouth and crunching them like egg-shells between his teeth” while the mother bird watches and squawks in protest (749). At this point, the controversial influence of Nietzsche’s superman or Übermensch on London’s writings comes to the fore, particularly because scholarly engagements with these issues have yielded contradictory results (Berliner 61; Furer 67; Kershaw 77; Petersen 65; Rothberg 569). Instead of providing an extensive overview of these interpretations, I will content myself here with asserting that the subsequent discussions are based in the conviction that Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) did not envision the superman as racially superior. Instead, he or she is depicted as a highly idealized yet, nevertheless, human character that embodies positive values such as love, empathy, and creativity. After the ‘death of God,’ namely the idea that religion by itself can no longer engender meaningful identities, this figure would serve as a new blueprint for individual morality. In contrast to a deity, the superman is rooted in secular philosophy and untethered from spiritual escapism and the metaphysical realms of Paradise, Canaan, or hell. Arguably, this is what Zarathustra refers to when he proclaims: “You look upward when you long for elevation. And I look down because I am elevated” (28). For instance, Axel Gunderson’s flawed character in “An Odyssey of the North,” a frequently mentioned prototype of London’s blonde supermen, can by no stretch of the imagination fulfill these high aspirations, which already casts doubt on the uncritical glorification of white supermen, or even proto-fascistic tendencies in London’s stories. Similarly, the man in “Love of Life” is also white and of Anglo-Saxon heritage, yet his chick-eating savagery does not permit for any semblance of superiority, or even a shred of dignity from which his status as an Übermensch in a racial sense could be extrapolated. Conversely, the Northland as the supposed stage on which white dominance is celebrated emerges as an egalitarian and almost anti-anthropocentric space that testifies to the opposite by not discriminating between species and ethnicities. In fact, dependence on ‘superior’ technology or ‘common sense’ might actually be counterproductive, making the Westernized individual and society less fit for survival. Ultimately and in spite of his whiteness, the man appears just as distraught and ‘primitive’ as any member of any race who is struggling to stay alive.5←81 | 82→

Unable to find a way of aligning himself with his environment, the protagonist becomes detached from a meaningful and therefore survivable relationship with his surroundings. For him, the Yukon turns into what Marc Augé called a “non-place,” namely an anthropological limbo of transience in which he remains anonymous, invisible, and hence unable to carve out a space of subjective significance. As his most important staples of subjective significance, he must find water, food, and shelter to survive. But in the non-place of the uninhabited wilderness, his individual economy—and in abstracted form, that of Western capitalism in general—is uncoupled from the economy of the Northland, from which he cannot extract any benefit for himself. As a result, he must stand by and watch as the native animals successfully engage in their ‘business,’ thereby proving their raison d’être in a space that is desolate only for human beings. In this humiliating position, he emerges as an outcast and thus as the antithesis of a colonizing Teutonic zone-conqueror.In his private life, London actually found himself in a similar non-place in terms of his racial and gender identity. He was raised by his de facto foster mother Virginia Prentiss, a former slave who was proud of her African heritage and with whose family he spent long stretches of time until the age of fifteen. After a troubled childhood and much discord with his biological single mother, London struggled to reconcile his positive subjective experiences with non-whites and the objectivized racism of the Jim Crow era. Overcompensating for social pressures to position himself within a distinctly white space, he discovered a sense of belonging—and maybe naive pride—in the notion of being part of a lineage of blond beasts that he had found in Nietzsche’s work (Haley 62). In of his private photographs, London can be seen striking awkwardly ‘manly’ poses, presenting his white body as if to find reassurance in the authoritative eye of the camera.6←82 | 83→

London’s protagonist in the story, however, is doubly lost: through his actual geographical ‘maplessness’ and geographical disorientation and also through his socio-cultural dissociation from the land of little sticks itself. In this situation, he is confronted with the choice to either realign the way he views and interacts with the environment or succumb to it. Put in more theoretical terms, the first step of this realignment lies in his realization that both time and space of the Northland work in unison against his survival. Heidegger’s concept of “worlding,” first formulated in Being and Time (1927), explores this notion by describing our relationship to space as an active process and a way in which we become familiar with and ‘grounded’ in our environment, leading to our meaningful sense of “being-in-the-world.”7 Ben Wilson outlines the basic assumptions of the Heideggerian conception of existentialism:

Man is a Being-in-the-World in that he is aware of his existence, and he can become a Being-towards-Death as soon as he is aware of his potential inexistence (i.e. once he realizes he is mortal). Coming to terms with this fact allows for authentic Being, in which man knows that he is a Being-towards-Death. Authenticity in turn creates angst, an unfocused fear, as man realizes that he isn’t at home in the world and will soon leave it.

The internalization of this existential fear then becomes the motivation for London’s protagonist to flee the “land of little sticks” as fast as possible, even if it means crawling on his knees. In this state of primordial fear and survival, the Northland has turned into a “non-place”: “What reigns [in non-places] is the actuality, the urgency of the present moment. Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time” Augé (104). Thus, dehumanized and degraded to “a mere automaton” “Love” (750), the man, however, eventually ‘re-naturalizes’ himself by acknowledging that he has to renegotiate his own positionality within the spatial order of the non-place he traverses. But such a feat seems only possible through a process of worlding that involves shedding the now useless ballast of civilization and reconnecting with a more primordial self that burgeons in an instinctive understanding of spatiality. For London, the ‘abysmal brute’ becomes a metaphor for this return to a Heideggerian state of “authentic being” that discards the corrupting hierarchies and material excesses of Western civilization. In “Love of Life,” the story’s literary process of spatio-psychological realignment then involves the prospect of the individual’s moral ←83 | 84→rebirth as a Nietzschean overman who may herald the reformation of the then hyper-capitalistic American ecosystem, which London saw as unjust because it favored and celebrated the same inhumane ruthlessness that structures the Northland. In this way, the Yukon is subjected to a process of re-spatialization via its re-imagining both by the story’s protagonist and reader as a space of solidarity and human geography instead of a stage of social Darwinism.

In order to “world” himself and thus become an “authentic being,” the man must alter the way he thinks, feels, and imagines his surroundings, hence engaging in what could be described as spatio-psychological identity politics. On the one hand, this means that his personality changes as a result of his adapting to the hostile surroundings. On the other hand, apart from this adaptive and somewhat biologically deterministic process, it also reveals a psychological dimension of spatiality that concerns his mental relationship to the territory he negotiates in order to survive. After being abandoned by his companion, for example, he cannot allow himself to actualize the Northland as a space in which everyone fights for themselves and competes with one another. Instead, after positioning himself as a body-in-constant-movement to win the race against time in this non-place, he has to replace himself and actively think the Northland as a place of human solidarity and compassion: As “hard as he strove with his body, he strove equally hard with his mind, trying to think that Bill had not deserted him, that Bill would surely wait for him at the cache. He was compelled to think this thought, or else there would not be any use to strive, and he would have lain down and died” (743). Thinking about the environment and his position in it, the protagonist sets in motion a process of spatialization that results in an imagined order much more subtly and subconsciously constructed than, for instance, the christening of a colonial coast, the planting of a nation’s flag on top of an embattled hill, or the drawing of a borderline on a map. Nonetheless, it shares the fundamental components of these examples of spatialization as it introduces order to a confusing situation, establishes new practices of space-related thinking, prepares new ways of acting for subjective actors, and produces spatial orders with potentially global outreach, in this case the public imagination of the Northland as it was shaped by London’s human geographies.

As merciless as the law of survival in the Northland may be, the story suggests that its cruelty can be overcome through the ‘humanization’ of its geography and introduction of solidarity as the crucial element of reconciliation between animalistic nature and human culture. Bridging the chasm between the nihilistic struggle for survival and the chance for a Nietzschean rebirth of superior morality, London’s introduction of solidarity and powerful ←84 | 85→demonstration of the fatal consequences of a lack thereof make “Love a Life” a precursor of more aestheticized social critiques like Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The man’s final survival, as based in what London calls “the strength of the strong,”8 is at its core not a Darwinist function rooted in physical, biological, or racial hierarchies. While the Northland may on its surface appear as an arena where the survival of the fittest, smartest, or most civilized could be openly celebrated, the story depicts psychological place-making processes and interpersonal solidarity as the actual sources of this strength.

Crawling on all fours and painfully crossing the final stretch of terrain to reach the saving bay in the Arctic Ocean where a whaling ship lays at anchor, the man eventually discovers the clean-picked remains of his disloyal companion Bill. To his surprise, he finds that Bill has clung to his share of gold until his very last moments; but the man’s loyalty does not even falter in this moment as “he would not take the gold, nor would he suck Bill’s bones” (755). Such unabated solidarity and preservation of humanity under the most adverse circumstance then also vindicates his survival during the final confrontation with a sick wolf that had pursued him for days. Both man and beast are too weak to attack and kill one another and are waiting for the other to die first. Having to commit a final act of barbarism by slowly chewing through the wolf’s throat—the animal’s blood “like molten lead being forced into his stomach” (757)—the man’s perseverance stresses the deeply naturalistic assertion that he, like every other being, is inescapably a part of nature as a primordial space that is superordinate to human culture yet accessible and malleable through deep-running psychological and instinctual attunements.

The titular “Love of Life” then becomes the conciliatory element that is shared across all forms of existence, notwithstanding race, species, or ideology. Solidarity is the individual act of acknowledging this commonality and the concession of every being’s right to live and to be given a fair chance in a collaborative, non-exploitative socio-economic order. Ultimately, London’s own inclination towards and his audiences’ ongoing fascination with this naturalistic solidarity accrue from the fact that it is one of the most stable, yet also most volatile, prerequisites of human coexistence. The Northland in “Love of Life” works as a setting that strips all cultural and ideological phantasmagoria from this insight, concurrently exposing the United States’ shaky epistemic command of its colonial possessions ←85 | 86→in ‘exotic’ parts of the world, which at the time of the story’s publication already showed signs of their coming-apart.

3“To Build a Fire”: Mind, Body, Death, and Xenogenesis

[S]ometimes it takes more courage to live than to shoot yourself.

Albert Camus9

First published in 1908, some critics regard “To Build a Fire” as London’s best short story (Pizer 225).10 The plot revolves around yet another unnamed protagonist in the Yukon territory who is “a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo” (686; original emphasis) on his way to join his companions at Henderson Creek. Instead of using the “main trail […] that led […] to the Chilcoot Pass [sic], Dyea, and salt water” (225), he decides to take a rarely used shortcut, unknowingly entering a dangerous area covered with pools of water and treacherous streams coated with thin sheets of ice. The climate also turns against him when a cold snap hits in the middle of the gloomy Arctic winter. But the man does not realize the fragility of human life in temperatures of seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit below zero, in which his “spittle […] crackled in the air” (687). While the husky at his side instinctively senses the dangers of traveling in such conditions, the careless protagonist remains largely unaware of the fatality of his situation as “all of this—this mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on [him]” (686). Tragedy unfolds when he breaks through the ice, wetting his feet and legs. To survive the ensuing race against time, he must build a fire as fast as possible in order to dry up before he loses command over his freezing body. Initially, he succeeds in getting a fire going, but after an avalanche from some nearby tree branches extinguishes the flames, the man—helpless without a human companion’s assistance—finally succumbs to hypothermia as his dog sits by and watches him die.

Through its narrative style and plot structure, “To Build a Fire” underlines the antagonisms between two dichotomous epistemological paradigms. First, the knowledge that is accumulated by factual or ‘objective’ observations and ←86 | 87→assessments, and second the knowledge that derives from experience and that solidifies into so-called common sense, wisdom, and finally instinct. Once again, the roughness of the Northland assumes its role as an agent that unveils the deadly consequences, but also the lessons that can be learned from the collision of these antithetic epistemologies. The protagonist, a neophyte in the northern space, has decided to base his travels in the Yukon purely on reason, namely on the (literally) cold facts and numbers concerning time, temperature, and distance of his trip: “Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head” (687).

The third person narration deepens this technocratic attitude by assuming a detached tone that resembles a newspaper report in its factuality. At times, the narrator recedes so far from a style that would allow for personal identification with the protagonist that he seems like an ant under a magnifying glass whose actions the narrator dissects like a fascinated yet professionally distanced scientist. This sense of detachment is carried to extremes as the narration zooms out and the macro-geography of the Northland is focalized from a top-down perspective: “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” (693). The text deepens this technocratic viewpoint via the repeated mentioning of data relating to temperatures and distances, thereby illustrating the man’s increasingly desperate and misguided attempts to find solace in the realms of rationality and thus ‘calculate’ his way out of his predicament.

At times, he recalls the well-meaning advice of an old Klondike veteran he had met at Sulphur Creek and who emphatically warned him against traveling alone in temperatures below minus fifty degrees. However, the man discards the old-timer’s warnings as “womanish,” contending that “[a]ll a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone” (693).11 Stating that to survive it is enough to just ‘keep one’s head,’ which ←87 | 88→he equates to ‘being a man’ then stresses the universal hubris that underlies the logic of Western exploration and zone-conquering of foreign spaces. In this conception, rationality, masculinity, and a reckless just-do-it attitude fuse together to form a combination of character traits that enables a man to discover, survive, and finally conquer any space. This becomes apparent in the manly deeds of explorers like David Livingstone, Fridtjof Nansen, Sir Ernest Shackleton, and Robert Falcon Scott, in whose dangerous adventures any sense of indecision in the life-threatening environments of Africa, the Arctic, and Antarctic resulted in the loss of masculinity because it jeopardized the lives, success, and prestige of the entire expedition.

Historically, this dynamic has often escalated in (sub-)Arctic places like the Yukon that are particularly hostile to human survival. The explorations of the North and South Poles, in particular, became deadly contests within the frameworks of imperialism and nationalism that turned into public spectacles of hyper-masculinity. In his final journal entry titled “Message to the Public,” Scott insists that “[h]ad we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale” (qtd. in Heffer).12 Unlike the celebrated polar explorers, London’s man perishes anonymously and invisibly without an international audience to applaud and commemorate his feats—and therefore ultimately emasculated. He cannot hope for his remembrance as a hero of the North, but merely as a victim of his own recklessness or even foolishness. The neutrally detached tone in which his fate in the Northland is recorded lacks the pathos and male heroism emitted by such famous place and epoch-making texts like Scott’s personal diary. Before his demise, the protagonist in fact forfeits all semblance of rational behavior and human dignity, going insane and “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (699). He thus embodies what Japanese scholar Eijun Senaha calls “Men of Dis-ease,” namely, those anti-heroes conceived by the ‘lost generation’ modernists who have “become powerless, lost, and then insane as their identities are shattered” (99).←88 | 89→

Throughout the story, the dog that accompanies him works as a counterpoint to this logic. The animal’s relationship to its environment actually forgoes the need for manliness and rationality, relying merely on instinctive knowledge, which ensures its survival in the end. London contrasts the man’s ‘rationalized ignorance’ of the cold with the dog’s ingrained wariness: “This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold […]. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold” (691). Lacking this ancestral knowledge, the protagonist must rely on the experience and shared wisdom of others who have weathered similar situations. He must therefore integrate himself into a system of interpersonal solidarity, hereditary knowledge, and what Pizer describes as “racial wisdom” (222).

The protagonist’s fatal ignorance of the lessons that others have drawn from their experiences finally stands as a critique of a solely rational understanding of space as opposed to an acknowledgement of a geography grounded in interpersonal solidarity and empathy. The hubris of the Anglo-Saxon explorer makes the man forget the vulnerability of his body because “he has internalized quantifiable sign-systems as the only way to read the world” (Gair 80). While he struggles for his life attempting to build a new fire, he looks at the dog and senses “a great surge of envy as he regard[s] the creature that [is] warm and secure in its natural covering” (695). Lacking such effective means of adaptation to the Northland, he tries to make use of his rational faculties to compensate for this deficiency. Weighing distances and temperatures, he ignores his ability to conceive of the dangers and inclemencies that lie ahead of him on the dangerous shortcut, disregarding his power of spatial imagination as the ability that could bring him closest to instinctive knowledge. As Labor suggests:

[T]he man who is to endure the long arctic winter must be exceptionally gifted in that highest of human faculties—imagination: he must understand the ways of the Northland so sympathetically that he can anticipate its emergencies before they occur, always adapting himself to nature’s laws, never attempting foolishly to impose the frail, devious customs of society and civilization upon the inviolable wilderness. (152)

One the one hand, as Gair suggests, “To Build a Fire” can thus be understood as a cautionary tale that is part of “a transhistorical sub-genre ranging back to Greek mythology, the Bible, and to ancient China” (75). On the other hand, through its narratological adoption of the same technocratic ideology as its doomed protagonist, the story successfully develops its cautionary lessons along a fine line between irony and tragedy. In this way, the text amplifies its dramaturgical impact as Western audiences are prompted to find comfort in the sober ←89 | 90→reporting tone that ostensibly imparts the controllability of the Northland by registering all the ‘objective’ mistakes made by the protagonist. Human control, even over the most hostile natural spaces, is possible by following a certain set of objective and quantifiable parameters, the text—in the manner of a survival guide—seems to suggest. Whoever follows these rules is deemed rational and sensible, turning the death of those who succumb due to their ignorance of said rules into a logical, coherent, or even deserved result, and therefore an affirmation of the Darwinian and Spencerian survival of the fittest in nature and society.

In contrast to these narrative and stylistic implications of the story, the plot concurrently exposes the fatal hypocrisy of this spatial logic. Although the man has violated the rational rules of survival by traveling alone in extreme conditions, this is not what objectively kills him in the end and what could allow readers to shrug off his death as a logical corollary. Conversely, it is precisely his stubborn drive to objectively and rationally dominate the Northland that ultimately facilitates the dismal outcome of his journey. First, by dismissing the veteran’s advice as “womanish” trumpery and thereby classifying it as unobjective, and second, by ignoring his own scruples as well as his dog’s instinctive access to the environment’s deadliness. Consequently, it is not a lack, but in fact an excess of objectivity that proves fatal for the protagonist. It is the Northland itself that works against him as a space that eludes its subjugation through Western technocracy, thwarting his attempts to survive by plotting out fires and frustrating his efforts to escape into mere rationality. Irrespective of his rational or irrational mindset, the story proposes, the Yukon does not permit for the man’s subsistence and acts as an irresistible cosmic force that relegates him to the position of an ant under a magnifying glass, while replacing the lucid optics of scientific predictability with the opaque lenses of psychology, calamity, and instinctive knowledge. Jack London’s representation of the Northland in “To Build a Fire,” through its tragic-ironic double bias that oscillates between narration and plot, thus emerges as a counter-space to the hegemonic truth claims of Western epistemology anchored in rationality and so-called objectivity.

As another dimension of its spatio-psychological dynamics, the Yukon also facilitates the coming-apart of the unity between body and mind as a wholeness that is commonly seen as a given fact of ‘civilized’ existence. Exposed to the freezing temperatures, the man gradually loses sensation in his extremities; understanding that this will ultimately lead to his complete immobilization and death, he attempts to “kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them” (697). However, he is already unable to clutch his stiff fingers around the shaft of his knife. At this point, the cold has already ←90 | 91→disconnected his increasingly desperate mind from being able to assert control over his bodily movements. This disconnection becomes evident when he “look[s] down at his hands in order to locate them, and [finds] them hanging at the end of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were” (697).

The direct transmission of volitional acts from thought to movement of the appropriate body parts has been severed. Hence, in order to exert command over his unfeeling hands, he must first look at them and thereby actualize them as being a part of himself because “the wires were down, and the fingers did not obey” (695), limiting the interactions between his mind and body to line-of-sight.13 In this fragmented state of self-perception, he is forced to mentally assemble an intact corporeal self from its individual constituents and—looking at his arms, legs, fingers, and feet—substitute his naturally assumed wholeness through an act of ‘thinking himself as complete,’ hence replacing instinctive unity with rational constructedness. This severing of body and mind becomes a signifier of the North as a space whose brutal environment dismantles the integrity and inbuilt romanticism of the humanistic anthropology of Enlightenment. In this distorted territory where mental and physical selves have become estranged from one another, John Locke’s concept of mens sana in corpore sano is turned on its head as body and mind are forced to develop new strategies of cooperation, or both succumb. As a result, spatial alienation in the story turns into an intriguing metaphor for a central conflict in American society, whose dysfunctional (non-) collaboration between increasingly disjointed economic, cultural, and ethnic units and interests became a matter of concern during the Progressive Era.

In recent decades, scholars from various disciplines have scrutinized what it means if the human body—like the natural habitat that is being transformed by technology and what Leo Marx termed “machines in the garden”—becomes a site of intersectionality, fragmentation, and reconfiguration between instinctive, ‘natural’ processes on the one hand and artificial, techno-cultural overlays on the other. Commenting on the fragility and cultural significance of corporeal unity, Fredric Jameson suggested that←91 | 92→

we must distinguish between the body with organs and the body without. Paradoxically, this last, the inauthentic body which constitutes a visual unity and reinforces our sense or illusion of the unity of the personality—the body without organs—is the object of the pornographic and the glossy contents of so many images or strips of film. The body that has organs, however, and lots of them, to the point at which it disintegrates into a set of imperfectly reconnected ‘desiring machines,’ that body is the authentic space of pain as such, pain you cannot see or express. (152)

The protagonist of the story is indeed the bearer of such a “body without organs”14 since he is no longer capable of experiencing pain in his numb extremities and is gradually separated from experiencing his body as an “authentic space of pain” situated within the Northland. Even though his external form appears intact, the space that surrounds him with its low temperatures and unseen dangers prevents him from becoming whole in the sense of existing as an “authentic” being. Only a creature of both inner and outer consonance, the story subtly suggests, is able to exist—or in this case, persist—‘authentically’ in a space of unbroken nature. Without complete access to his body, the man thus forfeits any kind of salutary relationship to the landscape in which he is positioned; the contact of his numb feet to the surface of the earth becomes abstract, dreamlike, and precarious. Tragically, he can neither realize nor overcome his fragmentation because culture and civilization have already removed him too far from a purely instinctive cooperation between body and mind.

In contrast to his dog, his corporeal geography is divided into center (brain) and periphery (extremities), whose movements are dependent on conscious impulses emanating from the center via so-called free will. This dependency then makes any wrong decision of the center—like his decision to attempt the shortcut alone—potentially fatal for the totality of his “being-in-the-world.” The same logic applies retroactively, namely, when the man registers the accelerating decline and immobility of his margins, his center also breaks down as he starts ←92 | 93→to ‘lose his mind.’ In a final act of desperation and body panic,15 both center and margins collapse after the man starts running down the trail while “[i]t struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth […]. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth” (698). This passage underlines that both his mind—through the knowledge of the futility of this last-ditch effort—and his body—through its very disconnection from the ground—can no longer find purchase in the Northland, making him less of a zone-conqueror but a foreign body in this space. Donna Haraway employs similar concepts with regard to corporeal hybridity and fragmentation, exposing that

the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. (Simians 150)

Haraway negates the existence of an exclusive space from which humanity emerges as the apex of creation as claimed by Renaissance humanism and from which a ‘natural privilege’ to use resources may be derived (Simians 152). Instead, she proposes the deconstruction and subsequent re-configuration of the hierarchically structured binaries organism/machine, human/animal, and man/woman. The corporeal ambiguity of the cyborg then demonstrates the validity of categorical in-betweenness or what Haraway calls “cyborg politics,” namely, the conjunction of apparently opposing elements that unveils the essentialism of conventional identity construction. Referring to Chela Sandoval, Haraway goes on to argue that resistance through an “oppositional consciousness” can embolden such a cyborg politics as it favors affinity as a result of “otherness, difference, and specificity” (Simians 156). The processes that facilitate these assemblages of hybridity are captured in the concept of xenogenesis as the incurrence of corporeal Otherness. This concept refers to the transfigurations and reconfigurations that are expressed, for instance, by the intersectionality of subaltern bodies in Octavia Butler’s fiction or Lynn Randolph’s narrative paintings like … and La Mestiza Cosmica Cyborg that visualize scenarios of synthetic intermixture between nature, technology, and the human body←93 | 94→

in which the boundaries of a fatally transgressive world, ruled by the Subject and the Object, give way to the borderlands, inhabited by human and unhuman collectives […]. These borderlands suggest a rich topography of combinatorial possibility. That possibility is called the Earth, here, now, this elsewhere, where real, outer, inner, and virtual space implode. The painting maps the articulations among cosmos, animal, human, machine, and landscape in their recursive sidereal, bony, electronic, and geological skeletons. (Haraway, “Promises” 328)

In “To Build a Fire,” a comparable sequence of xenogenesis develops before the reader, minutely detailed through the breaking-apart of the protagonist’s corporeal and mental faculties. Before he finally sits down and succumbs to hypothermia, the man has an out-of-body experience in which he joins a group of his comrades in the imaginary search for his own body on the trail, indicative of the complete coming-apart of body and mind. Whereas the man traverses the land solely through his mind (again viewing the Northland as an imaginary space or ‘mindscape’), the text emphasizes the dual status of humanity’s access to spaces that are real and violent, yet at the same time fictional and pastoral. The protagonist’s imagined participation in social movement at the side of his companions is thus juxtaposed with his actual and fatal decision to ‘go it alone.’ In this way, the text puts emphasis on the validity of imagining geography and distinct, ‘cerebral’ mobility, yet at the same time visualizing the dangers of the individual’s separation from socially shared patterns of spatiality. On the surface, the man’s inability to physically escape his immobility in the Northland and his flight into fantasy may appear like a stereotypical example of naturalistic fatalism, which is often criticized as being overly deterministic and therefore antithetic to American values such as individualism and freedom of choice. In London’s story, however, the man’s ability to transcend his fixation—although and precisely because this happens in the guise of a spatial imagination—together with his final admission of his mistake to ignore the old-timer’s advice—overcome the fatal logic of determinism by demonstrating the possibility of change through the multidimensionality of the Yukon as a “rich topography of combinatorial possibility.” Using Haraway’s concept of the cyborg not only helps in understanding the overlaps and interplays of spatiality and psyche but also reveals the Yukon as a spatio-psychological borderland whose textual potential deconstructs and recombines such concepts as civilization and wilderness and body and mind, thereby synthesizing and hybridizing the physical realities of geography and climate with the immensely creative potential of human place-making.

Still ensnared in his hypothermic hallucination of social space and individual mobility, the man eventually comes “around a turn in the trail and [finds] himself ←94 | 95→lying in the snow” (699). Watching his own body in the process of becoming a part of nature, he finally breaks through the boundaries of rationalized separation from the Northland, recovering the mental and corporeal unity with his surroundings. Through this act of synchronizing imagination and reality and hence the xenogeneic maceration of the supposedly fixed borders between mental and corporeal access to imagined and real spaces, the man succeeds in repositioning himself meaningfully within the Northland’s primordial landscape. London’s human geography in “To Build a Fire” hence ultimately becomes a means to mediate between the dichotomies that traditionally separate nature and culture and, in this process, reveals the intersections between physical environment and psychological spatialization dynamics. The synchronization of internal and external spaces for the protagonist therefore leads to him finding peace and regaining dignity as he accepts that “he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently” (699).


Finally, and as the central insight conveyed by both short stories, the Northland exposes the interactions, intersections, and sometimes tragic contradictions between spatiality and psychology. Both “Love of Life” and “To Build a Fire” bring to the fore the depth and complexity of literary place-making strategies and techniques as well as the important role that falls to literature and culture studies in the exposure and analysis of spatialization processes as an underappreciated strand of research in the humanities. London’s rendition of the Yukon reveals an exemplary richness of spatial formats and imaginations that far exceeds its conventional understanding as a mere arena of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism and blatant affirmation of deterministic Social Darwinism. Re-reading London through the spatial lens therefore emphasizes the potential of spatialization as a productive analytical category that can be used to gain new perspectives on and insights into supposedly ‘settled’ matters. Additionally, textual analysis performed from this angle allows for greater methodological openness and combinatory potential. Approaches that are traditionally regarded as extrinsic or far removed from each other—like the Nietzschean superman and Donna Haraway’s concept of xenogenesis—can in this way be re-evaluated, freshly interrogated, and synthesized with beneficiary effects.

London’s stories, at an early point and during an unlikely period in American history, enabled the formation of alternative and distinctly human geographies. But they also engendered an embryonic notion concerning the diversity and complexity of spatial imaginations which subverted the homogeneity of the era’s ←95 | 96→dominant spatial metanarratives like Turner’s frontier thesis as well as ethnocentric place-making concepts such as manifest destiny. London’s depiction of the Northland as a realm of spatio-psychological re-combination must then be viewed as one of the spiritual predecessors of Anzaldúa’s Aztlán, Gilroy’s chronotope of the slave ship, and Silko’s five-hundred-year map. Concepts like these not only subvert nationalistic and ethnocentric Euro-American geographies but also scrutinize contemporary epistemologies of space and place, hopefully inspiring renewed efforts of utilizing literary spatialization processes as a matter of increasing and interdisciplinary significance.


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1Cherry-Garrard 543

2Although the Yukon was doubtlessly a dangerous region, Canadian authorities took some measures to discourage the most reckless stampeders by requiring specific equipment in order to be allowed to cross the border. This consisted of a year’s supply of food and a minimum of thousand pounds of essential gear, including a waterproof blanket, six pairs of wool socks, two flannel shirts, and a medicine chest. The total load, often around two tons, had to be carried in stages by each man, caching one piece of gear in a camp and then making his way back on the trail to pick up the next (United States National Park Service, “Ton of Goods”).

3Sometimes, the harshness of the Northland resulted from the naivety and ignorance of the fortune seekers themselves. With minimal knowledge of the environment and conditions in the Yukon, at the beginning of the gold rush, many brought pack horses for whom the barren terrain did not provide enough sustenance. As a tragic result, thousands of carcasses were discarded in rocky crevices often called ‘Dead Horse Gulch,’ where their bones are piled up until today (Haley 103).

4Martel 24

5Still, it must be acknowledged that London partly admired Nietzsche for the philosopher’s mention of the Teutonic heritage of the Übermensch. In a personal letter, he contends that “I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world” (Letters 1485). In another correspondence, he seems less convinced and expresses his being “in the opposite intellectual camp from that of Nietzsche. Yet no man in my own camp stirs me as does Nietzsche” (Letters 1072). Examples like this stress London’s difficulties in negotiating the contradictions between Nietzsche’s philosophical utopianism and his own, much more pragmatic and crudely socialist worldview. Like many of his contemporaries, the autodidact London read Nietzsche with no academic background or philosophical expertise. As Walcutt notes, “the term ‘superman’ by itself had the power to inflame the imaginations of many who had never read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the rugged individualist supermen that emerged in popular literature—often ferocious blond Vikings—bore small resemblance to the type of genius Nietzsche described” (7).

6These self-portraits lack the sensitivity that London employed in his travel photographs, where he eschewed staged exoticization of natives, instead portraying non-white people at work and in everyday situations, while simultaneously trying to buttress his own racial insecurities with the help of Nietzsche’s supermen.

7David Trend describes “being-in-the-world” as a state of “signifying something ongoing and generative, which could not be reduced to either a philosophical state or a scientific materiality.”

8“The Strength of the Strong” is also the name of a short story published in 1911 as well as the title of a collection of London’s short stories published in 1914.

9Camus 21

10There also exists an earlier version of the story published in a 1902 issue of The Youth’s Companion that differs in some aspects from the later and better-known version discussed here (see Hanssen 193).

11Caroline Hanssen here observes some parallels to the fate of Christopher McCandless (“Alexander Supertramp”) as popularized in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996). Like London’s protagonist, McCandless was a neophyte in the Northland and ignored “several seasoned outdoorsmen offering [him] specific advice on the gear needed to hunt, camp, and travel in the springtime tundra; yet arriving at the head of the Stampede Trail, McCandless possessed only a collapsible fishing rod, a few field guides, a bag of rice, and a 22-gauge rifle” (193).

12A similar chauvinistic undertone and emphasis on masculine spatial metaphors can be found in the rhetoric of the Cold War’s space race. John F. Kennedy, for instance, stated in his 1962 “Address on the Nation’s Space Effort”: Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it [sic]. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it.

13In an intriguing argument, Gair interprets London’s usage of the wire metaphor “as [a manifestation] of an ideology indelibly affected by the telegraph” brought about by “[t]he sparseness of London’s prose, the repetition of standardized phrases, the portrayal of the mechanisms of the mind and body, the use of communications metaphors, and the conclusion’s separation of the protagonist’s mind and body” (75).

14Gilles Deleuze first introduced the term “Body without Organs” (or BwO) in The Logic of Sense (1969) as an analytical concept further developed in his later works and collaborations with Félix Guattari. In Anti-Oedipus, they suggest that every actual body possesses a certain set of characteristics such as skills, traits, habits, etc. Apart from these, each body also incorporates another virtualized dimension of potentialities, which Deleuze and Guattari call BwO: “The body without organs is […] produced as a whole, but a whole alongside the parts—a whole that does not unify or totalize them, but that is added to them like a new, really distinct part” (326).

15In the decades after London’s death, other variations of ‘body panic’ as the loss of a coherent sense of sovereignty over one’s body came to the fore in the plots of science fiction and horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Fly (1958), or Alien (1979).←98 | 99→