London Calling

One of my sons is reading Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” for school this week. Not having ever read it myself, I decided to do so, despite my deep antipathy to the “To [Infinitive]” form of scriptorial denomination. Hoo boy, I’m glad I did. What a terrifying tour de force.

London wrote two versions of the story, one in 1902 and the second in 1908. It is the latter that is justly famous.

The story is a masterpiece of style and mood, lacking almost any inept or superfluous word or any false note. Much of its success depends on the studied and well-placed repetition of words and phrases.

The opening paragraph can serve as an example. I don’t want to give the story away for anyone who hasn’t read it (in the hopes that you will, in fact, read it), so I will only say that the narrative has to do with man’s encounter with the element of extreme cold in the Yukon.

While keeping that theme in mind, notice the repetition of the word “sun” after the initial repetition of the phrase “cold and grey.”

Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

The word throbs through the paragraph like a man’s blood ought to throb through his arteries and veins–but all underneath an “intangible pall” that is a metaphor for what follows in the remainder.

You can read the rest here, though I recommend this version because of Library of America’s tremendous font.


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