Today in History: Alaska Day

October 18th, 2012

On October 18, 1867, the Territory of Alaska was formally transferred from Russian ownership to become part of the United States. The United States purchased the territory from Tsar Alexander II in March of that year for a price of $7.2 million–or about 2 cents per acre–and the transfer was complete at the conclusion of a ceremony at Fort Sitka, at which the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised.

Thirty years later, many Americans flocked to the new territory as part of the Alaska Gold Rush. Among them was the young writer Jack London. Like many others at the time, London made the incredibly arduous journey by foot and handcrafted boat from Dyea in Alaska over Chilkoot Pass—a three-quarter-mile 45-degree-angled obstacle course—and eventually down the Yukon River into the Northwest Territories. The only gold he brought back, however, was an experience that he would mine for gems of literature for much of his writing life, as evidenced in his well known novels like Call of the Wild and White Fang, as well as in “To Build a Fire” (1908), all of which draw on the places he saw and the people he met during those hope-filled and brutal times in the Northwestern Yukon territory.

Read his story “To Build a Fire,” which follows an unnamed man as he travels in brutally cold weather–75 degrees below zero–accompanied only by a husky. Along the way to camp, he accidentally steps into an icy spring. To dry off, he successfully builds a fire, but he does so under a “fully freighted” tree, whose boughs soon capsize their loads of snow and snuff the fire out. Despite the frost that has already affected his fingers, he valiantly attempts to build a third fire but, alas, he fails. He then makes a couple of attempts to run, before deciding to meet death “decently,” “with dignity.” He sits down and slips into a frozen sleep, watched over by the increasingly bewildered dog, who eventually wanders off and presumably makes his way back to camp.

As you read, consider some of these questions raised in the discussion guide by the WSPWH editors:

  • What moves the man to act as he does? What fundamentally drives him?
  • What do you think of the man? Do you regard him as an admirable hero—independent, resourceful, rugged, and resilient? Do you regard him as a reckless fool—proud, overconfident, unimaginative, and blind? As something in between? In some other way? Explain.
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the “rugged individual”? Of the self-reliant and enduring human being? Of the risk-taking individual? Give some examples of the rugged individual in literature, in movies, or in your own life. What do we admire about these people? What do we find lacking in them?
  • Could London’s no-named man be any man from anywhere? Could any other country or culture produce him?
  • What is, and what should be, our attitude toward the natural world, especially if nature is indifferent to human beings and often hostile to our purposes? Who in the story is a better model, the man or the dog?

Check out the entire discussion guide–complete with video shorts from a conversation with the editors about the story–here.

Related: “Metaphorical Gold: Mining the Gold Rush for Stories” at EDSITEment!

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.