Freedom and Individuality: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London


WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: We’re here to grapple
with just 1 of the 74 readings from this terrific new volume, Jack London’s short story, “To
Build a Fire”. Like so many others, 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 novels like Call of the Wild, White Fang, and of course, in the short story
that we will pan for glints and gleams of insight into our nature as Americans and human
beings today- To Build a Fire. One preliminary note, many listeners may have
encountered this short story already in that high school or college survey course on American
literature, since literary critics regard it as a prime example as a school of writing
known as “naturalism”. We urge listeners to put aside for a moment
whatever analytical tools they might bring from that encounter, because I suspect we’re
going to have quite a different discussion of the story today. So let’s get underway. First, Amy, can you just give us a very- for
listeners who may not be familiar with the story- can you give us a quick outline of
the story? AMY KASS: Ok, so on a very frigid sunless
day an unnamed day sets out on a nine hour walk on the least traveled road in the Yukon. His purpose is really to scope out islands
in the Yukon to see whether they could get logs from there during the spring. He has with him only the clothes that he’s
wearing plus a watch, plus some chewing tobacco, plus a couple of matches, some pieces of birch
bark, and lunch. Otherwise, nothing. He’s accompanied by a husky who seems to
be far more impressed by the temperature and the coldness than he is, he seems to be perfectly
unfazed by it. We’re told that he begins at 9 a.m., he
pauses at 10. At 12:30 he stops to eat his lunch. He starts to eat and then remembers that he
has to build a fire. So he builds the fire, he eats his lunch,
he warms himself up over the fire, he has a leisurely smoke, and then he continues his
walk. He continues until, we’re told, “it”
happens. What is “it?” There are icy springs, though the Yukon is
completely covered with ice, there are mountain springs that come down and apparently there’s
no way that they’re going to be eliminated even during the deepest frost… By the way, the weather is, we’re told,
75 degrees below zero, which means about 107 degrees of frost. “It” happened. He walked into one of these springs, gets
wet up to his mid-calf, and then tries to build another fire to dry off. He builds a fire successfully, but suddenly,
“it” happens again. He realizes that he built the fire under a
tree and the tree is freighted with snow and all of it comes down right on top of the fire
and snuffs it out. He tries desperately to build a third fire. While he’s doing it, he burns his hands,
and he’s using actually, his own hands- burnt hands- to try to fuel that fire, which
is pretty rapidly snuffed out. Then he panics, and he starts running off. He suddenly realizes that it’s absolutely
unseemly to walk around like a chicken without his head, and he proceeds to sit down and
to meet death decently, or as our narrator will tell us, “with dignity”. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: This is not a Hollywood
story for your readers, is it? And yet you’ve selected this to illustrate
American freedom and individuality. What is it about this man that we should be
led to think is a particular good example of American freedom and individuality? LEON KASS: Well, I would say that he’s certainly
independent. He hears advice from the old-timers at Sulphur
Creek, but he relies basically on his own judgment, on his own capacity. He’s not only independent, but he is self
reliant. He’s competent. Even though he’s a newcomer to the territory,
he’s very observant. He’s a keen observer and knows the things
around him. When the going gets tough- although he might
panic for a moment- he’s able to beat down that panic with efforts of self-command. He’s practical, he’s enduring. Not to be omitted is that which relates to
the title of the story: he knows how to make a fire. AMY KASS: He also knows that that is what
stands between life and death…even though we’re told, specifically, “He has no imagination.” He knows that. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: He has no imagination, and
indeed, he seems to be out in the wilderness for the least imaginative of reasons, which
is, right?… to scope out an island in the Yukon for logs that might be floated down
in the spring flood. What’s that all about? Why is that…Is that an American characteristic? LEON KASS: This shows that he’s enterprising,
that he’s looking for ways to turn the things that are about them- in this case, certain
natural things- to turn them into things which are useful and profitable. AMY KASS: It also suggests, that though we’re
told specifically he has no imagination about the meanings or significance of things, which
means he doesn’t really understand that one could die from doing what he’s doing. But, in a certain way, scoping out this place
to see whether he could get logs, that is a way of anticipating necessity. He’s very resourceful. And if it’s to build houses, or if it’s
to use for gain or something like that…this is a very resourceful man. LEON KASS: There are complexities to the character
and maybe limitations, but …rugged individual, that’s this fellow. I mean, he’s out there, absolutely alone,
in an inhospitable place, without fear, self-reliant, confident that he can master what has to be
done, and tries to do it on his own. I’m not sure that the fact that he fails
means that we should simply think the less of him for these particular admirable qualities-
qualities which it seems to me are also encouraged by American principles, the American way of
life. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: So you would…I mean, a
lot of people would read this and say “Gosh this guy… He really should have listened to the old-timer
at Sulphur Springs”. –What’s wrong with him, why isn’t he
more attuned to his own limitations? LEON KASS: There’s sometimes a fine line
between courage and rashness, between enterprise and fool-heartiness. And his dying word is “The old-timer, you
were right”, so there is a certain gesture there. But it would not be an appealing story if
he were simply a fool. There is a certain shortcoming in it- it might
be the shortcoming of self-reliance all together, but one has to see this and admire the pluck
of the man, the grit of the man, what he actually can do. It’s easy to say, “Fool! Youthful fool!”, but there’s something
attractive about this man who is not going to submit to the wilderness and is going to
make something out of it on his own. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: America seems to have been
built by people like this, pioneers, many of whom launched out into the wilderness from
the moment they landed on the coast of this inhospitable continent to the last push across
the Great Plains and the deserts. A lot of folks, a lot of Americans, reflected
this particular willingness to take risks, as you said. AMY KASS: Absolutely… I appreciate why people will say he’s dumb,
fool-hardy, reckless. But you have to first realize that he has
the sort of courage and resolution that few of us have today. Nobody would do this- now is this a sign of
our prudence? I don’t know. But he’s absolutely unfazed by the cold. I moved away from Chicago because I can’t
stand the winters there anymore. Now, you could also say the dog is much smarter,
the dog understands what’s going on, the dog… but the dog has a kind of instinct
that this man… LEON KASS: Now look, the dog is decisively
governed by the instinct of self-preservation. He’s a noble animal in some respects, and
so on…but he makes his way in nature by instinct. He will not make anything of the opportunities
that nature provides to live above and beyond self-preservation. And this you have the example of a person
who puts his life at risk to do something beyond mere subsistence. And one could say that’s the difference
between the humans and the dogs. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: But the dog, as the last
sentence of the story tells us, the one thing the dog needs is fire, and uhh, he can’t
build a fire. He’s off in the direction of the camp that
he knew where the other food providers and fire providers… AMY KASS: This is a man who has a kind of
technological expertise. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Right. AMY KASS: First and foremost, he knows how
to build a fire, and by the end of reading this story we all know how to build a fire. And we all know how cold it can get and how
a fire really stands between you and death, ok. But the other thing about him that really
emphasizes this brute individualism or the separatism of this kind of American individual,
London has this sunless day, and we’re reminded of that many times. Which means, among other things, that the
man doesn’t have a shadow. Which means, among other things, that he is
somehow disconnected, even from his inner…what might be his inner life. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: At first reading it does
in fact seem to be a story of the remorseless, grinding force of nature inevitably getting
to this guy. And yet, as you say, he seems to be quite
attentive….first of all quite attentive to his surroundings: he knows about these
springs, he recognizes the…he knows how to read the snow on top of the springs so
that he can avoid those traps. For a newcomer he’s quite knowledgeable
about his surroundings. AMY KASS: He’s got, you know, in a certain
way he’s got, both- if we could repair for a moment to the ancient Greeks- both of the
gifts that Prometheus gives to human beings: Fire- which is beginning of all the arts and
sciences and technology altogether, and he also has a kind of blind hope. That is, he’s blind to…Prometheus gave
human beings blind hopes to keep them from fearing death all the time, so that they don’t
see death before their eyes all their time. They could get on, have hope, be somewhat
optimistic. This is a man that shows us that. AMY KASS: And I admire that, by the way. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: You admire it in the…you
suggested earlier that maybe we can’t get along without that kind of character in America. Just a quick question, are we running out
of character? LEON KASS: Much of the story of the building
of America is tied to the idea of the frontier. I mean, it’s a massive country. And these people- not all of them, by the
way, simply solitary individuals, some of them forcing the women and children to go
with them, to tame the wilderness and to set up little outposts of civilization. Taming the wilderness-pushing back the frontier-
encouraged, rewarded, and, in a way, produced a certain kind of human type. Some people would argue the frontier is gone. I mean, the space age was to be, in a way,
according to John Kennedy “the new frontier”. We’ve just closed up shop on that. It’s not clear where in modern life those
qualities are so obviously called for. We encourage people in fact to go backpacking
and hiking to probably develop some of these skills and to discover these encounters. Though there, by the way, it’s usually with
the idea that nature is your friend. AMY KASS: No, not quite…In fact, it’s
worse than that. It’s…we have special camps for people
to go to to learn how to be rugged individuals; how to build a fire. I mean, you go to a summer camp in order to
learn this. It’s no longer really part…an evident
part…of the American grain. LEON KASS: The whole American understanding,
uhh, political understanding, doesn’t begin with the view that nature is your friend,
and the state of nature is the best place for human beings. The state of nature is the place where life
is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. And civilization and, beginning with security,
and followed by liberty, and the ability to pursue your own happiness, to secure those
things depends really on separating yourself from nature and partly taming the nature within,
but also recognizing that big nature out there isn’t simply your friend. Jack London manages to bring home to us city-dwellers
a certain kind of reminder that the big truth out there is cold, vast, indifferent, and
largely deadly…Unless, unless, unless you’re able to master your resources and tame it-
do something with it. AMY KASS: And he’s American because his
own interests seem to come first. And as ‘The Federalist” reminds us, the
entire Constitution is founded on the importance of self-interest, “to supply by opposite
and rival interests the defect of better motives”. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Just so that we don’t
misunderstand the character of his individualism, however, he isn’t a radically isolated misanthrope…He
is in fact, on his way, right….. LEON KASS: To meet “the boys”. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: To meet “the boys”. So there is, so at the end of the trail, so
to speak, there is…he has in mind a small, domestic setting with a fire and a hot meal
at 6 p.m., that is what sort of drives him. LEON KASS: Domestic I wouldn’t say. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA : You don’t think these
guys are… LEON KASS: There are no women and children. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: They’re not …they’re
not particularly concerned about washing the dishes after. LEON KASS: Oh they might wash the dishes. But unlike the rather romanticized, “Little
House on the Prairie”, right, I mean, these guys are there to begin with for gold. And they’re not family men. And by the way, the conceit of human nature
that’s behind the Declaration of Independence doesn’t begin with us in families, it begins
with us as solitary individuals. AMY KASS: As isolated… LEON KASS: It’s individuals who have rights,
not groups, not even families. So that there is a certain encouragement of
this, though the perpetuation of any institutions, never mind the perpetuation of life itself,
depends upon the bachelors giving up the gold and building the log cabins and, in fact recognizing
that they’re mortal and they have to provide for those that come after him. A MY KASS: Two quick, small points. It’s probably not an accident that he calls
the men he’s going to “the boys”… LEON KASS: The boys, very nice. AMY KASS: But I haven’t finished. LEON KASS: So please finish. AMY KASS: And companions. LEON KASS: His companions. AMY KASS: And companions are people that you
literally eat bread with, so that it is an establishment of some kind. LEON KASS: Absolutely fair. On the other hand, and maybe this is worth
a few minutes, Jack London doesn’t give us his name, and he dies in an unmarked place. AMY KASS: Before you go to the question of
his name, or lack thereof- which I think really is very important, why isn’t he named, you
gave a litany of that reasons that he is so characteristically American. But one thing that you, I think, didn’t
mention or didn’t emphasize, this is a man without any tradition. And that is evident in his …the way in which
he stands with respect to the advice of the old-timer, the man from Sulpher Creek. Who lays down the law when it’s 50 degrees
below zero you build a fire or you take a companion with you. So he takes the Declaration of Independence,
the radical individuality to… its ultimate. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: On the one hand we can’t
do without that- we wouldn’t have been America, right, without the bachelors who were willing
to throw themselves into the wilderness from the very beginning of the nation, and yet
you’re suggesting that …that’s not enough. LEON KASS: The Constitution doesn’t simply
rely on the solitary individuals when it sets about constituting a republic that is going
to safeguard the rights of individuals. Insofar as we are, by design, a large commercial
republic, that requires, it encourages self-interest, but it requires additional things. It requires certain kinds of cooperation. There are certain kinds of virtues that go
along with this in order in fact for trade to be possible. I mean, self-interest rightly understood carries
with it things that moderate the isolation and the mere selfishness that might otherwise
be encouraged here. AMY KASS: Why do you think he’s not named? WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Yeah, it’s an odd circumstance. Because even his friend Bud who advised him
on the one piece of equipment the regrets not having- namely a nose guard that would
have protected his cheek…even Bud is named. And of course “bud”, “buddy” goes
back to this sort of fraternal gathering here. Yeah..it’s..it’s…this is, no man, or
he’s every man. This is the Ameri…This is a type of human
being. And to give it a name, to give him a name,
would be to pin it down, I think. AMY KASS: Bill suggested two things. And I think the fact that he’s constantly
no-name man, “the man”, suggests both that he’s nobody- literally nobody- and
his death palpably shows us that. He’s not buried by anybody. He freezes to death by himself. AMY KASS: But on the other hand, he is every
American. He’s got all of the quintessential virtues
and vices that are American. LEON KASS: Let me embrace both of those and
add a third thing which cuts a slightly different direction. This man is not governed by the desire to
make a name for himself. In other words, he’s not moved by honor. He’s moved by gain. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA:A commercial man doesn’t
leave his name on things until he becomes philanthropic man. LEON KASS: And that’s partly because at
that time in his life he doesn’t need as much imagination to recognize that the end
is coming. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Right, right. LEON KASS: Whereas the young man is described
in this …really sort of beautiful passage.LEON KASS: “But all this- the mysterious, far-reaching
hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness
and weirdness of it all- made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo,
and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without
imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life,
but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eight-odd degrees
of frost. Such fact impressed him a being cold and uncomfortable,
and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty
as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within
certain narrow limits of immortality and man’s place in the universe. 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.” There are lots of things that a man without
imagination doesn’t imagine, but he certainly- and young people perhaps even more than others-
don’t, thanks to the fact that they have more blind hope than the rest of us- don’t
see the day of doom before them, not today and not tomorrow, but not at all. And add to that, I mean this is I think a
wonderful touch, he’s got temperature. He’s got… He’s taken cold and measured it according
to the tools of science and interpretation. But the human meaning of being cold in the
world…is not there. He’s got a watch, and when the fire is put
out the thing that bothers him is that he’s going to be an hour late getting to camp. I mean, to live by the clock and to take confidence
in the way in which we’ve measured time or measured the world is, in part, to give
us great power in nature, but it’s in a way to blind us to the things that the quantification
of the world has made invisible to us. That’s modern man, that’s technological
man, that’s …that’s American life. The story, I think, shows us something of
the insufficiency of that, the tragedy of it, as well as its power. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: And yet, when he is carried
away by imagination, later in the story, when the dawning realization of his impending doom
begins to loom in his imagination, right, it isn’t productive. It doesn’t lead him initially, it doesn’t
lead him to a philosophical place, it leads him to panic. An when his imagination finally escapes from
his control, then he panics, then he runs, starts to run blindly. And that’s the first time that you see him
out of control. AMY KASS: But it doesn’t last long. It doesn’t last long. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Right. AMY KASS: And, I think we’re told he panics
twice. And even though he’s panicked after the
first thing, he’s shocked when he realizes that the avalanche has occurred and he has
to do this over again. And his arms are on fire. But despite the fact that he’s panicked,
he works carefully and methodically when he… WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Right, right. AMY KASS: But then he panics again, and as
you say, he runs like a crazy man. But not for very long because he realizes
his feet are not going to carry him that far, he can’t do it. LEON KASS: Is having lively imagination overrated? And aren’t we better off being …sort of,
nose to the ground, practical-minded people who attend to the here and now and go about
our own business and let destiny take care of itself? WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Well the story…the story
occurs on a day without clouds, right, and as night draws on it’s…there’s nothing
but these sparkling stars that seem to be, you know, so close to Earth. There’s nothing, right, between this spot
on Earth and the cosmos, this freezing cold cosmos. You need something, you need to draw something
over that. The dog understands that in this…in cold
weather you either, you know, snuggle under the snow, or you wait until a…cloud cover. LEON KASS: I also thought you might be suggesting
that, and again to go back to some things in the founding and tie it with this man…When
Madison writes in Federalist 10 “In defense of the extended commercial republic”, and
he thinks about the causes of that great evil of popular government majority faction. There are three causes- There are opinions-
which very often mean… religious opinions or things that fill the imagination and longings
of the soul. There are passions of loves and hates, very
often connected with glory-seeking, ambitious people who are also filled with imagination. And then there’s the rather prosaic matter
of uhh, you know, self-interest, this-worldly, rather narrow things. And the suggestion is a politics built on
the first two is very dangerous, dangerous even for ordinary survival and security, so
that it is a country, in a way, by design, meant to sort of… lower the sights of the
imagination and perhaps provide something of this cloud cover in enterprise, business,
commerce- the things of daily life. Though, one would want to say, from a different
strand than the Federalist, church is at least on Sundays, right? I mean, there’s a certain other…certain
aspect to this…which, I mean, it may not be true that it’s just empty space and indifference
up there. AMY KASS: But he seems to suggest, both through
his language and through the numerous repetitions in this that necessity is much greater than
you are. Nature is much bigger than you are. And finally, when this man tips his hat to
the old man whom he’s resisting all this time and acknowledges he was right, he seems
to be suggesting…we have to submit. LEON KASS: Well, submit, Or we have to acknowledge
our dependence on one-another. The old man didn’t say “don’t go out
if it’s less than 50 degrees” it says, “Don’t go out alone”. AMY KASS: Exactly. LEON KASS: umm and, it’s a certain reminder
of our vulnerability, but not that we should simply lie down before nature. AMY KASS: If I’m right in suggesting that
the whole stylistic and structure of the story forces you to think that this man doesn’t
finally have a will, that he doesn’t… he is incapable of shaping the…world. He’s just incapable of it. Now do you want to say that he had a companion
that you would not..you would not see that? LEON KASS: Ok, very nice. I guess I would like to put together both
of our points this way: umm, the story teaches the reader, even if it only teaches the man
only in death. That there are limits to what enterprise and
individual assertion against nature can do. That you can have your watch and thermometer
and you can build a fire, but that “it” happens. “It” happens. Umm but also, it is a correction not only
against the sort of technological mentality and the mastery of nature- that aspect. But it’s also a correction to believe that
I am self-reliant in all my enterprises. And that umm, uhh, with other human beings
acknowledging one’s limitations, one’s personal limitations and the need for others,
umm, one does not die alone and a different kind of life is possible. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: And interestingly enough,
of course, at the end, although he is dying alone, quite literally…What is the last
sort of imagining, when he’s finally imagining when his…when his mind is floating away
from the body. What he’s imagining right, is the boy, right,
are “the boys” coming down the trail, him somehow among them- finding himself, finding
himself on the trail. So he…in the final analysis, even though
he’s dying alone, he understands that there’s… that you do require that component of civilization. You do require…you want “the boys” to
somehow be there, to find you, to be returned, to be buried in a decent fashion. AMY KASS: My sense is, the snow is going to
cover him up, and maybe in the springtime they will discover his bones. LEON KASS: Instead of logs. AMY KASS: Instead of logs. LEON KASS: Instead of logs to carry out, they’ll
carry him out. Do you think this is a tragedy in the classical
sense that the…umm… outcome is somehow, uhh, that there’s a certain kind of flaw
in the man which is connected to his greatness or to what’s admirable about him, or do
you think it just happened? And I would…is this just a sad story with
no happy ending- you began with that, it’s not a happy ending. Lots of people read this and expect or are
hoping that he’s going to make it back to camp at the next fire. But uhh, are we meant to see this as…as
finally an indictment of this man, or at least seeing this as what happened to him was a
cosmic answer to his limitations? Or do we want to say “tough luck” he didn’t
make it, lots of other people would. AMY KASS: What do I think? It’s both. And I want to say it’s both because as you
know, probably far better than I, tragedy is… the core of tragedy is not only paradox,
but the paradox is this: Necessity sets the course, but human beings still remain responsible. And you see that so vividly in this particular
story… LEON KASS: Actually now that you’ve put
it that way, umm, it occurs to me to say, Look, the peculiar kind of comeuppance for
self- confident, enterprising people is that they don’t really allow for chance. “It” happens- twice- “it” happens. And it’s treated by the man- London writing
for the man- treats this as if it’s happenstance rather than a kind of possibility that ought
not to have been forgotten. AMY KASS: “It” happened, but it didn’t
have to happen. Yet it had to happen. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: So what does that say about
the American character?- to return us to this, now that we’ve sort of gone to the heights
of Greek tragedy, what does this, what are we meant to learn from this Is Jack London
telling us something about our limitations? LEON KASS: This too good a story, I think,
to be reducible to a kind of take-home moral lesson. I mean, lots of people I think could do it
that way. You know, “here’s a typical American enterprising
fool. But , he holds up a kind of mirror in which
Americans can see themselves, umm, and invites us to consider…I mean really, are we going
to walk away from this story and say, “Well, don’t build a fire under the tree, wear
the nose guard, and for goodness sakes, go with Buddy- and bad things won’t happen
to you”? Or are you going to say, you know, enterprise
is fine, living by watch and thermometer and fire is fine. Remember that there are some other things
going on here that you should pay some attention to and if you don’t, you might miss out. I do think that it’s an invitation to us
to ponder the limits of some things which are wonderfully admirable. And it seems to me you don’t have to surrender,
you don’t have to surrender individuality, you don’t have to surrender enterprise,
you don’t have to surrender trying to tame nature to make it a home for human beings,
umm in order to understand you’re not immortal, that you need help. And that, not by fire can everything be done. AMY KASS: That’s very nice, but I don’t
think it is really what Jack London’s unique contribution is. And I think it has to do with the fact that
Jack London doesn’t repair to something providential like we said. There’s nothing greater than us. But there is one thing: It points to the need
for stories. LEON KASS: Some more… AMY KASS: You…it’s…we can appreciate
this individual. We can appreciate some of the characteristics. But the story itself is what educates the
reader. And the reader is supposed to see not only
his strengths, but look, that’s… that is an American tragedy, you follow that path,
that is tragic. How do you, in a certain sense, transform
that, or re-educate the heart. You re-educate the heart through the kinds
of stories that you write about such people. LEON KASS: To really be a…a deeply attached
American, one has to understand the American Soul, in all of its complexity: its strengths,
its liabilities, its weaknesses, its glories. And umm, the stories that we’ve chosen to
illustrate the American Character are, none of them are morality plays. I mean they all are mirrors in which we are
invited to think really much more deeply about what it means to be the kind of human being
that grows up in a regime dedicated to liberty, equality, enterprise, religious freedom, religious
toleration, and the power of the individual human being. WILLIAM SCHAMBRA: Well thank you very much
for being here today and helping us with this short story, “To Build a Fire.”

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