Our America: The Abiding Question of Nation and National Identity in American Literature
American character is heavily based upon the persona of the adventurer, someone who fearlessly explores the wilderness, the unknown. Theodore Roosevelt says in his 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life”, that, “The men who founded these communities showed practically by their life work that it is indeed the spirit of adventure which is the maker of commonwealths” and that “…the conditions of development in the west have steadily tended to accentuate the peculiarly American characteristics of its people” (Roosevelt, 1141). However, Roosevelt later embellishes on his definition by establishing the American as a hero as well as a conqueror, with national identity being based upon victory over nature. Roosevelt’s connection of the adventurous American character with the conquering of the West is in tandem with the universal trope of overpowering nature, something that is explored in Jack London’s naturalist short story, To Build a Fire (1908). London uses the story to question what it means to be an American when the adventurous individual who attempts to take on nature is instead challenged to the death by nature itself. Using the content of Roosevelt’s speech as a model of the classic American character, this essay will explore the means by which London draws out an example of national identity and soon calls into question this “character who conquers” when his spirit of adventure is threatened by the power of nature.
In his essay, Roosevelt connects national identity and the American character with masculinity, saying that courage and strength relies “upon individual manliness…”(Roosevelt, 1143). The unnamed protagonist of To Build a Fire is an example of this kind of manliness, as he travels through the below negative seventy degree temperatures of the Yukon in hopes of finding his companions “the boys” and ultimately striking it rich in the Klondike. An attempt to “man-up” is exemplified in the beginning of the story by the statement, “It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numb nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand” (London, 1048-9). The conclusion the man makes is an obvious attempt to brush off just how cold it is, believing he can handle it because he’s a real man. It’s certainly what Roosevelt’s national character would think; after all, what kind of true American man would surrender to nature? However, the manhood of the protagonist is eventually threatened by the extreme elements of the setting, with the man believing, “Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing” (1053). The quote is an example of how nature, the very thing that supposedly establishes American character and manhood, is now threatening that character it “created”. The struggle London presents is man vs. nature, and by using that struggle to endanger the character’s manhood, London asks the reader to think about the true value of American manhood, and thus identity in the face of untamed wilderness.
Roosevelt also asserts that American character is made unique by the drive to move west and settle the unknown. Speaking like a conquistador, Roosevelt writes, “The winning of the West was the great epic feat in the history of our race” (Roosevelt, 1141). Roosevelt thus implies that America has triumphed over nature, and that American character should be based on the bravery with which the pioneers settled the untamed backcountry. London’s character does exemplify this extreme bravery Roosevelt writes of; his willingness to enter an extremely dangerous environment for the sake of adventure and future prosperity does give him an American character. But London argues through this short story that we cannot conquer nature, as nature is too powerful an entity to be overtaken by an individual. For example, though the man’s first fire is successful, his second fire fails due to his “agitating the tree” under which he’d built the fire that was ultimately smothered by snow on the tree (London, 1053). In this instance, nature becomes a character that the American individual must defeat in order to achieve his American dream. The fact that nature is winning this particular battle is an example of London’s belief that wilderness conquers man, and not the other way around.
Perhaps most important to Roosevelt’s definition of national identity is in the American character’s devotion to effort. He writes, “…if he does not make the effort, or if he makes it half-heartedly and recoils from the labor, the risk, or the irksome monotony of his task, why, he has forfeited all right to our respect…It is not given to us all to succeed, but it is given to us all to strive manfully to deserve success.” (Roosevelt, 1142). The focus Roosevelt puts on the idea of endeavor is evident in London’s character and in that of the pioneers who settled the West; even though some didn’t succeed, it was their attempt to triumph that gave them a truly American character. For example, the man in the story never stops trying to find warmth from the cold, finally trying to run to his destination in order to stay warm and while he “lacked the endurance” to reach his destination, he still does not lose his desire or drive. It is only when he is physically incapable of moving any longer that he remains on the ground and hopes for a peaceful death with dignity (London, 1057). Even in the face of nature’s brutal force, the man never gives up hope of a better future, even if by that end that future is death. Roosevelt would agree, a true American would die for his individual right to the pursuit of happiness, and London’s protagonist never surrenders this privilege of character, even in the face of nature’s victory.
In To Build a Fire, London uses his main character not to criticize national identity as it was viewed to be; he rather questions the standards by which we hold that person to when actually placed in the untamed wilderness. It isn’t that the character is afraid of nature; on the contrary, London’s character is more than willing to take on the challenge of the cold. Rather, it is his constant determination to succeed that leads to his demise in the battle against nature, as exemplified by his rather foolish prodding of the tree over the fire as well as letting his own flesh burn so as to light a match in his freezing hands (London, 1055). The man’s inner strength shows that he will resort to any means to warm himself and finally put himself back on the road to “the boys” and ultimately, the gold in the Klondike. However honorable his mental determination is, London theorizes that this mindset is no match for the physical force of one of nature’s greatest weapons: freezing cold. In an example of classic naturalist literature, the man’s fortitude against nature is reflected in nature’s own resilience in his attempts to outsmart it. While Roosevelt might argue that American character is based upon conquering the natural world and exploring it’s depths, London contends through this short story that to believe one can conquer nature is the downfall of the American character, in that nature is too powerful a force to allow itself be subdued by any individual.
It is undeniable that national identity is heavily based upon the value of pure determination. For instance, how frequently are American children told in the face of failure that it doesn’t matter how well they did in something, only how hard they tried in the endeavor? To be an American, by most literary and cultural definitions, is to be victorious over any challenge he or she might face. This quality of character is what distinguishes the archetype of the American hero, whose place in our culture defines American identity. However, London’s own travels during the Klondike gold rush and his subsequent writings describing the events make him an important witness to the battle between the American dream of prosperity (that prosperity being the gold in the Klondike) and nature’s refusal to be overpowered by humanity. This kind of struggle for power between man and the wilderness, exemplified so perfectly by To Build A Fire, challenges Roosevelt’s assertion that the America had truly won the West. While we may still measure our national character by resolve in the face of obstacles, the fact that nature will still never allow itself to be tamed by man is proof that our national identity should never be based on the assertion that we are a nation of conquerors when we are instead a nation of heroes.
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