The epigraph of Martin Eden, arguably Jack London’s most philosophical and autobiographical novel, proclaims, “Let me live out my years in heat of blood! / Let me lie drunken with the dreamer’s wine! / Let me not see this soul-house built of mud / Go toppling to the dust a vacant shrine!” If you wanted to write a biography of London in four lines of verse, that would be it.
London’s short life was as wild and adventurous as his fiction: Even his exploits as a teenager almost strain credulity. At 15, London quit a full-time factory job to become an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay — stealing oysters from beds owned by the big railroad companies and selling them on the black market. At 16, he fell in with a gang of “road kids” from Sacramento who taught him how to beg and steal and hop trains without losing his legs (as one unlucky boy in the gang did). A week after his 17th birthday, he joined the crew of a sealing ship bound for the Bering Sea — a voyage in which he survived a typhoon off the coast of Japan that would be the subject of his first published story.