Jack London: “John Barleycorn”

John Barleycorn is the only alcoholics memoir I have ever read.  I have too much respect for Jack London to assume his words would be fundamentally different if produced today.  However, I am struck by how different John Barleycorn is from the following, which I pulled from the Alcoholics Anonymous website.  “We who are in A.A. came because we finally gave up trying to control our drinking. We still hated to admit that we could never drink safely. Then we heard from other A.A. members that we were sick. (We thought so for years!) We found out that many people suffered from the same feelings of guilt and loneliness and hopelessness that we did. We found out that we had these feelings because we had the disease of alcoholism.”  In my America, difference is either pathologized or celebrated.  It rarely is accepted as natural, exciting, challenging, or liberating.  Some forms of difference are rarely celebrated and almost always pathologized.  The child who has a projectural and active curiosity has ADD.  Other forms of diversity – usually racial, ethnic, or sexual – are celebrated but rarely taken seriously.  Multiculturalism suggests mutual indifference.  Assertiveness, creativity, anxiety, melancholy, intense sexual desire, and curiosity are as often as not seen as problems to be medicated as they get in the way of school, the test, work, a “successful” marriage, or that next promotion.


I drink fairly heavily, much less than many but probably more than most.  I doubt I am what our culture would call an alcoholic, but I like getting drunk.  I have said and done hurtful things while drinking, but I also had moments of intense joy that I would not have had without alcohol.  Many precious memories are as clear as day to me although they were acquired under a cloudy haze of a drunken mind.  At 35, I never have found alcohol to be in control of my life, but she is a companion I do not want to say goodbye too.  Indeed, I am much less conflicted about alcohol than even Jack London.  More than anything else in John Barleycorn, I appreciate that ambivalence and his refusal to ever admit to being “ill” or under the control of a “disease.”  John Barleycorn also shows how drink can help create solidarity and community, something that is sorely needed.  I doubt it is the best way to recreate community, but I see it as a tool.


On the first page, his wife asks London about why he voted for women’s suffrage.  London replied that it is because women would support prohibition.  When his wife questioned him on his history with and  “friendship” with John Barleycorn London replied: “I am.  I was.  I am not.  I never am.  I am never less his friend than when is with me and when I seem most his friend.  He is the king of liars.  He is the frankest truth-sayer.  He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods.  He is also in league with the Nameless One.  His way leads to naked truth, and to death.  He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams.  He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life’s vision.  he is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth.” (935-936)  This conversation leads to London deciding to write up a book on the subject.  London laughs it off with the title “Memoirs of an Alcoholic.”  His wife corrects him reminding him that he was “no dipsomaniac” and the book should be called “Alcoholic Memoirs.”  What a powerful and liberating change in such a minor shift.

His next chapter identifies two types of drinkers.  “There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pin elephants.”  This is the one who gets drunk in the body.  He pays for alcohol less.  The other type of drinker is the “imaginative man”  who gets drunk in the mind.  “He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship.  Or he may see intellectual specters and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms.  It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul.” (939)

And forgive the length of this following quote, but London’s clarify on this subject is important.  While the unimaginative drinker is the headache or the night in the gutter, the imaginative drinker faces – along  with his vice – the “white logic.”  It is this logic that makes drinkers a creative, but deluded, and potentially destructive philosopher.  It leads to a passive acceptance of fate and a cynicism that denies life’s meaning.  “He looks upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions. He transvalues all values. Good is bad, truth is a cheat, and life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of a god, he beholds all life as evil. Wife, children, friends–in the clear, white light of his logic they are exposed as frauds and shams. He sees through them, and all that he sees is their frailty, their meagreness, their sordidness, their pitifulness. No longer do they fool him. They are miserable little egotisms, like all the other little humans, fluttering their May-fly life- dance of an hour. They are without freedom. They are puppets of chance. So is he. He realises that. But there is one difference. He sees; he knows. And he knows his one freedom: he may anticipate the day of his death. All of which is not good for a man who is made to live and love and be loved.” (940-941)

Over the next 30 short chapters, London describes the two major phases of his life where he indulged in alcohol.  The first was during his working class youth, when drink became a means for men to interact and establish a form of shared solidarity.  While working at a cannery and as an oyster pirate, drink was an essential part of the working class culture he participated in.  Treating each other with drinks was what, in that context, men did.  Alcohol also drove him toward intellectual pursuits in his youth.  Through conversations with the learned much from a Captain Nelson, who was one of the better-read workers in his drinking circle.  During this phase in life, London danced with this devil “John Barleycorn.”  Throughout the memoirs, “John Barleycorn” is a force of its own.  A companion, an instigator, and a tempter, but never quite the enemy.

The second period of his relationship with alcohol was during the peak of his writing career.  It is during this period that drinking undermined his friendship and led him to consider suicide.  It was during this period that the “White Logic” a corrupting pessimism was strongest.  “The things I had fought for and burned my midnight oil for, had failed me.  Success–I despised it.  Recognition–it was dead ashes.  Society, men and women above the ruck and muck of the water-front and the forecastle–I was appalled by their unlovely mental mediocrity.  Love of women–it was like all the rest.  Money–I could sleep in only one bed at a time, and of what worth was an income of a hundred porterhouses a day when I could eat only one?  Art, culture–in the face of the iron facts of biology such things were ridiculous, the exponents of such things only the more ridiculous.”  (1065-1066)  At the end of this memoir, London is no less ambivalent.  Even in the aftermath of his deepest, most isolating and anti-social phase of his drinking, London remains attracted to the socializing elements of drink.  “I like the bubbling play of wit, the chesty laughs, the resonant voices of men, when, glass in hand, they shut the gray world outside and prod their brains with the fun and folly of an accelerated pulse.  no, I decided; I shall take my drink on occasion.” (1112)

Well, I have much more I could say on this interesting book.  It is enough to conclude that I think London’s attitude toward drink is healthier and by far more interesting than the one promoted by AA.  Labeling excessive drinking a disease is too simplistic and serves to enforce conformity no less than the manias over ADHA or sex addiction.  I say this, however, fully open to being educated by people who have had different  and less positive experiences with drink.

Christopher Hitchens on his drinking.  Some interesting parallels here.


A few last comments on this volume of Jack London’s writings.  It ends with four essays that speak to his socialism.  In “How I Became a Socialist”, he argues that socialism was the outcome of a long struggle with individualism.  “The Scab” is an attempt to empathize with this most hated figure in American labor history.  In a labor market, he argues, we are all scabs.  And the people who tend to strike-break are often the most poorest, most isolated, and easily abused members of the working class.  Indeed, these are the same men who have had their jobs taken by more skilled or more well-connected workers.  “The superior workman scabs upon the inferior workman because he is so constituted and cannot help it.”  The scab will strive for life even in the absence of equality.  There are important lessons on how to envision a broad, inclusive working-class movement here.  “The Jungle” is London’s positive review of Upton Sinclair’s novel, which he compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Finally, “Revolution” is an article predicting an inevitable class war.

Next entry, I will be moving onto the second volume of London’s writings published by the Library of America, which focuses on his short-fiction and Klondike writings.



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