Thursday, June 09, 2011

John Barleycorn - Jack London

John Barleycorn is Jack London's "alcoholic memoir", but it's so much more than that.  It's also the story of his life, although always carefully examined through the glass or bottle.  It's a a tract against alcohol, but in the later chapters, it pays a grudging respect to drink for its ability to create conviviality, to aid creative thought and numb manual laborers (coal shovelers, in this instance) to  their backbreaking work:  "This strength that John Barleycorn gives is not fictitious strength.  It is real strength.  But it is manufactured out of the sources of strength, and it must ultimately be paid for and with interest." 

London admits that after a quarter of a century of being indifferent to alcohol, "I had the craving at last and it was mastering me."  He will not admit to being an alcoholic, nor does he have plans to quit the stuff:  "I am not a drunkard and I have not reformed."  He vows that he "will continue to drink but more skillfully, more discreetly than before."  What he really likes is the feeling of being "pleasantly jingled", which we would refer to nowadays as "buzzed".  When he reminisces about the places around the globe he's visited, he invariably thinks of the saloons, pubs, cafes, and people's homes that he sat in "glass in hand."  But he insists that he is not an alcoholic.  His repeated denials would provide the basis for a literary drinking game.

According to London scholar Clarice Stasz, Jack went on a pretty serious bender when he visited New York City in 1912, and ended up getting in the doghouse with his second wife, Charmain.  It is believed that John Barleycorn was written the next year as an apology to her for his antics in New York.  Stasz goes on to say that the book shocked many people who were surprised that the supposedly clean-living author of such adventures as The Call of the Wild and White Fang had been trying to withstand alcohol's clutches his whole life.

"Whole life" is not much of an exaggeration.  The first couple of chapters of John Barleycorn are a bit ranty but also entertaining, then the beginning of Chapter 3 hits the reader between the eyes with this opening sentence:  "I was five years old the first time I got drunk."  He was carrying a pail of beer to his father who was working in the fields on a hot summer's day, and he was so small, he had trouble carrying the pail without slopping the contents.  He decided not to waste it and drank some to lessen his burden.  He didn't care for the taste at all, and although he took up drinking in earnest less than ten years later, he never really cared for the taste.  What he really liked was candy, and while working as a sailor, would sneak and buy it and hide it to avoid the derision of his seagoing mates.

Alcohol may have helped young Jack get a manly reputation and some good buddies, but John Barleycorn played some chilling tricks on London.  When he was around sixteen, he got so drunk he fell overboard.  He was so tanked that the water felt good to him "it soothed me like cool linen" then suddenly, ("I had never been morbid," London assures the reader) he was entertaining thoughts of suicide and putting them into play all at once:

"The water was delicious.  It was a man's way to die.  John Barleycorn changed the tune he was playing in my drink-maddened brain.  Away with tears and regret.  It was a hero's death, and by the hero's own hand and will.  I started my death-chant...'Don't sing yet,' John Barleycorn whispered. 'There are railroad men on the wharf.  They will hear you and come out in a boat and rescue you.  and you don't want to be rescued.'  I certainly didn't.  What? Be robbed of my hero's death?  Never." 

By this time he was getting tired and cold and starting to sober up, so he swam for shore, but he'd gone out too far.  It looked like he might drown anyway, but a Greek fisherman headed for Vallejo picked him up.  London points out that this is not an uncommon trick, but he also allows that his "dramatic, romantic imagination was delighted with the suggestion."

When London is twenty years older and a successful author, he regularly encounters during his binges one of John Barleycorn's "agents", which he refers to as White Logic.  He characterizes it as an unhealthy type of truth-telling.  To paraphrase two chapters of London's total preoccupation with this particular brain maggot, White Logic's refrain is that the world is all a sham, people perpetuate shams to continue on in their pathetic lives, and they aren't really people, they're future ghosts.  What's the point of living or dreaming?  Everyone dies.  Here, have another drink.  Have the whole bottle.  Stay drunk.  Fuck life.

White Logic either scares London so much or it's such a drag that he promises himself that he'll be more careful and not invoke this shade.  He ends as he begins, determined that women should get the vote, because once they have it they will vote in Prohibition and future generations will be saved, never having known what a saloon is.

"And it will be easy. The only ones that will be hurt will be the topers and seasoned drinkers of a single generation. I am one of these, and I make solemn assurance, based upon long traffic with John Barleycorn, that it won't hurt me very much to stop drinking when no one else drinks and when no drink is obtainable. On the other hand, the overwhelming proportion of young men are so normally non-alcoholic, that, never having had access to alcohol, they will never miss it. They will know of the saloon only in the pages of history, and they will think of the saloon as a quaint old custom similar to bull-baiting and the burning of witches."

John Barleycorn is available in book form and can also be read online for free here.


Sam said...

This one really sounds good. I've been meaning to tackle it for some time now, but just can't get started on it.

Most all of London's books are available for free download as e-books and I've downloade more than 20 of them to my iPad. You know what they say about good intentions...

Anonymous said...

Not only did I not know that Jack London had a thing for booze, I've never even heard of this book! The things you learn in blog-land.

Carrie#K said...

He would be so bummed to discover that women are people too and we've gone so much further than boring old alcohol. (I'm currently reading Aldous Huxley's ode to LSD and wow. Pretentious.)

fantsmacle said...

He sounds like an average employee in Yellowstone. If he were alive today I would suggest he work for Xanterra.