Meet John Barleycorn.
In the early years of the 20th Century, writer Jack London was the equivalent of a rock star. A ruggedly good-looking sportswriter, globetrotting war correspondent, successful novelist and short story writer, London came up the hard way on the Oakland docks in California. He had his first drink at the age of 5, ran an oyster smuggling operation as a teenager, and allegedly brought the sport of surfing from Waikiki to the West Coast. At least one critic has referred to him as the Norman Mailer of the early 1900s.
In 1913, the author of the Call of the Wild published what was arguably his least successful book, John Barleycorn, a non-fiction account carrying the subtitle Alcoholic Memoirs. John Sutherland, professor of English Literature at University College in the UK, wrote in his introduction to the Oxford edition of Jack London’s book that London had pitched the book as “the bare, bald, absolute fact… of my own personal experiences in the realm of alcohol.” As Sutherland notes, “The drunk’s stigma was, however, indelible in 1913. No one of London’s public standing had ever come clean on the question of problem drinking before—at least not while at the zenith of their power and fame.”
Yet what are we to make, Sutherland asks, of London’s assertions, “three times in the first five pages, that drinker he may be, but ‘I was no hereditary alcoholic… I have no constitutional predisposition for alcohol.’”? Is this, the critic asks, “self-delusion or self-knowledge?”
After reading the book, I would have to say a little bit of both, given the limitations of medical knowledge at the time. In London’s view, common back then, “dipsomania” was a chemical, congenital defect, much maligned and considered to be as rare as one in every several thousand drinkers. Nonetheless, several prominent London biographers have asserted that Jack London was chronically drunk-sick in his later years, ultimately dying of uremia and other complications brought on by years of excessive drinking. Writer Upton Sinclair claimed in 1915 that he had seen London wandering Oakland “dazed and disagreeably drunk.” Still others claim London’s bar bills were always modest and much of John Barleycorn is fiction. Yet London writes frankly of his morning shakes and hair-of-the-dog drinking and suicidal impulses. Describing his life in 1910, London writes: “I achieved a condition in which my body was never free from alcohol. Nor did I permit myself to be away from alcohol…. There was no time in all my waking time, that I didn’t want a drink.”
Was Jack London a Hemingway-style brawler or a hopeless alcoholic? As we have come to understand, it is sometimes possible to be both, for a while. Jack London was not writing for a medical journal, he was relating the experiences of his own life. And when the battle for universal suffrage began in earnest, London was an early an enthusiastic backer, on the grounds that if women got the vote, alcohol prohibition would surely follow, and the children of American would be saved from the wiles of John Barleycorn.
The lack of enthusiasm for the book when it was published stemmed, in part, from these built-in ambiguities. In addition, writes Sutherland, “John Barleycorn is an extended meditation on pessimism, or alcohol induced melancholy.” These days, we are more likely to refer to this condition as depression. This was not the Jack London his fans had come to know and love, even though London insisted in the book that he was “writing of the effects of alcohol on the normal, average man. I have no word to say for or about the microscopically unimportant excessivist, the dipsomaniac.”
For all the hedging, there is plenty of recognizable plain talk about the devotees of Mr. Barleycorn: “When good fortune comes, they drink. When they have no fortune, they drink to the hope of good fortune. If fortune be ill, they drink to forget it. If they meet a friend, they drink. If they quarrel with a friend and lose him, they drink…. He coarsens and grossens them, twists and malforms them out of the original goodness and fineness of their natures.”
In another passage describing the tavern life of tradesmen and laborers, he “saw men doing, drunk, what the would never dream of doing sober…. Time and again I heard the one explanation: If I hadn’t been drunk I wouldn’t a-done it.”
And as time passes, Jack London, the resolutely non-alcoholic, highly-regarded novelist, finds the terrain underneath his own feet is changing: “And the thing began so imperceptibly, that I, old intimate of John Barleycorn, never dreamed whither it was leading me…. It was at this time I became aware of waiting with expectancy for the pre-dinner cocktail. I wanted it, and I was conscious that I wanted it…. And right there John Barleycorn had me. I was beginning to drink regularly, I was beginning to drink alone.”
These developments shook up London sufficiently for him to ask himself: “Had I, a non-alcoholic, by long practice, become an alcoholic?” He has no trouble marshaling evidence for the argument: “The more I drank the more I was required to drink to get an equivalent effect…. Whenever I was in a hurry, I ordered double cocktails. It saved time.”
There were other warnings: “Where was this steady drinking leading? But trust John Barleycorn to silence such questions. ‘Come on and have a drink and I’ll tell you all about it,’ is his way.”
London concludes, before taking most of it back in later pages: “There are hundreds of thousands of men of this sort in the United States to-day, in clubs, hotels, and in their own homes—men who are never drunk, and who, though most of them will indignantly deny it, are rarely sober. And all of them fondly believe, as I fondly believed, that they are beating the game.”
And finally, this: “But a new and most diabolical complication arose: The work refused to be done without drinking. It just couldn’t be done. I had to drink in order to do it.”
In the end, let us hear from his last wife, Charmian, who made the following entry in her diary on July 1, 1912: “I know now that Jack, facing the writing of John Barleycorn, intends to drink moderately in the future, just to prove to an unbelieving public that he is the opposite of an ‘alcoholic’, that he is not afraid of being an alcoholic, and never was an alcoholic. Perhaps he is right, but I feel a trifle dashed.”
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