A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest reviewer: Diana Birchall.
I’ve been trying to write a memoir about my father, but have come to realize how little I know about alcoholism in the early 20th century. Paul Eaton Reeve (1908-1961) was a Greenwich Village poet who, after the fashion of his species, determinedly drank himself to death. I only ever remember seeing him a few times, but he was handsome, gentle, and grieved at being kept apart from his only child. So I’ve become intrigued by the blotto drinking of his era, which was probably far more prevalent before the postwar drug revolution. Uncertain where to begin researching, I decided to read Jack London’s story of his own drinking life, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs (1913).
I’ve always liked Jack London – not the subtlest writer, but one of great force, natural vigor, and a compelling storyteller of a clear spoken type that was freshly minted in a time when anything in the world seemed possible if you only worked hard and used your talents, Horatio Alger style. I actually prefer London’s more non-fictional writing to his sea and dog yarns: Martin Eden (1909), the semi-autobiographical story of a poor young man’s passionate struggle for literary success, and The People of the Abyss, his 1903 foray into the poor conditions in the city of London’s East End, are both riveting. And so is John Barleycorn, which contains some of London’s finest autobiographical writing.
For all London’s simplicity of style, there’s nothing superficial or unsophisticated about his examination of drinking and how it affected his life. Holding confoundingly contradictory opinions on the subject, he tries but never manages to reconcile them, but his efforts to understand what blinds him, are sincere.
Born in 1876, the illegitimate son of an astrologer, by the age of ten London was working to help his family. With outsize strength and ambition he slaved at menial jobs, made his way to sea as a teenage “oyster pirate,” and sought adventure and education with a blazing hunger. Yet even as he rose to become a best-selling author and household name, John Barleycorn (his name for alcohol) accompanied him all the way.
London is simultaneously in thrall to John Barleycorn, and sees him as evil: “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.” His early drinking experiences were often forced upon him, and dreadful. At seven some partying ranchers urged wine on him and were astonished at his capacity to bolt it down. “Had I been a weakling of a child, I am confident it would have killed me,” he writes. His early distaste persisted. “This physical loathing for alcohol I have never got over, but I have conquered it. Men do not knowingly drink for the effect alcohol produces on the body. What they drink for is the brain-effect; and if it must come through the body, so much the worse for the body.”
Growing up, he always liked saloons, where manly social life happened; they were of equal importance to the libraries where he devoured books. As a young seaman, drinking when ashore was the only sure way to “win my manhood’s spurs,” and gain the status of “a good fellow, as well as no coward.” He boasts that he had no chemical desire for alcohol, was no drunkard; it was the fault of the prevalence of alcohol, the custom. “It is just these, the good fellows, the worth while, the fellows with the weakness of too much strength, too much spirit, too much fire and flame of devilishness,” that were destroyed by drink. This was because “John Barleycorn stands on every highway and byway, accessible, law-protected, saluted by the policeman on the beat.” Although a fighting Socialist, he believed that only Prohibition would solve the problem for society.
It is nearly inconceivable how much achievement and how many adventures Jack London, with his enormous energy and curiosity, packed into his short life. His drinking was on a heroic scale too, though he continued to protest that he had no problem: “The charm of John Barleycorn was still a mystery to me. I was so organically a non-alcoholic that alcohol itself made no appeal…I drank because the men I was with drank and my nature was such that I could not permit myself to be less of a man than other men at their favorite pastime.”
At the peak of his writing fame he discovered that “the greater my success, the more money I earned, the wider was the command of the world that became mine and the more prominently did John Barleycorn bulk in my life.” Despite his fame, wealth, and happy marriage to “the woman who was my mate,” Charmian, he could no longer resist daily drinking. His “gloriously healthy” body began to betray him and he wondered why he drank. “What need was there for it? I was happy. Was it because I was too happy? I was strong. Was it because I was too strong? Did I possess too much vitality? I don’t know why I drank…Life was one unending song…and yet I drank.” By the time Jack and Charmian returned from a voyage to Australia on their yacht the Snark, in 1909, he was a very sick man, yet still boasting that he “drank as a broad-shouldered, chesty man may drink.” He meditates, “Not a hundred men in a million have been so lucky as I. Yet, with all this vast good fortune, am I sad. And I am sad because John Barleycorn is with me.” Hoping that drink will be stamped out, he votes for equal suffrage because “if women could vote, they would vote John Barleycorn out of existence.” To the last he insists, “Mine is no tale of a reformed drunkard. I was never a drunkard, and I have not reformed.” He died less than three years after writing this, probably of kidney disease.
Did I learn anything about my father and his alcoholism through reading Jack London’s story? Only that with far less energy and drive than the larger-than-life London, he was helpless and succumbed to the same demon, then just beginning to be called a disease.
Jack London: John Barleycorn, first published 1913. Oxford University Press: 2009, ed. John Sutherland. ISBN 978-0-19-955557-4.