No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character.
- Emerson, American Poet and Essayist (1803-1882)
In searching for the next thing to read, I decided to go through my own personal list of the classic literary giants to see which of their works I had yet to get around to reading. Jack London and his book “John Barleycorn” jumped out at me for two reasons.
The first reason being the fact that Jack London and I go way back, to the seventh grade as a matter of fact, when our class was assigned “White Fang” to read, so I’ve known him for some time and he continued to be a man whose writing I enjoyed as an adult through “Call of the Wild” with a large collection of short stories between.
The second reason being, I always wondered about this quaint, antiquated phrase my father used to drop on me when he used to ask, “How’ve you been doing with John Barleycorn?”
I could’ve said, “John Who?” because when he first said it, I’d never heard of this “John Barleycorn” guy before, but taken in context, I knew exactly who my dad was talking about. John Barleycorn is a literary personification of alcohol.
It was intriguing to me, especially considering that in all the AA meetings I’ve attended before and since, I’ve never heard anyone else reference John Barleycorn (although I do hear he is given mention in “The Big Book” of AA) so on finishing London’s book, I visited Wikipedia to learn where my dad’s reference had come from.
It turns out, John Barleycorn can be dated back to 16th century English folk songs, the general story of the song being that this John Barleycorn character (call him a spirit, I guess you could call him the spirit of spirits) well this John Barleycorn was cut down in the barley fields during the harvest to be turned into whiskey and beer, and in revenge for his slaying he wrecked his vengeance back on mankind through that very same alcohol. The song continued to be passed along for hundreds of years and Mr. Barleycorn even lived on to the electric folk rock of the 20th century, most notably on an album by Traffic called “John Barleycorn Must Die”, but like I said, my only previous knowledge of him was through my dad’s mentions, which made it a uniquely personal reference to me.
To read Jack London detailing the exploits of his own life is to read a story almost beyond belief, except that you know he couldn’t have faked the abject poverty he was raised in without being called on it by later biographers and you know that he must have engaged in these manly adventures against the sea and the wilderness otherwise there’s no way he could have written so many stories of adventure so convincingly.
Jack London is a strange dichotomy of a man. When you read him telling of how he slaved for exploitive bosses ten hours a day, twenty-nine days a month just to earn enough to pay for his room and board, you can understand the grievances he had with the Capitalism of the
late 18th and early 19th late 19th and early 20th centuries and how it led him to become such an ardent Socialist (power to the PEOPLE as he puts it in all caps!) but then when you think of all the Jack London stories you’ve ever read, they’re centered on independent heroes the likes of which even Nietzsche would be proud. London’s characters are individualists triumphing against the odds and you think, these rugged, self-reliant adventurers are all Alaskan frontiersmen at heart, men far removed from any government, men who were precursors to extensions of the lawlessness of the Wild West, men who sound much more like the prototypes for a Tea Party movement than men who would advocate an “It Takes a Village” type of Socialism.
The book was published in 1913, and while it’s often found today with the subtitle of “Alcoholic Memoirs,” this subtitle seems from my searches to be a later addition to the title as it’s not listed on photos of first edition covers that I’ve seen. Just as importantly, throughout the book, the word “alcoholic” is only used a couple times and when it’s used, it’s used in describing a type of drink and not any type of person.
Instead, the habitual drinker is referred to in the book as an “alki-stiff.” The distinction between “alki-stiff” and the word “alcoholic” which came into later usage is a distinction that goes beyond simple verbiage. When you put your mindset back one-hundred years and imagine the widespread conception back then of the alki-stiff being a fall-down, drunken hobo, it’s a conception far removed from today’s wider conception of the alcoholic being someone who could come from any walk of life.
In the narrative, London made painstaking efforts to draw distinction between himself and the alki-stiff, describing how his constitution allowed him to consume incredible quantities of booze without ever getting sloppy or showing any outward signs of drunkenness, but the more he spent so much time explaining how he wasn’t that guy, the more it made him look like the guy in denial, a guy in denial of the possibility he might have more in common with the common drunkard than the distinctions he takes pains to point out.
But then you have to put yourself in the mindset of an incredibly successful author revealing himself to a world one hundred years before us, with that definition of the alki-stiff so narrow and full of distain that what proud man in his great shoes wouldn’t go to such lengths to draw the distinction?
And really, who amongst even the most prodigious and seasoned of drinkers hasn’t imagined that they presented themselves as sober to the world, when to the world, their drinking was often plain to see?
Another part of the book I found fascinating was the sneaking suspicion I began to develop in seemingly seeing glimpses between the lines of London having some homosexual proclivities. There was certainly nothing definitive, but 98% of the book deals with the manly exploits of men among men and I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the long passages describing heart-felt male camaraderie and the scattered line or two of love that he professed to his wife and the way those lines to his wife seemed to be offered in an almost obligatory way.
A teenage man-child in drunken revelry amongst the grown men of the saloons and the oyster pirate sailors? Aye matey, the question isn’t so much if there was an early formative encounter but when. Even with a couple brief scenes of unrequited boy-girl love later in his adolescence, women always seem to be an after thought in his writing. This is, however, just a passing curiosity in a book that’s intriguing on so many levels.
It took a lot of courage for such an esteemed writer to lay himself bare in these alcoholic memoirs, and while not as widely known as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which single-handedly brought about the reform of the meat packing industry, “John Barleycorn” also was instrumental in American history as a cautionary tale and rallying cry for the temperance movement which brought about prohibition six years after the publication of the book.
Whether you’re a friend of Bill W. or not, this is a book that’s well worth the read, and I haven’t even scratched the surface with the final four chapters and the philosophical battle between the “White Logic” of alcohol and the “lesser order of truth” necessary for living.
Jack London is an American treasure, a rags to riches man whose story and voice is uniquely American. I’d always enjoyed his novels and short stories, but to hear him tell of his own story was maybe the most satisfying read of all.
It’s in the public domain and free for the download at Project Gutenberg: John Barleycorn