John Barleycorn is not only atypical of Jack London’s work, it’s different than most books about drinking or drug abuse. Assumed by most to be an autobiography, John Barleycorn also functions as an in-depth reflection on the lifestyle of a heavy drinker. London got drunk as early as five and seven years old, and that is where his drinking story begins. London tells of his exploits throughout his teenage years and early adult life, including being an oyster pirate, deep-sea sealer, miner, student, and writer. London packed an incredible amount of action into a short life, and John Barleycorn tells the story of a large chunk of those years along with the epic but tragic drinking that accompanied all of those different roles.
Early on, you’ll notice that London keeps referring to somebody named *John Barleycorn. Initially, it might be a little puzzling, but you’ll quickly realize that this name is used by London to personify the intense desire to drink. It’s not in a playful way either. He views the power of the drink as something on a different spiritual plane than normal reality.
London also makes a very important distinction between John Barleycorn and a physical craving for alcohol. He openly discusses his drinking, which ranges from moments of barroom heroism all the way down to desperately floating in the ocean, drunk as hell and basically accepting his death. He’s pretty fair about discussing the positives and negatives with a balanced pen. That being said, he consistently points out that he can go relatively long periods of time without feeling the physical need to drink. It seems clear that London hung on to that as evidence that he had his drinking under control despite some of the problems it caused him. Tragically, his death from a morphine overdose at only 40 may have been stronger evidence of an addictive personality that he didn’t quite grasp about himself.
The book really is an astoundingly honest self-examination by London of his own behavior. While London is, in many respects, incredibly self-aware, he also has a tendency to be unaccountable for his own actions. We can now read the book through a lens where we have a much greater understanding of alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness. We can recognize much about London’s behaviors and the patterns he repeated as definite signs of a problem that he did not have handled. Since 1913, when the book was written, things like AA, other forms of recovery, the lessening stigma of mental illness, and scientific study of addiction have appeared. Even so, there is obviously so much that is still a mystery about substance abuse. That’s why John Barleycorn remains a compelling read.
It’s a free-wheeling account of an era of London’s life, and the reader should not expect it to read like a novel. At any given time you might not be totally sure what London is doing for a living, where he’s at, or how old he is. An aside: I would read several chapters and then think, “Okay, he has to be in his mid-20s by this point with the work he’s doing and the amount of drinking he’s getting in.” I’d flip to the next chapter and it would turn out that he’s still only 16 or 17 years old. Absolutely bonkers.
Depending on your perspective, you might be a little disgusted by London’s actions. You might also be skeptical of some of the barroom tales told in the book. You might find the philosophical ramblings a little much when you realize he’s talking about getting shitfaced in a bar. But overall, London seems earnest about telling his story honestly. London displays his love of alcohol, a complicated reverence, while also acknowledging the sacrifice that comes with that relationship with booze.
Interesting Terms Used by London:
pleasantly jingled – I liked this term London frequently used to describe being in a good place while drunk… somewhere between buzzed and hammered to a point that isn’t fun anymore.
White Logic – London’s term (I think it’s his own term) for the bleak, overwhelming melancholy a heavy drinker experiences at times; A deep depression where a drunk feels the intense tragedy and great truths of life with no joy as a counterbalance.
Jack London and Prohibition:
Some might be surprised to know that London was a fervent supporter of federal alcohol prohibition. He often points out that bars are important meeting centers for the populace, and so important to society that folks have no choice to imbibe and be at a larger risk of developing a drinking problem. He even made sure to vote for women politicians because he females favored prohibition.