QwiklitRoom

10 Great Contemporary Works that Offer a Minority Perspective

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

One of the greatest abilities we exercise when reading is empathy. When we read great literature, we experience the thoughts and insights of someone other than ourselves. In our growing world where people are becoming more globally aware and connected, empathy is becoming all the more important. Whether it be our gender, culture, race, religion, or even just our upbringing, learning to understand others can take work. For this reason, I have compiled together a short list of novels from varying cultures and societies to inspire and prompt a personal understanding of others.

  1. Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1982)

Challenging every reader’s perception of the self and culture, Dictee is an autobiography that tells the story of many women. Some of these women include the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Persephone, the author’s mother and the author herself. Through using many modes of creation, including different languages, bi-directional text, and images, Cha creates a complex work that that escapes the confines of self-identity. In exchange, the novel becomes a powerful collage of culture and memory.

  1. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

This chilling novel is dedicated to the 60 million Africans and their descendants who died in the slave trade. Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, Morrison’s protagonist, kills her daughter, Beloved, and attempts to kill her other children when a group of men try to send her and her family back to the Kentucky plantation. Now, in her new home she shares with her daughter, Denver, the spirit of Beloved haunts them. It is a story that deals with memory, choices, and the uncontainable past for those affected by slavery.

  1. 1949, David French (1989)

David French takes on a unique perspective through his Mercer family saga. Focusing on a group of individuals from Newfoundland, this series explores many of the cultural difficulties that Newfoundlanders experienced during the years approaching Confederation. French’s play, 1949, takes place on the day of Confederation and focuses on multiple Newfoundlander generations in conflict. With many comedic moments, this inspiring and thoughtful play offers an important Canadian perspective that is often forgotten.

  1. Fronteras Americanas, Guillermo Verdecchia (1993)

In Fronteras Americanas, Verdecchia plays two different personalities. The first is himself. In this role he tells stories of his life and the struggles of being an Argentine-Canadian, that is, someone who is caught between two identities and homelands. The other is a Latin-American stereotype named Wideload, who is more comedic and perhaps even cartoonish. As the play continues, the audience becomes exposed to societal constructs surrounding Latin-Americans, as well as the difficulty of being an individual who identifies with two completely separate cultures.

  1. Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King (1993)

There are no truths. Only stories.”

This novel is set in the First Nations Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada. All of the characters are looking for a way to make sense of Native American tradition and the modern world. Using a blend of oral and written tradition, Green Grass, Running Water juxtaposes Western societal norms with First Nations beliefs and ways of living. It is a satire that blends together these two cultures.

  1. Scarlet Feather, Maeve Binchy (2000)

Maeve Binchy creates another story that is rich with the culture of contemporary Ireland. Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather begin their catering business together and through their connections, their lives become complicated. From taking care of two children to planning a wedding for Cathy’s sister, Tom and Cathy’s lives are full of chaos and connections. Scarlet Feather offers a bittersweet picture of Ireland now, much different from the classically dim political circumstances of Joyce’s Dubliners.

  1. Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden (2001)

Canadian historical fiction rarely offers a narrative that considers the crucial role played by the First Nations people. Recognizing this discrepancy, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is a First World War account that is told through two Cree narratives: Xavier’s experiences in battle and Niska’s experiences at Moose Factory. As these two characters journey home, their memories of the war and the home front become stories of pain and healing that offer a unique perspective regarding Canada’s complicated history. In turn, their narratives also become ways of giving voice to Indigenous war heroes who were left unrecognized, unaccounted for, and forgotten.

  1. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

As a Bildungsroman and family saga, Middlesex follows the impact of a mutated gene back three generations. At the same time, Middlesex tells the story of a hermaphrodite who changes her identity as Calliope to a “he”—Cal. These two chronicled tales become connected through history and genetics. Addressing themes such as rebirth, gender identity, and the American Dream, this novel works through many of the obstacles and struggles for those who are part of intersex communities.

  1. The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill (2007)

Many times during that long journey, I was terrified beyond description, yet somehow my mind remained intact. Men and women the age of my parents lost their minds on that journey.”

Lawrence Hill’s novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo. As a free woman, she tells the story of how she and her people were captured and sold into slavery. Juxtaposing her personal life is the document, The Book of Negroes. This document was kept by the British navy and contained a list African people who were given the right to flee to Canada. In bringing together the moving personal story of Aminata with the rigid history that is The Book of Negroes, Hill makes known Canada’s shocking role in the slave trade.

  1. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)

Adiga’s darkly humorous novel, The White Tiger, is narrated by Balram Halwai, a village boy. Halwai writes a letter explaining how he went from a poor boy to a successful entrepreneur. Following his journey as a chauffeur in Delhi to Bangalore, where he kills his master, Adiga’s work examines Indian culture, such as religion, caste, corruption, and poverty through his protagonist’s first-hand accounts of his experiences.

Please let us know what other novels offer this special perspective on the world. We appreciate your feedback :)

JaneAusten

How to Write like Jane Austen

For all the praises that literary scholars and countless book clubs put on Jane Austen, one of the most virtuosic novelists in English literature is still misunderstood today. Some see her novels as dinner-party rabble and the relics of the British Empire at its most stodgy. What most people overlook is that Austen, iconoclastic and quiet in the tempestuous social circles of the day, saw through the veneer slow rural life and pointed out the frailty of human existence while also portraying its most redemptive aspects.

She understood that we needed to follow certain manners and etiquette in this world, but she also looked down on the people. As John F. Burrows puts it, her legacy as one of the greatest writers boils down to “her economy of description, her customary formality of tone, her subtle mingling of styles, and her creation of so smooth a surface that every ripple repays our attention.”

Jane Austen wrote six novels, most of them set in the Hampshire countryside where she lived her whole life. Although she was not immensely popular during her lifetime, she was one of the defining figures of early 19th century literature, and was perhaps the sharpest of the many female novelists who emerged at the time, include Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Shelley. She is arguably responsible for leading one of the first women-lead artistic golden ages.

You don’t need to know much about Jane Austen to write like her. What you do need to know, however, is what makes people tick, how they act in social situations and how such situations are controlled, implicitly, by the people inhabiting them. Without such a skill-set, you won’t be able to be as sharp, observant and witty as Jane Austen is (and honestly, 99.9% of us will not, either, but it’s worth a try!).

Here are six tips to write like Jane Austen:

1.In most of Jane Austen’s novels, narrative (as opposed to dialogue) makes up only about half of the content. Use description to set up the characters, the places and the circumstances, but move the novel forward using dialogue.

Her narrative contains a lot of hidden irony and humor that you simply can’t overlook if you want to write like Austen. Consider the opening passage of perhaps her greatest novel, Emma, and how Austen combines her “praises” with a particular backhandedness:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It’s funny because, for a 20-year old, being pretty, conniving and wealthy are great virtues, but much of the novel is concerned with events that deny such a claim. She also seems to bring together “The best blessings of existence” but does not actually (though without close reading, you may probably be fooled). That is why the modern film adaptation of the novel, Clueless, takes place in a high school where such an attitude may at first be rewarded with popularity, but will soon bring real-life consequences.

2. Jane Austen was one of the first novelists to use Free Indirect Discourse (FID) to portray her characters. Basically, FID is a way of writing narrative that incorporates the thoughts, opinions or general set of vocabulary that the character in question would use.

Jane Austen uses FID to point out the often-deluded perception of her characters by contrasting the description with conventional, objective speech. Going back to the opening lines of Emma, the title character believes she is “handsome, clever, and rich”, but the ambiguous nature of the descriptors (clever as in smart or clever as in manipulative? rich as in wealthy or rich as in full of goodness?) invoke both the vanity of the protagonist and the doubts of the narrator.

3. One of the most stereotypical misconceptions of the Austinian novel is that it’s full of brooding, romantic, Colin-Firth-types who profess their love like no other. The reality is, however, that these characters are masters of subtlety, and pique the interest of the protagonists (and the readers) with sustained language. Consider this piece of dialogue from Pride and Prejudice between Elizabeth and Darcy:

On his approaching them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking, Miss Lucas defied her friend to mention such a subject to him; which immediately provoking Elizabeth to do it, she turned to him and said:

“Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?”

“With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic.”

Elizabeth is trying to bait Darcy into individualizing her (“uncommonly well”), and is doing so with the suggestion of flirtatiousness (“teasing”). Darcy acknowledges her question, but then almost immediately removes himself from the equation by making an aphoristic statement. This push and pull is not a “setup” in Austen’s work, it’s the meat of the story.

4. Although she is sometimes criticized for only portraying the upper class, dinner-party culture of Aristocratic England, the context actually helps her readers find specific distinctions between characters. Since all of the characters are attempting to emulate a certain type of speech, small deviations from the norm emphasize distinction but permit the illusion of gallant merrymaking alive.

To write like Jane Austen, force your reader to make the distinctions instead of pointing them out to us. Readers who pay little attention to your work may not notice the grudges and love affairs implicit in dinner table conversation, but the lion’s share of the reward goes to those who invest their eyes and ears into the dialogue.  As John F. Burrows puts it in his essay, “Style”,

“Jane Austen displays a characteristic preference for ‘shallow modelling’ Since this allows the reader’s attention to be concentrated on subtler differences of attitude among her characters.”

Subtlety is key. Use language that leads your readers to the “little things”, so to speak.

5. The traditional Austinian heroine (or in some cases, hero) must often overcome their own delusions and eventually get a “reality check” that turns their life around. As I mentioned before using, Free Indirect Discourse can make help frame your characters as narcissists, social justice warriors or paranoiacs, just to name a few examples.

Emma Woodhouse sees herself as heroic for matchmaking, but her abidance to social hierarchies causes her to malevolently shun the poor Miss Bates. On the other hand, Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey is so caught up in Gothic fantasy that she fishes for any creak, bump or flutter in the night to arouse her senses:

Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes. To close her eyes in sleep that night, she felt must be entirely out of the question.

Catherine only feels fear because she wants to. Austen shows us that her fear is caused by her wish to be scared and nothing else. To write like Jane Austen, always look for these power-of-suggestion personality traits in people. A good example, from the point of view of a writer, is that many of us say we write more than we actually do. Exploiting such dissonance is funny.

6. Secondary characters in Jane Austen’s novels are often defined by the upward or downward mobility within the strict hierarchical system of Aristocratic British life.

Although this may seem a little dated, shows like House of Cards and The Wire contain dozens of secondary characters whose primary conflict in the story is such mobility. To use Emma as an example, the title character tries to set up her friend Harriet with Mr.Elton, but she does not realize that he is actually chasing her (and the supplementary dowry). Elton, a rakish vicar, is primarily defined by his social motives above anything. Again, you don’t need to make every character extremely complex, but having secondary characters of the sort reasserts the tensions of social life, even if existence seems “easy”.

Thanks to The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen and Project Gutenberg for references.

If you have any feedback, or any suggestions yourself, feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

 

Knausgaard

10 Really Long Books You Should Read Right Now

By May Huang

Most readers will own one book that is truly the ‘elephant on the shelf,’ a volume that doubles or maybe even quadruples the size of its counterparts. Indeed, we all know one 1,000-ish page novel that is either a nightmare to get through or a genuine pleasure to read. At around the 500-page mark, the following question always emerges: is the effort really worth it?!?!

Below are ten books for which the answer to the question above is a big, resounding: YES.

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – 784 pages

The first novel to top this list is no other than this year’s Pulitzer prize winner: The Goldfinch. Although relatively shorter than the other books on this list, the Goldfinch is still a good 700+ pages long and a reminder that large books are still being appreciated by critics today. Told in the memorable narrative voice of Theo Decker, The Goldfinch is a story about a theft and the consequences that follow – but it is above all a spellbinding bildungsroman that captures a young boy’s transition from childhood to adulthood.

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien – 1137 pages

The Sunday Times wrote once wrote, “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.”

Indeed, Tolkien’s universally cherished novel – which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year – captures a beautiful tale of friendship and bravery through two young hobbits’ journey to Mordor, as well as the combined efforts of men, elves and Ents alike to save Middle Earth.

3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust – 4,215 pages

When one thinks of long books and then considers the impressive canon of French literature, Proust’s chef-d’oeuvre immediately comes to mind as a work worth perusing. Although some will decided to tackle Swann’s Way and then leaves the remaining six books untouched, In Search of Lost Time remains a timeless exploration of involuntary memory – and testament to the merits of run on sentences.

4. Middlemarch by George Eliot – 904 pages

Considered by AS Byatt, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis to be possibly the greatest English novel ever written, George Eliot’s Middlemarch certainly has a well-earned place on this list. Its complex plot and often idealistic characters converge in the span of eight books as Eliot takes readers on a thorough examination of subjects such as provincial life, womanhood and the impact of education.

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – 864 pages

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is the famous opening line that launches readers into the Russian, autocratic world of Anna Karenina. If you’re looking for something more historically rooted in war, however, Tolstoy’s famous, 1,000+ page War and Peace is even longer!

6. My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard – 3,600 pages

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard took over bookstores this summer as many scrambled to buy the first three translated editions of his six volume autobiography: My Struggle. While many of the episodes recounted in My Struggle could be considered ‘mundane,’ they are fleshed out with such remarkably meticulous detail that one cannot help but marvel at Knausgaard enduring capacity for recollection. Having had a significant impact on Knausgaard personal life, My Struggle also shows that literary acclaim sometimes does come at a price.

7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – 1079 pages

Set in the future, David Foster Wallace’s best-selling novel Infinite Jest is an extraordinary exploration of happiness and entertainment. As Dave Eggers writes in the foreword, Infinite Jest “will help future people understand us — how we felt, how we lived, what we gave to each other and why.” Although the many endnotes in the novel send you flipping back and forth between pages, Wallace’s humour guarantees that he won’t make you go through 1000+ pages without also giving you a few good laughs.

(If you’d like to receive some David Foster Wallace wisdom in condensed form, his timeless commencement speech for Kenyon College can be found here :)

8. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – 928 pages

Originally written in Japanese, Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 has now been translated into over 40 languages. Just as in Orwell’s 1984 (the similarity between the titles is no coincidence), the characters in IQ84 live in a dystopia – but one that is based in Japan, not Great Britain. As its protagonists take us into  “a world that bears a question,” IQ84’s mystery and magic are bound to keep readers hooked.

9. The Recognitions by William Gaddis – 956 pages

There is no doubt that William Gaddis’s first novel is a challenging read. With convention-defying prose and many characters to keep up with over the course of nearly 1,000 pages, The Recognitions was even initially disregarded by critics. Now, it’s undeniably relatable to modern society. After all, as Gaddis writes: “Paintings are metaphors for reality, but instead of being an aid to realization obscure the reality which is far more profound.” Isn’t society today also struggling to distinguish between reality and that generated by mass media?

10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – 1957 pages

Strongly rooted in her objectivist philosophy, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has attracted both praise and controversy since its publication. In just under 2,000 pages, Rand fleshes out the story of Dagny Taggart, an independent woman who is set on happiness and productive achievement  but finds herself surrounded by those who are incompetent and unaspiring. Who is John Galt? What happens when the ‘Atlases’ of this novel decide to shrug? These questions are answered, and provoke response, in Atlas Shrugged.


Did we miss out one of your favourites big books? Or, conversely, are some of the novels in the list above ones that you consider to be overrated? Leave your comments in the space below!

Shelley

How a Teenager Invented Science Fiction: The Story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“The act of writing may compose the mind…but the boiling of the soul, and quake of the heart, that precede, transcend all the sufferings which tame spirits feel.” 

Most of us view our teenage years as times of uncertainty. When I was sixteen, my biggest challenge was getting out of bed, and though I tried my hand at longform writing, getting a full novel done was completely out of the question. It is with a great amount of curiosity, then, that I approached the story of Mary Shelley. At 16, she had started her masterpiece, Frankenstein, a novel now credited as being the first major work of science fiction. What began as a pet project, however, would soon become a reflection upon the trials and tribulations of her youth–a turbulent period of happiness, sorrow, romance and burnt bridges.

Mary came from a family where intellectualism was not only rewarded, but championed as the greatest strength in the household. Her adopted father, William Godwin, was a prolific London activist and novelist who not only brought atheism and anarchism to the fore of English public debate, but who also wrote what some call the first detective novel, The Adventure of Caleb Williams. Many connected to the Wollstonecraft legacy would not only create new forms of literature and philosophy, but would also inspire whole new ways of reading and expression.

Mary Wollstonecraft, known today as one of the pioneers of the modern feminist movement, died 11 days after giving birth to Mary Godwin. Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, would nevertheless become one of the most influential figures in her life. William Godwin raised his adopted daughter outside of the bounds of traditional womanhood–stressing independent thinking over domestic servitude.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Godwin, as she was known before her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley, was naturally precocious, but Williams’s stature as a public intellectual permitted her to access hundreds of books most could not retrieve, and allowed her to encounter some of the greatest minds in the Western World before she had even reached puberty. She dined with then-American Vice-President Aaron Burr, met poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, novelists like Maria Edgeworth, and even witnessed one of the first ever skydives in recorded history from aeronaut and daredevil André-Jacques Garnerin in 1802. 

At a young age, her father exposed her to countless influences for her novel. The Age of the Enlightenment had waned on the European continent with the despotic rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but now the movement was spilling over into England, where a surge of intellectual fervor prompted everybody from poets to chemists to combine their artistic efforts with an air of radicalism. It is this confidence in drastic change that most dramatically influenced the young Mary Godwin, whose tireless avidity for reading lead her to study gothic horror and the natural sciences with equivocal temerity. 

But then Percy Bysshe Shelley arrived. Half a decade her senior, the charming and handsome Oxford dropout immediately made an impression on her. By helping her father out with his Children’s Book enterprise, William Godwin trusted him, and enjoyed seeing his daughter taken by revolutionary and romantic opinion.  Unfettered by popular opinion, the young atheist neither ate meat nor drank alcohol. He did, however, make life itself his primary indulgence, and soon enamored the teenaged Mary to do something so drastic, it would irreparably alter the course of her life thereafter. After proposing to William to take his daughter’s hand in symbolic union (not marriage), he vehemently objected. The rejection, however, only bolstered the couple to disobey even further, and on July 28th, 1814, almost exactly 200 years ago, the couple escaped to the continent.

Young and in love, the two hiked in France and Switzerland, rode donkeys through the hills and haphazardly made love whenever they wanted. After playfully cajoling and idly sketching unfinished manuscripts, they returned to England with barely any money to their name, and Mary was pregnant. Shelley had started but failed to complete a prose work called The Assassins, about a group of covert terrorists in Lebanon, perhaps one of the first attempts at the spy novel. Amid the domestic battle between her and her father, Shelley suffered several bouts of consumptive sickness and Mary attempted to regain her father’s favor through carefully-constructed argument. When she was seven months pregnant, Mary went into labor and bore the child prematurely. After only 11 days, the child was dead, and a year of Romantic hopes had come to an end. 

The couple, however, would slowly find their footing again, and several months before beginning the first draft of Frankenstein, Mary took again to an athletic level of reading, devouring dozens of books in an extremely short period of time. She also took the downtime to endure a less turbulent legacy, and gave birth to a baby boy, who she named William Godwin. Between tours of England and an unintended love triangle, Lord Byron began paying the Godwin’s visits, eventually seeking to court her step sister, Clare, who had been briefly involved with Percy. Byron lived up to his reputation as a rakish sleuth who approached the company of woman as comfortably as he dispensed his wit, and the couple admired his natural charm but surprising humility. A year after her tragedy, they left to spend the Summer in Italy, which would end up being perhaps one of the most innovative seasons in literary history. 

Lake Geneva

Mary, Percy, Byron and his friend Polidori sought the clear air and fair weather of the Swiss Alps, but instead of idle sunbathing, and lengthy excursions, they were forced indoors by powerful electrical storms and abnormal weather. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 would literally cause the infamous “Year Without a Summer” in Europe, so the young writers, stuck indoors and justifiably bored, decided to make up their respective horror stories. 

Byron and Shelley abandoned their stories almost right away, but Mary persisted in its creation. For one reason or another, the necessity to confront a horrifying incarnation–and one created by her, for that matter–affected her so badly that she suffered violent, semi-conscious nightmares relating to a “hideous phantasm of a man”. Thus, with the poets mocking her brooding reflectiveness, she saw, for the first time, the mental image of what would become the most recognizable monster in modern pop culture. Meanwhile, Polidori, the proverbial fourth-wheel on this trip, would complete his story, a novella called The Vampyre, now considered the first example of the mythic creature being associated with romance (just imagine a world without Twilight). Two of the most fundamental cultural icons of modern Western Folklore may not have been created were it not for a volatile combination of creative genius and boredom.

For the next three weeks, Mary would become increasingly involved in the endeavor. The locale also helped drive the plot forward; while the local Ingolstadt University was one of the scientific hubs of Europe (where Victor Frankenstein learns his craft), the surroundings mountains provided a stark reminder of the insignificance of humanity in its quixotic battle to control nature. 

Subtitling it The Modern Prometheus, Mary delved into the classical canon for further inspiration, reading and rereading Paradise Lost without relent. By late August, she was diligently plotting the first novelized manuscript. Several coming events, however, would not only alter her life but also her story. After once again failing to win back her father’s admiration, she lamented that she was “an outcast from human society” and that she “must be going mad.”

 

Just when things could not get worse, Mary and Percy were confronted by the suicide of two quite close to them. The first, her step-sister Fanny, poisoned herself. Then, Harriet Shelley, Percy’s embittered ex-wife, drowned herself in the Serpentine River. The summer of 1814 may go down as one of the most “innovative” in literary history, but the sensational meeting of the era’s literary pantheon drew further light away from the jealousy of those caught in the obscurity of England’s young and famous writers. 

Nevertheless, death’s long shadow proved to be a blessing for Mary, who now garnished her story with a generous heaping of morbidity. Those who learn Frankenstein at any level of schooling are told that the novel is a cautionary tale against humanity’s desire for progress. What lesson plans rarely address, however, is that Mary herself was unwittingly spearheading a paradigm shift in the way that we understand the classical parable. Instead of looking way back, Mary considered the dangerous hypotheticals of the near future. Ironically, her forward-thinking clairvoyance could not prevent her from reconciling with the problems that she and the Romantic poets so easily swept under the rug. Their years of pleasure carried with them a trail of destructive jealousy. 

Mary continued to pick away at the manuscript for three years until it was finally accepted for publication in 1818. Mary confront detraction from both sexist and traditionalist critics, but Frankenstein became an eventual commercial success in only a couple of years. By the time that most of us are old enough to enjoy our first legal drink, Mary Shelley had already experienced a lifetime worth of highs and lows. 

Unfortunately, she would never outperform her own success, and instead of creating another moment of magic with fellow writers, she would remember her young adulthood more for the death of her beloved Shelley, as well as one of her other great influences, Lord Byron. That’s not to say she stopped pioneering a genre she didn’t even know she created. The Last Man, written in 1826, is the original “last man on earth” story, is undoubtedly influenced by the passing of so many of those around her, but it is also the original of a subgenre adopted today for novels like Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is doubtful that we would even understand what “post-apocalyptic” means without Shelley. 

Mary Shelley’s success reminds us all that age and experience are not necessarily the most important prerequisites for being a author. Rather, a voracious appetite for reading and a persistent investment in what inspires us–even if nothing of its kind has been written before–will at the very least guarantee a completed manuscript. 

Barleycorn

The Pleasure and Heartbreak of Jack London’s “Alcoholic Memoirs”

Jack London has remained a divisive figure in American literature. While some celebrate the author as one of America’s pre-eminent novelists and travel writers, some of his lesser-known work helped him exorcise the demons unseen in his more popular fiction.  

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jack London would invigorate a sense of adventure in the tens of thousands seeking fortune and glory at the frontier of a largely-unexplored part of the world. The brash Californian thrilled a wide all-ages audience with his own brand of the adventure novel, one that had been dominated by the British masters of the genre, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. While his stories would eventually be associated with the romantic allure of trodding upon uncharted territory, his adventures were not strictly geographical.

In fact, London’s taste for danger was not limited to the Arctic, The Rockies nor the Pacific. As his 1918 memoir-novel John Barleycorn reveals, a huge part of his upbringing consisted of brushes with death caused by a violent dependence on alcohol.

Jack London is known today as the author of dozens of novels and adventure books set primarily in the Klondike North and the Wild West, but few actually realize just how prolific he was. The man behind The Call of the Wild and White Fang wrote over twenty other novels, including high-sea fables such as The Mutiny of the Elsinore, epistolary works such as The Kempton-Wace Letters, and a downright bizarre work called The Star Rover, where an tortured San Quentin inmate sees visions of past lives while bound in a straight jacket.

Perhaps the most intriguing of his fringe work, however, is the short novel-memoir called John Barleycorn. There are several reasons why this work has not received the same prominence as his others, and one is evidently its inability to be categorized. Some have contended the veracity of some of his claims, but it is equally difficult to yield credibility to a work of nonfiction where the main character–John Barleycorn, London’s drunk alter-ego–doesn’t exactly exist.

 

This difficulty is also apparent in the rhythm of the book, which contains several romanticized vignettes of London’s past, but which also has those moments conflated with guilt, confusion, as well as an uneasy self-assuredness that London did not suffer from any sort of alcoholism, but that his drinking spurned from a willingness to join a kind of hyper-masculine pantheon where his gender could be validated in all of its glory: “Well, it was the way of men,” he says while recounting one of his many temptations to join a group of dock workers enjoying a drink in one of The Bay Area’s many saloons. “[A]nd who was I, just turned seventeen, that I should decline the way of life of these fine, chesty, man-grown men?”

The story begins with a kind of disclaimer that alcohol has always been London’s double-edged sword, something that has been his “august companion” but also a “red-handed killer” throughout his upbringing. He recounts swilling beer for the first time at five years old, and encountering it several times thereafter in Oakland taverns while working as a paperboy. At 15, he claims to have drunk two Bay Area “Oyster Pirates” under the table, a feat so impressive that he immediately became immersed in what he called the “bohemianism” of a life slightly off-center from that of a working-class boy.

Already, though, London would encounter the darker side of alcohol; he recounts wandering through Opium and gambling dens in the San Francisco Chinatown and witnessing his father squandering the family earnings right before his eyes. London saw in alcohol an entry into a life of romanticized masculinity, but even at such a young age, he understood that its indulgences hid a far more troubling aspect. As he laments upon one of his binges in the Oakland harbor–where he passes out in the low-tide mudflats after drinking with the pirates,

…this is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an iron schedule–for every strength the balanced weakness; for every high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury added. 

London also details his time as a sailor, explorer and frontiersman in places on the West Coast, from Southern California all the way up to Alaska. On one of his binges, he ends up floating in the Oakland bay for nearly four hours, so drunk that he indifferently awaited his death at the fateful behest of the tides. At one point, he decides to embark on an expedition to Japan and Siberia, only to get derailed by the bar scene in the Bonin Islands of Japan, an enclave of binge-drinking sailors indulging ceaselessly in the local fare  (“drinking prodigiously, singing prodigiously, dancing prodigiously”), much to the dismay of the locals and maritime employers. When he eventually returns to Oakland, he attempts to live “normally”, but he is so torn between an idyllic youth and the indulgences of adult life that he grows restless and begins writing voraciously.

Had the work been insistently fictional, then it could possibly have been included among the many literary works describing the altered language of altered states–not to mention the Nietzschean descent into the Dionysian id, his work revealing “society” as a meager attempt to suppress man’s need to descent into collective decay. Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s Heart of Darkness come to mind as paragons of this doubleness. Regardless of whether John Barleycorn is true or false, however, the work shatters many illusion that the reading public had about Jack London. In fact, the book nearly obliterated his reputation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, London represented a kind of all-American boy who succeeded through the power of his will, and who did so by expounding all the virtues of strong, Aryan genes. For this reason alone, he was seen as a model figure for both educated and non-educated men in America seeking prosperity in difficult circumstances. Just like Ernest Hemingway would do a generation later, London would become a paragon of manliness–arguably the progenitor of what deodorant and whisky commercials now insist is the manliest of men. 

When he released Barleycorn, however, public adoration for the author soured considerably. As John Sutherland puts it in the Oxford World Classics introduction to the text, the Jack London persona “was an image which he could have easily kept intact, had he so wanted”, and that “the American public wanted desperately to believe in the simple myth of Jack London.” In an age still riddled with celebrity drug addiction and a media-friendly rehab mill, London would not be an exception. In an age where alcoholism was seen as a genetic weakness, however, the book severely put into question his polished reputation. London, aged 40 and with an uncompromisingly-good work ethic (even during his month-long benders), could probably have churned out dozens more novels, all of them unique in their subject matter. However, only a few years after the release of the book, London would die of an apparent morphine overdose, with disease and recurring depression tormenting him day in and day out.

Jack London’s “alcoholic memoirs”, as he dubs them, are undoubtedly a troubling read. So many parts of the book explicitly champion the camaraderie alcohol can provide, but London doles out the consequences with equal measure. “One who has been burned by fire must preach about the fire,” he says, recounting his lengthy binge in Japan. His preaching, it seems, took the form of writing, a habit that he developed and abided by more strictly than alcohol, writing 1000 words a day for most days in his youth. London’s authorial persona became the best line of defense against the compulsions he dreaded so. As he puts it,

And all my austere nights of midnight oil, all the books I had read, all the wisdom I had gathered, went glimmering before the ape and tiger in me that crawled up from the abysm of my heredity, atavistic, competitive and brutal, lustful with strength and desire to outswine the swine.

London’s “solution” (he never really found one) to what he saw as society’s drinking problem–outright prohibition–prompted him to make a shocking decision. Although he was the paragon of masculine heroism at the time, he saw a silver lining in the prohibitionist movement of the 1910’s, which was closely aligned with the women’s suffrage movement. Although he would die before women would get the federal vote, he urged his inner circle to vote in favor of women’s suffrage so that they could finally bring an end to his torment. Prohibition would eventually come true, but it would be too late for him.  London would die in 1916 after two and a half decades of addiction.

“He feels inarticulate affinities with self-conjured non-realities”, says London while describing an alcoholic he passes by on the street. London’s memoir-novel broke through many social taboos at the time of its publication, but it came at a big cost. As the previous quote elucidates so well, the only cure for a life of “self-conjured non-realities” was, well, fiction, a practice he engaged in with tireless vigor until his death. While the book is now a century old, its troubling lessons remind us that we must tread lightly when glorifying the indulgences of the artist; their work may provide escape for their audience, but this need for escape is often a reflection of struggles hidden beneath the surface of the page.