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.

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