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.

25 Contemporary American Novels You Should Read Right Now

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

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Contemporary American literature is subversive. It contains an element of the surreal, bizarre names, plots and consistent, biting commentary. Primarily postmodernist, these works are inherently distrustful. They not only question cultural inconsistencies, they allow such inconsistencies to naturally unfold within the narrative. As a result, contemporary American literature, arguably continues the pattern of highly-politicized fiction popularised in the 18th and 19th century, along with the thought-provoking philosophical questions of 20th century Modernist movement.

  1. John Updike, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom series (1960, 1971, 1981, 1990)

Much like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Updike’s “Rabbit” series is told in a present-tense narrative, destabilizing the novel’s traditional style. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is a middle-class man who feels there is something missing from his life. The series follows Harry and his family through marriage, affairs and aging, each novel embodying the many triumphs and frustrations of the everyday American.

2. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1975)

Set in 1906, Ragtime tells the story of Harry Houdini, a famous escape artist who crashes into a telephone pole outside a family’s home. Filled with many sub-stories and plots, Doctorow captures American history as a series of random events, challenging the nature of recorded history. As a result, Doctorow subverts the traditional set-up of the novel in its intricate mixing of historical and fictional characters into a single narration.

  1. Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976)

As a work of, what Haley calls, “faction,” Roots tells the semi-biographical story of his ancestors. Starting with the 18th-century, Kunta Kinte, Haley’s African ancestor who was captured and sold into United States slavery, he creates a genealogy of his ancestors. Through this recount, Haley records the injustices and struggles found within the African slave trade, making it not only a great novel but also a significant document for future generations.

  1. John Irving, World According to Garp (1978)

“In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

In this coming of age novel, Garp tells the story of T. S. Garp and his mother, Jenny Fields. Jenny is an extreme feminist leader and Garp is her bastard son. Although it is a dark and violent story, there are many elements of comedy that make it a bizarre approach to death, sex, radical feminism and the horrific beauty of human dysfunction.

  1. Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (1979)

Mailer’s recounting of the Gary Gilmore case, a man famous killing for demanding the death penalty during his murder trial, reveals a dark struggle between the individual and the state. Mixed with the media’s hunger for his plea, the narrative becomes a creative blend of fact and fiction (as Haley would say, “faction”) making it a stimulating critique of the American system of government and punishment.

  1. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

Published posthumously, A Confederacy of Dunces is a comedic novel that takes place in 1950s, New Orleans. It follows Ignatius J. Reilly who has a master’s degree in medieval studies, no job and who lives with his mother. Like the Rabbit series and Ragtime, Toole has a collection of seemingly random stories that seduce the reader as he or she tries to tie narrations together before Toole reveals their connect at the end of the novel.

  1. Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby (2002)

Using a subversive narrative style that alters the traditional linear narrative, Lullaby tells the horror-satire of Mr. Streator and how he discovers an African lullaby’s ‘lethal capabilities’ in his studies. His discovery leads him on a quest to find and destroy each copy of the book that contains the deadly song.

  1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.” 

Walker’s novel tells the story of a young black woman in America, through a series of entries that span through 20 years of her life. Dealing with abuse, rape, racism, sisterhood, feminism and hatred, The Color Purple embodies a journey violence, beauty and self-acceptance.

  1. William Kennedy, Ironweed (1983) 

Like Walker’s The Color Purple, Kennedy’s Ironweed is a novel about survival. Francis Phelan has experienced a tremendous amount of bad luck and has made poor decisions (including accidentally killing his infant son). Ironweed follows Francis and his internal struggle of coming to terms with the difficulties of his past.

  1. Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)


DeLillo’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is the Chair of Hitler Studies at an expensive college. Ironically, he fails to recognize the totalitarian nature of his society—brand name consumerism and the white noise of the technology that consumes American citizens.As a result, White Noise is a satire that examines proto-fascist, paranoid urges of modern American culture.

  1. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)


Rich with metaphors and symbolism, Blood Meridian, in its violent depiction of the Old West, American culture. The text follows “the kid” and his experiences with the Glanton gang, a group of hunters who murdered Native Americans for pleasure and later, out of obsession. McCarthy graphically enhances Old West stereotypes, subverting traditional conventions of the Western novel.

  1. T.C. Boyle, World’s End (1987)


Another satirical, historical fiction, Boyle’s novel follows the generations of families, from the late seventeenth century to the late 1960s, specifically the van Warts, Mohonks and the van Brunts. Flipping back and forth through time, using varied prose, low humour and even fantastical images, Boyle weaves together the destinies of these three very different families.

  1. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)


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

Dedicated to the 60 million African American lives that were lost to slavery, Morrison’s novel examines the life of Sethe and her daughter, Denver, after they escaped slavery. After Sethe attempts and fails to kill her four children before a posse tries to capture them back into slavery, the daughter she successfully killed, Beloved, physically manifests herself in her new home as a free woman. Through the concept of “rememory,” Morrison reveals the importance of giving voice to the unspeakable violence that surrounded the experience of the slave, specifically those who were forgotten after death.

  1. David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

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Philosophically rich in its use of Wittgenstein and Derridian discourse, Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, focuses on Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a telephone operator who questions her existence, specifically, her reality. At the center of her anxiety is the notion that words, symbols, texts and so forth compose identity, rather than innate individuality. As such, the story is told through therapy sessions, television recordings and even a fictional account by another character in the novel, making it another subversive narrative in the American literary canon. A more accessible work to those intimidated by his gorilla-sized Infinite Jest.

  1. Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (1994)


O’Brien’s protagonist, John Wade, failed in his campaign for Senate. When he moves to Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, he realizes his wife, Kathy, is missing. Through a series of flashbacks and character statements, the novel offers a ‘court-like’ approach to the mystery surrounding her absence. In this way, the novel self-reflexively turns the reader into the ‘judge’ who must produce a final verdict.

  1. Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)


Cold Mountain tells the story of W. P. Inman, a Confederate soldier who was severely wounded during the Civil War. Desiring to return to Ada Monroe, the woman he is in love wife, he dangerously embarks on a journey to return home on foot (reminiscent of Homer’s The Odyssey and elements of Dante’s Inferno). With the narrative altering between the perspectives of Inman and Monroe, Frazier reveals his historical tale to be one of love, survival and transformation.

  1. Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)


The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Seymour Levov, a successful businessman, experiences major conflict during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, specifically through the events during and following the Vietnam War. Told through the narrative of Nathan Zuckerman, the reader learns of Levov’s tragic life, the most significant moment being when his daughter, Merry, protests force her to go into hiding after killing a bystander. By telling Levov’s story through a series of newspaper clippings, as well as Zuckerman’s encounters and interpretations, this narrative—like many of the others listed—subverts the traditional novel.

  1. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998)


Set in 1959, an evangelical Baptist, Nathan Price, takes his family with him on his mission to the Belgian Congo, right at the heart of their fight for independence from Belgium. Narrated by Price’s wife and daughters, Kingsolver’s novel engages in a discussion of the Congo’s history and the unwillingness of other nations, including the United States, to allow the Congo’s to preserve their own culture as a nation. In this way, Kingsolver offers a critique of the destructive post-colonial ideals that are permeated within American (and European) politics.

  1. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay (2000)


Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay are two Jewish cousins who become major figures in comics before and during World War II. With the backdrop of the Holocaust, Kavalier and Clay’s hero, “The Escapist” parallels Joe’s escape from Germany. Chabon’s novel combines elements of history, romance, adventure and escape making it a modern American epic or ‘heroic tale’ of its own.

  1. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)


Franzen’s The Corrections is a satirical drama that focuses on the dysfunctional Lambert family. Each member has their own flaws and struggles. The father, Alfred, has Parkinson’s disease. As for the fully grown Lambert children: Gary may be depressed, Chip has lost his job, Denise may be having an affair with a married man. Despite all these complications, Enid Lambert is determined to have all her children home for Christmas. Differing from the post-modernist theme that runs through many contemporary works, Franzen’s novel delves into literary realism, making the novel more of a celebration rather than a criticism, of the ‘typically dysfunctional’ American family.

  1. Richard Russo, Empire Falls (2001)


After 20 years, Miles Roby is still working at the Empire Grill diner. In all that time, he’s dropped college to care for his dying mother, has gotten married and divorced, looks after his alcoholic father and his disabled brother, and dotes on his daughter. Failing to follow his own dreams, Roby has spent his life caring for other people. Despite the encompassing theme of disillusionment, Russo manages offer small moments of consolation through ideas of community and family.

  1. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

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I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Tracing the incestuous and social roots of the Stephanides family all the way back to the 1920s, Middlesex tells the story of a hermaphrodite. Born as Calliope but realizing she embodied more male characteristics, she changes her identity to a “he”—Cal. Eugenides’ incorporation of history and genetics explains the how behind Cal’s struggles. In Eugenides elaborate telling of each generation, his account sets itself up as a modern epic, arguably making it the ‘founding’ novel for intersex narrations.

  1. Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (2002)


As the protagonist-author, Jonathan Safran Foer is looking for the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. With the help of Alex, a young Ukrainian translator, the two of them go on a journey together. Narrated in fragments and letters by both Jonathan and Alex, Everything is Illuminated is self-reflexive in its use of inter-narrative commentary, it jumps through time and offers many moments of confusion. But, in its fragmentation, it captures moments of friendship, grief, humour and regret, offering a unique perspective of the Holocaust.

  1. Dave Eggers, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006)


What Is the What is based on the real life of Valentino Achak Den, one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ (a referral to the thousands of children who were displaced during the Sudanese civil war of 1983-2005). At the age of seven, Valentino became one of these ‘Lost Boys’ and traveled on foot amid the dangerous war and politics—including the militias who pursued these orphaned children for military purposes. As a work of “faction,” this novel gives voice to one of the ‘Lost Boys’, in this case, one who managed to escape and resettle in the United States.

  1. Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (2006)


Set between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and period just after World War I, Against the Day examines the labour struggles of the major cities of the world. He places the reader into the sidelines of one of the major turnovers in history, making the novel more of a temporal ‘glance’ at a moment in time rather than the traditional linear, plot found within most of the literary canon. In this way, his novel employs elements of Joyce’s Ulysses in its global ‘stream of consciousness narrative’ while also providing moments of hope through rich, multi-dimensional characters.

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