John Barleycorn (Dover Thrift Editions) Info

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As close to an autobiography as Jack London ever
wrote, John Barleycorn recounts the author's lifelong struggle
with alcohol. In this brutally honest memoir, which takes its title from
the British folksong that personifies the source of whiskey and beer,
London writes of alcohol as his friend and his enemy, an "august
companion" and a "red-handed killer." In an age when alcoholism was
viewed as a genetic weakness, London's frank, ahead-of-its-time
treatment of his struggles tarnished his sterling reputation as a
paragon of all-American manhood.
The book created a sensation upon
its 1913 publication and became a powerful tool of the temperance
movement. More than a screed against demon rum, however, the tale
recounts London's years as a sailor, explorer, and frontiersman up and
down the West Coast, from Southern California to Alaska. Rich in
anecdotes and written in a captivating style, the book also offers
compelling insights into London's life as a rugged adventurer and
popular writer.

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Reviews for John Barleycorn (Dover Thrift Editions):

4

Mar 07, 2018

A disturbing memorial against the indelible trivialization and glorification of a widely used drug

London concludes that it essential to be a proponent of suffragettes and emancipation to start a social change towards prohibition and a not drug-poisoned youth and no millions of suffering relatives, which is noble and worthy of imitation. The idea fails because of the addictive affinity of man.

The path is described impressively as the decline of a human being in a world characterized by tolerance A disturbing memorial against the indelible trivialization and glorification of a widely used drug

London concludes that it essential to be a proponent of suffragettes and emancipation to start a social change towards prohibition and a not drug-poisoned youth and no millions of suffering relatives, which is noble and worthy of imitation. The idea fails because of the addictive affinity of man.

The path is described impressively as the decline of a human being in a world characterized by tolerance and glorification of drunkenness. Beginning with the downplaying of the dangerous first encounters with alcohol in childhood, which are perceived as funny anecdotes by the adults involved ("You know, i nearly died of alcohol poising when I was just 8, what a fun that was for both me and the adults who forced me to drink.". Further to peer pressure and the need to seem mature and experienced, the bow spans to fatal regular consumption. London balances in its wild youth years with excessive, but fortunately regularly interrupted, alcohol consumption on a razor blade.

As he grows older, he falls into an increasingly debauching and uncontrollable urge for the poison, which´s taste he even doesn´t like. Ironically, at the height of his creative career, he systematically destroys himself. As a made-up and respected man who is unable to write without methanol replenishment. The conditioning of his childhood and youth, marked by poverty and hard work, laid the foundation for later self-destruction.

The metamorphose associated with the addiction is described in a close-to-life manner. Lightning-fast mood swings in which friendship turns to bloodlust; Ecstasy, which turns into life-threatening poisoning; deceptive eloquence and charm switching to deep depression and suicidal intent. Also, above all, there is always the banner of group dynamic motivated glorification of consumption.

Although it is fair to say that being a drunkard is a profoundly male problem. Without leaning too far out of the window or drifting into the precarious realms of political impropriety or gender discrimination. Starting with peer pressure, group stupidity, meeting expectations and cultural conditioning, men tend to be addicted due to their tendency to wolf-like pack behavior and the associated brain outages.

In contrast to women who are, not only in this respect, socially more competent. The sad irony is that the more cautious women are the primary victims of the part of the male population that is incapable of reasonable consumption. Women prefer their common sense before total and senseless illumination.

Calling London a thinker of another type of drug policy is too simple because of the understandably extreme position of prohibition. Rather, he has put his finger in the wound of a probably unsolvable dilemma, which varies between rigid ban along with draconian punishments and liberal legalization, even of hard substances. Finding a consensus will be difficult, because of the psychological key stimuli around prohibition and social constraints. The topic reveals the arbitrariness and wretchedness of very different legislation around the world. It gratuitously swings between the death penalty and the legal sale of the same substance and is strongly influenced by cultural structures and stuff.

Trough the book one lives a whole drunkard career alongside London and the motives, fears, and backgrounds were rarely drawn in such haunting pictures. A timeless work because, unfortunately, it is impossible to make a drug, once so profusely buried in the cultural and social life of a people, disappear. Heck, even our genes already adapted to it to deal better with booze. For a disappearing of drug addiction humanity would require self-criticism, reflection, general rethinking, new social order and other utopias.

Like a civilization that does not have to embarrass itself with the glorification of pathogenic poisons to prevent revolutions of the exploited masses. To instead enable its members to lead a dignified and fulfilling life so that there is no reason for the destruction of millions of lives.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real-life outside books:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoholism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drinkin...
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categor...
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5

May 12, 2007

I always believed that Jack London kind of sucked. Like most people, I read 'To Build a Fire' and Call of the Wild in school, and was bored senseless, wishing the hero would just freeze to death faster.

John Barleycorn proved me completely wrong. In it, London is funny and sharp and angry about all the right things. Lately it's been marketed as a pro-prohibition book, which I think obscures the point. London is not concerned with alcoholism as a disease. What he's trying to pin down is the I always believed that Jack London kind of sucked. Like most people, I read 'To Build a Fire' and Call of the Wild in school, and was bored senseless, wishing the hero would just freeze to death faster.

John Barleycorn proved me completely wrong. In it, London is funny and sharp and angry about all the right things. Lately it's been marketed as a pro-prohibition book, which I think obscures the point. London is not concerned with alcoholism as a disease. What he's trying to pin down is the malevolent spirit of the ancient god of drink, personified, as of old, as John Barleycorn. It's the best description I've ever read of the glories of drinking to excess - the shining nights, the wild tales, the companionship - and exactly why this is so dangerous to the thinking person. He argues that it's precisely the best, the strongest, the brightest, the wildest, who poison themselves with drinking, worn down by the dullness of normal life; that drinking becomes an adventure, a sign of courage and great-heartedness. But he also believes that John Barleycorn demands your life as payment, and brings, instead of wisdom, what he called 'the White Logic', a sort of super-lucid, nihilistic despair.

The book is filled with these mystical, revelatory, poetic ravings, passages so beautiful I wish I could just tear them out and plaster them on walls for everyone to read. But there's tons of other great stuff in here, too - stories about the socialist movement, and about working in factories and hopping trains and grappling with cheap typewriters and sailing and fighting and oyster pirates and Aristophanes and loving and eating too much candy. It's been a great read, and it's given me a lot to think about. I mean, alcoholism is such an easy answer, isn't it? If you drink too much, you're an alcoholic; you have a disease, you need treatment. London's viewpoint is more complex and feels more valid: that you drink because that is what people of vision do, and you drink together, and your life is richer, and you put aside the injustices of the world - what he calls the cold iron collar around the neck of your soul. Therefore, change not yourself, but the world. I love it! The answer isn't repentance and detox and rehab and counseling, it's revolution! ...more
5

Jun 01, 2012

If you want to know what its like to live the life of an alcoholic, read this. In this book, Jack London tells us what it is like to live the life of an alcoholic. There is no substitute for a firsthand account. I have spent the last 10 years working as a Substance Abuse Counselor. This is an amazing story. It is a powerful story. It is either a completely true story (if you believe, as I and many others do) that this is an autobiographical story) or this is a story based on unvarnished truth If you want to know what it’s like to live the life of an alcoholic, read this. In this book, Jack London tells us what it is like to live the life of an alcoholic. There is no substitute for a firsthand account. I have spent the last 10 years working as a Substance Abuse Counselor. This is an amazing story. It is a powerful story. It is either a completely true story (if you believe, as I and many others do) that this is an autobiographical story) or this is a story based on unvarnished truth and on target observations of alcoholics that have rendered it completely accurate by time and medical science. Next Year this story will be 100 years old (published in 1913). It predates the formation of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith’s organization, “Alcoholics Anonymous” by 30 years and most of the observations in this book have been proven to be true by honest, thought provoking research by professionals in medicine and science with some studies as recent as within the last ten years. For mental health care providers and Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Programs, I think this is one of the most important books ever written.

Why?

I could spend days explaining and telling you how an alcoholic lives and what goes on inside the heart and head of an alcoholic based on clinical observation. That’s really thin soup if happen to be the one who is actually living with this condition. This isn’t about treatment or what works and what doesn’t. This book is simply about HOW…YOU…LIVE…if you are dealing with a drinking problem. Sometimes living is the hardest thing we have to do.

This book is not based on scientifically explained conditions. It’s based on Human conditions. This book is not based on observation of twisted, odd, and/or ethically questionable, or even perfectly logical and respectable, experimentation but on honestly reported, very accurate, observation of the life of an individual suffering from this condition. This unhealthy condition is one of the oldest known to man. Conversely, it is one of the ones about which we know the least. So, it stands to reason that what can be known should be known and there is no subject on earth where conjecture, half-assed do-it-yourself-isms kill as many people as happens with the condition of alcoholism.

And maybe most importantly, in my humble opinion, this book was written and published 1913. That is a century ago and I dare anyone who has lived with an alcoholic, anyone who is alcoholic, anyone who works with alcoholics be ye clergy or medical professional, primary care or psychologist to read this book and say, with all honesty, that the life described in this book is nothing like the lives of alcoholics today. How could they? This book is very, very accurate and written with rigorous honesty so scathing and absolute that every factor, body, mental, social and spiritual is laid bare for all to see. Simply put, it’s an autopsy of an alcoholic’s life told in story form.

Read any story in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Pick one… you may not be able to tell those stories from this one. Yet, this story was written before anyone understood Alcoholism.

So what this tells those who are not familiar with alcoholism, and sometimes those who are but need help explaining, is that this condition is not based on will power. If it was up to will power then there would be no alcoholics. This condition is not based on choice. In fact it’s characterized by a progressive loss of the choice until there is no choice but to drink or there is either a more potent substance available, the person dies, gets imprisoned, institutionalized or gives up drinking. It also shows that the signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence (Alcoholism) are consistent, telling and have not changed in over a hundred years (since long before they even understood addiction well enough to diagnose it).

This is fantastic information. It means what Alcoholics Anonymous and Substance Abuse Treatment Professionals have been saying for years. That alcoholism is a chronic, terminal condition, that it is a disease, was known even then. It was just expressed in different terms.

If you choose to read this book I challenge you to be Honest with yourself about what you see in the mirror and when you look at others, to be Openminded to new ideas and old ideas long forgotten about what it is like to live with a drinking problem and be Willing think, use your brain, assess and address any problems you might have with drinking and willing to be compassionate to those people suffering from it. It may be self induced, that does not make it curable. Yes, people should be held accountable for their actions, but that does not mean they fully understand why they have done what they have done.

Some of the greatest people in the world have found recovery from Alcoholism. They live passionately, one day at a time, moving from one sober day to the next and believe deeply that the way to help themselves is by helping others who have drinking problems to understand nature of the problem, and how to regain control of their lives. How? By not preaching, by not bossing or ordering or even giving advice. They simply tell their story, and somehow, that makes all of the difference.

There is much to be learned about life from this story.

God bless Jack London.

This is a must read for any college level English Course and maybe even Senior English in High School-anywhere there is a group of young people who are able to understand the message contained herein, but may not be willing to try without a push.

It is appropriate for anyone who reads, YA to Old Timer.

Recommended for Substance Abuse Treatment Professionals, Family Members of Alcoholics and Addicts, and anyone who thinks that they might have a drinking problem or wants to learn about a drinking problem from the inside out.

And if you have a drinking problem, I say what Father Martin says after his much acclaimed “Chalk Talk” .. .”I hope to GOD that (it) spoils your drinking for you!”

Below the spoiler is a list of some of (by no means all of) those things that are discussed in some form or other in Jack London’s John Barleycorn that has been proven to be medical fact through properly documented research and supports my own observations after ten years of working with those who have drinking and drugging problems.

**I had to add this paragraph to this review.

I don't want to give the impression that the way this book ends is as accurate as the behavior exhibited or the observations made. The book ends with the Narrator (presumably Jack London) saying that he belived he has the disease of Alcohol beat. That he has once again been able to drink moderately without problems. This part is not consistent with what we know about the conditoin of Alcohol Dependence or the Disease of Alcoholism. I belive Jack London knew this too.

In the begining of the book he states that he voted for woman's voting rights because they were more likely than he (or any man) to vote in prohibition. Towards the end of the book, he describes how this belief that he finally has John Barlycorn managed was a dangerous false hope and that he had always said that, yet returned to abusive drinking after that. He claimed to be able to drink moderately, but isn't that exactly what he said over and over through the book?

Denial is part of this condition also. It's the only disease in the world that tells it's victims that they don't have it. In the story, his argument is almost verbatim to those he used in earlier paragraphs and described as what people in Alcoholics Anonymous call "stinking thinking." I do not know if London intentionally wrote his book this way, or if he truely believed he finaly beat it in the end. It's important to note thta he died of a Morphine overdose. I prefer to believe that London was being clever and knows exactly what he wrote and what it means.

There is a story I've heard about a man who was an alcoholic. The man was dying prematurely as a result of abusive drinking. He was in a coma surrounded by friends who were in recovery (Members of AA) who had tried for years to help him stop drinking. Then, for a brief moment, he comes too, opens his eyes, looks at those standing close around him and says

"I can handle this." Then he closed his eyes and died.

Having said that, there are many wonderful observatoins by an author who was perhaps the best of his time at researching his stories before wrote them and Observing then, honestly reporting his observations. This book has a lot of what we've come to know to be true about alcoholics. This is what we know: (view spoiler)[

- There are many reasons that people drink, but none of those reasons is the cause of alcoholism. Alcoholism is bio-chemical (actually Neuro-Chemical).

- Success makes it harder to stay sober, not easier

- Intelligence is not necessarily beneficial to recovery, in fact, people of above average intelligence often have a sense of pride that makes it more difficult to see drinking as a problem even after repeated problems with drinking.

- Most Alcoholics are married.

- Most Alcoholics have jobs

- Most Alcoholics attend, or have attended church regularly.

- Getting right with God does not get a person sober, however, getting a person sober goes a long way to getting them right with God.

- Most alcoholics suffer from depression and other diagnosable mental health problems (either substance induced or a co-existing condition).

- Most young people have had thoughts of Suicide

o Especially alcoholics

o Alcohol is a factor in over 70% of all successful Suicides. It’s not the alcohol that causes suicide. Depression is to blame however, the disinhibitory properties of drug alcohol are like taking the safety off of a gun.

- People who start drinking before the age of 16 are 70% more likely to develop Alcoholism than those who start drinking when they are 16 years old or older.

- Alcoholism is a hereditary condition but it does not have to be inherited to develop.

- Alcoholism is chemical (actually Neuro-chemical).

o the American Society of Addiction Medicine has now defined alcohol Dependency (Alcoholism) as a Neurological Disorder in 2010.

o Alcoholism (Dependence) primarily attacks the Limbic System which is known as the Old Brain, or the Mid-Brain where the mechanism that releases Neurotransmitters involved in experiencing the sensations of pleasure and rewards. The neurologic reward process involving Gaba and Dopamine (and others) becomes “Cross Wired” and the reward system becomes skewed to favor Alcohol for the Neurologic effects. Once cross wired, it then attacks they hypothalamic region of the brain that differentiates between right and wrong allowing Alcohol to gain a higher priority over rational thinking. The combination of Midbrain and Hypothalamic damage the thought processes of the frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex that is responsible for assigning meaning to actions, sensations and states of being. In layman’s terms the condition attacks the parts of the brain responsible for choice neuro-chemically and cause a reorganization of meaning, priority and basic needs where alcohol is desired more than sex, survival or pleasure (other than drug related).

- Alcoholics may go for years between drinks. However, if the alcoholic returns to drinking, in a relatively short period of time, they do not pick up their drinking where they left it when they stopped the last time nor do they start over. They pick up where they would have been as if they had never stopped drinking in the first place (Progression).

o “At the punch bowls brink let the thirsty think what they say in Japan: ‘First the Man takes a drink. Then the Drink takes a drink. Then the Drink takes the Man.’ …Why? … God knows and he won’t tell.” (Father Martin)

- Alcoholics do not have to like alcohol, or like being intoxicated. In fact many do not like either.


- Alcoholics develop tolerance to alcohol more rapidly than non-alcoholics and they can tolerate greater doses without appearing to be affected by it than non-alcoholics.

- Consuming large amount of alcohol can put a person into a coma that they do not come out of (fatal).

- Withdrawal from heavy Alcohol use is the only withdrawal, baring co-existing health problems, that kills.

- The following things help alcoholics get and stay sober (in addition to complete abstinence given on a 24 hour a day basis).
o Talking about their condition with other alcoholics
o Keeping busy
o Change old people, places and things.
o Take life one day at a time.
o Relapse is often part of the problem, and sometimes part of the solution.
o Never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT). Extreme conditions associated with fatigue can lead to relapse.

- Alcoholics are not doomed to lives of complete failure. They have an unhealthy relationship with failure, often fail but sometimes, even when they succeed, they feel like failures.

- Alcoholics often feel like outsiders when socializing in general if they are not drinking, or socializing where no alcohol is served.

- Alcoholism involves classic operant conditioning (environment) where positive social events, celebrations, accomplishments and repeat behaviors for associations within the brain’s chemical mechanisms (not by choice or intent) that then become “Relapse Triggers” that trigger cravings and urges to drink at a neurologic level where these cravings and urges start pushing for a drink before the alcoholic is able to apply rational thought to his actions.

- Alcoholics develop an alibi system that could choke a horse (develop denial). They often develop a sense of pride in their drinking where feats of endurance, high levels of consumption and a sense of competition when drinking (most, longest, least effect) are considered virtuous by the alcoholic even though he readily acknowledges the harm that alcohol has done to him in his life.

- Talking in a group of like minded individuals and having a belief in a spiritual power (God, Nature, Human Dynamics etc.) can help a suffering alcoholic resist the urge to drink or take the desire to drink away as long as they continue to practice those behaviors that helped them get sober in the first place. (hide spoiler)]

An unrelated fact for those amused by odd factual trivia: JACK London was born John Griffey Chaney. His name was changed to John Griffey London after his mother married. He died of complications from kidney problems and other problems. He was an alcoholic and likely addicted to morphine. He died on 22 November 1916.

John F. Kennedy used the name Jack. He was an alcoholic and an addict, addicted to painkillers. He was assassinated on 22 November 1963.
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5

Jun 02, 2012

Me, I drink. My father drank. But he had a hollow leg and I never but once saw him the worse for liquor, the New Year's Day morning (a day on which my parents traditionally had a revolving-door party for their friends and relations) when Brother Peter phoned from Mexico to state that he and his buddy, Louie (who would later die of pneumonia in Niger, but that's another story), were in a Mexican prison and his Porsche was being held for ransom. That day we did (my other brothers and I) have to Me, I drink. My father drank. But he had a hollow leg and I never but once saw him the worse for liquor, the New Year's Day morning (a day on which my parents traditionally had a revolving-door party for their friends and relations) when Brother Peter phoned from Mexico to state that he and his buddy, Louie (who would later die of pneumonia in Niger, but that's another story), were in a Mexican prison and his Porsche was being held for ransom. That day we did (my other brothers and I) have to help Dad up the stairs to sleep it off in bed. Mind you, I don't get drunk. Don't drive drunk. Don't drink outside the house. No. But Brother Don did develop a problem, a forty-year problem, though he's now been very successfully in A.A. for a long while (after having lost his wife and kids).

London drank. Big time. From an early age. Turn of the century, 19th/20th. Bars. Saloons. Swinging doors. Mahogany and rosewood. Buying rounds. (Anyone remember buying rounds?) It was the way men were. Most working men, if they had the money and the time. My own grandfather (a butcher boy) worked 72 hours a week for never more than $35. Maybe had a few beers on Saturday evening after getting paid. No money or time for more than that.

London was good at making money, one way or another. So he always had money for drink, which at the time was much cheaper than it later became. And the alcohol took on a permanent and prominent role in his life as he rose from one success to another. In this book (and I'd strongly suggest the purchase of the Library of America volume of his "Social Writings" - a collection of this and other masterpieces), London tries, more than feebly, to convey the impression that he had mastered his alcoholism. He hadn't. He remained a "slave to drink" until he developed a morphine habit for the same reasons. Whether or not his death was a suicide isn't known, but it's quite certain that he died from a morphine overdose, either intentionally or unintentionally. A photograph of his gold-plated hypodermic syringe and "fixings" is included in at least one of his biographies.

As far as I'm concerned this is the best book on alcoholism I've ever read. It has the usual verve, energy, grace and wild color of his best work. Even for those who cannot in any way personally relate to his alcoholism, this work is very important for anyone who, for literary or historical reasons, wants to assemble a reasonably clear vision of what male America was at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries. And it's by no means whatsoever just a sordid detail of an uncharacteristic era. Most American men always drank hard. In 1804, the price of a gallon of American whiskey was around twenty-five cents (in their money at the time). From Jeffersonian times until WWII there was (and this is hard to believe but true) no increase in the price of American food or drink , except for whiskey, which had advanced to a dollar a quart (86 proof minimum). Before World War I, cocktails (all cocktails) were two for a quarter in New York. ...more
4

Oct 16, 2009

Ironic that a book read in preparation for a wine trip to Sonoma would make me understand Prohibition, but there you have it. I get it. Jack London vividly explores a world before TV, before Radio, before the Internet when the local saloon was, for the working classes, their entertainment, their Facebook, the place to network, the place to get a low interest loan, the place to stay warm in the winter, and the place to escape their dull lives. It was, in short, every Iphone application married to Ironic that a book read in preparation for a wine trip to Sonoma would make me understand Prohibition, but there you have it. I get it. Jack London vividly explores a world before TV, before Radio, before the Internet when the local saloon was, for the working classes, their entertainment, their Facebook, the place to network, the place to get a low interest loan, the place to stay warm in the winter, and the place to escape their dull lives. It was, in short, every Iphone application married to every meet up group out there. It was everything. It was also where almost all of their paychecks went. And no wonder that women, when they finally were able to vote, decided eliminating drinking would fix everything. It was an easy scapegoat. It never occured to them that the real problems were thornier issues like child labor (Jack London describes his childhood in terms that might have made Dickens start taking notes for a new novel), the marginalization of women in the workplace, poor labor laws, etc. Nope. Drinking was much easier to get people behind.

I was never a fan of London's novels, but his voice is so clear in this autobiography of sorts, I couldn't help but adore him. Smart enough to read his way out of bad circumstances, tough enough to survive as a sailor, and savvy enough to become a media prescence before people even knew what it was was, this was one interesting guy.


"As the "well-balanced radicals" charged at the time, my efforts were so strenuous, so unsafe and unsane, so ultra-revolutionary, that I retarded the socialist development in the United States by five years. In passing, I wish to remark, at this late date, that it is my fond belief that I accelerated the socialist development in the United States by at least five minutes." Don't you love the snark? And this was before it was cool to be snarky! I recommend reading back to back with the Basketball Diaries for the true the kids aren't all right version 1.0 experience.
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Jun 03, 2015

Brilliant memoir about alcohol and the ramifications in the Victorian era (and beyond). Exceptional writing. No surprise London was the first superstar American writer celebrity. The ending is an amazing self reflection of life and what it means to be alive, for London. Hard to put down.
4

Jun 29, 2019

This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This isn't an autobiography in the conventional sense. It's clearly and openly a Prohibitionist tract, published seven years before Prohibition came to pass. It just so happens that London chose his own drinking career to illustrate his argument. Hence, those looking for the story of Jack's life may be very frustrated as he ignores the details of his many adventures in favour of describing his many bouts of binge drinking and his slow descent into alcoholism (though he never admits to being an This isn't an autobiography in the conventional sense. It's clearly and openly a Prohibitionist tract, published seven years before Prohibition came to pass. It just so happens that London chose his own drinking career to illustrate his argument. Hence, those looking for the story of Jack's life may be very frustrated as he ignores the details of his many adventures in favour of describing his many bouts of binge drinking and his slow descent into alcoholism (though he never admits to being an alcoholic - a mixture of macho pride and the era's poor understanding of addiction preventing).

Macho pride is a prominent, almost defining aspect of London's character, in fact. Despite writing of the evils of alcohol, he can't help repeatedly emphasising how his "superior constitution" allowed him to out drink nigh everybody he ever met and recover faster, too. Or do two men's work in the coal house of the electrical station, or carry more than the indigenous porters in the Yukon, or...the examples are numerous. Exactly how much exageration is going on here is hard to say, essentially unprovable. Nor did his pride limit itself to his physical prowess. He doesn't mind boasting about how he crammed two years' worth of high school in 6 months and passed the entry exams for the University of California, or how prodigiusly he read. Here the facts can be established because of the paper record: Not only did he make it to the Uni, his one semester there was an academic success, recording no grades below "B". His library was extant at his death and he used to scribble marginal notes, so it's easy to tell which books were used. Additionally, the references in his own books provide further evidence.

So whilst the reader won't learn more than the bare outline of London's life, there are character insights aplenty and if you want to see the social reasons for many a binge and many an insidious descent into addiction, from personal experience, here is as well-writed example as I can imagine.

It's a lively read, as compelling as any London fiction story or novel I've read (which is most of the major works, by now). Indeed, his second wife, Charmain, claimed it was fiction, alcoholism being extremely scandalous at the time - but the evidence doesn't back anything more than possible exageration of some of the binging episodes.

Clever as he was, though, London got the psychology of booze wrong in this regard: He thought Prohibition would work, that a generation would grow up without alcohol and never miss what they never had. Instead it was 13 years of the worst alcohol driven excesses in American history, driven by organised crime and the allure of the forbidden. He died before he saw himsekf proved wrong, though. ...more
4

Sep 17, 2010

Reading John Barleycorn has given me a whole new appreciation for London and his writing style. The only other books Ive read of Jack Londons was when I was a kid, Call of the Wild and White Fang.
John Barleycorn begins with Londons vote for womens suffrage in the hopes that women would vote for prohibition. His thought process was that the availability of alcohol causes the desire to drink. He then goes on to explain his own experiences with alcohol and the effects it has had on his life. I don Reading “John Barleycorn” has given me a whole new appreciation for London and his writing style. The only other books I’ve read of Jack London’s was when I was a kid, “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”.
John Barleycorn begins with London’s vote for women’s suffrage in the hopes that women would vote for prohibition. His thought process was that the availability of alcohol causes the desire to drink. He then goes on to explain his own experiences with alcohol and the effects it has had on his life. I don’t know if this is just a story of propaganda or truly his memoirs as an alcoholic. But London does capture the alcoholic's mindset to a tee. I was fascinated by his experiences – he led an extremely interesting life; cannery worker, oyster pirate, goldminer, hobo, sailor – and ultimately, a great writer. On top of all that, he was self-educated. I love that he was born and raised in the California Bay Area, my home as well.:) I recognized many of the places he mentions in Oakland and San Francisco – even Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland’s Jack London Square, been there a couple of times myself. ;)

“The fortunate man is the one who cannot take more than a couple of drinks without becoming intoxicated. The unfortunate wight is the one who can take many glasses without betraying a sign; who must take numerous glasses in order to get the ‘kick’.” – Jack London, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs
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4

Jun 27, 2019

Honestly, the best Jack London read of mine. The most original, profound, and personal of his works in my opinion. It tells the story of Jack London, and now I can say that I really understood him. He clearly was a different man, he was obviously at an upper level than everybody else, but he was not a genius, and you can see that by reading this book.

As I said before, I need to say it again, this whole book seemed somehow original to me. Never read anything like it before. Almost, almost never Honestly, the best Jack London read of mine. The most original, profound, and personal of his works in my opinion. It tells the story of Jack London, and now I can say that I really understood him. He clearly was a different man, he was obviously at an upper level than everybody else, but he was not a genius, and you can see that by reading this book.

As I said before, I need to say it again, this whole book seemed somehow original to me. Never read anything like it before. Almost, almost never dull, the whole view of John Barleycorn was interesting.

“The fortunate man is the one who cannot take more than a couple of drinks without becoming intoxicated. The unfortunate wight is the one who can take many glasses without betraying a sign; who must take numerous glasses in order to get the ‘kick’.”

“John Barleycorn makes his appeal to weakness and failure, to weariness and exhaustion. He is the easy way out. And he is lying all the time. He offers false strength to the body, false elevation to the spirit, making things seem what they are not and vastly fairer than what they are.” ...more
4

Aug 06, 2011

The modern myth of the alcoholic or drug addict artist has only been with us a short while. Lord Byron the debauched poet drinking and fucking his way through his short life, Coleridge getting more and more addicted to drugs, eventually losing his talent, family, health and mind. From then we have the drink addled death of Poe, to the Victorian writers who would use opium like Wilkie Collins and who would create characters who openly used cocaine and opium like Sherlock Holmes. And then we come The modern myth of the alcoholic or drug addict artist has only been with us a short while. Lord Byron the debauched poet drinking and fucking his way through his short life, Coleridge getting more and more addicted to drugs, eventually losing his talent, family, health and mind. From then we have the drink addled death of Poe, to the Victorian writers who would use opium like Wilkie Collins and who would create characters who openly used cocaine and opium like Sherlock Holmes. And then we come to the darkly attractive image of the drinker writer. The early 20th century was strewn with these: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Chandler, Faulkner, and Jack London.

This book is London's experiences with the drink or as he personifies it throughout the memoir, John Barleycorn. It's a strange book. Used in Alcholics Anonymous clinics in America, it's said that the sobering message London focuses on most is the way alcohol ends lives. He begins the book in his present where he has just that day voted for prohibition of alcohol. He says that although his experiences of the drug are many, he fears that it ultimately brings too much grimness and death to those who drink it for it to be available for the next generation. Written in 1913, 3 years before the author's death, London didn't live long enough to see prohibition become enforced and then fail dismally never to return. However, the feeling throughout the book is a conflicting sentiment of jollity, high spirits, and adventure that he also associates with alcohol.

Starting at the extremely young age of 5, through to his teenage years and then adulthood, we get a glimpse into the making of the man. In each encounter with alcohol we see London learning something of the world. The community of alcohol where boys and girls meet, drink, dance, and eventually walk off together, is the first memory he associates with drinking. Later on as an oyster pirate drinking is associated with making friends and having a good time with them. He learns after studying (and abstaining) for 3 months where he worked 18 hours a day at graduating high school and entering college, that once work is over it is a relief to drink and lose yourself for a few hours. Later when he is sailing about the pacific and doing several jobs at once he finds alcohol necessary to stem the doubt and fear in his mind that he might lose friends, family, and himself to tropical disease and storms. These are all positive points to drinking that he presents quite brazenly to the reader, which if the reader is like myself a drinking man, will find himself agreeing with and maybe even smiling at a bit at some of the memories.

He does however talk about the side affects of drinking. Besides the obvious hangovers, being robbed whilst passed out, wallowing in self regret and stalling ambition, he talks quite profoundly about one night when he was 16. Drunk and out on the water in the middle of the night he swims out against the tide. He suddenly wants to die. He's had enough. Out he goes with the intention of washing ashore in a few days' time bloated and dead. A friend sees him though and with the help of others brings him ashore. London then talks about the high numbers of dead friends he lost to alcoholism and drink related accidents. Of lives ruined by the drink, when kind and gentle men become drunk and consequently act rashly, either violently beating someone or else killing another in blind drunkenness. They wake to find themselves in jail and then spending several years in prison.

He also talks about finding alcohol addictive (though he never uses that word or ever admits to being an alcoholic), where after writing his 1000 words each morning he takes a drink of whisky and carries on with his day. Then he finds himself taking a drink of whisky after 500 words. Then he is taking a drink before writing as he drank late that night and needs a pick me up to settle. Instead of reading himself to sleep he takes a drink instead. Though it appears that London has become an alcoholic he does go through periods of abstinency where he goes for 145 days in a ship with men who drank every day and he could have had a drink but decided against it. He also drinks everything in the liquor cabinet and refuses to replenish it. This he admits does cause him pain as he feels the effects of not drinking. Also the fact that he counts the days he doesn't take a drink shows that he is aware of this and makes you wonder whether he believes himself when he says the reader that he is most definitely not an alcoholic.

Yet the best parts of the book are the non alcoholic parts. Reading about London's brutal early life working in mills and then getting conned into doing the work of two men shovelling coal for 16 hours a day is mesmerising and has the best of London's writing. It's a relief to learn of London's success as a writer just a few years later, and it's inspiring and staggering to read about his energy and hunger. To work that hard for so little, and then studying to get into college, and then spending so long writing (there is a part of the book where he talks about his early attempts at writing on a first generation typewriter that was funny); for me these were the best parts of the book and reflective of the great man London was. It's a testament to the man's work ethic that he made himself into the man he wanted to be, educated himself, and then turned himself into a writer (the thing he least wanted to be in a list of 5 that he made when he was 19- at 1 was musician!).

The tone of the book is upbeat and clear minded, with London writing at times soaring prose and at worst a sort of convoluted prosaic abstractness, particularly in the later part of the book where he has an inner monologue with himself and an entity called the White Logic. Nevertheless it is an engrossing and enlightening book. Though I would say London's righteousness at banning alcohol along with opium and other drugs for street sale is naive, his message is clear: John Barleycorn, or drink, is an entity likely to stab you in the back either when you're young or you're old, in the end he collects his due. A fine message to be aware of.

It's a shame London's message was for people to ban drinking as in his book he shows what an amazing and interesting life he led with the alcohol. Nevertheless his legacy and image of the hard drinking writer would prevail and many would follow in his wake. A strange legacy for a brilliant writer who would have been great with or without the help of John Barleycorn. ...more
4

Mar 08, 2019

London starts and ends this book with a diatribe for prohibition, but the large middle of the book contains his braggadocio and humorous accounts of getting and being drunk. For someone who seemed to relish the drunken life, Londons exhortations for prohibition feel like lip service. Well written, and makes me surprised that London lived as long as he did. This made me consider my own anecdotes of epic-to-me drunken nights, and I am but a piker compared to London. Quite a life...and to end up a London starts and ends this book with a diatribe for prohibition, but the large middle of the book contains his braggadocio and humorous accounts of getting and being drunk. For someone who seemed to relish the drunken life, London’s exhortations for prohibition feel like lip service. Well written, and makes me surprised that London lived as long as he did. This made me consider my own anecdotes of “epic-to-me” drunken nights, and I am but a piker compared to London. Quite a life...and to end up a writer! ...more
3

Jun 12, 2014

jack london is a my favorite writer in America with steinbeck..
3

May 02, 2008

If this book doesn't make you want to lift a pint or two and get loose, well...you are a stronger human than I. This one always makes me thirsty...even though it is supposed to show the deleterious effects of alcohol.
5

Feb 08, 2017

Usually if a person can write 200 pages about his feeling toward one thing, he must be very self-indulgent. Such a book tends to be so sticky and marshmallow that I want to run away from it. John Barleycorn is an exception. I attribute this exception to Jack London's tough and practical life and also as his unstoppable energy. As a foreigner reading this book, I didn't know many words, but somehow when these words were put together, I feel his language is much more lively than many other books.
5

Nov 19, 2011

Preliminery: I am not sure which edition of this classic I read. I purchased my ancient hardback copy at an underground Socialist bookstore across the street from Charing Cross/St. Pancras station in London (Harry Potter movie fans will recognize this location by the Gothic spires). I paid an absurdly high price of 8 pounds but then the Brits have always overcharged from their books, even after Kindle came out.
This book is a classic, an undiscovered diamond in the rough by one of the greatest Preliminery: I am not sure which edition of this classic I read. I purchased my ancient hardback copy at an underground Socialist bookstore across the street from Charing Cross/St. Pancras station in London (Harry Potter movie fans will recognize this location by the Gothic spires). I paid an absurdly high price of 8 pounds but then the Brits have always overcharged from their books, even after Kindle came out.
This book is a classic, an undiscovered diamond in the rough by one of the greatest writers to ever grace a written page. While Jack London is more often associated with naturalistic writings about Alaska, dogs, bears and sea voyages, he actually penned some decent content about politics, society and, in this case, his own alcoholism. Anybody who has ever hoisted an extra glass of grog and slipped into ebriation must read this book. Sadly, many reviewers have cited this book as evidence of London's own descent into alcoholic despair toward the end of his life (he died around 40 year old). The literary establishment harumphs that his best writing was already behind him by that point. I loudly and vehemently disagree. The magic is still there. In fact, the struggle with John Barleycorn gives it more authenticity, spilling across the pages as London chronicles his lifelong association with this partner. Throughout the account, he denies his affliction, claming to be in control. He curses and caresses his demons. He goes months without a drink (usually on long voayges) and then falls into shoreside benders lasting months. It brought to mind a similar book - The Drinking Life by Pete Hamill -- a mainstream, popular journalist. No comparison. Hamill rattles off amusing stories of alcoholic excess and kicks it in the end, but Jack London lays it all bare and descends into the abyss. One of the best books I have ever read. ...more
4

May 15, 2016

It remains my inclination to enjoy a crisp narrative that relies on its dynamic characters, especially the many roles they may take; be they a lone figure, coloring the spectrum of good, or evil, or the various shades in between, or their expression as a large faction (e.g. "the mob was angry"), or perhaps, in their being revealed in nature ("old man willow") or in an animal ("the dog knew something was wrong"), or some sort of mechanical device or vehicle ("the car was being temperamental") or It remains my inclination to enjoy a crisp narrative that relies on its dynamic characters, especially the many roles they may take; be they a lone figure, coloring the spectrum of good, or evil, or the various shades in between, or their expression as a large faction (e.g. "the mob was angry"), or perhaps, in their being revealed in nature ("old man willow") or in an animal ("the dog knew something was wrong"), or some sort of mechanical device or vehicle ("the car was being temperamental") or even as such like sailing ships being referred to as “she”. Perhaps its assigning personality to a house or a dwelling ("it knew they were there") or even prescribing a temperament to the weather (“they call the wind Mariah”). The identifying of a character can always take many creative paths.

For the definition of a “character” can transcend, or amend, or even extend beyond either the animate or inanimate host, and until now, I had believed I had read and experienced most, if not them all. That is, until reading the autobiographical novel: John Barleycorn.

For in this story, there is a “character” that is not an individual, or a group, or object, or a weather manifestation, he is in fact an Act, a Deed, an Exploit; he is a Performance, an Art, he is a Skill, an Addiction, an Exploitation, a Redemption, he is Lure, a Comforter, an Uninhibited Sanction, and he is a process of doing something specific; he is the consumption of alcohol, and he is titled “John Barleycorn”.

John Barleycorn is as real a character as any of the other personalities presented in this tale. He provides arguments, and he has an ideology, and he has the dialogue of the “white logic”. He’s involved in a story that spans from the authors first tasting of the “poison” in his early infancy, to his admission of addiction later in life as he enjoys the vintage of being a successful writer. It is John Barleycorn that participates in the authors risk-filled exploits at sea, or his long and labored hours toiling in low paying factories. It is John Barleycorn that resides with him on the ranch in the Sonoma Valley of the Moon; where the author finds realization of his dependency of John Barleycorn for social success, and upon who's existence provided of the entree into his more adventurous enterprises; a path ensuring the establishment of his masculine credential among peers and rivals. For to this author, at every step of the way through life, he is his companion, his friend, his rival, his detractor, his enemy, his competition, his addiction, his affliction, his redemption, his scourge, his bane, his courage, his armor, his chain, his priority, his indifference, his abstinence and finally, his reward. He is John Barleycorn.

Jack London provides in this story a wondrous argument simultaneously for and against the use of alcohol. And, while adamantly denouncing its unpleasant taste and nauseous effects, he frankly concedes its intrinsic value, and how its practice in social interactions saw him benefit. While sustaining long periods of abstinence, he also demonstrated a reputation for tolerance and endurance that would leave rivals literally under the table. For it was John Barleycorn that he bargained with, benefited from, and ultimately, became indebted to.

The argument, that is his story, begins with his return home after casting an uncharacteristic vote in favor of woman’s suffrage, and concludes with his rational for voting in the fashion he did. And in between, we meet the characters of his life, many paying with their own lives, and following his clinic in reasoning, we see his cause in rational, and they are both an assailant and advocate of John Barleycorn. I am unsure if London’s paradoxical exposition, if written today, would survive in the political arena of the morally sensitive. It would be challenged in its efforts to forward an advocacy of any redeeming value to be found found in the recreational use of alcohol, let alone as a tool for business advancement.

However, being introduced to the caricature known as John Barleycorn, one might find cause to pour a glass and test those arbitrary ethical limits.
...more
4

Sep 20, 2018

I didn't know that there was a controversy regarding the validity of London's experiences as recorded in this book. That being said, I think I was confused because the slow spiral into addiction London describes is incredibly plausible.

As an entirely too angsty young person, I read this right before my 21st birthday. I have known alcoholics and have heard their stories but there is no comparison between hearing their accounts and vicariously living through London's writing.
4

Jun 02, 2019

This book fooled me at firstits not the standard Jack London motif that begins and ends with epic adventure. Instead, its a bibliographic account of Londons relationship with alcohol, whom he refers to as John Barleycorn. London denies that he is an alcoholic, disclaiming any innate physical craving for drink. Instead, he tells the story of how John Barleycorn seduces in a context of socialization. He doesnt like the taste of liquor, wine, or beer, and for 20 years or so he only imbibed when This book fooled me at first—it’s not the standard Jack London motif that begins and ends with epic adventure. Instead, it’s a bibliographic account of London’s relationship with alcohol, whom he refers to as John Barleycorn. London denies that he is an alcoholic, disclaiming any innate physical craving for drink. Instead, he tells the story of how John Barleycorn seduces in a context of socialization. He doesn’t like the taste of liquor, wine, or beer, and for 20 years or so he only imbibed when invited by others. And that was often. Drinking for him was mostly a manly affair, where tough hard-drinking men met in saloons, bought each other drinks, and drank each other under the table. He never drank alone or in the company of nondrinkers. He could go months without a drink and never crave a drop. Until one day in maturity he decided to have a drink alone, which lead to more drinking alone and earlier every day. He was aware of this, believed it a curse, and wished temperance would become the law of the land.

While there’s not a lot of adventure in this book, it still tells a captivating story and tells it with descriptive literary brilliance, and in a way that only Jack London can.
...more
3

Aug 12, 2019

Actually ***1/2
Terribly lucid analisys of alcoolism. Even if I don't think that prohibition could solve the problem ...
4

Mar 11, 2018

This cements Jack London into a top ten favorite authors spot for me. He writes about everything with intensity and intellectual acuity. His descriptions of various stages of inebriation, reasons for drinking and internal struggles make for compelling and very relatable reading. And although he pledges to temper his habit I love how he doesn't give up drinking in the end. A happy ending!!!!!
But seriously,an honest and interesting look at the man's life through his varied experiences with This cements Jack London into a top ten favorite authors spot for me. He writes about everything with intensity and intellectual acuity. His descriptions of various stages of inebriation, reasons for drinking and internal struggles make for compelling and very relatable reading. And although he pledges to temper his habit I love how he doesn't give up drinking in the end. A happy ending!!!!!
But seriously,an honest and interesting look at the man's life through his varied experiences with alcohol. Great read. ...more
1

Jan 22, 2019

Reading John Barleycorn is like being trapped in a 4 hour AA meeting where the guest speaker is an uncommonly eloquent asshole. Everyone who's been to meetings somewhat regularly has encountered a douche like Jack London: someone who laments the miseries alcohol has done them while seeming to brag about them as well, a person who has managed to accept that he is powerless over alcohol but somehow never managed to humble himself to it.

Read this for the descriptions of the 19th century Bay Area Reading John Barleycorn is like being trapped in a 4 hour AA meeting where the guest speaker is an uncommonly eloquent asshole. Everyone who's been to meetings somewhat regularly has encountered a douche like Jack London: someone who laments the miseries alcohol has done them while seeming to brag about them as well, a person who has managed to accept that he is powerless over alcohol but somehow never managed to humble himself to it.

Read this for the descriptions of the 19th century Bay Area and nothing else. There's nothing worse than an oblivious, sententious drunkard. ...more
5

Jan 02, 2017

The worlds of analytics and presumptives have shaped their theories, verdicts, case studies and various conclusions about the alcoholics, and only a tippler himself can confirm any of them. Furthermore, it is in this portal of continuous assumptions and misconceptions that the spirit-possessor, John Barleycorn emerges.

John Barleycorn nudges overboard at times. He pushes his friend to be overacting, talkative and incoherent bottle man. The prominent aspect of this authorship is Mr. Jack Londons The worlds of analytics and presumptives have shaped their theories, verdicts, case studies and various conclusions about the alcoholics, and only a tippler himself can confirm any of them. Furthermore, it is in this portal of continuous assumptions and misconceptions that the spirit-possessor, John Barleycorn emerges.

John Barleycorn nudges overboard at times. He pushes his friend to be overacting, talkative and incoherent bottle man. The prominent aspect of this authorship is Mr. Jack London’s use of a persona who emerges from the alcoholic realm, possesses him and talks to him in cynicism of the world, in drink encouragement and in penchant for fun. The funny thing is that BC and London are one: the realm from which the imaginary friend emerges and allegedly transforms him is his own dismissiveness versus the hypocrisy of those who consider themselves prim just because they do not drink. I believe that at times he likes John Barleycorn, but also, at times he thinks of BC as an insufferable, assuming know-it-all.

It's a relief that the author revealed and explained the primary factor that propelled his desire for alcoholic drinks- accessibility. As for me, I drink to neutralize aftertastes from strongly-flavored recipes and queer-tasting preserved foods. I thought I know everything about drinkers, but I was so wrong. London detailed the spiraling of alcoholic desire in a way that spurred my interest to read on, when drunkard books are not really among my preferred books. Gathering from the numbers in my family circle, my hometown and co-workers, I was smugly thinking I already know the bearing and the tone of an alcoholic, what useless antics they could slide to and how or when they ask for more. There may be a lot of people like me who do not want aftertastes and turn to wine and beer to be comforted and feel natural, but reasons for drinking vary as riverbeds vary also. After reading Jack London, I feel quite amused, but also self-cautious . Meanwhile, after reading Guy De Maupassant’s “Waiter, a Bok!” I felt anger in behalf of and pity for all those who drink as to cope with having to witness domestic violence as children. I plan to read more of this subject, thanks to the fiery, vivid writing of Mr. Jack London.
Loyal and unwavering to his naturalistic tastes, he once more presents (this time himself, not dogs or forests) himself stark and truthfully naked as a rabbit in a hole. Once more, this is unartificed, or naturalistic writing. Since London found out that the “civilized” arguments of polite society lack depth (plastic), he started writing in a perspective devoid of superficialities, religious pompousness and reserve of nineteenth century custom; it is a point of view in which he was particularly good at, a perspective I appreciate. In terms of writing technique, Jack London has many fans, and I am still one of them.
...more
4

Sep 28, 2018

A sensational tale of author renowned for ripping yarns. His frank statements on alcohol are a slight tarnish, although his advice may be sage the story would hold together without them. It is a rather salient point throughout the autobiography, his alcohol consumption. Mr. London had corrected his hard life into a good life, one which ultimately seems to have been lived in excess but not at all in decadence. Makes for great imaginative fodder.

A tale of wanderlust & globe-trotting. There is A sensational tale of author renowned for ripping yarns. His frank statements on alcohol are a slight tarnish, although his advice may be sage the story would hold together without them. It is a rather salient point throughout the autobiography, his alcohol consumption. Mr. London had corrected his hard life into a good life, one which ultimately seems to have been lived in excess but not at all in decadence. Makes for great imaginative fodder.

A tale of wanderlust & globe-trotting. There is little record of tramping, despite having made his own way quite often. The mores of an outdated civilisation may have made his most recent crimes & misdemeanours taboo. However, given the detail of the early piracy and the tendency of the narrative to 'flatten' during the later dates I would think other factors are at play. Although a sailing man, and short moments really deliver that impression with gusto, he was not a sailing man. Trips across the world are given little more than a paragraph, occurring later in the book, elsewhere he devotes a chapter to a sealing voyage, an event of teenage years. This tendency, is a little frustrating in the final chapters, and in hindsight.

I recommend this book to those who love adventurers, fans of Jack Kerouac, lovers of the good life & people entangled with alcohol. A legacy of a long-life, well-lived & full of thought. Reading Jack London will exercise your vocabulary, as surely as titubating exercises the calves. ...more
4

Aug 06, 2011

The modern myth of the alcoholic or drug addict artist has only been with us a short while. Lord Byron the debauched poet drinking and fucking his way through his short life, Coleridge getting more and more addicted to drugs, eventually losing his talent, family, health and mind. From then we have the drink addled death of Poe, to the Victorian writers who would use opium like Wilkie Collins and who would create characters who openly used cocaine and opium like Sherlock Holmes. And then we come The modern myth of the alcoholic or drug addict artist has only been with us a short while. Lord Byron the debauched poet drinking and fucking his way through his short life, Coleridge getting more and more addicted to drugs, eventually losing his talent, family, health and mind. From then we have the drink addled death of Poe, to the Victorian writers who would use opium like Wilkie Collins and who would create characters who openly used cocaine and opium like Sherlock Holmes. And then we come to the darkly attractive image of the drinker writer. The early 20th century was strewn with these: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Chandler, Faulkner, and Jack London.

This book is London's experiences with the drink or as he personifies it throughout the memoir, John Barleycorn. It's a strange book. Used in Alcholics Anonymous clinics in America, it's said that the sobering message London focuses on most is the way alcohol ends lives. He begins the book in his present where he has just that day voted for prohibition of alcohol. He says that although his experiences of the drug are many, he fears that it ultimately brings too much grimness and death to those who drink it for it to be available for the next generation. Written in 1913, 3 years before the author's death, London didn't live long enough to see prohibition become enforced and then fail dismally never to return. However, the feeling throughout the book is a conflicting sentiment of jollity, high spirits, and adventure that he also associates with alcohol.

Starting at the extremely young age of 5, through to his teenage years and then adulthood, we get a glimpse into the making of the man. In each encounter with alcohol we see London learning something of the world. The community of alcohol where boys and girls meet, drink, dance, and eventually walk off together, is the first memory he associates with drinking. Later on as an oyster pirate drinking is associated with making friends and having a good time with them. He learns after studying (and abstaining) for 3 months where he worked 18 hours a day at graduating high school and entering college, that once work is over it is a relief to drink and lose yourself for a few hours. Later when he is sailing about the pacific and doing several jobs at once he finds alcohol necessary to stem the doubt and fear in his mind that he might lose friends, family, and himself to tropical disease and storms. These are all positive points to drinking that he presents quite brazenly to the reader, which if the reader is like myself a drinking man, will find himself agreeing with and maybe even smiling at a bit at some of the memories.

He does however talk about the side affects of drinking. Besides the obvious hangovers, being robbed whilst passed out, wallowing in self regret and stalling ambition, he talks quite profoundly about one night when he was 16. Drunk and out on the water in the middle of the night he swims out against the tide. He suddenly wants to die. He's had enough. Out he goes with the intention of washing ashore in a few days' time bloated and dead. A friend sees him though and with the help of others brings him ashore. London then talks about the high numbers of dead friends he lost to alcoholism and drink related accidents. Of lives ruined by the drink, when kind and gentle men become drunk and consequently act rashly, either violently beating someone or else killing another in blind drunkenness. They wake to find themselves in jail and then spending several years in prison.

He also talks about finding alcohol addictive (though he never uses that word or ever admits to being an alcoholic), where after writing his 1000 words each morning he takes a drink of whisky and carries on with his day. Then he finds himself taking a drink of whisky after 500 words. Then he is taking a drink before writing as he drank late that night and needs a pick me up to settle. Instead of reading himself to sleep he takes a drink instead. Though it appears that London has become an alcoholic he does go through periods of abstinency where he goes for 145 days in a ship with men who drank every day and he could have had a drink but decided against it. He also drinks everything in the liquor cabinet and refuses to replenish it. This he admits does cause him pain as he feels the effects of not drinking. Also the fact that he counts the days he doesn't take a drink shows that he is aware of this and makes you wonder whether he believes himself when he says the reader that he is most definitely not an alcoholic.

Yet the best parts of the book are the non alcoholic parts. Reading about London's brutal early life working in mills and then getting conned into doing the work of two men shovelling coal for 16 hours a day is mesmerising and has the best of London's writing. It's a relief to learn of London's success as a writer just a few years later, and it's inspiring and staggering to read about his energy and hunger. To work that hard for so little, and then studying to get into college, and then spending so long writing (there is a part of the book where he talks about his early attempts at writing on a first generation typewriter that was funny); for me these were the best parts of the book and reflective of the great man London was. It's a testament to the man's work ethic that he made himself into the man he wanted to be, educated himself, and then turned himself into a writer (the thing he least wanted to be in a list of 5 that he made when he was 19- at 1 was musician!).

The tone of the book is upbeat and clear minded, with London writing at times soaring prose and at worst a sort of convoluted prosaic abstractness, particularly in the later part of the book where he has an inner monologue with himself and an entity called the White Logic. Nevertheless it is an engrossing and enlightening book. Though I would say London's righteousness at banning alcohol along with opium and other drugs for street sale is naive, his message is clear: John Barleycorn, or drink, is an entity likely to stab you in the back either when you're young or you're old, in the end he collects his due. A fine message to be aware of.

It's a shame London's message was for people to ban drinking as in his book he shows what an amazing and interesting life he led with the alcohol. Nevertheless his legacy and image of the hard drinking writer would prevail and many would follow in his wake. A strange legacy for a brilliant writer who would have been great with or without the help of John Barleycorn. ...more
4

Apr 06, 2020

Before I read John Barleycorn I read the biographical novel, Sailor on Horseback, by Irving Stone, about Jack London. Being that Ive never heard of or dissected the meaning of a biographical novel I still dont know the extent of hyperbole used. Regardless, it may be the best biography I have read to date. Prior to that I have read a few of Jack Londons tales, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Before Adam, and The Iron Heel. The more I read of London the more I understand that Ive Before I read John Barleycorn I read the biographical novel, Sailor on Horseback, by Irving Stone, about Jack London. Being that I’ve never heard of or dissected the meaning of a biographical novel I still don’t know the extent of hyperbole used. Regardless, it may be the best biography I have read to date. Prior to that I have read a few of Jack London’s tales, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Before Adam, and The Iron Heel. The more I read of London the more I understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface into his body. That being said I still place him as one of my favorite authors after reading The Valley of the Moon.

All of that being said John Barleycorn does offer true insight to the mind and life of London. At times it makes you laugh, and at other times he’ll say things that rub you the wrong way. But mostly, and throughout, it feels as if he’s foreshadowing his defeat, which at the very least humanizes his life and with that comes a little sadness.
...more

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