John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn

4.2 23
by Jack London

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Jack London cut a mythic figure across the American landscape of the early twentieth century. But throughout his colorful life - from his teenage years as an oyster pirate to his various incarnations as a well-traveled seaman, Yukon gold prospector, waterfront brawler, unemployed vagrant, impassioned socialist, and celebrated writer - he retained a predilection for…  See more details below


Jack London cut a mythic figure across the American landscape of the early twentieth century. But throughout his colorful life - from his teenage years as an oyster pirate to his various incarnations as a well-traveled seaman, Yukon gold prospector, waterfront brawler, unemployed vagrant, impassioned socialist, and celebrated writer - he retained a predilection for drinking on a prodigious scale. London's classic "alcoholic memoirs" - the closest thing to an autobiography he ever wrote - are a startlingly honest and vivid account of his life not only as a drinker, but also as a storied adventurer. Richly anecdotal and beautifully written, John Barleycorn stands as the earliest intelligent treatment of alcohol in American literature, and as an intensely moving document of one of America's finest writers.

Editorial Reviews

Upton Sinclair
Assuredly one of the most useful, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever penned by a man.
From the Publisher
"Assuredly one of the most useful, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever penned by a man."
—Upton Sinclair

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New York, The Century co
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Chapter I

It all came to me one election day. It was on a warm California afternoon, and I had ridden down into the Valley of the Moon from the ranch to the little village to vote yes and no to a host of proposed amendments to the Constitution of the State of California. Because of the warmth of the day I had had several drinks before casting my ballot, and divers drinks after casting it. Then I had ridden up through the vine-clad hills and rolling pastures of the ranch and arrived at the farmhouse in time for another drink and supper.

“How did you vote on the suffrage amendment?” Charmian asked.

“I voted for it.”

She uttered an exclamation of surprise. For be it known, in my younger days, despite my ardent democracy, I had been opposed to woman suffrage. In my later and more tolerant years I had been unenthusiastic in my acceptance of it as an inevitable social phenomenon.

“Now just why did you vote for it?” Charmian asked.

I answered. I answered at length. I answered indignantly. The more I answered, the more indignant I became. (No; I was not drunk. The horse I had ridden was well-named “The Outlaw.” I ’d like to see any drunken man ride her.)

And yet—how shall I say?—I was lighted up, I was feeling “good,” I was pleasantly jingled.

“When the women get the ballot, they will vote for prohibition,” I said. “It is the wives, and sisters, and mothers, and they only, who will drive the nails into the coffin of John Barleycorn—”

“But I thought you were a friend to John Barleycorn,” Charmianinterpolated.

“I am. I was. I am not. I never am. I am never less his friend than when he is with me and when I seem most his friend. He is the king of liars. He is the frankest truth-sayer. He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and to death. He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams. He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life’s vision. He is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth.”

And Charmian looked at me, and I knew she wondered where I had got it.

I continued to talk. As I say, I was lighted up. In my brain every thought was at home. Every thought, in its little cell, crouched ready-dressed at the door, like prisoners at midnight waiting a jail-break. And every thought was a vision, bright- imaged, sharp-cut, unmistakable. My brain was illuminated by the clear, white light of alcohol. John Barleycorn was on a truth-telling rampage, giving away the choicest secrets on himself. And I was his spokesman. There moved the multitudes of memories of my past life, all orderly arranged like soldiers in some vast review. It was mine to pick and choose. I was a lord of thought, the master of my vocabulary and of the totality of my experience, unerringly capable of selecting my data and building my exposition. For so John Barleycorn tricks and lures, setting the maggots of intelligence gnawing, whispering his fatal intuitions of truth, flinging purple passages into the monotony of one’s days.

I outlined my life to Charmian, and expounded the make-up of my constitution. I was no hereditary alcoholic. I had been born with no organic, chemical predisposition toward alcohol. In this matter I was normal in my generation. Alcohol was an acquired taste. It had been painfully acquired. Alcohol had been a dreadfully repugnant thing—more nauseous than any physic. Even now I did not like the taste of it. I drank it only for its “kick.” And from the age of five to that of twenty-five, I had not learned to care for its kick. Twenty years of unwilling apprenticeship had been required to make my system rebelliously tolerant of alcohol, to make me, in the heart and the deeps of me, desirous of alcohol.

I sketched my first contacts with alcohol, told of my first intoxications and revulsions, and pointed out always the one thing that in the end had won me over—namely, the accessibility of alcohol. Not only had it always been accessible, but every interest of my developing life had drawn me to it. A newsboy on the streets, a sailor, a miner, a wanderer in far lands, always where men came together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and days, always they came together over alcohol. The saloon was the place of congregation. Men gathered to it as primitive men gathered about the fire of the squatting-place or the fire at the mouth of the cave.

I reminded Charmian of the canoe-houses from which she had been barred in the South Pacific, where the kinky-haired cannibals escaped from their womenkind and feasted and drank by themselves, the sacred precincts taboo to women under pain of death. As a youth, by way of the saloon I had escaped from the narrowness of women’s influence into the wide free world of men. All ways led to the saloon. The thousand roads of romance and adventure drew together in the saloon, and thence led out and on over the world.

“The point is,” I concluded my sermon, “that it is the accessibility of alcohol that has given me my taste for alcohol. I did not care for it. I used to laugh at it. Yet here I am, at the last, possessed with the drinker’s desire. It took twenty years to implant that desire; and for ten years more that desire has grown. And the effect of satisfying that desire is anything but good. Temperamentally I am wholesome-hearted and merry. Yet when I walk with John Barleycorn I suffer all the damnation of intellectual pessimism.

“—But,” I hastened to add (I always hasten to add), “—John Barleycorn must have his due. He does tell the truth. That is the curse of it. The so-called truths of life are not true. They are the vital lies by which life lives, and John Barleycorn gives them the lie.”

“Which does not make toward life,” Charmian said.

“Very true,” I answered. “And that is the perfectest hell of it. John Barleycorn makes toward death. That is why I voted for the amendment to-day. I read back in my life and saw how the accessibility of alcohol had given me the taste for it. You see, comparatively few alcoholics are born in a generation. And by alcoholic I mean a man whose chemistry craves alcohol and drives him resistlessly to it. The great majority of habitual drinkers are born not only without desire for alcohol but with actual repugnance toward it. Not the first, nor the twentieth, nor the hundredth drink, succeeded in giving them the liking. But they learned, just as men learn to smoke; though it is far easier to learn to smoke than to learn to drink. They learned because alcohol was so accessible. The women know the game. They pay for it—the wives and sisters and mothers. And when they come to vote they will vote for prohibition. And the best of it is that there will be no hardship worked on the coming generation. Not having access to alcohol, not being predisposed toward alcohol, it will never miss alcohol. It will mean life more abundant for the manhood of the young boys born and growing up—ay, and life more abundant for the young girls born and growing up to share the lives of the young men.”

“Why not write all this up for the sake of the young men and women coming?” Charmian asked. “Why not write it so as to help the wives and sisters and mothers to the way they should vote?”

“The ‘Memoirs of an Alcoholic.’ ” I sneered—or, rather, John Barleycorn sneered; for he sat with me there at table in my pleasant, philanthropic jingle, and it is a trick of John Barleycorn to turn the smile to a sneer without an instant’s warning.

“No,” said Charmian, ignoring John Barleycorn’s roughness as so many women have learned to do. “You have shown yourself no alcoholic, no dipsomaniac, but merely an habitual drinker, one who has made John Barleycorn’s acquaintance through long years of rubbing shoulders with him. Write it up and call it ‘Alcoholic Memoirs.’ ”

Copyright 2001 by Jack London

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John Barleycorn 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Bookworm2200 More than 1 year ago
London has been able to put into words cohesively that are usually heard as disconnected sentiments and war stories at AA meetings. This is a true work of genius.
Sisyphus48 More than 1 year ago
I don't think I have ever read a better book for illustrating alcoholic denial can run even in an intelligent man. It was obvious that Jack was a full blown alcoholic before he reached the age of twenty! I say "obvious" to us in 2012 who has the advantage of much more knowledge about alcohol and alcohol abuse than was available in London's era, One device he used over and over again to prove he was not a "dipsomaniac" was that he had periodic periods when he drank nothing and did not crave it or miss it. It is a fact that many members of Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that they were periodic binge drinkers that went for extended periods of time without touching a drop of alcohol. They will tell you that they were not less alcoholic than the person than drank ever single day just a different type. The book is very well written, I enjoyed it a great deal. Anyone who has read this and enjoyed it must read Upton Sinclair's book " Cups of Fury". In this book Sinclair, an accomplished writer, tells of the myriad of his friends that were destroyed by "King Alcohol"; Jack London being one of them! Jack London had a beautiful way with words and it makes one wonder what people like him, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could have written if they had not been crippled by alcoholism!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
loved it
CP49 More than 1 year ago
I have never been a great Jack London fan; however, after reading his battle with "John Barleycorn", I have a better understanding and appreciation of this author. He wrote with great authority on a subject that has been the downfall of many people since the first grapes were fermented to make an alcoholic drink. Too bad he lived and died about twenty years before Dr. Bob and Bill got together, with a few other drunks, to found AA, an organization that has been helping people exactly like Jack London battle John Barleycorn.
JHP More than 1 year ago
If you are a recovering alcoholic, or questioning about your own drinking, or you just plain like ol' Jack's marvelous, witty, adventurous, intelligent writing (even inpired Hemmingway...maybe too much) then read this under the moonshine. No, on a comfortable bed, couch, or chair, with ample light will do. This book will educate and reinforce the scientific proof about alcoholism. It's a terrible disease that sooner, but usually later, catches up with one who is somehow predisposed to drink because of switching on that certain chemical enzyme in one's brain that a majority of the population does not have as part of their DNA. When crossing that fine line after a very, very large number of continued drinking sprees, these souls find they cannot stop after they take that first drink. In this enthralling tale, Jack drinks his friends and work-mates, also alkys, under the table and then some. And yet still he became the highest paid writer of his time. He'll take you to the desperate world of "where, when and how can I get my next drink" on several uproarious adventures. It's well-known to those who are informed about the disease of alcoholism, that it usually progresses slowly, and then insidiously advances from it's first stage of warm, glowing ecstasy and wonderful, magical times for the first ten or fifteen years, to the second stage of "must having it" to function well. This second stage begins the long road of waking in the morning with minor withdrawals, but still feeling pretty damn good after downing a few. It only becomes worse from then on. Bad choices and mistakes followed by shame and remorse fuels more drinking to feel "just right", until the third and final stage of complete physical dependency. Dry heaves in the morning, terrible shakes, severe anxiety, soaring blood pressure, heart pounding, and then ER hospitalization to save oneself from the DTs (delerium tremens, which can be fatal if not treated) and the saline bags to replace all the precious electrolytes that have left the body so unbalanced and utterly dehydrated. Unless one abstains completely from taking that first drink which triggers a binge, he or she must get help...or death, insane asylums or jails await. If one drinks, the disease will begin again from where one left off and get progressively worse. A drinking life, I hope and pray, you want no part of. In Jack's day, they didn't have all the special knowledge we can now educate ourselves with and our children. They knew too much drink was not healthy and yet even today there's still an ignorant stigma attached to alcoholism as purely a matter of will power. This is a fascinating and informing auto-biography of Jack's sworn battle to conquer the elixir of drink. It will resonate clearly with those of us who need a reminder that alcohol is cunning, baffling, powerful, patient and deceitful. It will also resonate clearly with those who want to know the ways and results of an out-of-control drinking life. Sadly, as readers of his great collection of works know, he died of kidney failure brought on by his ruthless indulgence of drink at the age of 40. Not too shabby for his day with all it's liquored characters in this swirling drinking tale beginning very early in his life (age nine or so) and going on and on, swearing he had won the battle of the bottle, only to later realize himself, he would eventually be losing and lose to John Barley Corn.
Guest More than 1 year ago
John Barleycorn, the name Jack London gave himself as his alter-ego, tells of London's life and bouts with alcoholism. From start to finish, Jack London captures the mind in this personal memoir masterfully depicting all colors and hues in Jack's life. Living the first chapters of his life in Oakland, Jack worked his way up from nothing to being a rebel oyster pirate. Being in the kind of environment he was in, Jack soon found himself at the local bar very often enjoying a few drinks or two with his mates. This was the start of a life filled with alcoholism and depression which he referred to as 'The White Logic'. The book later follows Jack further into his jobs and aspirations. This book goes very in-dept of the rough and adventurous life Jack had gotten himself into early. It is much more then an autobiography, its a journey into the genius mind of a legendary American author. Jack London is huge inspiration to any one battling alcoholism and this book serves as an American milestone in literature regarding struggles and alcoholism.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a must for anyone iterested in alcoholism - social, physical and moral aspects. For people familiar with 12-step literature, this book talks about 'what it was like'. The horror of it all is that there was no 'what happened, and whati it is like now.' Jack London died a ruined main. Such genius. If he was alive in 1935, he could have found help. This is a chilling portrait of what alcoholism does to the individual. If there is a Heaven, Jack is certainly there. This book shows how he lived in hell.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is basically nothing more than memoirs of London's drinking life. But he tells each individual story masterfully. He really makes you believe that he was not an alcoholic. It also tells of some his bouts with depression which he termed 'The White Logic.' Very entertaining and thought provoking, a must read for London fans.
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Padded in and laid down.
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Femi Young More than 1 year ago
I dont know if any of you are aware of this, but this book is also available to download for free. I know 0.95 isnt a lot of money, but I'm just a little confused as to why the same book is offered with two different payment options... just thought I could save someone a couple cents... enjoy your novel :)