It’s both gratifying and a bit startling that I learned something yesterday — gratifying because Learning is Occurring; embarrassing because I can’t believe I did not know this. I have been guilty of the underestimation of an American literary figure. I am No Better than those who dismiss Poe as a rhyming poet or Melville as that Whale Guy.
I have been assuming that Jack London begins and ends in the cold wilderness failing to not freeze to death.
It’s the fault of the textbook anthologies. To Build a Fire. Call of the Wild. White Fang. I love dogs, and I love American literature, and I love the short fiction form, and I DETEST these works. Some part of it is attributable to having read way too many bad student papers about To Build a Fire, and some plagiarized papers on To Build a Fire, and two dozen cheap websites with bad plagiarizable essays about To Build a Fire. But two nights ago, in a public domain e-book of literary non-fiction I ran across an essay by London called “The Somnambulists.” and Wow. The man could write. And think. And I never knew he had ever published any non-fiction. So in a hurry to restore my professional credibility, I proceeded to dig up more of London’s work. The first I read was John Barleycorn, or Alcoholic Memoirs, from which I took my title quote today. This was some of the fastest reading I’ve done in a while. It just galloped, and yet the writing style of the book is not consistent. It is at times breezy, personal, confidential, intimate; and then in a subsequent chapter it turns downright metaphysical. Chapter One is a kitchen-table chat; Chapter Two is practically Emersonian. In it London ponders the difference between two kinds of drinkers: the one who is “senseless” and the one who understands the reality and inevitability of his own death. Throughout, he anthropomorphizes alcohol — not the drink itself, but the world’s structure which contains drink, enables drink, and in some cases requires drink. John Barleycorn — a renaissance image of ale personified — is not evil; not a trickster god. He is the friend nobody wants but everybody seems to need to please. In some segments of London’s life John is host and master; at other times absent and apparently not missed. In keeping with the dualistic nature of this memoir, when London is waxing philosophic we envision John Barleycorn as an opportunistic hail-fellow-well-met. Men, especially those who live “on the adventure-path,” simply drink, because their activities are dangerous, draining, dulling, and short-sighted. Men living adventurers’ lives buy one another drinks because that is the code of such men. When London is tale-telling, spinning yarns from memory, he eschews the phantasm of John Barleycorn and simply acknowledges that there aren’t places in the city of San Francisco or the waterside of Oakland in 1892 where young men can be warm and comfortable, seeking companionship, except saloons. Through both of these kinds of writing he repeats over and over that he detested the stuff — the vile, hot, thin whiskey and wine and the sour beer, and how he was aware of the “death-road” that the liquor held him to…and yet for all his protestations, for all the reasons cited above and some far more metaphysical, he drank.
It’s hard to read this book knowing as I do that it was written at the age of 37 and by forty he would be dead. It’s not that he writes in any way a self-satisfied triumph over the death-road, but neither do we get the impression that he feels himself firmly on that road. This is not a forward-looking text; in fact it is rarely even a present text. At my age it is strange indeed to hear a man of 37 describe his journey as being well-established and even finalized; his awareness reached and his realizations fulfilled. Of course had he known he would be dead in three years then we could read this as we might the memoir of a septuagenarian, but how could he have known? Is it possible that the half-comic John Barleycorn, the joke personified, had actually haunted him with foreknowledge? If so he rarely lets on. There are pensive moments, but not existential. His philosophy is limited to a kind of social consciousness — in his view, the only thing that will keep John Barleycorn at bay is prohibition, and those of us who know how badly that turned out might be startled by the Utopian vision he had of a world where men who had never heard of drink did not miss drink; where social institutions would grow up to replace the saloon as centers of human intercourse, and where men could show good will and good faith with other gestures than, “Have a drink?”
I would like to believe of myself that I am compassionate and understanding about the disease that is alcoholism. I want to be; I know I should be. I am not. Secretly, subversively, my brain thinks intolerant and hateful things about people who should just Cut It Out or whatever they have to do to be like Me and other normal people who aren’t drinkers. I wanted so badly to learn from London’s alcoholic memoirs, because he starts out from the same position I do: I don’t like the stuff. Yet he falls into its trap anyway, with all the cliche attendant: near poisonings; near suicides; reckless spending, dreams deferred and promises broken. Surely that would make me sympathetic — a victim who didn’t even begin from a place of self-indulgence or pleasure. I’ve learned, I’ve contemplated, because of this book, and I will continue to read London’s non-fiction and to try to develop a richer understanding of his mind and heart and soul. But I have to admit it. I’m pissed off at him for dying young, even if it has not been proved that he died because of alcohol. Neither will I pick up his rallying cry of “covering the well” in prohibition. But I know there’s work to be done. Neither the adventure-path nor the writing life should be a byway of John Barleycorn’s death-road.