Book Review

John Barleycorn by Jack London

1914 memoir about alcoholism that oozes big denial

Jack London is one of those American writers who most readers have heard of, who many readers have read but whose books haven’t really stood the critical test of time.

White Fang and The Call of the Wild are canonical novels, but though I feel like I’ve probably read at least one of them, it was definitely in the misty depths of time before puberty and what I would define as consciousness.

I would have read those wild wolf slash dog books long before I understood the idea of “the canon”, back before I had educated myself as a reader and could engage with texts only on the level of plot.

Perhaps now, as a reader, I might be dismissed as being somewhat immature due to my continued preference for emotionality and catharsis rather than intricate linguistic beauty. However, I do feel comfortable assessing the quality of a text’s craft without needing to judge it exclusively on that element.

Recently, I’ve read books that prove this: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, for example, isn’t lyrically written (in fact its dialogue is often stilted), but it’s an incredibly psychologically perceptive novel and to fail to judge it on these terms would be reductive. Kindred isn’t lyrically beautiful, but Butler’s writing is good enough to convey the meaning and the ideas that she wants to evoke: it’s not poetry, but it’s gorgeous.

Conversely, earlier in the summer I read The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James, a book whose composition (structurally and on a sentence-by-sentence level) was inarguably impressive. However, the book lacked any kind of emotional core and felt rather fucking soulless.

Like the artworks and furniture chosen by a gaudy but tasteless millionaire: it’s clearly out of the reach of someone like l’il Scott Manley Hadley, but it’s also not something I aspire to. Y’dig? A text can be written with incredible skill but have nothing human to convey, much as writing can be gorgeous and evocative while still being perfunctory. Daniel James, for example, is a very skilled writer, but his novel was kinda cold, clinical.

I digress, sorry. Ezra Maas is getting considerably more attention/acclaim than [I feel] it deserves and it’s starting to piss me off. It is the kind of self-indulgent, snobbish and needlessly experimental text that would almost be a mainstream novelist’s caricature of the output of independent presses. It shouldn’t be getting reviewed in a fucking broadsheet, especially when indie presses continue to pump out GOLD.


Jack London’s work is something I read long long long before I had the intense and impressive critical faculties that I now possess, so I can’t comment on its worth. Maybe I’ll [re]read one of them now, but it’s unlikely…

John Barleycorn was one of London’s last books, and it is a moving memoir about his alcoholism that manages to simultaneously feel both denial-rich and deeply honest.

London was a massive alcoholic, and this 1914 text only proceeded his death by a couple of years. Yes, he drank himself to death, but by the end he was also addicted to opium/opium derivatives: like a true 21st century celebrity (which he very much was), London died addicted to prescription medication.

This book was written to be used as prohibition propaganda, despite London’s unrepentant personal behaviour: he never stopped drinking, but he also never blamed himself for his boozing.

Alcohol, London reasoned, should be banned: it is because of its availability and its ubiquity that it is such a problem, such a killer. The “John Barleycorn” of the title is the idea of The Drunk personified, a similarly malign American folk character whose name was used in the same way as Jim Crow’s was to evoke The Racist. The function performed by both of these figures is the same: to forgive white men who (on some level) know better than to do what they do.

“It isn’t me who’s The Drunk,” Jack London can think, “it’s John Barleycorn, the bogeyman boozer.” It is similar to the forgiveness afforded by history’s failure to censure particular people or groups of non-anonymous racists: people in the contemporary world rave against Jim Crow, who never existed.

Names have power, and an anonymising exterior figure who can take the self-hatred away from the addict or the abuser is an undeserved and unhelpful comfort.

London was an addict, a drunk: but it wasn’t his fault, he writes; he’s no “dipsomaniac”, he doesn’t even like the taste of booze, he just has a physical yearning for it because of all the times he was, socially, forced to drink in all the years since childhood. “Honest, mister.”

John Barleycorn contains a few too many boisterous descriptions of consequence-free, youthful boozing (and no acceptance of the need to abstain) for it to feel like a memoir that deeply explores the self, though the sections towards the end about the growth of London’s addiction and its repercussions on his life and work are engaging, if they do feel lacking a focused introspection.

It is an addiction-memoir that refuses responsibility and self-censure, it is an addiction memoir that describes really dangerous behaviour but then moves on, far too casually, with an “I’m OK now!” even though London really, really wasn’t.

The introduction, written by Pete Hamill, is a fantastic and unbiased appraisal of London as a human and a writer, and – even more than Geoff Dyer’s tear-jerking intro to D. H. Lawrence and Italy – by far the best bit of the book.

As a reader interested in writing of trauma and mental illness, this early example of confessional-but-not-quite-confessional-enough literature was an interesting read. I’m not certain how much it would appeal to people who don’t “enjoy” reading about addiction or the handful of people who particularly enjoy the writing of Jack London, but for me it was a great, intriguing, read.

Byeeeeeee is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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