Monday, June 2, 2008

Jack London's John Barleycorn

It’s been a quiet week, which allowed me to read a book I’ve been eyeing on my shelf for some time: John Barleycorn by Jack London. The book is primarily about London’s life long struggle with alcohol addition. The famous author of The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf wrote John Barleycorn late in his career, after he had become America’s most famous author. These memoirs, for the most part, reflect on London’s early years when he became an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, sailed on a sealer off the coast of Japan, and later worked the Klondike gold rush. It was during these early years that London became a heavy drinker, mostly because the men he associated with were also heavy drinkers. London describes many harrowing stories about how drinking nearly did him in at that very early age.

He later describes his tremendous efforts to learn the trade of writing fiction, which he spent eighteen to twenty hours a day at. During that time he was virtually penniless and relied on the charity of others. He would occasionally find work shoveling coal for twelve hours a day at ten cents an hour, but even that work was hard to come by.

Later, he describes his long bout of suicidal depression, explaining that at one point he gave his revolver to a friend for fear that he would use it on himself. The most interesting part of that tale for me, was the fact that his suicidal feelings only occurred after he had become a great success.
At the end of the book, London claims that he never managed to forgo drinking, but rather, after a long and painful struggle, learned to drink with moderation. He goes on to say that he was very much for giving women the right to vote solely because he believed that they would vote for prohibition, and he believed that would save many a young man from going down the same painful path he did.

London also becomes very philosophical about his life in the last chapter, and I very much enjoyed one passage in particular where he quotes the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu:

“How then do I know but that the dead repent of having previously clung to life? Those who dream of the banquet, wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow, wake to join the hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they dream. Some will even interpret the very dream they are dreaming; and only when they awake do they know it was a dream . . . .
“Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams -- I am but a dream myself.
“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

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