When it first appeared in 1913, John Barleycorn was an immediate sensation. America's most famous author, Jack London, creator of The Sea Wolf and The Call of the Wild, had confessed to a lifelong struggle with alcohol, and by doing so had created the first important essay on alcohol in American literature, and a classic of American autobiography.
With remarkable candor and insight, London describes the demons he encountered through his experiences with “John Barleycorn,” (a euphemism for liquor), as he wrote in his ‘alcoholic reminiscences’.
He was a child laborer in Oakland at 14, a Bay Area pirate at 15, a transcontinental hobo at 16, an able-bodied seaman at 17, a New York State prisoner at 18, a California ‘work beast’ at 20 and a Yukon prospector at 21.
London wrote, “I drank every day, and whenever opportunity offered I drank to excess; for I still labored under the misconception that the secret of John Barleycorn lay in drinking to bestiality and unconsciousness.”
At the end of John Barleycorn, London declares that he’s decided to drink ‘but, oh, more skillfully, more discreetly, than ever before’, and the delusion that he could outsmart his appetites grew more painful as it became easier for him to satisfy them.
Tragically, Jack London died at age 40 of an overdose of morphine, a surfeit of syringes by his bedside.
JACK LONDON (1876-1916) was an activist, journalist, short-story writer, novelist, and one of the most widely translated of American authors. London published over 50 books, and is most famous for The Sea Wolf, White Fang, The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden and The People of the Abyss.