| John Barleycorn, by Jack London.
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 farm-house 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
"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," Charmian
"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 truthsayer. 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 wisdom. He
is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth."
And Charmian looked at me, and I knew she wondered where I had got
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 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
woman'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
"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 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
"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.'"Next chapter |
John Barleycorn, by Jack London. CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX CHAPTER XX CHAPTER XXI CHAPTER XXII CHAPTER XXIII CHAPTER XXIV CHAPTER XXV CHAPTER XXVI CHAPTER XXVII CHAPTER XXVIII CHAPTER XXIX CHAPTER XXX CHAPTER XXXI CHAPTER XXXII CHAPTER XXXIII CHAPTER XXXIV CHAPTER XXXV CHAPTER XXXVI CHAPTER XXXVII CHAPTER XXXVIII CHAPTER XXXIX
(Friday, 27 November, 2020.)