Whisky & Culture

The spirit of adventure

Jefferson Chase explores the hard-drinking author Jack London's relationship wiht 'John Barleycorn' both in and out of literature
By Jefferson Chase
Jack London is arguably the English language’s greatest adventure writer. Born in 1876 in San Francisco, London shipped out to sea on a seal hunting schooner at the age of seventeen, travelled half the globe and wrote a staggering fifty books in last two decades of his life. He was a man who loved the four w’s: water, women, windjammers and, of course, whisky. In fact, he loved whisky so much he gave it a nickname:Wherever life ran free and great, there man drank. Romance and Adventure seemed always to go down the street locked arm in arm with John Barleycorn. To know the two, I must know the third.London lived up to the challenge he set himself here, in his autobiography John Barleycorn. His drinking exploits were legendary, as numerous memoirs and AA testimonials attest.Yet London is a more complex author than most of us remember from the abridged novels we read in childhood, and whisky plays an intriguingly ambiguous role in his works. On the surface, the ability to hold one’s drink is a measure of one’s manliness. However, it can also be a sign of inhumanity. There’s no better example of this than Wolf Larsen, the Nietzschean anti-hero and philosophical brute from what many consider to be London’s finest work, The Sea-Wolf:They played for money. They increased the amounts of the bets. They drank whiskey, they drank it neat, and I fetched more. I do not know whether Wolf Larsen cheated or not, – a thing he was thoroughly capable of doing, – but he won steadily … Wolf Larsen was unaffected by the drink, yet he drank glass for glass, and if anything his glasses were fuller. There was no change in him. He did not appear even amused by the others’ antics.This card game is a harbinger of worse to come. The devilish schooner captain ends up killing his entire crew, eliciting a mix of admiration and horror from the gentleman narrator, who barely escapes with life.Wolf Larsen figures recur throughout London’s works, for instance, in the chapter “Yah! Yah! Yah!” from South Sea Tales. On the Olong Atoll, the narrator encounters Governor McAllister, a “whiskey guzzling Scotchman … the most beautiful and orderly perennial drunk I have ever observed.” Wondering how this lone personage can maintain control over 6,000 savages, the narrator asks one of the natives. His secret, it turns out, is whiskey:McAllister did not believe in devil-devils … With drunken Scotchmen all signs fail. They gathered up scraps of food which had touched his lips, an empty whiskey bottle … even his spittle, and performed all kinds of devilries over them. But McAllister lived on … he never caught fever; nor coughs nor colds; dysentery passed him by … He must have been so saturated with alcohol as to defy the lodgement of germs. I used to imagine them falling to the ground in showers of microscopic cinders as fast as they entered his whiskey-sodden aura. No one loved him, not even germs, while he loved only whiskey, and still he lived.Jack London himself did not fare so well. Although he recommended moderation in John Barleycorn, he did not practice what he preached and died in mysterious circumstances in 1916, perhaps as a suicide, but perhaps also from general liver failure. His legacy was a set of works that summon up visions of the briny sea as compellingly as a fine island malt. That’s the drink I’d suggest when reading London’s work. But only in moderation, please.