Part 3 out of 4
So my new concept was that manual labour was undignified, and that
it didn't pay. No trade for me, was my decision, and no
superintendent's daughters. And no criminality, I also decided.
That would be almost as disastrous as to be a labourer. Brains
paid, not brawn, and I resolved never again to offer my muscles
for sale in the brawn market. Brain, and brain only, would I
I returned to California with the firm intention of developing my
brain. This meant school education. I had gone through the
grammar school long ago, so I entered the Oakland High School. To
pay my way I worked as a janitor. My sister helped me, too; and I
was not above mowing anybody's lawn or taking up and beating
carpets when I had half a day to spare. I was working to get away
from work, and I buckled down to it with a grim realisation of the
Boy and girl love was left behind, and, along with it, Haydee and
Louis Shattuck, and the early evening strolls. I hadn't the time.
I joined the Henry Clay Debating Society. I was received into the
homes of some of the members, where I met nice girls whose skirts
reached the ground. I dallied with little home clubs wherein we
discussed poetry and art and the nuances of grammar. I joined the
socialist local where we studied and orated political economy,
philosophy, and politics. I kept half a dozen membership cards
working in the free library and did an immense amount of
And for a year and a half on end I never took a drink, nor thought
of taking a drink. I hadn't the time, and I certainly did not
have the inclination. Between my janitor-work, my studies, and
innocent amusements such as chess, I hadn't a moment to spare. I
was discovering a new world, and such was the passion of my
exploration that the old world of John Barleycorn held no
inducements for me.
Come to think of it, I did enter a saloon. I went to see Johnny
Heinhold in the Last Chance, and I went to borrow money. And
right here is another phase of John Barleycorn. Saloon-keepers
are notoriously good fellows. On an average they perform vastly
greater generosities than do business men. When I simply had to
have ten dollars, desperate, with no place to turn, I went to
Johnny Heinhold. Several years had passed since I had been in his
place or spent a cent across his bar. And when I went to borrow
the ten dollars I didn't buy a drink, either. And Johnny Heinhold
let me have the ten dollars without security or interest.
More than once, in the brief days of my struggle for an education,
I went to Johnny Heinhold to borrow money. When I entered the
university, I borrowed forty dollars from him, without interest,
without security, without buying a drink. And yet--and here is
the point, the custom, and the code--in the days of my prosperity,
after the lapse of years, I have gone out of my way by many a long
block to spend across Johnny Heinhold's bar deferred interest on
the various loans. Not that Johnny Heinhold asked me to do it, or
expected me to do it. I did it, as I have said, in obedience to
the code I had learned along with all the other things connected
with John Barleycorn. In distress, when a man has no other place
to turn, when he hasn't the slightest bit of security which a
savage-hearted pawn-broker would consider, he can go to some
saloon-keeper he knows. Gratitude is inherently human. When the
man so helped has money again, depend upon it that a portion will
be spent across the bar of the saloon-keeper who befriended him.
Why, I recollect the early days of my writing career, when the
small sums of money I earned from the magazines came with tragic
irregularity, while at the same time I was staggering along with a
growing family--a wife, children, a mother, a nephew, and my Mammy
Jennie and her old husband fallen on evil days. There were two
places at which I could borrow money; a barber shop and a saloon.
The barber charged me five per cent. per month in advance. That
is to say, when I borrowed one hundred dollars, he handed me
ninety-five. The other five dollars he retained as advance
interest for the first month. And on the second month I paid him
five dollars more, and continued so to do each month until I made
a ten strike with the editors and lifted the loan.
The other place to which I came in trouble was the saloon. This
saloon-keeper I had known by sight for a couple of years. I had
never spent my money in his saloon, and even when I borrowed from
him I didn't spend any money. Yet never did he refuse me any sum
I asked of him. Unfortunately, before I became prosperous, he
moved away to another city. And to this day I regret that he is
gone. It is the code I have learned. The right thing to do, and
the thing I'd do right now did I know where he is, would be to
drop in on occasion and spend a few dollars across his bar for old
sake's sake and gratitude.
This is not to exalt saloon-keepers. I have written it to exalt
the power of John Barleycorn and to illustrate one more of the
myriad ways by which a man is brought in contact with John
Barleycorn until in the end he finds he cannot get along without
But to return to the run of my narrative. Away from the
adventure-path, up to my ears in study, every moment occupied, I
lived oblivious to John Barleycorn's existence. Nobody about me
drank. If any had drunk, and had they offered it to me, I surely
would have drunk. As it was, when I had spare moments I spent
them playing chess, or going with nice girls who were themselves
students, or in riding a bicycle whenever I was fortunate enough
to have it out of the pawnbroker's possession.
What I am insisting upon all the time is this: in me was not the
slightest trace of alcoholic desire, and this despite the long and
severe apprenticeship I had served under John Barleycorn. I had
come back from the other side of life to be delighted with this
Arcadian simplicity of student youths and student maidens. Also,
I had found my way into the realm of the mind, and I was
intellectually intoxicated. (Alas! as I was to learn at a later
period, intellectual intoxication too. has its katzenjammer.)
Three years was the time required to go through the high school.
I grew impatient. Also, my schooling was becoming financially
impossible. At such rate I could not last out, and I did greatly
want to go to the state university. When I had done a year of
high school, I decided to attempt a short cut. I borrowed the
money and paid to enter the senior class of a "cramming joint" or
academy. I was scheduled to graduate right into the university at
the end of four months, thus saving two years.
And how I did cram! I had two years' new work to do in a third of
a year. For five weeks I crammed, until simultaneous quadratic
equations and chemical formulas fairly oozed from my ears. And
then the master of the academy took me aside. He was very sorry,
but he was compelled to give me back my tuition fee and to ask me
to leave the school. It wasn't a matter of scholarship. I stood
well in my classes, and did he graduate me into the university he
was confident that in that institution I would continue to stand
well. The trouble was that tongues were gossiping about my case.
What! In four months accomplished two years' work! It would be a
scandal, and the universities were becoming severer in their
treatment of accredited prep schools. He couldn't afford such a
scandal, therefore I must gracefully depart.
I did. And I paid back the borrowed money, and gritted my teeth,
and started to cram by myself. There were three months yet before
the university entrance examinations. Without laboratories,
without coaching, sitting in my bedroom, I proceeded to compress
that two years' work into three months and to keep reviewed on the
previous year's work.
Nineteen hours a day I studied. For three months I kept this
pace, only breaking it on several occasions. My body grew weary,
my mind grew weary, but I stayed with it. My eyes grew weary and
began to twitch, but they did not break down. Perhaps, toward the
last, I got a bit dotty. I know that at the time I was confident,
I had discovered the formula for squaring the circle; but I
resolutely deferred the working of it out until after the
examinations. Then I would show them.
Came the several days of the examinations, during which time I
scarcely closed my eyes in sleep, devoting every moment to
cramming and reviewing. And when I turned in my last examination
paper I was in full possession of a splendid case of brain-fag. I
didn't want to see a book. I didn't want to think or to lay eyes
on anybody who was liable to think.
There was but one prescription for such a condition, and I gave it
to myself--the adventure-path. I didn't wait to learn the result
of my examinations. I stowed a roll of blankets and some cold
food into a borrowed whitehall boat and set sail. Out of the
Oakland Estuary I drifted on the last of an early morning ebb,
caught the first of the flood up bay, and raced along with a
spanking breeze. San Pablo Bay was smoking, and the Carquinez
Straits off the Selby Smelter were smoking, as I picked up ahead
and left astern the old landmarks I had first learned with Nelson
in the unreefer Reindeer.
Benicia showed before me. I opened the bight of Turner's
Shipyard, rounded the Solano wharf, and surged along abreast of
the patch of tules and the clustering fishermen's arks where in
the old days I had lived and drunk deep.
And right here something happened to me, the gravity of which I
never dreamed for many a long year to come. I had had no
intention of stopping at Benicia. The tide favoured, the wind was
fair and howling--glorious sailing for a sailor. Bull Head and
Army Points showed ahead, marking the entrance to Suisun Bay which
I knew was smoking. And yet, when I laid eyes on those fishing
arks lying in the water-front tules, without debate, on the
instant, I put down my tiller, came in on the sheet, and headed
for the shore. On the instant, out of the profound of my brain-
fag, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to drink. I wanted to get
The call was imperative. There was no uncertainty about it. More
than anything else in the world, my frayed and frazzled mind
wanted surcease from weariness in the way it knew surcease would
come. And right here is the point. For the first time in my life
I consciously, deliberately, desired to get drunk. It was a new,
a totally different manifestation of John Barleycorn's power. It
was not a body need for alcohol. It was a mental desire. My
over-worked and jaded mind wanted to forget.
And here the point is drawn to its sharpest. Granted my
prodigious brain-fag, nevertheless, had I never drunk in the past,
the thought would never have entered my mind to get drunk now.
Beginning with physical intolerance for alcohol, for years
drinking only for the sake of comradeship and because alcohol was
everywhere on the adventure-path, I had now reached the stage
where my brain cried out, not merely for a drink, but for a drunk.
And had I not been so long used to alcohol, my brain would not
have so cried out. I should have sailed on past Bull Head, and in
the smoking white of Suisun Bay, and in the wine of wind that
filled my sail and poured through me, I should have forgotten my
weary brain and rested and refreshed it.
So I sailed in to shore, made all fast, and hurried up among the
arks. Charley Le Grant fell on my neck. His wife, Lizzie, folded
me to her capacious breast. Billy Murphy, and Joe Lloyd, and all
the survivors of the old guard, got around me and their arms
around me. Charley seized the can and started for Jorgensen's
saloon across the railroad tracks. That meant beer. I wanted
whisky, so I called after him to bring a flask.
Many times that flask journeyed across the railroad tracks and
back. More old friends of the old free and easy times dropped in,
fishermen, Greeks, and Russians, and French. They took turns in
treating, and treated all around in turn again. They came and
went, but I stayed on and drank with all. I guzzled. I swilled.
I ran the liquor down and joyed as the maggots mounted in my
And Clam came in, Nelson's partner before me, handsome as ever,
but more reckless, half insane, burning himself out with whisky.
He had just had a quarrel with his partner on the sloop Gazelle,
and knives had been drawn, and blows struck, and he was bent on
maddening the fever of the memory with more whisky. And while we
downed it, we remembered Nelson and that he had stretched out his
great shoulders for the last long sleep in this very town of
Benicia; and we wept over the memory of him, and remembered only
the good things of him, and sent out the flask to be filled and
They wanted me to stay over, but through the open door I could see
the brave wind on the water, and my ears were filled with the roar
of it. And while I forgot that I had plunged into the books
nineteen hours a day for three solid months, Charley Le Grant
shifted my outfit into a big Columbia River salmon boat. He added
charcoal and a fisherman's brazier, a coffee pot and frying pan,
and the coffee and the meat, and a black bass fresh from the water
They had to help me down the rickety wharf and into the salmon
boat. Likewise they stretched my boom and sprit until the sail
set like a board. Some feared to set the sprit; but I insisted,
and Charley had no doubts. He knew me of old, and knew that I
could sail as long as I could see. They cast off my painter. I
put the tiller up, filled away before it, and with dizzy eyes
checked and steadied the boat on her course and waved farewell.
The tide had turned, and the fierce ebb, running in the teeth of a
fiercer wind, kicked up a stiff, upstanding sea. Suisun Bay was
white with wrath and sea-lump. But a salmon boat can sail, and I
knew how to sail a salmon boat. So I drove her into it, and
through it, and across, and maundered aloud and chanted my disdain
for all the books and schools. Cresting seas filled me a foot or
so with water, but I laughed at it sloshing about my feet, and
chanted my disdain for the wind and the water. I hailed myself a
master of life, riding on the back of the unleashed elements, and
John Barleycorn rode with me. Amid dissertations on mathematics
and philosophy and spoutings and quotations, I sang all the old
songs learned in the days when I went from the cannery to the
oyster boats to be a pirate--such songs as: "Black Lulu," "Flying
Cloud," "Treat my Daughter Kind-i-ly," "The Boston Burglar," "Come
all you Rambling, Gambling Men," "I Wisht I was a Little Bird,"
"Shenandoah," and "Ranzo, Boys, Ranzo."
Hours afterward, in the fires of sunset, where the Sacramento and
the San Joaquin tumble their muddy floods together, I took the New
York Cut-Off, skimmed across the smooth land-locked water past
Black Diamond, on into the San Joaquin, and on to Antioch, where,
somewhat sobered and magnificently hungry, I laid alongside a big
potato sloop that had a familiar rig. Here were old friends
aboard, who fried my black bass in olive oil. Then, too, there
was a meaty fisherman's stew, delicious with garlic, and crusty
Italian bread without butter, and all washed down with pint mugs
of thick and heady claret.
My salmon boat was a-soak, but in the snug cabin of the sloop dry
blankets and a dry bunk were mine; and we lay and smoked and
yarned of old days, while overhead the wind screamed through the
rigging and taut halyards drummed against the mast.
My cruise in the salmon boat lasted a week, and I returned ready
to enter the university. During the week's cruise I did not drink
again. To accomplish this I was compelled to avoid looking up old
friends, for as ever the adventure-path was beset with John
Barleycorn. I had wanted the drink that first day, and in the
days that followed I did not want it. My tired brain had
recuperated. I had no moral scruples in the matter. I was not
ashamed nor sorry because of that first day's orgy at Benicia, and
I thought no more about it, returning gladly to my books and
Long years were to pass ere I looked back upon that day and
realised its significance. At the time, and for a long time
afterward, I was to think of it only as a frolic. But still
later, in the slough of brain-fag and intellectual weariness, I
was to remember and know the craving for the anodyne that resides
In the meantime, after this one relapse at Benicia, I went on with
my abstemiousness, primarily because I didn't want to drink. And
next, I was abstemious because my way led among books and students
where no drinking was. Had I been out on the adventure-path, I
should as a matter of course have been drinking. For that is the
pity of the adventure-path, which is one of John Barleycorn's
favourite stamping grounds.
I completed the first half of my freshman year, and in January of
1897 took up my courses for the second half. But the pressure
from lack of money, plus a conviction that the university was not
giving me all that I wanted in the time I could spare for it,
forced me to leave. I was not very disappointed. For two years I
had studied, and in those two years, what was far more valuable, I
had done a prodigious amount of reading. Then, too, my grammar
had improved. It is true, I had not yet learned that I must say
"It is I"; but I no longer was guilty of a double negative in
writing, though still prone to that error in excited speech.
I decided immediately to embark on my career. I had four
preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of
philosophic, economic, and political essays; and, fourth, and
last, and least, fiction writing. I resolutely cut out music as
impossible, settled down in my bedroom, and tackled my second,
third, and fourth choices simultaneously. Heavens, how I wrote!
Never was there a creative fever such as mine from which the
patient escaped fatal results. The way I worked was enough to
soften my brain and send me to a mad-house. I wrote, I wrote
everything--ponderous essays, scientific and sociological short
stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and
sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian
stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for
fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear
myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.
And then there was the matter of typewriting. My brother-in-law
owned a machine which he used in the day-time. In the night I was
free to use it. That machine was a wonder. I could weep now as I
recollect my wrestlings with it. It must have been a first model
in the year one of the typewriter era. Its alphabet was all
capitals. It was informed with an evil spirit. It obeyed no
known laws of physics, and overthrew the hoary axiom that like
things performed to like things produce like results. I'll swear
that machine never did the same thing in the same way twice.
Again and again it demonstrated that unlike actions produce like
How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my
back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none
too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a
pipe-stem for a back. Also, it made me doubt my shoulders. They
ached as with rheumatism after every bout. The keys of that
machine had to be hit so hard that to one outside the house it
sounded like distant thunder or some one breaking up the
furniture. I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first
fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters
burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I'd have
operated it with a carpenter's hammer.
The worst of it was that I was actually typing my manuscripts at
the same time I was trying to master that machine. It was a feat
of physical endurance and a brain storm combined to type a
thousand words, and I was composing thousands of words every day
which just had to be typed for the waiting editors.
Oh, between the writing and the typewriting I was well a-weary. I
had brain and nerve fag, and body fag as well, and yet the thought
of drink never suggested itself. I was living too high to stand
in need of an anodyne. All my waking hours, except those with
that infernal typewriter, were spent in a creative heaven. And
along with this I had no desire for drink because I still believed
in many things--in the love of all men and women in the matter of
man and woman love; in fatherhood; in human justice; in art--in
the whole host of fond illusions that keep the world turning
But the waiting editors elected to keep on waiting. My
manuscripts made amazing round-trip records between the Pacific
and the Atlantic. It might have been the weirdness of the
typewriting that prevented the editors from accepting at least one
little offering of mine. I don't know, and goodness knows the
stuff I wrote was as weird as its typing. I sold my hard-bought
school books for ridiculous sums to second-hand bookmen. I
borrowed small sums of money wherever I could, and suffered my old
father to feed me with the meagre returns of his failing strength.
It didn't last long, only a few weeks, when I had to surrender and
go to work. Yet I was unaware of any need for the drink anodyne.
I was not disappointed. My career was retarded, that was all.
Perhaps I did need further preparation. I had learned enough from
the books to realise that I had only touched the hem of
knowledge's garment. I still lived on the heights. My waking
hours, and most of the hours I should have used for sleep, were
spent with the books.
Out in the country, at the Belmont Academy, I went to work in a
small, perfectly appointed steam laundry. Another fellow and
myself did all the work from sorting and washing to ironing the
white shirts, collars and cuffs, and the "fancy starch" of the
wives of the professors. We worked like tigers, especially as
summer came on and the academy boys took to the wearing of duck
trousers. It consumes a dreadful lot of time to iron one pair of
duck trousers. And there were so many pairs of them. We sweated
our way through long sizzling weeks at a task that was never done;
and many a night, while the students snored in bed, my partner and
I toiled on under the electric light at steam mangle or ironing
The hours were long, the work was arduous, despite the fact that
we became past masters in the art of eliminating waste motion.
And I was receiving thirty dollars a month and board--a slight
increase over my coal-shovelling and cannery days, at least to the
extent of board, which cost my employer little (we ate in the
kitchen), but which was to me the equivalent of twenty dollars a
month. My robuster strength of added years, my increased skill,
and all I had learned from the books, were responsible for this
increase of twenty dollars. Judging by my rate of development, I
might hope before I died to be a night watchman for sixty dollars
a month, or a policeman actually receiving a hundred dollars with
So relentlessly did my partner and I spring into our work
throughout the week that by Saturday night we were frazzled
wrecks. I found myself in the old familiar work-beast condition,
toiling longer hours than the horses toiled, thinking scarcely
more frequent thoughts than horses think. The books were closed
to me. I had brought a trunkful to the laundry, but found myself
unable to read them. I fell asleep the moment I tried to read;
and if I did manage to keep my eyes open for several pages, I
could not remember the contents of those pages. I gave over
attempts on heavy study, such as jurisprudence, political economy,
and biology, and tried lighter stuff, such as history. I fell
asleep. I tried literature, and fell asleep. And finally, when I
fell asleep over lively novels, I gave up. I never succeeded in
reading one book in all the time I spent in the laundry.
And when Saturday night came, and the week's work was over until
Monday morning, I knew only one desire besides the desire to
sleep, and that was to get drunk. This was the second time in my
life that I had heard the unmistakable call of John Barleycorn.
The first time it had been because of brain-fag. But I had no
over-worked brain now. On the contrary, all I knew was the dull
numbness of a brain that was not worked at all. That was the
trouble. My brain had become so alert and eager, so quickened by
the wonder of the new world the books had discovered to it, that
it now suffered all the misery of stagnancy and inaction.
And I, the long time intimate of John Barleycorn, knew just what
he promised me--maggots of fancy, dreams of power, forgetfulness,
anything and everything save whirling washers, revolving mangles,
humming centrifugal wringers, and fancy starch and interminable
processions of duck trousers moving in steam under my flying iron.
And that's it. John Barleycorn makes his appeal to weakness and
failure, to weariness and exhaustion. He is the easy way out.
And he is lying all the time. He offers false strength to the
body, false elevation to the spirit, making things seem what they
are not and vastly fairer than what they are.
But it must not be forgotten that John Barleycorn is protean. As
well as to weakness and exhaustion, does he appeal to too much
strength, to superabundant vitality, to the ennui of idleness. He
can tuck in his arm the arm of any man in any mood. He can throw
the net of his lure over all men. He exchanges new lamps for old,
the spangles of illusion for the drabs of reality, and in the end
cheats all who traffic with him.
I didn't get drunk, however, for the simple reason that it was a
mile and a half to the nearest saloon. And this, in turn, was
because the call to get drunk was not very loud in my ears. Had
it been loud, I would have travelled ten times the distance to win
to the saloon. On the other hand, had the saloon been just around
the corner, I should have got drunk. As it was, I would sprawl
out in the shade on my one day of rest and dally with the Sunday
papers. But I was too weary even for their froth. The comic
supplement might bring a pallid smile to my face, and then I would
Although I did not yield to John Barleycorn while working in the
laundry, a certain definite result was produced. I had heard the
call, felt the gnaw of desire, yearned for the anodyne. I was
being prepared for the stronger desire of later years.
And the point is that this development of desire was entirely in
my brain. My body did not cry out for alcohol. As always,
alcohol was repulsive to my body. When I was bodily weary from
shovelling coal the thought of taking a drink had never flickered
into my consciousness. When I was brain-wearied after taking the
entrance examinations to the university, I promptly got drunk. At
the laundry I was suffering physical exhaustion again, and
physical exhaustion that was not nearly so profound as that of the
coal-shovelling. But there was a difference. When I went coal-
shovelling my mind had not yet awakened. Between that time and
the laundry my mind had found the kingdom of the mind. While
shovelling coal my mind was somnolent. While toiling in the
laundry my mind, informed and eager to do and be, was crucified.
And whether I yielded to drink, as at Benicia, or whether I
refrained, as at the laundry, in my brain the seeds of desire for
alcohol were germinating.
After the laundry my sister and her husband grubstaked me into the
Klondike. It was the first gold rush into that region, the early
fall rush of 1897. I was twenty-one years old, and in splendid
physical condition. I remember, at the end of the twenty-eight-
mile portage across Chilcoot from Dyea Beach to Lake Linderman, I
was packing up with the Indians and out-packing many an Indian.
The last pack into Linderman was three miles. I back-tripped it
four times a day, and on each forward trip carried one hundred and
fifty pounds. This means that over the worst trails I daily
travelled twenty-four miles, twelve of which were under a burden
of one hundred and fifty pounds.
Yes, I had let career go hang, and was on the adventure-path again
in quest of fortune. And of course, on the adventure-path, I met
John Barleycorn. Here were the chesty men again, rovers and
adventurers, and while they didn't mind a grub famine, whisky they
could not do without. Whisky went over the trail, while the flour
lay cached and untouched by the trail-side.
As good fortune would have it, the three men in my party were not
drinkers. Therefore I didn't drink save on rare occasions and
disgracefully when with other men. In my personal medicine chest
was a quart of whisky. I never drew the cork till six months
afterward, in a lonely camp, where, without anaesthetics, a doctor
was compelled to operate on a man. The doctor and the patient
emptied my bottle between them and then proceeded to the
Back in California a year later, recovering from scurvy, I found
that my father was dead and that I was the head and the sole
bread-winner of a household. When I state that I had passed coal
on a steamship from Behring Sea to British Columbia, and travelled
in the steerage from there to San Francisco, it will be understood
that I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy.
Times were hard. Work of any sort was difficult to get. And work
of any sort was what I had to take, for I was still an unskilled
labourer. I had no thought of career. That was over and done
with. I had to find food for two mouths beside my own and keep a
roof over our heads--yes, and buy a winter suit, my one suit being
decidedly summery. I had to get some sort of work immediately.
After that, when I had caught my breath, I might think about my
Unskilled labour is the first to feel the slackness of hard times,
and I had no trades save those of sailor and laundryman. With my
new responsibilities I didn't dare go to sea, and I failed to find
a job at laundrying. I failed to find a job at anything. I had
my name down in five employment bureaux. I advertised in three
newspapers. I sought out the few friends I knew who might be able
to get me work; but they were either uninterested or unable to
find anything for me.
The situation was desperate. I pawned my watch, my bicycle, and a
mackintosh of which my father had been very proud and which he had
left to me. It was and is my sole legacy in this world. It had
cost fifteen dollars, and the pawnbroker let me have two dollars
on it. And--oh, yes--a water-front comrade of earlier years
drifted along one day with a dress suit wrapped in newspapers. He
could give no adequate explanation of how he had come to possess
it, nor did I press for an explanation. I wanted the suit myself.
No; not to wear. I traded him a lot of rubbish which, being
unpawnable, was useless to me. He peddled the rubbish for several
dollars, while I pledged the dress-suit with my pawnbroker for
five dollars. And for all I know the pawnbroker still has the
suit. I had never intended to redeem it.
But I couldn't get any work. Yet I was a bargain in the labour
market. I was twenty-two years old, weighed one hundred and
sixty-five pounds stripped, every pound of which was excellent for
toil; and the last traces of my scurvy were vanishing before a
treatment of potatoes chewed raw. I tackled every opening for
employment. I tried to become a studio model, but there were too
many fine-bodied young fellows out of jobs. I answered
advertisements of elderly invalids in need of companions. And I
almost became a sewing machine agent, on commission, without
salary. But poor people don't buy sewing machines in hard times,
so I was forced to forgo that employment.
Of course, it must be remembered that along with such frivolous
occupations I was trying to get work as wop, lumper, and
roustabout. But winter was coming on, and the surplus labour army
was pouring into the cities. Also I, who had romped along
carelessly through the countries of the world and the kingdom of
the mind, was not a member of any union.
I sought odd jobs. I worked days, and half-days, at anything I
could get. I mowed lawns, trimmed hedges, took up carpets, beat
them, and laid them again. Further, I took the civil service
examinations for mail carrier and passed first. But alas! there
was no vacancy, and I must wait. And while I waited, and in
between the odd jobs I managed to procure, I started to earn ten
dollars by writing a newspaper account of a voyage I had made, in
an open boat down the Yukon, of nineteen hundred miles in nineteen
days. I didn't know the first thing about the newspaper game, but
I was confident I'd get ten dollars for my article.
But I didn't. The first San Francisco newspaper to which I mailed
it never acknowledged receipt of the manuscript, but held on to
it. The longer it held on to it the more certain I was that the
thing was accepted.
And here is the funny thing. Some are born to fortune, and some
have fortune thrust upon them. But in my case I was clubbed into
fortune, and bitter necessity wielded the club. I had long since
abandoned all thought of writing as a career. My honest intention
in writing that article was to earn ten dollars. And that was the
limit of my intention. It would help to tide me along until I got
steady employment. Had a vacancy occurred in the post office at
that time, I should have jumped at it.
But the vacancy did not occur, nor did a steady job; and I
employed the time between odd jobs with writing a twenty-one-
thousand-word serial for the "Youth's Companion." I turned it out
and typed it in seven days. I fancy that was what was the matter
with it, for it came back.
It took some time for it to go and come, and in the meantime I
tried my hand at short stories. I sold one to the "Overland
Monthly " for five dollars. The "Black Cat" gave me forty dollars
for another. The "Overland Monthly " offered me seven dollars and
a half, pay on publication, for all the stories I should deliver.
I got my bicycle, my watch, and my father's mackintosh out of pawn
and rented a typewriter. Also, I paid up the bills I owed to the
several groceries that allowed me a small credit. I recall the
Portuguese groceryman who never permitted my bill to go beyond
four dollars. Hopkins, another grocer, could not be budged beyond
And just then came the call from the post office to go to work.
It placed me in a most trying predicament. The sixty-five dollars
I could earn regularly every month was a terrible temptation. I
couldn't decide what to do. And I'll never be able to forgive the
postmaster of Oakland. I answered the call, and I talked to him
like a man. I frankly told him the situation. It looked as if I
might win out at writing. The chance was good, but not certain.
Now, if he would pass me by and select the next man on the
eligible list and give me a call at the next vacancy--
But he shut me off with: "Then you don't want the position?"
"But I do," I protested. "Don't you see, if you will pass me over
"If you want it you will take it," he said coldly.
Happily for me, the cursed brutality of the man made me angry.
"Very well," I said. "I won't take it."
Having burned my ship, I plunged into writing. I am afraid I
always was an extremist. Early and late I was at it--writing,
typing, studying grammar, studying writing and all the forms of
writing, and studying the writers who succeeded in order to find
out how they succeeded. I managed on five hours' sleep in the
twenty-four, and came pretty close to working the nineteen waking
hours left to me. My light burned till two and three in the
morning, which led a good neighbour woman into a bit of
sentimental Sherlock-Holmes deduction. Never seeing me in the
day-time, she concluded that I was a gambler, and that the light
in my window was placed there by my mother to guide her erring son
The trouble with the beginner at the writing game is the long, dry
spells, when there is never an editor's cheque and everything
pawnable is pawned. I wore my summer suit pretty well through
that winter, and the following summer experienced the longest,
dryest spell of all, in the period when salaried men are gone on
vacation and manuscripts lie in editorial offices until vacation
My difficulty was that I had no one to advise me. I didn't know a
soul who had written or who had ever tried to write. I didn't
even know one reporter. Also, to succeed at the writing game, I
found I had to unlearn about everything the teachers and
professors of literature of the high school and university had
taught me. I was very indignant about this at the time; though
now I can understand it. They did not know the trick of
successful writing in the years 1895 and 1896. They knew all
about "Snow Bound" and "Sartor Resartus"; but the American editors
of 1899 did not want such truck. They wanted the 1899 truck, and
offered to pay so well for it that the teachers and professors of
literature would have quit their jobs could they have supplied it.
I struggled along, stood off the butcher and the grocer, pawned my
watch and bicycle and my father's mackintosh, and I worked. I
really did work, and went on short commons of sleep. Critics have
complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin
Eden, achieved. In three years, from a sailor with a common
school education, I made a successful writer of him. The critics
say this is impossible. Yet I was Martin Eden. At the end of
three working years, two of which were spent in high school and
the university and one spent at writing, and all three in studying
immensely and intensely, I was publishing stories in magazines
such as the "Atlantic Monthly," was correcting proofs of my first
book (issued by Houghton, Mifflin Co.), was selling sociological
articles to "Cosmopolitan" and "McClure's," had declined an
associate editorship proffered me by telegraph from New York City,
and was getting ready to marry.
Now the foregoing means work, especially the last year of it, when
I was learning my trade as a writer. And in that year, running
short on sleep and tasking my brain to its limit, I neither drank
nor cared to drink. So far as I was concerned, alcohol did not
exist. I did suffer from brain-fag on occasion, but alcohol never
suggested itself as an ameliorative. Heavens! Editorial
acceptances and cheques were all the amelioratives I needed. A
thin envelope from an editor in the morning's mail was more
stimulating than half a dozen cocktails. And if a cheque of
decent amount came out of the envelope, such incident in itself
was a whole drunk.
Furthermore, at that time in my life I did not know what a
cocktail was. I remember, when my first book was published,
several Alaskans, who were members of the Bohemian Club,
entertained me one evening at the club in San Francisco. We sat
in most wonderful leather chairs, and drinks were ordered. Never
had I heard such an ordering of liqueurs and of highballs of
particular brands of Scotch. I didn't know what a liqueur or a
highball was, and I didn't know that "Scotch" meant whisky. I
knew only poor men's drinks, the drinks of the frontier and of
sailor-town--cheap beer and cheaper whisky that was just called
whisky and nothing else. I was embarrassed to make a choice, and
the steward nearly collapsed when I ordered claret as an after-
As I succeeded with my writing, my standard of living rose and my
horizon broadened. I confined myself to writing and typing a
thousand words a day, including Sundays and holidays; and I still
studied hard, but not so hard as formerly. I allowed myself five
and one-half hours of actual sleep. I added this half-hour
because I was compelled. Financial success permitted me more time
for exercise. I rode my wheel more, chiefly because it was
permanently out of pawn; and I boxed and fenced, walked on my
hands, jumped high and broad, put the shot and tossed the caber,
and went swimming. And I learned that more sleep is required for
physical exercise than for mental exercise. There were tired
nights, bodily, when I slept six hours; and on occasion of very
severe exercise I actually slept seven hours. But such sleep
orgies were not frequent. There was so much to learn, so much to
be done, that I felt wicked when I slept seven hours. And I
blessed the man who invented alarm clocks.
And still no desire to drink. I possessed too many fine faiths,
was living at too keen a pitch. I was a socialist, intent on
saving the world, and alcohol could not give me the fervours that
were mine from my ideas and ideals. My voice, on account of my
successful writing, had added weight, or so I thought. At any
rate, my reputation as a writer drew me audiences that my
reputation as a speaker never could have drawn. I was invited
before clubs and organisations of all sorts to deliver my message.
I fought the good fight, and went on studying and writing, and was
Up to this time I had had a very restricted circle of friends.
But now I began to go about. I was invited out, especially to
dinner, and I made many friends and acquaintances whose economic
lives were easier than mine had been. And many of them drank. In
their own houses they drank and offered me drink. They were not
drunkards any of them. They just drank temperately, and I drank
temperately with them as an act of comradeship and accepted
hospitality. I did not care for it, neither wanted it nor did not
want it, and so small was the impression made by it that I do not
remember my first cocktail nor my first Scotch highball.
Well, I had a house. When one is asked into other houses, he
naturally asks others into his house. Behold the rising standard
of living. Having been given drink in other houses, I could
expect nothing else of myself than to give drink in my own house.
So I laid in a supply of beer and whisky and table claret. Never
since that has my house not been well supplied.
And still, through all this period, I did not care in the
slightest for John Barleycorn. I drank when others drank, and
with them, as a social act. And I had so little choice in the
matter that I drank whatever they drank. If they elected whisky,
then whisky it was for me. If they drank root beer or
sarsaparilla, I drank root beer or sarsaparilla with them. And
when there were no friends in the house, why, I didn't drink
anything. Whisky decanters were always in the room where I wrote,
and for months and years I never knew what it was, when by myself,
to take a drink.
When out at dinner I noticed the kindly, genial glow of the
preliminary cocktail. It seemed a very fitting and gracious
thing. Yet so little did I stand in need of it, with my own high
intensity and vitality, that I never thought it worth while to
have a cocktail before my own meal when I ate alone.
On the other hand, I well remember a very brilliant man, somewhat
older than I, who occasionally visited me. He liked whisky, and I
recall sitting whole afternoons in my den, drinking steadily with
him, drink for drink, until he was mildly lighted up and I was
slightly aware that I had drunk some whisky. Now why did I do
this? I don't know, save that the old schooling held, the training
of the old days and nights glass in hand with men, the drinking
ways of drink and drinkers.
Besides, I no longer feared John Barleycorn. Mine was that most
dangerous stage when a man believes himself John Barleycorn's
master. I had proved it to my satisfaction in the long years of
work and study. I could drink when I wanted, refrain when I
wanted, drink without getting drunk, and to cap everything I was
thoroughly conscious that I had no liking for the stuff. During
this period I drank precisely for the same reason I had drunk with
Scotty and the harpooner and with the oyster pirates--because it
was an act that men performed with whom I wanted to behave as a
man. These brilliant ones, these adventurers of the mind, drank.
Very well. There was no reason I should not drink with them--I
who knew so confidently that I had nothing to fear from John
And the foregoing was my attitude of mind for years. Occasionally
I got well jingled, but such occasions were rare. It interfered
with my work, and I permitted nothing to interfere with my work.
I remember, when spending several months in the East End of
London, during which time I wrote a book and adventured much
amongst the worst of the slum classes, that I got drunk several
times and was mightily wroth with myself because it interfered
with my writing. Yet these very times were because I was out on
the adventure-path where John Barleycorn is always to be found.
Then, too, with the certitude of long training and unholy
intimacy, there were occasions when I engaged in drinking bouts
with men. Of course, this was on the adventure-path in various
parts of the world, and it was a matter of pride. It is a queer
man-pride that leads one to drink with men in order to show as
strong a head as they. But this queer man-pride is no theory. It
is a fact.
For instance, a wild band of young revolutionists invited me as
the guest of honour to a beer bust. It is the only technical beer
bust I ever attended. I did not know the true inwardness of the
affair when I accepted. I imagined that the talk would be wild
and high, that some of them might drink more than they ought, and
that I would drink discreetly. But it seemed these beer busts
were a diversion of these high-spirited young fellows whereby they
whiled away the tedium of existence by making fools of their
betters. As I learned afterward, they had got their previous
guest of honour, a brilliant young radical, unskilled in drinking,
When I found myself with them, and the situation dawned on me, up
rose my queer man-pride. I'd show them, the young rascals. I'd
show them who was husky and chesty, who had the vitality and the
constitution, the stomach and the head, who could make most of a
swine of himself and show it least. These unlicked cubs who
thought they could out-drink ME!
You see, it was an endurance test, and no man likes to give
another best. Faugh! it was steam beer. I had learned more
expensive brews. Not for years had I drunk steam beer; but when I
had, I had drunk with men, and I guessed I could show these
youngsters some ability in beer-guzzling. And the drinking began,
and I had to drink with the best of them. Some of them might lag,
but the guest of honour was not permitted to lag.
And all my austere nights of midnight oil, all the books I had
read, all the wisdom I had gathered, went glimmering before the
ape and tiger in me that crawled up from the abysm of my heredity,
atavistic, competitive and brutal, lustful with strength and
desire to outswine the swine.
And when the session broke up I was still on my feet, and I
walked, erect, unswaying--which was more than can be said of some
of my hosts. I recall one of them in indignant tears on the
street corner, weeping as he pointed out my sober condition.
Little he dreamed the iron clutch, born of old training, with
which I held to my consciousness in my swimming brain, kept
control of my muscles and my qualms, kept my voice unbroken and
easy and my thoughts consecutive and logical. Yes, and mixed up
with it all I was privily a-grin. They hadn't made a fool of me
in that drinking bout. And I was proud of myself for the
achievement. Darn it, I am still proud, so strangely is man
But I didn't write my thousand words next morning. I was sick,
poisoned. It was a day of wretchedness. In the afternoon I had
to give a public speech. I gave it, and I am confident it was as
bad as I felt. Some of my hosts were there in the front rows to
mark any signs on me of the night before. I don't know what signs
they marked, but I marked signs on them and took consolation in
the knowledge that they were just as sick as I.
Never again, I swore. And I have never been inveigled into
another beer bust. For that matter, that was my last drinking
bout of any sort. Oh, I have drunk ever since, but with more
wisdom, more discretion, and never in a competitive spirit. It is
thus that the seasoned drinker grows seasoned.
To show that at this period in my life drinking was wholly a
matter of companionship, I remember crossing the Atlantic in the
old Teutonic. It chanced, at the start, that I chummed with an
English cable operator and a younger member of a Spanish shipping
firm. Now the only thing they drank was "horse's neck"--a long,
soft, cool drink with an apple peel or an orange peel floating in
it. And for that whole voyage I drank horse's, necks with my two
companions. On the other hand, had they drunk whisky, I should
have drunk whisky with them. From this it must not be concluded
that I was merely weak. I didn't care. I had no morality in the
matter. I was strong with youth, and unafraid, and alcohol was an
utterly negligible question so far as I was concerned.
Not yet was I ready to tuck my arm in John Barleycorn's. The
older I got, the greater my success, the more money I earned, the
wider was the command of the world that became mine and the more
prominently did John Barleycorn bulk in my life. And still I
maintained no more than a nodding acquaintance with him. I drank
for the sake of sociability, and when alone I did not drink.
Sometimes I got jingled, but I considered such jingles the mild
price I paid for sociability.
To show how unripe I was for John Barleycorn, when, at this time,
I descended into my slough of despond, I never dreamed of turning
to John Barleycorn for a helping hand. I had life troubles and
heart troubles which are neither here nor there in this narrative.
But, combined with them, were intellectual troubles which are
Mine was no uncommon experience. I had read too much positive
science and lived too much positive life. In the eagerness of
youth I had made the ancient mistake of pursuing Truth too
relentlessly. I had torn her veils from her, and the sight was
too terrible for me to stand. In brief, I lost my fine faiths in
pretty well everything except humanity, and the humanity I
retained faith in was a very stark humanity indeed.
This long sickness of pessimism is too well known to most of us to
be detailed here. Let it suffice to state that I had it very bad.
I meditated suicide coolly, as a Greek philosopher might. My
regret was that there were too many dependent directly upon me for
food and shelter for me to quit living. But that was sheer
morality. What really saved me was the one remaining illusion--
The things I had fought for and burned my midnight oil for had
failed me. Success--I despised it. Recognition--it was dead
ashes. Society, men and women above the ruck and the muck of the
water-front and the forecastle--I was appalled by their unlovely
mental mediocrity. Love of woman--it was like all the rest.
Money--I could sleep in only one bed at a time, and of what worth
was an income of a hundred porterhouses a day when I could eat
only one? Art, culture--in the face of the iron facts of biology
such things were ridiculous, the exponents of such things only the
From the foregoing it can be seen how very sick I was. I was born
a fighter. The things I had fought for had proved not worth the
fight. Remained the PEOPLE. My fight was finished, yet something
was left still to fight for--the PEOPLE.
But while I was discovering this one last tie to bind me to life,
in my extremity, in the depths of despond, walking in the valley
of the shadow, my ears were deaf to John Barleycorn. Never the
remotest whisper arose in my consciousness that John Barleycorn
was the anodyne, that he could lie me along to live. One way only
was uppermost in my thought--my revolver, the crashing eternal
darkness of a bullet. There was plenty of whisky in the house--
for my guests. I never touched it. I grew afraid of my revolver--
afraid during the period in which the radiant, flashing vision of
the PEOPLE was forming in my mind and will. So obsessed was I
with the desire to die that I feared I might commit the act in my
sleep, and I was compelled to give my revolver away to others who
were to lose it for me where my subconscious hand might not find
But the PEOPLE saved me. By the PEOPLE was I handcuffed to life.
There was still one fight left in me, and here was the thing for
which to fight. I threw all precaution to the winds, threw myself
with fiercer zeal into the fight for socialism, laughed at the
editors and publishers who warned me and who were the sources of
my hundred porterhouses a day, and was brutally careless of whose
feelings I hurt and of how savagely I hurt them. As the "well-
balanced radicals" charged at the time, my efforts were so
strenuous, so unsafe and unsane, so ultra-revolutionary, that I
retarded the socialist development in the United States by five
years. In passing, I wish to remark, at this late date, that it
is my fond belief that I accelerated the socialist development in
the United States by at least five minutes.
It was the PEOPLE, and no thanks to John Barleycorn, who pulled me
through my long sickness. And when I was convalescent came the
love of woman to complete the cure and lull my pessimism asleep
for many a long day, until John Barleycorn again awoke it. But in
the meantime, I pursued Truth less relentlessly, refraining from
tearing her last veils aside even when I clutched them in my hand.
I no longer cared to look upon Truth naked. I refused to permit
myself to see a second time what I had once seen. And the memory
of what I had that time seen I resolutely blotted from my mind.
And I was very happy. Life went well with me, I took delight in
little things. The big things I declined to take too seriously.
I still read the books, but not with the old eagerness. I still
read the books to-day, but never again shall I read them with that
old glory of youthful passion when I harked to the call from over
and beyond that whispered me on to win to the mystery at the back
of life and behind the stars.
The point of this chapter is that, in the long sickness that at
some time comes to most of us, I came through without any appeal
for aid to John Barleycorn. Love, socialism, the PEOPLE--
healthful figments of man's mind--were the things that cured and
saved me. If ever a man was not a born alcoholic, I believe that
I am that man. And yet--well, let the succeeding chapters tell
their tale, for in them will be shown how I paid for my previous
quarter of a century of contact with ever-accessible John
After my long sickness my drinking continued to be convivial. I
drank when others drank and I was with them. But, imperceptibly,
my need for alcohol took form and began to grow. It was not a
body need. I boxed, swam, sailed, rode horses, lived in the open
an arrantly healthful life, and passed life insurance examinations
with flying colours. In its inception, now that I look back upon
it, this need for alcohol was a mental need, a nerve need, a good-
spirits need. How can I explain?
It was something like this. Physiologically, from the standpoint
of palate and stomach, alcohol was, as it had always been,
repulsive. It tasted no better than beer did when I was five,
than bitter claret did when I was seven. When I was alone,
writing or studying, I had no need for it. But--I was growing
old, or wise, or both, or senile as an alternative. When I was in
company I was less pleased, less excited, with the things said and
done. Erstwhile worth-while fun and stunts seemed no longer worth
while; and it was a torment to listen to the insipidities and
stupidities of women, to the pompous, arrogant sayings of the
little half-baked men. It is the penalty one pays for reading the
books too much, or for being oneself a fool. In my case it does
not matter which was my trouble. The trouble itself was the fact.
The condition of the fact was mine. For me the life, and light,
and sparkle of human intercourse were dwindling.
I had climbed too high among the stars, or, maybe, I had slept too
hard. Yet I was not hysterical nor in any way overwrought. My
pulse was normal. My heart was an amazement of excellence to the
insurance doctors. My lungs threw the said doctors into
ecstasies. I wrote a thousand words every day. I was
punctiliously exact in dealing with all the affairs of life that
fell to my lot. I exercised in joy and gladness. I slept at
night like a babe. But--
Well, as soon as I got out in the company of others I was driven
to melancholy and spiritual tears. I could neither laugh with nor
at the solemn utterances of men I esteemed ponderous asses; nor
could I laugh, nor engage in my old-time lightsome persiflage,
with the silly superficial chatterings of women, who, underneath
all their silliness and softness, were as primitive, direct, and
deadly in their pursuit of biological destiny as the monkeys women
were before they shed their furry coats and replaced them with the
furs of other animals.
And I was not pessimistic. I swear I was not pessimistic. I was
merely bored. I had seen the same show too often, listened too
often to the same songs and the same jokes. I knew too much about
the box office receipts. I knew the cogs of the machinery behind
the scenes so well that the posing on the stage, and the laughter
and the song, could not drown the creaking of the wheels behind.
It doesn't pay to go behind the scenes and see the angel-voiced
tenor beat his wife. Well, I'd been behind, and I was paying for
it. Or else I was a fool. It is immaterial which was my
situation. The situation is what counts, and the situation was
that social intercourse for me was getting painful and difficult.
On the other hand, it must be stated that on rare occasions, on
very rare occasions, I did meet rare souls, or fools like me, with
whom I could spend magnificent hours among the stars, or in the
paradise of fools. I was married to a rare soul, or a fool, who
never bored me and who was always a source of new and unending
surprise and delight. But I could not spend all my hours solely
in her company.
Nor would it have been fair, nor wise, to compel her to spend all
her hours in my company. Besides, I had written a string of
successful books, and society demands some portion of the
recreative hours of a fellow that writes books. And any normal
man, of himself and his needs, demands some hours of his fellow
And now we begin to come to it. How to face the social
intercourse game with the glamour gone? John Barleycorn. The ever
patient one had waited a quarter of a century and more for me to
reach my hand out in need of him. His thousand tricks had failed,
thanks to my constitution and good luck, but he had more tricks in
his bag. A cocktail or two, or several, I found, cheered me up
for the foolishness of foolish people. A cocktail, or several,
before dinner, enabled me to laugh whole-heartedly at things which
had long since ceased being laughable. The cocktail was a prod, a
spur, a kick, to my jaded mind and bored spirits. It recrudesced
the laughter and the song, and put a lilt into my own imagination
so that I could laugh and sing and say foolish things with the
liveliest of them, or platitudes with verve and intensity to the
satisfaction of the pompous mediocre ones who knew no other way to
A poor companion without a cocktail, I became a very good
companion with one. I achieved a false exhilaration, drugged
myself to merriment. And the thing began so imperceptibly that I,
old intimate of John Barleycorn, never dreamed whither it was
leading me. I was beginning to call for music and wine; soon I
should be calling for madder music and more wine.
It was at this time I became aware of waiting with expectancy for
the pre-dinner cocktail. I WANTED it, and I was CONSCIOUS that I
wanted it. I remember, while war-corresponding in the Far East,
of being irresistibly attracted to a certain home. Besides
accepting all invitations to dinner, I made a point of dropping in
almost every afternoon. Now, the hostess was a charming woman,
but it was not for her sake that I was under her roof so
frequently. It happened that she made by far the finest cocktail
procurable in that large city where drink-mixing on the part of
the foreign population was indeed an art. Up at the club, down at
the hotels, and in other private houses, no such cocktails were
created. Her cocktails were subtle. They were masterpieces.
They were the least repulsive to the palate and carried the most
"kick." And yet, I desired her cocktails only for sociability's
sake, to key myself to sociable moods. When I rode away from that
city, across hundreds of miles of rice-fields and mountains, and
through months of campaigning, and on with the victorious Japanese
into Manchuria, I did not drink. Several bottles of whisky were
always to be found on the backs of my pack-horses. Yet I never
broached a bottle for myself, never took a drink by myself, and
never knew a desire to take such a drink. Oh, if a white man came
into my camp, I opened a bottle and we drank together according to
the way of men, just as he would open a bottle and drink with me
if I came into his camp. I carried that whisky for social
purposes, and I so charged it up in my expense account to the
newspaper for which I worked.
Only in retrospect can I mark the almost imperceptible growth of
my desire. There were little hints then that I did not take,
little straws in the wind that I did not see, little incidents the
gravity of which I did not realise.
For instance, for some years it had been my practice each winter
to cruise for six or eight weeks on San Francisco Bay. My stout
sloop yacht, the Spray, had a comfortable cabin and a coal stove.
A Korean boy did the cooking, and I usually took a friend or so
along to share the joys of the cruise. Also, I took my machine
along and did my thousand words a day. On the particular trip I
have in mind, Cloudesley and Toddy came along. This was Toddy's
first trip. On previous trips Cloudesley had elected to drink
beer; so I had kept the yacht supplied with beer and had drunk
beer with him.
But on this cruise the situation was different. Toddy was so
nicknamed because of his diabolical cleverness in concocting
toddies. So I brought whisky along--a couple of gallons. Alas!
Many another gallon I bought, for Cloudesley and I got into the
habit of drinking a certain hot toddy that actually tasted
delicious going down and that carried the most exhilarating kick
I liked those toddies. I grew to look forward to the making of
them. We drank them regularly, one before breakfast, one before
dinner, one before supper, and a final one when we went to bed.
We never got drunk. But I will say that four times a day we were
very genial. And when, in the middle of the cruise, Toddy was
called back to San Francisco on business, Cloudesley and I saw to
it that the Korean boy mixed toddies regularly for us according to
But that was only on the boat. Back on the land, in my house, I
took no before breakfast eye-opener, no bed-going nightcap. And I
haven't drunk hot toddies since, and that was many a year ago.
But the point is, I LIKED those toddies. The geniality of which
they were provocative was marvellous. They were eloquent
proselyters for John Barleycorn in their own small insidious way.
They were tickles of the something destined to grow into daily and
deadly desire. And I didn't know, never dreamed--I, who had lived
with John Barleycorn for so many years and laughed at all his
unavailing attempts to win me.
Part of the process of recovering from my long sickness was to
find delight in little things, in things unconnected with books
and problems, in play, in games of tag in the swimming pool, in
flying kites, in fooling with horses, in working out mechanical
puzzles. As a result, I grew tired of the city. On the ranch, in
the Valley of the Moon, I found my paradise. I gave up living in
cities. All the cities held for me were music, the theatre, and
And all went well with me. I worked hard, played hard, and was
very happy. I read more fiction and less fact. I did not study a
tithe as much as I had studied in the past. I still took an
interest in the fundamental problems of existence, but it was a
very cautious interest; for I had burned my fingers that time I
clutched at the veils of Truth and wrested them from her. There
was a bit of lie in this attitude of mine, a bit of hypocrisy; but
the lie and the hypocrisy were those of a man desiring to live. I
deliberately blinded myself to what I took to be the savage
interpretation of biological fact. After all, I was merely
forswearing a bad habit, forgoing a bad frame of mind. And I
repeat, I was very happy. And I add, that in all my days,
measuring them with cold, considerative judgment, this was, far
and away beyond all other periods, the happiest period of my life.
But the time was at hand, rhymeless and reasonless so far as I can
see, when I was to begin to pay for my score of years of dallying
with John Barleycorn. Occasionally guests journeyed to the ranch
and remained a few days. Some did not drink. But to those who
did drink, the absence of all alcohol on the ranch was a hardship.
I could not violate my sense of hospitality by compelling them to
endure this hardship. I ordered in a stock--for my guests.
I was never interested enough in cocktails to know how they were
made. So I got a bar-keeper in Oakland to make them in bulk and
ship them to me. When I had no guests I didn't drink. But I
began to notice, when I finished my morning's work, that I was
glad if there were a guest, for then I could drink a cocktail with
Now I was so clean of alcohol that even a single cocktail was
provocative of pitch. A single cocktail would glow the mind and
tickle a laugh for the few minutes prior to sitting down to table
and starting the delightful process of eating. On the other hand,
such was the strength of my stomach, of my alcoholic resistance,
that the single cocktail was only the glimmer of a glow, the
faintest tickle of a laugh. One day, a friend frankly and
shamelessly suggested a second cocktail. I drank the second one
with him. The glow was appreciably longer and warmer, the
laughter deeper and more resonant. One does not forget such
experiences. Sometimes I almost think that it was because I was
so very happy that I started on my real drinking.
I remember one day Charmian and I took a long ride over the
mountains on our horses. The servants had been dismissed for the
day, and we returned late at night to a jolly chafing-dish supper.
Oh, it was good to be alive that night while the supper was
preparing, the two of us alone in the kitchen. I, personally, was
at the top of life. Such things as the books and ultimate truth
did not exist. My body was gloriously healthy, and healthily
tired from the long ride. It had been a splendid day. The night
was splendid. I was with the woman who was my mate, picnicking in
gleeful abandon. I had no troubles. The bills were all paid, and
a surplus of money was rolling in on me. The future ever-widened
before me. And right there, in the kitchen, delicious things
bubbled in the chafing-dish, our laughter bubbled, and my stomach
was keen with a most delicious edge of appetite.
I felt so good, that somehow, somewhere, in me arose an insatiable
greed to feel better. I was so happy that I wanted to pitch my
happiness even higher. And I knew the way. Ten thousand contacts
with John Barleycorn had taught me. Several times I wandered out
of the kitchen to the cocktail bottle, and each time I left it
diminished by one man's size cocktail. The result was splendid.
I wasn't jingled, I wasn't lighted up; but I was warmed, I glowed,
my happiness was pyramided. Munificent as life was to me, I added
to that munificence. It was a great hour--one of my greatest.
But I paid for it, long afterwards, as you will see. One does not
forget such experiences, and, in human stupidity, cannot be
brought to realise that there is no immutable law which decrees
that same things shall produce same results. For they don't, else
would the thousandth pipe of opium be provocative of similar
delights to the first, else would one cocktail, instead of
several, produce an equivalent glow after a year of cocktails.
One day, just before I ate midday dinner, after my morning's
writing was done, when I had no guest, I took a cocktail by
myself. Thereafter, when there were no guests, I took this daily
pre-dinner cocktail. And right there John Barleycorn had me. I
was beginning to drink regularly. I was beginning to drink alone.
And I was beginning to drink, not for hospitality's sake, not for
the sake of the taste, but for the effect of the drink.
I WANTED that daily pre-dinner cocktail. And it never crossed my
mind that there was any reason I should not have it. I paid for
it. I could pay for a thousand cocktails each day if I wanted.
And what was a cocktail--one cocktail--to me who on so many
occasions for so many years had drunk inordinate quantities of
stiffer stuff and been unharmed?
The programme of my ranch life was as follows: Each morning, at
eight-thirty, having been reading or correcting proofs in bed
since four or five, I went to my desk. Odds and ends of
correspondence and notes occupied me till nine, and at nine sharp,
invariably, I began my writing. By eleven, sometimes a few
minutes earlier or later, my thousand words were finished.
Another half-hour at cleaning up my desk, and my day's work was
done, so that at eleven-thirty I got into a hammock under the
trees with my mail-bag and the morning newspaper. At twelve-
thirty I ate dinner and in the afternoon I swam and rode.
One morning, at eleven-thirty, before I got into the hammock, I
took a cocktail. I repeated this on subsequent mornings, of
course, taking another cocktail just before I ate at twelve-
thirty. Soon I found myself, seated at my desk in the midst of my
thousand words, looking forward to that eleven-thirty cocktail.
At last, now, I was thoroughly conscious that I desired alcohol.
But what of it? I wasn't afraid of John Barleycorn. I had
associated with him too long. I was wise in the matter of drink.
I was discreet. Never again would I drink to excess. I knew the
dangers and the pitfalls of John Barleycorn, the various ways by
which he had tried to kill me in the past. But all that was past,
long past. Never again would I drink myself to stupefaction.
Never again would I get drunk. All I wanted, and all I would
take, was just enough to glow and warm me, to kick geniality alive
in me and put laughter in my throat and stir the maggots of
imagination slightly in my brain. Oh, I was thoroughly master of
myself, and of John Barleycorn.
But the same stimulus to the human organism will not continue to
produce the same response. By and by I discovered there was no
kick at all in one cocktail. One cocktail left me dead. There
was no glow, no laughter tickle. Two or three cocktails were
required to produce the original effect of one. And I wanted that
effect. I drank my first cocktail at eleven-thirty when I took
the morning's mail into the hammock, and I drank my second
cocktail an hour later just before I ate. I got into the habit of
crawling out of the hammock ten minutes earlier so as to find time
and decency for two more cocktails ere I ate. This became
schedule--three cocktails in the hour that intervened between my
desk and dinner. And these are two of the deadliest drinking
habits: regular drinking and solitary drinking.
I was always willing to drink when any one was around. I drank by
myself when no one was around. Then I made another step. When I
had for guest a man of limited drinking calibre, I took two drinks
to his one--one drink with him, the other drink without him and of
which he did not know. I STOLE that other drink, and, worse than
that, I began the habit of drinking alone when there was a guest,
a man, a comrade, with whom I could have drunk. But John
Barleycorn furnished the extenuation. It was a wrong thing to
trip a guest up with excess of hospitality and get him drunk. If
I persuaded him, with his limited calibre, into drinking up with
me, I'd surely get him drunk. What could I do but steal that
every second drink, or else deny myself the kick equivalent to
what he got out of half the number?
Please remember, as I recite this development of my drinking, that
I am no fool, no weakling. As the world measures such things, I
am a success--I dare to say a success more conspicuous than the
success of the average successful man, and a success that required
a pretty fair amount of brains and will power. My body is a
strong body. It has survived where weaklings died like flies.
And yet these things which I am relating happened to my body and
to me. I am a fact. My drinking is a fact. My drinking is a
thing that has happened, and is no theory nor speculation; and, as
I see it, it but lays the emphasis on the power of John
Barleycorn--a savagery that we still permit to exist, a deadly
institution that lingers from the mad old brutal days and that
takes its heavy toll of youth and strength, and high spirit, and
of very much of all of the best we breed.
To return. After a boisterous afternoon in the swimming pool,
followed by a glorious ride on horseback over the mountains or up
or down the Valley of the Moon, I found myself so keyed and
splendid that I desired to be more highly keyed, to feel more
splendid. I knew the way. A cocktail before supper was not the
way. Two or three, at the very least, was what was needed. I
took them. Why not? It was living. I had always dearly loved to
live. This also became part of the daily schedule.
Then, too, I was perpetually finding excuses for extra cocktails.
It might be the assembling of a particularly jolly crowd; a touch
of anger against my architect or against a thieving stone-mason
working on my barn; the death of my favourite horse in a barbed
wire fence; or news of good fortune in the morning mail from my
dealings with editors and publishers. It was immaterial what the
excuse might be, once the desire had germinated in me. The thing
was: I WANTED alcohol. At last, after a score and more of years
of dallying and of not wanting, now I wanted it. And my strength
was my weakness. I required two, three, or four drinks to get an
effect commensurate with the effect the average man got out of one
One rule I observed. I never took a drink until my day's work of
writing a thousand words was done. And, when done, the cocktails
reared a wall of inhibition in my brain between the day's work
done and the rest of the day of fun to come. My work ceased from
my consciousness. No thought of it flickered in my brain till
next morning at nine o'clock when I sat at my desk and began my
next thousand words. This was a desirable condition of mind to
achieve. I conserved my energy by means of this alcoholic
inhibition. John Barleycorn was not so black as he was painted.
He did a fellow many a good turn, and this was one of them.
And I turned out work that was healthful, and wholesome, and
sincere. It was never pessimistic. The way to life I had learned
in my long sickness. I knew the illusions were right, and I
exalted the illusions. Oh, I still turn out the same sort of
work, stuff that is clean, alive, optimistic, and that makes
toward life. And I am always assured by the critics of my super-
abundant and abounding vitality, and of how thoroughly I am
deluded by these very illusions I exploit.
And while on this digression, let me repeat the question I have
repeated to myself ten thousand times. WHY DID I DRINK? What
need was there for it? I was happy. Was it because I was too
happy? I was strong. Was it because I was too strong? Did I
possess too much vitality? I don't know why I drank. I cannot
answer, though I can voice the suspicion that ever grows in me. I
had been in too-familiar contact with John Barleycorn through too
many years. A left-handed man, by long practice, can become a
right-handed man. Had I, a non-alcoholic, by long practice become
I was so happy. I had won through my long sickness to the
satisfying love of woman. I earned more money with less
endeavour. I glowed with health. I slept like a babe. I
continued to write successful books, and in sociological
controversy I saw my opponents confuted with the facts of the
times that daily reared new buttresses to my intellectual
position. From day's end to day's end I never knew sorrow,
disappointment, nor regret. I was happy all the time. Life was
one unending song. I begrudged the very hours of blessed sleep
because by that much was I robbed of the joy that would have been
mine had I remained awake. And yet I drank. And John Barleycorn,
all unguessed by me, was setting the stage for a sickness all his
The more I drank the more I was required to drink to get an
equivalent effect. When I left the Valley of the Moon, and went
to the city, and dined out, a cocktail served at table was a wan
and worthless thing. There was no pre-dinner kick in it. On my
way to dinner I was compelled to accumulate the kick--two
cocktails, three, and, if I met some fellows, four or five, or
six, it didn't matter within several. Once, I was in a rush. I
had no time decently to accumulate the several drinks. A
brilliant idea came to me. I told the barkeeper to mix me a
double cocktail. Thereafter, whenever I was in a hurry, I ordered
double cocktails. It saved time.
One result of this regular heavy drinking was to jade me. My mind
grew so accustomed to spring and liven by artificial means that
without artificial means it refused to spring and liven. Alcohol
became more and more imperative in order to meet people, in order
to become sociably fit. I had to get the kick and the hit of the
stuff, the crawl of the maggots, the genial brain glow, the
laughter tickle, the touch of devilishness and sting, the smile
over the face of things, ere I could join my fellows and make one
Another result was that John Barleycorn was beginning to trip me
up. He was thrusting my long sickness back upon me, inveigling me
into again pursuing Truth and snatching her veils away from her,
tricking me into looking reality stark in the face. But this came
on gradually. My thoughts were growing harsh again, though they
grew harsh slowly.
Sometimes warning thoughts crossed my mind. Where was this steady
drinking leading? But trust John Barleycorn to silence such
questions. "Come on and have a drink and I'll tell you all about
it," is his way. And it works. For instance, the following is a
case in point, and one which John Barleycorn never wearied of
I had suffered an accident which required a ticklish operation.
One morning, a week after I had come off the table, I lay on my
hospital bed, weak and weary. The sunburn of my face, what little
of it could be seen through a scraggly growth of beard, had faded
to a sickly yellow. My doctor stood at my bedside on the verge of
departure. He glared disapprovingly at the cigarette I was
"That's what you ought to quit," he lectured. "It will get you in
the end. Look at me."
I looked. He was about my own age, broad-shouldered, deep-
chested, eyes sparkling, and ruddy-cheeked with health. A finer
specimen of manhood one would not ask.
"I used to smoke," he went on. "Cigars. But I gave even them up.
And look at me."
The man was arrogant, and rightly arrogant, with conscious well-
being. And within a month he was dead. It was no accident. Half
a dozen different bugs of long scientific names had attacked and
destroyed him. The complications were astonishing and painful,
and for days before he died the screams of agony of that splendid
manhood could be heard for a block around. He died screaming.
"You see," said John Barleycorn. "He took care of himself. He
even stopped smoking cigars. And that's what he got for it.
Pretty rotten, eh? But the bugs will jump. There's no forefending
them. Your magnificent doctor took every precaution, yet they got
him. When the bug jumps you can't tell where it will land. It
may be you. Look what he missed. Will you miss all I can give
you, only to have a bug jump on you and drag you down? There is no
equity in life. It's all a lottery. But I put the lying smile on
the face of life and laugh at the facts. Smile with me and laugh.
You'll get yours in the end, but in the meantime laugh. It's a
pretty dark world. I illuminate it for you. It's a rotten world,
when things can happen such as happened to your doctor. There's
only one thing to do: take another drink and forget it."
And, of course, I took another drink for the inhibition that
accompanied it. I took another drink every time John Barleycorn
reminded me of what had happened. Yet I drank rationally,
intelligently. I saw to it that the quality of the stuff was of
the best. I sought the kick and the inhibition, and avoided the
penalties of poor quality and of drunkenness. It is to be
remarked, in passing, that when a man begins to drink rationally
and intelligently that he betrays a grave symptom of how far along
the road he has travelled.
But I continued to observe my rule of never taking my first drink
of the day until the last word of my thousand words was written.
On occasion, however, I took a day's vacation from my writing. At
such times, since it was no violation of my rule, I didn't mind
how early in the day I took that first drink. And persons who
have never been through the drinking game wonder how the drinking
When the Snark sailed on her long cruise from San Francisco there
was nothing to drink on board. Or, rather, we were all of us
unaware that there was anything to drink, nor did we discover it
for many a month. This sailing with a "dry " boat was malice
aforethought on my part. I had played John Barleycorn a trick.
And it showed that I was listening ever so slightly to the faint
warnings that were beginning to arise in my consciousness.
Of course, I veiled the situation to myself and excused myself to
John Barleycorn. And I was very scientific about it. I said that
I would drink only while in ports. During the dry sea-stretches
my system would be cleansed of the alcohol that soaked it, so that
when I reached a port I should be in shape to enjoy John
Barleycorn more thoroughly. His bite would be sharper, his kick
keener and more delicious.
We were twenty-seven days on the traverse between San Francisco
and Honolulu. After the first day out, the thought of a drink
never troubled me. This I take to show how intrinsically I am not
an alcoholic. Sometimes, during the traverse, looking ahead and
anticipating the delightful lanai luncheons and dinners of Hawaii
(I had been there a couple of times before), I thought, naturally,
of the drinks that would precede those meals. I did not think of
those drinks with any yearning, with any irk at the length of the
voyage. I merely thought they would be nice and jolly, part of
the atmosphere of a proper meal.
Thus, once again I proved to my complete satisfaction that I was
John Barleycorn's master. I could drink when I wanted, refrain
when I wanted. Therefore I would continue to drink when I wanted.
Some five months were spent in the various islands of the Hawaiian
group. Being ashore, I drank. I even drank a bit more than I had
been accustomed to drink in California prior to the voyage. The
people in Hawaii seemed to drink a bit more, on the average, than
the people in more temperate latitudes. I do not intend the pun,
and can awkwardly revise the statement to "latitudes more remote
from the equator;" Yet Hawaii is only sub-tropical. The deeper I
got into the tropics, the deeper I found men drank, the deeper I
From Hawaii we sailed for the Marquesas. The traverse occupied
sixty days. For sixty days we never raised land, a sail, nor a
steamer smoke. But early in those sixty days the cook, giving an
overhauling to the galley, made a find. Down in the bottom of a
deep locker he found a dozen bottles of angelica and muscatel.
These had come down from the kitchen cellar of the ranch along
with the home-preserved fruits and jellies. Six months in the
galley heat had effected some sort of a change in the thick sweet
wine--branded it, I imagine.
I took a taste. Delicious! And thereafter, once each day, at
twelve o'clock, after our observations were worked up and the
Snark's position charted, I drank half a tumbler of the stuff. It
had a rare kick to it. It warmed the cockles of my geniality and
put a fairer face on the truly fair face of the sea. Each
morning, below, sweating out my thousand words, I found myself
looking forward to that twelve o'clock event of the day.
The trouble was I had to share the stuff, and the length of the
traverse was doubtful. I regretted that there were not more than
a dozen bottles. And when they were gone I even regretted that I
had shared any of it. I was thirsty for the alcohol, and eager to
arrive in the Marquesas.
So it was that I reached the Marquesas the possessor of a real
man's size thirst. And in the Marquesas were several white men, a
lot of sickly natives, much magnificent scenery, plenty of trade
rum, an immense quantity of absinthe, but neither whisky nor gin.
The trade rum scorched the skin off one's mouth. I know, because
I tried it. But I had ever been plastic, and I accepted the
absinthe. The trouble with the stuff was that I had to take such
inordinate quantities in order to feel the slightest effect.
From the Marquesas I sailed with sufficient absinthe in ballast to
last me to Tahiti, where I outfitted with Scotch and American
whisky, and thereafter there were no dry stretches between ports.
But please do not misunderstand. There was no drunkenness, as
drunkenness is ordinarily understood--no staggering and rolling
around, no befuddlement of the senses. The skilled and seasoned
drinker, with a strong constitution, never descends to anything
like that. He drinks to feel good, to get a pleasant jingle, and
no more than that. The things he carefully avoids are the nausea
of over-drinking, the after-effect of over-drinking, the
helplessness and loss of pride of over-drinking.
What the skilled and seasoned drinker achieves is a discreet and
canny semi-intoxication. And he does it by the twelve-month
around without any apparent penalty. There are hundreds of
thousands of men of this sort in the United States to-day, in
clubs, hotels, and in their own homes--men who are never drunk,
and who, though most of them will indignantly deny it, are rarely
sober. And all of them fondly believe, as I fondly believed, that
they are beating the game.
On the sea-stretches I was fairly abstemious; but ashore I drank
more. I seemed to need more, anyway, in the tropics. This is a
common experience, for the excessive consumption of alcohol in the
tropics by white men is a notorious fact. The tropics is no place
for white-skinned men. Their skin-pigment does not protect them
against the excessive white light of the sun. The ultra-violet
rays, and other high-velocity and invisible rays from the upper
end of the spectrum, rip and tear through their tissues, just as
the X-ray ripped and tore through the tissues of so many
experimenters before they learned the danger.
White men in the tropics undergo radical changes of nature. They
become savage, merciless. They commit monstrous acts of cruelty
that they would never dream of committing in their original
temperate climate. They become nervous, irritable, and less
moral. And they drink as they never drank before. Drinking is
one form of the many forms of degeneration that set in when white
men are exposed too long to too much white light. The increase of
alcoholic consumption is automatic. The tropics is no place for a
long sojourn. They seem doomed to die anyway, and the heavy
drinking expedites the process. They don't reason about it. They
just do it.
The sun sickness got me, despite the fact that I had been in the
tropics only a couple of years. I drank heavily during this time,
but right here I wish to forestall misunderstanding. The drinking
was not the cause of the sickness, nor of the abandonment of the
voyage. I was strong as a bull, and for many months I fought the
sun sickness that was ripping and tearing my surface and nervous
tissues to pieces. All through the New Hebrides and the Solomons
and up among the atolls on the Line, during this period under a
tropic sun, rotten with malaria, and suffering from a few minor
afflictions such as Biblical leprosy with the silvery skin, I did
the work of five men.
To navigate a vessel through the reefs and shoals and passages and
unlighted coasts of the coral seas is a man's work in itself. I
was the only navigator on board. There was no one to check me up
on the working out of my observations, nor with whom I could
advise in the ticklish darkness among uncharted reefs and shoals.
And I stood all watches. There was no sea-man on board whom I
could trust to stand a mate's watch. I was mate as well as
captain. Twenty-four hours a day were the watches I stood at sea,
catching cat-naps when I might. Third, I was doctor. And let me
say right here that the doctor's job on the Snark at that time was
a man's job. All on board suffered from malaria--the real,
tropical malaria that can kill in three months. All on board
suffered from perforating ulcers and from the maddening itch of
ngari-ngari. A Japanese cook went insane from his too numerous
afflictions. One of my Polynesian sailors lay at death's door
with blackwater fever. Oh, yes, it was a full man's job, and I
dosed and doctored, and pulled teeth, and dragged my patients
through mild little things like ptomaine poisoning.
Fourth, I was a writer. I sweated out my thousand words a day,
every day, except when the shock of fever smote me, or a couple of
nasty squalls smote the Snark, in the morning. Fifth, I was a
traveller and a writer, eager to see things and to gather material
into my note-books. And, sixth, I was master and owner of the
craft that was visiting strange places where visitors are rare and
where visitors are made much of. So here I had to hold up the
social end, entertain on board, be entertained ashore by planters,
traders, governors, captains of war vessels, kinky-headed cannibal
kings, and prime ministers sometimes fortunate enough to be clad
in cotton shifts.
Of course I drank. I drank with my guests and hosts. Also, I
drank by myself. Doing the work of five men, I thought, entitled
me to drink. Alcohol was good for a man who over-worked. I noted
its effect on my small crew, when, breaking their backs and hearts
at heaving up anchor in forty fathoms, they knocked off gasping
and trembling at the end of half an hour and had new life put into
them by stiff jolts of rum. They caught their breaths, wiped
their mouths, and went to it again with a will. And when we
careened the Snark and had to work in the water to our necks
between shocks of fever, I noted how raw trade rum helped the work
And here again we come to another side of many-sided John
Barleycorn. On the face of it, he gives something for nothing.
Where no strength remains he finds new strength. The wearied one
rises to greater effort. For the time being there is an actual
accession of strength. I remember passing coal on an ocean
steamer through eight days of hell, during which time we coal-
passers were kept to the job by being fed with whisky. We toiled
half drunk all the time. And without the whisky we could not have
passed the coal.
This strength John Barleycorn gives is not fictitious strength.
It is real strength. But it is manufactured out of the sources of
strength, and it must ultimately be paid for, and with interest.
But what weary human will look so far ahead? He takes this
apparently miraculous accession of strength at its face value.
And many an overworked business and professional man, as well as a
harried common labourer, has travelled John Barleycorn's death
road because of this mistake.
I went to Australia to go into hospital and get tinkered up, after
which I planned to go on with the voyage. And during the long
weeks I lay in hospital, from the first day I never missed
alcohol. I never thought about it. I knew I should have it again
when I was on my feet. But when I regained my feet I was not
cured of my major afflictions. Naaman's silvery skin was still
mine. The mysterious sun-sickness, which the experts of Australia
could not fathom, still ripped and tore my tissues. Malaria still
festered in me and put me on my back in shivering delirium at the
most unexpected moments, compelling me to cancel a double lecture
tour which had been arranged.
So I abandoned the Snark voyage and sought a cooler climate. The
day I came out of hospital I took up drinking again as a matter of
course. I drank wine at meals. I drank cocktails before meals.
I drank Scotch highballs when anybody I chanced to be with was
drinking them. I was so thoroughly the master of John Barleycorn
I could take up with him or let go of him whenever I pleased, just
as I had done all my life.
After a time, for cooler climate, I went down to southermost
Tasmania in forty-three South. And I found myself in a place
where there was nothing to drink. It didn't mean anything. I
didn't drink. It was no hardship. I soaked in the cool air, rode
horseback, and did my thousand words a day save when the fever
shock came in the morning.
And for fear that the idea may still lurk in some minds that my
preceding years of drinking were the cause of my disabilities, I
here point out that my Japanese cabin boy, Nakata, still with me,
was rotten with fever, as was Charmian, who in addition was in the
slough of a tropical neurasthenia that required several years of
temperate climates to cure, and that neither she nor Nakata drank
or ever had drunk.
When I returned to Hobart Town, where drink was obtainable, I
drank as of old. The same when I arrived back in Australia. On
the contrary, when I sailed from Australia on a tramp steamer
commanded by an abstemious captain, I took no drink along, and had
no drink for the forty-three days' passage. Arrived in Ecuador,
squarely under the equatorial sun, where the humans were dying of
yellow fever, smallpox, and the plague, I promptly drank again--
every drink of every sort that had a kick in it. I caught none of
these diseases. Neither did Charmian nor Nakata who did not
Enamoured of the tropics, despite the damage done me, I stopped in
various places, and was a long while getting back to the splendid,
temperate climate of California. I did my thousand words a day,
travelling or stopping over, suffered my last faint fever shock,
saw my silvery skin vanish and my sun-torn tissues healthily knit
again, and drank as a broad-shouldered chesty man may drink.
Back on the ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, I resumed my steady
drinking. My programme was no drink in the morning; first drink-
time came with the completion of my thousand words. Then, between
that and the midday meal, were drinks numerous enough to develop a
pleasant jingle. Again, in the hour preceding the evening meal, I
developed another pleasant jingle. Nobody ever saw me drunk, for
the simple reason that I never was drunk. But I did get a jingle
twice each day; and the amount of alcohol I consumed every day, if
loosed in the system of one unaccustomed to drink, would have put
such a one on his back and out.
It was the old proposition. The more I drank, the more I was
compelled to drink in order to get an effect. The time came when
cocktails were inadequate. I had neither the time in which to
drink them nor the space to accommodate them. Whisky had a more
powerful jolt. It gave quicker action with less quantity.
Bourbon or rye, or cunningly aged blends, constituted the pre-
midday drinking. In the late afternoon it was Scotch and soda.
My sleep, always excellent, now became not quite so excellent. I
had been accustomed to read myself back asleep when I chanced to
awake. But now this began to fail me. When I had read two or
three of the small hours away and was as wide awake as ever, I
found that a drink furnished the soporific effect. Sometimes two
or three drinks were required.
So short a period of sleep then intervened before early morning
rising that my system did not have time to work off the alcohol.
As a result I awoke with mouth parched and dry, with a slight
heaviness of head, and with a mild nervous palpitation in the
stomach. In fact I did not feel good. I was suffering from the
morning sickness of the steady, heavy drinker. What I needed was
a pick-me-up, a bracer. Trust John Barleycorn, once he has broken
down a man's defences! So it was a drink before breakfast to put
me right for breakfast--the old poison of the snake that has
bitten one! Another custom begun at this time was that of the
pitcher of water by the bedside to furnish relief to my scorched
and sizzling membranes.
I achieved a condition in which my body was never free from
alcohol. Nor did I permit myself to be away from alcohol. If I
travelled to out-of-the-way places, I declined to run the risk of
finding them dry. I took a quart, or several quarts, along in my
grip. In the past I had been amazed by other men guilty of this
practice. Now I did it myself unblushingly. And when I got out
with the fellows, I cast all rules by the board. I drank when
they drank, what they drank, and in the same way they drank.
I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me.
The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was
no time, in all my waking time, that I didn't want a drink. I
began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by
taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was
not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with
The gravity of this I realised too well. I made new rules.
Resolutely I would refrain from drinking until my work was done.
But a new and most diabolical complication arose. The work
refused to be done without drinking. It just couldn't be done. I
had to drink in order to do it. I was beginning to fight now. I
had the craving at last, and it was mastering me. I would sit at
my desk and dally with pad and pen, but words refused to flow. My
brain could not think the proper thoughts because continually it
was obsessed with the one thought that across the room in the
liquor cabinet stood John Barleycorn. When, in despair, I took my
drink, at once my brain loosened up and began to roll off the
In my town house, in Oakland, I finished the stock of liquor and
wilfully refused to purchase more. It was no use, because,
unfortunately, there remained in the bottom of the liquor cabinet
a case of beer. In vain I tried to write. Now beer is a poor
substitute for strong waters: besides, I didn't like beer, yet all
I could think of was that beer so singularly accessible in the
bottom of the cabinet. Not until I had drunk a pint of it did the
words begin to reel off, and the thousand were reeled off to the
tune of numerous pints. The worst of it was that the beer caused
me severe heart-burn; but despite the discomfort I soon finished
off the case.
The liquor cabinet was now bare. I did not replenish it. By
truly heroic perseverance I finally forced myself to write the
daily thousand words without the spur of John Barleycorn. But all
the time I wrote I was keenly aware of the craving for a drink.
And as soon as the morning's work was done, I was out of the house
and away down-town to get my first drink. Merciful goodness!--if
John Barleycorn could get such sway over me, a non-alcoholic, what
must be the sufferings of the true alcoholic, battling against the
organic demands of his chemistry while those closest to him
sympathise little, understand less, and despise and deride him!
But the freight has to be paid. John Barleycorn began to collect,
and he collected not so much from the body as from the mind. The
old long sickness, which had been purely an intellectual sickness,
recrudesced. The old ghosts, long laid, lifted their heads again.
But they were different and more deadly ghosts. The old ghosts,
intellectual in their inception, had been laid by a sane and
normal logic. But now they were raised by the White Logic of John
Barleycorn, and John Barleycorn never lays the ghosts of his
raising. For this sickness of pessimism, caused by drink, one
must drink further in quest of the anodyne that John Barleycorn
promises but never delivers.
How to describe this White Logic to those who have never
experienced it! It is perhaps better first to state how impossible
such a description is. Take Hasheesh Land, for instance, the land
of enormous extensions of time and space. In past years I have
made two memorable journeys into that far land. My adventures
there are seared in sharpest detail on my brain. Yet I have tried
vainly, with endless words, to describe any tiny particular phase
to persons who have not travelled there.
I use all the hyperbole of metaphor, and tell what centuries of
time and profounds of unthinkable agony and horror can obtain in
each interval of all the intervals between the notes of a quick
jig played quickly on the piano. I talk for an hour, elaborating
that one phase of Hasheesh Land, and at the end I have told them
nothing. And when I cannot tell them this one thing of all the
vastness of terrible and wonderful things, I know I have failed to
give them the slightest concept of Hasheesh Land.
But let me talk with some other traveller in that weird region,
and at once am I understood. A phrase, a word, conveys instantly
to his mind what hours of words and phrases could not convey to
the mind of the non-traveller. So it is with John Barleycorn's
realm where the White Logic reigns. To those untravelled there,
the traveller's account must always seem unintelligible and
fantastic. At the best, I may only beg of the untravelled ones to
strive to take on faith the narrative I shall relate.
For there are fatal intuitions of truth that reside in alcohol.
Philip sober vouches for Philip drunk in this matter. There seem
to be various orders of truth in this world. Some sorts of truth
are truer than others. Some sorts of truth are lies, and these
sorts are the very ones that have the greatest use-value to life
that desires to realise and live. At once, O untravelled reader,
you see how lunatic and blasphemous is the realm I am trying to
describe to you in the language of John Barleycorn's tribe. It is
not the language of your tribe, all of whose members resolutely
shun the roads that lead to death and tread only the roads that
lead to life. For there are roads and roads, and of truth there
are orders and orders. But have patience. At least, through what
seems no more than verbal yammerings, you may, perchance, glimpse
faint far vistas of other lands and tribes.
Alcohol tells truth, but its truth is not normal. What is normal
is healthful. What is healthful tends toward life. Normal truth
is a different order, and a lesser order, of truth. Take a dray
horse. Through all the vicissitudes of its life, from first to
last, somehow, in unguessably dim ways, it must believe that life
is good; that the drudgery in harness is good; that death, no
matter how blind-instinctively apprehended, is a dread giant; that
life is beneficent and worth while; that, in the end, with fading
life, it will not be knocked about and beaten and urged beyond its
sprained and spavined best; that old age, even, is decent,
dignified, and valuable, though old age means a ribby scare-crow
in a hawker's cart, stumbling a step to every blow, stumbling
dizzily on through merciless servitude and slow disintegration to
the end--the end, the apportionment of its parts (of its subtle
flesh, its pink and springy bone, its juices and ferments, and all
the sensateness that informed it) to the chicken farm, the hide-
house, the glue-rendering works, and the bone-meal fertiliser
factory. To the last stumble of its stumbling end this dray horse
must abide by the mandates of the lesser truth that is the truth
of life and that makes life possible to persist.
This dray horse, like all other horses, like all other animals,
including man, is life-blinded and sense-struck. It will live, no
matter what the price. The game of life is good, though all of
life may be hurt, and though all lives lose the game in the end.
This is the order of truth that obtains, not for the universe, but
for the live things in it if they for a little space will endure
ere they pass. This order of truth, no matter how erroneous it
may be, is the sane and normal order of truth, the rational order
&f truth that life must believe in order to live.