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Jack London. John Barleycorn
It all came to me one election day. It was on a warm California
afternoon, and I had ridden down into the Valley of the Moon from
the ranch to the little village to vote Yes and No to a host of
proposed amendments to the Constitution of the State of
California. Because of the warmth of the day I had had several
drinks before casting my ballot, and divers drinks after casting
it. Then I had ridden up through the vine-clad hills and rolling
pastures of the ranch, and arrived at the farm-house in time for
another drink and supper.
"How did you vote on the suffrage amendment?" Charmian asked.
"I voted for it."
She uttered an exclamation of surprise. For, be it known, in my
younger days, despite my ardent democracy, I had been opposed to
woman suffrage. In my later and more tolerant years I had been
unenthusiastic in my acceptance of it as an inevitable social
"Now just why did you vote for it?" Charmian asked.
I answered. I answered at length. I answered indignantly. The
more I answered, the more indignant I became. (No; I was not
drunk. The horse I had ridden was well named "The Outlaw." I'd
like to see any drunken man ride her.)
And yet--how shall I say?--I was lighted up, I was feeling "good,"
I was pleasantly jingled.
"When the women get the ballot, they will vote for prohibition," I
said. "It is the wives, and sisters, and mothers, and they only,
who will drive the nails into the coffin of John Barleycorn----"
"But I thought you were a friend to John Barleycorn," Charmian
"I am. I was. I am not. I never am. I am never less his friend
than when he is with me and when I seem most his friend. He is
the king of liars. He is the frankest truthsayer. He is the
august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in
league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and
to death. He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams. He is the
enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life's wisdom. He
is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth."
And Charmian looked at me, and I knew she wondered where I had got
I continued to talk. As I say, I was lighted up. In my brain
every thought was at home. Every thought, in its little cell,
crouched ready-dressed at the door, like prisoners at midnight a
jail-break. And every thought was a vision, bright-imaged, sharp-
cut, unmistakable. My brain was illuminated by the clear, white
light of alcohol. John Barleycorn was on a truth-telling rampage,
giving away the choicest secrets on himself. And I was his
spokesman. There moved the multitudes of memories of my past
life, all orderly arranged like soldiers in some vast review. It
was mine to pick and choose. I was a lord of thought, the master
of my vocabulary and of the totality of my experience, unerringly
capable of selecting my data and building my exposition. For so
John Barleycorn tricks and lures, setting the maggots of
intelligence gnawing, whispering his fatal intuitions of truth,
flinging purple passages into the monotony of one's days.
I outlined my life to Charmian, and expounded the make-up of my
constitution. I was no hereditary alcoholic. I had been born
with no organic, chemical predisposition toward alcohol. In this
matter I was normal in my generation. Alcohol was an acquired
taste. It had been painfully acquired. Alcohol had been a
dreadfully repugnant thing--more nauseous than any physic. Even
now I did not like the taste of it. I drank it only for its
"kick." And from the age of five to that of twenty-five I had not
learned to care for its kick. Twenty years of unwilling
apprenticeship had been required to make my system rebelliously
tolerant of alcohol, to make me, in the heart and the deeps of me,
desirous of alcohol.
I sketched my first contacts with alcohol, told of my first
intoxications and revulsions, and pointed out always the one thing
that in the end had won me over--namely, the accessibility of
alcohol. Not only had it always been accessible, but every
interest of my developing life had drawn me to it. A newsboy on
the streets, a sailor, a miner, a wanderer in far lands, always
where men came together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and
dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and
days, always they came together over alcohol. The saloon was the
place of congregation. Men gathered to it as primitive men
gathered about the fire of the squatting place or the fire at the
mouth of the cave.
I reminded Charmian of the canoe houses from which she had been
barred in the South Pacific, where the kinky-haired cannibals
escaped from their womenkind and feasted and drank by themselves,
the sacred precincts taboo to women under pain of death. As a
youth, by way of the saloon I had escaped from the narrowness of
woman's influence into the wide free world of men. All ways led
to the saloon. The thousand roads of romance and adventure drew
together in the saloon, and thence led out and on over the world.
"The point is," I concluded my sermon, "that it is the
accessibility of alcohol that has given me my taste for alcohol.
I did not care for it. I used to laugh at it. Yet here I am, at
the last, possessed with the drinker's desire. It took twenty
years to implant that desire; and for ten years more that desire
has grown. And the effect of satisfying that desire is anything
but good. Temperamentally I am wholesome-hearted and merry. Yet
when I walk with John Barleycorn I suffer all the damnation of
"But," I hastened to add (I always hasten to add), "John
Barleycorn must have his due. He does tell the truth. That is
the curse of it. The so-called truths of life are not true. They
are the vital lies by which life lives, and John Barleycorn gives
them the lie."
"Which does not make toward life," Charmian said.
"Very true," I answered. "And that is the perfectest hell of it.
John Barleycorn makes toward death. That is why I voted for the
amendment to-day. I read back in my life and saw how the
accessibility of alcohol had given me the taste for it. You see,
comparatively few alcoholics are born in a generation. And by
alcoholic I mean a man whose chemistry craves alcohol and drives
him resistlessly to it. The great majority of habitual drinkers
are born not only without desire for alcohol, but with actual
repugnance toward it. Not the first, nor the twentieth, nor the
hundredth drink, succeeded in giving them the liking. But they
learned, just as men learn to smoke; though it is far easier to
learn to smoke than to learn to drink. They learned because
alcohol was so accessible. The women know the game. They pay for
it--the wives and sisters and mothers. And when they come to
vote, they will vote for prohibition. And the best of it is that
there will be no hardship worked on the coming generation. Not
having access to alcohol, not being predisposed toward alcohol, it
will never miss alcohol. It will mean life more abundant for the
manhood of the young boys born and growing up--ay, and life more
abundant for the young girls born and growing up to share the
lives of the young men."
"Why not write all this up for the sake of the men and women
coming?" Charmian asked. "Why not write it so as to help the
wives and sisters and mothers to the way they should vote?"
"The 'Memoirs of an Alcoholic,'" I sneered--or, rather, John
Barleycorn sneered; for he sat with me there at table in my
pleasant, philanthropic jingle, and it is a trick of John
Barleycorn to turn the smile to a sneer without an instant's
"No," said Charmian, ignoring John Barleycorn's roughness, as so
many women have learned to do. "You have shown yourself no
alcoholic, no dipsomaniac, but merely an habitual drinker, one who
has made John Barleycorn's acquaintance through long years of
rubbing shoulders with him. Write it up and call it 'Alcoholic
And, ere I begin, I must ask the reader to walk with me in all
sympathy; and, since sympathy is merely understanding, begin by
understanding me and whom and what I write about. In the first
place, I am a seasoned drinker. I have no constitutional
predisposition for alcohol. I am not stupid. I am not a swine.
I know the drinking game from A to Z, and I have used my judgment
in drinking. I never have to be put to bed. Nor do I stagger.
In short, I am a normal, average man; and I drink in the normal,
average way, as drinking goes. And this is the very point: I am
writing of the effects of alcohol on the normal, average man. I
have no word to say for or about the microscopically unimportant
excessivist, the dipsomaniac.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the
man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten
numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread,
tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in
the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is
the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.
The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most
pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never
staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is
doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may
bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see
intellectual spectres and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and
that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition
that he strips away the husks of life's healthiest illusions and
gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the
neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn's subtlest
power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a
terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs
unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for
himself but one freedom--namely, the anticipating of the day of
his death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of
which more anon), when he knows that he may know only the laws of
things--the meaning of things never. This is his danger hour.
His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the
All is clear to him. All these baffling head-reaches after
immortality are but the panics of souls frightened by the fear of
death, and cursed with the thrice-cursed gift of imagination.
They have not the instinct for death; they lack the will to die
when the time to die is at hand. They trick themselves into
believing they will outwit the game and win to a future, leaving
the other animals to the darkness of the grave or the annihilating
heats of the crematory. But he, this man in the hour of his white
logic, knows that they trick and outwit themselves. The one event
happeneth to all alike. There is no new thing under the sun, not
even that yearned-for bauble of feeble souls--immortality. But he
knows, HE knows, standing upright on his two legs unswaying. He
is compounded of meat and wine and sparkle, of sun-mote and world-
dust, a frail mechanism made to run for a span, to be tinkered at
by doctors of divinity and doctors of physic, and to be flung into
the scrap-heap at the end.
Of course, all this is soul-sickness, life-sickness. It is the
penalty the imaginative man must pay for his friendship with John
Barleycorn. The penalty paid by the stupid man is simpler,
easier. He drinks himself into sottish unconsciousness. He
sleeps a drugged sleep, and, if he dream, his dreams are dim and
inarticulate. But to the imaginative man, John Barleycorn sends
the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic. He looks
upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a
pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions.
He transvalues all values. Good is bad, truth is a cheat, and
life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of
a god, he beholds all life as evil. Wife, children, friends--in
the clear, white light of his logic they are exposed as frauds and
shams. He sees through them, and all that he sees is their
frailty, their meagreness, their sordidness, their pitifulness.
No longer do they fool him. They are miserable little egotisms,
like all the other little humans, fluttering their May-fly life-
dance of an hour. They are without freedom. They are puppets of
chance. So is he. He realises that. But there is one
difference. He sees; he knows. And he knows his one freedom: he
may anticipate the day of his death. All of which is not good for
a man who is made to live and love and be loved. Yet suicide,
quick or slow, a sudden spill or a gradual oozing away through the
years, is the price John Barleycorn exacts. No friend of his ever
escapes making the just, due payment.
I was five years old the first time I got drunk. It was on a hot
day, and my father was ploughing in the field. I was sent from
the house, half a mile away, to carry to him a pail of beer. "And
be sure you don't spill it," was the parting injunction.
It was, as I remember it, a lard pail, very wide across the top,
and without a cover. As I toddled along, the beer slopped over
the rim upon my legs. And as I toddled, I pondered. Beer was a
very precious thing. Come to think of it, it must be wonderfully
good. Else why was I never permitted to drink of it in the house?
Other things kept from me by the grown-ups I had found good. Then
this, too, was good. Trust the grown-ups. They knew. And,
anyway, the pail was too full. I was slopping it against my legs
and spilling it on the ground. Why waste it? And no one would
know whether I had drunk or spilled it.
I was so small that, in order to negotiate the pail, I sat down
and gathered it into my lap. First I sipped the foam. I was
disappointed. The preciousness evaded me. Evidently it did not
reside in the foam. Besides, the taste was not good. Then I
remembered seeing the grown-ups blow the foam away before they
drank. I buried my face in the foam and lapped the solid liquid
beneath. It wasn't good at all. But still I drank. The grown-
ups knew what they were about. Considering my diminutiveness, the
size of the pail in my lap, and my drinking out of it my breath
held and my face buried to the ears in foam, it was rather
difficult to estimate how much I drank. Also, I was gulping it
down like medicine, in nauseous haste to get the ordeal over.
I shuddered when I started on, and decided that the good taste
would come afterward. I tried several times more in the course of
that long half-mile. Then, astounded by the quantity of beer that
was lacking, and remembering having seen stale beer made to foam
afresh, I took a stick and stirred what was left till it foamed to
And my father never noticed. He emptied the pail with the wide
thirst of the sweating ploughman, returned it to me, and started
up the plough. I endeavoured to walk beside the horses. I
remember tottering and falling against their heels in front of the
shining share, and that my father hauled back on the lines so
violently that the horses nearly sat down on me. He told me
afterward that it was by only a matter of inches that I escaped
disembowelling. Vaguely, too, I remember, my father carried me in
his arms to the trees on the edge of the field, while all the
world reeled and swung about me, and I was aware of deadly nausea
mingled with an appalling conviction of sin.
I slept the afternoon away under the trees, and when my father
roused me at sundown it was a very sick little boy that got up and
dragged wearily homeward. I was exhausted, oppressed by the
weight of my limbs, and in my stomach was a harp-like vibrating
that extended to my throat and brain. My condition was like that
of one who had gone through a battle with poison. In truth, I had
In the weeks and months that followed I had no more interest in
beer than in the kitchen stove after it had burned me. The grown-
ups were right. Beer was not for children. The grown-ups didn't
mind it; but neither did they mind taking pills and castor oil.
As for me, I could manage to get along quite well without beer.
Yes, and to the day of my death I could have managed to get along
quite well without it. But circumstance decreed otherwise. At
every turn in the world in which I lived, John Barleycorn
beckoned. There was no escaping him. All paths led to him. And
it took twenty years of contact, of exchanging greetings and
passing on with my tongue in my cheek, to develop in me a sneaking
liking for the rascal.
My next bout with John Barleycorn occurred when I was seven. This
time my imagination was at fault, and I was frightened into the
encounter. Still farming, my family had moved to a ranch on the
bleak sad coast of San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. It
was a wild, primitive countryside in those days; and often I heard
my mother pride herself that we were old American stock and not
immigrant Irish and Italians like our neighbours. In all our
section there was only one other old American family.
One Sunday morning found me, how or why I cannot now remember, at
the Morrisey ranch. A number of young people had gathered there
from the nearer ranches. Besides, the oldsters had been there,
drinking since early dawn, and, some of them, since the night
before. The Morriseys were a huge breed, and there were many
strapping great sons and uncles, heavy-booted, big-fisted, rough-
Suddenly there were screams from the girls and cries of "Fight!"
There was a rush. Men hurled themselves out of the kitchen. Two
giants, flush-faced, with greying hair, were locked in each
other's arms. One was Black Matt, who, everybody said, had killed
two men in his time. The women screamed softly, crossed
themselves, or prayed brokenly, hiding their eyes and peeping
through their fingers. But not I. It is a fair presumption that
I was the most interested spectator. Maybe I would see that
wonderful thing, a man killed. Anyway, I would see a man-fight.
Great was my disappointment. Black Matt and Tom Morrisey merely
held on to each other and lifted their clumsy-booted feet in what
seemed a grotesque, elephantine dance. They were too drunk to
fight. Then the peacemakers got hold of them and led them back to
cement the new friendship in the kitchen.
Soon they were all talking at once, rumbling and roaring as big-
chested open-air men will, when whisky has whipped their
taciturnity. And I, a little shaver of seven, my heart in my
mouth, my trembling body strung tense as a deer's on the verge of
flight, peered wonderingly in at the open door and learned more of
the strangeness of men. And I marvelled at Black Matt and Tom
Morrisey, sprawled over the table, arms about each other's necks,
The kitchen-drinking continued, and the girls outside grew
timorous. They knew the drink game, and all were certain that
something terrible was going to happen. They protested that they
did not wish to be there when it happened, and some one suggested
going to a big Italian rancho four miles away, where they could
get up a dance. Immediately they paired off, lad and lassie, and
started down the sandy road. And each lad walked with his
sweetheart--trust a child of seven to listen and to know the love-
affairs of his countryside. And behold, I, too, was a lad with a
lassie. A little Irish girl of my own age had been paired off
with me. We were the only children in this spontaneous affair.
Perhaps the oldest couple might have been twenty. There were
chits of girls, quite grown up, of fourteen and sixteen, walking
with their fellows. But we were uniquely young, this little Irish
girl and I, and we walked hand in hand, and, sometimes, under the
tutelage of our elders, with my arm around her waist. Only that
wasn't comfortable. And I was very proud, on that bright Sunday
morning, going down the long bleak road among the sandhills. I,
too, had my girl, and was a little man.
The Italian rancho was a bachelor establishment. Our visit was
hailed with delight. The red wine was poured in tumblers for all,
and the long dining-room was partly cleared for dancing. And the
young fellows drank and danced with the girls to the strains of an
accordion. To me that music was divine. I had never heard
anything so glorious. The young Italian who furnished it would
even get up and dance, his arms around his girl, playing the
accordion behind her back. All of which was very wonderful for
me, who did not dance, but who sat at a table and gazed wide-eyed
at the amazingness of life. I was only a little lad, and there
was so much of life for me to learn. As the time passed, the
Irish lads began helping themselves to the wine, and jollity and
high spirits reigned. I noted that some of them staggered and
fell down in the dances, and that one had gone to sleep in a
corner. Also, some of the girls were complaining, and wanting to
leave, and others of the girls were titteringly complacent,
willing for anything to happen.
When our Italian hosts had offered me wine in a general sort of
way, I had declined. My beer experience had been enough for me,
and I had no inclination to traffic further in the stuff, or in
anything related to it. Unfortunately, one young Italian, Peter,
an impish soul, seeing me sitting solitary, stirred by a whim of
the moment, half-filled a tumbler with wine and passed it to me.
He was sitting across the table from me. I declined. His face
grew stern, and he insistently proffered the wine. And then
terror descended upon me--a terror which I must explain.
My mother had theories. First, she steadfastly maintained that
brunettes and all the tribe of dark-eyed humans were deceitful.
Needless to say, my mother was a blonde. Next, she was convinced
that the dark-eyed Latin races were profoundly sensitive,
profoundly treacherous, and profoundly murderous. Again and
again, drinking in the strangeness and the fearsomeness of the
world from her lips, I had heard her state that if one offended an
Italian, no matter how slightly and unintentionally, he was
certain to retaliate by stabbing one in the back. That was her
particular phrase--"stab you in the back."
Now, although I had been eager to see Black Matt kill Tom Morrisey
that morning, I did not care to furnish to the dancers the
spectacle of a knife sticking in my back. I had not yet learned
to distinguish between facts and theories. My faith was implicit
in my mother's exposition of the Italian character. Besides, I
had some glimmering inkling of the sacredness of hospitality.
Here was a treacherous, sensitive, murderous Italian, offering me
hospitality. I had been taught to believe that if I offended him
he would strike at me with a knife precisely as a horse kicked out
when one got too close to its heels and worried it. Then, too,
this Italian, Peter, had those terrible black eyes I had heard my
mother talk about. They were eyes different from the eyes I knew,
from the blues and greys and hazels of my own family, from the
pale and genial blues of the Irish. Perhaps Peter had had a few
drinks. At any rate, his eyes were brilliantly black and
sparkling with devilry. They were the mysterious, the unknown,
and who was I, a seven-year-old, to analyse them and know their
prankishness? In them I visioned sudden death, and I declined the
wine half-heartedly. The expression in his eyes changed. They
grew stern and imperious as he shoved the tumbler of wine closer.
What could I do? I have faced real death since in my life, but
never have I known the fear of death as I knew it then. I put the
glass to my lips, and Peter's eyes relented. I knew he would not
kill me just then. That was a relief. But the wine was not. It
was cheap, new wine, bitter and sour, made of the leavings and
scrapings of the vineyards and the vats, and it tasted far worse
than beer. There is only one way to take medicine, and that is to
take it. And that is the way I took that wine. I threw my head
back and gulped it down. I had to gulp again and hold the poison
down, for poison it was to my child's tissues and membranes.
Looking back now, I can realise that Peter was astounded. He
half-filled a second tumbler and shoved it across the table.
Frozen with fear, in despair at the fate which had befallen me, I
gulped the second glass down like the first. This was too much
for Peter. He must share the infant prodigy he had discovered.
He called Dominick, a young moustached Italian, to see the sight.
This time it was a full tumbler that was given me. One will do
anything to live. I gripped myself, mastered the qualms that rose
in my throat, and downed the stuff.
Dominick had never seen an infant of such heroic calibre. Twice
again he refilled the tumbler, each time to the brim, and watched
it disappear down my throat. By this time my exploits were
attracting attention. Middle-aged Italian labourers, old-country
peasants who did not talk English, and who could not dance with
the Irish girls, surrounded me. They were swarthy and wild-
looking; they wore belts and red shirts; and I knew they carried
knives; and they ringed me around like a pirate chorus. And Peter
and Dominick made me show off for them.
Had I lacked imagination, had I been stupid, had I been stubbornly
mulish in having my own way, I should never have got in this
pickle. And the lads and lassies were dancing, and there was no
one to save me from my fate. How much I drank I do not know. My
memory of it is of an age-long suffering of fear in the midst of a
murderous crew, and of an infinite number of glasses of red wine
passing across the bare boards of a wine-drenched table and going
down my burning throat. Bad as the wine was, a knife in the back
was worse, and I must survive at any cost.
Looking back with the drinker's knowledge, I know now why I did
not collapse stupefied upon the table. As I have said, I was
frozen, I was paralysed, with fear. The only movement I made was
to convey that never-ending procession of glasses to my lips. I
was a poised and motionless receptacle for all that quantity of
wine. It lay inert in my fear-inert stomach. I was too
frightened, even, for my stomach to turn. So all that Italian
crew looked on and marvelled at the infant phenomenon that downed
wine with the sang-froid of an automaton. It is not in the spirit
of braggadocio that I dare to assert they had never seen anything
The time came to go. The tipsy antics of the lads had led a
majority of the soberer-minded lassies to compel a departure. I
found myself, at the door, beside my little maiden. She had not
had my experience, so she was sober. She was fascinated by the
titubations of the lads who strove to walk beside their girls, and
began to mimic them. I thought this a great game, and I, too,
began to stagger tipsily. But she had no wine to stir up, while
my movements quickly set the fumes rising to my head. Even at the
start, I was more realistic than she. In several minutes I was
astonishing myself. I saw one lad, after reeling half a dozen
steps, pause at the side of the road, gravely peer into the ditch,
and gravely, and after apparent deep thought, fall into it. To me
this was excruciatingly funny. I staggered to the edge of the
ditch, fully intending to stop on the edge. I came to myself, in
the ditch, in process of being hauled out by several anxious-faced
I didn't care to play at being drunk any more. There was no more
fun in me. My eyes were beginning to swim, and with wide-open
mouth I panted for air. A girl led me by the hand on either side,
but my legs were leaden. The alcohol I had drunk was striking my
heart and brain like a club. Had I been a weakling of a child, I
am confident that it would have killed me. As it was, I know I
was nearer death than any of the scared girls dreamed. I could
hear them bickering among themselves as to whose fault it was;
some were weeping--for themselves, for me, and for the disgraceful
way their lads had behaved. But I was not interested. I was
suffocating, and I wanted air. To move was agony. It made me
pant harder. Yet those girls persisted in making me walk, and it
was four miles home. Four miles! I remember my swimming eyes saw
a small bridge across the road an infinite distance away. In
fact, it was not a hundred feet distant. When I reached it, I
sank down and lay on my back panting. The girls tried to lift me,
but I was helpless and suffocating. Their cries of alarm brought
Larry, a drunken youth of seventeen, who proceeded to resuscitate
me by jumping on my chest. Dimly I remember this, and the
squalling of the girls as they struggled with him and dragged him
away. And then I knew nothing, though I learned afterward that
Larry wound up under the bridge and spent the night there.
When I came to, it was dark. I had been carried unconscious for
four miles and been put to bed. I was a sick child, and, despite
the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually
relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the
terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out. The most
frightful visions were realities to me. I saw murders committed,
and I was pursued by murderers. I screamed and raved and fought.
My sufferings were prodigious. Emerging from such delirium, I
would hear my mother's voice: "But the child's brain. He will
lose his reason." And sinking back into delirium, I would take the
idea with me and be immured in madhouses, and be beaten by
keepers, and surrounded by screeching lunatics.
One thing that had strongly impressed my young mind was the talk
of my elders about the dens of iniquity in San Francisco's
Chinatown. In my delirium I wandered deep beneath the ground
through a thousand of these dens, and behind locked doors of iron
I suffered and died a thousand deaths. And when I would come upon
my father, seated at table in these subterranean crypts, gambling
with Chinese for great stakes of gold, all my outrage gave vent in
the vilest cursing. I would rise in bed, struggling against the
detaining hands, and curse my father till the rafters rang. All
the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive
countryside may hear men utter was mine; and though I had never
dared utter such oaths, they now poured from me, at the top of my
lungs, as I cursed my father sitting there underground and
gambling with long-haired, long-nailed Chinamen.
It is a wonder that I did not burst my heart or brain that night.
A seven-year-old child's arteries and nerve-centres are scarcely
fitted to endure the terrific paroxysms that convulsed me. No one
slept in the thin, frame farm-house that night when John
Barleycorn had his will of me. And Larry, under the bridge, had
no delirium like mine. I am confident that his sleep was
stupefied and dreamless, and that he awoke next day merely to
heaviness and moroseness, and that if he lives to-day he does not
remember that night, so passing was it as an incident. But my
brain was seared for ever by that experience. Writing now, thirty
years afterward, every vision is as distinct, as sharp-cut, every
pain as vital and terrible, as on that night.
I was sick for days afterward, and I needed none of my mother's
injunctions to avoid John Barleycorn in the future. My mother had
been dreadfully shocked. She held that I had done wrong, very
wrong, and that I had gone contrary to all her teaching. And how
was I, who was never allowed to talk back, who lacked the very
words with which to express my psychology--how was I to tell my
mother that it was her teaching that was directly responsible for
my drunkenness? Had it not been for her theories about dark eyes
and Italian character, I should never have wet my lips with the
sour, bitter wine. And not until man-grown did I tell her the
true inwardness of that disgraceful affair.
In those after days of sickness, I was confused on some points,
and very clear on others. I felt guilty of sin, yet smarted with
a sense of injustice. It had not been my fault, yet I had done
wrong. But very clear was my resolution never to touch liquor
again. No mad dog was ever more afraid of water than was I of
Yet the point I am making is that this experience, terrible as it
was, could not in the end deter me from forming John Barleycorn's
cheek-by-jowl acquaintance. All about me, even then, were the
forces moving me toward him. In the first place, barring my
mother, ever extreme in her views, it seemed to me all the grown-
ups looked upon the affair with tolerant eyes. It was a joke,
something funny that had happened. There was no shame attached.
Even the lads and lassies giggled and snickered over their part in
the affair, narrating with gusto how Larry had jumped on my chest
and slept under the bridge, how So-and-So had slept out in the
sandhills that night, and what had happened to the other lad who
fell in the ditch. As I say, so far as I could see, there was no
shame anywhere. It had been something ticklishly, devilishly
fine--a bright and gorgeous episode in the monotony of life and
labour on that bleak, fog-girt coast.
The Irish ranchers twitted me good-naturedly on my exploit, and
patted me on the back until I felt that I had done something
heroic. Peter and Dominick and the other Italians were proud of
my drinking prowess. The face of morality was not set against
drinking. Besides, everybody drank. There was not a teetotaler
in the community. Even the teacher of our little country school,
a greying man of fifty, gave us vacations on the occasions when he
wrestled with John Barleycorn and was thrown. Thus there was no
spiritual deterrence. My loathing for alcohol was purely
physiological. I didn't like the damned stuff.
This physical loathing for alcohol I have never got over. But I
have conquered it. To this day I conquer it every time I take a
drink. The palate never ceases to rebel, and the palate can be
trusted to know what is good for the body. But men do not drink
for the effect alcohol produces on the body. What they drink for
is the brain-effect; and if it must come through the body, so much
the worse for the body.
And yet, despite my physical loathing for alcohol, the brightest
spots in my child life were the saloons. Sitting on the heavy
potato wagons, wrapped in fog, feet stinging from inactivity, the
horses plodding slowly along the deep road through the sandhills,
one bright vision made the way never too long. The bright vision
was the saloon at Colma, where my father, or whoever drove, always
got out to get a drink. And I got out to warm by the great stove
and get a soda cracker. Just one soda cracker, but a fabulous
luxury. Saloons were good for something. Back behind the
plodding horses, I would take an hour in consuming that one
cracker. I took the smallest nibbles, never losing a crumb, and
chewed the nibble till it became the thinnest and most delectable
of pastes. I never voluntarily swallowed this paste. I just
tasted it, and went on tasting it, turning it over with my tongue,
spreading it on the inside of this cheek, then on the inside of
the other cheek, until, at the end, it eluded me and in tiny drops
and oozelets, slipped and dribbled down my throat. Horace
Fletcher had nothing on me when it came to soda crackers.
I liked saloons. Especially I liked the San Francisco saloons.
They had the most delicious dainties for the taking--strange
breads and crackers, cheeses, sausages, sardines--wonderful foods
that I never saw on our meagre home-table. And once, I remember,
a barkeeper mixed me a sweet temperance drink of syrup and soda-
water. My father did not pay for it. It was the barkeeper's
treat, and he became my ideal of a good, kind man. I dreamed day-
dreams of him for years. Although I was seven years old at the
time, I can see him now with undiminished clearness, though I
never laid eyes on him but that one time. The saloon was south of
Market Street in San Francisco. It stood on the west side of the
street. As you entered, the bar was on the left. On the right,
against the wall, was the free lunch counter. It was a long,
narrow room, and at the rear, beyond the beer kegs on tap, were
small, round tables and chairs. The barkeeper was blue-eyed, and
had fair, silky hair peeping out from under a black silk skull-
cap. I remember he wore a brown Cardigan jacket, and I know
precisely the spot, in the midst of the array of bottles, from
which he took the bottle of red-coloured syrup. He and my father
talked long, and I sipped my sweet drink and worshipped him. And
for years afterward I worshipped the memory of him.
Despite my two disastrous experiences, here was John Barleycorn,
prevalent and accessible everywhere in the community, luring and
drawing me. Here were connotations of the saloon making deep
indentations in a child's mind. Here was a child, forming its
first judgments of the world, finding the saloon a delightful and
desirable place. Stores, nor public buildings, nor all the
dwellings of men ever opened their doors to me and let me warm by
their fires or permitted me to eat the food of the gods from
narrow shelves against the wall. Their doors were ever closed to
me; the saloon's doors were ever open. And always and everywhere
I found saloons, on highway and byway, up narrow alleys and on
busy thoroughfares, bright-lighted and cheerful, warm in winter,
and in summer dark and cool. Yes, the saloon was a mighty fine
place, and it was more than that.
By the time I was ten years old, my family had abandoned ranching
and gone to live in the city. And here, at ten, I began on the
streets as a newsboy. One of the reasons for this was that we
needed the money. Another reason was that I needed the exercise.
I had found my way to the free public library, and was reading
myself into nervous prostration. On the poor ranches on which I
had lived there had been no books. In ways truly miraculous, I
had been lent four books, marvellous books, and them I had
devoured. One was the life of Garfield; the second, Paul du
Chaillu's African travels; the third, a novel by Ouida with the
last forty pages missing; and the fourth, Irving's "Alhambra."
This last had been lent me by a school-teacher. I was not a
forward child. Unlike Oliver Twist, I was incapable of asking for
more. When I returned the "Alhambra" to the teacher I hoped she
would lend me another book. And because she did not--most likely
she deemed me unappreciative--I cried all the way home on the
three-mile tramp from the school to the ranch. I waited and
yearned for her to lend me another book. Scores of times I nerved
myself almost to the point of asking her, but never quite reached
the necessary pitch of effrontery.
And then came the city of Oakland, and on the shelves of that free
library I discovered all the great world beyond the skyline. Here
were thousands of books as good as my four wonder-books, and some
were even better. Libraries were not concerned with children in
those days, and I had strange adventures. I remember, in the
catalogue, being impressed by the title, "The Adventures of
Peregrine Pickle." I filled an application blank and the librarian
handed me the collected and entirely unexpurgated works of
Smollett in one huge volume. I read everything, but principally
history and adventure, and all the old travels and voyages. I
read mornings, afternoons, and nights. I read in bed, I read at
table, I read as I walked to and from school, and I read at recess
while the other boys were playing. I began to get the "jerks." To
everybody I replied: "Go away. You make me nervous."
And so, at ten, I was out on the streets, a newsboy. I had no
time to read. I was busy getting exercise and learning how to
fight, busy learning forwardness, and brass and bluff. I had an
imagination and a curiosity about all things that made me plastic.
Not least among the things I was curious about was the saloon.
And I was in and out of many a one. I remember, in those days, on
the east side of Broadway, between Sixth and Seventh, from corner
to corner, there was a solid block of saloons.
In the saloons life was different. Men talked with great voices,
laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness.
Here was something more than common every-day where nothing
happened. Here life was always very live, and, sometimes, even
lurid, when blows were struck, and blood was shed, and big
policemen came shouldering in. Great moments, these, for me, my
head filled with all the wild and valiant fighting of the gallant
adventurers on sea and land. There were no big moments when I
trudged along the street throwing my papers in at doors. But in
the saloons, even the sots, stupefied, sprawling across the tables
or in the sawdust, were objects of mystery and wonder.
And more, the saloons were right. The city fathers sanctioned
them and licensed them. They were not the terrible places I heard
boys deem them who lacked my opportunities to know. Terrible they
might be, but then that only meant they were terribly wonderful,
and it is the terribly wonderful that a boy desires to know. In
the same way pirates, and shipwrecks, and battles were terrible;
and what healthy boy wouldn't give his immortal soul to
participate in such affairs?
Besides, in saloons I saw reporters, editors, lawyers, judges,
whose names and faces I knew. They put the seal of social
approval on the saloon. They verified my own feeling of
fascination in the saloon. They, too, must have found there that
something different, that something beyond, which I sensed and
groped after. What it was, I did not know; yet there it must be,
for there men focused like buzzing flies about a honey pot. I had
no sorrows, and the world was very bright, so I could not guess
that what these men sought was forgetfulness of jaded toil and
Not that I drank at that time. From ten to fifteen I rarely
tasted liquor, but I was intimately in contact with drinkers and
drinking places. The only reason I did not drink was because I
didn't like the stuff. As the time passed, I worked as boy-helper
on an ice-wagon, set up pins in a bowling alley with a saloon
attached, and swept out saloons at Sunday picnic grounds.
Big jovial Josie Harper ran a road house at Telegraph Avenue and
Thirty-ninth Street. Here for a year I delivered an evening
paper, until my route was changed to the water-front and
tenderloin of Oakland. The first month, when I collected Josie
Harper's bill, she poured me a glass of wine. I was ashamed to
refuse, so I drank it. But after that I watched the chance when
she wasn't around so as to collect from her barkeeper.
The first day I worked in the bowling alley, the barkeeper,
according to custom, called us boys up to have a drink after we
had been setting up pins for several hours. The others asked for
beer. I said I'd take ginger ale. The boys snickered, and I
noticed the barkeeper favoured me with a strange, searching
scrutiny. Nevertheless, he opened a bottle of ginger ale.
Afterward, back in the alleys, in the pauses between games, the
boys enlightened me. I had offended the barkeeper. A bottle of
ginger ale cost the saloon ever so much more than a glass of steam
beer; and it was up to me, if I wanted to hold my job, to drink
beer. Besides, beer was food. I could work better on it. There
was no food in ginger ale. After that, when I couldn't sneak out
of it, I drank beer and wondered what men found in it that was so
good. I was always aware that I was missing something.
What I really liked in those days was candy. For five cents I
could buy five "cannon-balls"--big lumps of the most delicious
lastingness. I could chew and worry a single one for an hour.
Then there was a Mexican who sold big slabs of brown chewing taffy
for five cents each. It required a quarter of a day properly to
absorb one of them. And many a day I made my entire lunch off one
of those slabs. In truth, I found food there, but not in beer.
But the time was rapidly drawing near when I was to begin my
second series of bouts with John Barleycorn. When I was fourteen,
my head filled with the tales of the old voyagers, my vision with
tropic isles and far sea-rims, I was sailing a small centreboard
skiff around San Francisco Bay and on the Oakland Estuary. I
wanted to go to sea. I wanted to get away from monotony and the
commonplace. I was in the flower of my adolescence, a-thrill with
romance and adventure, dreaming of wild life in the wild man-
world. Little I guessed how all the warp and woof of that man-
world was entangled with alcohol.
So, one day, as I hoisted sail on my skiff, I met Scotty. He was
a husky youngster of seventeen, a runaway apprentice, he told me,
from an English ship in Australia. He had just worked his way on
another ship to San Francisco; and now he wanted to see about
getting a berth on a whaler. Across the estuary, near where the
whalers lay, was lying the sloop-yacht Idler. The caretaker was a
harpooner who intended sailing next voyage on the whale ship
Bonanza. Would I take him, Scotty, over in my skiff to call upon
Would I! Hadn't I heard the stories and rumours about the Idler?--
the big sloop that had come up from the Sandwich Islands where it
had been engaged in smuggling opium. And the harpooner who was
caretaker! How often had I seen him and envied him his freedom.
He never had to leave the water. He slept aboard the Idler each
night, while I had to go home upon the land to go to bed. The
harpooner was only nineteen years old (and I have never had
anything but his own word that he was a harpooner); but he had
been too shining and glorious a personality for me ever to address
as I paddled around the yacht at a wistful distance. Would I take
Scotty, the runaway sailor, to visit the harpooner, on the opium-
smuggler Idler? WOULD I!
The harpooner came on deck to answer our hail, and invited us
aboard. I played the sailor and the man, fending off the skiff so
that it would not mar the yacht's white paint, dropping the skiff
astern on a long painter, and making the painter fast with two
We went below. It was the first sea-interior I had ever seen.
The clothing on the wall smelled musty. But what of that? Was it
not the sea-gear of men?--leather jackets lined with corduroy,
blue coats of pilot cloth, sou'westers, sea-boots, oilskins. And
everywhere was in evidence the economy of space--the narrow bunks,
the swinging tables, the incredible lockers. There were the tell-
tale compass, the sea-lamps in their gimbals, the blue-backed
charts carelessly rolled and tucked away, the signal-flags in
alphabetical order, and a mariner's dividers jammed into the
woodwork to hold a calendar. At last I was living. Here I sat,
inside my first ship, a smuggler, accepted as a comrade by a
harpooner and a runaway English sailor who said his name was
The first thing that the harpooner, aged nineteen, and the sailor,
aged seventeen, did to show that they were men was to behave like
men. The harpooner suggested the eminent desirableness of a
drink, and Scotty searched his pockets for dimes and nickels.
Then the harpooner carried away a pink flask to be filled in some
blind pig, for there were no licensed saloons in that locality.
We drank the cheap rotgut out of tumblers. Was I any the less
strong, any the less valiant, than the harpooner and the sailor?
They were men. They proved it by the way they drank. Drink was
the badge of manhood. So I drank with them, drink by drink, raw
and straight, though the damned stuff couldn't compare with a
stick of chewing taffy or a delectable "cannon-ball." I shuddered
and swallowed my gorge with every drink, though I manfully hid all
Divers times we filled the flask that afternoon. All I had was
twenty cents, but I put it up like a man, though with secret
regret at the enormous store of candy it could have bought. The
liquor mounted in the heads of all of us, and the talk of Scotty
and the harpooner was upon running the Easting down, gales off the
Horn and pamperos off the Plate, lower topsail breezes, southerly
busters, North Pacific gales, and of smashed whaleboats in the
"You can't swim in that ice water," said the harpooner
confidentially to me. "You double up in a minute and go down.
When a whale smashes your boat, the thing to do is to get your
belly across an oar, so that when the cold doubles you you'll
"Sure," I said, with a grateful nod and an air of certitude that
I, too, would hunt whales and be in smashed boats in the Arctic
Ocean. And, truly, I registered his advice as singularly valuable
information, and filed it away in my brain, where it persists to
But I couldn't talk--at first. Heavens! I was only fourteen, and
had never been on the ocean in my life. I could only listen to
the two sea-dogs, and show my manhood by drinking with them,
fairly and squarely, drink and drink.
The liquor worked its will with me; the talk of Scotty and the
harpooner poured through the pent space of the Idler's cabin and
through my brain like great gusts of wide, free wind; and in
imagination I lived my years to come and rocked over the wild,
mad, glorious world on multitudinous adventures.
We unbent. Our inhibitions and taciturnities vanished. We were
as if we had known each other for years and years, and we pledged
ourselves to years of future voyagings together. The harpooner
told of misadventures and secret shames. Scotty wept over his
poor old mother in Edinburgh--a lady, he insisted, gently born--
who was in reduced circumstances, who had pinched herself to pay
the lump sum to the ship-owners for his apprenticeship, whose
sacrificing dream had been to see him a merchantman officer and a
gentleman, and who was heartbroken because he had deserted his
ship in Australia and joined another as a common sailor before the
mast. And Scotty proved it. He drew her last sad letter from his
pocket and wept over it as he read it aloud. The harpooner and I
wept with him, and swore that all three of us would ship on the
whaleship Bonanza, win a big pay-day, and, still together, make a
pilgrimage to Edinburgh and lay our store of money in the dear
And, as John Barleycorn heated his way into my brain, thawing my
reticence, melting my modesty, talking through me and with me and
as me, my adopted twin brother and alter ego, I, too, raised my
voice to show myself a man and an adventurer, and bragged in
detail and at length of how I had crossed San Francisco Bay in my
open skiff in a roaring southwester when even the schooner sailors
doubted my exploit. Further, I--or John Barleycorn, for it was
the same thing--told Scotty that he might be a deep-sea sailor and
know the last rope on the great deep-sea ships, but that when it
came to small-boat sailing I could beat him hands down and sail
circles around him.
The best of it was that my assertion and brag were true. With
reticence and modesty present, I could never have dared tell
Scotty my small-boat estimate of him. But it is ever the way of
John Barleycorn to loosen the tongue and babble the secret
Scotty, or John Barleycorn, or the pair, was very naturally
offended by my remarks. Nor was I loath. I could whip any
runaway sailor seventeen years old. Scotty and I flared and raged
like young cockerels, until the harpooner poured another round of
drinks to enable us to forgive and make up. Which we did, arms
around each other's necks, protesting vows of eternal friendship--
just like Black Matt and Tom Morrisey, I remembered, in the ranch
kitchen in San Mateo. And, remembering, I knew that I was at last
a man--despite my meagre fourteen years--a man as big and manly as
those two strapping giants who had quarrelled and made up on that
memorable Sunday morning of long ago.
By this time the singing stage was reached, and I joined Scotty
and the harpooner in snatches of sea songs and chanties. It was
here, in the cabin of the Idler, that I first heard "Blow the Man
Down," "Flying Cloud," and "Whisky, Johnny, Whisky." Oh, it was
brave. I was beginning to grasp the meaning of life. Here was no
commonplace, no Oakland Estuary, no weary round of throwing
newspapers at front doors, delivering ice, and setting up
ninepins. All the world was mine, all its paths were under my
feet, and John Barleycorn, tricking my fancy, enabled me to
anticipate the life of adventure for which I yearned.
We were not ordinary. We were three tipsy young gods, incredibly
wise, gloriously genial, and without limit to our powers. Ah!--
and I say it now, after the years--could John Barleycorn keep one
at such a height, I should never draw a sober breath again. But
this is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an
iron schedule--for every strength the balanced weakness; for every
high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an
equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping
long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one
must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury
Intenseness and duration are as ancient enemies as fire and water.
They are mutually destructive. They cannot co-exist. And John
Barleycorn, mighty necromancer though he be, is as much a slave to
organic chemistry as we mortals are. We pay for every nerve
marathon we run, nor can John Barleycorn intercede and fend off
the just payment. He can lead us to the heights, but he cannot
keep us there, else would we all be devotees. And there is no
devotee but pays for the mad dances John Barleycorn pipes.
Yet the foregoing is all in after wisdom spoken. It was no part
of the knowledge of the lad, fourteen years old, who sat in the
Idler's cabin between the harpooner and the sailor, the air rich
in his nostrils with the musty smell of men's sea-gear, roaring in
chorus: "Yankee ship come down de ribber--pull, my bully boys,
We grew maudlin, and all talked and shouted at once. I had a
splendid constitution, a stomach that would digest scrap-iron, and
I was still running my marathon in full vigour when Scotty began
to fail and fade. His talk grew incoherent. He groped for words
and could not find them, while the ones he found his lips were
unable to form. His poisoned consciousness was leaving him. The
brightness went out of his eyes, and he looked as stupid as were
his efforts to talk. His face and body sagged as his
consciousness sagged. (A man cannot sit upright save by an act of
will.) Scotty's reeling brain could not control his muscles. All
his correlations were breaking down. He strove to take another
drink, and feebly dropped the tumbler on the floor. Then, to my
amazement, weeping bitterly, he rolled into a bunk on his back and
immediately snored off to sleep.
The harpooner and I drank on, grinning in a superior way to each
other over Scotty's plight. The last flask was opened, and we
drank it between us, to the accompaniment of Scotty's stertorous
breathing. Then the harpooner faded away into his bunk, and I was
left alone, unthrown, on the field of battle.
I was very proud, and John Barleycorn was proud with me. I could
carry my drink. I was a man. I had drunk two men, drink for
drink, into unconsciousness. And I was still on my two feet,
upright, making my way on deck to get air into my scorching lungs.
It was in this bout on the Idler that I discovered what a good
stomach and a strong head I had for drink--a bit of knowledge that
was to be a source of pride in succeeding years, and that
ultimately I was to come to consider a great affliction. The
fortunate man is the one who cannot take more than a couple of
drinks without becoming intoxicated. The unfortunate wight is the
one who can take many glasses without betraying a sign, who must
take numerous glasses in order to get the "kick."
The sun was setting when I came on the Idler's deck. There were
plenty of bunks below. I did not need to go home. But I wanted
to demonstrate to myself how much I was a man. There lay my skiff
astern. The last of a strong ebb was running out in channel in
the teeth of an ocean breeze of forty miles an hour. I could see
the stiff whitecaps, and the suck and run of the current was
plainly visible in the face and trough of each one.
I set sail, cast off, took my place at the tiller, the sheet in my
hand, and headed across channel. The skiff heeled over and
plunged into it madly. The spray began to fly. I was at the
pinnacle of exaltation. I sang "Blow the Man Down" as I sailed.
I was no boy of fourteen, living the mediocre ways of the sleepy
town called Oakland. I was a man, a god, and the very elements
rendered me allegiance as I bitted them to my will.
The tide was out. A full hundred yards of soft mud intervened
between the boat-wharf and the water. I pulled up my centreboard,
ran full tilt into the mud, took in sail, and, standing in the
stern, as I had often done at low tide, I began to shove the skiff
with an oar. It was then that my correlations began to break
down. I lost my balance and pitched head-foremost into the ooze.
Then, and for the first time, as I floundered to my feet covered
with slime, the blood running down my arms from a scrape against a
barnacled stake, I knew that I was drunk. But what of it? Across
the channel two strong sailormen lay unconscious in their bunks
where I had drunk them. I WAS a man. I was still on my legs, if
they were knee-deep in mud. I disdained to get back into the
skiff. I waded through the mud, shoving the skiff before me and
yammering the chant of my manhood to the world.
I paid for it. I was sick for a couple of days, meanly sick, and
my arms were painfully poisoned from the barnacle scratches. For
a week I could not use them, and it was a torture to put on and
take off my clothes.
I swore, "Never again!" The game wasn't worth it. The price was
too stiff. I had no moral qualms. My revulsion was purely
physical. No exalted moments were worth such hours of misery and
wretchedness. When I got back to my skiff, I shunned the Idler.
I would cross the opposite side of the channel to go around her.
Scotty had disappeared. The harpooner was still about, but him I
avoided. Once, when he landed on the boat-wharf, I hid in a shed
so as to escape seeing him. I was afraid he would propose some
more drinking, maybe have a flask full of whisky in his pocket.
And yet--and here enters the necromancy of John Barleycorn--that
afternoon's drunk on the Idler had been a purple passage flung
into the monotony of my days. It was memorable. My mind dwelt on
it continually. I went over the details, over and over again.
Among other things, I had got into the cogs and springs of men's
actions. I had seen Scotty weep about his own worthlessness and
the sad case of his Edinburgh mother who was a lady. The
harpooner had told me terribly wonderful things of himself. I had
caught a myriad enticing and inflammatory hints of a world beyond
my world, and for which I was certainly as fitted as the two lads
who had drunk with me. I had got behind men's souls. I had got
behind my own soul and found unguessed potencies and greatnesses.
Yes, that day stood out above all my other days. To this day it
so stands out. The memory of it is branded in my brain. But the
price exacted was too high. I refused to play and pay, and
returned to my cannon-balls and taffy-slabs. The point is that
all the chemistry of my healthy, normal body drove me away from
alcohol. The stuff didn't agree with me. It was abominable.
But, despite this, circumstance was to continue to drive me toward
John Barleycorn, to drive me again and again, until, after long
years, the time should come when I would look up John Barleycorn
in every haunt of men--look him up and hail him gladly as
benefactor and friend. And detest and hate him all the time.
Yes, he is a strange friend, John Barleycorn.
I was barely turned fifteen, and working long hours in a cannery.
Month in and month out, the shortest day I ever worked was ten
hours. When to ten hours of actual work at a machine is added the
noon hour; the walking to work and walking home from work; the
getting up in the morning, dressing, and eating; the eating at
night, undressing, and going to bed, there remains no more than
the nine hours out of the twenty-four required by a healthy
youngster for sleep. Out of those nine hours, after I was in bed
and ere my eyes drowsed shut, I managed to steal a little time for
But many a night I did not knock off work until midnight. On
occasion I worked eighteen and twenty hours on a stretch. Once I
worked at my machine for thirty-six consecutive hours. And there
were weeks on end when I never knocked off work earlier than
eleven o'clock, got home and in bed at half after midnight, and
was called at half-past five to dress, eat, walk to work, and be
at my machine at seven o'clock whistle blow.
No moments here to be stolen for my beloved books. And what had
John Barleycorn to do with such strenuous, Stoic toil of a lad
just turned fifteen? He had everything to do with it. Let me show
you. I asked myself if this were the meaning of life--to be a
work-beast? I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked
the hours I worked. If this were living, I was entirely
unenamoured of it. I remembered my skiff, lying idle and
accumulating barnacles at the boat-wharf; I remembered the wind
that blew every day on the bay, the sunrises and sunsets I never
saw; the bite of the salt air in my nostrils, the bite of the salt
water on my flesh when I plunged overside; I remembered all the
beauty and the wonder and the sense-delights of the world denied
me. There was only one way to escape my deadening toil. I must
get out and away on the water. I must earn my bread on the water.
And the way of the water led inevitably to John Barleycorn. I did
not know this. And when I did learn it, I was courageous enough
not to retreat back to my bestial life at the machine.
I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew. And the winds
of adventure blew the oyster pirate sloops up and down San
Francisco Bay, from raided oyster-beds and fights at night on
shoal and flat, to markets in the morning against city wharves,
where peddlers and saloon-keepers came down to buy. Every raid on
an oyster-bed was a felony. The penalty was State imprisonment,
the stripes and the lockstep. And what of that? The men in
stripes worked a shorter day than I at my machine. And there was
vastly more romance in being an oyster pirate or a convict than in
being a machine slave. And behind it all, behind all of me with
youth abubble, whispered Romance, Adventure.
So I interviewed my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black
breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She
was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her
"white child" the money? WOULD SHE? What she had was mine.
Then I sought out French Frank, the oyster pirate, who wanted to
sell, I had heard, his sloop, the Razzle Dazzle. I found him
lying at anchor on the Alameda side of the estuary near the
Webster Street bridge, with visitors aboard, whom he was
entertaining with afternoon wine. He came on deck to talk
business. He was willing to sell. But it was Sunday. Besides,
he had guests. On the morrow he would make out the bill of sale
and I could enter into possession. And in the meantime I must come
below and meet his friends. They were two sisters, Mamie and
Tess; a Mrs. Hadley, who chaperoned them; "Whisky" Bob, a youthful
oyster pirate of sixteen; and "Spider" Healey, a black-whiskered
wharf-rat of twenty. Mamie, who was Spider's niece, was called
the Queen of the Oyster Pirates, and, on occasion, presided at
their revels. French Frank was in love with her, though I did not
know it at the time; and she steadfastly refused to marry him.
French Frank poured a tumbler of red wine from a big demijohn to
drink to our transaction. I remembered the red wine of the
Italian rancho, and shuddered inwardly. Whisky and beer were not
quite so repulsive. But the Queen of the Oyster Pirates was
looking at me, a part-emptied glass in her own hand. I had my
pride. If I was only fifteen, at least I could not show myself
any less a man than she. Besides, there were her sister, and Mrs.
Hadley, and the young oyster pirate, and the whiskered wharf-rat,
all with glasses in their hands. Was I a milk-and-water sop? No;
a thousand times no, and a thousand glasses no. I downed the
tumblerful like a man.
French Frank was elated by the sale, which I had bound with a
twenty-dollar goldpiece. He poured more wine. I had learned my
strong head and stomach, and I was certain I could drink with them
in a temperate way and not poison myself for a week to come. I
could stand as much as they; and besides, they had already been
drinking for some time.
We got to singing. Spider sang "The Boston Burglar" and "Black
Lulu." The Queen sang "Then I Wisht I Were a Little Bird." And her
sister Tess sang "Oh, Treat My Daughter Kindily." The fun grew
fast and furious. I found myself able to miss drinks without
being noticed or called to account. Also, standing in the
companionway, head and shoulders out and glass in hand, I could
fling the wine overboard.
I reasoned something like this: It is a queerness of these people
that they like this vile-tasting wine. Well, let them. I cannot
quarrel with their tastes. My manhood, according to their queer
notions, must compel me to appear to like this wine. Very well.
I shall so appear. But I shall drink no more than is unavoidable.
And the Queen began to make love to me, the latest recruit to the
oyster pirate fleet, and no mere hand, but a master and owner.
She went upon deck to take the air, and took me with her. She
knew, of course, but I never dreamed, how French Frank was raging
down below. Then Tess joined us, sitting on the cabin; and
Spider, and Bob; and at the last, Mrs. Hadley and French Frank.
And we sat there, glasses in hand, and sang, while the big
demijohn went around; and I was the only strictly sober one.
And I enjoyed it as no one of them was able to enjoy it. Here, in
this atmosphere of bohemianism, I could not but contrast the scene
with my scene of the day before, sitting at my machine, in the
stifling, shut-in air, repeating, endlessly repeating, at top
speed, my series of mechanical motions. And here I sat now, glass
in hand, in warm-glowing camaraderie, with the oyster pirates,
adventurers who refused to be slaves to petty routine, who flouted
restrictions and the law, who carried their lives and their
liberty in their hands. And it was through John Barleycorn that I
came to join this glorious company of free souls, unashamed and
And the afternoon seabreeze blew its tang into my lungs, and
curled the waves in mid-channel. Before it came the scow
schooners, wing-and-wing, blowing their horns for the drawbridges
to open. Red-stacked tugs tore by, rocking the Razzle Dazzle in
the waves of their wake. A sugar barque towed from the "boneyard"
to sea. The sun-wash was on the crisping water, and life was big.
And Spider sang:
"Oh, it's Lulu, black Lulu, my darling,
Oh, it's where have you been so long?
Been layin' in jail,
A-waitin' for bail,
Till my bully comes rollin' along."
There it was, the smack and slap of the spirit of revolt, of
adventure, of romance, of the things forbidden and done defiantly
and grandly. And I knew that on the morrow I would not go back to
my machine at the cannery. To-morrow I would be an oyster pirate,
as free a freebooter as the century and the waters of San
Francisco Bay would permit. Spider had already agreed to sail
with me as my crew of one, and, also, as cook while I did the deck
work. We would outfit our grub and water in the morning, hoist
the big mainsail (which was a bigger piece of canvas than any I
had ever sailed under), and beat our way out the estuary on the
first of the seabreeze and the last of the ebb. Then we would
slack sheets, and on the first of the flood run down the bay to
the Asparagus Islands, where we would anchor miles off shore. And
at last my dream would be realised: I would sleep upon the water.
And next morning I would wake upon the water; and thereafter all
my days and nights would be on the water.
And the Queen asked me to row her ashore in my skiff, when at
sunset French Frank prepared to take his guests ashore. Nor did I
catch the significance of his abrupt change of plan when he turned
the task of rowing his skiff over to Whisky Bob, himself remaining
on board the sloop. Nor did I understand Spider's grinning side-
remark to me: "Gee! There's nothin' slow about YOU." How could it
possibly enter my boy's head that a grizzled man of fifty should
be jealous of me?
We met by appointment, early Monday morning, to complete the deal,
in Johnny Heinhold's "Last Chance "--a saloon, of course, for the
transactions of men. I paid the money over, received the bill of
sale, and French Frank treated. This struck me as an evident
custom, and a logical one--the seller, who receives, the money, to
wet a piece of it in the establishment where the trade was
consummated. But, to my surprise, French Frank treated the house.
He and I drank, which seemed just; but why should Johnny Heinhold,
who owned the saloon and waited behind the bar, be invited to
drink? I figured it immediately that he made a profit on the very
drink he drank. I could, in a way, considering that they were
friends and shipmates, understand Spider and Whisky Bob being
asked to drink; but why should the longshoremen, Bill Kelley and
Soup Kennedy, be asked?
Then there was Pat, the Queen's brother, making a total of eight
of us. It was early morning, and all ordered whisky. What could
I do, here in this company of big men, all drinking whisky?
"Whisky," I said, with the careless air of one who had said it a
thousand times. And such whisky! I tossed it down. A-r-r-r-gh! I
can taste it yet.
And I was appalled at the price French Frank had paid--eighty
cents. EIGHTY CENTS! It was an outrage to my thrifty soul.
Eighty cents--the equivalent of eight long hours of my toil at the
machine, gone down our throats, and gone like that, in a
twinkling, leaving only a bad taste in the mouth. There was no
discussion that French Frank was a waster.
I was anxious to be gone, out into the sunshine, out over the
water to my glorious boat. But all hands lingered. Even Spider,
my crew, lingered. No hint broke through my obtuseness of why
they lingered. I have often thought since of how they must have
regarded me, the newcomer being welcomed into their company
standing at bar with them, and not standing for a single round of
French Frank, who, unknown to me, had swallowed his chagrin since
the day before, now that the money for the Razzle Dazzle was in
his pocket, began to behave curiously toward me. I sensed the
change in his attitude, saw the forbidding glitter in his eyes,
and wondered. The more I saw of men, the queerer they became.
Johnny Heinhold leaned across the bar and whispered in my ear s
"He's got it in for you. Watch out."
I nodded comprehension of his statement, and acquiescence in it,
as a man should nod who knows all about men. But secretly I was
perplexed. Heavens! How was I, who had worked hard and read books
of adventure, and who was only fifteen years old, who had not
dreamed of giving the Queen of the Oyster Pirates a second
thought, and who did not know that French Frank was madly and
Latinly in love with her--how was I to guess that I had done him
shame? And how was I to guess that the story of how the Queen had
thrown him down on his own boat, the moment I hove in sight, was
already the gleeful gossip of the water-front? And by the same
token, how was I to guess that her brother Pat's offishness with
me was anything else than temperamental gloominess of spirit?
Whisky Bob got me aside a moment. "Keep your eyes open," he
muttered. "Take my tip. French Frank's ugly. I'm going up river
with him to get a schooner for oystering. When he gets down on
the beds, watch out. He says he'll run you down. After dark, any
time he's around, change your anchorage and douse your riding
Oh, certainly, I savve'd. I nodded my head, and, as one man to
another, thanked him for his tip; and drifted back to the group at
the bar. No; I did not treat. I never dreamed that I was
expected to treat. I left with Spider, and my ears burn now as I
try to surmise the things they must have said about me.
I asked Spider, in an off-hand way, what was eating French Frank.
"He's crazy jealous of you," was the answer. "Do you think so?" I
said, and dismissed the matter as not worth thinking about.
But I leave it to any one--the swell of my fifteen-years-old
manhood at learning that French Frank, the adventurer of fifty,
the sailor of all the seas of all the world, was jealous of me--
and jealous over a girl most romantically named the Queen of the
Oyster Pirates. I had read of such things in books, and regarded
them as personal probabilities of a distant maturity. Oh, I felt
a rare young devil, as we hoisted the big mainsail that morning,
broke out anchor, and filled away close-hauled on the three-mile
beat to windward out into the bay.
Such was my escape from the killing machine-toil, and my
introduction to the oyster pirates. True, the introduction had
begun with drink, and the life promised to continue with drink.
But was I to stay away from it for such reason? Wherever life ran
free and great, there men drank. Romance and Adventure seemed
always to go down the street locked arm in arm with John
Barleycorn. To know the two, I must know the third. Or else I
must go back to my free library books and read of the deeds of
other men and do no deeds of my own save slave for ten cents an
hour at a machine in a cannery.
No; I was not to be deterred from this brave life on the water by
the fact that the water-dwellers had queer and expensive desires
for beer and wine and whisky. What if their notions of happiness
included the strange one of seeing me drink? When they persisted
in buying the stuff and thrusting it upon me, why, I would drink
it. It was the price I would pay for their comradeship. And I
didn't have to get drunk. I had not got drunk the Sunday
afternoon I arranged to buy the Razzle Dazzle, despite the fact
that not one of the rest was sober. Well, I could go on into the
future that way, drinking the stuff when it gave them pleasure
that I should drink it, but carefully avoiding over-drinking.
Gradual as was my development as a heavy drinker among the oyster
pirates, the real heavy drinking came suddenly, and was the
result, not of desire for alcohol, but of an intellectual
The more I saw of the life, the more I was enamoured of it. I can
never forget my thrills the first night I took part in a concerted
raid, when we assembled on board the Annie--rough men, big and
unafraid, and weazened wharf-rats, some of them ex-convicts, all
of them enemies of the law and meriting jail, in sea-boots and
sea-gear, talking in gruff low voices, and "Big" George with
revolvers strapped about his waist to show that he meant business.
Oh, I know, looking back, that the whole thing was sordid and
silly. But I was not looking back in those days when I was
rubbing shoulders with John Barleycorn and beginning to accept
him. The life was brave and wild, and I was living the adventure
I had read so much about.
Nelson, "Young Scratch" they called him, to distinguish him from
"Old Scratch," his father, sailed in the sloop Reindeer, partners
with one "Clam." Clam was a dare-devil, but Nelson was a reckless
maniac. He was twenty years old, with the body of a Hercules.
When he was shot in Benicia, a couple of years later, the coroner
said he was the greatest-shouldered man he had ever seen laid on a
Nelson could not read or write. He had been "dragged" up by his
father on San Francisco Bay, and boats were second nature with
him. His strength was prodigious, and his reputation along the
water-front for violence was anything but savoury. He had
Berserker rages and did mad, terrible things. I made his
acquaintance the first cruise of the Razzle Dazzle, and saw him
sail the Reindeer in a blow and dredge oysters all around the rest
of us as we lay at two anchors, troubled with fear of going
He was some man, this Nelson; and when, passing by the Last Chance
saloon, he spoke to me, I felt very proud. But try to imagine my
pride when he promptly asked me in to have a drink. I stood at
the bar and drank a glass of beer with him, and talked manfully of
oysters, and boats, and of the mystery of who had put the load of
buckshot through the Annie's mainsail.
We talked and lingered at the bar. It seemed to me strange that
we lingered. We had had our beer. But who was I to lead the way
outside when great Nelson chose to lean against the bar? After a
few minutes, to my surprise, he asked me to have another drink,
which I did. And still we talked, and Nelson evinced no intention
of leaving the bar.
Bear with me while I explain the way of my reasoning and of my
innocence. First of all, I was very proud to be in the company of
Nelson, who was the most heroic figure among the oyster pirates
and bay adventurers. Unfortunately for my stomach and mucous
membranes, Nelson had a strange quirk of nature that made him find
happiness in treating me to beer. I had no moral disinclination
for beer, and just because I didn't like the taste of it and the
weight of it was no reason I should forgo the honour of his
company. It was his whim to drink beer, and to have me drink beer
with him. Very well, I would put up with the passing discomfort.
So we continued to talk at the bar, and to drink beer ordered and
paid for by Nelson. I think, now, when I look back upon it, that
Nelson was curious. He wanted to find out just what kind of a
gink I was. He wanted to see how many times I'd let him treat
without offering to treat in return.
After I had drunk half a dozen glasses, my policy of temperateness
in mind, I decided that I had had enough for that time. So I
mentioned that I was going aboard the Razzle Dazzle, then lying at
the city wharf, a hundred yards away.
I said good-bye to Nelson, and went on down the wharf. But, John
Barleycorn, to the extent of six glasses, went with me. My brain
tingled and was very much alive. I was uplifted by my sense of
manhood. I, a truly-true oyster pirate, was going aboard my own
boat after hob-nobbing in the Last Chance with Nelson, the
greatest oyster pirate of us all. Strong in my brain was the
vision of us leaning against the bar and drinking beer. And
curious it was, I decided, this whim of nature that made men happy
in spending good money for beer for a fellow like me who didn't
As I pondered this, I recollected that several times other men, in
couples, had entered the Last Chance, and first one, then the
other, had treated to drinks. I remembered, on the drunk on the
Idler, how Scotty and the harpooner and myself had raked and
scraped dimes and nickels with which to buy the whisky. Then came
my boy code: when on a day a fellow gave another a "cannon-ball"
or a chunk of taffy, on some other day he would expect to receive
back a cannon-ball or a chunk of taffy.
That was why Nelson had lingered at the bar. Having bought a
drink, he had waited for me to buy one. I HAD, LET HIM BUY SIX
DRINKS AND NEVER ONCE OFFERED TO TREAT. And he was the great
Nelson! I could feel myself blushing with shame. I sat down on
the stringer-piece of the wharf and buried my face in my hands.
And the heat of my shame burned up my neck and into my cheeks and
forehead. I have blushed many times in my life, but never have I
experienced so terrible a blush as that one.
And sitting there on the stringer-piece in my shame, I did a great
deal of thinking and transvaluing of values. I had been born
poor. Poor I had lived. I had gone hungry on occasion. I had
never had toys nor playthings like other children. My first
memories of life were pinched by poverty. The pinch of poverty
had been chronic. I was eight years old when I wore my first
little undershirt actually sold in a store across the counter.
And then it had been only one little undershirt. When it was
soiled I had to return to the awful home-made things until it was
washed. I had been so proud of it that I insisted on wearing it
without any outer garment. For the first time I mutinied against
my mother--mutinied myself into hysteria, until she let me wear
the store undershirt so all the world could see.
Only a man who has undergone famine can properly value food; only
sailors and desert-dwellers know the meaning of fresh water. And
only a child, with a child's imagination, can come to know the
meaning of things it has been long denied. I early discovered
that the only things I could have were those I got for myself. My
meagre childhood developed meagreness. The first things I had
been able to get for myself had been cigarette pictures, cigarette
posters, and cigarette albums. I had not had the spending of the
money I earned, so I traded "extra" newspapers for these
treasures. I traded duplicates with the other boys, and
circulating, as I did, all about town, I had greater opportunities
for trading and acquiring.
It was not long before I had complete every series issued by every
cigarette manufacturer--such as the Great Race Horses, Parisian
Beauties, Women of All Nations, Flags of All Nations, Noted
Actors, Champion Prize Fighters, etc. And each series I had three
different ways: in the card from the cigarette package, in the
poster, and in the album.
Then I began to accumulate duplicate sets, duplicate albums. I
traded for other things that boys valued and which they usually
bought with money given them by their parents. Naturally, they
did not have the keen sense of values that I had, who was never
given money to buy anything. I traded for postage-stamps, for
minerals, for curios, for birds' eggs, for marbles (I had a more
magnificent collection of agates than I have ever seen any boy
possess--and the nucleus of the collection was a handful worth at
least three dollars, which I had kept as security for twenty cents
I loaned to a messenger-boy who was sent to reform school before
he could redeem them).
I'd trade anything and everything for anything else, and turn it
over in a dozen more trades until it was transmuted into something
that was worth something. I was famous as a trader. I was
notorious as a miser. I could even make a junkman weep when I had
dealings with him. Other boys called me in to sell for them their
collections of bottles, rags, old iron, grain, and gunny-sacks,
and five-gallon oil-cans--aye, and gave me a commission for doing
And this was the thrifty, close-fisted boy, accustomed to slave at
a machine for ten cents an hour, who sat on the stringer-piece and
considered the matter of beer at five cents a glass and gone in a
moment with nothing to show for it. I was now with men I admired.
I was proud to be with them. Had all my pinching and saving
brought me the equivalent of one of the many thrills which had
been mine since I came among the oyster pirates? Then what was
worth while--money or thrills? These men had no horror of
squandering a nickel, or many nickels. They were magnificently
careless of money, calling up eight men to drink whisky at ten
cents a glass, as French Frank had done. Why, Nelson had just
spent sixty cents on beer for the two of us.
Which was it to be? I was aware that I was making a grave
decision. I was deciding between money and men, between
niggardliness and romance. Either I must throw overboard all my
old values of money and look upon it as something to be flung
about wastefully, or I must throw overboard my comradeship with
these men whose peculiar quirks made them like strong drink.
I retraced my steps up the wharf to the Last Chance, where Nelson
still stood outside. "Come on and have a beer," I invited. Again
we stood at the bar and drank and talked, but this time it was I
who paid ten cents! a whole hour of my labour at a machine for a
drink of something I didn't want and which tasted rotten. But it
wasn't difficult. I had achieved a concept. Money no longer
counted. It was comradeship that counted. "Have another?" I
said. And we had another, and I paid for it. Nelson, with the
wisdom of the skilled drinker, said to the barkeeper, "Make mine a
small one, Johnny." Johnny nodded and gave him a glass that
contained only a third as much as the glasses we had been
drinking. Yet the charge was the same--five cents.
By this time I was getting nicely jingled, so such extravagance
didn't hurt me much. Besides, I was learning. There was more in
this buying of drinks than mere quantity. I got my finger on it.
There was a stage when the beer didn't count at all, but just the
spirit of comradeship of drinking together. And, ha!--another
thing! I, too, could call for small beers and minimise by two-
thirds the detestable freightage with which comradeship burdened
"I had to go aboard to get some money," I remarked casually, as we
drank, in the hope Nelson would take it as an explanation of why I
had let him treat six consecutive times.
"Oh, well, you didn't have to do that," he answered. "Johnny'll
trust a fellow like you--won't you, Johnny!"
"Sure," Johnny agreed, with a smile.
"How much you got down against me?" Nelson queried.
Johnny pulled out the book he kept behind the bar, found Nelson's
page, and added up the account of several dollars. At once I
became possessed with a desire to have a page in that book.
Almost it seemed the final badge of manhood.
After a couple more drinks, for which I insisted on paying, Nelson
decided to go. We parted true comradely, and I wandered down the
wharf to the Razzle Dazzle. Spider was just building the fire for
"Where'd you get it?" he grinned up at me through the open
"Oh, I've been with Nelson," I said carelessly, trying to hide my
Then an idea came to me. Here was another one of them. Now that
I had achieved my concept, I might as well practise it thoroughly.
"Come on," I said, "up to Johnny's and have a drink."
Going up the wharf, we met Clam coming down. Clam was Nelson's
partner, and he was a fine, brave, handsome, moustached man of
thirty--everything, in short, that his nickname did not connote.
"Come on," I said, "and have a drink." He came. As we turned into
the Last Chance, there was Pat, the Queen's brother, coming out.
"What's your hurry?" I greeted him. "We're having a drink. Come
on along." "I've just had one," he demurred. "What of it?--we're
having one now," I retorted. And Pat consented to join us, and I
melted my way into his good graces with a couple of glasses of
beer. Oh! I was learning things that afternoon about John
Barleycorn. There was more in him than the bad taste when you
swallowed him. Here, at the absurd cost of ten cents, a gloomy,
grouchy individual, who threatened to become an enemy, was made
into a good friend. He became even genial, his looks were kindly,
and our voices mellowed together as we talked water-front and
"Small beer for me, Johnny," I said, when the others had ordered
schooners. Yes, and I said it like the accustomed drinker,
carelessly, casually, as a sort of spontaneous thought that had
just occurred to me. Looking back, I am confident that the only
one there who guessed I was a tyro at bar-drinking was Johnny
"Where'd he get it?" I overheard Spider confidentially ask Johnny.
"Oh, he's been sousin' here with Nelson all afternoon," was
I never let on that I'd heard, but PROUD? Aye, even the barkeeper
was giving me a recommendation as a man. "HE'S BEEN SOUSIN' HERE
WITH NELSON ALL AFTERNOON." Magic words! The accolade delivered by
a barkeeper with a beer glass!
I remembered that French Frank had treated Johnny the day I bought
the Razzle Dazzle. The glasses were filled and we were ready to
drink. "Have something yourself, Johnny," I said, with an air of
having intended to say it all the time, but of having been a
trifle remiss because of the interesting conversation I had been
holding with Clam and Pat.
Johnny looked at me with quick sharpness, divining, I am positive,
the strides I was making in my education, and poured himself
whisky from his private bottle. This hit me for a moment on my
thrifty side. He had taken a ten-cent drink when the rest of us
were drinking five-cent drinks! But the hurt was only for a
moment. I dismissed it as ignoble, remembered my concept, and did
not give myself away.
"You'd better put me down in the book for this," I said, when we
had finished the drink. And I had the satisfaction of seeing a
fresh page devoted to my name and a charge pencilled for a round
of drinks amounting to thirty cents. And I glimpsed, as through a
golden haze, a future wherein that page would be much charged, and
crossed off, and charged again.
I treated a second time around, and then, to my amazement, Johnny
redeemed himself in that matter of the ten-cent drink. He treated
us around from behind the bar, and I decided that he had
arithmetically evened things up handsomely.
"Let's go around to the St. Louis House," Spider suggested when we
got outside. Pat, who had been shovelling coal all day, had gone
home, and Clam had gone upon the Reindeer to cook supper.
So around Spider and I went to the St. Louis House--my first
visit--a huge bar-room, where perhaps fifty men, mostly
longshoremen, were congregated. And there I met Soup Kennedy for
the second time, and Bill Kelley. And Smith, of the Annie,
drifted in--he of the belt-buckled revolvers. And Nelson showed
up. And I met others, including the Vigy brothers, who ran the
place, and, chiefest of all, Joe Goose, with the wicked eyes, the
twisted nose, and the flowered vest, who played the harmonica like
a roystering angel and went on the most atrocious tears that even
the Oakland water-front could conceive of and admire.
As I bought drinks--others treated as well--the thought flickered
across my mind that Mammy Jennie wasn't going to be repaid much on
her loan out of that week's earnings of the Razzle Dazzle. "But
what of it?" I thought, or rather, John Barleycorn thought it for
me. "You're a man and you're getting acquainted with men. Mammy
Jennie doesn't need the money as promptly as all that. She isn't
starving. You know that. She's got other money in the bank. Let
her wait, and pay her back gradually."
And thus it was I learned another trait of John Barleycorn. He
inhibits morality. Wrong conduct that it is impossible for one to
do sober, is done quite easily when one is not sober. In fact, it
is the only thing one can do, for John Barleycorn's inhibition
rises like a wall between one's immediate desires and long-learned
I dismissed my thought of debt to Mammy Jennie and proceeded to
get acquainted at the trifling expense of some trifling money and
a jingle that was growing unpleasant. Who took me on board and
put me to bed that night I do not know, but I imagine it must have
And so I won my manhood's spurs. My status on the water-front and
with the oyster pirates became immediately excellent. I was
looked upon as a good fellow, as well as no coward. And somehow,
from the day I achieved that concept sitting on the stringer-piece
of the Oakland City Wharf, I have never cared much for money. No
one has ever considered me a miser since, while my carelessness of
money is a source of anxiety and worry to some that know me.
So completely did I break with my parsimonious past that I sent
word home to my mother to call in the boys of the neighbourhood
and give to them all my collections. I never even cared to learn
what boys got what collections. I was a man now, and I made a
clean sweep of everything that bound me to my boyhood.
My reputation grew. When the story went around the water-front of
how French Frank had tried to run me down with his schooner, and
of how I had stood on the deck of the Razzle Dazzle, a cocked
double-barrelled shotgun in my hands, steering with my feet and
holding her to her course, and compelled him to put up his wheel
and keep away, the water-front decided that there was something in
me despite my youth. And I continued to show what was in me.
There were the times I brought the Razzle Dazzle in with a bigger
load of oysters than any other two-man craft; there was the time
when we raided far down in Lower Bay, and mine was the only craft
back at daylight to the anchorage off Asparagus Island; there was
the Thursday night we raced for market and I brought the Razzle
Dazzle in without a rudder, first of the fleet, and skimmed the
cream of the Friday morning trade; and there was the time I
brought her in from Upper Bay under a jib, when Scotty burned my
mainsail. (Yes; it was Scotty of the Idler adventure. Irish had
followed Spider on board the Razzle Dazzle, and Scotty, turning
up, had taken Irish's place.)
But the things I did on the water only partly counted. What
completed everything, and won for me the title of "Prince of the
Oyster Beds," was that I was a good fellow ashore with my money,
buying drinks like a man. I little dreamed that the time would
come when the Oakland water-front, which had shocked me at first
would be shocked and annoyed by the devilry of the things I did.
But always the life was tied up with drinking. The saloons are
poor men's clubs. Saloons are congregating places. We engaged to
meet one another in saloons. We celebrated our good fortune or
wept our grief in saloons. We got acquainted in saloons.
Can I ever forget the afternoon I met "Old Scratch," Nelson's
father? It was in the Last Chance. Johnny Heinhold introduced us.
That Old Scratch was Nelson's father was noteworthy enough. But
there was more in it than that. He was owner and master of the
scow-schooner Annie Mine, and some day I might ship as a sailor
with him. Still more, he was romance. He was a blue-eyed,
yellow-haired, raw-boned Viking, big-bodied and strong-muscled
despite his age. And he had sailed the seas in ships of all
nations in the old savage sailing days.
I had heard many weird tales about him, and worshipped him from a
distance. It took the saloon to bring us together. Even so, our
acquaintance might have been no more than a hand-grip and a word--
he was a laconic old fellow--had it not been for the drinking.
"Have a drink," I said, with promptitude, after the pause which I
had learned good form in drinking dictates. Of course, while we
drank our beer, which I had paid for, it was incumbent on him to
listen to me and to talk to me. And Johnny, like a true host,
made the tactful remarks that enabled us to find mutual topics of
conversation. And of course, having drunk my beer, Captain Nelson
must now buy beer in turn. This led to more talking, and Johnny
drifted out of the conversation to wait on other customers.
The more beer Captain Nelson and I drank, the better we got
acquainted. In me he found an appreciative listener, who, by
virtue of book-reading, knew much about the sea-life he had lived.
So he drifted back to his wild young days, and spun many a rare
yarn for me, while we downed beer, treat by treat, all through a
blessed summer afternoon. And it was only John Barleycorn that
made possible that long afternoon with the old sea-dog.
It was Johnny Heinhold who secretly warned me across the bar that
I was getting pickled and advised me to take small beers. But as
long as Captain Nelson drank large beers, my pride forbade
anything else than large beers. And not until the skipper ordered
his first small beer did I order one for myself. Oh, when we came
to a lingering fond farewell, I was drunk. But I had the
satisfaction of seeing Old Scratch as drunk as I. My youthful
modesty scarcely let me dare believe that the hardened old
buccaneer was even more drunk.
And afterwards, from Spider, and Pat, and C]am, and Johnny
Heinhold, and others, came the tips that Old Scratch liked me and
had nothing but good words for the fine lad I was. Which was the
more remarkable, because he was known as a savage, cantankerous
old cuss who never liked anybody. (His very nickname, "Scratch,"
arose from a Berserker trick of his, in fighting, of tearing off
his opponent's face.) And that I had won his friendship, all
thanks were due to John Barleycorn. I have given the incident
merely as an example of the multitudinous lures and draws and
services by which John Barleycorn wins his followers.
And still there arose in me no desire for alcohol, no chemical
demand. In years and years of heavy drinking, drinking did not
beget the desire. Drinking was the way of the life I led, the way
of the men with whom I lived. While away on my cruises on the
bay, I took no drink along; and while out on the bay the thought
of the desirableness of a drink never crossed my mind. It was not
until I tied the Razzle Dazzle up to the wharf and got ashore in
the congregating places of men, where drink flowed, that the
buying of drinks for other men, and the accepting of drinks from
other men, devolved upon me as a social duty and a manhood rite.
Then, too, there were the times, lying at the city wharf or across
the estuary on the sand-spit, when the Queen, and her sister, and
her brother Pat, and Mrs. Hadley came aboard. It was my boat, I
was host, and I could only dispense hospitality in the terms of
their understanding of it. So I would rush Spider, or Irish, or
Scotty, or whoever was my crew, with the can for beer and the
demijohn for red wine. And again, lying at the wharf disposing of
my oysters, there were dusky twilights when big policemen and
plain-clothes men stole on board. And because we lived in the
shadow of the police, we opened oysters and fed them to them with
squirts of pepper sauce, and rushed the growler or got stronger
stuff in bottles.
Drink as I would, I couldn't come to like John Barleycorn. I
valued him extremely well for his associations, but not for the
taste of him. All the time I was striving to be a man amongst
men, and all the time I nursed secret and shameful desires for
candy. But I would have died before I'd let anybody guess it. I
used to indulge in lonely debauches, on nights when I knew my crew
was going to sleep ashore. I would go up to the Free Library,
exchange my books, buy a quarter's worth of all sorts of candy
that chewed and lasted, sneak aboard the Razzle Dazzle, lock
myself in the cabin, go to bed, and lie there long hours of bliss,
reading and chewing candy. And those were the only times I felt
that I got my real money's worth. Dollars and dollars, across the
bar, couldn't buy the satisfaction that twenty-five cents did in a
As my drinking grew heavier, I began to note more and more that it
was in the drinking bouts the purple passages occurred. Drunks
were always memorable. At such times things happened. Men like
Joe Goose dated existence from drunk to drunk. The longshoremen
all looked forward to their Saturday night drunk. We of the
oyster boats waited until we had disposed of our cargoes before we
got really started, though a scattering of drinks and a meeting of
a chance friend sometimes precipitated an accidental drunk.
In ways, the accidental drunks were the best. Stranger and more
exciting things happened at such times. As, for instance, the
Sunday when Nelson and French Frank and Captain Spink stole the
stolen salmon boat from Whisky Bob and Nicky the Greek. Changes
had taken place in the personnel of the oyster boats. Nelson had
got into a fight with Bill Kelley on the Annie and was carrying a
bullet-hole through his left hand. Also, having quarrelled with
Clam and broken partnership, Nelson had sailed the Reindeer, his
arm in a sling, with a crew of two deep-water sailors, and he had
sailed so madly as to frighten them ashore. Such was the tale of
his recklessness they spread, that no one on the water-front would
go out with Nelson. So the
Reindeer, crewless, lay across the estuary at the sandspit.
Beside her lay the Razzle Dazzle with a burned mainsail and Scotty
and me on board. Whisky Bob had fallen out with French Frank and
gone on a raid "up river" with Nicky the Greek.
The result of this raid was a brand-new Columbia River salmon
boat, stolen from an Italian fisherman. We oyster pirates were
all visited by the searching Italian, and we were convinced, from
what we knew of their movements, that Whisky Bob and Nicky the
Greek were the guilty parties. But where was the salmon boat?
Hundreds of Greek and Italian fishermen, up river and down bay,
had searched every slough and tule patch for it. When the owner
despairingly offered a reward of fifty dollars, our interest
increased and the mystery deepened.
One Sunday morning old Captain Spink paid me a visit. The
conversation was confidential. He had just been fishing in his
skiff in the old Alameda ferry slip. As the tide went down, he
had noticed a rope tied to a pile under water and leading
downward. In vain he had tried to heave up what was fast on the
other end. Farther along, to another pile, was a similar rope,
leading downward and unheavable. Without doubt, it was the
missing salmon boat. If we restored it to its rightful owner
there was fifty dollars in it for us. But I had queer ethical
notions about honour amongst thieves, and declined to have
anything to do with the affair.
But French Frank had quarrelled with Whisky Bob, and Nelson was
also an enemy. (Poor Whisky Bob!--without viciousness, good-
natured, generous, born weak, raised poorly, with an irresistible
chemical demand for alcohol, still prosecuting his vocation of bay
pirate, his body was picked up, not long afterward, beside a dock
where it had sunk full of gunshot wounds.) Within an hour after I
had rejected Captain Spink's proposal, I saw him sail down the
estuary on board the Reindeer with Nelson. Also, French Frank
went by on his schooner.
It was not long ere they sailed back up the estuary, curiously
side by side. As they headed in for the sandspit, the submerged
salmon boat could be seen, gunwales awash and held up from sinking
by ropes fast to the schooner and the sloop. The tide was half
out, and they sailed squarely in on the sand, grounding in a row,
with the salmon boat in the middle.
Immediately Hans, one of French Frank's sailors, was into a skiff
and pulling rapidly for the north shore. The big demijohn in the
stern-sheets told his errand. They couldn't wait a moment to
celebrate the fifty dollars they had so easily earned. It is the
way of the devotees of John Barleycorn. When good fortune comes,
they drink. When they have no fortune, they drink to the hope of
good fortune. If fortune be ill, they drink to forget it. If
they meet a friend, they drink. If they quarrel with a friend and
lose him, they drink. If their love-making be crowned with
success, they are so happy they needs must drink. If they be
jilted, they drink for the contrary reason. And if they haven't
anything to do at all, why, they take a drink, secure in the
knowledge that when they have taken a sufficient number of drinks
the maggots will start crawling in their brains and they will have
their hands full with things to do. When they are sober they want
to drink; and when they have drunk they want to drink more.
Of course, as fellow comrades, Scotty and I were called in for the
drinking. We helped to make a hole in that fifty dollars not yet
received. The afternoon, from just an ordinary common summer
Sunday afternoon, became a gorgeous, purple afternoon. We all
talked and sang and ranted and bragged, and ever French Frank and
Nelson sent more drinks around. We lay in full sight of the
Oakland water-front, and the noise of our revels attracted
friends. Skiff after skiff crossed the estuary and hauled up on
the sandspit, while Hans' work was cut out for him--ever to row
back and forth for more supplies of booze.
Then Whisky Bob and Nicky the Greek arrived, sober, indignant,
outraged in that their fellow pirates had raised their plant.
French Frank, aided by John Barleycorn, orated hypocritically
about virtue and honesty, and, despite his fifty years, got Whisky
Bob out on the sand and proceeded to lick him. When Nicky the
Greek jumped in with a short-handled shovel to Whisky Bob's
assistance, short work was made of him by Hans. And of course,
when the bleeding remnants of Bob and Nicky were sent packing in
their skiff, the event must needs be celebrated in further
By this time, our visitors being numerous, we were a large crowd
compounded of many nationalities and diverse temperaments, all
aroused by John Barleycorn, all restraints cast off. Old quarrels
revived, ancient hates flared up. Fight was in the air. And
whenever a longshoreman remembered something against a scow-
schooner sailor, or vice versa, or an oyster pirate remembered or
was remembered, a fist shot out and another fight was on. And
every fight was made up in more rounds of drinks, wherein the
combatants, aided and abetted by the rest of us, embraced each
other and pledged undying friendship.
And, of all times, Soup Kennedy selected this time to come and
retrieve an old shirt of his, left aboard the Reindeer from the
trip he sailed with Clam. He had espoused Clam's side of the
quarrel with Nelson. Also, he had been drinking in the St. Louis
House, so that it was John Barleycorn who led him to the sandspit
in quest of his old shirt. Few words started the fray. He locked
with Nelson in the cockpit of the Reindeer, and in the mix-up
barely escaped being brained by an iron bar wielded by irate
French Frank--irate because a two-handed man had attacked a one-
handed man. (If the Reindeer still floats, the dent of the iron
bar remains in the hard-wood rail of her cockpit.)
But Nelson pulled his bandaged hand, bullet-perforated, out of its
sling, and, held by us, wept and roared his Berserker belief that
he could lick Soup Kennedy one-handed. And we let them loose on
the sand. Once, when it looked as if Nelson were getting the
worst of it, French Frank and John Barleycorn sprang unfairly into
the fight. Scotty protested and reached for French Frank, who
whirled upon him and fell on top of him in a pummelling clinch
after a sprawl of twenty feet across the sand. In the course of
separating these two, half a dozen fights started amongst the rest
of us. These fights were finished, one way or the other, or we
separated them with drinks, while all the time Nelson and Soup
Kennedy fought on. Occasionally we returned to them and gave
advice, such as, when they lay exhausted in the sand, unable to
strike a blow, "Throw sand in his eyes." And they threw sand in
each other's eyes, recuperated, and fought on to successive
And now, of all this that is squalid, and ridiculous, and bestial,
try to think what it meant to me, a youth not yet sixteen, burning
with the spirit of adventure, fancy-filled with tales of
buccaneers and sea-rovers, sacks of cities and conflicts of armed
men, and imagination-maddened by the stuff I had drunk. It was
life raw and naked, wild and free--the only life of that sort
which my birth in time and space permitted me to attain. And more
than that. It carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the
sandspit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness
of adventure of all the world, where battles would be fought, not
for old shirts and over stolen salmon boats, but for high purposes
and romantic ends.
And because I told Scotty what I thought of his letting an old man
like French Frank get away with him, we, too, brawled and added to
the festivity of the sandspit. And Scotty threw up his job as
crew, and departed in the night with a pair of blankets belonging
to me. During the night, while the oyster pirates lay stupefied
in their bunks, the schooner and the Reindeer floated on the high
water and swung about to their anchors. The salmon boat, still
filled with rocks and water, rested on the bottom.
In the morning, early, I heard wild cries from the Reindeer, and
tumbled out in the chill grey to see a spectacle that made the
water-front laugh for days. The beautiful salmon boat lay on the
hard sand, squashed flat as a pancake, while on it were perched
French Frank's schooner and the Reindeer. Unfortunately two of
the Reindeer's planks had been crushed in by the stout oak stem of
the salmon boat. The rising tide had flowed through the hole, and
just awakened Nelson by getting into his bunk with him. I lent a
hand, and we pumped the Reindeer out and repaired the damage.
Then Nelson cooked breakfast, and while we ate we considered the
situation. He was broke. So was I. The fifty dollars reward
would never be paid for that pitiful mess of splinters on the sand
beneath us. He had a wounded hand and no crew. I had a burned
main sail and no crew.
"What d'ye say, you and me?" Nelson queried. "I'll go you," was
my answer. And thus I became partners with "Young Scratch"
Nelson, the wildest, maddest of them all. We borrowed the money
for an outfit of grub from Johnny Heinhold, filled our water-
barrels, and sailed away that day for the oyster-beds.
Nor have I ever regretted those months of mad devilry I put in
with Nelson. He COULD sail, even if he did frighten every man
that sailed with him. To steer to miss destruction by an inch or
an instant was his joy. To do what everybody else did not dare
attempt to do, was his pride. Never to reef down was his mania,
and in all the time I spent with him, blow high or low, the
Reindeer was never reefed. Nor was she ever dry. We strained her
open and sailed her open and sailed her open continually. And we
abandoned the Oakland water-front and went wider afield for our
And all this glorious passage in my life was made possible for me
by John Barleycorn. And this is my complaint against John
Barleycorn. Here I was, thirsting for the wild life of adventure,
and the only way for me to win to it was through John Barleycorn's
mediation. It was the way of the men who lived the life. Did I
wish to live the life, I must live it the way they did. It was by
virtue of drinking that I gained that partnership and comradeship
with Nelson. Had I drunk only the beer he paid for, or had I
declined to drink at all, I should never have been selected by him
as a partner. He wanted a partner who would meet him on the
social side, as well as the work side of life.
I abandoned myself to the life, and developed the misconception
that the secret of John Barleycorn lay in going on mad drunks,
rising through the successive stages that only an iron
constitution could endure to final stupefaction and swinish
unconsciousness. I did not like the taste, so I drank for the
sole purpose of getting drunk, of getting hopelessly, helplessly
drunk. And I, who had saved and scraped, traded like a Shylock
and made junkmen weep; I, who had stood aghast when French Frank,
at a single stroke, spent eighty cents for whisky for eight men, I
turned myself loose with a more lavish disregard for money than
any of them.
I remember going ashore one night with Nelson. In my pocket were
one hundred and eighty dollars. It was my intention, first, to
buy me some clothes, after that, some drinks. I needed the
clothes. All I possessed were on me, and they were as follows: a
pair of sea-boots that providentially leaked the water out as fast
as it ran in, a pair of fifty-cent overalls, a forty-cent cotton
shirt, and a sou'wester. I had no hat, so I had to wear the
sou'wester, and it will be noted that I have listed neither
underclothes nor socks. I didn't own any.
To reach the stores where clothes could be bought, we had to pass
a dozen saloons. So I bought me the drinks first. I never got to
the clothing stores. In the morning, broke, poisoned, but
contented, I came back on board, and we set sail. I possessed
only the clothes I had gone ashore in, and not a cent remained of
the one hundred and eighty dollars. It might well be deemed
impossible, by those who have never tried it, that in twelve hours
a lad can spend all of one hundred and eighty dollars for drinks.
I know otherwise.
And I had no regrets. I was proud. I had shown them I could
spend with the best of them. Amongst strong men I had proved
myself strong. I had clinched again, as I had often clinched, my
right to the title of "Prince." Also, my attitude may be
considered, in part, as a reaction from my childhood's meagreness
and my childhood's excessive toil. Possibly my inchoate thought
was: Better to reign among booze-fighters a prince than to toil
twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour. There are
no purple passages in machine toil. But if the spending of one
hundred and eighty dollars in twelve hours isn't a purple passage,
then I'd like to know what is.
Oh, I skip much of the details of my trafficking with John
Barleycorn during this period, and shall only mention events that
will throw light on John Barleycorn's ways. There were three
things that enabled me to pursue this heavy drinking: first, a
magnificent constitution far better than the average; second, the
healthy open-air life on the water; and third, the fact that I
drank irregularly. While out on the water, we never carried any
The world was opening up to me. Already I knew several hundred
miles of the water-ways of it, and of the towns and cities and
fishing hamlets on the shores. Came the whisper to range farther.
I had not found it yet. There was more behind. But even this
much of the world was too wide for Nelson. He wearied for his
beloved Oakland water-front, and when he elected to return to it
we separated in all friendliness.
I now made the old town of Benicia, on the Carquinez Straits, my
headquarters. In a cluster of fishermen's arks, moored in the
tules on the water-front, dwelt a congenial crowd of drinkers and
vagabonds, and I joined them. I had longer spells ashore, between
fooling with salmon fishing and making raids up and down bay and
rivers as a deputy fish patrolman, and I drank more and learned
more about drinking. I held my own with any one, drink for drink;
and often drank more than my share to show the strength of my
manhood. When, on a morning, my unconscious carcass was
disentangled from the nets on the drying-frames, whither I had
stupidly, blindly crawled the night before; and when the water-
front talked it over with many a giggle and laugh and another
drink, I was proud indeed. It was an exploit.
And when I never drew a sober breath, on one stretch, for three
solid weeks, I was certain I had reached the top. Surely, in that
direction, one could go no farther. It was time for me to move
on. For always, drunk or sober, at the back of my consciousness
something whispered that this carousing and bay-adventuring was
not all of life. This whisper was my good fortune. I happened to
be so made that I could hear it calling, always calling, out and
away over the world. It was not canniness on my part. It was
curiosity, desire to know, an unrest and a seeking for things
wonderful that I seemed somehow to have glimpsed or guessed. What
was this life for, I demanded, if this were all? No; there was
something more, away and beyond. (And, in relation to my much
later development as a drinker, this whisper, this promise of the
things at the back of life, must be noted, for it was destined to
play a dire part in my more recent wrestlings with John
But what gave immediacy to my decision to move on was a trick John
Barleycorn played me--a monstrous, incredible trick that showed
abysses of intoxication hitherto undreamed. At one o'clock in the
morning, after a prodigious drunk, I was tottering aboard a sloop
at the end of the wharf, intending to go to sleep. The tides
sweep through Carquinez Straits as in a mill-race, and the full
ebb was on when I stumbled overboard. There was nobody on the
wharf, nobody on the sloop. I was borne away by the current. I
was not startled. I thought the misadventure delightful. I was a
good swimmer, and in my inflamed condition the contact of the
water with my skin soothed me like cool linen.
And then John Barleycorn played me his maniacal trick. Some
maundering fancy of going out with the tide suddenly obsessed me.
I had never been morbid. Thoughts of suicide had never entered my
head. And now that they entered, I thought it fine, a splendid
culminating, a perfect rounding off of my short but exciting
career. I, who had never known girl's love, nor woman's love, nor
the love of children; who had never played in the wide joy-fields
of art, nor climbed the star-cool heights of philosophy, nor seen
with my eyes more than a pin-point's surface of the gorgeous
world; I decided that this was all, that I had seen all, lived
all, been all, that was worth while, and that now was the time to
cease. This was the trick of John Barleycorn, laying me by the
heels of my imagination and in a drug-dream dragging me to death.
Oh, he was convincing. I had really experienced all of life, and
it didn't amount to much. The swinish drunkenness in which I had
lived for months (this was accompanied by the sense of degradation
and the old feeling of conviction of sin) was the last and best,
and I could see for myself what it was worth. There were all the
broken-down old bums and loafers I had bought drinks for. That
was what remained of life. Did I want to become like them? A
thousand times no; and I wept tears of sweet sadness over my
glorious youth going out with the tide. (And who has not seen the
weeping drunk, the melancholic drunk? They are to be found in all
the bar-rooms, if they can find no other listener telling their
sorrows to the barkeeper, who is paid to listen.)
The water was delicious. It was a man's way to die. John
Barleycorn changed the tune he played in my drink-maddened brain.
Away with tears and regret. It was a hero's death, and by the
hero's own hand and will. So I struck up my death-chant and was
singing it lustily, when the gurgle and splash of the current-
riffles in my ears reminded me of my more immediate situation.
Below the town of Benicia, where the Solano wharf projects, the
Straits widen out into what bay-farers call the "Bight of Turner's
Shipyard." I was in the shore-tide that swept under the Solano
wharf and on into the bight. I knew of old the power of the suck
which developed when the tide swung around the end of Dead Man's
Island and drove straight for the wharf. I didn't want to go
through those piles. It wouldn't be nice, and I might lose an
hour in the bight on my way out with the tide.
I undressed in the water and struck out with a strong, single-
overhand stroke, crossing the current at right-angles. Nor did I
cease until, by the wharf lights, I knew I was safe to sweep by
the end. Then I turned over and rested. The stroke had been a
telling one, and I was a little time in recovering my breath.
I was elated, for I had succeeded in avoiding the suck. I started
to raise my death-chant again--a purely extemporised farrago of a
drug-crazed youth. "Don't sing--yet," whispered John Barleycorn.
"The Solano runs all night. There are railroad men on the wharf.
They will hear you, and come out in a boat and rescue you, and you
don't want to be rescued." I certainly didn't. What? Be robbed of
my hero's death? Never. And I lay on my back in the starlight,
watching the familiar wharf-lights go by, red and green and white,
and bidding sad sentimental farewell to them, each and all.
When I was well clear, in mid-channel, I sang again. Sometimes I
swam a few strokes, but in the main I contented myself with
floating and dreaming long drunken dreams. Before daylight, the
chill of the water and the passage of the hours had sobered me
sufficiently to make me wonder what portion of the Straits I was
in, and also to wonder if the turn of the tide wouldn't catch me
and take me back ere I had drifted out into San Pablo Bay.
Next I discovered that I was very weary and very cold, and quite
sober, and that I didn't in the least want to be drowned. I could
make out the Selby Smelter on the Contra Costa shore and the Mare
Island lighthouse. I started to swim for the Solano shore, but
was too weak and chilled, and made so little headway, and at the
cost of such painful effort, that I gave it up and contented
myself with floating, now and then giving a stroke to keep my
balance in the tide-rips which were increasing their commotion on
the surface of the water. And I knew fear. I was sober now, and
I didn't want to die. I discovered scores of reasons for living.
And the more reasons I discovered, the more liable it seemed that
I was going to drown anyway.
Daylight, after I had been four hours in the water, found me in a
parlous condition in the tide-rips off Mare Island light, where
the swift ebbs from Vallejo Straits and Carquinez Straits were
fighting with each other, and where, at that particular moment,
they were fighting the flood tide setting up against them from San
Pablo Bay. A stiff breeze had sprung up, and the crisp little
waves were persistently lapping into my mouth, and I was beginning
to swallow salt water. With my swimmer's knowledge, I knew the
end was near. And then the boat came--a Greek fisherman running
in for Vallejo; and again I had been saved from John Barleycorn by
my constitution and physical vigour.
And, in passing, let me note that this maniacal trick John
Barleycorn played me is nothing uncommon. An absolute statistic
of the per centage of suicides due to John Barleycorn would be
appalling. In my case, healthy, normal, young, full of the joy of
life, the suggestion to kill myself was unusual; but it must be
taken into account that it came on the heels of a long carouse,
when my nerves and brain were fearfully poisoned, and that the
dramatic, romantic side of my imagination, drink-maddened to
lunacy, was delighted with the suggestion. And yet, the older,
more morbid drinkers, more jaded with life and more disillusioned,
who kill themselves, do so usually after a long debauch, when
their nerves and brains are thoroughly poison-soaked.
So I left Benicia, where John Barleycorn had nearly got me, and
ranged wider afield in pursuit of the whisper from the back of
life to come and find. And wherever I ranged, the way lay along
alcohol-drenched roads. Men still congregated in saloons. They
were the poor-man's clubs, and they were the only clubs to which I
had access. I could get acquainted in saloons. I could go into a
saloon and talk with any man. In the strange towns and cities I
wandered through, the only place for me to go was the saloon. I
was no longer a stranger in any town the moment I had entered a
And right here let me break in with experiences no later than last
year. I harnessed four horses to a light trap, took Charmian
along, and drove for three months and a half over the wildest
mountain parts of California and Oregon. Each morning I did my
regular day's work of writing fiction. That completed, I drove on
through the middle of the day and the afternoon to the next stop.
But the irregularity of occurrence of stopping-places, coupled
with widely varying road conditions, made it necessary to plan,
the day before, each day's drive and my work. I must know when I
was to start driving in order to start writing in time to finish
my day's output. Thus, on occasion, when the drive was to be
long, I would be up and at my writing by five in the morning. On
easier driving days I might not start writing till nine o'clock.
But how to plan? As soon as I arrived in a town, and put the
horses up, on the way from the stable to the hotel I dropped into
the saloons. First thing, a drink--oh, I wanted the drink, but
also it must not be forgotten that, because of wanting to know
things, it was in this very way I had learned to want a drink.
Well, the first thing, a drink. "Have something yourself," to the
barkeeper. And then, as we drink, my opening query about roads
and stopping-places on ahead.
"Let me see," the barkeeper will say, "there's the road across
Tarwater Divide. That used to be good. I was over it three years
ago. But it was blocked this spring. Say, I'll tell you what.
I'll ask Jerry----" And the barkeeper turns and addresses some man
sitting at a table or leaning against the bar farther along, and
who may be Jerry, or Tom, or Bill. "Say, Jerry, how about the
Tarwater road? You was down to Wilkins last week."
And while Bill or Jerry or Tom is beginning to unlimber his
thinking and speaking apparatus, I suggest that he join us in the
drink. Then discussions arise about the advisability of this road
or that, what the best stopping-places may be, what running time I
may expect to make, where the best trout streams are, and so
forth, in which other men join, and which are punctuated with more
Two or three more saloons, and I accumulate a warm jingle and come
pretty close to knowing everybody in town, all about the town, and
a fair deal about the surrounding country. I know the lawyers,
editors, business men, local politicians, and the visiting
ranchers, hunters, and miners, so that by evening, when Charmian
and I stroll down the main street and back, she is astounded by
the number of my acquaintances in that totally strange town.
And thus is demonstrated a service John Barleycorn renders, a
service by which he increases his power over men. And over the
world, wherever I have gone, during all the years, it has been the
same. It may be a cabaret in the Latin Quarter, a cafe in some
obscure Italian village, a boozing ken in sailor-town, and it may
be up at the club over Scotch and soda; but always it will be
where John Barleycorn makes fellowship that I get immediately in
touch, and meet, and know. And in the good days coming, when John
Barleycorn will have been banished out of existence along with the
other barbarisms, some other institution than the saloon will have
to obtain, some other congregating place of men where strange men
and stranger men may get in touch, and meet, and know.
But to return to my narrative. When I turned my back on Benicia,
my way led through saloons. I had developed no moral theories
against drinking, and I disliked as much as ever the taste of the
stuff. But I had grown respectfully suspicious of John
Barleycorn. I could not forget that trick he had played on me--on
me who did not want to die. So I continued to drink, and to keep
a sharp eye on John Barleycorn, resolved to resist all future
suggestions of self-destruction.
In strange towns I made immediate acquaintances in the saloons.
When I hoboed, and hadn't the price of a bed, a saloon was the
only place that would receive me and give me a chair by the fire.
I could go into a saloon and wash up, brush my clothes, and comb
my hair. And saloons were always so damnably convenient. They
were everywhere in my western country.
I couldn't go into the dwellings of strangers that way. Their
doors were not open to me; no seats were there for me by their
fires. Also, churches and preachers I had never known. And from
what I didn't know I was not attracted toward them. Besides,
there was no glamour about them, no haze of romance, no promise of
adventure. They were the sort with whom things never happened.
They lived and remained always in the one place, creatures of
order and system, narrow, limited, restrained. They were without
greatness, without imagination, without camaraderie. It was the
good fellows, easy and genial, daring, and, on occasion, mad, that
I wanted to know--the fellows, generous-hearted and -handed, and
And here is another complaint I bring against John Barleycorn. It
is these good fellows that he gets--the fellows with the fire and
the go in them, who have bigness, and warmness, and the best of
the human weaknesses. And John Barleycorn puts out the fire, and
soddens the agility, and, when he does not more immediately kill
them or make maniacs of them, he coarsens and grossens them,
twists and malforms them out of the original goodness and fineness
of their natures.
Oh!--and I speak out of later knowledge--Heaven forefend me from
the most of the average run of male humans who are not good
fellows, the ones cold of heart and cold of head who don't smoke,
drink, or swear, or do much of anything else that is brase, and
resentful, and stinging, because in their feeble fibres there has
never been the stir and prod of life to well over its boundaries
and be devilish and daring. One doesn't meet these in saloons,
nor rallying to lost causes, nor flaming on the adventure-paths,
nor loving as God's own mad lovers. They are too busy keeping
their feet dry, conserving their heart-beats, and making unlovely
life-successes of their spirit-mediocrity.
And so I draw the indictment home to John Barleycorn. It is just
those, the good fellows, the worth while, the fellows with the
weakness of too much strength, too much spirit, too much fire and
flame of fine devilishness, that he solicits and ruins. Of
course, he ruins weaklings; but with them, the worst we breed, I
am not here concerned. My concern is that it is so much of the
best we breed whom John Barleycorn destroys. And the reason why
these best are destroyed is because John Barleycorn stands on
every highway and byway, accessible, law-protected, saluted by the
policeman on the beat, speaking to them, leading them by the hand
to the places where the good fellows and daring ones forgather and
drink deep. With John Barleycorn out of the way, these daring
ones would still be born, and they would do things instead of
Always I encountered the camaraderie of drink. I might be walking
down the track to the water-tank to lie in wait for a passing
freight-train, when I would chance upon a bunch of "alki-stiffs."
An alki-stiff is a tramp who drinks druggist's alcohol.
Immediately, with greeting and salutation, I am taken into the
fellowship. The alcohol, shrewdly blended with water, is handed
to me, and soon I am caught up in the revelry, with maggots
crawling in my brain and John Barleycorn whispering to me that
life is big, and that we are all brave and fine--free spirits
sprawling like careless gods upon the turf and telling the two-by-
four, cut-and-dried, conventional world to go hang.
Back in Oakland from my wanderings, I returned to the water-front
and renewed my comradeship with Nelson, who was now on shore all
the time and living more madly than before. I, too, spent my time
on shore with him, only occasionally going for cruises of several
days on the bay to help out on short-handed scow-schooners.
The result was that I was no longer reinvigorated by periods of
open-air abstinence and healthy toil. I drank every day, and
whenever opportunity offered I drank to excess; for I still
laboured under the misconception that the secret of John
Barleycorn lay in drinking to bestiality and unconsciousness. I
became pretty thoroughly alcohol-soaked during this period. I
practically lived in saloons; became a bar-room loafer, and worse.
And right here was John Barleycorn getting me in a more insidious
though no less deadly way than when he nearly sent me out with the
tide. I had a few months still to run before I was seventeen; I
scorned the thought of a steady job at anything; I felt myself a
pretty tough individual in a group of pretty tough men; and I
drank because these men drank and because I had to make good with
them. I had never had a real boyhood, and in this, my precocious
manhood, I was very hard and woefully wise. Though I had never
known girl's love even, I had crawled through such depths that I
was convinced absolutely that I knew the last word about love and
life. And it wasn't a pretty knowledge. Without being
pessimistic, I was quite satisfied that life was a rather cheap
and ordinary affair.
You see, John Barleycorn was blunting me. The old stings and
prods of the spirit were no longer sharp. Curiosity was leaving
me. What did it matter what lay on the other side of the world?
Men and women, without doubt, very much like the men and women I
knew; marrying and giving in marriage and all the petty run of
petty human concerns; and drinks, too. But the other side of the
world was a long way to go for a drink. I had but to step to the
corner and get all I wanted at Joe Vigy's. Johnny Heinhold still
ran the Last Chance. And there were saloons on all the corners
and between the corners.
The whispers from the back of life were growing dim as my mind and
body soddened. The old unrest was drowsy. I might as well rot
and die here in Oakland as anywhere else. And I should have so
rotted and died, and not in very long order either, at the pace
John Barleycorn was leading me, had the matter depended wholly on
him. I was learning what it was to have no appetite. I was
learning what it was to get up shaky in the morning, with a
stomach that quivered, with fingers touched with palsy, and to
know the drinker's need for a stiff glass of whisky neat in order
to brace up. (Oh! John Barleycorn is a wizard dopester. Brain
and body, scorched and jangled and poisoned, return to be tuned up
by the very poison that caused the damage.)
There is no end to John Barleycorn's tricks. He had tried to
inveigle me into killing myself. At this period he was doing his
best to kill me at a fairly rapid pace. But, not satisfied with
that, he tried another dodge. He very nearly got me, too, and
right there I learned a lesson about him--became a wiser, a more
skilful drinker. I learned there were limits to my gorgeous
constitution, and that there were no limits to John Barleycorn. I
learned that in a short hour or two he could master my strong
head, my broad shoulders and deep chest, put me on my back, and
with a devil's grip on my throat proceed to choke the life out of
Nelson and I were sitting in the Overland House. It was early in
the evening, and the only reason we were there was because we were
broke and it was election time. You see, in election time local
politicians, aspirants for office, have a way of making the rounds
of the saloons to get votes. One is sitting at a table, in a dry
condition, wondering who is going to turn up and buy him a drink,
or if his credit is good at some other saloon and if it's worth
while to walk that far to find out, when suddenly the saloon doors
swing wide, and enters a bevy of well-dressed men, themselves
usually wide and exhaling an atmosphere of prosperity and
They have smiles and greetings for everybody--for you, without the
price of a glass of beer in your pocket, for the timid hobo who
lurks in the corner and who certainly hasn't a vote, but who may
establish a lodging-house registration. And do you know, when
these politicians swing wide the doors and come in, with their
broad shoulders, their deep chests, and their generous stomachs
which cannot help making them optimists and masters of life, why,
you perk right up. It's going to be a warm evening after all, and
you know you'll get a souse started at the very least.
And--who knows?--the gods may be kind, other drinks may come, and
the night culminate in glorious greatness. And the next thing you
know, you are lined up at the bar, pouring drinks down your throat
and learning the gentlemen's names and the offices which they hope
It was during this period, when the politicians went their saloon
rounds, that I was getting bitter bits of education and having
illusions punctured--I, who had pored and thrilled over "The Rail-
Splitter," and "From Canal Boy to President." Yes, I was learning
how noble politics and politicians are.
Well, on this night, broke, thirsty, but with the drinker's faith
in the unexpected drink, Nelson and I sat in the Overland House
waiting for something to turn up, especially politicians. And
there entered Joe Goose--he of the unquenchable thirst, the wicked
eyes, the crooked nose, the flowered vest.
"Come on, fellows--free booze--all you want of it. I didn't want
you to miss it."
"Where?" we wanted to know.
"Come on. I'll tell you as we go along. We haven't a minute to
lose." And as we hurried up town, Joe Goose explained: "It's the
Hancock Fire Brigade. All you have to do is wear a red shirt and
a helmet, and carry a torch.
They're going down on a special train to Haywards to parade."
(I think the place was Haywards. It may have been San Leandro or
Niles. And, to save me, I can't remember whether the Hancock Fire
Brigade was a republican or a democratic organisation. But
anyway, the politicians who ran it were short of torch-bearers,
and anybody who would parade could get drunk if he wanted to.)
"The town'll be wide open," Joe Goose went on. "Booze? It'll run
like water. The politicians have bought the stocks of the
saloons. There'll be no charge. All you got to do is walk right
up and call for it. We'll raise hell."
At the hall, on Eighth Street near Broadway, we got into the
firemen's shirts and helmets, were equipped with torches, and,
growling because we weren't given at least one drink before we
started, were herded aboard the train. Oh, those politicians had
handled our kind before. At Haywards there were no drinks either.
Parade first, and earn your booze, was the order of the night.
We paraded. Then the saloons were opened. Extra barkeepers had
been engaged, and the drinkers jammed six deep before every drink-
drenched and unwiped bar. There was no time to wipe the bar, nor
wash glasses, nor do anything save fill glasses. The Oakland
water-front can be real thirsty on occasion.
This method of jamming and struggling in front of the bar was too
slow for us. The drink was ours. The politicians had bought it
for us. We'd paraded and earned it, hadn't we? So we made a flank
attack around the end of the bar, shoved the protesting barkeepers
aside, and helped ourselves to bottles.
Outside, we knocked the necks of the bottles off against the
concrete curbs, and drank. Now Joe Goose and Nelson had learned
discretion with straight whisky, drunk in quantity. I hadn't. I
still laboured under the misconception that one was to drink all
he could get--especially when it didn't cost anything. We shared
our bottles with others, and drank a good portion ourselves, while
I drank most of all. And I didn't like the stuff. I drank it as
I had drunk beer at five, and wine at seven. I mastered my qualms
and downed it like so much medicine. And when we wanted more
bottles, we went into other saloons where the free drink was
flowing, and helped ourselves.
I haven't the slightest idea of how much I drank--whether it was
two quarts or five. I do know that I began the orgy with half-
pint draughts and with no water afterward to wash the taste away
or to dilute the whisky.
Now the politicians were too wise to leave the town filled with
drunks from the water-front of Oakland. When train time came,
there was a round-up of the saloons. Already I was feeling the
impact of the whisky. Nelson and I were hustled out of a saloon,
and found ourselves in the very last rank of a disorderly parade.
I struggled along heroically, my correlations breaking down, my
legs tottering under me, my head swimming, my heart pounding, my
lungs panting for air.
My helplessness was coming on so rapidly that my reeling brain
told me I would go down and out and never reach the train if I
remained at the rear of the procession. I left the ranks and ran
down a pathway beside the road under broad-spreading trees.
Nelson pursued me, laughing. Certain things stand out, as in
memories of nightmare. I remember those trees especially, and my
desperate running along under them, and how, every time I fell,
roars of laughter went up from the other drunks. They thought I
was merely antic drunk. They did not dream that John Barleycorn
had me by the throat in a death-clutch. But I knew it. And I
remember the fleeting bitterness that was mine as I realised that
I was in a struggle with death, and that these others did not
know. It was as if I were drowning before a crowd of spectators
who thought I was cutting up tricks for their entertainment.
And running there under the trees, I fell and lost consciousness.
What happened afterward, with one glimmering exception, I had to
be told. Nelson, with his enormous strength, picked me up and
dragged me on and aboard the train. When he had got me into a
seat, I fought and panted so terribly for air that even with his
obtuseness he knew I was in a bad way. And right there, at any
moment, I know now, I might have died. I often think it is the
nearest to death I have ever been. I have only Nelson's
description of my behaviour to go by.
I was scorching up, burning alive internally, in an agony of fire
and suffocation, and I wanted air. I madly wanted air. My
efforts to raise a window were vain, for all the windows in the
car were screwed down. Nelson had seen drink-crazed men, and
thought I wanted to throw myself out. He tried to restrain me,
but I fought on. I seized some man's torch and smashed the glass.
Now there were pro-Nelson and anti-Nelson factions on the Oakland
water-front, and men of both factions, with more drink in them
than was good, filled the car. My smashing of the window was the
signal for the antis. One of them reached for me, and dropped me,
and started the fight, of all of which I have no knowledge save
what was told me afterward, and a sore jaw next day from the blow
that put me out. The man who struck me went down across my body,
Nelson followed him, and they say there were few unbroken windows
in the wreckage of the car that followed as the free-for-all fight
had its course.
This being knocked cold and motionless was perhaps the best thing
that could have happened to me. My violent struggles had only
accelerated my already dangerously accelerated heart, and
increased the need for oxygen in my suffocating lungs.
After the fight was over and I came to, I did not come to myself.
I was no more myself than a drowning man is who continues to
struggle after he has lost consciousness. I have no memory of my
actions, but I cried " Air! Air!" so insistently, that it dawned
on Nelson that I did not contemplate self-destruction. So he
cleared the jagged glass from the window-ledge and let me stick my
head and shoulders out. He realised, partially, the seriousness
of my condition. and held me by the waist to prevent me from
crawling farther out. And for the rest of the run in to Oakland I
kept my head and shoulders out, fighting like a maniac whenever he
tried to draw me inside.
And here my one glimmering streak of true consciousness came. My
sole recollection, from the time I fell under the trees until I
awoke the following evening, is of my head out of the window,
facing the wind caused by the train, cinders striking and burning
and blinding me, while I breathed with will. All my will was
concentrated on breathing--on breathing the air in the hugest
lung-full gulps I could, pumping the greatest amount of air into
my lungs in the shortest possible time. It was that or death, and
I was a swimmer and diver, and I knew it; and in the most
intolerable agony of prolonged suffocation, during those moments I
was conscious, I faced the wind and the cinders and breathed for
All the rest is a blank. I came to the following evening, in a
water-front lodging-house. I was alone. No doctor had been
called in. And I might well have died there, for Nelson and the
others, deeming me merely "sleeping off my drunk," had let me lie
there in a comatose condition for seventeen hours. Many a man, as
every doctor knows, has died of the sudden impact of a quart or
more of whisky. Usually one reads of them so dying, strong
drinkers, on account of a wager. But I didn't know--then. And so
I learned; and by no virtue nor prowess, but simply through good
fortune and constitution. Again my constitution had triumphed
over John Barleycorn. I had escaped from another death-pit,
dragged myself through another morass, and perilously acquired the
discretion that would enable me to drink wisely for many another
year to come.
Heavens! That was twenty years ago, and I am still very much and
wisely alive; and I have seen much, done much, lived much, in that
intervening score of years; and I shudder when I think how close a
shave I ran, how near I was to missing that splendid fifth of a
century that has been mine. And, oh, it wasn't John Barleycorn's
fault that he didn't get me that night of the Hancock Fire
It was during the early winter of 1892 that I resolved to go to
sea. My Hancock Fire Brigade experience was very little
responsible for this. I still drank and frequented saloons--
practically lived in saloons. Whisky was dangerous, in my
opinion, but not wrong. Whisky was dangerous like other dangerous
things in the natural world. Men died of whisky; but then, too,
fishermen were capsized and drowned, hoboes fell under trains and
were cut to pieces. To cope with winds and waves, railroad
trains, and bar-rooms, one must use judgment. To get drunk after
the manner of men was all right, but one must do it with
discretion. No more quarts of whisky for me.
What really decided me to go to sea was that I had caught my first
vision of the death-road which John Barleycorn maintains for his
devotees. It was not a clear vision, however, and there were two
phases of it, somewhat jumbled at the time. It struck me, from
watching those with whom I associated, that the life we were
living was more destructive than that lived by the average man.
John Barleycorn, by inhibiting morality, incited to crime.
Everywhere I saw men doing, drunk, what they would never dream of
doing sober. And this wasn't the worst of it. It was the penalty
that must be paid. Crime was destructive. Saloon-mates I drank
with, who were good fellows and harmless, sober, did most violent
and lunatic things when they were drunk. And then the police
gathered them in and they vanished from our ken. Sometimes I
visited them behind the bars and said good-bye ere they journeyed
across the bay to put on the felon's stripes. And time and again
I heard the one explanation "IF I HADN'T BEEN DRUNK I WOULDN'T A-
DONE IT." And sometimes, under the spell of John Barleycorn, the
most frightful things were done--things that shocked even my case-
The other phase of the death-road was that of the habitual
drunkards, who had a way of turning up their toes without apparent
provocation. When they took sick, even with trifling afflictions
that any ordinary man could pull through, they just pegged out.
Sometimes they were found unattended and dead in their beds; on
occasion their bodies were dragged out of the water; and sometimes
it was just plain accident, as when Bill Kelley, unloading cargo
while drunk, had a finger jerked off, which, under the
circumstances, might just as easily have been his head.
So I considered my situation and knew that I was getting into a
bad way of living. It made toward death too quickly to suit my
youth and vitality. And there was only one way out of this
hazardous manner of living, and that was to get out. The sealing
fleet was wintering in San Francisco Bay, and in the saloons I met
skippers, mates, hunters, boat-steerers, and boat-pullers. I met
the seal-hunter, Pete Holt, and agreed to be his boat-puller and
to sign on any schooner he signed on. And I had to have half a
dozen drinks with Pete Holt there and then to seal our agreement.
And at once awoke all my old unrest that John Barleycorn had put
to sleep. I found myself actually bored with the saloon life of
the Oakland water-front, and wondered what I had ever found
fascinating in it. Also, with this death-road concept in my
brain, I began to grow afraid that something would happen to me
before sailing day, which was set for some time in January. I
lived more circumspectly, drank less deeply, and went home more
frequently. When drinking grew too wild, I got out. When Nelson
was in his maniacal cups, I managed to get separated from him.
On the 12th of January, 1893, I was seventeen, and the 20th of
January I signed before the shipping commissioner the articles of
the Sophie Sutherland, a three topmast sealing schooner bound on a
voyage to the coast of Japan. And of course we had to drink on
it. Joe Vigy cashed my advance note, and Pete Holt treated, and I
treated, and Joe Vigy treated, and other hunters treated. Well,
it was the way of men, and who was I, just turned seventeen, that
I should decline the way of life of these fine, chesty, man-grown
There was nothing to drink on the Sophie Sutherland, and we had
fifty-one days of glorious sailing, taking the southern passage in
the north-east trades to Bonin Islands. This isolated group,
belonging to Japan, had been selected as the rendezvous of the
Canadian and American sealing fleets. Here they filled their
water-barrels and made repairs before starting on the hundred
days' harrying of the seal-herd along the northern coasts of Japan
to Behring Sea.
Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put
me in splendid fettle. The alcohol had been worked out of my
system, and from the moment the voyage began I had not known the
desire for a drink. I doubt if I even thought once about a drink.
Often, of course, the talk in the forecastle turned on drink, and
the men told of their more exciting or humorous drunks,
remembering such passages more keenly, with greater delight, than
all the other passages of their adventurous lives.
In the forecastle, the oldest man, fat and fifty, was Louis. He
was a broken skipper. John Barleycorn had thrown him, and he was
winding up his career where he had begun it, in the forecastle.
His case made quite an impression on me. John Barleycorn did
other things beside kill a man. He hadn't killed Louis. He had
done much worse. He had robbed him of power and place and
comfort, crucified his pride, and condemned him to the hardship of
the common sailor that would last as long as his healthy breath
lasted, which promised to be for a long time.
We completed our run across the Pacific, lifted the volcanic
peaks, jungle-clad, of the Bonin Islands, sailed in among the
reefs to the land-locked harbour, and let our anchor rumble down
where lay a score or more of sea-gypsies like ourselves. The
scents of strange vegetation blew off the tropic land.
Aborigines, in queer outrigger canoes, and Japanese, in queerer
sampans, paddled about the bay and came aboard. It was my first
foreign land; I had won to the other side of the world, and I
would see all I had read in the books come true. I was wild to
Victor and Axel, a Swede and a Norwegian, and I planned to keep
together. (And so well did we, that for the rest of the cruise we
were known as the "Three Sports.") Victor pointed out a pathway
that disappeared up a wild canyon, emerged on a steep bare lava
slope, and thereafter appeared and disappeared, ever climbing,
among the palms and flowers. We would go over that path, he said,
and we agreed, and we would see beautiful scenery, and strange
native villages, and find, Heaven alone knew, what adventure at
the end. And Axel was keen to go fishing. The three of us agreed
to that, too. We would get a sampan, and a couple of Japanese
fishermen who knew the fishing grounds, and we would have great
sport. As for me, I was keen for anything.
And then, our plans made, we rowed ashore over the banks of living
coral and pulled our boat up the white beach of coral sand. We
walked across the fringe of beach under the cocoanut-palms and
into the little town, and found several hundred riotous seamen
from all the world, drinking prodigiously, singing prodigiously,
dancing prodigiously--and all on the main street to the scandal of
a helpless handful of Japanese police.
Victor and Axel said that we'd have a drink before we started on
our long walk. Could I decline to drink with these two chesty
shipmates? Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on
comradeship. It was the way of life. Our teetotaler owner-
captain was laughed at, and sneered at, by all of us because of
his teetotalism. I didn't in the least want a drink, but I did
want to be a good fellow and a good comrade. Nor did Louis' case
deter me, as I poured the biting, scorching stuff down my throat.
John Barleycorn had thrown Louis to a nasty fall, but I was young.
My blood ran full and red; I had a constitution of iron; and--
well, youth ever grins scornfully at the wreckage of age.
Queer, fierce, alcoholic stuff it was that we drank. There was no
telling where or how it had been manufactured--some native
concoction most likely. But it was hot as fire, pale as water,
and quick as death with its kick. It had been filled into empty
"square-face" bottles which had once contained Holland gin, and
which still bore the fitting legend "Anchor Brand." It certainly
anchored us. We never got out of the town. We never went fishing
in the sampan. And though we were there ten days, we never trod
that wild path along the lava cliffs and among the flowers.
We met old acquaintances from other schooners, fellows we had met
in the saloons of San Francisco before we sailed. And each
meeting meant a drink; and there was much to talk about; and more
drinks; and songs to be sung; and pranks and antics to be
performed, until the maggots of imagination began to crawl, and it
all seemed great and wonderful to me, these lusty hard-bitten sea-
rovers, of whom I made one, gathered in wassail on a coral strand.
Old lines about knights at table in the great banquet halls, and
of those above the salt and below the salt, and of Vikings
feasting fresh from sea and ripe for battle, came to me; and I
knew that the old times were not dead and that we belonged to that
selfsame ancient breed.
By mid-afternoon Victor went mad with drink, and wanted to fight
everybody and everything. I have since seen lunatics in the
violent wards of asylums that seemed to behave in no wise
different from Victor's way, save that perhaps he was more
violent. Axel and I interfered as peacemakers, were roughed and
jostled in the mix-ups, and finally, with infinite precaution and
intoxicated cunning, succeeded in inveigling our chum down to the
boat and in rowing him aboard our schooner.
But no sooner did Victor's feet touch the deck than he began to
clean up the ship. He had the strength of several men, and he ran
amuck with it. I remember especially one man whom he got into the
chain-boxes but failed to damage through inability to hit him.
The man dodged and ducked, and Victor broke all the knuckles of
both his fists against the huge links of the anchor chain. By the
time we dragged him out of that, his madness had shifted to the
belief that he was a great swimmer, and the next moment he was
overboard and demonstrating his ability by floundering like a sick
porpoise and swallowing much salt water.
We rescued him, and by the time we got him below, undressed, and
into his bunk, we were wrecks ourselves. But Axel and I wanted to
see more of shore, and away we went, leaving Victor snoring. It
was curious, the judgment passed on Victor by his shipmates,
drinkers themselves. They shook their heads disapprovingly and
muttered: "A man like that oughtn't to drink." Now Victor was the
smartest sailor and best-tempered shipmate in the forecastle. He
was an all-round splendid type of seaman; his mates recognised his
worth, and respected him and liked him. Yet John Barleycorn
metamorphosed him into a violent lunatic. And that was the very
point these drinkers made. They knew that drink--and drink with a
sailor is always excessive--made them mad, but only mildly mad.
Violent madness was objectionable because it spoiled the fun of
others and often culminated in tragedy. From their standpoint,
mild madness was all right. But from the standpoint of the whole
human race, is not all madness objectionable? And is there a
greater maker of madness of all sorts than John Barleycorn?
But to return. Ashore, snugly ensconced in a Japanese house of
entertainment, Axel and I compared bruises, and over a comfortable
drink talked of the afternoon's happenings. We liked the
quietness of that drink and took another. A shipmate dropped in,
several shipmates dropped in, and we had more quiet drinks.
Finally, just as we had engaged a Japanese orchestra, and as the
first strains of the samisens and taikos were rising, through the
paper-walls came a wild howl from the street. We recognised it.
Still howling, disdaining doorways, with blood-shot eyes and
wildly waving muscular arms, Victor burst upon us through the
fragile walls. The old amuck rage was on him, and he wanted
blood, anybody's blood. The orchestra fled; so did we. We went
through doorways, and we went through paper-walls--anything to get
And after the place was half wrecked, and we had agreed to pay the
damage, leaving Victor partly subdued and showing symptoms of
lapsing into a comatose state, Axel and I wandered away in quest
of a quieter drinking-place. The main street was a madness.
Hundreds of sailors rollicked up and down. Because the chief of
police with his small force was helpless, the governor of the
colony had issued orders to the captains to have all their men on
board by sunset.
What! To be treated in such fashion! As the news spread among the
schooners, they were emptied. Everybody came ashore. Men who had
had no intention of coming ashore climbed into the boats. The
unfortunate governor's ukase had precipitated a general debauch
for all hands. It was hours after sunset, and the men wanted to
see anybody try to put them on board. They went around inviting
the authorities to try to put them on board. In front of the
governor's house they were gathered thickest, bawling sea-songs,
circulating square faces, and dancing uproarious Virginia reels
and old-country dances. The police, including the reserves, stood
in little forlorn groups, waiting for the command the governor was
too wise to issue. And I thought this saturnalia was great. It
was like the old days of the Spanish Main come back. It was
license; it was adventure. And I was part of it, a chesty sea-
rover along with all these other chesty sea-rovers among the paper
houses of Japan.
The governor never issued the order to clear the streets, and Axel
and I wandered on from drink to drink. After a time, in some of
the antics, getting hazy myself, I lost him. I drifted along,
making new acquaintances, downing more drinks, getting hazier and
hazier. I remember, somewhere, sitting in a circle with Japanese
fishermen, Kanaka boat-steerers from our own vessels, and a young
Danish sailor fresh from cowboying in the Argentine and with a
penchant for native customs and ceremonials. And with due and
proper and most intricate Japanese ceremonial we of the circle
drank saki, pale, mild, and lukewarm, from tiny porcelain bowls.
And, later, I remember the runaway apprentices--boys of eighteen
and twenty, of middle class English families, who had jumped their
ships and apprenticeships in various ports of the world and
drifted into the forecastles of the sealing schooners. They were
healthy, smooth-skinned, clear-eyed, and they were young--youths
like me, learning the way of their feet in the world of men. And
they WERE men. No mild saki for them, but square faces illicitly
refilled with corrosive fire that flamed through their veins and
burst into conflagrations in their heads. I remember a melting
song they sang, the refrain of which was:
"'Tis but a little golden ring,
I give it to thee with pride,
Wear it for your mother's sake
When you are on the tide."
They wept over it as they sang it, the graceless young scamps who
had all broken their mothers' prides, and I sang with them, and
wept with them, and luxuriated in the pathos and the tragedy of
it, and struggled to make glimmering inebriated generalisations on
life and romance. And one last picture I have, standing out very
clear and bright in the midst of vagueness before and blackness
afterward. We--the apprentices and I--are swaying and clinging to
one another under the stars. We are singing a rollicking sea
song, all save one who sits on the ground and weeps; and we are
marking the rhythm with waving square faces. From up and down the
street come far choruses of sea-voices similarly singing, and life
is great, and beautiful and romantic, and magnificently mad.
And next, after the blackness, I open my eyes in the early dawn to
see a Japanese woman, solicitously anxious, bending over me. She
is the port pilot's wife and I am lying in her doorway. I am
chilled and shivering, sick with the after-sickness of debauch.
And I feel lightly clad. Those rascals of runaway apprentices!
They have acquired the habit of running away. They have run away
with my possessions. My watch is gone. My few dollars are gone.
My coat is gone. So is my belt. And yes, my shoes.
And the foregoing is a sample of the ten days I spent in the Bonin
Islands. Victor got over his lunacy, rejoined Axel and me, and
after that we caroused somewhat more discreetly. And we never
climbed that lava path among the flowers. The town and the square
faces were all we saw.
One who has been burned by fire must preach about the fire. I
might have seen and healthily enjoyed a whole lot more of the
Bonin Islands, if I had done what I ought to have done. But, as I
see it, it is not a matter of what one ought to do, or ought not
to do. It is what one DOES do. That is the everlasting,
irrefragable fact. I did just what I did. I did what all those
men did in the Bonin Islands. I did what millions of men over the
world were doing at that particular point in time. I did it
because the way led to it, because I was only a human boy, a
creature of my environment, and neither an anaemic nor a god. I
was just human, and I was taking the path in the world that men
took--men whom I admired, if you please; full-blooded men, lusty,
breedy, chesty men, free spirits and anything but niggards in the
way they foamed life away.
And the way was open. It was like an uncovered well in a yard
where children play. It is small use to tell the brave little
boys toddling their way along into knowledge of life that they
mustn't play near the uncovered well. They'll play near it. Any
parent knows that. And we know that a certain percentage of them,
the livest and most daring, will fall into the well. The thing to
do--we all know it--is to cover up the well. The case is the same
with John Barleycorn. All the no-saying and no-preaching in the
world will fail to keep men, and youths growing into manhood, away
from John Barleycorn when John Barleycorn is everywhere
accessible, and where John Barleycorn is everywhere the
connotation of manliness, and daring, and great-spiritedness.
The only rational thing for the twentieth-century folk to do is to
cover up the well; to make the twentieth century in truth the
twentieth century, and to relegate to the nineteenth century and
all the preceding centuries the things of those centuries, the
witch-burnings, the intolerances, the fetiches, and, not least
among such barbarisms. John Barleycorn.
North we raced from the Bonin Islands to pick up the seal-herd,
and north we hunted it for a hundred days into frosty, mitten
weather and into and through vast fogs which hid the sun from us
for a week at a time. It was wild and heavy work, without a drink
or thought of drink. Then we sailed south to Yokohama, with a big
catch of skins in our salt and a heavy pay-day coming.
I was eager to be ashore and see Japan, but the first day was
devoted to ship's work, and not until evening did we sailors land.
And here, by the very system of things, by the way life was
organised and men transacted affairs, John Barleycorn reached out
and tucked my arm in his. The captain had given money for us to
the hunters, and the hunters were waiting in a certain Japanese
public house for us to come and get it. We rode to the place in
rickshaws. Our own crowd had taken possession of it. Drink was
flowing. Everybody had money, and everybody was treating. After
the hundred days of hard toil and absolute abstinence, in the pink
of physical condition, bulging with health, over-spilling with
spirits that had long been pent by discipline and circumstance, of
course we would have a drink or two. And after that we would see
It was the old story. There were so many drinks to be drunk, and
as the warm magic poured through our veins and mellowed our voices
and affections we knew it was no time to make invidious
distinctions--to drink with this shipmate and to decline to drink
with that shipmate. We were all shipmates who had been through
stress and storm together, who had pulled and hauled on the same
sheets and tackles, relieved one another's wheels, laid out side
by side on the same jib-boom when she was plunging into it and
looked to see who was missing when she cleared and lifted. So we
drank with all, and all treated, and our voices rose, and we
remembered a myriad kindly acts of comradeship, and forgot our
fights and wordy squabbles, and knew one another for the best
fellows in the world.
Well, the night was young when we arrived in that public house,
and for all of that first night that public house was what I saw
of Japan--a drinking-place which was very like a drinking-place at
home or anywhere else over the world.
We lay in Yokohama harbour for two weeks, and about all we saw of
Japan was its drinking-places where sailors congregated.
Occasionally, some one of us varied the monotony with a more
exciting drunk. In such fashion I managed a real exploit by
swimming off to the schooner one dark midnight and going soundly
to sleep while the water-police searched the harbour for my body
and brought my clothes out for identification.
Perhaps it was for things like that, I imagined, that men got
drunk. In our little round of living what I had done was a
noteworthy event. All the harbour talked about it. I enjoyed
several days of fame among the Japanese boatmen and ashore in the
pubs. It was a red-letter event. It was an event to be
remembered and narrated with pride. I remember it to-day, twenty
years afterward, with a secret glow of pride. It was a purple
passage, just as Victor's wrecking of the tea-house in the Bonin
Islands and my being looted by the runaway apprentices were purple
The point is that the charm of John Barleycorn was still a mystery
to me. I was so organically a non-alcoholic that alcohol itself
made no appeal; the chemical reactions it produced in me were not
satisfying because I possessed no need for such chemical
satisfaction. I drank because the men I was with drank, and
because my nature was such that I could not permit myself to be
less of a man than other men at their favourite pastime. And I
still had a sweet tooth, and on privy occasions when there was no
man to see, bought candy and blissfully devoured it.
We hove up anchor to a jolly chanty, and sailed out of Yokohama
harbour for San Francisco. We took the northern passage, and with
the stout west wind at our back made the run across the Pacific in
thirty-seven days of brave sailing. We still had a big pay-day
coming to us, and for thirty-seven days, without a drink to addle
our mental processes, we incessantly planned the spending of our
The first statement of each man--ever an ancient one in homeward-
bound forecastles--was: "No boarding-house sharks in mine." Next,
in parentheses, was regret at having spent so much money in
Yokohama. And after that, each man proceeded to paint his
favourite phantom. Victor, for instance, said that immediately he
landed in San Francisco he would pass right through the water-
front and the Barbary Coast, and put an advertisement in the
papers. His advertisement would be for board and room in some
simple working-class family. "Then," said Victor, "I shall go to
some dancing-school for a week or two, just to meet and get
acquainted with the girls and fellows. Then I'll get the run of
the different dancing crowds, and be invited to their homes, and
to parties, and all that, and with the money I've got I can last
out till next January, when I'll go sealing again."
No; he wasn't going to drink. He knew the way of it, particularly
his way of it, wine in, wit out, and his money would be gone in no
time. He had his choice, based on bitter experience, between
three days' debauch among the sharks and harpies of the Barbary
Coast and a whole winter of wholesome enjoyment and sociability,
and there wasn't any doubt of the way he was going to choose.
Said Axel Gunderson, who didn't care for dancing and social
functions: "I've got a good pay-day. Now I can go home. It is
fifteen years since I've seen my mother and all the family. When
I pay off, I shall send my money home to wait for me. Then I'll
pick a good ship bound for Europe, and arrive there with another
pay-day. Put them together, and I'll have more money than ever in
my life before. I'll be a prince at home. You haven't any idea
how cheap everything is in Norway. I can make presents to
everybody, and spend my money like what would seem to them a
millionaire, and live a whole year there before I'd have to go
back to sea."
"The very thing I'm going to do," declared Red John. "It's three
years since I've received a line from home and ten years since I
was there. Things are just as cheap in Sweden, Axel, as in
Norway, and my folks are real country folk and farmers. I'll send
my pay-day home and ship on the same ship with you for around the
Horn. We'll pick a good one."
And as Axel Gunderson and Red John painted the pastoral delights
and festive customs of their respective countries, each fell in
love with the other's home place, and they solemnly pledged to
make the journey together, and to spend, together, six months in
the one's Swedish home and six months in the other's Norwegian
home. And for the rest of the voyage they could hardly be pried
apart, so infatuated did they become with discussing their plans.
Long John was not a home-body. But he was tired of the
forecastle. No boarding-house sharks in his. He, too, would get
a room in a quiet family, and he would go to a navigation school
and study to be a captain. And so it went. Each man swore that
for once he would be sensible and not squander his money. No
boarding-house sharks, no sailor-town, no drink, was the slogan of
The men became stingy. Never was there such economy. They
refused to buy anything more from the slopchest. Old rags had to
last, and they sewed patch upon patch, turning out what are called
"homeward-bound patches " of the most amazing proportions. They
saved on matches, even, waiting till two or three were ready to
light their pipes from the same match.
As we sailed up the San Francisco water-front, the moment the port
doctors passed us, the boarding-house runners were alongside in
whitehall boats. They swarmed on board, each drumming for his own
boarding-house, and each with a bottle of free whisky inside his
shirt. But we waved them grandly and blasphemously away. We
wanted none of their boarding-houses and none of their whisky. We
were sober, thrifty sailormen, with better use for our money.
Came the paying off before the shipping commissioner. We emerged
upon the sidewalk, each with a pocketful of money. About us, like
buzzards, clustered the sharks and harpies. And we looked at each
other. We had been seven months together, and our paths were
separating. One last farewell rite of comradeship remained. (Oh,
it was the way, the custom.) "Come on, boys," said our sailing
master. There stood the inevitable adjacent saloon. There were a
dozen saloons all around. And when we had followed the sailing
master into the one of his choice, the sharks were thick on the
sidewalk outside. Some of them even ventured inside, but we would
have nothing to do with them.
There we stood at the long bar--the sailing master, the mate, the
six hunters, the six boat-steerers, and the five boat-pullers.
There were only five of the last, for one of our number had been
dropped overboard, with a sack of coal at his feet, between two
snow squalls in a driving gale off Cape Jerimo. There were
nineteen of us, and it was to be our last drink together. With
seven months of men's work in the world, blow high, blow low,
behind us, we were looking on each other for the last time. We
knew it, for sailors' ways go wide. And the nineteen of us, drank
the sailing master's treat. Then the mate looked at us with
eloquent eyes and called another round. We liked the mate just as
well as the sailing master, and we liked them both. Could we
drink with one, and not the other?
And Pete Holt, my own hunter (lost next year in the Mary Thomas,
with all hands), called a round. The time passed, the drinks
continued to come on the bar, our voices rose, and the maggots
began to crawl. There were six hunters, and each insisted, in the
sacred name of comradeship, that all hands drink with him just
once. There were six boat-steerers and five boat-pullers and the
same logic held with them. There was money in all our pockets,
and our money was as good as any man's, and our hearts were as
free and generous.
Nineteen rounds of drinks. What more would John Barleycorn ask in
order to have his will with men? They were ripe to forget their
dearly cherished plans. They rolled out of the saloon and into
the arms of the sharks and harpies. They didn't last long. From
two days to a week saw the end of their money and saw them being
carted by the boarding-house masters on board outward-bound ships.
Victor was a fine body of a man, and through a lucky friendship
managed to get into the life-saving service. He never saw the
dancing-school nor placed his advertisement for a room in a
working-class family. Nor did Long John win to navigation school.
By the end of the week he was a transient lumper on a river
steamboat. Red John and Axel did not send their pay-days home to
the old country. Instead, and along with the rest, they were
scattered on board sailing ships bound for the four quarters of
the globe, where they had been placed by the boarding-house
masters, and where they were working out advance money which they
had neither seen nor spent.
What saved me was that I had a home and people to go to. I
crossed the bay to Oakland, and, among other things, took a look
at the death-road. Nelson was gone--shot to death while drunk and
resisting the officers. His partner in that affair was lying in
prison. Whisky Bob was gone. Old Cole, Old Smoudge, and Bob
Smith were gone. Another Smith, he of the belted guns and the
Annie, was drowned. French Frank, they said, was lurking up
river, afraid to come down because of something he had done.
Others were wearing the stripes in San Quentin or Folsom. Big
Alec, the King of the Greeks, whom I had known well in the old
Benicia days, and with whom I had drunk whole nights through, had
killed two men and fled to foreign parts. Fitzsimmons, with whom
I had sailed on the Fish Patrol, had been stabbed in the lung
through the back and had died a lingering death complicated with
tuberculosis. And so it went, a very lively and well-patronised
road, and, from what I knew of all of them, John Barleycorn was
responsible, with the sole exception of Smith of the Annie.
My infatuation for the Oakland water-front was quite dead. I
didn't like the looks of it, nor the life. I didn't care for the
drinking, nor the vagrancy of it, and I wandered back to the
Oakland Free Library and read the books with greater
understanding. Then, too, my mother said I had sown my wild oats
and it was time I settled down to a regular job. Also, the family
needed the money. So I got a job at the jute mills--a ten-hour
day at ten cents an hour. Despite my increase in strength and
general efficiency, I was receiving no more than when I worked in
the cannery several years before. But, then, there was a promise
of a rise to a dollar and a quarter a day after a few months. And
here, so far as John Barleycorn is concerned, began a period of
innocence. I did not know what it was to take a drink from month
end to month end. Not yet eighteen years old, healthy and with
labour-hardened but unhurt muscles, like any young animal I needed
diversion, excitement, something beyond the books and the
I strayed into Young Men's Christian Associations. The life there
was healthful and athletic, but too juvenile. For me it was too
late. I was not boy, nor youth, despite my paucity of years. I
had bucked big with men. I knew mysterious and violent things. I
was from the other side of life so far as concerned the young men
I encountered in the Y.M.C.A. I spoke another language, possessed
a sadder and more terrible wisdom. (When I come to think it over,
I realise now that I have never had a boyhood.) At any rate, the
Y.M.C.A. young men were too juvenile for me, too unsophisticated.
This I would not have minded, could they have met me and helped me
mentally. But I had got more out of the books than they. Their
meagre physical experiences, plus their meagre intellectual
experiences, made a negative sum so vast that it overbalanced
their wholesome morality and healthful sports.
In short, I couldn't play with the pupils of a lower grade. All
the clean splendid young life that was theirs was denied me--
thanks to my earlier tutelage under John Barleycorn. I knew too
much too young. And yet, in the good time coming when alcohol is
eliminated from the needs and the institutions of men, it will be
the Y.M.C.A., and similar unthinkably better and wiser and more
virile congregating-places, that will receive the men who now go
to saloons to find themselves and one another. In the meantime,
we live to-day, here and now, and we discuss to-day, here and now.
I was working ten hours a day in the jute mills. It was hum-drum
machine toil. I wanted life. I wanted to realise myself in other
ways than at a machine for ten cents an hour. And yet I had had
my fill of saloons. I wanted something new. I was growing up. I
was developing unguessed and troubling potencies and proclivities.
And at this very stage, fortunately, I met Louis Shattuck and we
Louis Shattuck, without one vicious trait, was a real innocently
devilish young fellow, who was quite convinced that he was a
sophisticated town boy. And I wasn't a town boy at all. Louis
was handsome, and graceful, and filled with love for the girls.
With him it was an exciting and all-absorbing pursuit. I didn't
know anything about girls. I had been too busy being a man. This
was an entirely new phase of existence which had escaped me. And
when I saw Louis say good-bye to me, raise his hat to a girl of
his acquaintance, and walk on with her side by side down the
sidewalk, I was made excited and envious. I, too, wanted to play
"Well, there's only one thing to do," said Louis, "and that is,
you must get a girl."
Which is more difficult than it sounds. Let me show you, at the
expense of a slight going aside. Louis did not know girls in
their home life. He had the entree to no girl's home. And of
course, I, a stranger in this new world, was similarly
circumstanced. But, further, Louis and I were unable to go to
dancing-schools, or to public dances, which were very good places
for getting acquainted. We didn't have the money. He was a
blacksmith's apprentice, and was earning but slightly more than I.
We both lived at home and paid our way. When we had done this,
and bought our cigarettes, and the inevitable clothes and shoes,
there remained to each of us, for personal spending, a sum that
varied between seventy cents and a dollar for the week. We
whacked this up, shared it, and sometimes loaned all of what was
left of it when one of us needed it for some more gorgeous girl-
adventure, such as car-fare out to Blair's Park and back--twenty
cents, bang, just like that; and ice-cream for two--thirty cents;
or tamales in a tamale-parlour, which came cheaper and which for
two cost only twenty cents.
I did not mind this money meagreness. The disdain I had learned
for money from the oyster pirates had never left me. I didn't
care over-weeningly for it for personal gratification; and in my
philosophy I completed the circle, finding myself as equable with
the lack of a ten-cent piece as I was with the squandering of
scores of dollars in calling all men and hangers-on up to the bar
to drink with me.
But how to get a girl? There was no girl's home to which Louis
could take me and where I might be introduced to girls. I knew
none. And Louis' several girls he wanted for himself; and anyway,
in the very human nature of boys' and girls' ways, he couldn't
turn any of them over to me. He did persuade them to bring girl-
friends for me; but I found them weak sisters, pale and
ineffectual alongside the choice specimens he had.
"You'll have to do like I did," he said finally. "I got these by
getting them. You'll have to get one the same way."
And he initiated me. It must be remembered that Louis and I were
hard situated. We really had to struggle to pay our board and
maintain a decent appearance. We met each other in the evening,
after the day's work, on the street corner, or in a little candy
store on a side street, our sole frequenting-place. Here we
bought our cigarettes, and, occasionally, a nickel's worth of
"red-hots." (Oh, yes; Louis and I unblushingly ate candy--all we
could get. Neither of us drank. Neither of us ever went into a
But the girl. In quite primitive fashion, as Louis advised me, I
was to select her and make myself acquainted with her. We
strolled the streets in the early evenings. The girls, like us,
strolled in pairs. And strolling girls will look at strolling
boys who look. (And to this day, in any town, city, or village,
in which I, in my middle age, find myself, I look on with the eye
trained of old experience, and watch the sweet innocent game
played by the strolling boys and girls who just must stroll when
the spring and summer evenings call.)
The trouble was that in this Arcadian phase of my history, I, who
had come through, case-hardened, from the other side of life, was
timid and bashful. Again and again Louis nerved me up. But I
didn't know girls. They were strange and wonderful to me after my
precocious man's life. I failed of the bold front and the
necessary forwardness when the crucial moment came.
Then Louis would show me how--a certain, eloquent glance of eye, a
smile, a daring, a lifted hat, a spoken word, hesitancies,
giggles, coy nervousnesses--and, behold, Louis acquainted and
nodding me up to be introduced. But when we paired off to stroll
along boy and girl together, I noted that Louis had invariably
picked the good-looker and left to me the little lame sister.
I improved, of course, after experiences too numerous to enter
upon, so that there were divers girls to whom I could lift my hat
and who would walk beside me in the early evenings. But girl's
love did not immediately come to me. I was excited, interested,
and I pursued the quest. And the thought of drink never entered
my mind. Some of Louis' and my adventures have since given me
serious pause when casting sociological generalisations. But it
was all good and innocently youthful, and I learned one
generalisation, biological rather than sociological, namely, that
the "Colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters under their
And before long I learned girl's love, all the dear fond
deliciousness of it, all the glory and the wonder. I shall call
her Haydee. She was between fifteen and sixteen. Her little
skirt reached her shoe-tops. We sat side by side in a Salvation
Army meeting. She was not a convert, nor was her aunt who sat on
the other side of her, and who, visiting from the country where at
that time the Salvation Army was not, had dropped in to the
meeting for half an hour out of curiosity. And Louis sat beside
me and observed--I do believe he did no more than observe, because
Haydee was not his style of girl.
We did not speak, but in that great half-hour we glanced shyly at
each other, and shyly avoided or as shyly returned and met each
other's glances more than several times. She had a slender oval
face. Her brown eyes were beautiful. Her nose was a dream, as
was her sweet-lipped, petulant-hinting mouth. She wore a tam-o'-
shanter, and I thought her brown hair the prettiest shade of brown
I had ever seen. And from that single experience of half an hour
I have ever since been convinced of the reality of love at first
All too soon the aunt and Haydee departed. (This is permissible
at any stage of a Salvation Army meeting.) I was no longer
interested in the meeting, and, after an appropriate interval of a
couple of minutes or less, started to leave with Louis. As we
passed out, at the back of the hall a woman recognised me with her
eyes, arose, and followed me. I shall not describe her. She was
of my own kind and friendship of the old time on the water-front.
When Nelson was shot, he had died in her arms, and she knew me as
his one comrade. And she must tell me how Nelson had died, and I
did want to know; so I went with her across the width of life from
dawning boy's love for a brown-haired girl in a tam-o'-shanter
back to the old sad savagery I had known.
And when I had heard the tale, I hurried away to find Louis,
fearing that I had lost my first love with the first glimpse of
her. But Louis was dependable. Her name was--Haydee. He knew
where she lived. Each day she passed the blacksmith's shop where
he worked, going to or from the Lafayette School. Further, he had
seen her on occasion with Ruth, another schoolgirl, and, still
further, Nita, who sold us red-hots at the candy store, was a
friend of Ruth. The thing to do was to go around to the candy
store and see if we could get Nita to give a note to Ruth to give
to Haydee. If this could be arranged, all I had to do was write
And it so happened. And in stolen half-hours of meeting I came to
know all the sweet madness of boy's love and girl's love. So far
as it goes it is not the biggest love in the world, but I do dare
to assert that it is the sweetest. Oh, as I look back on it!
Never did girl have more innocent boy-lover than I who had been so
wicked-wise and violent beyond my years. I didn't know the first
thing about girls. I, who had been hailed Prince of the Oyster
Pirates, who could go anywhere in the world as a man amongst men;
who could sail boats, lay aloft in black and storm, or go into the
toughest hang-outs in sailor town and play my part in any rough-
house that started or call all hands to the bar--I didn't know the
first thing I might say or do with this slender little chit of a
girl-woman whose scant skirt just reached her shoe-tops and who
was as abysmally ignorant of life as I was, or thought I was,
I remember we sat on a bench in the starlight. There was fully a
foot of space between us. We slightly faced each other, our near
elbows on the back of the bench; and once or twice our elbows just
touched. And all the time, deliriously happy, talking in the
gentlest and most delicate terms that might not offend her
sensitive ears, I was cudgelling my brains in an effort to divine
what I was expected to do. What did girls expect of boys, sitting
on a bench and tentatively striving to find out what love was?
What did she expect me to do? Was I expected to kiss her? Did she
expect me to try? And if she did expect me, and I didn't what
would she think of me?
Ah, she was wiser than I--I know it now--the little innocent girl-
woman in her shoe-top skirt. She had known boys all her life.
She encouraged me in the ways a girl may. Her gloves were off and
in one hand, and I remember, lightly and daringly, in mock reproof
for something I had said, how she tapped my lips with a tiny flirt
of those gloves. I was like to swoon with delight. It was the
most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. And I remember
yet the faint scent that clung to those gloves and that I breathed
in the moment they touched my lips.
Then came the agony of apprehension and doubt. Should I imprison
in my hand that little hand with the dangling, scented gloves
which had just tapped my lips? Should I dare to kiss her there and
then, or slip my arm around her waist? Or dared I even sit closer?
Well, I didn't dare. I did nothing. I merely continued to sit
there and love with all my soul. And when we parted that evening
I had not kissed her. I do remember the first time I kissed her,
on another evening, at parting--a mighty moment, when I took all
my heart of courage and dared. We never succeeded in managing
more than a dozen stolen meetings, and we kissed perhaps a dozen
times--as boys and girls kiss, briefly and innocently, and
wonderingly. We never went anywhere--not even to a matinee. We
once shared together five cents worth of red-hots. But I have
always fondly believed that she loved me. I know I loved her; and
I dreamed day-dreams of her for a year and more, and the memory of
her is very dear.
When I was with people who did not drink, I never thought of
drinking. Louis did not drink. Neither he nor I could afford it;
but, more significant than that, we had no desire to drink. We
were healthy, normal, non-alcoholic. Had we been alcoholic, we
would have drunk whether or not we could have afforded it.
Each night, after the day's work, washed up, clothes changed, and
supper eaten, we met on the street corner or in the little candy
store. But the warm fall weather passed, and on bitter nights of
frost or damp nights of drizzle, the street corner was not a
comfortable meeting-place. And the candy store was unheated.
Nita, or whoever waited on the counter, between waitings lurked in
a back living-room that was heated. We were not admitted to this
room, and in the store it was as cold as out-of-doors.
Louis and I debated the situation. There was only one solution:
the saloon, the congregating-place of men, the place where men
hobnobbed with John Barleycorn. Well do I remember the damp and
draughty evening, shivering without overcoats because we could not
afford them, that Louis and I started out to select our saloon.
Saloons are always warm and comfortable. Now Louis and I did not
go into this saloon because we wanted a drink. Yet we knew that
saloons were not charitable institutions. A man could not make a
lounging-place of a saloon without occasionally buying something
over the bar.
Our dimes and nickels were few. We could ill spare any of them
when they were so potent in paying car-fare for oneself and a
girl. (We never paid car-fare when by ourselves, being content to
walk.) So, in this saloon, we desired to make the most of our
expenditure. We called for a deck of cards and sat down at a
table and played euchre for an hour, in which time Louis treated
once, and I treated once, to beer--the cheapest drink, ten cents
for two. Prodigal! How we grudged it!
We studied the men who came into the place. They seemed all
middle-aged and elderly work-men, most of them Germans, who
flocked by themselves in old-acquaintance groups, and with whom we
could have only the slightest contacts. We voted against that
saloon, and went out cast down with the knowledge that we had lost
an evening and wasted twenty cents for beer that we didn't want.
We made several more tries on succeeding nights, and at last found
our way into the National, a saloon on Tenth and Franklin. Here
was a more congenial crowd. Here Louis met a fellow or two he
knew, and here I met fellows I had gone to school with when a
little lad in knee pants. We talked of old days, and of what had
become of this fellow, and what that fellow was doing now, and of
course we talked it over drinks. They treated, and we drank.
Then, according to the code of drinking, we had to treat. It
hurt, for it meant forty to fifty cents a clatter.
We felt quite enlivened when the short evening was over; but at
the same time we were bankrupt. Our week's spending money was
gone. We decided that that was the saloon for us, and we agreed
to be more circumspect thereafter in our drink-buying. Also, we
had to economise for the rest of the week. We didn't even have
car-fare. We were compelled to break an engagement with two girls
from West Oakland with whom we were attempting to be in love.
They were to meet us up town the next evening, and we hadn't the
car-fare necessary to take them home. Like many others
financially embarrassed, we had to disappear for a time from the
gay whirl--at least until Saturday night pay-day. So Louis and I
rendezvoused in a livery stable, and with coats buttoned and
chattering teeth played euchre and casino until the time of our
exile was over.
Then we returned to the National Saloon and spent no more than we
could decently avoid spending for the comfort and warmth.
Sometimes we had mishaps, as when one got stuck twice in
succession in a five-handed game of Sancho Pedro for the drinks.
Such a disaster meant anywhere between twenty-five to eighty
cents, just according to how many of the players ordered ten-cent
drinks. But we could temporarily escape the evil effects of such
disaster, by virtue of an account we ran behind the bar. Of
course, this only set back the day of reckoning and seduced us
into spending more than we would have spent on a cash basis.
(When I left Oakland suddenly for the adventure-path the following
spring, I well remember I owed that saloon-keeper one dollar and
seventy cents. Long after, when I returned, he was gone. I still
owe him that dollar and seventy cents, and if he should chance to
read these lines I want him to know that I'll pay on demand.)
The foregoing incident of the National Saloon I have given in
order again to show the lure, or draw, or compulsion, toward John
Barleycorn in society as at present organised with saloons on all
the corners. Louis and I were two healthy youths. We didn't want
to drink. We couldn't afford to drink. And yet we were driven by
the circumstance of cold and rainy weather to seek refuge in a
saloon, where we had to spend part of our pitiful dole for drink.
It will be urged by some critics that we might have gone to the
Y.M.C.A., to night school, and to the social circles and homes of
young people. The only reply is that we didn't. That is the
irrefragable fact. We didn't. And to-day, at this moment, there
are hundreds of thousands of boys like Louis and me doing just
what Louis and I did with John Barleycorn, warm and comfortable,
beckoning and welcoming, tucking their arms in his and beginning
to teach them his mellow ways.
The jute mills failed of its agreement to increase my pay to a
dollar and a quarter a day, and I, a free-born American boy whose
direct ancestors had fought in all the wars from the old pre-
Revolutionary Indian wars down, exercised my sovereign right of
free contract by quitting the job.
I was still resolved to settle down, and I looked about me. One
thing was clear. Unskilled labour didn't pay. I must learn a
trade, and I decided on electricity. The need for electricians
was constantly growing. But how to become an electrician? I
hadn't the money to go to a technical school or university;
besides, I didn't think much of schools. I was a practical man in
a practical world. Also, I still believed in the old myths which
were the heritage of the American boy when I was a boy.
A canal boy could become a President. Any boy who took employment
with any firm could, by thrift, energy, and sobriety, learn the
business and rise from position to position until he was taken in
as a junior partner. After that the senior partnership was only a
matter of time. Very often--so ran the myth--the boy, by reason
of his steadiness and application, married his employ's daughter.
By this time I had been encouraged to such faith in myself in the
matter of girls that I was quite certain I would marry my
employer's daughter. There wasn't a doubt of it. All the little
boys in the myths did it as soon as they were old enough.
So I bade farewell for ever to the adventure-path, and went out to
the power plant of one of our Oakland street railways. I saw the
superintendent himself, in a private office so fine that it almost
stunned me. But I talked straight up. I told him I wanted to
become a practical electrician, that I was unafraid of work, that
I was used to hard work, and that all he had to do was look at me
to see I was fit and strong. I told him that I wanted to begin
right at the bottom and work up, that I wanted to devote my life
to this one occupation and this one employment.
The superintendent beamed as he listened. He told me that I was
the right stuff for success, and that he believed in encouraging
American youth that wanted to rise. Why, employers were always on
the lookout for young fellows like me, and alas, they found them
all too rarely. My ambition was fine and worthy, and he would see
to it that I got my chance. (And as I listened with swelling
heart, I wondered if it was his daughter I was to marry.)
"Before you can go out on the road and learn the more complicated
and higher details of the profession," he said, "you will, of
course, have to work in the car-house with the men who install and
repair the motors. (By this time I was sure that it was his
daughter, and I was wondering how much stock he might own in the
"But," he said, "as you yourself so plainly see, you couldn't
expect to begin as a helper to the car-house electricians. That
will come when you have worked up to it. You will really begin at
the bottom. In the car-house your first employment will be
sweeping up, washing the windows, keeping things clean. And after
you have shown yourself satisfactory at that, then you may become
a helper to the car-house electricians."
I didn't see how sweeping and scrubbing a building was any
preparation for the trade of electrician; but I did know that in
the books all the boys started with the most menial tasks and by
making good ultimately won to the ownership of the whole concern.
"When shall I come to work?" I asked, eager to launch on this
"But," said the superintendent, "as you and I have already agreed,
you must begin at the bottom. Not immediately can you in any
capacity enter the car-house. Before that you must pass through
the engine-room as an oiler."
My heart went down slightly and for the moment as I saw the road
lengthen between his daughter and me; then it rose again. I would
be a better electrician with knowledge of steam engines. As an
oiler in the great engine-room I was confident that few things
concerning steam would escape me. Heavens! My career shone more
dazzling than ever.
"When shall I come to work?" I asked gratefully.
"But," said the superintendent, "you could not expect to enter
immediately into the engine-room. There must be preparation for
that. And through the fire-room, of course. Come, you see the
matter clearly, I know. And you will see that even the mere
handling of coal is a scientific matter and not to be sneered at.
Do you know that we weigh every pound of coal we burn? Thus, we
learn the value of the coal we buy; we know to a tee the last
penny of cost of every item of production, and we learn which
firemen are the most wasteful, which firemen, out of stupidity or
carelessness, get the least out of the coal they fire." The
superintendent beamed again. "You see how very important the
little matter of coal is, and by as much as you learn of this
little matter you will become that much better a workman--more
valuable to us, more valuable to yourself. Now, are you prepared
"Any time," I said valiantly. "The sooner the better."
"Very well," he answered. "You will come to-morrow morning at
I was taken out and shown my duties. Also, I was told the terms
of my employment--a ten-hour day, every day in the month including
Sundays and holidays, with one day off each month, with a salary
of thirty dollars a month. It wasn't exciting. Years before, at
the cannery, I had earned a dollar a day for a ten-hour day. I
consoled myself with the thought that the reason my earning
capacity had not increased with my years and strength was because
I had remained an unskilled labourer. But it was different now.
I was beginning to work for skill, for a trade, for career and
fortune, and the superintendent's daughter.
And I was beginning in the right way--right at the beginning.
That was the thing. I was passing coal to the firemen, who
shovelled it into the furnaces, where its energy was transformed
into steam, which, in the engine-room, was transformed into the
electricity with which the electricians worked. This passing coal
was surely the very beginning-unless the superintendent should
take it into his head to send me to work in the mines from which
the coal came in order to get a completer understanding of the
genesis of electricity for street railways.
Work! I, who had worked with men, found that I didn't know the
first thing about real work. A ten-hour day! I had to pass coal
for the day and night shifts, and, despite working through the
noon-hour, I never finished my task before eight at night. I was
working a twelve-to thirteen-hour day, and I wasn't being paid
overtime as in the cannery.
I might as well give the secret away right here. I was doing the
work of two men. Before me, one mature able-bodied labourer had
done the day shift and another equally mature able-bodied labourer
had done the night-shift. They had received forty dollars a month
each. The superintendent, bent on an economical administration,
had persuaded me to do the work of both men for thirty dollars a
month. I thought he was making an electrician of me. In truth
and fact, he was saving fifty dollars a month operating expenses
to the company.
But I didn't know I was displacing two men. Nobody told me. On
the contrary, the superintendent warned everybody not to tell me.
How valiantly I went at it that first day. I worked at top speed,
filling the iron wheelbarrow with coal, running it on the scales
and weighing the load, then trundling it into the fire-room and
dumping it on the plates before the fires.
Work! I did more than the two men whom I had displaced. They had
merely wheeled in the coal and dumped it on the plates. But while
I did this for the day coal, the night coal I had to pile against
the wall of the fire-room. Now the fire-room was small. It had
been planned for a night coal-passer. So I had to pile the night
coal higher and higher, buttressing up the heap with stout planks.
Toward the top of the heap I had to handle the coal a second time,
tossing it up with a shovel.
I dripped with sweat, but I never ceased from my stride, though I
could feel exhaustion coming on. By ten o'clock in the morning,
so much of my body's energy had I consumed, I felt hungry and
snatched a thick double-slice of bread and butter from my dinner
pail. This I devoured, standing, grimed with coal-dust, my knees
trembling under me. By eleven o'clock, in this fashion I had
consumed my whole lunch. But what of it? I realised that it would
enable me to continue working through the noon hour. And I worked
all the afternoon. Darkness came on, and I worked under the
electric lights. The day fireman went off and the night fireman
came on. I plugged away.
At half-past eight, famished, tottering, I washed up, changed my
clothes, and dragged my weary body to the car. It was three miles
to where I lived, and I had received a pass with the stipulation
that I could sit down as long as there were no paying passengers
in need of a seat. As I sank into a corner outside seat I prayed
that no passenger might require my seat. But the car filled up,
and, half-way in, a woman came on board, and there was no seat for
her. I started to get up, and to my astonishment found that I
could not. With the chill wind blowing on me, my spent body had
stiffened into the seat. It took me the rest of the run in to
unkink my complaining joints and muscles and get into a standing
position on the lower step. And when the car stopped at my corner
I nearly fell to the ground when I stepped off.
I hobbled two blocks to the house and limped into the kitchen.
While my mother started to cook, I plunged into bread and butter;
but before my appetite was appeased, or the steak fried, I was
sound asleep. In vain my mother strove to shake me awake enough
to eat the meat. Failing in this, with the assistance of my
father she managed to get me to my room, where I collapsed dead
asleep on the bed. They undressed me and covered me up. In the
morning came the agony of being awakened. I was terribly sore,
and, worst of all, my wrists were swelling. But I made up for my
lost supper, eating an enormous breakfast, and when I hobbled to
catch my car I carried a lunch twice as big as the one the day
Work! Let any youth just turned eighteen try to out-shovel two
man-grown coal-shovellers. Work! Long before midday I had eaten
the last scrap of my huge lunch. But I was resolved to show them
what a husky young fellow determined to rise could do. The worst
of it was that my wrists were swelling and going back on me.
There are few who do not know the pain of walking on a sprained
ankle. Then imagine the pain of shovelling coal and trundling a
loaded wheelbarrow with two sprained wrists.
Work! More than once I sank down on the coal where no one could
see me, and cried with rage, and mortification, and exhaustion,
and despair. That second day was my hardest, and all that enabled
me to survive it and get in the last of the night coal at the end
of thirteen hours was the day fireman, who bound both my wrists
with broad leather straps. So tightly were they buckled that they
were like slightly flexible plaster casts. They took the stresses
and pressures which hitherto had been borne by my wrists, and they
were so tight that there was no room for the inflammation to rise
in the sprains.
And in this fashion I continued to learn to be an electrician.
Night after night I limped home, fell asleep before I could eat my
supper, and was helped into bed and undressed. Morning after
morning, always with huger lunches in my dinner pail, I limped out
of the house on my way to work.
I no longer read my library books. I made no dates with the
girls. I was a proper work beast. I worked, and ate, and slept,
while my mind slept all the time. The whole thing was a
nightmare. I worked every day, including Sunday, and I looked far
ahead to my one day off at the end of a month, resolved to lie
abed all that day and just sleep and rest up.
The strangest part of this experience was that I never took a
drink nor thought of taking a drink. Yet I knew that men under
hard pressure almost invariably drank. I had seen them do it, and
in the past had often done it myself. But so sheerly non-
alcoholic was I that it never entered my mind that a drink might
be good for me. I instance this to show how entirely lacking from
my make-up was any predisposition toward alcohol. And the point
of this instance is that later on, after more years had passed,
contact with John Barleycorn at last did induce in me the
I had often noticed the day fireman staring at me in a curious
way. At last, one day, he spoke. He began by swearing me to
secrecy. He had been warned by the superintendent not to tell me,
and in telling me he was risking his job. He told me of the day
coal-passer and the night coal-passer, and of the wages they had
received. I was doing for thirty dollars a month what they had
received eighty dollars for doing. He would have told me sooner,
the fireman said, had he not been so certain that I would break
down under the work and quit. As it was, I was killing myself,
and all to no good purpose. I was merely cheapening the price of
labour, he argued, and keeping two men out of a job.
Being an American boy, and a proud American boy, I did not
immediately quit. This was foolish of me, I know; but I resolved
to continue the work long enough to prove to the superintendent
that I could do it without breaking down. Then I would quit, and
he would realise what a fine young fellow he had lost.
All of which I faithfully and foolishly did. I worked on until
the time came when I got in the last of the night coal by six
o'clock. Then I quit the job of learning electricity by doing
more than two men's work for a boy's wages, went home, and
proceeded to sleep the clock around.
Fortunately, I had not stayed by the job long enough to injure
myself--though I was compelled to wear straps on my wrists for a
year afterward. But the effect of this work orgy in which I had
indulged was to sicken me with work. I just wouldn't work. The
thought of work was repulsive. I didn't care if I never settled
down. Learning a trade could go hang. It was a whole lot better
to royster and frolic over the world in the way I had previously
done. So I headed out on the adventure-path again, starting to
tramp East by beating my way on the railroads.
But behold! As soon as I went out on the adventure-path I met John
Barleycorn again. I moved through a world of strangers, and the
act of drinking together made one acquainted with men and opened
the way to adventures. It might be in a saloon with jingled
townsmen, or with a genial railroad man well lighted up and armed
with pocket flasks, or with a bunch of alki stiffs in a hang-out.
Yes; and it might be in a prohibition state, such as Iowa was in
1894, when I wandered up the main street of Des Moines and was
variously invited by strangers into various blind pigs--I remember
drinking in barber-shops, plumbing establishments, and furniture
Always it was John Barleycorn. Even a tramp, in those halcyon
days, could get most frequently drunk. I remember, inside the
prison at Buffalo, how some of us got magnificently jingled, and
how, on the streets of Buffalo after our release, another jingle
was financed with pennies begged on the main-drag.
I had no call for alcohol, but when I was with those who drank, I
drank with them. I insisted on travelling or loafing with the
livest, keenest men, and it was just these live, keen ones that
did most of the drinking. They were the more comradely men, the
more venturous, the more individual. Perhaps it was too much
temperament that made them turn from the commonplace and humdrum
to find relief in the lying and fantastic sureties of John
Barleycorn. Be that as it may, the men I liked best, desired most
to be with, were invariably to be found in John Barleycorn's
In the course of my tramping over the United States I achieved a
new concept. As a tramp, I was behind the scenes of society--aye,
and down in the cellar. I could watch the machinery work. I saw
the wheels of the social machine go around, and I learned that the
dignity of manual labour wasn't what I had been told it was by the
teachers, preachers, and politicians. The men without trades were
helpless cattle. If one learned a trade, he was compelled to
belong to a union in order to work at his trade. And his union
was compelled to bully and slug the employers' unions in order to
hold up wages or hold down hours. The employers' unions like-wise
bullied and slugged. I couldn't see any dignity at all. And when
a workman got old, or had an accident, he was thrown into the
scrap-heap like any worn-out machine. I saw too many of this sort
who were making anything but dignified ends of life.
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.
To man, alone among the animals, has been given the awful
privilege of reason. Man, with his brain, can penetrate the
intoxicating show of things and look upon the universe brazen with
indifference toward him and his dreams. He can do this, but it is
not well for him to do it. To live, and live abundantly, to sting
with life, to be alive (which is to be what he is), it is good
that man be life-blinded and sense-struck. What is good is true.
And this is the order of truth, lesser though it be, that man must
know and guide his actions by with unswerving certitude that it is
absolute truth and that in the universe no other order of truth
can obtain. It is good that man should accept at face value the
cheats of sense and snares of flesh and through the fogs of
sentiency pursue the lures and lies of passion. It is good that
he shall see neither shadows nor futilities, nor be appalled by
his lusts and rapacities.
And man does this. Countless men have glimpsed that other and
truer order of truth and recoiled from it. Countless men have
passed through the long sickness and lived to tell of it and
deliberately to forget it to the end of their days. They lived.
They realised life, for life is what they were. They did right.
And now comes John Barleycorn with the curse he lays upon the
imaginative man who is lusty with life and desire to live. John
Barleycorn sends his White Logic, the argent messenger of truth
beyond truth, the antithesis of life, cruel and bleak as
interstellar space, pulseless and frozen as absolute zero,
dazzling with the frost of irrefragable logic and unforgettable
fact. John Barleycorn will not let the dreamer dream, the liver
live. He destroys birth and death, and dissipates to mist the
paradox of being, until his victim cries out, as in "The City of
Dreadful Night": "Our life's a cheat, our death a black abyss."
And the feet of the victim of such dreadful intimacy take hold of
the way of death.
Back to personal experiences and the effects in the past of John
Barleycorn's White Logic on me. On my lovely ranch in the Valley
of the Moon, brain-soaked with many months of alcohol, I am
oppressed by the cosmic sadness that has always been the heritage
of man. In vain do I ask myself why I should be sad. My nights
are warm. My roof does not leak. I have food galore for all the
caprices of appetite. Every creature comfort is mine. In my body
are no aches nor pains. The good old flesh-machine is running
smoothly on. Neither brain nor muscle is overworked. I have
land, money, power, recognition from the world, a consciousness
that I do my meed of good in serving others, a mate whom I love,
children that are of my own fond flesh. I have done, and am
doing, what a good citizen of the world should do. I have built
houses, many houses, and tilled many a hundred acres. And as for
trees, have I not planted a hundred thousand? Everywhere, from any
window of my house, I can gaze forth upon these trees of my
planting, standing valiantly erect and aspiring toward the sun.
My life has indeed fallen in pleasant places. Not a hundred men
in a million have been so lucky as I. Yet, with all this vast
good fortune, am I sad. And I am sad because John Barleycorn is
with me. And John Barleycorn is with me because I was born in
what future ages will call the dark ages before the ages of
rational civilisation. John Barleycorn is with me because in all
the unwitting days of my youth John Barleycorn was accessible,
calling to me and inviting me on every corner and on every street
between the corners. The pseudo-civilisation into which I was
born permitted everywhere licensed shops for the sale of soul-
poison. The system of life was so organised that I (and millions
like me) was lured and drawn and driven to the poison shops.
Wander with me through one mood of the myriad moods of sadness
into which one is plunged by John Barleycorn. I ride out over my
beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air
is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with
autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are
stealing. The afternoon sun smoulders in the drowsy sky. I have
everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams
and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle. I am vitalised,
organic. I move, I have the power of movement, I command movement
of the live thing I bestride. I am possessed with the pomps of
being, and know proud passions and inspirations. I have ten
thousand august connotations. I am a king in the kingdom of
sense, and trample the face of the uncomplaining dust....
And yet, with jaundiced eye I gaze upon all the beauty and wonder
about me, and with jaundiced brain consider the pitiful figure I
cut in this world that endured so long without me and that will
again endure without me. I remember the men who broke their
hearts and their backs over this stubborn soil that now belongs to
me. As if anything imperishable could belong to the perishable!
These men passed. I, too, shall pass. These men toiled, and
cleared, and planted, gazed with aching eyes, while they rested
their labour-stiffened bodies on these same sunrises and sunsets,
at the autumn glory of the grape, and at the fog-wisps stealing
across the mountain. And they are gone. And I know that I, too,
shall some day, and soon, be gone.
Gone? I am going now. In my jaw are cunning artifices of the
dentists which replace the parts of me already gone. Never again
will I have the thumbs of my youth. Old fights and wrestlings
have injured them irreparably. That punch on the head of a man
whose very name is forgotten settled this thumb finally and for
ever. A slip-grip at catch-as-catch-can did for the other. My
lean runner's stomach has passed into the limbo of memory. The
joints of the legs that bear me up are not so adequate as they
once were, when, in wild nights and days of toil and frolic, I
strained and snapped and ruptured them. Never again can I swing
dizzily aloft and trust all the proud quick that is I to a single
rope-clutch in the driving blackness of storm. Never again can I
run with the sled-dogs along the endless miles of Arctic trail.
I am aware that within this disintegrating body which has been
dying since I was born I carry a skeleton, that under the rind of
flesh which is called my face is a bony, noseless death's head.
All of which does not shudder me. To be afraid is to be healthy.
Fear of death makes for life. But the curse of the White Logic is
that it does not make one afraid. The world-sickness of the White
Logic makes one grin jocosely into the face of the Noseless One
and to sneer at all the phantasmagoria of living.
I look about me as I ride and on every hand I see the merciless
and infinite waste of natural selection. The White Logic insists
upon opening the long-closed books, and by paragraph and chapter
states the beauty and wonder I behold in terms of futility and
dust. About me is murmur and hum, and I know it for the gnat-
swarm of the living, piping for a little space its thin plaint of
I return across the ranch. Twilight is on, and the hunting
animals are out. I watch the piteous tragic play of life feeding
on life. Here is no morality. Only in man is morality, and man
created it--a code of action that makes toward living and that is
of the lesser order of truth. Yet all this I knew before, in the
weary days of my long sickness. These were the greater truths
that I so successfully schooled myself to forget; the truths that
were so serious that I refused to take them seriously, and played
with gently, oh! so gently, as sleeping dogs at the back of
consciousness which I did not care to waken. I did but stir them,
and let them lie. I was too wise, too wicked wise, to wake them.
But now White Logic willy-nilly wakes them for me, for White
Logic, most valiant, is unafraid of all the monsters of the
"Let the doctors of all the schools condemn me, "White Logic
whispers as I ride along. "What of it? I am truth. You know it.
You cannot combat me. They say I make for death. What of it? It
is truth. Life lies in order to live. Life is a perpetual lie-
telling process. Life is a mad dance in the domain of flux,
wherein appearances in mighty tides ebb and flow, chained to the
wheels of moons beyond our ken. Appearances are ghosts. Life is
ghost land, where appearances change, transfuse, permeate each the
other and all the others, that are, that are not, that always
flicker, fade, and pass, only to come again as new appearances, as
other appearances. You are such an appearance, composed of
countless appearances out of the past. All an appearance can know
is mirage. You know mirages of desire. These very mirages are
the unthinkable and incalculable congeries of appearances that
crowd in upon you and form you out of the past, and that sweep you
on into dissemination into other unthinkable and incalculable
congeries of appearances to people the ghost land of the future.
Life is apparitional, and passes. You are an apparition. Through
all the apparitions that preceded you and that compose the parts
of you, you rose gibbering from the evolutionary mire, and
gibbering you will pass on, interfusing, permeating the procession
of apparitions that will succeed you."
And of course it is all unanswerable, and as I ride along through
the evening shadows I sneer at that Great Fetish which Comte
called the world. And I remember what another pessimist of
sentiency has uttered: "Transient are all. They, being born, must
die, and, being dead, are glad to be at rest."
But here through the dusk comes one who is not glad to be at rest.
He is a workman on the ranch, an old man, an immigrant Italian.
He takes his hat off to me in all servility, because, forsooth, I
am to him a lord of life. I am food to him, and shelter, and
existence. He has toiled like a beast all his days, and lived
less comfortably than my horses in their deep-strawed stalls. He
is labour-crippled. He shambles as he walks. One shoulder is
twisted higher than the other. His hands are gnarled claws,
repulsive, horrible. As an apparition he is a pretty miserable
specimen. His brain is as stupid as his body is ugly.
"His brain is so stupid that he does not know he is an
apparition," the White Logic chuckles to me. "He is sense-drunk.
He is the slave of the dream of life. His brain is filled with
superrational sanctions and obsessions. He believes in a
transcendent over-world. He has listened to the vagaries of the
prophets, who have given to him the sumptuous bubble of Paradise.
He feels inarticulate self-affinities, with self-conjured non-
realities. He sees penumbral visions of himself titubating
fantastically through days and nights of space and stars. Beyond
the shadow of any doubt he is convinced that the universe was made
for him, and that it is his destiny to live for ever in the
immaterial and supersensuous realms he and his kind have builded
of the stuff of semblance and deception.
"But you, who have opened the books and who share my awful
confidence--you know him for what he is, brother to you and the
dust, a cosmic joke, a sport of chemistry, a garmented beast that
arose out of the ruck of screaming beastliness by virtue and
accident of two opposable great toes. He is brother as well to
the gorilla and the chimpanzee. He thumps his chest in anger, and
roars and quivers with cataleptic ferocity. He knows monstrous,
atavistic promptings, and he is composed of all manner of shreds
of abysmal and forgotten instincts."
"Yet he dreams he is immortal," I argue feebly. "It is vastly
wonderful for so stupid a clod to bestride the shoulders of time
and ride the eternities."
"Pah!" is the retort. "Would you then shut the books and exchange
places with this thing that is only an appetite and a desire, a
marionette of the belly and the loins?"
"To be stupid is to be happy," I contend.
"Then your ideal of happiness is a jelly-like organism floating in
a tideless, tepid twilight sea, eh?"
Oh, the victim cannot combat John Barleycorn!
"One step removed from the annihilating bliss of Buddha's
Nirvana," the White Logic adds. "Oh well, here's the house.
Cheer up and take a drink. We know, we illuminated, you and I,
all the folly and the farce."
And in my book-walled den, the mausoleum of the thoughts of men, I
take my drink, and other drinks, and roust out the sleeping dogs
from the recesses of my brain and hallo them on over the walls of
prejudice and law and through all the cunning labyrinths of
superstition and belief.
"Drink," says the White Logic. "The Greeks believed that the gods
gave them wine so that they might forget the miserableness of
existence. And remember what Heine said."
Well do I remember that flaming Jew's "With the last breath all is
done: joy, love, sorrow, macaroni, the theatre, lime-trees,
raspberry drops, the power of human relations, gossip, the barking
of dogs, champagne."
"Your clear white light is sickness," I tell the White Logic.
"By telling too strong a truth," he quips back.
"Alas, yes, so topsy-turvy is existence," I acknowledge sadly.
"Ah, well, Liu Ling was wiser than you," the White Logic girds.
"You remember him?"
I nod my head--Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of
bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo
Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.
"It was Liu Ling," prompts the White Logic, "who declared that to
a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much
duckweed on a river. Very well. Have another Scotch, and let
semblance and deception become duck-weed on a river."
And while I pour and sip my Scotch, I remember another Chinese
philosopher, Chuang Tzu, who, four centuries before Christ,
challenged this dreamland of the world, saying: "How then do I
know but that the dead repent of having previously clung to life?
Those who dream of the banquet, wake to lamentation and sorrow.
Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow, wake to join the hunt.
While they dream, they do not know that they dream. Some will
even interpret the very dream they are dreaming; and only when
they awake do they know it was a dream.... Fools think they are
awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really
princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who
say you are dreams--I am but a dream myself.
"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly,
fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a
butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a
butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man.
Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not
know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or
whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."
"Come," says the White Logic, "and forget these Asian dreamers of
old time. Fill your glass and let us look at the parchments of
the dreamers of yesterday who dreamed their dreams on your own
I pore over the abstract of title of the vineyard called Tokay on
the rancho called Petaluma. It is a sad long list of the names of
men, beginning with Manuel Micheltoreno, one time Mexican
"Governor, Commander-in-Chief, and Inspector of the Department of
the Californias," who deeded ten square leagues of stolen Indian
land to Colonel Don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo for services
rendered his country and for moneys paid by him for ten years to
Immediately this musty record of man's land lust assumes the
formidableness of a battle--the quick struggling with the dust.
There are deeds of trust, mortgages, certificates of release,
transfers, judgments, foreclosures, writs of attachment, orders of
sale, tax liens, petitions for letters of administration, and
decrees of distribution. It is like a monster ever unsubdued,
this stubborn land that drowses in this Indian summer weather and
that survives them all, the men who scratched its surface and
Who was this James King of William, so curiously named? The oldest
surviving settler in the Valley of the Moon knows him not. Yet
only sixty years ago he loaned Mariano G. Vallejo eighteen
thousand dollars on security of certain lands including the
vineyard yet to be and to be called Tokay. Whence came Peter
O'Connor, and whither vanished, after writing his little name of a
day on the woodland that was to become a vineyard? Appears Louis
Csomortanyi, a name to conjure with. He lasts through several
pages of this record of the enduring soil.
Comes old American stock, thirsting across the Great American
Desert, mule-backing across the Isthmus, wind-jamming around the
Horn, to write brief and forgotten names where ten thousand
generations of wild Indians are equally forgotten--names like
Halleck, Hastings, Swett, Tait, Denman, Tracy, Grimwood, Carlton,
Temple. There are no names like those to-day in the Valley of the
The names begin to appear fast and furiously, flashing from legal
page to legal page and in a flash vanishing. But ever the
persistent soil remains for others to scrawl themselves across.
Come the names of men of whom I have vaguely heard but whom I have
never known. Kohler and Frohling--who built the great stone
winery on the vineyard called Tokay, but who built upon a hill up
which other vineyardists refused to haul their grapes. So Kohler
and Frohling lost the land; the earthquake of 1906 threw down the
winery; and I now live in its ruins.
La Motte--he broke the soil, planted vines and orchards,
instituted commercial fish culture, built a mansion renowned in
its day, was defeated by the soil, and passed. And my name of a
day appears. On the site of his orchards and vine-yards, of his
proud mansion, of his very fish ponds, I have scrawled myself with
half a hundred thousand eucalyptus trees.
Cooper and Greenlaw--on what is called the Hill Ranch they left
two of their dead, "Little Lillie" and "Little David," who rest
to-day inside a tiny square of hand-hewn palings. Also, Gooper
and Greenlaw in their time cleared the virgin forest from three
fields of forty acres. To-day I have those three fields sown with
Canada peas, and in the spring they shall be ploughed under for
Haska--a dim legendary figure of a generation ago, who went back
up the mountain and cleared six acres of brush in the tiny valley
that took his name. He broke the soil, reared stone walls and a
house, and planted apple trees. And already the site of the house
is undiscoverable, the location of the stone walls may be deduced
from the configuration of the landscape, and I am renewing the
battle, putting in angora goats to browse away the brush that has
overrun Haska's clearing and choked Haska's apple trees to death.
So I, too, scratch the land with my brief endeavour and flash my
name across a page of legal script ere I pass and the page grows
"Dreamers and ghosts," the White Logic chuckles.
"But surely the striving was not altogether vain," I contend.
"It was based on illusion and is a lie."
"A vital lie," I retort.
"And pray what is a vital lie but a lie?" the White Logic
challenges. "Come. Fill your glass and let us examine these
vital liars who crowd your bookshelves. Let us dabble in William
James a bit."
"A man of health," I say. "From him we may expect no
philosopher's stone, but at least we will find a few robust tonic
things to which to tie."
"Rationality gelded to sentiment," the White Logic grins. "At the
end of all his thinking he still clung to the sentiment of
immortality. Facts transmuted in the alembic of hope into terms
of faith. The ripest fruit of reason the stultification of
reason. From the topmost peak of reason James teaches to cease
reasoning and to have faith that all is well and will be well--the
old, oh, ancient old, acrobatic flip of the metaphysicians whereby
they reasoned reason quite away in order to escape the pessimism
consequent upon the grim and honest exercise of reason.
"Is this flesh of yours you? Or is it an extraneous something
possessed by you? Your body--what is it? A machine for converting
stimuli into reactions. Stimuli and reactions are remembered.
They constitute experience. Then you are in your consciousness
these experiences. You are at any moment what you are thinking at
that moment. Your I is both subject and object; it predicates
things of itself and is the things predicated. The thinker is the
thought, the knower is what is known, the possessor is the things
"After all, as you know well, man is a flux of states of
consciousness, a flow of passing thoughts, each thought of self
another self, a myriad thoughts, a myriad selves, a continual
becoming but never being, a will-of-the-wisp flitting of ghosts in
ghostland. But this, man will not accept of himself. He refuses
to accept his own passing. He will not pass. He will live again
if he has to die to do it.
"He shuffles atoms and jets of light, remotest nebulae, drips of
water, prick-points of sensation, slime-oozings and cosmic bulks,
all mixed with pearls of faith, love of woman, imagined dignities,
frightened surmises, and pompous arrogances, and of the stuff
builds himself an immortality to startle the heavens and baffle
the immensities. He squirms on his dunghill, and like a child
lost in the dark among goblins, calls to the gods that he is their
younger brother, a prisoner of the quick that is destined to be as
free as they--monuments of egotism reared by the epiphenomena;
dreams and the dust of dreams, that vanish when the dreamer
vanishes and are no more when he is not.
"It is nothing new, these vital lies men tell themselves,
muttering and mumbling them like charms and incantations against
the powers of Night. The voodoos and medicine men and the devil-
devil doctors were the fathers of metaphysics. Night and the
Noseless One were ogres that beset the way of light and life. And
the metaphysicians would win by if they had to tell lies to do it.
They were vexed by the brazen law of the Ecclesiast that men die
like the beasts of the field and their end is the same. Their
creeds were their schemes, their religions their nostrums, their
philosophies their devices, by which they half-believed they would
outwit the Noseless One and the Night.
"Bog-lights, vapours of mysticism, psychic overtones, soul orgies,
wailings among the shadows, weird gnosticisms, veils and tissues
of words, gibbering subjectivisms, gropings and maunderings,
ontological fantasies, pan-psychic hallucinations--this is the
stuff, the phantasms of hope, that fills your bookshelves. Look
at them, all the sad wraiths of sad mad men and passionate rebels--
your Schopenhauers, your Strindbergs, your Tolstois and
"Come. Your glass is empty. Fill and forget."
I obey, for my brain is now well a-crawl with the maggots of
alcohol, and as I drink to the sad thinkers on my shelves I quote
"Abstain not! Life and Love like night and day
Offer themselves to us on their own terms,
Not ours. Accept their bounty while ye may,
Before we be accepted by the worms,"
"I will cap you," cries the White Logic.
"No," I answer, while the maggots madden me. "I know you for what
you are, and I am unafraid. Under your mask of hedonism you are
yourself the Noseless One and your way leads to the Night.
Hedonism has no meaning. It, too, is a lie, at best the coward's
smug compromise "
"Now will I cap you!" the White Logic breaks in.
"But if you would not this poor life fulfil,
Lo, you are free to end it when you will,
Without the fear of waking after death."
And I laugh my defiance; for now, and for the moment, I know the
White Logic to be the arch-impostor of them all, whispering his
whispers of death. And he is guilty of his own unmasking, with
his own genial chemistry turning the tables on himself, with his
own maggots biting alive the old illusions, resurrecting and
making to sound again the old voice from beyond of my youth,
telling me again that still are mine the possibilities and powers
which life and the books had taught me did not exist.
And the dinner gong sounds to the reversed bottom of my glass.
Jeering at the White Logic, I go out to join my guests at table,
and with assumed seriousness to discuss the current magazines and
the silly doings of the world's day, whipping every trick and ruse
of controversy through all the paces of paradox and persiflage.
And, when the whim changes, it is most easy and delightfully
disconcerting to play with the respectable and cowardly bourgeois
fetishes and to laugh and epigram at the flitting god-ghosts and
the debaucheries and follies of wisdom.
The clown's the thing! The clown! If one must be a philosopher,
let him be Aristophanes. And no one at the table thinks I am
jingled. I am in fine fettle, that is all. I tire of the labour
of thinking, and, when the table is finished, start practical
jokes and set all playing at games, which we carry on with bucolic
And when the evening is over and good-night said, I go back
through my book-walled den to my sleeping porch and to myself and
to the White Logic which, undefeated, has never left me. And as I
fall to fuddled sleep I hear youth crying, as Harry Kemp heard it:
"I heard Youth calling in the night:
'Gone is my former world-delight;
For there is naught my feet may stay;
The morn suffuses into day,
It dare not stand a moment still
But must the world with light fulfil.
More evanescent than the rose
My sudden rainbow comes and goes,
Plunging bright ends across the sky--
Yea, I am Youth because I die!'"
The foregoing is a sample roaming with the White Logic through the
dusk of my soul.
To the best of my power I have striven to give the reader a
glimpse of a man's secret dwelling when it is shared with John
Barleycorn. And the reader must remember that this mood, which he
has read in a quarter of an hour, is but one mood of the myriad
moods of John Barleycorn, and that the procession of such moods
may well last the clock around through many a day and week and
My alcoholic reminiscences draw to a close. I can say, as any
strong, chesty drinker can say, that all that leaves me alive to-
day on the planet is my unmerited luck--the luck of chest, and
shoulders, and constitution. I dare to say that a not large
percentage of youths, in the formative stage of fifteen to
seventeen, could have survived the stress of heavy drinking that I
survived between my fifteenth and seventeenth years; that a not
large percentage of men could have punished the alcohol I have
punished in my manhood years and lived to tell the tale. I
survived, through no personal virtue, but because I did not have
the chemistry of a dipsomaniac and because I possessed an organism
unusually resistant to the ravages of John Barleycorn. And,
surviving, I have watched the others die, not so lucky, down all
the long sad road.
It was my unmitigated and absolute good fortune, good luck,
chance, call it what you will, that brought me through the fires
of John Barleycorn. My life, my career, my joy in living, have
not been destroyed. They have been scorched, it is true; like the
survivors of forlorn hopes, they have by unthinkably miraculous
ways come through the fight to marvel at the tally of the slain.
And like such a survivor of old red war who cries out, "Let there
be no more war!" so I cry out, "Let there be no more poison-
fighting by our youths!" The way to stop war is to stop it. The
way to stop drinking is to stop it. The way China stopped the
general use of opium was by stopping the cultivation and
importation of opium. The philosophers, priests, and doctors of
China could have preached themselves breathless against opium for
a thousand years, and the use of opium, so long as opium was ever
accessible and obtainable, would have continued unabated. We are
so made, that is all.
We have with great success made a practice of not leaving arsenic
and strychnine, and typhoid and tuberculosis germs lying around
for our children to be destroyed by. Treat John Barleycorn the
same way. Stop him. Don't let him lie around, licensed and
legal, to pounce upon our youth. Not of alcoholics nor for
alcoholics do I write, but for our youths, for those who possess
no more than the adventure-stings and the genial predispositions,
the social man-impulses, which are twisted all awry by our
barbarian civilisation which feeds them poison on all the corners.
It is the healthy, normal boys, now born or being born, for whom I
It was for this reason, more than any other, and more ardently
than any other, that I rode down into the Valley of the Moon, all
a-jingle, and voted for equal suffrage. I voted that women might
vote, because I knew that they, the wives and mothers of the race,
would vote John Barleycorn out of existence and back into the
historical limbo of our vanished customs of savagery. If I thus
seem to cry out as one hurt, please remember that I have been
sorely bruised and that I do dislike the thought that any son or
daughter of mine or yours should be similarly bruised.
The women are the true conservators of the race. The men are the
wastrels, the adventure-lovers and gamblers, and in the end it is
by their women that they are saved. About man's first experiment
in chemistry was the making of alcohol, and down all the
generations to this day man has continued to manufacture and drink
it. And there has never been a day when the women have not
resented man's use of alcohol, though they have never had the
power to give weight to their resentment. The moment women get
the vote in any community, the first thing they proceed to do is
to close the saloons. In a thousand generations to come men of
themselves will not close the saloons. As well expect the
morphine victims to legislate the sale of morphine out of
The women know. They have paid an incalculable price of sweat and
tears for man's use of alcohol. Ever jealous for the race, they
will legislate for the babes of boys yet to be born; and for the
babes of girls, too, for they must be the mothers, wives, and
sisters of these boys.
And it will be easy. The only ones that will be hurt will be the
topers and seasoned drinkers of a single generation. I am one of
these, and I make solemn assurance, based upon long traffic with
John Barleycorn, that it won't hurt me very much to stop drinking
when no one else drinks and when no drink is obtainable. On the
other hand, the overwhelming proportion of young men are so
normally non-alcoholic, that, never having had access to alcohol,
they will never miss it. They will know of the saloon only in the
pages of history, and they will think of the saloon as a quaint
old custom similar to bull-baiting and the burning of witches.
Of course, no personal tale is complete without bringing the
narrative of the person down to the last moment. But mine is no
tale of a reformed drunkard. I was never a drunkard, and I have
It chanced, some time ago, that I made a voyage of one hundred and
forty-eight days in a windjammer around the Horn. I took no
private supply of alcohol along, and, though there was no day of
those one hundred and forty-eight days that I could not have got a
drink from the captain, I did not take a drink. I did not take a
drink because I did not desire a drink. No one else drank on
board. The atmosphere for drinking was not present, and in my
system there was no organic need for alcohol. My chemistry did
not demand alcohol.
So there arose before me a problem, a clear and simple problem:
THIS IS SO EASY, WHY NOT KEEP IT UP WHEN YOU GET BACK ON LAND? I
weighed this problem carefully. I weighed it for five months, in
a state of absolute non-contact with alcohol. And out of the data
of past experience, I reached certain conclusions.
In the first place, I am convinced that not one man in ten
thousand or in a hundred thousand is a genuine, chemical
dipsomaniac. Drinking, as I deem it, is practically entirely a
habit of mind. It is unlike tobacco, or cocaine, or morphine, or
all the rest of the long list of drugs. The desire for alcohol is
quite peculiarly mental in its origin. It is a matter of mental
training and growth, and it is cultivated in social soil. Not one
drinker in a million began drinking alone. All drinkers begin
socially, and this drinking is accompanied by a thousand social
connotations such as I have described out of my own experience in
the first part of this narrative. These social connotations are
the stuff of which the drink habit is largely composed. The part
that alcohol itself plays is inconsiderable when compared with the
part played by the social atmosphere in which it is drunk. The
human is rarely born these days, who, without long training in the
social associations of drinking, feels the irresistible chemical
propulsion of his system toward alcohol. I do assume that such
rare individuals are born, but I have never encountered one.
On this long, five-months' voyage, I found that among all my
bodily needs not the slightest shred of a bodily need for alcohol
existed. But this I did find: my need was mental and social.
When I thought of alcohol, the connotation was fellowship. When I
thought of fellowship, the connotation was alcohol. Fellowship
and alcohol were Siamese twins. They always occurred linked
Thus, when reading in my deck chair or when talking with others,
practically any mention of any part of the world I knew instantly
aroused the connotation of drinking and good fellows. Big nights
and days and moments, all purple passages and freedoms, thronged
my memory. "Venice" stares at me from the printed page, and I
remember the cafe tables on the sidewalks. "The Battle of
Santiago," some one says, and I answer, "Yes, I've been over the
ground." But I do not see the ground, nor Kettle Hill, nor the
Peace Tree. What I see is the Cafe Venus, on the plaza of
Santiago, where one hot night I drank and talked with a dying
The East End of London, I read, or some one says; and first of
all, under my eyelids, leap the visions of the shining pubs, and
in my ears echo the calls for "two of bitter" and "three of
Scotch." The Latin Quarter--at once I am in the student cabarets,
bright faces and keen spirits around me, sipping cool, well-
dripped absinthe while our voices mount and soar in Latin fashion
as we settle God and art and democracy and the rest of the simple
problems of existence.
In a pampero off the River Plate we speculate, if we are disabled,
of running in to Buenos Ayres, the "Paris of America," and I have
visions of bright congregating places of men, of the jollity of
raised glasses, and of song and cheer and the hum of genial
voices. When we have picked up the North-east Trades in the
Pacific we try to persuade our dying captain to run for Honolulu,
and while I persuade I see myself again drinking cocktails on the
cool lanais and fizzes out at Waikiki where the surf rolls in.
Some one mentions the way wild ducks are cooked in the restaurants
of San Francisco, and at once I am transported to the light and
clatter of many tables, where I gaze at old friends across the
golden brims of long-stemmed Rhine-wine glasses.
And so I pondered my problem. I should not care to revisit all
these fair places of the world except in the fashion I visited
them before. GLASS IN HAND! There is a magic in the phrase. It
means more than all the words in the dictionary can be made to
mean. It is a habit of mind to which I have been trained all my
life. It is now part of the stuff that composes me. I like the
bubbling play of wit, the chesty laughs, the resonant voices of
men, when, glass in hand, they shut the grey world outside and
prod their brains with the fun and folly of an accelerated pulse.
No, I decided; I shall take my drink on occasion. With all the
books on my shelves, with all the thoughts of the thinkers shaded
by my particular temperament, I decided coolly and deliberately
that I should continue to do what I had been trained to want to
do. I would drink--but oh, more skilfully, more discreetly, than
ever before. Never again would I be a peripatetic conflagration.
Never again would I invoke the White Logic. I had learned how not
to invoke him.
The White Logic now lies decently buried alongside the Long
Sickness. Neither will afflict me again. It is many a year since
I laid the Long Sickness away; his sleep is sound. And just as
sound is the sleep of the White Logic. And yet, in conclusion, I
can well say that I wish my forefathers had banished John
Barleycorn before my time. I regret that John Barleycorn
flourished everywhere in the system of society in which I was
born, else I should not have made his acquaintance, and I was long
trained in his acquaintance.
Last-modified: Thu, 31 Jul 1997 06:55:37 GMT
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