Addiction in Literature Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Defining addiction remains a daunting task for the medical and academic communities. An uncontrollable craving for a substance or chemical, characterized by a painful withdrawal when the drug is removed, forms the most common definition of addiction, yet this definition falls short of describing the place of drugs in the minds of those who use them for inspiration. Several Native American cultures, for example, employ psychoactive drugs such as peyote and magic mushrooms in religious rituals. Such use can hardly be called that of the addict. Many writers have experimented with altered states of consciousness, however, until they have become addicts. The literature of addiction may therefore be thought of as literature that seeks to render the intense psychological states wrought by drugs, whether euphoric, epiphanic, hellish, or insane. Writers have revealed the immense pain brought about by addiction on the user and the user’s family. A last aspect of addiction, recovery, is also chronicled in many literary works.

Addiction in Literature History

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Addiction in North American literature begins with tobacco. Early woodcuts and colonial literature depict settlers smoking, for example, a peace pipe with the leaders of Native American tribes. Often overlooked was the addictive and destructive nature of the tobacco inside the pipe. Tobacco became one of the largest cash crops in the New World and continues to appear throughout literature. The poet T. S. Eliot, for example, refers to a “tobacco trance” in one of his ironic poems about urban life.

Addiction to other drugs appears in literature written after the Civil War. Many Civil War veterans became addicted to laudanum, a mixture of opium dissolved in alcohol. The warm, mind-numbing effect of the opium created a sense of well-being, warding off the agony of everything from amputated limbs to abscessed teeth. The snake oil salesmen who appear throughout U.S. literature of the post-Civil War period, hawking their cure-all potions, were not working crowds as naïve as might be supposed, especially when a few swallows from one of their bottles appeared to cure whatever ailed the patient, temporarily. Opium addiction influenced the life and the work of nineteenth century writer Edgar Allan Poe. The terror and hysterical ravings rendered in Poe’s short stories may be read as a metaphor for the agony of opium addiction and withdrawal. The various governmental antidrug campaigns have been seen by some writers as failures whose purpose from the start was not the elimination of drug addiction but the erosion of civil liberties, allowing unlawful searches and seizures. The antidrug forces often saw the war on drugs as a kind of holy war, with its roots in the American Puritan tradition of sin and punishment.