Alcohol and Literature
Alcohol and Literature
The prominence of alcoholism in American literature, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, is such that the presence of drink in the lives and writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, and many others has become a literary cliché
And, despite all of the myths surrounding the alcoholism of so many American writers and its relation to their literary talent, the facts remain that any list of American Nobel prize-winning artists would include more than a few heavy drinkers. Critics, and even the writers themselves, have observed, however, that alcohol, rather than inspiring creativity seems to anesthetize the poetic spirit as it deadens the senses. Still the equivocal qualities of alcohol where not lost on the modernists Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who both romanticized and vilified the substance in such works as Tender Is the Night (1934) and The Sun Also Rises (1926). The modernist affair with alcohol seems to have reached its culmination in 1947 with the publication of Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano. Begun in the late 1930s, Lowry's work, according to some critics, represents a particularly modernist symbolic statement that equates alcoholism with the sterility and paralysis of modern civilization and the malaise of modern man.
By mid-century, however, ideas about alcohol as reflected in literature seem to have been evolving. Although published three years prior to Lowry's novel, Charles Jackson's popular The Lost Weekend (1944) treats alcoholism from a less grandiose perspective, as a disease that afflicts an individual and destroys his life. John Cheever, in his short stories and novels such as Bullet Park (1969) and Falconer (1977), adopts a more light-hearted approach to alcoholism, reminding us that drink has been a mainstay of comic literature since classical antiquity and at least since the time of Shakespeare and Rabelais. Cheever employs alcohol as a means of satirizing upper-middle class America, in addition to presenting some of its more serious consequences for society. The writings of John Berryman, a notorious alcoholic throughout his career, represent a tragic continuation of the place of alcohol in the poetic mind. His Dream Songs (1964) and other poetry are informed by the poetics of alcoholism, a disease that critics observe at once defined his verse and destroyed his life. Berryman's attempts to surmount his problem are documented in his novel Recovery (1973) left unfinished at the time of his suicide.
Lucky Jim (novel) 1953
Ending Up (novel) 1974
Jake's Thing (novel) 1978
The Victim (novel) 1947
Humboldt's Gift (novel) 1975
The Dream Songs (poetry) 1964
Berryman's Sonnets (poetry) 1967
Love and Fame (poetry) 1970
Delusions, Etc. (poetry) 1972
Recovery (unfinished novel) 1973
Henry's Fate & Other Poems, 1967-72 (poetry) 1977
Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
Flor de mayo (novel) 1896
La barraca (novel) 1898
Cañas y barro (novel) 1902
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (novel) 1848
"Drinking While Driving" (short story) 1983
The Long Goodbye (novel) 1954
The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1965
Bullet Park (novel) 1969
Falconer (novel) 1977
The Stories of John Cheever (short stories) 1978
(The entire section is 354 words.)
SOURCE: "The Giant Killer: Drink and the American Writer," in Commentary, 61, 3, March, 1976, pp. 44-50.
[In the following essay, Kazin surveys the often close association between alcohol and American writers in the twentieth century.]
When drunk, I make them pay and pay and pay and pay.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
America has always been a hard-drinking country despite the many places and times in which alcohol has been forbidden by law. Even in Puritan days Americans were amazingly hard drinkers. It is history that liquor up to the Civil War was cheap as well as plentiful. In the first decades of the 19th century, spirits cost all of 25 cents a gallon domestic, and $1 imported. From 1818 to 1862 there were no taxes whatever on American whiskey, and it took the federal government's need of revenue during the Civil War to change things. The temperance movement, the Prohibitionist movement, the anti-Saloon League were all powerful church-supported bodies, but no more powerful than the "liquor interests" and the freedom and ease that American males acquired for a 4-cents glass of beer in the saloon. America's entry into World War I and the need to conserve grain finally put Prohibition across in 1918. Whereupon the line was marked between what H. L. Mencken called the "booboisie" and the party of...
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John W. Crowley
SOURCE: "After the Lost Generation: The Lost Weekend," in The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994, pp. 135-57.
[In the following essay, Crowley examines Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend (1944) as indicative of a shift away from the modernist perspective of alcoholism as a sign of the modern distemper and toward the concept of drunkenness as symptomatic of a disease.]
When The Lost Weekend appeared in January 1944, Malcolm Lowry had been toiling for nearly a decade over successive drafts of Under the Volcano (1947), the magnum opus on which he had pinned his hopes of literary immortality. For Lowry, the true originality of this work consisted in his use of an alcoholic as a representative man, a symbol of the tragic modern condition. He was understandably devastated by the pre-emptive publication of Charles Jackson's novel, with its unprecedented account of a binge from the drinker's point of view, and envious of its clamorous reception: critical praise, bestseller popularity, a lucrative Hollywood contract. An out-standing film adaptation of The Lost Weekend was subsequently honored at the first Cannes Film Festival and awarded Oscars for best picture, best screenplay, best director (Billy Wilder), and best actor (Ray Milland).
Lowry's work was...
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Poetry And Drama
SOURCE: "Alcohol and Poetry," in American Poetry Review, 4, 4, July/August, pp. 7-12.
[In the following essay concerned with the relationship between alcohol and the poetic mind, Hyde explicates The Dream Songs of John Berryman "in terms of the disease of alcoholism."]
In looking at the relationship between alcohol and poetry I am working out of two of my own experiences. For more than a year now I have been a counselor with alcoholics in the detoxification ward of a city hospital. I am also a writer and, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I knew John Berryman (briefly, not intimately).
Berryman was alcoholic. It is my belief that his disease is evident in his work, particularly in The Dream Songs. His last poems and Recovery, his unfinished novel, show that by the time of his suicide in January of 1972 he himself was confronting his illness and had already begun to explore its relationship to the poetry. What I want to do here is to continue that work. I want to try to illuminate what the forces are between poetry and alcohol so we can see them and talk about them.
Alcohol has always played a role in American letters. Those of our writers who have tangled with it include Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Malcolm Lowry, Hart Crane, Jack London and Eugene O'Neill, to name a few. Four of the six...
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"Booze and the Writer." Writer's Digest 58, No. 10 (October 1978): 25-33.
Compilation of responses to a drinking questionnaire sent to a variety of writers, including Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and many others.
Donaldson, Scott. "The Crisis of Fitzgerald's 'Crack-Up.'" Twentieth Century Literature 26, No. 2 (Summer 1980): 171-88.
Studies Fitzgerald's autobiographical "Crack-Up" articles for Esquire, which note his alcoholic break-down and other personal problems.
Fabricant, Noah D. "The Medical Profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald." In 13 Famous Patients, pp. 159-56. Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1960.
Recounts Fitzgerald's highly publicized problems with alcohol and numerous other medical infirmities.
Gilmore, Thomas B. Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987, 226 p.
Observes the importance of alcohol and alcoholism to the work of ten writers, including Malcolm Lowry, Eugene O'Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever.
Goodwin, Donald W. "The Alcoholism of F. Scott Fitzgerald." Journal of the American Medical Association (6 April 1970): 86-90.
Investigates the relationship between Fitzgerald's writing...
(The entire section is 292 words.)