Addiction in Literature Analysis

In Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Dominant in the literature of addiction is the writing of the Beats. The Beats took their name from Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road (1957), which tells of young people who have exiled themselves from the mainstream culture. To be Beat was to be open to all experience. To be Beat was to live the life of the artist and the philosopher. Specifically, to possess the red eyes of the marijuana user was to have “philosopher’s eye.” Also included in this counterculture were certain legal drugs, most notably Benzedrine, or “speed,” which could be purchased at a drugstore and which was said to have fueled the three-week frenzy during which Kerouac typed On the Road, which mentions addiction to speed.

Following on the heels of the Beats came the hippies, whose own counterculture movement grew much stronger and more visible than that of the Beats. A mix of environmental, free love, and equal rights philosophies, the hippie movement also spawned more literature of addiction. Many hippies practiced elements of Eastern religion, including Yoga and Zen Buddhism. As a shortcut or alternative to the enlightenment attained through meditation, the counterculture used LSD, magic mushrooms, and other psychedelic drugs. Drug use, then, was seen not as merely recreational but as one way of opening a door to a higher consciousness. The pursuit of this chemical bliss is chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), a work of creative nonfiction that depicts the exploits of drug guru Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they traveled across America in a wildly painted bus.

By the 1970’s the casualties of the drug culture had risen. Many casualties—of drugs and violence—also returned from Vietnam to the United States. Fusing the promise of the counterculture and the horror of the war, Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers (1974) renders heroin addiction in vivid, startling detail. The summer of love reached a winter of disillusionment.

In the 1980’s the greed of bankers, stockbrokers, and lawyers was fueled by cocaine, as portrayed by the characters in Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).

Social Strata

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Addiction is not limited to one economic level or to the young. Chemical dependency requires only that its victims be human and that they indulge in a chemical to the point that their lives are seriously harmed. Depending on social standing, however, the drug of choice may vary from Valium to crack cocaine. In the novels of John Cheever, for example Bullet Park (1969), many of the characters, who are middle-class suburbanites, are addicted to legal drugs prescribed by their doctors. Legal addiction is no less damaging than the illegal variety and has dire consequences for all who use, whether it be amphetamines (speed) or tranquilizers (downers). In either case, prescription drugs help Cheever’s characters survive a world of bleak business trips made between the prosperous suburbs of Connecticut and the offices of New York, a concrete enclave where Cheever’s characters work at mind-numbing jobs devoid of personal fulfillment. At home, their lives are no better, with failed dreams and unsatisfying sex lives driving them to the refuge of the pill bottle.

At another level of the social strata, far from Wall Street, African American writer James Baldwin depicts the life of heroin users in Harlem, most notably in Going to Meet the Man (1965). Attempting to escape from their bleak reality, Baldwin’s characters turn to addiction in order to give themselves a sense of control and purpose. Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the story of a recovering heroin user, concerns a young man who finds a healing substitute in music, specifically in the blues. For only the blues can adequately convey the suffering of not merely an individual but of a whole people. When Sonny plays and the crowd applauds, the sensation is like being on heroin, and therefore he—and the reader—achieve a kind of transcendence, traveling upward from heroin through art and finally to God.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Identity is a crucial issue within the experience of addiction since often users indulge in a chemical either to escape their identities or to forge new ones. If the aim is recreational, the user may simply want to try on a series of different identities, much like one might try on a variety of disguises at a costume shop. Given the particular chemical, whether it be nitrous oxide, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, or even nicotine and caffeine, the user will see different faces in the mirror, some more to his or her liking than others. The possibility of becoming another self has always been a strong lure. In some senses it may even represent the desire to experience death and the journey into heaven.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The nature of addiction contains another dichotomy, an extrapolation of its fundamental property, which is that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. While the addict is using, he or she vacillates between the intense good feeling generated by the high and the guilt and sickness generated by “coming down.” If this crash is intensified through family or legal problems, the lows sink even further. A tenet of recovery is that the addiction does not end until the addict “hits bottom,” or realizes complete defeat, usually after losing such things as health, home, or family. The addict who hits bottom experiences a lonely misery quite foreign to nonaddicts, a solitary confinement made all the more bleak because the sufferer can expect little sympathy.

Yet at this point, ironically, the addict is open to the experience of spiritual and physical resurrection. The addict who recovers breaks through to the other side of addiction to bask in the dazzling light of sobriety. The recovering addict is thus allowed a second chance in life, something denied to all but a lucky few. Many works describe recovery; examples include testimonials in books intended to help other addicts recover.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Fiedler, Leslie A. “The Alteration of Consciousness.” In Waiting for the End. New York: Stein and Day, 1964. A derisive summary of William Burroughs’ early work, asserting that he is naïve “aesthetically, philosophically, and intellectually.”

Holmes, John Clellon. Representative Men: The Biographical Essays. Vol. 2. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988. Includes essays on Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Neal Cassady.

Kherdian, David. Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. Fresno, Calif.: Giligia Press, 1967. Character sketches and bibliographies of psychedelic writers.

Marks, Jeannette. Genius and Disaster: Studies in Drugs and Genius. New York: Adelphi, 1926. Examines the use of opium and other drugs by prominent nineteenth century writers, including Poe.

Porterfield, Kay Marie. Sleeping with Dionysus: Women, Ecstasy and Addiction. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1994. Explores the relationship in literature between substance abuse and the sexual behavior of women, paying particular attention to women authors.

Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Critical essays focusing on the works of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Also includes an overview of the development of the Beat movement.