Alcohol and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.