Alcohol and Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim (novel) 1953

Ending Up (novel) 1974

Jake's Thing (novel) 1978

Saul Bellow

The Victim (novel) 1947

Humboldt's Gift (novel) 1975

John Berryman

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

Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (novel) 1848

Raymond Carver

"Drinking While Driving" (short story) 1983

Raymond Chandler

The Long Goodbye (novel) 1954

John Cheever

The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1965

Bullet Park (novel) 1969

Falconer (novel) 1977

The Stories of John Cheever (short stories) 1978

Anton Chekhov

Tri sestry [The Three Sisters] (drama) 1901

Stephen Crane

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (novella) 1893

Charles Dickens

David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Prestuplenye i nakazanye [Crime and Punishment] (novel) 1866

William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and the Damned (novel) 1922

The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

Tender Is the Night (novel) 1934

"The Crack-Up" [published in The Crack-Up. With Other Uncollected Pieces, Notebooks and Unpublished Letters] (essay) 1945

"An Alcoholic Case" [published in The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Selection of 28 Stories] (short story) 1951

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories (short stories) 1960

The Pat Hobby Stories (short stories) 1962

Maxim Gorki

Na dne [The Lower Depths] (drama) 1902

Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory (novel) 1940

Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure (novel) 1895

Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926

A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964

Charles Jackson

The Lost Weekend (novel) 1944

William Kennedy

Ironweed (novel) 1983

Charles Kingsley

Two Years Ago (novel) 1857

Jack London

John Barleycorn (novel) 1913

Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano (novel) 1947

"Lunar Caustic" [published in Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs] (poetry) 1975

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (novel) 1940

Peter Nichols

The National Health (drama) 1969

Frank O'Connor

"The Drunkard" (short story) 1952

Clifford Odets

The Country Girl (drama) 1950

Eugene O'Neill

Ah, Wilderness! (drama) 1933

The Iceman Cometh (drama) 1946

Long Day's Journey into Night (drama) 1956

Walker Percy

Love in the Ruins (novel) 1971

Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne (novel) 1858

Evelyn Waugh

Decline and Fall (novel) 1928

A Handful of Dust (novel) 1934

Edmund Campion (novel) 1935

Brideshead Revisited (novel) 1945

Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (drama) 1955

Emile Zola

L'Assommoir (novel) 1879


Alfred Kazin

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 sophistication. In the 20's, drinking was the most accessible form of prestige for would-be sophisticates; and this continued to be the case within the professional and wealthy classes as the "tea party" of the 20's became the cocktail party of the 50's (a time when the clientele of Alcoholics Anonymous showed a more representative cross-section of middle-class society than Congress).

But even by these heavy-drinking standards, there is something special about the drinking of so many American writers. Of course there have been famous literary drunks in other countries—Burns, Swinburne, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Paul Verlaine, and those two fat boys, Dylan Thomas and Evelyn Waugh. The Russians, famous for knocking themselves out, have produced particularly lurid, despairing, melodramatic poet-drinkers like Sergei Yesenin (the husband of Isadora Duncan) who wrote his suicide note in his own blood. But in 20th-century America the booze has been not just a lifelong "problem" and a killer. It has come to seem a natural accompaniment of the literary life—of its loneliness, its creative aspirations and its frenzies, its "specialness," its hazards in a society where values are constantly put in money terms.

In fact, though no one ever talks about it very much, booze has played as big a role in the lives of modern American writers as talent, money, women, and the longing to be top dog. Of the six American Nobel Prize winners in literature, three—Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner—were alcoholics, compulsive drinkers, for great periods of their lives. Two others, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, were hard drinkers.

Hemingway was also a lover of wine, regularly had champagne with lunch when he lived in Cuba, and (at least in warm climes) drank for pleasure rather than to knock himself out.

The list of American literary drunks is very long. And despite all the fun they must have had, the post-mortem record is full of woe. Scott Fitzgerald (dead at forty-four) and Ring Lardner (dead at forty-eight) were celebrated, dedicated, hopeless alcoholics. Hemingway used to say that a drink was a way of ending a day. But John O'Hara swore off at forty-eight only when he was rushed to a hospital at the point of death from a bleeding ulcer. "A hell of a way for booze to treat me after I've been so kind to it. I used to watch W. C. Fields putting away the martinis at Paramount, and say to myself, 'That's what I want to be when I get big.' Well, I almost made it."

Among the famous suicides, Jack London and John Berryman were alcoholics; Hart Crane had a problem. Poe, the only hard-case alcoholic among the leading 19th-century writers, finally died of drink one election day in Baltimore, 1849, when, already far gone and in total despair, he accepted all the whiskey that was his payment for being voted around the town by the corrupt political machine. Jack London wrote a fascinating account of his alcoholism in John Barleycorn. At first, he wrote, liquor seemed an escape from the narrowness of women's influence into "the wide free world of men." A wanderer, making his living from the sea, could always find a home in a saloon. But "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."

As a sailor, London was sometimes drunk for three months at a time. Though he could never figure out just why he drank, he hauntingly described his death wish in one extraordinary passage. He had stumbled overboard, and, drunk, was swimming for his life in the Carquinez Strait in the Bay of San Francisco.

Some wandering 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 culmination, a perfect rounding off of my short but exciting career. I who had never known girl's love, nor a woman's love, nor the love of children.… I decided that this was all, that I had seen all, lived all, been all, that was worthwhile, and that now was the time to cease. That was the trick of John Barleycorn, laying me by the heels of my imagination and a drug-dream dragging me to death.

J. P. Marquand, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, and Edna St. Vincent Millay did not write about their "problem." Edwin Arlington Robinson, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, Theodore Roethke, Edmund Wilson did write or talk about theirs. They were all serious drinkers, some more than others, some more openly than others. There is reason to believe that W. H. Auden, a big martini man, voluntarily or involuntarily did himself in by regularly (like Marilyn Monroe) mixing drink with sleeping pills. The Englishman Malcolm Lowry, who understandably felt part of the American scene (for he did his best work in and about North America), died in an acute state of alcoholic distress.

The high point of all-out drinking came in the 20's. Scott Fitzgerald said that he and his generation "drank cock-tails before meals like Americans, wines and brandies like Frenchmen, scotch-and-soda like the English. This preposterous melange that was like a gigantic cocktail in a nightmare." Edmund Wilson in a "Lexicon of Prohibition" (1927) solemnly listed over a hundred words for drunkenness "now in common use in the United States. They have been arranged, as far as possible, in order of the degrees of intensity of the conditions which they represent, beginning with the mildest states and progressing to the more disastrous." The list began with lit, squiffy, oiled, and concluded with to have the whoops and jingles and to burn with a low blue flame.

In his notebook of the 20' s, Wilson described himself as "daze-minded and daze-eyed" and sobering up only when he read about Sacco and Vanzetti. An editor at Vanity Fair, Helen Lawrenson, remembers "hair-raising rides in cars with drivers so pissed they couldn't tell the street from the sidewalk." Robert Benchley was usually so far gone that he no longer went to the plays he reviewed for the old Life. A delicious confusion of the senses operated in such key books of the 20's as The Great Gatsby. "… Everything that happened has a dim, hazy cast over it.… Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.… "There was blue music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

Despite all this gorgeous prose, the background of The Great Gatsby is raw alcohol. Gatsby made his pile as a bootlegger and then bought up side-street drugstores in Chicago that sold grain alcohol over the counter. And Fitzgerald's drunkenness, which gave such malicious satisfaction to Hemingway (who, with his overdeveloped competitive sense, knew that stopping in time would give him an advantage over "rummies" like Fitzgerald), was so involved in his need to be picturesque, to ease the money and sexual strains in his life, to keep up with his crazy wife Zelda, that only a writer of such powerful and desperate imagination could have taken it. Destructiveness and charm went hand in hand, all "the good times" and the most heart-sinking depression. A friend said about them: "If you want to get your furniture antiqued up, you want to get the Fitzgeralds in—they'll antique it up in a single night—why they'll put in their own worm-holes in the furniture with cigarette ends."

Fitzgerald described his feeling about himself in the weakness of Dr. Dick Diver, the charming psychiatrist in Tender Is the Night who sold out and comforted himself more and more by taking two fingers of gin with his coffee. Writers are not the best analysts of their own alcoholism, but psychiatry (a notorious failure in curing compulsive drinkers) is not much better about pinpointing the reason why. The many thousands of personal confessions recited in AA meetings add up to the fact that the addict to alcohol, like the addict to anything else, believes that he can will a change within himself by ingesting some material substance. Like so many of the things we do to ourselves in this pill-happy culture, drinking is a form of technology. People drink for hereditary reasons, nutritional reasons, social reasons. They drink because they are bored, or tired, or restless. People drink for as many reasons as they have for wanting to "feel better." Drinking cuts the connections that keep us anxious. Alcohol works not as a stimulant but as a depressant. But it is exactly this "unwinding," relaxing, slowing-down, this breaking down of so many induced associations and inhibitions, that creates the welcome but temporary freedom from so many restraints, tensions, obligations. Civilization is a tyrant, "hell is other people," and we all need to escape the "ordeal of civility."

But there are periods and occasions when drinking is in the air, even seems to be a moral necessity. The 20's marked the great changeover from the old rural and small-town America. It also marked the triumph in the marketplace of "advanced," wholly "modern" writers and books, ideas, and attitudes. They all entered into the big money and the big time at once. The glamorous, bestselling, restlessly excited Fitzgeralds would never be reconciled to anything less. The Fitzgeralds' drinking began as a perpetual party. Then Zelda went off her rocker, the country went bust, Tender Is the Night was not a best-seller, Fitzgerald was writing for Hollywood. When he was doing Gone with the Wind, David Selznick fired Fitzgerald for not coming up with "funny" lines for Aunt Pittypat. Gavin Lambert reports that "being taken off the script was a disastrous blow to Fitzgerald's already shaky confidence. He resumed the long on-again-off-again drinking bout that led to his unrequited love affair with the movies. And between the drinking bouts and brief assignments on B pictures, he began The Last Tycoon."

Fitzgerald drunk was pleasanter to be with than Sinclair Lewis, who regularly passed out. One of the most serious drinkers in American history was Eugene O'Neill, who came from a family of serious drinkers. His brother Jamie was a confirmed alcoholic at twenty. His father, the famous actor James O'Neill, regularly had a cocktail before breakfast, and became so possessive about his liquor that he locked it up in the cellar out of the reach of his equally thirsty sons.

During his one stormy year at Princeton O'Neill once finished off a bottle of absinthe in a dormitory room reeking of burning incense. He went berserk, tore up all the furnishings in his room, and tried to shoot a friend. When the friend escaped and returned with help, they "found the place a shambles and O'Neill, wide-eyed, still on a rampage. It took all four of the other students to subdue him and tie him up." Later, say Barbara and Arthur Gelb in their biography, the slightest upset would send O'Neill to the bottle—and it did not matter what the bottle contained. He once drank a mixture of varnish and water; another time, camphor-flavored alcohol. Louis Sheaffer reports that while still a very young man, worried about his clandestine marriage to Kathleen Jenkins and the imminent birth of an unwanted child, O'Neill hacked up everything in his parents' hotel room in New York. O'Neill's mother (herself a drug addict) "never knew what to expect of him, whether childlike he would turn to her and James for comfort or present the face of a dark brooding stranger impossible to reach." Shortly after this, O'Neill attempted suicide by drinking veronal.

O'Neill claimed that "I never try to write a line when I'm not strictly on the wagon." But he was never able to stay off the booze completely in the crucial twenty years 1913-33, during which he became the most significant playwright America had ever had. It was, however, in the succeeding twenty years (he died in 1953), a dry period by the direst necessity (he had Parkinson's disease), that he wrote his best five plays—Ah, Wilderness!, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day's Journey into Night.


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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...

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Poetry And Drama

Lewis Hyde

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).


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Further Reading

Secondary Sources

"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....

(The entire section is 292 words.)