Alcohol and Literature Overview - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 5730 words.)