Alcoholism in Literary Works Analysis

Psychological Foundations of Alcoholic Writing

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Most alcoholics are compulsive in protecting their delusions of power and in nurturing the fallacious image that they are emotionally stable. This may be the critical reason why so many writers are alcohol-dependent. For an addicted writer, the frustrations manifested in striving to overcome social barriers and behavioral limits are frequently projected and defused through the written word. Much of the poetry written by Allen Ginsberg, for example, has focused on the effects of self-mutilation, frustration, alcoholism, addiction, nonconformity, and poverty, and has done so in the interest of presenting a new image and a new medium of expression. A contemporary of Ginsberg, John Berryman, was deeply concerned with describing the texture and focus of alcoholic rebellion, denial, and social protest, most especially as they related to his own problems with alcohol and his difficulties staying in recovery. That same concern can also be found in certain poems written by Edwin Arlington Robinson. In “Mr. Flood’s Party,” Robinson describes the struggle and grandiosity of an intoxicated, lonely old man who fantasizes that he has been somehow endowed with tragic nobility. Another poem, “Miniver Cheevy,” tells how the commonplace deflated Miniver’s comforting illusion of history, with its facade of heroism, its pretentious nobility, and its art. Cheevy concludes that he was born in the wrong time, and so he relapses into self-pity, destroys his sensibilities with liquor, and allows himself the illusion that he might have been something other than a drunken failure. In the realm of fiction, John Cheever wrote a number of fascinating short stories on the effects of drunkenness, especially as it relates to the violation of social norms and relationships. Similarly, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway presents an excellent and timely portrait of the drunkenness, aimlessness, and dissipation of his Parisian compatriots after World War I.

Alcoholic Fantasies

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

For many writers, fantasy often includes what ought to happen rather than what does. Writing is an act of fantasy; a writer creates a perfectly compliant set of fictional actors and circumstances, a luxury in the world of fact. As the alcoholic writer tries to rewrite perceptions to suit prescriptions, the writer’s vision of the human condition may become inflated far out of proportion. This act of transposition allows the writer to become a self-involved orchestrator of an extraordinary menagerie of fictional events. An occupational hazard of writing, then, is experience of one’s fear of life’s unmanageability. A writer may attempt to internalize that unmanageability by creating fictional contexts that comply with a writer’s escapist perceptions. This trait is often pronounced in works by or about alcoholics. Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, and a host of others have referred repeatedly to events in their own lives with a revisionist impulse that suggests an alcoholic perspective.

Sometimes the revision of an author’s life in fiction takes the form of a qualified inventory or oblique confession, as is often the case with Crane and Millay. On the other hand, the alcoholic interest in control and re-creation takes quite a different and more inclusive turn in the case of Robinson, who fashioned an entire fictional community of misplaced and forgotten souls in his Tilbury Town. Berryman chose a somewhat more limited field of interest, but he also rearranged his psychological and poetic landscape by creating an alcoholic alter ego by the name of Henry. In fiction, almost all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels and short stories are thinly veiled autobiographies. As the character Frederic Henry, he makes a connection with his boyhood sweetheart, Agnes Kurowsky, who served as the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms (1929), and his Parisian relationship to Lady Duff Twysden is revised and enhanced through the character of Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Hemingway’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a revisionist of sorts. Fitzgerald, who ultimately died of alcoholism, writes of fabulous drinking parties in mansions populated by beautiful people in novels such as The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934). These beautiful people included a number of characters who were modeled after his wife, Zelda.

Alcoholic Aggression and Alcoholic Spirituality

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Many writers who have been concerned about alcoholism and alcohol abuse have created fictional demons of the darkest complexion imaginable to satisfy whatever addictions or appetites they wish to exorcise or nurture. Fear is the mainspring of the alcoholic’s perception, and it is predicated on a deep sense of insecurity, unsatisfied needs and appetites, and an addiction to certain forms of overachievement. Thus, a writer may seek refuge from his fear of life’s unmanageability through violence, melodrama, bathos, anger, social disorientation, and a remarkable—although paradoxical—fatalism.Malcolm Lowry, who was an alcoholic, writes of alcoholic fatalism and insanity and ritual exorcism in Under the Volcano (1947). The film The Days of Wine and Roses (1962, screenplay by J. P. Miller) is remarkably effective in portraying the utter devastation and despair that come with the final, terrible stages of the disease of alcoholism. In John Barleycorn (1913), a classic novel of alcoholic self-destruction, Jack London presents a terrifying autobiographical fiction of unrelenting pessimism, addiction, and morbidity. Finally, readers are reminded of the morbidity, the alcoholic and narcotic obsession, and the near insanity of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most gifted of America’s nineteenth century writers, and, apparently, an alcoholic.

In the dramatic realm, Tennessee Williams created an extraordinary menagerie of oddities and...

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Alcoholic Intimacy

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Regardless of whether they are writers, alcoholics are likely to remain alienated in their intimate relationships. Alcoholics are likely to devise a complicated host of strategies to reconcile their insatiable need for human companionship and for remaining social outcasts. The poet Alan Dugan has provided some hilarious perspectives on the alcoholic tendency to equate self-obsession and masochism with intimacy. On the other hand, for Ginsberg, Lowell, Dugan, Berryman, and E. E. Cummings, one’s connection to the physical, intimate, and procreative is, when the element of liquor is present, viewed as a stultifying and unrestrained compulsion to fulfill selfish needs.

From the perspective of an alcoholic writer, the power of romantic love lies in the tragic equation that love manifests. Love is a sedative for deep-seated fears, although it also amplifies them. Attraction leads to dependence and addiction; loving leads to the terrible possibility of betrayal and a loss of identity. The perverse nature of such a perspective is readily apparent. It discloses the distorted perspective of the alcoholic temperament, which confuses fear and dependence with love. Thus, Millay may insist that she will substitute kisses for thoughts, but her poetry suggests a fear of commitment; on the other hand, self-pity, loneliness, sexual betrayal, and withdrawal are integral to the definition of love forwarded by Berryman, Cummings, Dugan, Lowell, and Roethke.

The Creative Impulse

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Much alcoholic thinking and writing is fanciful and self-destructive in the extreme. Most writers hope for some measure of control exceeding the merely concrete and substantive. In pursuing that hope, however, they are likely to focus on a menagerie of lonely, self-involved characters who seem blithely unaware of the full extent of their own humanity. The very nature of these fictional creations suggests that the writers are likely to confuse alcoholic addiction, self-infatuation, and power-centeredness with personal fulfillment.

For many writers, then, life without alcohol is unnatural, flat, boring, and insipid. As Berryman writes in “Henry’s Confession,” nothing much happens in sobriety. In fact, this is the core and substance of the alcoholic viewpoint and perhaps the basic fuel of alcoholic creativity. An addicted writer may thus invest his art with a strenuous aesthetic that insists on meanings and actions that border on the extreme. As Lowell writes: “Is there no way to cast my hook/ Out of this dynamited brook?” (“The Drunken Fisherman”). For the controlling spiritual perfectionist, fishing in the stream of life is a rotten prospect because it is impossible to catch anything through will power or by trying harder—as he puts it, by dynamiting the brook. In fact, some writers are so pessimistic, so estranged from their emotions, and so deeply addicted to chemically induced feelings that they are incapable of sustained intimate and respectful relationships of any kind.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. 3d ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1976. Referred to as the Big Book, the basic text for recovery group Alcoholics Anonymous. Outlines the twelve steps to recovery, discusses methods for dealing with the recovering alcoholic, and provides testimonials of recovering alcoholics.

Alcoholics Anonymous. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1953. Companion work to the Big Book. Provides a detailed discussion of the twelve-step program and the twelve traditions.

Dardis, Tom. The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989. Provides a psychological and a critical analysis of the relationship between alcoholism and creativity.

Gilmore, Thomas B. Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth Century Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. A detailed examination of the work and alcoholic personality of a number of major authors.

Goodwin, Donald W. Alcohol and the Writer. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1988. Provides an excellent psychological foundation and general overview of the connection between alcoholism and creativity.