Drugs as Literary Theme Analysis

The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The exploration of drugs in literature is a time-honored subject that stretches backward in North American history at least to the early nineteenth century. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, depict the use of opium in such short stories as “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Tale of the Ragged Mountain,” published in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. It was not until the twentieth century, however, that drugs, particularly their use and abuse, became a mainstay in literature. Alcohol is prominent in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, ranging from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934) to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Alcohol and drugs are central to such plays by Eugene O’Neill as Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941) and The Iceman Cometh (1946). The main themes of all of these works include people coming to terms with the roles drugs play, or have played, in their lives and the lives of those around them.

The Late Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Since the 1950’s, drugs have increasingly become a part of everyday life, and the literature since that time has reflected this social change. Most prominent in celebrating the role of marijuana, heroin, and psychedelic drugs in defining individuality in the 1950’s were the Beat generation writers, a listing of whom includes William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs’ drug addiction and exploration provided the material for Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959); The Wild Boys (1971) celebrates an outlaw posse of hashish users at the close of the twentieth century. Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), filled with tales of freedom and drug use, glorified by the underground counterculture, became the scripture for the Beat generation. Ginsberg expressed the terrible side of the world extolled by Kerouac in works including Howl (1956) and “Lysergic Acid.”

The 1960’s psychedelic era produced works dealing with drugs and their possibilities for transcendental or soul-changing experiences. Noteworthy authors include Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, and Carlos Castaneda. Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience (1964) presents a guide to combining LSD use and Eastern, particularly Tibetan, philosophy. His High Priest (1968) and The Politics of Ecstasy (1968) both deal with hallucinogens and religious experiences. Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) presents an examination of institutional drug use and psychological therapy in fictional form. Narcotics and the 1960’s hippie generation are the subject of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Castaneda gives an account of hallucinogenic drug usage and Southwest Indian teachings in his Don Juan series, beginning with The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968).

The 1970’s and 1980’s produced some work dealing with drugs, but the heyday was mostly over. Notable in this last period are Hunter S. Thompson, Jay McInerney, and Bret Easton Ellis. Thompson, writing from the late 1960’s onward, combines fact and fiction in his tales of massive drug usage in, among others, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), and The Great Shark Hunt (1979). McInerney describes cocaine usage among the East Coast yuppies of the 1980’s in Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Ellis’ work deals with drug usage among college students and dropouts on the West Coast of the United States in Less Than Zero (1985), and on the East Coast of the United States in The Rules of Attraction (1987).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Goodwin, Donald W. Alcohol and the Writer. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Kusinitz, Marc. Drugs and the Arts. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Lenson, David. On Drugs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Weiss, Allen S. The Aesthetics of Excess. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.