In letter and spirits: Some of the greatest writers were too fond of the bottle, but they managed to keep their vision alive

Saturday, 5 July 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Friday, 4 July 2014 - 8:54pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The writer as alcoholic is one of the romantic images of the craft. Authors themselves have perpetrated this, with many claiming it is necessary to drink in order to work. Perhaps dentists and truck drivers feel the same way too, but there is no romance if they say it, only horror. "Once drunk, a cup of wine can bring 100 stanzas," the Chinese poet Ruan Ji claimed.

Omar Khayyam, the 11th century poet may have influenced generations into making the connection and acting upon it, but the myth has come down to us from ancient Greece at least. The great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib was an alcoholic who gave the impression that alcohol was the great literary fuel; lesser writers chose the easier option, drinking rather than writing well. 

“Too much champagne is just right,” said F Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby in his 20s and was dead by 44, having imbibed huge amounts of alcohol in between. 

“Always be drunk,” the French writer Baudelaire exhorted. It was advice many took to heart. “I usually write at night,” William Faulkner told an interviewer, “I always keep my whiskey within reach.” More than half the American Nobel Laureates in literature were alcoholic. Across the pond, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Malcolm Lowry, Kingsley Amis were sometimes better known for their legendary drinking than for their creative bursts. “Civilisation begins with distillation,” said Faulkner, putting it in perspective for the literary lushes.

Speaking for the other side was John Updike, who said his longevity and that of Philip Roth was due in no small measure to the fact that they were not alcoholics.

Biographers tend to pussyfoot around a writer’s alcoholism, thereby missing out a major reason for their decline. Christopher Sykes’s otherwise excellent biography of Evelyn Waugh is a good example of this.

In his seminal study of alcohol and the American writer, The Thirsty Muse, Tom Dardis gives a list of alcoholic writers: Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Tennessee Williams,  James Jones, John Cheever, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and concludes, “Alcoholism seems to be the American writer’s disease.” He studies Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill and concludes that alcohol, far from aiding creativity actually ended careers prematurely.

Fitzgerald’s last good book was Tender Is the Night, published when he was 38; Hemingway was 41 when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Faulkner 44 when he finished Go Down Moses. O’Neill alone among them decided to stop drinking at 37, and produced The Ice Man Cometh and later, Long Day’s Journey into Night in the years that followed.

In Alcohol and the Writer, Donald Goodwin shows that writers tend to veer towards alcoholism more than any other professional. This is because, he says, the hours of work are good since there is no fixed schedule, it is more acceptable, even expected and so writers are indulged, unlike, say, a doctor, and finally there is the romance attached to it: alcohol as inspiration.
 
Goodwin makes the following argument: Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing demands intense concentration; alcohol relaxes.

There is a superficial gloss to this till you realise you could substitute “writer” with almost any other profession. Playing tennis, for example, involves fantasy, requires self-confidence and is lonely work. But the second part of the equation does not follow.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the characters says, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring”, his name for the drinks cabinet. The Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing describes the trips of John Berryman, Hemingway, Williams, Carver, Cheever and Fitzgerald.
 
There are no simple answers to the question: why do writers drink? Laing’s journey in the book is physical (across America), intellectual (literary criticism) and emotional (her own experience growing up in a household “under the rule of alcohol”). She suggests a number of answers --  loneliness, diffidence, as a way to forget, to keep the future at bay — that are, again, applicable to non-writers too. There is no single answer, even if Cheever had a famous justification: “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.”
 
It is sobering to realize that depression, blackouts, hospitalisations, DTs, electroshock therapy were the constant companions of such major writers as Faulkner and Hemingway. That they managed to actually write is a tribute to their ability to keep the original vision intact. Writing to Max Perkins, his publisher, Fitzgerald said, “My work is the only thing that makes me happy — except to be a little tight — and for those two indulgences I pay a big price in mental and physical hangovers.”
 
Hemingway and Berryman committed suicide (like their respective fathers had), Carver died of cancer at 50, Fitzgerald of a heart attack at 44. 
 
Hemingway who never considered himself an alcoholic because he had “mastered the art of drinking in his twenties”, wrote out his credo to his friend and biographer AE Hotchner: “I have spent my life straightening out (drunks), and all my life drinking, but since writing is my true love I never get the two things mixed up.”
 Hemingway’s is a particularly interesting case because he was clear-sighted enough to see how alcoholism was destroying the career of a man like Faulkner, but lacked the honesty to admit it was doing the same to him. “He has that wonderful talent,” he said of Faulkner, “and his not taking care of it to me is like a machine gunner letting his weapon foul up…”
Perhaps Hemingway was talking about himself. After all, how many writers dependant on alcohol can say, like Winston Churchill, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me”? The rehabilitated O’Neill once wrote in a letter, “I don’t think anything worth reading was ever written by anyone who was drunk when he wrote it.” 
This is not a moral stand, merely a practical one. 

The author is Editor, Wisden India Almanack


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