Booze as muse: writers and alcohol, from Ernest Hemingway to Patricia Highsmith
Nobel laureates Faulkner, O’Neill, Hemingway and Steinbeck were alcoholics, as were Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys and many more. Anne O’Neill explores why
Brendan Behan: described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”. F Scott Fitzgerald poignantly wrote that “first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you”. Photograph: Hulton Getty
Alcohol has played a central role in the creative lives of some of the most famous authors of the last few centuries. Lewis Hyde notes in his essay Alcohol and Poetry that four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics, namely William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
Hemingway declared that he drank “to make other people more interesting” and F Scott Fitzgerald poignantly wrote that “first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you”. The doyenne of the Algonquin club, Dorothy Parker, declared that she’d “rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” These writers had a longing like Keats to “drink and leave the world unseen and with thee fade away into the forest dim”. On this side of the Atlantic our own Brendan Behan described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was a famous boozer and his off-page antics are legendary. Dylan wrote that to him “an alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you”.
Flann O’Brien was a comedic genius, his character, the Brother, the archetypal homespun Dublin bar-room philosopher who declared that “a pint of plain is your only man”. O’Brien imbibed Bass no 1 Barley Wine himself, a drink as potent as poteen, and died at 54 from alcoholic complications. Kingsley Amis was a grand old man of English letters, a comic master, recipient of the Booker Prize and wasn’t perturbed by “becoming conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks of our time”.
Whether writers drink any more or less than other professionals is explored by Olivia Laing in her captivating work, The Trip to Echo Spring, a beautifully woven hybrid of biography, travelogue and memoir. With a background in medicine and a close family link to alcoholism, Laing explores with great sensitivity the writing and drinking careers of Hemingway, Berryman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Her journey takes her from the New York bar-room hangouts of Fitzgerald; to Cheever’s old Menemsha Bar on New York’s 57th Street where he sat drinking as his young daughter patiently chewed cherries; to the New Orleans of Williams’ youth; to Key West, where Papa had a house on Whitehouse Street; and to the midwestern towns where Cheever, Berryman and Carver tried to hold down both teaching posts and whiskey.
The Echo Spring of the title is taken from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where one of the characters says “I’m taking a little short trip to Echo Spring”– his nickname for the drinks cabinet with its stash of bourbon. None of these authors lived to be old men but the literary legacy left after closing time has “the power to map the more difficult regions of human experience”. Laing is not the first to research the link between American literary greats and alcohol. In Donald W Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer he quotes a passage that I hadn’t read before in which F Scott compares himself after a bad bout of drinking to a “cracked plate” that “will not be out for company” but “will do to hold crackers late at night or go into the ice-box with the leftovers”.
Laing makes no breakthroughs in her quest to find out why writers drink. Kingsley Amis in his memoirs compared writers to actors and suggests “displaced stage fright as a cause of literary alcoholism”. Writers drink for a multitude of reasons, just like the rest of the population, according to Blake Morrison, who believes it is “from boredom, loneliness, lack of self-confidence, as a stress-relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future”. Or, in Hemingway’s words, because “modern life is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief”.
An addiction memoir by Sarah Hepola, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, has been a favourite beach read of many of my female friends this summer. Hepola writes: “I looked up to women who drink. My heart belonged to the defiant ones, the cigarette smokers, the pants wearers, the ones who gave a stiff arm to history.”
As a woman who lived the reality of the ladette culture of the 1990s, whose heroines include women as diverse as Zoe Ball and Ava Gardner, Emily Pankhurst and Viv Albertine, Hepola’s memoir struck a vein with its refreshing honesty and confessional prose that lures the reader into an instant connection. In the pages of this memoir many women have recognised situations and occurrences that are part of the collective female experience.
“I thought nothing of spending most evenings in a bar, because that’s what my friends were doing. I thought nothing of mandating wine bottles for any difficult conversation – for any conversation at all – because that’s what I saw in movies and television.” In the aftermath of a blackout, Hepola would joke about creating a new TV show: CSI: Hangover. Armed with gloves and tweezers, Hepola, then an editor at Salon.com, picked through the filth of her apartment with all the skills of a forensic scientist looking for clues in the whodunnit of her life.
The memoir oscillates between painfully real and darkly comic passages and with deep insights into alcohol as a drug and the often devastating effect it can have on women’s lives. Three friends who read the book at the same time as I did honed in on one sentence that resonated with them more than all the other insights made by Hepola. “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”
Hepola’s memoir exposes the descheduling of wine from a potent form of alcohol to an anodyne social lubricant, the tipple of choice of the chardonnay sisters. She writes of her book club where all participants “drank wine, waterfalls of wine, wine and confession, wine and sisterhood”.
I read Caroline Knapp’s memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, just after Hepola’s memoir. This is another searingly honest memoir. The years she chronicles are the early days of this Ivy League graduate’s journalistic career in the eighties. She was, she wrote, “smooth and ordered on the outside; roiling and chaotic and desperately secretive underneath, but not noticeably so, never noticeably so”. This memoir was published by Dial Press in 1996 and was lauded by a reviewer in the New York Times who called it “a remarkable exercise in self-discovery”.
I continued my alcohol- themed reading by rediscovering some of fiction’s finest literature written by women who drank. I reread Jean Rhys, who was briefly in Holloway prison for assault, and then immersed myself in the magnificent oeuvre of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote in her diary entry as a student at New York’s Barnard College that drink was essential for the artist because it made her “see the truth, the simplicity and the primitive emotions once more”. A decade later she was retiring to bed at four in the afternoon with a bottle of gin and had become a serious drinker requiring a tipple in the morning as an eye-opener. Her most famous character, Tom Ripley, shares the paranoiac guilt and self-hatred of the alcoholic in his need to escape his inadequacies he echoes the quest for oblivion and escape in intoxication. For anyone familiar with the existential sense of fear and dread that follows a drinking spree, Highsmith’s depiction of this in The Talented Mr Ripley rings with truth. Tom was afraid “of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies”.
Rhys was born on the island of Dominica to a British father and Creole mother, conceived after the death of her sister. She came to London at 16 with hopes of becoming an actor, but after the death of her father she slipped away into the demi-monde, changing her name, marrying three times and through all these misadventures she lived on the brink of destitution. Despite her peripatetic existence Rhys managed to distil her life’s experience into modern masterpieces, Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Good Morning Midnight and Voyage in the Dark. To read these novels is to get an insight into the difficult life of a woman who has fallen through the normal societal net, adrift in bohemia, looking for love and security in a cruel snobbish world. She is a must-read for the fierceness of her life force. Rhys converts self-pity into pitiless critique and wrote the truths, unvarnished and unadorned.
Elizabeth Bishop, who was poet laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950 and a Pulitzer prize winner for poetry, was also a binge drinker, negotiating being a lesbian in a period where it was at odds with society. In her poem, A Drunkard, she tries to explain the thirst for alcohol which can’t be quenched. ‘I had begun/ to drink, and drink – I can’t get enough.’ The legacy of these writers is a testament to the triumph of talent despite the hindrance of addiction. Anaïs Nin, French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, has the final word in the marrying of alcohol and literature.
“Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
Anne O’Neill blogs about books at ofselfandshelf.com