By Ann Waldron
Special to The Washington Post – March 14, 1989, pp. 13-15 (c) The Washington Post
Many giants in American literature have turned to the bottle, yet the link between creativity and alcoholism remains unproven
Do writers drink more than other people? It would seem so. Raymond Carver, acclaimed author of stories about America’s working poor, died last August at the age of 50. “He began achieving recognition as a writer in 1967 when his story Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, his obituary said. “But that was also the year he began to drink heavily…After being hospitalized for the fourth time, he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking.”
The same month, Adela Rogers St. John, a very different kind of writer, a “sob sister” and author of romances, died. “Her personal triumphs were accompanied by tragedy…and the conquest of alcoholism,” said her obituary.
David Roberts’ just-published biography of novelist and journalist Jean Stafford reveals the harrowing details of her alcoholism. She started drinking in college, and in her twenties was sipping sherry in the morning while she wrote. Her drinking progressed until “she hardly drew a sober breath,” as a friend recalled. If she went out to dinner, friends had to help her home. She told her sister that she hated to drink, that it made her unspeakably miserable but that she could not stop.
A doctor put her on Antabuse. It worked for a while, but she went back to drinking until she suffered from delirium tremens and endured falls and injuries. Several times she passed out on the floor and stayed there all night. Even after a heart attack and a stroke she drank.
In his biography of Truman Capote, published last spring, Gerald Clarke detailed the horrors of Capote’s drinking. While Capote was writing In Cold Blood, he would have a double martini before lunch, another with lunch and a stinger afterward. After he was arrested for drunken driving on Long Island, he went to Silver Hill, an expensive clinic in Connecticut for alcoholics. Dried out, he was soon drunk again; he fell, cracking his teeth and bloodying his head. He tried Antabuse.
He could stay off the booze for three or four months, and then he went back on it. He went to the Smithers Alcoholism Rehabilitation Unit of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York, which he called the Devil’s Island of alcohol clinics. Capote’s cure did not last. He appeared on a talk show; drunk and rambling. “I drink,” he said after one binge, “because it’s the only time I can stand it.”
Was it ever thus?
A friend of mine was teaching a survey course in American literature one summer session at the University of Houston. In the class were several older students, schoolteachers mostly. A teacher came up to him after class one day and said, “Listen, I just want to know why every single author on our reading list was an alcoholic!” The professor ran his eye down the list. Edgar Allen Poe. Stephen Crane. Theodore Roethke. Herman Melville. Delmore Schwartz. Scott Fitzgerald. William Faulkner. The school-teacher was right. Every writer on his list was an alcoholic.
In 1913, Jack London published a book called John Barleycorn, which his wife suggested he call Alcoholic Memoirs. In it, he tells how he got drunk the first time. He was 5 years old and drank some of the beer in the bucket he was carrying to his stepfather at work in the fields. In his teens, he learned to drink strong men to the floor. For a long time after he turned to writing, he refused to drink until he had done his thousand words a day. Soon he learned to get a “pleasant jingle,” as he called it, after the 1,000 words were on paper but before lunch. Then he acquired another “jingle” before dinner. “It was the old proposition,” he writes. “The more I drank, the more I was compelled to drink in order to get an effect.”
Insomnia and hangovers followed, along with the need for a drink in order to write. “I had the craving,” he said. “And it was mastering me. ” He vividly describes the “white logic” (skepticism) and the “long sickness” of alcohol. Then he quit drinking. But the ravages of the past held sway: He committed suicide three years later at the age of 40.
Tragic Literary Heroes
The prototype in American letters of the alcoholic writer as tragic hero is Ernest Hemingway. The newest biography of Hemingway by Kenneth Lynn deals very forthrightly with his drinking. Hemingway had the same capacity for alcohol that his characters did, and in The Sun Also Rises Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley drank three martinis apiece before lunch, which was accompanied by five or six bottles of red wine.
In 1939, Hemingway was ordered to cut down on his drinking. He tried to hold himself to three Scotches before dinner but he couldn’t do it and, in 1940, he began breakfasting on tea and gin and swigging absinthe, whiskey, vodka and wine at various times during the day. He even let his boys drink hard liquor when one of them was only 10.
His alcoholism brought on hypertension, kidney and liver diseases, edema of the ankles, high blood urea, mild diabetes mellitus and possibly hemochromatosis, recurrent muscle cramps, chronic sleeplessness and sexual impotence. He shot himself to death at age 62.
William Faulkner, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1950, was hospitalized innumerable times for alcoholism. Then there were Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Robert Lowell, Eugene O’Neill, John O’Hara, O. Henry, Conrad Aiken, John Berryman, Edmund Wilson–all acclaimed writers in the 1930s. All had trouble with alcohol.
Sometimes it seems that no American writers escaped the bottle.
One notable exception was Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle and a score of other novels, who was a rabid teetotaler. He wrote The Cup of Fury in the 1950s to warn young people against the evils of alcohol. He, too, noticed the prevalence of drinking among writers and talks in the book about all the writers he had known who had problems with alcohol. His list includes O. Henry, Sinclair Lewis (“never had anybody gotten so blind drunk as Sinclair Lewis”), Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen Crane, George Sterling, Maxwell Bodenheim, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and Joaquin Miller, the “frontier poet.”
Donald W. Goodwin, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center and author of the recent book Alcohol and the Writer (Andrews & McNeel, $16.95) points out that while objective data on the numbers of writers afflicted with alcoholism is hard to come by, statistics show that, after bartenders, more writers die of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease closely associated with alcoholism, than people in other occupations.
Goodwin looked at the seven Americans who have won the Nobel prize for literature and found that four of them–Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway–were definitely alcoholic, while a fifth–John Steinbeck–drank to excess. The two Nobel winners who weren’t alcoholics were Pearl Buck and Saul Bellow.
Goodwin also discusses the drinking lives of Edgar Allen Poe, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, O’Neill and Malcolm Lowry. He concludes that alcoholism is an epidemic among 20th-century writers.
Yet the link between alcoholism and creativity remains unproven. Many of the most notable American writers managed to stay away from the bottle. The list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Upton Sinclair, Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Zane Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saul Bellow, William Golding, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, James Michener, Lillian Hellman, Tom Wolfe and Flannery O’Connor.
Some alcoholic writers, moreover were able to conquer their addiction. John Cheever, for example, after years of alcohol abuse, signed himself into Smithers (Capote’s Devil’s Island) and never took another drink after the 28-day treatment was over. He was like a different man afterward, his daughter Susan wrote in Home Before Dark. “It wasn’t just that he didn’t drink anymore …it was like having my old father back, a man whose humor and tenderness I dimly remembered from my childhood. He was alert and friendly…He was interested in what we were doing and how we felt…In three years, he went from being an alcoholic with a drug problem who smoked two packs of Marlboros a day to being a man so abstemious that his principal drugs were the sugar in his desserts and the caffeine in the…tea that he drank instead of whiskey.”
A little more than a year after he left Smithers, Cheever finished Falconer, his most successful novel. When it was published in 1977, he was on the cover of Newsweek and the book was No. 1 on the best-seller lists. He died at 70, shortly after his last novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, was published in the spring of 1982.
Madness and Creativity
Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa with a PhD in English, did a 15-year study of 30 creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where students and faculty have included well-known writers Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. She found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of nonwriters, she wrote in the October 1987 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Andreasen had begun her investigation to study the correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. She found none. But she did find that 80 percent of the writers had had an episode of affective disorders, i.e. a major bout of depression including manic-depressive illness, compared with 30 percent in the control group. Two thirds of the ill writers had received psychiatric treatment for their disorders. Two of the 30 committed suicide during the 15 years of the study.
The study is small but the relatively high rates of alcoholism and depression buttress the folk wisdom that creative artists are mad, with alcoholism an inevitable part of that insanity.
Freudian psychology has held that creativity is a sublimation of aggressive and sexual impulses or a response to emotional pain. A domineering, cold mother or any kind of unhappy childhood, according to this view, causes neurosis and anxiety, and neurosis is a veritable hotbed, or incubator, for creativity.
Proponents of this theory point out that those same anxieties would cause alcoholism in writers and other artists.
Writers do behave oddly. They can be monomaniacal about their work, obsessional about rewriting, insecure about any success they might have, paranoid about editors and publishers, riddled with anxiety about their talent. They are often nonconformists.
But is this mental illness? Ronald R. Fieve, in his 1975 book Moodswings, concedes that creative individuals tend to be eccentric and erratic, but he does not agree with the general Freudian idea that creativity is simply a response to emotional pain. That thesis “would say that art is rooted in sickness,” he writes. “I would conclude that individuals are creative despite their disorders, but certainly not because of them.”
In 1904, Havelock Ellis, who wrote copiously about psychology and sex around the turn of the century, did a study of 1,030 geniuses in England’s history and found that only 4.2 percent of them were crazy. That’s the same proportion of disturbed people in the general population, according to some estimates.
At the same time, if creativity itself does not cause alcoholism, are there occupational hazards that lead writers to become alcohol abusers?
Perhaps. For one thing, writers usually work alone, facing an empty page that must be filled. There’s no camaraderie at work for the fiction writer. He or she must keep at it day after day alone in a room with a keyboard, writer’s block and fears of failure to even get published. Then there is the horror of hostile criticism. Virginia Woolf suffered from depression of psychotic intensity after unfavorable criticism. Although she did not turn to alcohol as self-treatment for depression, many writers do. No wonder that Jack London’s “pleasant jingle” could become so comforting–and so illusory.
Journalists are not so apt to write alone, but they face other hazards in the midst of the old newspaper culture, where hard drinking is glamorous and macho. Journalists are often away from home and family for long periods in strange places. Hard drinking with colleagues provides some relief from the tedium.
Dr. Anita Stevens, a psychiatrist in New York who is the author of Your Mind Can Cure, treats a number of people in the creative professions. “My writer patients work in isolation, and isolation leads to alcohol,” she said. “Anybody can become addicted, but writing seems to lend itself to addiction. Writers’ enthusiasm will carry them away into the bottle. Then instead of getting more ideas from alcohol, they find their ambition dulled.”
It’s the lulls between writing that are dangerous, Stevens said. Writers try to fill the gap with alcohol. It begins as a pastime and then becomes alcoholism. “It takes a great deal of insight to be able to give it up,” she said.
Steven Levy, a New York psychologist who has worked with several writers, says that different kinds of writers react differently to alcohol. “Journalists have this `belly up to the bar’ attitude,” he said. “Authors do the cocktail party thing, but of course it’s their personal life histories that determine how they’ll handle it.” In what seems to echo the Freudian refrain, Levy added: “Part of creativity is pain.”
To Goodwin, drinking is often an integral part of a writer’s life. He points out that writers make their own hours, so it is easier for them to drink. It’s expected that writers will drink, and writers live up to the expectation. Some writers think they get inspiration from alcohol. Writers are loners and therefore drinkers.
Still, the evidence is anecdotal. Everyone agrees that more work and more biomedical investigation is needed to discover the causes of alcoholism among writers and assess the connection between writing and drinking.
Toll on Literature
The impact of alcoholism on American letters is a subject that attracts increasing attention from literary scholars.
A 1987 article in The American Scholar titled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Little Drinking Problem takes a new look at Fitzgerald’s drinking and tries to assess how it affected his writing. Between 1933 and 1937, Fitzgerald was hospitalized eight times for alcoholism and arrested at least as often. He abused gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who lived with him. “We know that alcoholism made Fitzgerald’s days hellish and clearly brought about his early demise,” writes Julie M. Irwin, the author of the article. “Yet given that Fitzgerald worked with this considerable handicap, his productivity becomes all the more impressive…Knowing that Fitzgerald worked under the pressure of alcoholism makes him seem not like an elegant wastrel…but a literary craftsman devoted to producing art regardless of the obstacles that stood in his way. This, finally, is the lesson to be learned from Fitzgerald’s alcoholism: He was a writer who was also the victim of a disease, not a self-destructive drunk bent on wasting the talent he was given.”
Upton Sinclair in The Cup of Fury wrote about Sinclair Lewis and his drinking: “Through a miracle of physical stamina, [Lewis] made it to the age of 66. More tragic than any shortage of years was the loss of productivity, the absence of joy.”
If he had not become such a drunk, would Truman Capote have finished Answered Prayers? If she had not turned to alcohol in such a destructive way, would Jean Stafford have finished the novel she worked on for 20 years? Would Caroline Gordon have finished her long novel about explorer Meriwether Lewis?
Imagine a world where Hart Crane continued to write poetry into middle age; where Jack London lived beyond 40 and worked as his talent matured on novels a cut above White Fang, where Ernest Hemingway did not sink in his later years to novels like Across the River and Into the Trees.
It’s impossible to predict what should have happened, of course, if so many writers had not become addicted to alcohol, but it’s impossible not to mourn as teetotaler Sinclair put it, “the loss of productivity, the absence of joy.”
Ann Waldron is a writer in Princeton N.J., and the author of Close Connections, a biography of Caroline Gordon.