The French poet Charles Baudelaire once remarked that “One should always be drunk.” Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary defined an abstainer as “a weak man who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” In a 1956 interview with The Paris Review, William Faulkner summed up what seems to be the pervasive mode of thinking relating writers and alcohol: “Between scotch and nothing, I’ll take scotch.” For many, the image of the genius writer and the alcoholic is inseparable, with innumerable lists of drinks inspired by books and writers, or the writers who drank the most, or the writers whose works were most heavily influenced by alcohol.
One problem with this image is it is largely exclusive to male authors. In a quick Google search for writers who drank the most, the first list holds just one woman out of ten authors. What of the plenty of women writers who struggled with alcohol, like Patricia Highsmith? In her book on alcoholic writers The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing argues that alcohol for writers has carried several images, one of which was an image of masculinity. This is the image most well embodied by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the most famously alcoholic writer in America.
In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, Susan Beegel writes that Hemingway drank most heavily following a succession of small plane crashes in Africa, primarily to dull pain, but also to maintain a masculine image following his sustained convalescence. The same could be argued about the wounds Hemingway suffered in World War I. For Hemingway, then, drinking was a manner through which to dull both the pain of injury and the pain of being perhaps not as masculine as he wanted to appear. Hemingway’s famous writing mantra “Write drunk, edit sober” nicely sums up how important alcohol was to his writing process — it enabled him to write what he felt was true and honest. This hyper-masculine image of an alcoholic writer-hunter-adventurer-socialite put forth by Hemingway, who was probably the most famous American writer of his time, led to a seemingly intertwined nature, of alcoholic and writer. Given Hemingway’s incredible public presence and celebrity, it should be no wonder that for every generation of American since his rise to literary fame and drinking legend, American writers are and have been seen as alcoholics. Beginning immediately with writers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson up until even the recent past with David Foster Wallace, American authors have been using alcohol as a product to assist them in their writings.
The timeline of writers as alcoholics also has Hemingway as a sort of breaking point. Sure, there had been writers before Hemingway and his fellow literary titans (Fitzgerald and Joyce in particular) romped drunkenly around Paris, but the true glut of alcoholics came afterwards. In American letters, prior to 1900 there were very few notorious alcoholics. Poe was among them, and there are apocryphal stories of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne finishing barrels of beer on end, but Hershel Parker makes no mention of this when discussing the friendship between the two in his mammoth biography of Melville. But following the turn of the century and in particular the turn of Hemingway and company’s fame, there is a marked increase in numbers in the United States.
Another figure who can bear responsibility is Raymond Chandler; his hard-boiled, tough talking, uber-masculine characters were inseparably tied to his alcohol habits. The rough, honest prose published by Hemingway and Chandler ties masculinity to literariness and the literary life even for those unaware of the biographical details of the authors. Perhaps this is what it stems from: writers are seen as dealing with wisdom and pain and experience, and alcohol is seen as a tool to cope with pain and experience. Faulkner despite his infamous drinking ability made a point to not drink while writing, maintaining that it made for bad literature. Instead, he drank as a release of pressure from life in general. Again, however, this leads to an easy trap, one where writers are necessarily drinkers because they have lived so much. Because this trap is so easy and convincing at a first glance, it can be tempting for those just deciding to embark on the literary struggle to drink heavily, in an effort to emulate the greats, hoping that some great revelation of writing will be revealed at the bottom of a bottle.
In his essay The Supreme Literary Illusion and Why it Persists, Raoul Auernheimer makes the point that “the student of literature at home or at school is fed upon the romantic episodes in the lives of poets until it is inferred that there is nothing but song and love and feasting in the career.” It seems that to the young writer that to be great the same way Hemingway was great is to be honest the way Hemingway was honest, and the easiest path to honesty is through the path Hemingway took: alcohol. After all, in vino veritas – in wine there is truth. The supreme illusion of this is that it ignores the countless hours of work put in by authors that made their work great. Hemingway was great not because he drank, nor did he drink because he was great. Hemingway was great because he was willing to put in the work for months on stories, and because he wrote from experience. The trap of alcohol also encourages a uniformity of writing: if one follows the traditional writing of advice of “write what you know,” then it is easy for the majority of work written to be about young struggling white male authors from the suburbs, discussing literature with one or two friends over glasses of wine –
Finishing his essay, Auernheimer meditates on Balzac and great writers. As he remarks “they lived solitary lives of hard work, as we know from the career of Balzac, which is typical, and Balzac is the one who warns the young writer to beware of the idleness which is so characteristic of ‘Bohemia’.” Why is Balzac’s model not more closely modelled? He too had substance abuse issues (though the substance was primarily coffee) but managed to be a great writer through hard work. That is truly a much more helpful image of a writer than a drunkard. Were all writers to devote themselves more fully to writing than alcohol, perhaps the state of literature would be ever increasing, rather than stagnating.