When drunk, I make them pay and pay and pay and pay.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
America has always been a hard-drinking country despite the many places and times in which alcohol has been forbidden by law. Even in Puritan days Americans were amazingly hard drinkers. It is history that liquor up to the Civil War was cheap as well as plentiful. In the first decades of the 19th century, spirits cost all of 25 cents a gallon domestic, and $1 imported. From 1818 to 1862 there were no taxes whatever on American whiskey, and it took the federal government’s need of revenue during the Civil War to change things. The temperance movement, the Prohibitionist movement, the anti-Saloon League were all powerful church-supported bodies, but no more powerful than the “liquor interests” and the freedom and ease that American males acquired for a 4-cents glass of beer in the saloon. America’s entry into World War I and the need to conserve grain finally put Prohibition across in 1918. Whereupon the line was marked between what H. L. Mencken called the “booboisie” and the party of sophistication. In the 20’s, drinking was the most accessible form of prestige for would-be sophisticates; and this continued to be the case within the professional and wealthy classes as the “tea party” of the 20’s became the cocktail party of the 50’s (a time when the clientele of Alcoholics Anonymous showed a more representative cross-section of middle-class society than Congress).
But even by these heavy-drinking standards, there is something special about the drinking of so many American writers. Of course there have been famous literary drunks in other countries—Burns, Swinburne, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Paul Verlaine, and those two fat boys, Dylan Thomas and Evelyn Waugh. The Russians, famous for knocking themselves out, have produced particularly lurid, despairing, melodramatic poet-drinkers like Sergei Yesenin (the husband of Isadora Duncan) who wrote his suicide note in his own blood. But in 20th-century America the booze has been not just a lifelong “problem” and a killer. It has come to seem a natural accompaniment of the literary life—of its loneliness, its creative aspirations and its frenzies, its “specialness,” its hazards in a society where values are constantly put in money terms.
In fact, though no one ever talks about it very much, booze has played as big a role in the lives of modern American writers as talent, money, women, and the longing to be top dog. Of the six American Nobel Prize winners in literature, three—Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner—were alcoholics, compulsive drinkers, for great periods of their lives. Two others, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, were hard drinkers. Hemingway was also a lover of wine, regularly had champagne with lunch when he lived in Cuba, and (at least in warm climes) drank for pleasure rather than to knock himself out.
The list of American literary drunks is very long. And despite all the fun they must have had, the post-mortem record is full of woe. Scott Fitzgerald (dead at forty-four) and Ring Lardner (dead at forty-eight) were celebrated, dedicated, hopeless alcoholics. Hemingway used to say that a drink was a way of ending a day. But John O’Hara swore off at forty-eight only when he was rushed to a hospital at the point of death from a bleeding ulcer. “A hell of a way for booze to treat me after I’ve been so kind to it. I used to watch W. C. Fields putting away the martinis at Paramount, and say to myself, ‘That’s what I want to be when I get big.’ Well, I almost made it.”
Among the famous suicides, Jack London and John Berryman were alcoholics; Hart Crane had a problem. Poe, the only hard-case alcoholic among the leading 19th-century writers, finally died of drink one election day in Baltimore, 1849, when, already far gone and in total despair, he accepted all the whiskey that was his payment for being voted around the town by the corrupt political machine. Jack London wrote a fascinating account of his alcoholism in John Barleycorn. At first, he wrote, liquor seemed an escape from the narrowness of women’s influence into “the wide free world of men.” A wanderer, making his living from the sea, could always find a home in a saloon. But “suicide, quick or slow, a sudden spill or a gradual oozing away through the years, is the price John Barleycorn exacts. No friend of his ever escapes making the just, due payment.”
As a sailor, London was sometimes drunk for three months at a time. Though he could never figure out just why he drank, he hauntingly described his death wish in one extraordinary passage. He had stumbled overboard, and, drunk, was swimming for his life in the Carquinez Strait in the Bay of San Francisco.
Some wandering fancy of going out with the tide suddenly obsessed me. I had never been morbid. Thoughts of suicide had never entered my head. And now that they entered, I thought it fine, a splendid culmination, a perfect rounding off of my short but exciting career. I who had never known girl’s love, nor a woman’s love, nor the love of children. . . . I decided that this was all, that I had seen all, lived all, been all, that was worthwhile, and that now was the time to cease. That was the trick of John Barleycorn, laying me by the heels of my imagination and a drug-dream dragging me to death.
J. P. Marquand, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, and Edna St. Vincent Millay did not write about their “problem.” Edwin Arlington Robinson, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, Theodore Roethke, Edmund Wilson did write or talk about theirs. They were all serious drinkers, some more than others, some more openly than others. There is reason to believe that W. H. Auden, a big martini man, voluntarily or involuntarily did himself in by regularly (like Marilyn Monroe) mixing drink with sleeping pills. The Englishman Malcolm Lowry, who understandably felt part of the American scene (for he did his best work in and about North America), died in an acute state of alcoholic distress.
The high point of all-out drinking came in the 20’s. Scott Fitzgerald said that he and his generation “drank cocktails before meals like Americans, wines and brandies like Frenchmen, scotch-and-soda like the English. This preposterous melange that was like a gigantic cocktail in a nightmare.” Edmund Wilson in a “Lexicon of Prohibition” (1927) solemnly listed over a hundred words for drunkenness “now in common use in the United States. They have been arranged, as far as possible, in order of the degrees of intensity of the conditions which they represent, beginning with the mildest states and progressing to the more disastrous.” The list began with lit, squiffy, oiled, and concluded with to have the whoops and jingles and to burn with a low blue flame.
In his notebook of the 20’s, Wilson described himself as “daze-minded and daze-eyed” and sobering up only when he read about Sacco and Vanzetti. An editor at Vanity Fair, Helen Lawrenson, remembers “hair-raising rides in cars with drivers so pissed they couldn’t tell the street from the sidewalk.” Robert Benchley was usually so far gone that he no longer went to the plays he reviewed for the old Life. A delicious confusion of the senses operated in such key books of the 20’s as The Great Gatsby. “. . . Everything that happened has a dim, hazy cast over it. . . . Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air. . . .” “There was blue music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Despite all this gorgeous prose, the background of The Great Gatsby is raw alcohol. Gatsby made his pile as a bootlegger and then bought up side-street drugstores in Chicago that sold grain alcohol over the counter. And Fitzgerald’s drunkenness, which gave such malicious satisfaction to Hemingway (who, with his overdeveloped competitive sense, knew that stopping in time would give him an advantage over “rummies” like Fitzgerald), was so involved in his need to be picturesque, to ease the money and sexual strains in his life, to keep up with his crazy wife Zelda, that only a writer of such powerful and desperate imagination could have taken it. Destructiveness and charm went hand in hand, all “the good times” and the most heart-sinking depression. A friend said about them: “If you want to get your furniture antiqued up, you want to get the Fitzgeralds in—they’ll antique it up in a single night—why they’ll put in their own wormholes in the furniture with cigarette ends.”
Fitzgerald described his feeling about himself in the weakness of Dr. Dick Diver, the charming psychiatrist in Tender Is the Night who sold out and comforted himself more and more by taking two fingers of gin with his coffee. Writers are not the best analysts of their own alcoholism, but psychiatry (a notorious failure in curing compulsive drinkers) is not much better about pinpointing the reason why. The many thousands of personal confessions recited in AA meetings add up to the fact that the addict to alcohol, like the addict to anything else, believes that he can will a change within himself by ingesting some material substance. Like so many of the things we do to ourselves in this pill-happy culture, drinking is a form of technology. People drink for hereditary reasons, nutritional reasons, social reasons. They drink because they are bored, or tired, or restless. People drink for as many reasons as they have for wanting to “feel better.” Drinking cuts the connections that keep us anxious. Alcohol works not as a stimulant but as a depressant. But it is exactly this “unwinding,” relaxing, slowing-down, this breaking down of so many induced associations and inhibitions, that creates the welcome but temporary freedom from so many restraints, tensions, obligations. Civilization is a tyrant, “hell is other people,” and we all need to escape the “ordeal of civility.”
But there are periods and occasions when drinking is in the air, even seems to be a moral necessity. The 20’s marked the great changeover from the old rural and small-town America. It also marked the triumph in the marketplace of “advanced,” wholly “modern” writers and books, ideas, and attitudes. They all entered into the big money and the big time at once. The glamorous, best-selling, restlessly excited Fitzgeralds would never be reconciled to anything less. The Fitzgeralds’ drinking began as a perpetual party. Then Zelda went off her rocker, the country went bust, Tender Is the Night was not a best-seller, Fitzgerald was writing for Hollywood. When he was doing Gone with the Wind, David Selznick fired Fitzgerald for not coming up with “funny” lines for Aunt Pittypat. Gavin Lambert reports that “being taken off the script was a disastrous blow to Fitzgerald’s already shaky confidence. He resumed the long on-again-off-again drinking bout that led to his unrequited love affair with the movies. And between the drinking bouts and brief assignments on B pictures, he began The Last Tycoon.”
Fitzgerald drunk was pleasanter to be with than Sinclair Lewis, who regularly passed out. One of the most serious drinkers in American history was Eugene O’Neill, who came from a family of serious drinkers. His brother Jamie was a confirmed alcoholic at twenty. His father, the famous actor James O’Neill, regularly had a cocktail before breakfast, and became so possessive about his liquor that he locked it up in the cellar out of the reach of his equally thirsty sons.
During his one stormy year at Princeton O’Neill once finished off a bottle of absinthe in a dormitory room reeking of burning incense. He went berserk, tore up all the furnishings in his room, and tried to shoot a friend. When the friend escaped and returned with help, they “found the place a shambles and O’Neill, wide-eyed, still on a rampage. It took all four of the other students to subdue him and tie him up.” Later, say Barbara and Arthur Gelb in their biography, the slightest upset would send O’Neill to the bottle—and it did not matter what the bottle contained. He once drank a mixture of varnish and water; another time, camphor-flavored alcohol. Louis Sheaffer reports that while still a very young man, worried about his clandestine marriage to Kathleen Jenkins and the imminent birth of an unwanted child, O’Neill hacked up everything in his parents’ hotel room in New York. O’Neill’s mother (herself a drug addict) “never knew what to expect of him, whether childlike he would turn to her and James for comfort or present the face of a dark brooding stranger impossible to reach.” Shortly after this, O’Neill attempted suicide by drinking veronal.
O’Neill claimed that “I never try to write a line when I’m not strictly on the wagon.” But he was never able to stay off the booze completely in the crucial twenty years 1913-33, during which he became the most significant playwright America had ever had. It was, however, in the succeeding twenty years (he died in 1953), a dry period by the direst necessity (he had Parkinson’s disease), that he wrote his best five plays—Ah, Wilderness!, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The most boldly determined, all-out, to-hell-with-the-consequences literary soak of the 20’s was Ring Lardner. He appears as Abe North in Tender Is the Night, a tall, morosely witty, perpetually disoriented creature getting drunk in the Ritz bar in Paris at nine in the morning. Poor Abe, witty yet lost. “Presently he was invited to lunch, but declined. It was almost Briglith, he explained, and there was something he had to do at Briglith. A little later, with the exquisite manners of the alcoholic that are like the manners of a prisoner or a family servant, he said goodbye to an acquaintance, and turning around discovered that the bar’s great moment was over as precipitately as it had begun.” After an involved fracas in a Paris hotel, Abe says to Dick Diver, “Could I annoy you for a drink?” “There’s not a thing up here,” Dick lied.
Resignedly Abe shook hands with Rosemary; he composed his face slowly, holding her hand a long time and forming sentences that did not emerge. She laughed in a well-bred way, as though it were nothing unusual to watch a man walking in a slow dream. Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk, rather like the respect of simple races for the insane. Respect rather than fear. There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything. Of course we make him pay for his moment of superiority, his moment of impressiveness.
The real Ring Lardner, almost ten years older than Fitzgerald, was much funnier than Abe North. “How do you look when I’m sober?” he once said to a flamboyant actor. But he was just as determined to drink himself to death. And he did. The inoperable final “Why?” haunts us particularly in his case. He came from a sturdy, cultivated Midwest family, was deeply in love with his wife, raised four remarkable sons. It was because Lardner had been “brought up right” that he became fascinated by what illiterate ball players did to the language. Ring Jr. reports his father saying—“Where do they get that stuff about my being a satirist? I just listen.” Looking a little like Buster Keaton, sad-faced and quiet except when he had something to say right on target, old-looking enough in his teens to fool saloon keepers, Lardner was from his teens in Niles, Michigan, a citizen of saloon society. There (before Prohibition) a man could be quiet with himself, drink to his heart’s content, and listen. Lardner’s mother thought Lardner and his brothers (fellow soaks) were putting in extra hours at choir practice.
Lardner was an amazing drinker, a real hard case, even before he was transformed from a journalistic funny man to a literary figure. “I have a reputation—an unfortunate one—for infinite capacity.” Living near each other in Great Neck (where Gatsby had his dream house), he and Fitzgerald, easily amused by each other’s jokes and each other’s alcoholism, would sometimes drink through the night. Ring would not go home on a weekday morning until his sons had left for school. Lardner had greater capacity than Fitzgerald and maintained his physical coordination when drunk for many more years than Fitzgerald did. But Ring Jr., the only living witness, thinks that “Scott may have been fascinated by Ring as the image of his own future; even though he could sleep off a drunk and get back to work with much more ease than his older friend, he must have known that he was heading in the same direction. . . . Even the pattern he came to of setting a specific beginning and ending date for going on the wagon was Ring’s.”
With a large family to support, Lardner pragmatically set himself a fixed period of abstinence and a fixed quota of work to accomplish in it. Despite the legends of his knocking out a story under the influence of a quart or so, he told his son: “No one, ever, wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it.” But once the allotted work was finished, Lardner just as determinedly went back to the bottle. He had once thought of Prohibition as an enforced solution to his problem, but he soon saw this was an unattainable goal. He told the actress Jean Dixon that if he smelled beer he would drink it and when he drank it he would go on to something else. He went on bats for three months at a time. He knew exactly what he was doing—and could have himself written the decisive “first step” of AA’s famous “twelve steps” that an alcoholic must go through in order to recover: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” After Lardner’s death in 1933, Fitzgerald wrote: “One is haunted not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American author of the first flight.”
Alcoholics, like other prodigies, begin young. Faulkner, always a crazy reckless drinker, came from a family of reckless drinkers. His father and grandfather were known for sprees, and would be taken off at regular intervals to the Keeley Institute, fifteen miles from Memphis, for the “cure.” He himself was introduced to liquor by this same grandfather who let him taste the “heeltaps” left over in a glass from toddies. On the famous hunting trips, a necessary retreat for the men, when a drinking bout might go on for three or four days, Faulkner drank the powerful corn liquor made in illegal stills concealed in the hills and pine barrens. At eighteen, Faulkner drank in town with the town drunk. At twenty, he tried to get into World War I by joining the Royal Canadian Flying Corps, but cracked up in a training plane—in which he kept a crock of bourbon. When Prohibition descended upon the land, Faulkner showed ingenuity as well as determination. He drank white mule made by county moonshiners, clear corn liquor in the dice joints, and frequented Memphis brothels because they had a better variety of whiskey. He even did a little bootlegging and “rum-running” in order to make some money. Even when forced to work for a spell in the local post office (he quit because he was at the mercy of “every son of a bitch with a two-cent stamp”), Faulkner was able to console himself with a bottle of “white lightning.” He is remembered for saying: “There is no such thing as bad whiskey, some are just better than others.”
Faulkner was a social drinker, a private drinker, a convivial drinker, a morose drinker. He drank because it was a habit in the Deep South for men to drink. He drank to ease himself and to knock himself out as a result of the screaming exhaustion—“I feel as though all my nerve ends were exposed”—that came after the tension of writing The Sound and the Fury. After finishing this great book, he said to a friend, “Read this. It’s a real son of a bitch,” and went on a tear for several days without eating. His compulsive drinking regularly led to one or two serious illnesses a year for thirty years. Some of the side experiences were alcoholic exhaustion, DT’s, whiskey ulcers, electroshock therapy, the many nicks and gashes in his head, broken ribs, falling down stairs, falls from horses, broken vertebrae, sweats, shakes, organic damage, fibrillation, blackouts.
He sometimes (and probably more and more) drank while writing. When he lived in Greenwich Village at one period, he wrote in small pocket notebooks he bought at Woolworth’s for a nickel—occasionally sipping gin as he wrote. Faulkner did not drink in order to start writing. He may have been repressed as a man, but certainly not as a writer. “You just keep the words coming,” he said. Like so many great novelists, he was productive because his mind kept everything he had seen, heard, lived. As a man he seems to have found existence intolerable from time to time. Who can say just why? Rut although he could do anything he liked with words, his “drinking habit” inflamed and spoiled his writing as much as it damaged his body.
Of course writing, for Faulkner, was already a form of intoxication. But the insensately long sentences that he went in for suggest the abandon that so often comes to a drinker as the “connections that make up anxiety” are broken off. But it is just connections that make writing—the line-by-line thinking that the writer undergoes so that the reader will see what is in the writer’s mind. It was disastrous for Faulkner to lose the thread. After the period 1929-36 in which he composed all his greatest works—The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, Absalom! Absalom!—Faulkner wrote windy books like Intruder in the Dust, Requiem for a Nun, A Fable, The Town. Donald Newlove has put it more harshly than anyone else:
Something disastrous happened when Faulkner turned forty-nine; whatever grip he had on his alcoholism faded, and so did the hot focus of his imagination. He wrote for twenty-two years, but his brain was stunned. What we get is the famous mannered diction, senatorial tone, a hallucinated rhetoric of alcohol full of ravishing if empty glory. Dead junk compared to the sunburst pages of The Sound and the Fury. . . . Faulkner’s ruinous pose as a master of Latinate diction is the direct result of alcoholic hardening of the ego. . . .
After the 20’s, later writers like John O’Hara and John Steinbeck did their best to keep up with the careless drinking style they had learned as young men in the 20’s. But there was a notable lack of joy. O’Hara as a reporter had been known as a saloon fighter. When he went off the booze, totally, to save his life, he admitted that he still missed scotch and beer. He made up for it by working all through the night, night after night. He wrote so many stories that he virtually ran out of titles, and he made so much money that he boasted that no one anywhere—wanna bet?—had ever written short stories as well as John O’Hara. O’Hara sober was just as truculent as O’Hara drunk. Hemingway said that he could beat Tolstoy. O’Hara went after younger writers.
In Algeria during World War II André Gide heard that Steinbeck was in town as a war correspondent and tried to meet him. But Steinbeck was always drunk. Gide told Malcolm Muggeridge that he had tried in the evening, at lunch time, and finally at breakfast, but always with the same result. Dashiell Hammett, whom Lillian Hellman lovingly portrays as a Southern gentleman extraordinarily rational, resourceful, self-possessed, and informed, grimly drank himself into insensibility at regular intervals. Thomas Wolfe amazed Fitzgerald by his ability to keep things in an uproar. One night, when they were having an argument in the street, Wolfe gesticulated so vehemently that he struck a power line support, snapped the wire, and plunged the whole community into darkness. Bernard De Voto, like so many writer-drinkers of the second order, gave the impression of imitating more illustrious writers. He was a martini snob even more tiresome than the usual wine snob. Gancia was the only vermouth to mix with gin; Noilly Prat was too changeable.
Malcolm Lowry would have been shocked by all this twaddle. Lowry, one of the most stupendous drinkers in all recorded history, wrote the greatest novel I know about an alcoholic, Under the Volcano (1947). There is nothing like it in modern literature. It is one of the great 20th-century novels in language, form, and in its amazing visionary demonstration of the tie between the alcoholic hero’s crumbling life in the 1930’s and the disasters about to fall on the Western world. Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul in Mexico, always called “the Consul,” drinks anything, drinks all the time, drinks as a way of life, drinks as a way of living and dying at once. His final collapse and his murder at the hands of fascist thugs take place on a single day in 1939, “The Day of the Dead.” The deadly atmosphere that has collected around the helpless Consul finally becomes a signal that the Western world is sliding into war. Under the Volcano could have been achieved only by an imagination that already had the qualities of drunkenness. Lowry’s imagination was made more itself by drink. Then he died of it, probably feeling that it had all been worth it.
The best-known drinker of my own literary generation was the poet John Berryman (1914-72). Berryman was a natural celebrity. Poets often are, for their personality and their works seem so much of a piece. The language of a good poem is so close to fundamental emotion, to the secrets of the human heart, that the poet is traditionally honored as a prophet among men. Flamboyant poets convinced of their importance make messes in public, delight their humble students, the literary gossips, the jealous psychiatrists (who also deal in the language of emotion, but not so memorably), and get a reputation for genius based on the disorderliness of poets from François Villon to Dylan Thomas. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote a very subdued, miniature poetry about his “lost childhood.” But he was an enormous hulking fellow with violent personal emotions and a heavy drinker’s gift for asserting himself loudly in public. He regularly put on such a show that it was easier to cheer big Ted Roethke on than to admit that his poems were slight, sometimes inaudible experiments in self-pity.
But of the American poets, it was Berryman who made more literary capital out of his “problem” than anyone since Lowry. Liquor made Berryman more and more special to himself—and famous. He would not have become so famous without it. Berryman was pictured by the caricaturist David Levine with an enormous bottle down his back. It is typical of his celebrity as a boozer that while he was still known mostly to a small literary audience, he was given a big story in Life that showed him and his enormous beard convivial in an Irish pub. After he killed himself in the winter of 1972 by jumping from a bridge off Minneapolis onto the frozen Mississippi, his unfinished novel about the “cure,” Recovery, was published, followed by a novel, The Maze, by his ex-wife Eileen Simpson.
Despite his furious drinking, Berryman doggedly pursued his career. He published ten books of poetry and a brilliant critical biography of Stephen Crane. His most famous work, because it is the most personal, is the 308 “Dream Songs”—monologues “about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. . . . Requiescant in pace. . . .”
Of course “Henry” is “not the poet, not me”—there were too many Berrymans. What is most striking about these poems is the crossing of so many selves. Only a white man in “blackface” could suggest the layer on layer of disguise and personality that went to make John Berryman! The poems are a fantastic performance in the many voices forever buzzing in John Berryman’s mind—the voices of himself as teacher and writer, of his supposed accusers, of the longing to see an end to his self-torturing confabulations with himself, of his dead father and of himself as a father who does not see his own son.
The jauntiness of tone that Berryman brought to his sorrows!
I’m scared a lonely. Never see my son,
easy be not to see anyone,
* * *
I’m scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don’t take nothing, see,
for my hound dog’s sake
But this is where I livin, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this’ where we
cry oursel’s awake.
In another “Dream Song” he asks:
Why drink so, two days running?
two months, O season, years, two decades run-
I answer (smiles) my question on the cuff:
Man, I been thirsty. . . .
Berryman was “authoritative,” cocky, even at his lowest. Snooty, heartbreaking, maudlin, clearly written under booze, quick to portray every side of the divided self that emerges under booze, these poems are the human heart’s rushed shorthand. They are also in Berryman’s most maddeningly allusive style. You have to know a lot about Berryman’s friends, girls, most secret worries, and especially his relations with the best poets dead and alive to know what he is referring to more than half the time. The poems are shockingly alive in their emotional distress and in the poet’s determination to keep things looking good. Disconnected on purpose, disconnected by necessity, abrupt, brilliant at times, and just as often throwaway, the poems are obsessive about the need to move on, to get out of difficulties, to move out of this world if finally necessary. This is what makes Berryman’s stuff finally so compelling. The life and the book are one. The force of his personality (not of the poems in themselves) is overwhelming.
What explains all this excessive, delirious, and often fatal drinking? Hemingway had a theory about it. He called booze “the Giant Killer,” and he could have added that the Giant is America itself, or rather the “bitch-goddess” Success which William James said was the great American deity. The history of American writers even in the 19th century was already marked by unnatural strain, physical isolation, alienation from the supposedly “sweet and smiling aspects of American life.” But it is significant that the only known literary alcoholic of the period was Poe, a magazine writer and editor of genius always desperate for money, who helped to swell the marketplace psychology among American writers. And it was just when that psychology became rampant, as in the 20’s the big money and the big time began to seem possible for serious and “advanced” writers, that the really big drinkers emerged.
There were no such “rebels” (in their own eyes) as those in the literary class. They were “different” from “ordinary” Americans because they lived by their wits. They had been around, they knew things. In a “Memoir of the Drinking Life,” Pete Hamill shows what an assist to your fantasies of being Hemingway, of knowing things, it can be to drink:
For a writer, the life was particularly attractive. I learned a lot of things in saloons: about my craft, human beings, about myself. . . . We drank in all the bars of Brooklyn, and later in McSorleys, and the old Cedar Tavern (looking at Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock), and the White Horse (looking for Dylan Thomas), and a lot of other places. . . . Drink was the great loosener, the killer of shyness, the maker of dreams and courage. . . .
But in fact the literary rebels always yearned for success as much as any benighted Babbitt. Only in America have first-class novelists been driven to “prove” their acceptability by also becoming bestsellers. Even poetry has to sell, or at least make you famous. Berryman, for example, who worshipped other famous writers in America and knew all about them, was generally disappointed in himself. He wanted fame so badly that he was always hard on himself. He was far from being modest. Of course he had non-literary sorrows. His father was a suicide and probably an alcoholic. Berryman went through all the instability, hysteria, hypochondria, the broken marriages, the “bad sex,” the blackouts that are indissolubly the causes and effects of excessive drinking. But fundamentally he was driven by competition with other poets and was determined to outdo them.
It was, then, the drive for success of every kind, the hunger for prestige, fame, and money, that drove all these writers to drink: the burden put upon the creative self by so many contradictory pressures was overwhelming and cried out for relief. They drank to escape the hunger; they drank to disguise it from themselves and others; they drank to be different from the unsophisticated “booboisie”; they drank to be the same as the “regular fellers”; they drank to acquire class. In one form or another the Giant exacted a final sacrifice—themselves—from the writers who tried to kill their Great Fear over and over again.