The prominence of alcoholism in American literature, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, and the relationship between great authors and alcoholism has become somewhat of a literary cliche. Icons such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Jack Kerouac are as famous for their work as they are infamous for their drinking habits. These authors have created a legend out of themselves just from their notorious habits of drinking. Of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, five were alcoholics.
The list of other twentieth-century American writers also affected with alcoholism is very long. I researched these authors’ lives to find out how they all were infected with the same disease, alcoholism. Some said that drinking boosted their creative abilities, while others thought of it more of an escape from the confines of their own imagination, to which they were bound for all hours of the day. Drinking does fit the loner lifestyle that many of these authors had. It was viewed as a cure for writers block, an escape from their own minds, and most importantly, as a tool to cure the emotional hardships that they endured.
It is not a coincidence that the greatest writers and artists also had very troubled childhoods and adult lives. Look at Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Van Gogh; both were both severely troubled emotionally and depressed, and yet they still produced artistic and literary genius. So what is this connection between alcoholism and the great authors of the early 19th century? I will take an in-depth look at a few of the most influential alcoholic authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Tennessee Williams.
I will look at factors that may have led them to their alcoholic habits, such as their childhood, troubled lives, or depression. From there, I will then look at how alcohol affected their works, positively or negatively. And as we all know, alcoholism was also double-edged sword that led to the destruction of their careers, and ultimately to their deaths. “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason.
It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom. ” This quote by Edgar Allan Poe perfectly depicts why many of these great authors fell back into the grasp of alcoholism. Many were troubled spirits who had tough lives, and used alcohol as an escape from their woes. Poe’s depression was caused by his alcoholic father, the death of both of his mothers, the death of his loving wife, the separations of his siblings, and an abusive foster father. No doubt, these losses and hardships sculpted Poe into who he was as a person and author.
He relied heavily on alcohol to ease his pain. Another notable case of hardships and emotional struggle that led to alcoholism was Tennessee Williams. As a child he was exposed to a very problematic family. His hard-drinking father favored his brother, as Williams was sensitive and seemed to be homosexual at a very young age. He was closest to his sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized. Later on, he had troubles dealing with his sexuality, which led to heavy drug and alcohol abuse. He married Frank Merlo, whom provided balance to his bouts of rage and alcoholic abuse.
Williams sunk into even deeper depression after Merlo left him, because of his alcoholism. Williams won the Pullitzer Prize for Drama after writing, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948. He wrote this largely based off of events from his own life, most vividly portraying his alcoholic habits through Stanley. Another example of a great author whose troubled life had led him to become an alcoholic is Ernest Hemingway. Like Williams, he was also an award-winning author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. During his final years, Hemingway’s behavior was similar to his father’s before he himself committed suicide.
Hemingway was diagnosed with the genetic disease Hemochromatosis, which causes mental and physical deterioration. His brother and sister also committed suicide as well. In addition to Hemingway’s mental illnesses, he was an alcoholic for most of his life. After his death, in the writing, “Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide”, Christopher Martin talks about the possible causes of Hemingway’s suicide. He discovers after careful reading of Hemingway’s works, that they reveal the possibility of conditions such as, bipolar disorder, alcoholic dependence, traumatic brain injury, and narcissistic personality traits.
Hemingway was obviously troubled mentally and emotionally, and relied heavily on alcohol. Hemingway is one of the most well known alcoholic authors to this day. It was a common trait amongst many of the alcoholic authors to have emotional hardships and struggles. There is no doubt that these authors’ works were affected strongly by their addiction to drinking. As discussed previously, some stated that it boosted creativity, immediately cured writer’s block, and even relaxed them from the pressure of writing. Dr. Donald Goodwin, the author of “Alcohol and the Writer,” performed research on the correlation between authors and alcoholism.
He concluded that writing in itself does not encourage alcoholism. Instead, he suggests that creativity is inspired by insanity because, “creative writing requires a rich fantasy life. ” Alcohol promotes this same fantasy life as it skews one’s perceptions. Goodwin concludes that writing and alcoholism are products of the same lifestyle, rather than writing as a profession encouraging alcoholism. “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. ” For example, William Faulkner, from the very beginning of his career, drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach. ” Faulkner was also a Nobel Prize winner for his novels and short stories. Hemingway found whiskey as a sort of relief from his day to day routines, almost medicinal. Hemingway once stated, “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?
” This sort of mindset was one similar amongst many other great authors alike. In Goodwins book, he has a chapter titled, “The Loner Theory. ” Alcoholism is basically a disease of individualism. People who are affected are those who, from early childhood, have a strong sense of being psychologically alone and on their own in the world. These people feel that they can get emotional release from drinking. We can see this individualistic character in many great authors. Goodwin goes on to compare writing and being drunk. He claims, “Writing and alcohol both produce trancelike states.
A gift for creative writing may involve an innate ability to enter trancelike states. Being a loner, may facilitate trancelike states when it is time to write, and encourage drinking to overcome the shyness and ? isolation when it is time to relax. ” This reasoning and logic is clearly evident in many of the author’s lifestyles. As much as these tendencies helped many of them produce creative work, it also led to many of their careers’ demise and eventually, death. The infamous drinking habits of Hemingway, Poe, Faulkner, and the like, all eventually led to their death or career demise.
Many of these alcoholic authors were on a slow decline creatively. Many thought that their alcoholism deadened their creative thought process and rather turned them into more drab and emotional writers. Faulkner’s prose was slowed down by his sclerosis, while Hemingway’s style was drowned in emotions. Hemingway ridiculed his friend Fitzgerald when he went public in Esquire, talking about his downfall publicly. Hemingway was disgusted, and invited him to cast his, “balls into the sea—if you have any balls left”. Many authors attempted to get sober but found they could not write without alcohol.
Many would just have one big hit and then decline from there, fighting sobriety and the ability to write without alcohol. Hemingway struggled to find happiness later on in life and eventually committed suicide. Faulkner died of a heart attack that was attributed to his heavy alcohol abuse. Edgar Allan Poe’s death was largely due to alcoholism. It is still a bit of a mystery as to how he died, but according to newspaper articles at the time it was due to cerebral inflammation, which is commonly linked with alcoholism. Many of these great authors were known for their great works as well as their drinking habits.
Sadly, alcoholism led to many of their declining health in later ages. Their creative spark was slowly dulled over time by drinking, and many lived unhappy lives. There is an irrefutable link between many authors and alcoholism. Many of them happened to live in the same time frame, and were legends amongst the population largely in part to their drinking habits. Their alcoholic tendencies are all largely due to their loner lifestyles that they all shared. No doubt, they had great artistic minds. Many of them were award-winning authors who are icons American literature.
However, their drinking habits are just as famous as was their work. Unfortunately, these habits eventually led many of them to their downfall. Many took their own lives, drank until they passed, or died because of other health complications due to alcoholism. Drinking was a cure for writers block, an escape from their own minds, and also a tool to cure their emotional downfalls that their troubled lives had brought upon them. It is not a coincidence that the greatest writers and artists also had very troubled childhoods and even adult lives.
There is a direct connection between the tendencies of “loners” to be dependant on alcohol, and the tendencies of many authors to be loners. In conclusion, many authors had troubled lives and childhoods that led them to become emotionally scarred. This led to alcoholic habits. Next, many of them enjoyed working and writing while intoxicated. It suited their personalities. Alcoholism is an individualistic disease, and writing is typically an individual art form. Just as these authors found comfort in drinking, many of them drank their lives into the gutter; quite literally in Poe’s case.
The same thing that they found comfort in, used as a tool for their writing, led them to demise. Their mental and physical health deteriorated, and ultimately many of them died unhappy. However, these authors were legends in literature. Hemingway, Faulkner, Poe, Fitzgerald, and Williams to name a few, all of these authors graced us with their genius, although some of them paid the price of their genius with mental and physical deterioration due to a life-long love affair with alcohol. Works Cited Dardis, Tom. (1989).
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