Cracking Up: Why Writing and Drinking May Not Be Such a Great Combination, After All

[6 February 2014]

By James Williams

From a certain perspective, the pairing in the subtitle of Olivia Laing’s recently published The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking seems so natural as to merely gesture toward a hazy but entrenched sense of obviousness. After all, the long history of writers and their complex relationship to alcohol has generated its own rich mythology and pantheon of literary gods and demi-gods, among them, as Laing notes, William Faulkner, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Hart Crane. 

And that’s just for starters. Alcoholics may or may not be more prevalent among writers than among members of any other profession or discipline, but a mystique of sorts attends their seeking out of intoxication. Perhaps the fascination lies in atavistic sense of alcohol as a key factor in the mysterious inspiration that drives the creation of great literature.

Maybe, but the realities of drinking for the writers on whom Laing focuses—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams

, John Cheever, John Berryman

, and Raymond Williams—were altogether more mundane, indeed often tawdry. Their drinking, rather than making them more attuned or trenchant observers, often just made them behave in repulsive fashion. Fitzgerald, normally a congenial and sensitive man, was given to demeaning public stunts, including disrobing at dinner parties, no less grotesque for being self-abasing and reflective of a deeply engrained self-loathing. During one of his attempts at recovery, John Berryman catalogued his alcohol-related indiscretions and abuses including:

Social drinking until 1947 during long & terrible love affair, my first infidelity to my wife after 5 years of marriage. My mistress drank heavily & I drank w. her. Guilt, murderous & suicidal… Passes at women drunk, often successful. Wife left me after 11 yrs of marriage bec. of drinking. Despair, heavy drinking alone, jobless, penniless, in N.Y. Lost when blacked-out the most important professional letter I ever received…

This fevered and compulsive confession—half-despairing and half-boastful—goes on at some length. Still, perhaps the least sympathetic of the bunch is Carver who, after marrying his first wife while they were both in their teens after she became pregnant, indulged in epic benders and nursed a sullen, sometimes abusive, resentment toward her and his children for depriving him of time to write. 

Only some of this can be attributed to chronic inebriation and dissolution. Or, put another way, drinking seems to have been part and parcel of complex and tortured psychological dispositions. How, then, to reconcile the unsavory behavior of these individuals with their accomplishments as writers? The easy answer is that they were great despite their alcoholism and its deleterious effects on themselves and those close to them.

Laing, to her credit, doesn’t have much use for that answer, preferring instead to consider a more substantial connection. The work as a whole is guided by the general premise that much must be attributed to idiosyncratic sensibility, the misfit perspective that is deeply intertwined with their compulsion to write literature in the first place.

What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and, along the way, some of the many others who’d suffered from disease— experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge.

To help in the effort of mapping, Laing enlists models and information from a host of disciplines—medicine, psychology, addiction studies, sociology, and so on. But these are offered as hypotheses, useful conjectures, rather than axiomatic diagnoses. That’s for the best. The impulse to psychoanalyze great artists is probably perennial, and here at least usually quite compelling , but it’s no substitute for encountering and contemplating their work. Laing would appear to agree. While biographical material abounds, it’s nicely interpellated with smart, well-rendered literary criticism. Indeed, Laing’s prose is artful but obtrusive and a reminder that critical writing at its best is as compelling as its subject.

In addition to lover of the literature, Laing traces the origin of her interest in the subject to the baleful role of alcoholism in her own life. Her mother’s partner, initially an agreeable woman, would become violently angry and deranged under the influence of drink. The volume as a whole wears its autobiographical content lightly, perhaps a bit too lightly. Certainly Laing is to be respected for not miring the work in memoir, but it feels a bit digressive. In any case, Laing’s skillful negotiation of the booze-soaked literary landscape reflects, as well, pursuit of a geographic itinerary.

She writes, “Over the next few weeks, I planned to take what is known in AA circles as a geographical, a footloose journey across the country, first south, through New York, New Orleans and Key West, and then north-west, via St. Paul, the site of John Berryman’s ill-fated recovery, and on to the rivers and creeks of Port Angeles, where Raymond Carver spent his last, exultant years.” In addition to helping to organize a potentially unruly amount of material, the format allows Laing to include a subtle travelogue into an already layered book—to good effect. The sometimes wry accounts of the tacky literary tourist industries that surround, or partially constitute, the legacies of great writers help to relieve the sometimes mordantly oppressive subject matter.

Of course, the geographical progression is aided by the relationships among the writers, which constitute a weft of conjoined interest in writing and drinking: Fitzgerald and Hemingway, for example, had a famously difficult friendship (along with rivalry); Carver and Cheever were drinking buddies for a year while both were teaching at the University of Iowa, where by their own admission they spent the better part of their time in a state of deep drunkenness. The sense here is less of two literary giants engaging in a communion of minds and more of two men whose alcoholism is so profound that it precludes any significant social interaction that is not predicated on getting smashed. Which again makes one wonder how these writers—whose work is so often artfully attuned to the complexities of relationships and the vagaries of existence—could be so exhaustingly banal in their own addictions. But that, of course, is part of the conundrum that prompts Laing’s inquiry.

Will The Trip to Echo Spring have the last word on the peculiar relationship between alcoholism and writers? Certainly not—the subject is too broad and too deep to be exhausted by one volume. Nor does Laing pretend to any such notion. What she offers instead is a moving, beautifully rendered, and astute rumination on an agonizing mystery of human creativity.

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