Ernest Hemingway blew away a substantial portion of his cranium on a lovely Idaho morning in 1961. The stories of his drinking are legion. To this day, the cult of alcohol that surrounds the Hemingway myth is celebrated and openly embraced despite the fact that alcoholism worked in concert with familial mental illness to rob us of one of the most distinctive individual voices in literary history. A massive heart attack claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald in the living room of a Hollywood bungalow. He hadn’t yet reached the age of fifty years old. The boyish flame of his gin-soaked youth is still the stuff of legend in American letters, and even the end he faced as he attempted to break into Hollywood only to sabotage his best efforts with embarrassing binges has acquired a sense of tragic, profound gravitas that it does not deserve. It wasn’t some sort of epic grandeur in the end surrounding a writer who offered prose ringing with the same sensitivity that Keats brought to his poetry. It was the stench of a tawdry and homicidal murder of the human spirit via 80 proof-fueled self-pity.
Then there’s the example of Hart Crane. The stories that biographers such as Paul Mariani relate in The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane suggest that alcohol was the primary destructive force in Crane’s life and did more to bring him to his eventual suicide than any other single factor in his life. He was thirty-two years old when he drunkenly leapt to his death from a ship in the Caribbean. One of Hart Crane’s most fervent devotees, Tennessee Williams, is another tragic case. Arguably, the greatest playwright that this country has ever produced, Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers offers a brutally frank portrayal of a genius who was a categorical drug addict by 1950 and burned out by his excesses by 1966. His endurance was remarkable in the annals of self-destructive artists. He continued for thirteen years following a complete mental and physical collapse in 1969 running on some aberrant synthesis of chemicals, monumental discipline, and a steely constitution. He wrote with reckless and crazed intensity, but little of it pleased him, and it pleased the public and the critics even less. His life ended in February of 1983 in a New York City hotel room when he swallowed the lid of a pill bottle he was likely using to spoon pills into his mouth.
Here’s a particular favorite. The one time prodigy of a particularly extraordinary generation of American poets, Delmore Schwartz ended his promising career in a New York City flophouse corridor dead from a heart attack in 1966. It was two days before anyone claimed the body. An accomplished poet, an incisive critic, and an unique prose stylist, Schwartz was also unique in his facility amongst a generation that included such luminaries as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke. It seemed like he could do anything and that he would be one of the leading lights of American letters for decades to come. His world was full of epic combat, great leaps of ambition, and a truly prodigious sense of competitiveness. Liquor and pills were a constant through it all and by 1940, he was unraveling. The liquor made him increasingly undependable both professionally and personally. His behavior grew erratic. A famous Robert Lowell sonnet memorably depicts Schwartz in those final years “casing the bars with the eye of a Mongol horseman”. Long after his death, Saul Bellow wrote a novel that, in part, memorialized Schwartz and his dismal descent into insanity and chronic addiction entitled Humboldt’s Gift. Coming off his recent Nobel win and debatably the King of the American novel at the time, the critics took note of Bellow’s interest and the laurels for Schwartz were appropriately elegiac and suffused with praise. However, such praise was scarce when 20+ years of alcohol and Dexedrine abuse left Delmore Schwartz tearing his clothes from his body in desperate, but ultimately vain, attempt to breathe.
Let’s discuss Truman Capote. Hailed by Norman Mailer in his work Advertisements for Myself as “the most perfect writer of my generation”, Capote was a truly prodigious and unique talent who thrust himself into the American consciousness with intemperate zeal typical of those who need approval the most. His appearance coupled with his offbeat physical affectations did more to set him apart in the American iconography of his time than what his skills with the written word ever did. His need for love was uninhibited and craven. It was likewise insatiable and that ferocious void would prove his undoing. He quit writing and assumed the role of raconteur and full-time libertine. His appearances on “The Tonight Show” are the stuff of legend. He embraced distraction and distraction manifested itself in the form of vast repositories of vodka, gin, and wine that he poured down his throat with unwavering devotion. By 1984, CAT scans revealed that his brain had actually undergone a verifiable loss of mass and he was subject to frequent and often terrifying hallucinations. He died that year at the age of 59.
How about William Faulkner? The deleterious effects that corn whiskey had on Faulkner are readily apparent when you read a book like Absalom, Absalom! and compare it to a later work such as The Reivers. To read the former is an experience akin to earning a vast, panoramic glimpse into the deepest vistas of human history. Its charged, turbulent language sweeps you along with tidal force and every wrinkle in the plot possesses a sense of inevitability that only truly magisterial works of art can claim. By the time you have delved deeply into A Fable, you cannot help but note that the writer you once knew has been scattered, his once mighty powers dissipated and henceforth unrecoverable. Like Tennessee Williams, Faulkner demonstrated tremendous endurance in the face of his addiction, but in the end, he was another writer dying in the aftermath of one final, destructive binge.
There are more. There’s Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac. There’s John Berryman. Author of The Dream Songs, one of the finest poetic works written by an American and one of the major poetic works of the 20th century, Berryman struggled with a monstrous addiction to alcohol throughout his entire adult life. Unable to maintain sobriety after numerous attempts, Berryman, in despair, leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Berryman, a child of suicide, left a six-month-old daughter behind.
With exceptions, it is an uniquely American phenomenon. There is a swaggering bravado to American writers that seems absent from other writers. Their ambitions are often crass and crippling, their sense of primacy is inflated and unjustified, and their solipsism is prodigious and demanding. The American writer does not look to write meditative works of fiction seeking to investigate the secret needs, wants, and fears of the human heart. Instead, writers like Faulkner sought impossible summits such as “putting all of mankind’s history into one sentence”. Writers like Hemingway steeped their discussions of craft in heavy-handed, frequently labored, sports metaphors. Many American writers have needed to play the big shot for some reason. They have measured their self worth by the wayward estimations of artistic achievement. It is not coincidental that alcoholics among these writers are legion. Who wouldn’t crack under the idea that you need to produce a masterpiece every time you write?
Lastly, it has nothing to do with a celebration of life. Instead of being a zesty affirmation of living for the moment, it is a negation of life itself. It diminishes our God given gifts to such an extent that it borders on contempt. I believe that it is contempt for the price that one must pay if they desire to do serious work. Writers spend a lot of time alone. While the rest of the world is out enjoying a sparkling summer day, a novelist is apt to be found in some small room, alone and wrestling with his words. To the layperson, this may seem sad, even a little pathetic. Why would anyone want to be alone writing in a stuffy room while the summer is in full swing? However, to a serious writer, an artist, it’s all in a day’s work and par for the course. As well, stop to consider the fundamental paradox at the heart of a novelist’s life. The novelist, in essence, is an artful liar, an individual who sets down a series of events and conversations that have no factual basis in reality. The definitions of truth and reality which society commonly shares mean little to the writer. The writer is someone who lives with their own private truth, as well as personal mythology that is often a wellspring for their work.
It is a personal mythology that can compel the writer to see him or herself as being a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the sole conduit between the mind of the universe and mankind. The writer, especially the alcoholic variety, can see themselves as beset on all sides by barbarism that dismisses him and does not attempt to understand the writer’s clandestine agonies. Such a frame of mind is a breeding ground for ego and self-pity. Convinced that he is terminally unique and therefore entitled to special considerations, this writer has lost all perspective and, most importantly, his humility. More disastrously, his alcoholic bluster is a serious obstacle in the way of the writer completing any meaningful work. Instead of writing about the important things in life and serving his muse, he explores his own personal mythology even further, elaborates on it, and, ultimately, learns to rely on trivia and memory when invention fails.
Let us declare an end to the murder of the creative spirit. There must be an end to the tragedies and the suicides that have silenced voices that challenged life and embraced its rich bounty. Those among us who have struggled with both King Alcohol and the written word know that we are fortunate to have the facility for categorizing our perceptions, experiences and emotions in artistic or psychologically pleasing constructs. At our best, we are much more on the page than what we ever are in our daily lives and the best among us have the ability to instruct and enrich the entire fabric of human experience. Furthermore, we know that our struggles are not the price we pay for these gifts. Instead, those struggles are self-indulgence and exhibitionism in the worst degree. As well, they are lazy. So instead of wasting our days in some dismal attempt to lose ourselves, let us take up our pens, let us confront that blank page, and as long as we can feel the spirit, let us serve the spirit of life with a joy that is real and resolute.