Creative Spirits

THE THIRSTY MUSE: Alcohol and the American Writer by Tom Dardis. Ticknor & Fields, $18.95.
IN THE THIRSTY MUSE, Tom Dardis reviews the writing and drinking careers of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Eugene O’Neill to prove that alcoholism is a leading cause of death to American talent. His list of the afflicted is long and includes Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Conrad Aiken, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, James Jones, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Jean Stafford, James Agee, and John Cheever. Of the Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dardis would call five alcoholics—Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, and O’Neill.
We might conclude that if so many prizewinning writers were drunks, drinking must combine with writing in some way useful to art, but Dardis is convinced that nearly all these people would have done even better work and sustained their careers for a longer time had they stayed sober. Drink, he argues, destroyed their ability to distinguish good work from bad and was responsible for some of their worst productions. Alcoholism, the dirty secret of American literary history, explains why literary careers in America tend to have no second acts.
Dardis’s tut-tut moralism inclines one to dispute his arguments even while applauding his intent: to destroy forever the myth that good writers have to be heavy drinkers. For some reason, probably Prohibition, this bad idea gained popularity in the 1920s, and America developed its distinctive 80-proof version of the romantic myth of the artist.
Europeans don’t expect people who drink heavily to distinguish themselves in the arts, and few modern European writers have overindulged in drink. Virtually alone in the world, we have kept up the nineteenth-century romantic tradition of the artist as someone who breaks the bars of an imprisoning reality, empowered by whatever means of intoxication he or she can lay hands on.
Liquor has been thought to stimulate creativity because, in Alfred Kazin’s words, it “cuts the connections that keep us anxious"—the same connections that give sense to the world as we know it. Break those connections and we may see things fresh. But it’s also possible to break those connections and merely have the illusion of seeing things fresh. In other words, if creativity is a gesture of rebellion against habitual perception, alcohol may mimic the rebellion instead of stimulating it, producing pages of miserable prose from writers who think they’ve never written better.
THE CAUTIONARY tales of The Thirsty Muse make horrifying reading. Youthful high spirits, fueled by drink, give way to boozy decay, disaster, and death. Faulkner began heavy drinking lightheartedly, as a teenager on hunting trips. He ended requiring enormous amounts of liquor daily just to keep from feeling ill and depressed, with repeated blackouts, delirium tremens, and hospitalization. In 1937, when he was just under forty, he got so drunk that he passed out sitting on the toilet of his hotel room in New York and fell backward against a steam pipe. Insensible to pain, he stayed there, his bare skin pressed against the hot pipe by the weight of his body, until he had a third-degree burn. When a friend forced open the door of his room, he found Faulkner unconscious on the floor with the burn, which would require skin grafts and would trouble him for the rest of his life. What his drinking did to the people around him was likewise cruel. Once, when his young daughter tried to stop him from going on a bender, he shut her up brutally: “You know, no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.”
From the beginning Faulkner drank while he wrote, and he had such a high tolerance for alcohol that it was a long time before his writing showed the effects of all that booze. But with each writer deterioration took a different course. Fitzgerald initially kept writing and drinking separate. He produced This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby sober. The difficulty of writing another book as good as Gatsby, however, seems to have turned him to drink, and he was encouraged by the example of Hemingway, who drank enormous amounts and still wrote well.
But Fitzgerald did not have Hemingway’s tolerance: small amounts of alcohol quickly made him drunk. One friend said, “Scott could write and didn’t; couldn’t drink but did.” Beginning in 1928 he used alcohol to help him work, and, according to Dardis, his work quickly deteriorated.
Hemingway, who for many years never drank while he worked, regarded his huge thirst as part of his larger appetite for life’s pleasures, not as the addiction that Dardis relentlessly reminds us it was. He always distinguished between himself and such “rummies” as Fitzgerald and James Joyce. Rummies shouldn’t drink. But as for him? “If you learned to drink before you were fourteen and drank ever since and love to drink and can still write well at 53 do you rate as an alcoholic?” he asked. In his fifties he was drinking a quart or two a day, starting the morning with a highball or a Tom Collins. Lillian Ross, walking through the Metropolitan Museum with him, saw him nipping repeatedly from a pocket flask. But so tremendous were Hemingway’s physical vitality and capacity for alcohol that, unlike Faulkner and Fitzgerald, he did not require hospitalization for alcoholism until late in his life.
O’Neill is Dardis’s success story. From a hard-drinking family (his brother was dead from drink at forty-five), he started out bad. In Provincetown in the 1920s he boasted that he would guzzle anything, and to prove it. he topped up half a bottle of a local brew called Tiger Piss with his own urine and drank the mixture down. But in his late thirties O’Neill realized that he had a drinking problem, gave up alcohol (except for occasional relapses), and went on to write Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. According to Dardis, the creativity of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner began to decline at about the age when O’Neill made his renunciation, whereas O’Neill’s talent “flowered” in his later years.
But the case histories keep getting away from Dardis, and the writers’ careers don’t neatly make the points he wants them to make, as even he has to admit:
In all fairness, O’Neill was capable of writing wretchedly at any time of his life. Merely remaining sober was no guarantee that he could write well on all occasions. It could be argued that his two plays dealing with the problem of religious faith . . . while written several years after he stopped drinking, are among his very worst efforts.
Similarly, Hemingway refuses to stay in the rummy box: The Old Man and the Sea, which Dardis somewhat gloatingly produces to show how Hemingway’s talent left him, may not be to everyone’s taste but is at the very least a highly controlled work of art, and A Moveable Feast, written in a period of relative abstinence at the end of his life, is one of the best things he ever wrote. The others, too, wrote final works, The Reivers for Faulkner and The Last Tycoon for Fitzgerald, that show no sign of withered talent.
Anyway, what kind of success story is O’Neill’s? In 1932, after giving up drink, he began work on an immense cycle of plays that he put aside in 1939, crippled by the deadly combination of ambition and perfectionism. Later he would destroy all that work except the two plays that we know as A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, He developed a tremor that after 1943 kept him from writing, and fell into a depression that lasted for the next decade. To calm his tremor and to help him get to sleep, doctors prescribed sedatives, and both O’Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, became dependent on them. His last days were horrible, because of fights with Carlotta, who was intermittently psychotic. Once she left him lying outside, in freezing weather, with a broken leg. Should we take as a model of booze-free creativity this muted, drugged-up genius who composed these words for his tombstone? “There is something / To be said / For being dead.”For Dardis, there are no dangers for writers but alcohol—whereas alcohol seems like only one among many possible enemies of promise.
IN A RECENT cartoon by Lee Lorenz, a self-satisfied man walks along thinking, “Less cholesterol, regular checkups, no nicotine, no alcohol, low sodium, moderate exercise, no sugar.” Unseen above him, a heavy safe is hurtling toward his head.
One way or another, none of us gets out of this alive, and the creative life, say its claques, is particularly treacherous. Sometimes, when I meet writers who arc so mired in inner conversations that they have lost the ability to talk to real people, or who bear down too hard, with all the weight of their powerful imaginations, on the small transactions of daily life, I am forced to wonder if writing itself shouldn’t come with some sort of a warning label: “This occupation may be hazardous to your health.”
Sure, alcohol destroys talent, but so do age and time. Consider Virginia Woolf, who, so far as I know, never touched a hard drink. Her great novels came between 1922 and 1931. She wrote after that steadily but never as brilliantly. Why? Perhaps she used up first the subjects that meant the most to her. Perhaps she lost her nerve and became more conventional. Perhaps her success made it harder, not easier, to write. Perhaps a curve is typically built into creative lives: one achieves a precarious mastery, and in that state, tremulous, fresh, exultant, writes the best things one can; suffers anxiety about living up to those first achievements; misses the spontaneity of early creativity; and proceeds to perform on sheer will.
That was Fitzgerald’s story, and Hemingway’s description is haunting: “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did. . . . Later he . . . could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”Dardis says this loss of spontaneity resulted primarily from drinking, but it seems to me to have resulted from living. Some writers, like Thomas Mann, are able to sustain a career over the long haul, with work at the end of their lives as great as that at the start, but they are in the minority. More common, more human, is the story of willed effort replacing the efforts of youth, which were so supercharged with ambition and the joy of doing what one had always longed to do that they seemed spontaneous.

CALL ME INSENSITIVE, but I can’t get too worked up about the damage drinking has done to American letters when I think of the damage it has done to thousands of Americans who never heard of Faulkner. Ultimately, our celebrated literary drunks are our tormented saints, and their stories teach a culture that veers between excessive restraint and reckless abandon how many more areas of life we have yet to get under control. □