Authors and Alcoholism

I’d like to believe you don’t have to be an alcoholic, drug addict, or suicidal to be a killer writer, but these tendencies certainly frequent many great authors’ lives. In every literature class I have taken, my professors present the pieces to be read that semester along with the biographies of the corresponding authors, and it is not pretty. It’s as if alcohol is a requirement and death by alcohol consumption or drug overdose is a norm in the literary community.

During my freshman year, I was introduced to the rambunctious Charles Bukowski. After leaving school in 1941, Bukowski moved to New York to become a writer. Five years later with nothing published, he traded writing for heavy drinking. But after developing an ulcer from drinking, he decided to write again, with more success. About his addiction he said, “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

If you have read any of Bukowski’s poems or novels you know this guy has spunk. Reading his work at eighteen, I was appalled and uncomfortable, yet eager for more. This guy was not afraid to spew truths and unveil the realities of life as he saw it, and I admired that. And, despite the fact that most of his writing is quite possibly a drunken rant, his courage and writing style continue to move me.

During my sophomore year, I had a professor who was obsessed with William Faulkner. So I became well acquainted with The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, which if you haven’t read I recommend reading (with a pen for clarification purposes). Born in Mississippi, Faulkner’s writing is greatly influenced by the Deep South. While not dependent on alcohol, he said of his fondness for it, “There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others. But a man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty; then he’s a damn fool if he doesn’t.” Faulkner did not abuse alcohol while writing; he turned to it when finances and everyday life became too much to bear or when he finished a piece of literature.

During my junior year, I touched upon my Irish roots by reading through some James Joyce. I haven’t made it through Ulysses yet, but Dubliners gave me a great understanding of his impatience with Dublin in the early twentieth century. He used epiphanies in the stories to analyze the stagnation of a nation; the populace may have had great ideals but they were slow to take action. Joyce began to drink heavily after his mother died, but he was a disciplined writer whose work reflects his dedication.

My final year at Uconn I read some of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. One of his most famous poems is a villanelle written for his dying father titled, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In it the speaker tries to convince his father to fight against death. Thomas had always seen his father as a strong man, so seeing his father weak and on his death bed frightened Thomas. At the young age of twenty, Thomas had great success with his work, but it was at this time that he began drinking heavily. At thirty-nine, while touring America and reading his work, he died of alcohol consumption.

I am also reading some Sylvia Plath, particularly The Bell Jar and Ariel. The Bell Jar is commonly referred to as autobiographical because Plath went through a depression just like the main character Esther did and received similar treatment for it. Her mental illness drove her to suicidal tendencies and she killed herself by sticking her head into a gas oven, inhaling its fumes.

Other alcoholics and brilliant writers worth mentioning are Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker. A quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald describes alcoholism pretty accurately, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” But why is there a link between writers and alcohol abuse? Is this simply a coincidence? Does drinking incredulous amounts inspire exceptional work? Or wouldn’t we assume that drinking hinders excellent writers from creating more brilliant stories and poems?

Ah, unanswerable questions. I really have no idea why all these people I look up to as great writers were also drunks or suicidal. Perhaps concentrated passion and over-analyzing life events leads to a form of depression that finds solace in drink. Ultimately, these writers were people facing life just as we are, with their own set of problems and perceptions. In no way do I believe that in order to become a great writer I must also be an alcoholic, and, as a disclaimer, I am not promoting that for others. But a couple drinks every now and then is fine, perhaps necessary, as long as it does not take over or destroy a person’s life. I say ‘necessary’ because sometimes we can get too caught up in our own thoughts or analyses of the world around us, and it becomes essential for us to step back. Intellectual, perceptive people most definitely have this problem. And, I would say that writers and artists have it worse simply because their passion and emotion is typically the driving force behind their work. All that built up emotion needs to be released somehow. Sadly, these authors chose self-deteriorating outlets.

As a graduating senior and English major, I look up to these writers and hope to one day make an impact on others through my writing as they did. And, hey, if that means drinking a little more wine than I should then I’m okay with it, as long as I don’t become debilitated or die from it.

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