Booze and the Muse: Why Were Great American Writers So Often Drunks?
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Here’s an interesting article I recall reading in print back in the 1980s:


February 28, 1989

During these fits . . . I drank-God only knows how often or how much.

– Edgar Allan Poe

Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writers and alcohol. Everyone’s heard the stories: from F. Scott Fitzgerald rolling champagne bottles down 5th Avenue in New York to Ernest Hemingway busting up bars and people on Key West. But few have looked past the anecdotal evidence for the underlying truth.

Certainly that’s not for lack of material. Just listing the writers who drank a lot would take one through the reading list for an undergraduate degree in 20th Century American literature: Dashiell Hammett, Thomas Wolfe, James Thurber, Jack London, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler and kegs-full of others.

In fact, the list is so long that it would be easier to list the writers who didn`t drink. As Sinclair Lewis, a nonteetotaler, once asked, ”Can you name me five American writers since Poe who did not die of alcoholism?”

Why have so many writers drunk? Is it the hours? The need to find a creative outlet? An ingrained tradition few cared to break with? Something in their genes? A natural outgrowth of dealing with editors?

One who has pondered these questions is Dr. Donald W. Goodwin, a psychiatrist who has spent 20 years studying alcoholism. Goodwin’s own aspirations to be a writer once took him from Kansas to New York City, where he hoped to drink with famous writers (he didn`t). Now he has written a book about the phenomenon.

In ”Alcohol and the Writer” (Andrews and McMeel) Goodwin tries to explain the high rate of alcoholism among authors. To this end, he concentrated on eight heavy-drinking writers: four American Nobel Laureates

(Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill), two other American writers (Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald), a Belgian (Georges Simenon) who moved to America and then drank like an American (which means to obsessive excess), and an Englishman (Malcolm Lowry) whose not entirely successful cure for alcoholism was to move to the Canadian wilderness…

”Of the seven American Nobel Laureates in literature, four of them-Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner-were clearly alcoholic, and a fifth, John Steinbeck, was probably alcoholic,” said Goodwin, holding a happy-hour meatball in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. ”Five of seven, 71 percent, is a pretty high rate of alcoholism, surely the highest rate in any precisely defined group known to exist.”

I recall Goodwin stating that O’Neill, whose Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a harrowing picture of familial alcoholism, was the only one of the great inter-war American writers to sober up.

My guess is that for poets and fiction writers, alcohol tends to make the world temporarily look once again glowing and luminous the way it did when you were a young writer of rhapsodic lyric poetry. Whether it help you convert your vision into text, however, is a different question.

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