Author Interviews
4:32 pm
Sat January 11, 2014

American Literature And The 'Mythos Of The Boozing Writer'

Originally published on Sun January 12, 2014 12:24 pm

There is a long history of alcoholism in American literature. The heavy drinking of writers like Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane inspired a kind of myth of the American writer as a genius armed with a typewriter and a bottle of whiskey. The success of writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also gave rise to the belief that alcohol somehow stoked their creativity.

In her new book, The Trip To Echo Spring, Olivia Laing investigates the role of drinking in the lives of six great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver. All of them struggled with alcoholism and, in the end, alcohol played a role in all of their deaths.

"I grew up in an alcoholic family myself and I really wanted to pull that apart and see what was behind it," she tells host Arun Rath.


Interview Highlights

On choosing her authors
I really didn't want to come in and do a hatchet job. I didn't want to expose them more than was necessary, and I think the best way to counterbalance that was for it to be people whose work I genuinely loved, that I thought was extraordinary — and whose work dealt with alcoholism, whose work dealt with alcohol and drinking and the whole mythos of the boozing writer. These six were all obsessed with the subject. They returned to it over and over again in poems and stories and plays and novels. It is one of their great subjects.

On the persistent stereotype of the heavy-drinking writer
I think Hemingway has a lot to do with that. ... [He] created it and has made it something intoxicating and addicting in itself. We still in many ways are in love with it. It's very interesting when you look at Hemingway's work and his letters, the ways that he established that myth in order to conceal and protect his own drinking, to let him himself get away with the amount of drinking that he wanted to do — and he was very contemptuous of people like Fitzgerald who he didn't think were "good" drinkers, who he felt couldn't really handle it.

On why the authors drank
I think it's not so much to loosen them up to produce the creative material — sometimes Fitzgerald would say that he was drinking to loosen up his ideas — but I think what tended to happen more was that [the authors] suffered quite strongly from, in different combinations, anxiety and depression from really quite a young age. And the drinking and the writing seem very much associated with that. Drinking becomes a way to escape from or to medicate all kinds of difficult feelings that might also be driving the creativity, too.

On the victims of the authors' alcoholism
That was something I was really at pains to look at: the collateral damage. The wives, the children, the friendships that gradually get destroyed. ... the teaching jobs, all sorts of things. That seems really significant. There's an ordinary life outside of the writer myth life, and that's part of the story of literature. Surely it's not the whole story, but it's a part of it.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And if you want to delve really deeply into the tortured soul of the great playwright, be sure to check out the new book "The Trip to Echo Spring" by Olivia Laing. The phrase the trip to echo spring, it's a line from "The Glass Menagerie," code for hitting the liquor cabinet. Laing's book investigates the role of drinking in the life of Tennessee Williams and five other great American writers - Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver.

I sat down with Laing last week and began by asking her why, of all the writers who drank, she chose these six.

OLIVIA LAING: I really didn't want to come in and do a hatchet job. I didn't want to expose them more than was necessary. And I think the best way to counterbalance that was for it to be people whose work I genuinely loved, that I thought was extraordinary, and whose work dealt with alcoholism, whose work dealt with alcohol and drinking with the whole mythos of the boozing writer.

And these six were all obsessed with the subject. They returned to it over and over again in poems and stories and plays and novels. It is one of their great subjects.

RATH: And in a way, I mean, do you think that because of the way that they lived with this and wrote about it that they might be responsible for this - there's a stereotype, really, of the great writer - and I think especially with novelists - that you're this heavy drinking type, especially like the 20th century male novelist, I think.

LAING: Absolutely. And I think Hemingway has a lot to do with that.

RATH: Yeah.

LAING: Hemingway created it very much and has made it something intoxicating and addictive in itself, I think. We still, in many ways, are in love with it. I grew up in an alcoholic family myself, and I really wanted to sort of pull that apart, see what was behind it, see what was going on with it.

And it's very interesting, when you look at Hemingway's work and his letters, the ways that he established that myth in order to conceal and protect his own drinking, to let him himself kind of get away with the amount of drinking that he wanted to do. And he was very contemptuous of people like Fitzgerald who he didn't think were good drinkers, who he felt couldn't really handle it.

RATH: How many of these greats were writing while under the influence?

LAING: Well, that's an interesting question, because they tended not to actually write drunk, which I think is something that when we think about writing drinking, we're assuming that they're getting drunk and getting to the typewriter and, you know, writing in these states of intoxication. And that tends not to happen.

Fitzgerald did do it sometimes. He wrote quite a bit of "Tender is the Night" drunk, and he wrote later: I bitterly regret doing that. You can tell when I did. So think it's more that it runs contemporaneously through their lives. So you see them, like Hemingway, say, working very hard in the mornings - Tennessee Williams did this too - with the black coffee but later on in the day as a sort of change of tune, change of channel, they start really hitting it hard and the next morning get up and do the whole thing over again.

RATH: Even if they didn't write while drunk or under the influence, how many of them really believed that alcohol enhanced their ability or that they needed it to loosen them up somehow?

LAING: I think it's not so much to loosen them up in order to produce the creative material. Sometimes Fitzgerald would say that, that he was drinking in order to loosen up his ideas, to free his ideas, but I think what tended to happen more is they tended to suffer quite strongly from - in different combinations - anxiety and depression from really quite a young age.

And the drinking and the writing seem very much associated with that, that drinking becomes a way to escape from or to medicate all kinds of difficult feelings that might also be driving the creativity too.

RATH: Someone who really definitely spent a lot of time depressed that you write about, the poet John Berryman. And he was actually somebody where there was this sort of mythology, this sense that alcoholism was just part of who he was, was part of his creative process somehow.

LAING: Absolutely. Yeah. And you see that even after his death. I mean, he killed himself having failed the third time of going through recovery. His story is incredibly distressing. But even after his death, you still see people kind of talking about, you know, the whole shtick of the drunk poet turning up to give his readings, as if that's a kind of glamorous thing.

And it doesn't really take much picking away at Berryman's life to see how incredibly unglamorous his drinking was and the vast consequences it had on the structure on his life, on his work, on the people he loved, on his children, that it was incredibly damaging and detrimental.

RATH: Well, it's interesting, you know, in your book, how it feels like in a way that this myth of the glamour of the drinking writer perpetuates itself. You write about Tennessee Williams how when he died he wanted to be buried near the poet Hart Crane who he, in a way, maybe modeled himself after. And Crane was also an alcoholic. And I wonder, you know, did Williams or others start down that path to excess thinking they might, you know, emulate those greats before them?

LAING: I'm sure there's something of that. There's a scene that I have in the book where Cheever describes sitting on his porch reading biographies of Fitzgerald and crying his eyes out over them. And there's this sort of sense that they're kind of in love with these stories, that they follow them and then other people are following them. So there's a sort of hand-me-down quality to it.

But I think also, it's really important to remember how much the alcoholic desires an excuse note. And this provides such a wonderful excuse note for them. It's like, well, I'm an American male writer, and this is what I have to do. This is how I must live. And once they get dry, once people like Cheever and Carver get dry, they very much reject that sort of way of thinking.

RATH: Has this exploration of yours changed your experience of reading these writers?

LAING: I've been left with a real fondness for them. I mean, some of them, I felt very uncomfortable about the things that I was finding out. And actually, ironically, it was Raymond Carver whose sobriety I end with. I was expecting that to be a very celebratory story. But writing about that, I realized that there were still things that weren't likeable about him.

There were still things - there were still elements of denial in his character. But it's human. It's a human thing. And I think I did end the book with a sense of compassion for them and a sense of the kind of courage and the kind of doggedness without wanting to sort of hero worship them. There's a real courage to just getting up every day and carrying on writing. I found that very impressive.

But at the same time, I don't want to let them off the hook of it's not necessary to drink to those levels, and they were choosing to do that over and over again.

RATH: So, I mean, it's very easy to lose track of when you're thinking about all the great writing that these men have done. What your book digs down into is that, you know, there are victims for these people, for their alcoholism.

LAING: That is such a good point. Yeah. And I think we do forget that, and that was something I was really at pains to try and look at is the collateral damage: the wives, the children, the friendships that gradually get destroyed, the teaching jobs, all sorts of things.

And that to me seems really significant that there's an ordinary life outside of the sort of writer myth life. And that's part of the story of literature. Surely, it's not the whole story, but it's a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Olivia Laing's new book is called "The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking." And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Tomorrow, we have R&B legend Sharon Jones on the show. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great might. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.