For Whom the Bottle Tolls
I got into a bunch of trouble once by noting that many successful 20th century writers were alcoholics. I’m not an expert on this subject by any means. And this concept certainly didn’t originate with me. I’d merely observed what others have observed over a lifetime of reading good writers (and mediocre writers) and many of their biographies. I don’t know if there are enough academic studies to verify the link between writers and excessive drinking, but I once read a book by a professor who took a whack at the subject. His name was Goodwin, and here’s a quote from a review of his book:
“University Psychiatrist Donald W. Goodwin has attempted
to explain the remarkable statistics about the drinking habits
of well-known American writers of the past century: a third to
a half were alcoholic; of six Americans awarded the Nobel Prize
for literature, four (Eugene O'Neill, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner
and Hemingway) were alcoholics, and a fifth (John Steinbeck)
Any scientist will tell you that appearances often deceive, even when there are genuine statistics that seemed to support the deception (correlation doesn’t necessarily equate to causation.) However, Goodwin did the dispassionate math and the hard facts do seem to lean in an obvious direction. On the other hand, this entirely quantitative conclusion is a long way from a reliable assertion that alcohol and creativity, per se, are bound together. I don’t look at it that way. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that a person needs to be alcoholic to be talented or successful. That’s, of course, absurd. Even if you believe the statistics, about 70 percent of successful 20th century writers kept a clear head.
Alcoholism is a tragic disease and also not a failing of character (though failed characters have been known to drink too much.) In my opinion, ones admiration of a writer’s work should be no more influenced by her alcohol consumption than by her cholesterol levels.
As stated above, I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but I personally don’t believe drinking improves ones creativity, as some have asserted (Christopher Hitchens, for one, though he also sang the praises of cigarettes and took issue with God.) My totally uninformed guess is that it might provide some temporary loosening of inhibitions, which might facilitate expression, though probably only briefly. I’m certain that the greatness of the alcoholic writers noted above would have been that much greater if they’d been able to stay sober, as Dr. Goodwin also asserts. (Cheever famously had a great literary run after successful rehab. Styron, on the other hand fell into a deep, life-threatening depression when he went on the wagon – though I’d argue he had the cart and the horse mixed up on that one…).
Professor Goodwin hypothesized that the actually corollary was between writers and a tendency toward bi-polar disorder (known in his day as manic-depression), which can have the side effect of substance abuse. He also wondered if long periods alone with oneself, and a fair amount of free time (for those lucky enough to avoid a day job) might be contributors, though I doubt this since the same could be said for any number of solitary pursuits which haven’t produced such a bumper crop of heavy drinkers. I think it’s possible that this might have been a distinctly 20th century phenomenon, when there was more of a general acceptance of the drinking lifestyle among the literati/cognoscenti. So further study might indicate that the statistical disproportionality noted by Professor Goodwin in the 1980’s has declined in recent times (though check the biographies of Stephen King, Raymond Carver, Kingsley Amis, Elmore Leonard…..go back a bit to Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, James Jones).
By the way, the same phenomenon isn’t noticeable in British, European or Latin writers of the same period. Nor so much in women, Dorothy Parker being one notable exception. But maybe you could blame that on the Algonquin Round Table.