This round’s on them

Alex Downie on the connection between authors and alcoholism.

Image: Simon Cocks, via Flickr.

In the 1920s, the author of The Great Gatsby introduced himself to party guests as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic”. He told friends that “too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right”. In the 1930s, he convinced himself that he was sober, because beer didn’t count as alcohol (although he is thought to have been drinking up to 20 bottles of beer a day).

Drinking has long been connected to the 20th century’s ‘Great American Writers’ – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cheever and Kerouac, among others. In these American literary scenes, drinking heavily was admired as a sign of manliness. Just as Hemingway chased the bulls and played with guns, he also boasted that he could drink others under the table. Faulkner bragged that he always wrote with his whiskey within reach. When Hemingway criticised Fitzgerald’s drinking, he was concerned not by his alcoholism but by his lightweight status – his inability to handle alcohol ‘like a man’.Of course, American writers are not the only authors renowned for their alcoholic excesses. In his memoir, English novelist (and alcoholic) Kingsley Amis told of his friend, renowned author (and alcoholic) Phillip Larkin, sitting through a school literary evening after a heavy drinking session and needing to take a piss. He trusted that his heavy overcoat would absorb his urine, but “it turned out that he had miscalculated”.

While a number of prominent American female writers from the same era – most notably Dorothy Parker – were also alcoholics, their habits were, and still are, typically treated as pitiable and detached from their writing careers. It mirrors the persistent cultural distinction in how we treat male and female drinking. It is perhaps best exemplified in the biography of the great journalist, and even greater misogynist, Christopher Hitchens: “It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is true but it just is. Don’t ever be responsible for it.”

Male or female, alcoholism took a severe toll on the authors whose lives it captured.

Near his end, Hemingway’s liver protruded from his belly “like a long fat leech”. William S. Burroughs, a ‘heavyweight’ of the 1950s Beat Movement along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, accidentally killed his wife while drunk. He attempted a William Tell, a bar trick that involved shooting a glass off her head. The bullet pierced her forehead and entered her brain, killing her instantly.

Perhaps most relevantly, drinking impacted the quantity of writing of many of its adherents. John Updike once commented that the reason for his and Philip Roth’s longevity compared to other American authors of the same era was merely that neither of them drank. Perhaps the cost of drinking is best captured by the fate of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Struggling to complete his follow-up to Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor that “A short story can be written on a bottle … but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows.”

Fitzgerald struggled to fulfil his earlier promise. By the late 1930s, he had written The CrackUp, a series for Esquire detailing his creative decline, and the precursor to the now popular genre of ‘misery memoirs’. He died of a heart attack in 1940, aged 44, his health destroyed by decades of alcohol abuse.