"Writers and Rum"
January 9th, 2014
“Writers in this office used to drink,” a grizzled veteran of these corridors once said sternly to a couple of pup reporters, whom he had discovered taking turns trying on a good-looking cashmere jacket in another cubicle. The moral, abashing if not shaming, was that in the halls where once real men had roamed, or drank in peaceable closets, now mere jacket-fanciers wandered. Certainly, it’s impossible to turn the past pages of this magazine, or the pages of American literary history, for that matter, without being reminded of how inextricable the drinking life and the writing life—or, to put it more bluntly, alcoholism and art—once were. From St. Clair McKelway to Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, and from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Sinclair Lewis and beyond, it was not long ago that if you wrote you drank, and if you weren’t drinking it was because you were drying out.
The critic Olivia Laing has just published a good, sad book on this subject called “The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers And Drinking,” which tells at length the mostly familiar but still melancholy stories of the drinking lives of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and John Berryman and John Cheever and Raymond Carver, complete, it sometimes feels, with tipped-in napkin stains from each of their favorite bars. Oddly fixated, for a Brit, who surely has plenty of scribbling drinkers in her own country, on this one—a reviewer in the Times claims that she “romanticizes the vast American landscape as a place made for rumination,” though rum-ination seems more like it—she entangles the story of these gifted men with tales of her own alcoholic family. We attend an A.A. meeting in her presence, and then are off to Key West, where Hemingway downed many and Tennessee Williams even more. Tender and sympathetic though she is to her subjects’ compulsions, and difficult though it is to be completely immune to the appeal of dissolute lives in our timid time, it mostly makes for depressing reading, which was, perhaps, her point.
I’m just old enough to be able to have seen the tail end of that literary culture of really big drinkers—and a real culture it was, as Laing understands. It may be hard to believe that it was so, when nowadays we mostly ingest our drugs from prescription bottles, early in the morning or late at night—but it existed, and was as alluring as it was utterly toxic.
As I wrote in my book about eating and drinking, “The Table Comes First,” one of my early editorial occupations was taking two remarkable writers, Mordecai Richler and Wilfrid Sheed, once a month out to a largely liquid lunch. Both died before their day. Sheed, at least, did what a writer should, and got a very fine book, “In Love with Daylight”, out of it later on—all about drying out, with pills and cancer thrown into the Job-like bundle—marred only by the rummy’s blind certainty that what he suffered from was merely social drinking, plus a little more. (They can be pulling the tiny bottles out of your hand in the hotel room after the third blackout, and you can still stubbornly believe that it’s just social drinking, maybe a little more.) “I took more from alcohol than alcohol has taken from me,” Sheed liked to quote Churchill as saying—and what that old drinking culture took from alcohol was sociability, of a rather Londonish kind, where the bumps and bruises of literary conflict seemed at least to heal a little sooner and the literary types mingled more freely. (Sheed, for one, was equally at home with the National Review crowd and the New York Review of Books crowd and the New York Daily News crowd, and he wasn’t unique.)
At the other, soberer end, John Updike once said to an admirer that the reason for the astonishing longevity he shared with Philip Roth—not just achieving the second acts that Fitzgerald said were impossible in American lives but third acts and fourth acts and then both men appearing, so to speak, out in the lobby to shake hands and do card tricks after the show—was, simply, that neither drank. He brought it up because he knew it was unusual. Growing up, he had absorbed the notion that a good writer wasn’t just possibly a drunk; a good writer had to be a drunk to be any good at all. (Jazz musicians, I think, believed something similar about the harder stuff, though the price they paid was more obvious in jail time and the advantages they took more obvious, I’m told, in blissed out periods. Bill Evans’s piano playing circa 1961 makes a strong case for heroin.)
Of course, ballplayers and ballerinas and aluminum-siding salesmen, for that matter, all drink, too, or used to. But most aluminum-siding salesmen or ballerinas presumably saw drinking too much as a problem, whereas writers, for a surprisingly long time, as Laing reminds us, saw drinking as an essential feature of the act, a complement to the act of authorship. When Norton and Kramden overindulge at the Raccoon Lodge, they say, “Oh, what a head!” Only writers say, “Oh, what a chapter!”
* * *
If a theory is called for—and when is it not, in these woods?—to explain this phenomenon, it is that writing is work in which the balance necessary to a sane life of physical and symbolic work has been wrested right out of plumb, or proportion, and alcohol is (wrongly) believed to rebalance it. Anyone not a writer is probably sick of hearing how hard writing is, and obviously writing is not nearly as soul-destroying as coal mining or burger flipping or whatever you like. But writing is, if not uniquely hard work, then uniquely draining work. Some basic human need for a balance between thinking and acting is still kept intact even by the most tedious of other tasks. All rewarding effort involves a balance between wit and work—between the bits you do alone in your head and the bits you do in company with your hands (or voice or body or whatever). Laboring in your head, exclusively, does feel unnatural; whatever else we might have been doing, back out there on the primeval savannah, we weren’t sitting and moving the ends of our fingers minutely on a stone surface for six hours at a stretch.
The dramatic and plastic arts have elements of both wit and work intertwined—actors move around and shout, a director moves them (and shouts at them); painters have the sheer physicality of paint, and the givens of the canvas offer you four lines and a white surface to start with. A writer, on the other hand, stares out mournfully over the abyss of language—there are, truly, an infinite number of ways of forming the sentence you are about to attempt, all save one of them ugly and inadequate. And there’s nowhere to look for help but your own fingers.
The only cure, or hope, is to make the act of writing physical—to move it from your head to your gut—and, in doing so, to make it automatic, aerobic. That’s hard, and can be done in only two ways, both calling for outside assistance. One is to take the drug, or drink, and hope that it helps to ‘physicalize’ the work, move the pedals, and start the breathing—the theory used by those writers, like the elder Hemingway, who do the drinking and the writing simultaneously. Or else, to make the transition from mind to hand sober, knowing that the exhaustion it engenders will call for an antidote. Drained, one wants to replenish, and the whiskey or wine bottle is at hand. This is false reasoning of course, but it is the speciousness of writers.
Or was. No generalization about literature ever survives contact with the enemy, reality—doubtless there’s a young novelist in New York now writing her twelve-hundred-page opus on love and Brooklyn with a bottle of Jack Daniels in hand, and certainly Gary Shteyngart is doing his bit for the virtues of vodka. Still, there’s a general sense that the drugs of choice for writers now are more often little blue pills than big brown bottles. The onset of feminism, which compelled male writers at last to take some responsibility for their kids (one of the things that Laing’s writers certainly were not were present-tense dads), the diffusion of literary life from narrow bands of energy in London and New York and Paris into the academic monasteries of creative-writing programs—all of this has made the evening’s common cocktail a lost communion cup. (You can take the pill, and then send the kids to school.) Writers cope with the drain of writing now with yoga and meditation and marital discord (and, of course, with weed and Oregon Pinot, too) but the heyday of the writer with the whiskey bottle always on his desk seems past.
The price we pay for the end of the drinking life for writers is, perhaps, not so much isolation, though that is so: people can’t believe how few writers actually know other writers; the bars solved that for the old guys, at least. We also pay it, perhaps, in undue cheerfulness and extended youthfulness. The single most astonishing thing about the old-time writers Laing studies is how old they were when still young. Alcohol ages. Fitzgerald died just past forty, but everyone was already treating him like Rip Van Winkle. This was partly because he had out-lived his time but mostly because youth died then with the young. Now hair dye and twenty-four-hour gyms and wild salmon and celery juice or whatever have extended youth or the illusion of youth right to the edge of extreme old age. The unduly extended boyishness of this generation’s fully mature writers is still much spoken of, with annoyance, often by critics of what must seem to the boyish writers unduly extended girlishness. (The boyishness takes the form of being too arch for too long, the girlishness of being too catty too often.) But life is always worth extending on any terms available. “American writers are so strange,” an aging (and alcoholic) British wit once said. “They’re such … chirpy chappies.” The price of a lot less drink may be far fewer barroom sing-alongs among the bards, but also far fewer early deaths, if ever more chirpy chaps. It seems a decent trade.