“I remember Kingsley Amis, himself no slouch, saying that he could tell on what page of the novel Paul Scott had reached for the bottle and thrown caution to the winds.”
That’s a quote from British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens’ memoir describing the ability, possessed by some writers, to detect when a fellow author had started drinking while working. Hitchens came to know British novelist, Kingsley Amis, through the author’s son, Martin. The younger Amis and Hitchens remained close friends from their college days until Hitchens’ death in 2011.
After college, Hitchens became a journalist while the younger Amis followed in his father’s footsteps and became a novelist.
Hitchens, it is widely known, was himself no slouch (to borrow a phrase) when it came to boozing. Yet, he spent not a small amount of energy in his memoir denying that he was ever a “piss artist”, as the British say. He makes a convincing argument, but what he never does is make the claim, as did Amis the elder, that he could tell which of his contemporaries were boozing and which weren’t.
Kingsley Amis, though, commented often on the topic. It should be noted that Kinglsey claimed to do little drinking in front of the typewriter. He claimed that a good drink could provide “that final burst of energy at the end of the day” but he had little use for those who cranked out the pages with a bottle on the desk, saying once:
“The writer who writes his books on, rather than between, whisky is a lousy writer. He is probably American anyway.”
That leaves little room for respect of either the drunk or the American.But while it may have been easy for someone with Kingsley Amis’ wit to discern who was sauced with pen in hand, it is often not so with the rest of us.
Perhaps that is why American schoolteachers inflict so many drunk authors on students before the young minds can comprehend the reasons that would drive one to numb brilliance with large quantities of booze. High school and college years are absolutely peppered with the amazing works of inveterate drunks.
In high school, at least, the teacher rarely takes the time to mention the author’s turmoil or struggle with spirits. It does beg the question: Why bother?
Meaning: Why bother to study the great works without bothering to understand the authors?
That question can’t be answered here.
Instead, the following is a list of some great American writers who our teachers never bothered to tell us might just have been drunk when they wrote what we were forced to read.
Why teachers choose to omit this single fact common among these writers is left to the reader to decide.
Hemingway gets mentioned first. Not because he was the drunkest American author, but rather to dispel that popular myth.
Hemingway was well-known as a drinker. And he certainly dealt with his share of demons right up until he killed himself with a shotgun. But school teachers never have to worry that some sharp, perceptive student will sniff booze wafting up from a page of a Hemingway’s work.
That’s because, contrary to what many believe, Hemingway never drank while he was writing. (Some may wonder how he found the time.) His own granddaughter has said as much, And the great author, himself, angrily told off an interviewer who once asked if it was true that he made a pitcher of martinis before he sat down to work. His answer:
“Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?”
Sounds like Kingsley Amis.
Still, young students rarely learn about Hemingway’s battle with the bottle.
Since Papa brought him up, Faulkner comes next on the list.
His books are tough even for college students. Yet, The Sound and The Fury does sometimes make it into high school curricula.
That the man who once said, “civilization begins with distillation,” was a drinker comes as little surprise to anyone. But for those familiar with his prose, it may or may not come as a surprise that he often drank while writing. His works are difficult to penetrate. That could lead some to believe that he was a genius with the English language. Either that or he was out-of-his-mind-drunk when he was writing. According to Hemingway, and others, the latter was the case.
An interviewer once asked him what he would suggest to readers who said they had trouble understanding his writing, even after having read it two or three times.
“Read four times,” he shot back.
Sometimes, though, that wouldn’t even work for Faulkner.
Once, when asked by a translator to decipher one of his own sentences, Faulkner had to admit:
“I have absolutely no idea of what I meant. You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
No one makes it out of high school without reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The booze-fueled, novel about the roaring twenties was penned by the similarly booze-fueled author who was Hemingway’s contemporary and — at one time — friend.
Even though Hemingway eventually killed himself, many smile-inducing stories and quotes exist concerning his relationship with the bottle. That is not the case with Fitzgerald.
Once writing to a psychiatrist on the topic of alcohol, Fitzgerald had this to say:
“My vision of the world at its brightest is such that life without the use of its amenities is impossible. I have lived hard and ruined the essential innocence [sic] in myself that could make it that possible [sic], and the fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for with suffering and death perhaps but not renunciation.”
Hemingway may have made some gallows-humor wise-cracks about drinking in his day but he never wrote anything that dark.
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. In it, Fitzgerald foreshadowed the downfall the country would experience as a result of that decade’s exuberance. His own life took the same downward trajectory through the depression-era 30’s. His drinking caused numerous heart attacks and other health problems during those years. He died in 1940 before he, or the country, recovered.
Call of the Wild and White Fang are two books that are nearly inescapable for most American schoolchildren. And with good reason. Left out of lesson plans, though, is any mention that Jack London was both a socialist and a drunk — two classifications that are seemingly unmentionable to schoolchildren.
One book of London’s that will not be making school reading lists any time soon is John Barleycorn. That is the title of his semi-autobiographical novel in which booze plays a central role. Written three years before he died, London was most likely half in the bag when he hammered out the following:
“I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn’t want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink.”
That of course leaves open the question of just how sauced he was when he penned the classic stories that most children know and love.
Teachers are not likely to know, and if they did they certainly wouldn’t mention it.
Edgar Allan Poe
Perhaps the only writer we know from our schooldays who beat F. Scott Fitzgerald’s later years in the gloominess department is Edgar Allan Poe. It is hard to graduate from a public education without reading The Raven or perhaps The Cask of the Amontillado.
Poe was a master of word choice, but it seems he may have also played slave to the the master of the bottle. It is common knowledge that Poe had close relationships with both alcohol and opium. Much has been said and written about these. Given the intense darkness of Poe’s works many believe that he spent a good deal of time working while imbibing.
The truth is less clear. Many contend that Poe couldn’t have done his amazing work while blatto although they freely admit he was an alcoholic. Others, as is often erroneously assumed with Hemingway, maintain that, given his level of indulgence, he wouldn’t have had the time to do both.
So whether he was out of it when he wrote The Raven we may never know. We also may never know if he actually said or wrote the following:
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have perilled life and reputation and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories — memories of wrong and injustice and imputed dishonor — from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
That’s a quote that will turn up in any cursory Google search on alcohol and Poe. However it doesn’t appear in any of his known letters. But it does appear in the writings of a woman who was once his fiancee. She refers to the words as “uttered” by Poe.
More mysterious than the origins of the above quote are the events surrounding his death. There are numerous theories, but the truth will probably stay a mystery. One thing is certain, Poe was in poor health in the days before he died. His hard drinking certainly didn’t help with that. He died in 1849.