When browsing pictures of Ernest Hemmingway, there is always one recurrent pose that seems to captivate the spectator: it’s the image of a man sat at his type writer, his eyes fixed on the page, and a glass of drink held carefully in one hand – as if pondering both with equal interest. In time we have come to accept an almost romantic image of the writer and his bottle of whiskey. The trials of excessive drinking and substance abuse have become strangely tangled with literature and the supposed bohemian lifestyle we associate with artists. Of course, Hemmingway isn’t the only person to have followed the mantra of “write drunk, edit sober”; for many writers the accumulation of some kind of vice has fuelled their lives and work, allegedly leading to some of their greatest achievements but also to their downfalls.
In a way it’s easy to understand how such a solitary profession as writing can lead to alcoholism. Trapped alone with your pen and your notes, sometimes a bottle of wine is welcome company. But it isn’t always the remedy of the lonely artist; Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink together, touring the cafés of Paris in the 1920s and generating ideas as they went. For Fitzgerald, it was a recourse from depression; his failed marriage to Zelda had left him unhappy and self-destructive. But for Hemmingway it was part of the inspiration, allowing him to make “other people more interesting” and cope with the pressures of writing. In her book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing explores the alcohol problems of many famous American writers. The title is taken from a work of literature penned by another notorious drinker: Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Brick’s line “I’m taking a trip to Echo Spring” is a euphemism for his many trips to the liquor cabinet where the character drinks to cope with depression and anxiety, just as Williams did throughout his life.
It should be noted that drinking isn’t the only bad habit that has accompanied writers to their desks. As well as his alcoholism, Philip Larkin had a weakness for hard-core pornography. He even carefully filed and catalogued the magazines he collected throughout his life in a true librarian fashion. But perhaps the most common form of literary experimentation is the consumption of drugs. In the modern world, drug literature has become a genre in itself: novels such as Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have taken the substance out of the writers’ lives and put it into the book’s content. Yet modern literature cannot be credited with introducing the topic of drugs into writing; if you consider the Lotus Fruit in Homer’s Odyssey to be a kind of narcotic then it’s a topic that’s fascinated writers for millennia, leading to a long tradition of addicts including S. T. Coleridge and Stephen King.
Besides these writers, there are one group that are consistently associated with drug culture: The Beat Generation. Marcus Brown’s book The Road of Excess tracks the history of drugs and literature and understandably reserves a large portion of the content to discussing Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Beats were different from their predecessors in that, rather than just taking drugs for the experience, they used them as a symbol of rebellion. It was a method of fleeing from America and finding a psychedelic utopia in its place. But that isn’t to say that drugs didn’t play an important part in their composition; Ginsberg claims Kerouac wrote On the Road with a coffee in one hand and a joint in the other, causing him to write the novel at an incredible speed. All through his career Ginsberg advocated the use of marijuana and even wrote an essay ‘First Manifesto to End the Bringdown’ where he defended it. Ultimately it was their lifestyle that led to the 1960s counterculture and the antics of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Although there’s no doubt that writers have catered for their addictions alongside their work, the question of whether it actually helped them produce great literature is questionable. Does it displace you from reality and allow you to harness your creativity, or does it simply give you the will and energy to write? From one angle it could even be considered cheating, like using steroids at the Olympics. When recounting his time studying at Oxford, Christopher Hitchens claims “one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials” – a tradition that in my experience has been sadly forgotten. I speculate as to whether the university would ever reinstate such a custom, and if so, I wonder if my essays would get any better.