The thirsty muse : alcohol and the American writer by Tom Dardis
London: Abacus, 1990 ISBN 0349101434
"Of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, five were alcoholic." Thus begins this fascinating book, which looks at four of the great twentieth-century American writers - Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O'Neill - and the toll that their alcoholism took on their lives.
Dardis, who himself was a recovered alcoholic, writes with power and knowledge about the effects of the disease on the body and the mind, and the inevitable progression - if the subject doesn't stop drinking - into depression and early death.
The book is divided into four sections, one for each writer, beginning with Faulkner. Part of what makes this book a fascinating one to read is the illustrations of the connections that flow through these writer's lives apart from alcohol. One is that they all had trouble with their partners and wives: trouble partly caused no doubt by alcohol. Faulkner's wife and family were a source of financial stress as to keep them all Faulkner felt that he had to go to Hollywood to write for the movies. Whilst he felt that this type of work was beneath him, he was actually not a very good scriptwriter, and soon struggled to hold a position at any studio; his predicament was not helped by his frequent alcoholic breakdowns.
Another common thread throughout the book is the need for these writers to ensure their partners were unable to upstage them in their chosen profession - at times Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O'Neill sought to repress the literary ambitions of their spouses. This smacks of a greater insecurity that certainly manifested itself in Hemingway, who constantly was looking over his shoulder at the achievements and drinking of his contemporaries. Hemingway was quick to brand others as "rummys" - Faulkner in particular - but was blind to his own drinking. Dardis points out that denial of the problem is typical of alcoholics, and all four of these writers denied they had a problem, except O'Neill, who managed to escape the disease's clutches.
As well as charting the progress of alcoholism, Dardis (who was a professor of English), charts the progress of each person's writing. It's fair to state that typically the standard of writing inversely followed the progression of each writer's alcoholism. Faulkner's early genius slowly dissipated, and his later works, particularly A Fable, did not have the same power as his earlier books. Faulkner found it harder and harder to string words together, and spent a decade writing A Fable, where in the past he could write a book in a matter of months. He eventually descended into a great silence, not writing, but regularly attending clinics to dry out.
Fitzgerald seemed to spend a lot of time running away from his gift. After completing The great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was content to churn out stories for the Saturday Evening Post at $2,500 a pop, to keep him in the lifestyle he wanted. Hemingway was not the only one who thought he was wasting his talent: Fitzgerald defended his decision, but one wonders if deep-down he knew that he was destroying his skills with alcohol. Eventually his abilities eroded to the extent that he couldn't sell any stories at all, and those that he managed to get published were second-rate by his standards. By this time Zelda was pretty much institutionalized, although Dardis shows us that she was clear-headed enough to realise that it was Fitzgerald's (and her own) drinking that had a lot to do with both of their problems. Fitzgerald, like most alcoholics, refused, or was unable, to see that alcohol was the problem.
Hemingway always saw alcohol as the solution: "when things were really bad I could take a drink and right away they were much better." His drinking was legendary, but in the early years he kept his drinking and writing strictly apart. As his disease progressed, the time he would have spent writing was taken up with his drinking, and the writing diminished. Hemingway's drinking made him more likely to carry on brawls - both literal and literary - with those he saw as his enemies. His desire to be seen to be the best and most manly in any pursuit led him to cut a more and more ridiculous figure - there is nothing quite so pathetic as an old man pretending to be young, especially if he's also a drunkard. Hemingway always saw drinking as a moral issue, and those that couldn't take it (Faulkner, Fitzgerald) had failed as men when they let drink get the better of them. Hemingway took control of his own demise, but alcohol had conquered him long before he pulled the trigger.
The essay on Eugene O'Neill is the shortest in this book; he is the only one of this quartet to defeat the bottle, by the only truly effective method - becoming teetotal. There were two reasons O'Neill succeeded in beating alcoholism where the other three failed. Firstly his new wife wouldn't stand for it, where his previous wife drank with him, and secondly he had enough self-awareness to realise that his work was deteriorating markedly and rapidly under the influence of drinking. Darids shows us how, by stopping drinking, O'Neill not only prolonged his life, but he managed to produce his two best plays, The Iceman Cometh and Long day's journey into night. In both these plays, O'Neill used his insight into addiction to produce masterpieces of modern theatre.
The thirsty muse is a reminder that alcohol is the great deceiver when it comes to art, especially writing. It can never lead to good, despite what Hemingway in particular liked to think. All four of these writers ended their lives as sad and lonely men, trapped in spirals of ill-health and depression. One wonders what they all might have achieved if they had been able to master their disease. As it is, their literary lives went to further the idea that to be a great writer meant being a great drinker, and burnt out before the age of 50. For these four writers of genius, it was possible to write and drink, for a time at least. So many more failed.
This book is a great insight into a literary mindset, and a well-written account of a time and place in literature that will never occur again. It is also a salutary reminder of how fragile we all can be.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell