Angels and Fish

THE THIRSTY MUSE: ALCOHOL AND THE AMERICAN WRITER BY TOM DARDIS, ABACUS, 292 PP, £4.99, AUGUST 1991, ISBN 0-747-41146-8.
THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: WHY WRITERS DRINK BY OLIVIA LAING,
CANONGATE, 284 PP, £10.99, MAY 2014, ISBN 978-1-84767-794-5.

Alcohol, namely alcoholism, has long clung to the reputation of great writers. The coupling of loosened inhibitions and drink-sodden inspiration lends itself well to the mythology of genius and masterpieces – the dressing appears fine and well-suited. Critics and readers often cosset this perception, but so too the writers themselves – this review could have begun with any number of quotations attributed to Hemingway, Faulkner et al. extolling the benefits of intoxication or, perhaps more accurately, a high tolerance towards large quantities of the stuff. With the recent publication of Laing’s quite monstrous hybrid of slender literary biography, jovial travel adventure and sorrowful confessional memoir (a remarkable tonal feat), it seems appropriate to revisit Dardis’ seminal academic treatment of the alcoholic writer/writing alcoholic. Both books are manifestly fascinated by the purpose alcohol fulfils in such a vast number of esteemed literary minds – they decide that it is essentially a destructive one – and both authors possess their facts and medical science in order to facilitate their arguments. Detailed textual analysis of the selected writers, however, is indulged to a much lesser extent and we are left to wonder over the precise effect drink has on literary technique and content. From these two books we are simply persuaded to think that when these authors drank like a fish, they often wrote like one too.

Dardis’ book is, unlike Laing’s, a tonally-consistent academic study. Despite the apparent ambivalence of the title (The Thirsty Muse), Dardis believes resolutely that alcoholism and great literary works are mutually exclusive from one another. His diagnosis is accordingly complacent: alcoholism is “…the American writer’s disease”. It is lucky, therefore, that his representative study consists of four white, male, canonical American writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and O’Neill. Due to their excessive drinking, the first three went bust (in terms of literary output) before their time – and only O’Neill offers the countervailing tale of moral redemption. The book feels that it needs the latter story to crystallise its point: O’Neill is proof that lengthy sobriety can redeem a literary career which would have wasted away otherwise. Dardis deems two of O’Neill’s later plays as great. Broadly, it is possible to accept the thrust of Dardis’ argument: alcoholism is bad, it can make people commit terrible acts, and it can ultimately nullify creativity and/or lead to premature death. The four writers, it is argued, possessed a genetic predisposition to addiction and were not helped by the situational circumstances of prohibition-era America. Again, we concede this may be true. The problems lie within the rigid dogmatism of Dardis’ viewpoint: he finds it difficult to fully recognise that alcohol and its effects are inherently contradictory. He makes passing reference to bad works completed by O’Neill when he was teetotal, and of Faulkner’s impressive stamina when writing some of his most admired work in the thrall of liquor, but treats these rather as peculiar anomalies than as a chance to refine his argument. Furthermore, he uncritically accepts the twelve-step mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as the results from Goodwin’s famous study on the genetic causes of alcoholism (they were far from conclusive). This latter charge is perhaps harsh with a few decades of retrospect, but such a lack of critical engagement would not be likely found even in an A-level psychology class.

The Trip to Echo Spring (a reference to Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on the Hot Tin Roof) is a very different book to Dardis’. The hardback version was nominated for Costa Biography of the Year 2013©: an appropriate measure of its accessibility in contrast to the academic rigour of The Thirsty Muse. Its subtitle, Why Writers Drink, is appalling and misleading. Still, it possesses interesting illuminations on its six chosen writers – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver, Berryman and Williams – who, as in the Dardis study, are noticeably white, male and American. (Laing is a British writer which does make one question the insular nature of her cadre. However, this book has achieved a US publication, unlike her last, so we should salute her submission to financial ambition.) Though not strictly academic, it displays worthy but well-worn insights into the writers’ respective wrestling with sexuality, masculinity and childhood. Generally, she is more sympathetic of her authors than Dardis, but still peppers her prose insistently with uncritical snippets from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). To list the faults of the US-centric, highly subjective, over-generalising bible of the therapeutic community would take longer than the time we possess. Simply, a slight antidote from her namesake would have sufficed at a few intervals. For example, the idea that Hemingway “didn’t know…that tolerance is one of the defining symptoms of alcoholism”, suggests a smug, patronising, benefits-of-twenty-first-century-super-science attitude that offers little revelation about his writing. Elsewhere, her phrasing is lazy and inscrutable: the same author is pictured as “entirely focused on the task at hand”. The various introductions of Laing’s personal journey of recriminations jar forcefully with her literary profiles. Sometimes it is difficult to care about her travel narrative when shown alongside horrific anecdotes of Carver’s physical abuse.

It is somewhat unfair to compare these two books due to their respective purposes and years of publication. Therefore, we will address them on their own terms. The Thirsty Muse is a good book with a wonky premise. Some of the close reading is worthwhile, but Dardis possesses an off-putting, moralising voice and omits any possibility that alcohol might cause a positive, distinctive effect on literary form and style. Laing’s book, conversely, treats its subjects with a greater balance which is largely to its benefit. Where it falters is when it shoehorns its narrative to fit a commercial genre: an exploration of, say, the potential effect war trauma had on Hemingway’s alcoholism would have been more revealing than the admission that Laing had just “dropped off” on the train. Ultimately, she emphasises the debilitating nature of alcohol abuse and we are treated to a conclusion that, like Dardis, invokes the writers as fish rather than angels.

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Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

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