Why Do Writers Drink So Much?

What has led so many writers to drink, and drink excessively?

Posted Jan 22, 2018

Alcohol (and alcoholism) has been a defining feature of literary life in this country, with some research showing a clear link to writing and drinking that may be neurologically based. In her 2014 The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examined the role that alcoholism played in the lives of six American writers (John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams), finding deep, psychological connections between their respective addictions and creative genius.Some twelve writers were even under the influence while they worked. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote her 1921Vanity Fair essays while sipping gin, William Faulker’s 1936 Road to Glory was whiskey-infused, Carson McCullers penned her 1940 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter with copious amounts of hot tea and sherry; Raymond Chandler relied heavily on gimlets (and vitamin shots) to produce his 1946 The Blue Dahlia, and Capote gulped down double martinis when working on his 1965 In Cold Blood. The Beats, meanwhile, preferred drugs to alcohol, and created some of their best material while using Benzedrine, heroin, and psychedelics.

Even some of the biggest winners in the history of American writing had personal demons, of course, with large quantities of alcohol often used to try to exorcise them. Other countries had their fair share of literary drunks, but writing and drinking were almost synonymous in 20th century America. Booze “has come to seem a natural accompaniment of the literary life,” wrote Alfred Kazin in Commentary in 1976, a symbol of the profession’s “loneliness, creative aspirations, and frenzies.” It was often not discussed, but a look back at the relationship between writing and drinking in the United States beginning with Edgar Allen Poe was not at all pretty.  (Much less attention was paid to writers’ frequent habit of smoking, although tobacco might very well have killed more of them than did alcohol.) Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, and William Faulkner (who together comprised a full half of the six Americans who had won the Nobel Prize in fiction up to that point) were either alcoholics or compulsive drinkers for much of their lives, and both Hemingway and Steinbeck each hit the bottle hard. The list seemed to go on and on. Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner were alcoholics (and each died in their forties), as were Jack London and John Berryman (each a suicide).  Hart Crane had a drinking problem (and killed himself), as did J.P. Marquand, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some writers, including London, Dorothy Parker, and Dashiell Hammett wrote about their respective drinking problems, while most did not.

What led so many writers to drink, and drink excessively? It was “the drive for success of every kind,” Kazin proposed, “the hunger for prestige, fame, and money” in conjunction with “the burden put upon the creative self.” One psychiatrist actually did a study to try to figure out why so many great American writers drank like fish.  Donald W. Goodwin of Washington University argued that there could be a genetic link between writing ability and alcoholism, with manic-depression perhaps the common thread. Fitzgerald, who was the poster child for the image of the imbibed author (he called alcohol the “writer’s vice” and was known to introduce himself as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic”), appeared to suffer from the condition. There are any number of other possible reasons for the close relationship between writing and drinking, however, including the need to bring out exhibitionism, increase sociability, encourage fantasy, bolster self-confidence, ease loneliness, or, most simply, relax after a long day of hard concentration.