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There is a long history of alcoholism in American literature. The heavy drinking of writers like Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane inspired a kind of myth of the American writer as a genius armed with a typewriter and a bottle of whiskey. The success of writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also gave rise to the belief that alcohol somehow stoked their creativity.
In her new book, The Trip To Echo Spring, Olivia Laing investigates the role of drinking in the lives of six great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver. All of them struggled with alcoholism and, in the end, alcohol played a role in all of their deaths.
"I grew up in an alcoholic family myself and I really wanted to pull that apart and see what was behind it," she tells host Arun Rath.
On choosing her authors
I really didn't want to come in and do a hatchet job. I didn't want to expose them more than was necessary, and I think the best way to counterbalance that was for it to be people whose work I genuinely loved, that I thought was extraordinary — and whose work dealt with alcoholism, whose work dealt with alcohol and drinking and the whole mythos of the boozing writer. These six were all obsessed with the subject. They returned to it over and over again in poems and stories and plays and novels. It is one of their great subjects.
On the persistent stereotype of the heavy-drinking writer
I think Hemingway has a lot to do with that. ... [He] created it and has made it something intoxicating and addicting in itself. We still in many ways are in love with it. It's very interesting when you look at Hemingway's work and his letters, the ways that he established that myth in order to conceal and protect his own drinking, to let him himself get away with the amount of drinking that he wanted to do — and he was very contemptuous of people like Fitzgerald who he didn't think were "good" drinkers, who he felt couldn't really handle it.
On why the authors drank
I think it's not so much to loosen them up to produce the creative material — sometimes Fitzgerald would say that he was drinking to loosen up his ideas — but I think what tended to happen more was that [the authors] suffered quite strongly from, in different combinations, anxiety and depression from really quite a young age. And the drinking and the writing seem very much associated with that. Drinking becomes a way to escape from or to medicate all kinds of difficult feelings that might also be driving the creativity, too.
On the victims of the authors' alcoholism
That was something I was really at pains to look at: the collateral damage. The wives, the children, the friendships that gradually get destroyed. ... the teaching jobs, all sorts of things. That seems really significant. There's an ordinary life outside of the writer myth life, and that's part of the story of literature. Surely it's not the whole story, but it's a part of it.