Dispatches | July 07, 2011

In a video clip I dug out of YouTube recently and linked to our tumblr page, Truman Capote argues with Groucho Marx over whether certain writers – Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Sinclair Lewis – drank heavily when they wrote their books. Capote insists that although many writers have been drunks, none of them wrote when drunk because it was impossible; writing requires too much concentration. It is a significant statement for Capote, himself famous for both writing and drinking, to make – though he does concede that after a long bout of writing, it can be helpful to have a drink and loosen one’s mind a little, at which point things previously obscure can be rendered clear.

I, for one, am divided on the question of whether one can write while drinking. Actually, that’s not true. One surely can drink while writing; I’ve done it, and I suspect that some of my friends have, too. But you couldn’t write In Cold Blood in a stupor, and even text messages give people trouble when they’ve sat long enough at bars.  You can write while drinking, but you can’t do it very well – just like everything else, except perhaps speaking at unnecessarily high volumes and throwing up.

A book about drunk writers

What interests me about the question of whether writers can write when drinking is what the question itself reveals about how we like to think of the authors who are important to us. Groucho insists that Ring Lardner was a drunk, and seems to relish the opportunity to tell the story of how he would lock himself in a hotel room with two quarts of whiskey and begin his drinking and simultaneous writing. Whether it’s true is immaterial; it’s an essential part of how he wants to see him.

As it happens, I didn’t have to go far (just to Dark Sky Magazine) to find a quote from Lardner himself on this subject:  “No one, ever, wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it.”

It's tobacco.

This obsession with the drinking lives of famous authors goes far beyond that middle-school impulse to attribute any weirdness in literature to the intoxication of its author. And it’s nothing new; that Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was a literary sensation upon its release indicates that the mystique surrounding the intoxicated writer has been there for at least two centuries, probably much longer.

I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for it myself. When Life ran its slideshow of writers who were notorious for drinking and taking drugs, I looked at every slide – a rare thing for me, as I find that most online slideshows are poorly disguised platforms for advertising. I wanted to know what substances were making their way into the bodies of people like William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker – though, quite revealingly, I already knew what at least one of those was for both of them.

When I reached the slide that bears the caption, “James Baldwin (1924 – 1987): Alcohol,” even despite the lengthy, adulating description that follows it, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole exercise was a little obscene – or at least that it trivialized something that perhaps should not be trivialized.  Is this, I thought, what the author of Notes of a Native Son should be noted for, ever? The photo only participates: there is Baldwin, looking passionately out of the frame, with an empty cup of coffee and an empty glass of something else in front of him. It is a wonderful photo, but I wonder how much it would lose without that empty glass and what its presence implies.

Baldwin was a drinker. What is the big deal? Paul Simon mentions drinking in several of his songs, but as far as I know it is not an important aspect of his public persona.

(Incidentally, there is a passage somewhere in Baldwin’s essays where he mentions having tried to write while using marijuana. If I had more time I could find it and quote it, but a paraphrase will have to do: he writes that at the time he was high and writing, he knew that what he was putting down was his most brilliant work ever; in the morning, he reread his work and tore it to pieces, it was so awful.)

Writers aren’t the only ones who have reputations for drinking, but the image of a man holding an Old Fashioned in one hand and a scalpel in the other does not have the same appeal as that of a man in a suit holding a glass of whiskey and looking with consternation at his typewriter.

I really admire Capote for standing up on behalf of Ring Lardner and all of the other drinking writers of the world. A writer can indeed be a drinker, but it doesn’t mean he’ll combine the two activities any more than the forklift operator will swill whiskey when he is on the job (though some few surely do). Perhaps we like to picture a writer drinking away while he works because of the faulty notion that his is not an activity vastly more hazardous than that of the one who pilots heavy machines.

Robert Long Foreman is the Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.