How Prohibition Turned American Writers Into Drinkers: From Susan Cheever’s ‘Drinking in America’

America’s history with alcohol is volatile, almost like a binge drinker’s. In one era, we can be among the drunkest countries in the world; in another, we have no problem banning the substance almost entirely. The latter era, American Prohibition, is examined in the following excerpt, which is drawn from Susan Cheever’s fascinating new study, Drinking in America: Our Secret History. In the essay below, Cheever considers Prohibition’s effect on some of the most famous America writers of the era. — Jonathon Sturgeon, Literary Editor

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From Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever:

Chapter 10: The Writer’s Vice

Prohibition had a less heralded and more enduring spiritual effect on two generations of American writers. Nineteenth-century American writers did not drink much. Twenty-first-century American writers do not drink much. Twentieth-century writers after Prohibition made up for the generations before and after them. They drank so much that they are still famous for drinking. The coincidence of American writers’ alcoholism growing during Prohibition is too obvious to be ignored.

Most writers are observers rather than participants. They stay outsiders in order to see the world clearly, and they sometimes suffer because of what they see. Their imaginative empathy—the quality that enables them to understand other people’s lives—makes them vulnerable.

By making alcohol forbidden, Prohibition increased its appeal for American writers. Writers are outlaws. Outlawing liquor gave it a delicious cachet. Part of a writer’s job is to question conventional wisdom and illegal gin had a magnetism that legal gin lacked. It is often pointed out that American writers have written about drinking, but many of them — notably Fitzgerald in his novel about a bootlegger The Great Gatsby — have also written about the effects of Prohibition. “Writers, even the most socially gifted and established, must be outsiders of some sort,” writes historian Olivia Laing, “if only because their job is that of scrutinizer and witness.”

The intersection of writers with Prohibition was at its most intense in New York City — the mecca for all talented young men and women in the 1920s. Seven thousand arrests for alcohol possession in New York City between 1921 and 1923 (when enforcement was more or less openly abandoned) resulted in only seventeen convictions.

For some writers, Manhattan, with its habitual speakeasies and after-hours clubs as well as its famous flouting of the law even in restaurants, became synonymous with drinking too much. Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were two writers who were only able to stop drinking, or at least moderate their drinking, after they left what one minister called “Satan’s Seat.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers drink too much and that, at least in America, writing goes hand in hand with a bottle or a brew, a bad liver, and a very bad temper. “Of course you’re a rummy,” Ernest Hemingway comforted his friend Scott Fitzgerald, “but no more than most good writers are.” In the mid-twentieth century, five of the seven Americans who won the Nobel Prize were alcoholics—Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. The writer Ring Lardner once listed every writer he knew and concluded that at least a third were alcoholics. “There is no question that alcohol ran through the lives and works of great writers,” notes journalist Kelly Boler. “Stories of the grand boozy excesses of twentieth-century literature provide a substantial part of our cultural currency.”

So prevalent was the combination of writing and alcoholism that when Dorothy Parker went to a famous writer’s funeral and a friend commented on how well the man looked in his coffin, Parker remarked that of course he looked well — “he hasn’t had a drink in three days.”

“There is nothing else in all the countries of the world like New York Life,” New Yorker writer James Thurber wrote to his friend E. B. White from the South of France, where he was relatively safe from his own alcoholism. New York, he wrote, using a comparison to one of the worst battles of World War I, “is just a peaceable Verdun.” Thurber’s last drunk was at the Algonquin Hotel across from the New Yorker offices. “[He] drank nonstop for a month,” writes Ann Douglas in Terrible Honesty. “He was legally blind and he kept setting himself on fire with his cigarettes.” Thurber, on the lam from his wife and home in Connecticut, had dinner at Sardi’s on October 3, keeled over in the bathroom, hit his head, and died in the hospital a month later.

“The presence of the disease in so many of our notable writers surely makes it appear that alcoholism is the American writer’s disease,” writes Tom Dardis in his book on the subject, The Thirsty Muse. Famously in the 1950s Sinclair Lewis angrily asked a reporter, “Can you name five writers since Poe who did not die of drinking?” Or as another casualty of alcoholism, the poet John Berryman, put it, “Something has been said for sobriety, but very little.”

American writers — those who were not too drunk to write — often wrote about alcoholism. In her recent book about writers and drinking, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing points out that my father John Cheever’s famous short story “The Swimmer,” published in the New Yorker in 1964, was fueled by drink and about drink. The swimming pools in the story make up a secret river, a lot like the secret river of the alcoholic, Laing notes, and the protagonist’s memory lapses are similar to alcoholic blackouts. “‘The Swimmer,’ which I would judge among the finest stories ever written, catches in its strange compressions the full arc of an alcoholic’s life and it was that same dark trajectory I wanted to pursue,” she writes. “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had on the body of literature itself.”

Laing’s book is titled for a Tennessee Williams character — Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — who uses the phrase “a trip to Echo Spring” as a euphemism for a swig from the bottle of Echo Spring Bourbon in his closet. Her book joins previous work on this subject — a subject that seems to draw writers as a magnet draws iron filings. In the 1980s both Tom Dardis and Dr. Donald Goodwin, in his book Writers and Alcohol, explored the subject thoroughly using the famous drunken writers of the mid-nineteenth century as examples. More recently, Laing has covered much of the same territory with her own charm and energy. Her book opens with a trip my father and Raymond Carver took to the local liquor store in Iowa City in 1975, when they were both teaching there.

Laing also explores the way alcohol erodes memory and language skills. She studies the way in which writers wrote about drinking even as they were unable to stop drinking. She puts herself inside the head of many of the writers she profiles. After quoting a long, powerful paragraph of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which Robert Jordan remembers his father’s suicide and his own part in getting rid of the gun his father had used, she writes, “Imagine the mixed relief and terror of getting that sequence down. Imagine pressing the words, letter by letter, into the page. And imagine getting up, closing the door to your study, and walking downstairs. What do you do, with that sudden space in your chest? You go to the liquor cabinet and pour yourself a shot of the one thing no one can take away from you: the nice good lovely gin, the nice good lovely rum.”

One 1987 statistical study of the phenomenon of writers drinking was done at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop — the one of the hot centers of writing talent in the United States — by an English Literature Ph.D. and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen, more than a decade after my father and Ray drank there together. (It was my father’s last drunken stand. Within a year he was in rehab, got sober, and stayed sober for the rest of his life.)

Using a sample of thirty established writers, Andreasen found that the writers were significantly more depressed, more manic, and more alcoholic than the nonwriter control group. At the end of the nineteenth century, Henry James put this another, more eloquent way in his short story “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Today in a world where more and more people aspire to writing, romancing alcoholism is equally dangerous. In the past few years, people have turned to writing as a means of self-expression and self-understanding. One statistic shows that in 1995, five graduate programs offered advanced degrees in creative writing; in 2013, 356 programs offered such degrees. By linking writing with drinking, we encourage a new generation of writers who may fizzle out their talents, court mental illness and liver disease, and end up dying young. Nevertheless, in spite of plentiful legal liquor, passionate desire to write, and the loneliness, exhibitionism, and cravings that characterize many writers, this literary generation shows no signs of romancing the glass or of being a throwback to the literary drunks of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps only another round of Prohibition could make that happen.

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From the book DRINKING IN AMERICA: Our Secret History. Copyright (c) 2015 by Susan Cheever. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.