I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.
All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often they did their drinking together - Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of 1920s Paris; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.
I’ve often wondered why there seems to be a connection of some kind between being a writer and having problems with addiction. Olivia Laing explores this connection in this very readable book. She explores the nature of alcoholism—probably as a result of coming from an alcoholic family herself—and relates rather harrowing stories from the lives of all six men. The title, incidentally, is taken from Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where one character, when headed for the liquor cabinet, calls it “a trip to Echo Spring” (a brand of bourbon, apparently).
I must confess that I have not read anything by any of these authors. I am much more inspired to try their works after reading this one. Laing certainly seems to have immersed herself in the writing, the archives and even in the ocean where a couple of her subjects fished or swam. Her own travelogue, as she travels by train from place to place on her pilgrimage, was less interesting to me but was obviously meaningful to her. Every now and then there was a sentence in Echo that took my breath away, good writing transformed to exceptional writing for a second or two. This is still early in her career and I think there will be more good stuff to come from this writer.
The question of why writers drink is never (and probably can never be) answered. It would be the same reason that farmers or fishermen or librarians drink—a combination of genetics and environment. I think the alcoholism of writers has been romanticized to go along with the romantic ideal of “the artist,” but from this work I could clearly see that there is NOTHING redeeming about the condition. Each man seems to have ripped & torn the lives of those about him. The alcoholic himself ends up sick, addled and barely able to write as the disease progresses.
Alcoholism hasn’t touched my life very deeply, so I knew very little about it—I feel I know a bit more now, although this certainly isn’t a substitute for AA or Alanon if you are looking for serious information. But it does give me an impression of how the disease has bent and twisted these men and shaped their lives and deaths. I can’t help but wonder what they could have produced if they could have escaped the clutches of alcohol and dealt with their problems in a more productive way. Alcohol in no way improved their writing and definitely impeded both their creativity and their lives.