Sunday, July 17, 2011

America's Drunkest Writer

America's Drunkest Writer (from The Daily Beast)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was kept in champagne in the '20s, already a crumbling alcoholic in the '30s, and dead by the end of '40. The great American novelist's boozy writings are compiled in a new collection reviewed by Jimmy So. Plus, other famous writings on drink.

by Jimmy So | July 16, 2011 10:30 PM EDT

“My vision of the world at its brightest is such that life without the use of its amenities is impossible,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1930 in a letter to Oscar Forel, the Swiss psychiatrist who was treating Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who had suffered a breakdown. “I have lived hard and ruined the essential innocence [sic] in myself that could make it that possible [sic], and the fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for with suffering and death perhaps but not renunciation.” By some accounts Fitzgerald did renounce, not even touching a drop—at least so long as his lover, the gossip columnist Sheila Graham, was with him—during the last year of his life, although it was too late by that time. There is a spate of such letters and other evidence. Fitzgerald, to put it simply, felt that it was man’s duty to enjoy drink, as well as his right as a writer to dramatize and self-dramatize the power of drink.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896, famous by 1920, forgotten by 1936, and dead by the end of 1940. In the '20s, he introduced himself to party guests as “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation,” or as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic.” His friend Ernest Hemingway experienced such stagecraft firsthand when, during a trip with “Poor Scott,” Fitzgerald was convincing himself that he was dying of “consumption of the lungs” and demanded that Hemingway find a thermometer to ascertain whether a fever boiled in his blood. “He did have a point, though, and I knew it very well,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. “Most drunkards in those days died of pneumonia, a disease which has now been almost eliminated. But it was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol.”

As Thomas Gilmore asserts in Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature and John Crowley corroborates in The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction, the fable of Fitzgerald’s Edgar Allan Poe–like low tolerance was likely just that—a fable, helped by an alcoholic’s tendency to sometimes conceal consumption and sometimes boast about overconsumption. But whatever the legend of his drinking capacity (Hemingway himself witnessed another time when Fitzgerald drank far more than he ever saw and was completely fine, even telling articulately the story of his and Zelda’s life), by the '30s Fitzgerald was not so much as capitalizing but clutching onto the persona of a washed-up alcoholic. He was obsessed with his great literary promise and the even greater subsequent disappointment, knowing that alcoholism was behind it but had not been the sole cause of a tragedy so immense (to him). At his lowest point, in 1935, he claimed to have “not tasted so much as a glass of beer for six months,” which was likely untrue.

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Deb said...

Another good book on the subject is Thomas Dardis's THE THIRSTY MUSE: ALCOHOL AND THE AMERICAN WRITER, which focuses primarily on Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and O'Neill. Dardis's theory is that Fitzgerald flamed out because he became famous at such a young age and had nothing left to publish while his alcoholism destroyed him. Hemingway & Faulkner, because they became successful later in their lives, had a fund of earlier, unpublished work that they were able to dust-off and publish when their alcoholism made day-to-day writing virtually impossible. To Tardis, only O'Neill was able to continue actually writing throughout his life because he quit drinking for the last thirty years of it.

Hunter Shea said...

It's a shame how alcoholism destroyed such an amazing talent. We're all left to wonder what could have been. I think too many people believe they need drinking or drugs to unlock their true creative potential.