Arts and Letters
For much of the 20th century, before the dawn of our own wellness-focused era, madness and substance abuse were often considered prerequisites for great art.
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YEARS AGO, I arrived a day early to Minneapolis for a funeral, and my friend whose partner had just died of a horrible but brief illness asked me if there was anything I wanted to do. It was late winter and cold. The only suggestion I could come up with was visiting the Washington Avenue Bridge that spans the Mississippi River, where the poet John Berryman, who had taught at the University of Minnesota, jumped to his death on Jan. 7, 1972, at the age of 57.
Berryman had fascinated my friend and me for as long as we had known each other. He’d written one of the great sustained autobiographical narratives in all of poetry — the 385 poems that comprise his “Dream Songs,” which he composed between 1955 and 1968 — and he had an effortlessly conversational style that was hard not to like. “They are alive,” he writes of the poems of Emily Dickinson in a 1970 tribute to her on what would have been her 140th birthday.
Nearly as interesting as his writing itself — and something he often depicted in it — is the downward trajectory of his life, the best account of which comes from Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s ex-wife. In her 1982 memoir, “Poets in Their Youth,” she details their rocky marriage, her husband’s formative years, his growing addiction to alcohol and his friendships with other troubled artists, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz and Dylan Thomas. Berryman and his cohort were all charming, funny, attractive, intelligent and above all else talented — and their talents were celebrated in their lifetimes. Most of them were also addicts with mental health issues, and they all met untimely, in some cases violent, ends. “It was as dangerous to have one’s work recognized as it was to have it ignored,” Simpson writes. But I never felt these facts squared well. Berryman’s decline seemed especially unlikely. He’d never gotten drunk before his late 20s, and he was in his 30s by the time his drinking became self-destructive; he was productive. How, then, does one so gifted, so funny, so attuned to human nature, so beloved, abuse himself in such a way that he ends up dead on the west bank of the Mississippi?
So many artists have lived hard lives and had awful deaths that for years we seemed to expect this of them — that addiction and an early grave were a kind of tax levied on artists, most especially writers, whose profession has gone together with substance abuse like ice goes with bourbon. Everything about the act of writing seems to invite abuse — its solitary nature, its interiority, the misery of sharing yourself with an often indifferent audience. Any list of the great authors and poets of the 20th century would include countless addicts: Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Jean Rhys, William Styron, John Williams — all experienced varying degrees of addiction, which they explored over the course of their respective careers. Artist-addicts continue to inspire curiosity and obsession, but as we move farther from the 20th century and toward a reinterpretation of substance abuse that places it in the context of wellness and mental health, this figure seems increasingly a relic of a different era, like beehive hairdos or fallout shelters. Writers today certainly don’t broadcast their vices the way they used to, in their work or otherwise, and American culture no longer abides a drunken stupor as an inevitable state crucial to the creation of great art. Even as drugs have become more widely available and legally sanctioned, their use remains illicit — if a writer tackles the theme of substance abuse, it is almost universally done from the perspective of convalescence, of overcoming the addiction itself, which is what we now require of a user in order to have anything resembling a career. Where, then, have all the addicts gone?
In the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey wrote freely about their use of opium, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to a mixture of morphine and ether as “my elixir.” But the figure of the modern artist-addict truly began with Edgar Allan Poe. The Poe who has become almost mythical for his “beastly intoxication,” as one description of the author in his final days in October 1849 put it, is largely the creation of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who was the literary executor of Poe’s estate but in reality a resentful rival who attempted to assassinate the author’s posthumous legacy through the publication of dubious biographical materials that presented Poe as a lifelong loser, prone to drunken fits and unspeakable indiscretions, a man with “few or no friends.” Griswold effectively fashioned the portrait of the artist as an erratic degenerate.
But rather than ruining Poe’s legacy, Griswold created a legend: that of the tortured writer whose (seemingly) debauched life matched the sly melancholy of his work. We can never truly know the reality of an artist’s character, so it’s the legend with which we’re often stuck. (“Life, friends, is boring,” Berryman writes in “Dream Song 14.” “We must not say so.”) What we remember now is Poe dying of a mysterious, acute and very possibly typical alcoholic episode; that he was a member of the anti-alcohol organization the Sons of Temperance (he was rumored to have had his membership card on him when he died) is less a refutation of this fact than a baffling detail that burnishes the mystery.
THE QUESTION OF whether artists are more prone to abuse, or whether we’ve historically just liked to think they are, reverberated throughout the 20th century. The drinking and drug habits of various writers became a subject of morbid curiosity for their public, who continue to collect anecdotal evidence of addiction as if it were the key to understanding genius. When asked by “stupid psychiatrists” why he used heroin, the narrator in William S. Burroughs’s autobiographical first novel, “Junky” (1953), responded, “I need it to stay alive.”
The chest-thumping, romantic notions of writer-addicts are not exclusive to white men, though there is, of course, a double standard. For white men, intoxication has long been a kind of social currency, an interesting quirk of the mind, whereas women and minorities who enjoy themselves too much are breaking one of our last remaining cultural taboos. Americans don’t seem to experience the same curiosity regarding a Black or brown writer’s addictions but something closer to fear — indeed, the toxic myth of the Black drug user as a menacing criminal has fueled decades of racist laws that have overwhelmingly targeted and incarcerated anyone who isn’t white. Female addicts, too, are seen as not heroic but mentally ill. Heather Clark, early in her 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath, quotes the literary biographer Hermione Lee as writing, “Women writers whose lives involved abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated, biographically, as victims or psychological case histories first and as professional writers second.” For women artists, substance use is generally grouped under the larger umbrella of madness, historically a kind of ratline to institutionalization, often against their will, for women ranging from Zelda Fitzgerald to Britney Spears.
Which brings us to Papa. It would be impossible to discuss addiction among artists without mentioning the immense privilege Ernest Hemingway continues to enjoy as a standard-bearer of virile masculinity and genius, despite the fact that alcohol caused him enormous pain. In the 2020 Danish comedy “Another Round,” a group of friends experiment with spending most of their waking lives slightly drunk, citing a debunked idea that a constant, low level of intoxication — the equivalent of being perpetually under the influence of one to two glasses of wine — is the optimal state for human beings. (“You’re more relaxed, and poised and musical and open,” one of the friends says. “More courageous in general.”) They test this theory by holding themselves to what they claim, however dubiously, to be Hemingway’s own standard: Stop drinking each day by 8 in the evening in order to be fresh in the morning. The plan, like many involving drugs or alcohol, works well until it doesn’t.
Excessive drinking certainly didn’t work for Hemingway, though today he remains an aspirational figure, as if the work he produced were not just in spite of his pain but an excuse for it, to such an extent that it’s a cliché. He tends to be one of the earliest writers whom people are drawn to, often in adolescence, typically for the simplicity of his prose but perhaps even more than that for the stories that exist of him seeming to enjoy life more than other people tend to, usually with the help of some kind of pick-me-up.
And yet as early as 1937, according to one biographer, Kenneth Lynn, doctors had cautioned him to give up alcohol. He kept the severe depression and health problems he experienced before his death private. After he killed himself in 1961, at the age of 61, his wife publicly maintained that the cause of his death was an accident — that the gun went off while he was cleaning it. People have gone out of their way to preserve the romance of his agony.
IT WASN’T UNTIL the late 1980s, at the dawn of an era of pharmacological cure-alls for complex mental health issues like depression and anxiety, that a growing field of study emerged, one that treated addiction among artists as a discrete anthropological concern. In a 1987 paper in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the University of Iowa researcher Nancy Andreasen found that nine of the 30 Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty members she studied over a 15-year period abused alcohol, and 24 had mood disorders. The following year, a book by the chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center, “Alcohol and the Writer,” argued that of the seven Americans who had up to that point won the Nobel Prize for literature, five of them — William Faulkner, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck — were more likely than not addicts.
By the ’90s, the question of whether artists abused their bodies more than the general public had gained additional layers: What came first, the art or the abuse? Could the art even exist without the abuse? A kind of clinical detachment informed the works of the period’s writer-addict; Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” (1992), a collection of loosely related stories about an unnamed junkie in Iowa, begins quite literally in the gutter. But the setting slowly shifts over time, first to a detox unit at Seattle General, then to a rehab center. A few years later, David Foster Wallace would continue the theme of recovery in “Infinite Jest” (1996), setting parts of the novel in a Boston halfway home, where characters debate the philosophical validity of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Intriguingly, there seems to be less fiction in the 21st century that takes substance abuse as its major theme, but the topic has also never been more closely examined than it is now. The addiction memoir — almost always ending in recovery — has become the default mode of autobiographical writing, and its borders have expanded to include not only alcoholism (a historical trope of the genre) but also opioid dependence (as depicted, for example, in the bioethicist Travis Rieder’s 2019 memoir, “In Pain”). If there has been a major development in literary criticism in the past two decades, it comes from a growing subgenre that looks seriously at the stakes of addiction and uses the framework of abuse to understand artists and their craft, as in Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering” (2018), in which the author explores figures like Berryman and Wallace, weaving cultural history with her own story of alcohol addiction.
Olivia Laing’s 2013 book, “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” is perhaps the best of these psychological examinations. It’s certainly the most entertaining. She opens with a detailed recounting of a moment in the lives of two legendary alcoholic faculty members at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Raymond Carver and John Cheever, who met, according to Laing’s account, one evening in 1973 when Cheever, by then a celebrated writer with a National Book Award, knocked on the door of Carver, who had yet to publish a book, and said, “Pardon me. I’m John Cheever. Could I borrow some Scotch?” What could be better for an aspiring writer — or a budding drunk? Laing, to her credit, pierces the romance of the artist-addict, forcing us to also look at the morning after. Among her insights are that alcoholics are “a helpless mix of fraudulence and honesty”; the description suffices for artists in general, as well.
These days, it’s incredible to think about the lengths we used to go to in order to forgive artists for being bad people. Ours was once a culture that awarded Norman Mailer — an inconsistent writer — not one but two Pulitzer Prizes, and that was after he nearly killed his second wife in a drunken assault in 1960 (at a party he was throwing in his own home, to announce his plan to run for mayor of New York City). Allen Ginsberg once said of Burroughs that he didn’t become a serious writer until after he shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken attempt at performing a William Tell act. “It gave Bill, certainly, a taste of mortality,” Ginsberg said.
These comments haven’t aged well, and neither has the very concept of the madman artist. Our culture now is one in which artists are less troubled geniuses than they are public figures, generally expected to respond uncontroversially on their various platforms to whatever the news cycle might bring. The compulsion for everything to be civil and inoffensive is now reflected in our curious relationship to drugs and alcohol, which is both more and less progressive than it was when Burroughs — or at least the narrator of “Junky” — was running around pharmacies in Midtown trying to fill forged prescriptions for morphine sulfate. Medical cannabis is legal in 36 states and, in the past decade, the F.D.A. has authorized the study of psychedelics like LSD, ketamine, psilocybin and MDMA in clinical trials. It’s become increasingly difficult for antidrug activists to deny the positive medical data that certain Schedule I drugs have produced in people suffering from major depression and PTSD, but these drugs remain illegal at a federal level. We are also in the midst of an opioid epidemic — according to recent federal data, more than 100,000 people died in the United States of drug overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021, the highest-ever reported number of drug-related deaths during a 12-month period.
Meanwhile, the act of becoming intoxicated — of getting high, buzzed, loaded, bombed, blitzed, wasted, turned on, hopped up, etc.: a practice now distinguished from using, which leads to addiction — has largely become a question of self-optimization. There is some data on how alcohol use has risen during the Covid era, but this has steered the discourse toward a discussion of moderation and mindful drinking. Gwyneth Paltrow has admitted to taking MDMA, describing the experience as “very emotional.” Acid is Steve Jobs-approved, and Burning Man — in the 1990s, an expression of anarchic freedom — has basically become a glamping retreat for corporate C.E.O.s. Even heroin is increasingly becoming a lifestyle choice for a self-aware elite. In his (admittedly controversial) 2021 book, “Drug Use for Grown-Ups,” Dr. Carl Hart, a psychologist at Columbia University, writes: “Like vacation, sex and the arts, heroin is one of the tools that I use to maintain my work-life balance.” Everything and everybody — even while using heroin — must be bland and inoffensive, or one runs the risk of that legendary cancellation in the sky, a myth that has overtaken the Hemingway-like figure, the high-functioning addict whose great work was fueled by liquor and drugs. The junkie artist has become, if not entirely passé, then at least less visible.
But is this all bad? Isn’t it twisted to admire someone for their misery? As I was writing this, I came to realize that the reason I was so interested in visiting the site of Berryman’s death all those years ago was not to attempt to diagnose how and why a celebrated artist could die a pointless death. It was more a question of how I myself might avoid a similar fate, as if the more I knew about how Berryman ended up that way, the better my own chances. I don’t think I’m the only person who has considered this question. In a poem by Robert Lowell, it was Delmore Schwartz — Berryman’s friend, who himself died at 52 in 1966, in such seclusion that his body was not immediately identifiable when found — who probably explained it best, though at this point in my life, I can’t help but hope he was wrong: “We poets in our youth begin in sadness / thereof in the end come despondency and madness.”
Model: Tashi at One Management