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Nonfiction in Brief

THE THIRSTY MUSE Alcohol and the American Writer by Tom Dardis (Ticknor & Fields: $18.95; 292 pp.)

August 27, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

Alcoholism would seem to be "the American writer's disease," observes Tom Dardis, noting that "of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, five were alcoholic." So pervasive is the affliction, Dardis comments, that "it seems reasonable to ask if some link exists between alcohol and creativity."

To pursue this question, Dardis examines the careers and drinking habits of four great American writers: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O'Neill. His argument is that while in the early stages the romance with alcohol seems to produce a sense of liberation and creativity, the long-term effects are pernicious. Of the four, only O'Neill discovered in time that the bottle would erode his writing talent. He quit drinking and in the ensuing decade of sobriety wrote some of his greatest work, "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." In the other three writers, Dardis correlates the decline of their careers with the progression of their alcoholism.

This is not a cheerful book. Here are grim stories of friends' ministrations (director Howard Hawkes gave Faulkner credit on screenplays that never would have been written without a collaborator); the horrors of delirium tremens and various detoxification therapies (Hemingway and Faulkner underwent electroshock treatment); the terror that accompanied the realization that their writing suffered.

Dardis' descriptions of ruined careers are moving, but there is a narrow-mindedness about his task that is disturbing. American writers did not invent the idea of the muse of intoxication; from Dionysian ritual to the notion of epilepsy as divine illness, altered states have been associated with inspiration. In his insistence that alcoholism is a disease, Dardis sounds like a physician who clicks his tongue over a patient's intractability. Certainly alcoholism is a serious topic and its prominence in the media today is welcome. But to dismiss Faulkner's phrase, "Civilization begins with distillation," as the favorite delusion of a sick man, as Dardis does, is patronizing toward a man of great subtlety.

Dardis' point in writing the book is well taken, however. He rightly sees a need to de-glamorize intoxication and to point out the enormous cost of relying on this source of inspiration. This is a message that ought to be heard in a society where we have generations of people thinking that staying high will invite the muse.

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