“The Writer and Addiction”: The relationship between literature and alcoholism

For the scholar Roger Forseth—himself a recovered alcoholic who studied addiction and the literary mind—alcoholism and related addictions amount to afflictions of the soul.

(Image: Josh Applegate | Unsplash.com)

In a 1985 article in the New York Times titled “One Too Many for the Muse,” J. Anthony Lukas noted that “an exhaustive roster of literary scrooders would be too long to publish here.” He then provided a partial list of some 60 American writers whose drinking was noteworthy. Most are among the usual suspects—Poe, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Capote. But the drinking of some—James Whitcomb Riley, Katherine Anne Porter, Wallace Stevens—is less well-known.

Roger Forseth, who died in 2016 at age 89, made the connection between literature and alcoholism his specialty. An English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior from 1964 until his retirement in 1991 (though he continued teaching there part-time until 2014), he founded and was the first editor of the provocatively titled Dionysos: The Literature and Addiction Triquarterly, which flourished from 1990 to 2000 and is still available online. Alcoholite at the Altar: The Writer and Addiction is a collection of his writings on the subject of writing and addiction.

If you think this makes for stodgy, academic reading, think again. Forseth was not only an uncommonly good writer, he was an enthusiastic researcher and his passion for research is both palpable and contagious.

Of course, he had something in common with these writers. Like them, he had had a drinking problem, complete with bouts of delirium tremens. He is quoted here as saying, during the last year of his life, that “the problem with alcohol is a philosophical problem dating back to Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, how to manage the desire for intoxication, for ecstasy. I started writing about this late…I think I had to wait until the alcoholism experience penetrated my theoretical mind.”

But the connection between literature and booze seems to have occurred to him early in life, albeit indirectly, by way of the film version of Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend. In a 1991 essay in Dionysos titled “Why Did They Make Such A Fuss?’ Don Birnam’s Emotional Barometer,” he tells of seeing the film “on a miserable February night in Detroit, in 1946…along with several other eighteen-year-old Navy buddies.” It proved to be more than just another night at the movies: “My identification with Don Birnam, the protagonist…made me sense that I too had a special relationship with alcohol.” He would later on realize that the film’s happy ending—with Birnam pouring the liquor down the sink and setting to work on a novel—“misses the somber power” of Jackson’s book, but “in that winter of opportunity, a young sailor discovered in the movie’s warm rush of a conclusion an invitation to try himself the ‘source’ of Don Birnam’s creative impulse: ethyl alcohol. If all one had to bear were a few hangovers in order to write a masterpiece, would it not be worth a shot?”

In order for alcoholism to penetrate Forseth’s theoretical mind, it had “to be experienced first, then rationalized so that I could objectify and write about it…. I remember the moment when I realized I had to write, after reading Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis—that was the revelation, that I knew I had something to add.”

The title essay in the collection would seem to be the first fruit of that revelation, and it took quite some time to ripen. Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis came out in 1961. Forseth’s essay appeared in 1985. It’s 36 pages long, but appended to it are 10 pages of notes and references, testimony that Forseth did comprehensive research before settling down to write.

Forseth’s principal objection to Schorer’s biography is not only that Schorer gives no evidence of any sympathy for Lewis, but that he often seems downright hostile. More particularly, though, “he demonstrates no understanding of [Lewis’] alcoholism.”

A case in point is “the remarkable short story ‘He Had a Brother,’ published in the May, 1929, issue of The Cosmopolitan.” The story centers on a New York City lawyer named Charles Haddon who stops drinking to help his drinking buddy, Mickey McShea, who has been told by his doctor to stop drinking or die. Then Haddon learns that Mickey was only faking it in order to save Charles, who celebrates by tying one on. When Charles’ doctor hears of this, he tells him in no uncertain terms to wise up, that “we’re all of us sick and tired of trying to care for you.” And then:

Charles Haddon did four things. He managed to swallow such humiliation as he had never known. He shook hands with Micky and said only “Thanks.” He went home to face his own soul, nor did he blink the smallness thereof. And he desired to take, and did not take, a drink.

He had found a brother, and for a brother one would do anything.

Forseth acknowledges that Schorer catches on to the biographical allusions, but notes that he fails to see that Lewis had created a story that “would not be out of place in the handbook Alcoholics Anonymous, ten years before that bible of recovering alcoholics was first published. His description of the road to sobriety through mutual help among fellow alcoholics contains considerable insight.”

Sinclair Lewis is the author most discussed in these essays, and even figures sometimes in those focusing on other writers. Among those are Ernest Hemingway, the poet John Berryman, and Eugene O’Neill.

Eugene O’Neill was the only one among the writers Forseth discusses who overcame alcoholism. In “Denial as Tragedy,” Forseth examines The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night as “dramatic tragedies—the former as a tragic farce, the latter as a classical tragedy,” noting how “the addictive patterns and behavior of the major characters are central to O’Neill’s artistic accomplishment: the dramatization of the somber dimensions of the human condition as the tragedy of addiction. Theodore Hickman and Larry Slade and the Tyrones are tragic because of their affliction, not in spite of it.

Forseth’s essay on John Berryman, “Spirits and Spirituality: The Art of Recovery,” stands out because of its use of the term spiritual. Of Alan Severance, the protagonist of Berryman’s unfinished novel Recovery, Forseth notes that he “develops through the book. Slowly, haltingly, but perceptively, he moves through the process of spiritual detoxification, groping his way toward that dim, distant goal of ‘serenity.’” Recovery, Forseth says, is “a painful, at times hesitant, but always determined dialectic of Severance’s quest for sanity and spiritual peace.” He calls it an elegy, “unfinished but headed in the right direction, the direction of the discovery that alcohol all along was not the handmaiden of the imaginative spirit, but the destroyer of it.”

It is this essay that enables one to most clearly discern what is implied throughout this book, but almost never stated directly—that alcoholism and related addictions amount to an affliction of the soul. Forseth never mentions Robert Graves, but it’s hard to imagine that he was unfamiliar with The White Goddess and its tales of ancient poets seeking inspiration through intoxication (the leaves on the laurel branches that crowned the poet were also chewed by him and the smoke when they were burned was inhaled—in hope of inspiration).

Forseth himself seems to have been noncommittal regarding the therapeutic theories regarding alcoholism. In an interview in 2015, he said, “Fashionable intellectuals want to discredit A.A. and say that it doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, nothing works a lot of times, people dying from alcoholism all the time or the effects of it.… A person can be a heavy drinker and be able to control it…. I couldn’t. Whether or not it’s a disease is an endless and pointless argument.… And it’s not an organic disease; it’s a learned response.“

It is worth noting that Roger Forseth was, we are told, “a man of science and faith who greatly loved the Anglican Church and its traditions.” He makes no mention of that in these essays, but one cannot help feeling that the moral underlying all of them is that the mystery that is literature is best nourished by a higher power, not something straight up or on the rocks.

Alcoholite at the Altar: The Writer and Addiction: The Writings of Roger Forseth
by Roger Forseth; edited by Grace Forseth and Dave Lull
IntoWords Press, 2018
Paperback, 424 pages


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About Frank Wilson 3 Articles
Frank Wilson is the retired book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He blogs at Books, Inq. — The Epilogue.

6 Comments

  1. As more than one observer has noted,the line between creativity and madness is the thickness of a butterfly’s wing. Many creative people are in various degrees bi-polar and/or functioning under the stress of the interiority that exceptional creativity demands. Sinclair Lewis is an excellent example. Attempts to accomplish what he did would drive anyone to alcohol.

  2. It’s sad but I have to reply to this article. (Blah, blah, blah) AA works! It’s not about authors, realist, intellectualism, or short stories. It’s about working the 12 steps one day at a time! Step one equals powerlessness, step two shows a way out out REAL insanity! Step three is about surrender! Step four through nine is about emotional sobriety, then ten and eleven are looking back on ones day and praying! Step twelve is wonderful; give away the gift that was freely given to you!!!! I’ve read many books with a bottle; God will do for me what I can’t do for myself!

  3. I can’t even express how much this wonderful review meant to me. To see that someone read his work so carefully and really understood what my father was saying means the world.

    Thank you.

    Tina Forseth Johnson

  4. Mr. Wilson, thank you for your exceptionally close and perceptive reading of ALCOHOLITE, from which I gained fresh insight into my grandpa’s work. You tuned into much that I also (objectively) admired about his analyses. I am grateful to you for sharing your thoughts with the world and for deepening my own pride.

  5. “Fashionable intellectuals want to discredit A.A. and say that it doesn’t work.”

    It isn’t “fashionable intellectuals” who say it doesn’t work, it’s social science.
    Studies show AA has an effectiveness rate somewhere in the mid single digits.
    The most one can say on its behalf is that it works a small slice of those who try it.
    (See the work of Lance Dodes and Stanton Peele.)
    And before someone chimes in saying they’ve been “sober” for umpteen years using it, please realize that the plurality of anecdote isn’t data.

  6. I want to thank Mr. Wilson for his kind words about my father and some of his works. My father was neither a cynic nor a cheap optimist, but optimistic he was, because he saw that as akin to truth. In these days of simplistic social media comments meant to sting readers into some sort of revelation, his work stands out as a higher level of understanding of the problem of alcoholism and addiction in the areas that were his passion.

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