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Sunday Read: Adam Gopnik Muses on the End of the Literary Culture of Really Big Drinkers

After reading Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Adam Gopnik, author of The Table Comes First, reflects on the “literary culture of really big drinkers”, which he is “old enough to have been able to see the tail end of”, in an article for The New Yorker.

F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver are some of the writers whose drinking lives Laing explores, which Gopnik says “mostly makes for depressing reading”.

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His theory on the link between “the drinking life and the writing life – or, to put it more bluntly, alcoholism and art” is that “writing is work in which the balance necessary to a sane life of physical and symbolic work has been wrested right out of plumb, or proportion, and alcohol is (wrongly) believed to rebalance it”. He also suggest some reasons why writers’ drinking has abated in recent years.

The big drinking writers mostly died before their time, Gopnik points out, and they seemed old while still fairly young. While the “extended boyishness of this generation’s fully mature writers” is sometimes criticised, Gopnik says it is undoubtedly preferable to early death!

“Writers in this office used to drink,” a grizzled veteran of these corridors once said sternly to a couple of pup reporters, whom he had discovered taking turns trying on a good-looking cashmere jacket in another cubicle. The moral, abashing if not shaming, was that in the halls where once real men had roamed, or drank in peaceable closets, now mere jacket-fanciers wandered. Certainly, it’s impossible to turn the past pages of this magazine, or the pages of American literary history, for that matter, without being reminded of how inextricable the drinking life and the writing life—or, to put it more bluntly, alcoholism and art—once were. From St. Clair McKelway to Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, and from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Sinclair Lewis and beyond, it was not long ago that if you wrote you drank, and if you weren’t drinking it was because you were drying out.

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Image courtesy The Sunday Times UK


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