Behavior: The Writer's Vice

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In Western literary tradition, Critic Leslie Fiedler has said, great writers need a flaw, a "charismic weakness." Often that weakness is drinking. "You're a rummy, but no more than most good writers are," Ernest Hemingway told Scott Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald himself called alcohol the "writer's vice." Now, through a study of Fitzgerald as "an alcoholic par excellence," Washington University Psychiatrist Donald W. Goodwin has attempted to explain the remarkable statistics about the drinking habits of well-known American writers of the past century: a third to a half were alcoholic; of six Americans awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, four (Eugene O'Neill, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner and Hemingway) were alcoholics, and a fifth (John Steinbeck) drank heavily.

Why so? Possibly their heredity compelled it; writing ability and alcoholism may have common, partly innate roots, says Goodwin. Possibly, at least in Fitzgerald, talent and alcoholism "have a common meeting point" with another disorder that may have a genetic source: manic-depressive disease. Fitzgerald's enthusiasms were nearly manic, and he was often depressed. "In the real dark night of the soul," he wrote, "it is always three o'clock in the morning."

In his early days, Fitzgerald drank out of disappointment and poverty. Later, "success was the occasion for drinking." Whatever its origins, Fitzgerald's alcoholism rarely seemed to embarrass him, though he often felt guilty over the suffering it caused his wife Zelda. Drinking, in fact, had always attracted him: as a boy, he pretended drunkenness; as an adult, he introduced himself as "F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic." He claimed that liquor "heightened feelings," and he declined psychiatric treatment because he thought he would not write as well if he stopped drinking.

Perhaps he had something there. Explains Goodwin: "Writing is a form of exhibitionism; alcohol lowers inhibitions and brings out exhibitionism. Writing requires an interest in people; alcohol increases sociability. Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence."

Then, too, alcohol can ease the pain of the writer's lot. To write is to be lonely, Goodwin says, but alcohol assuages loneliness. To write demands intense concentration, but drink relaxes, emancipating the writer from "the tyranny of mind and memory."

To Goodwin, nonetheless, alcohol is not just a harmless stimulus to creativity. He points to the obvious fact that a man may use it self-destructively, as did Fitzgerald. In such cases, as Baudelaire said about Edgar Allan Poe, alcohol becomes a weapon "to kill something inside himself, a worm that would not die."