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Alcoholic Artists and Gin-soaked Pages: An Overview

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Ashoka chapter.

Edited By: Maya M. Haidar (UG 20)

Leonardo DiCaprio raises his glass while fireworks go off in the background.The corner of the screen flashes the following words nonchalantly: Alcohol Consumption is injurious to health. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald ever imagine that his depiction of Jay Gatsby would turn into a feature-length film (that would win many hearts and a few Oscars along the way), only for it to be called out for glamorizing alcohol consumption? Drunken states in literature do not engage in futile discussions on what can and cannot be depicted. Every book provides something new to the discourse on substance abuse and every author brings their liquor of choice to the table for the heated argument that is sure to follow. Some of the best works of art have, after all, come from artists who have not just struggled with, but drowned into alcohol consumption. Bringing their soured experiences into the world of literature, they knew to keep their mouths on the bottle and their fingers on the typewriter.

The idea of an alcoholic artist creating an alcoholic character strikes one with great irony which no debate about accurate representation in art can solve. Although, there is no denying the effect of alcohol in driving the lucidity of a writer’s dream. The depiction of alcohol can be traced back to Vincent Van Gogh, whose drug of choice was Absinthe, a spirit he drank so proudly that he painted a portrait of the bottle. The first true tortured artist, Van Gogh’s legacy ended tragically with the effects of his sobriety on the deteriorating quality of work, indicatingthe direction in which his career was headed. More recently, Thomas Kinkade ventured into the complexities of the human experience through his art with little concern for his mental and physical being.He succumbed  to ‘acute ethanol and diazepam intoxication’ and remains a harsh reminder of reality for those who get lost in the haze of consumption–both for liquor and for life. In other inebriations of authors having their glass and drinking it too, comes James Joyce. The Irish writer from the Roaring 20s, Joyce, in his badly disguised memoir, expresses distaste for Irishmen who sit around in pubs all day. He dissociates himself from the alcohol-centric, pub-going nationalism through a self-fashioned character. But, his own liver pleads otherwise, after several interactions with drinking. After all, who can depict true mirthful drinking without having enjoyed it themselves? The portrayal of a beast born from yeast turns into an introspective look into the madness behind the sadness once the empty bottles have turned. 

– Dorothy Parker, who famously wrote about drinking and alcoholism in her books

Olivia Laing wrote a detailed book called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, which weaves through alcoholic tendencies of writers in the 20th century to examine how addiction disfigured their lives. From Ernest Hemingway to Tennessee Williams, artists’ drinking habits becomes of more interest to us because of how they translate and inject into their work to give a richer meaning to their stories. Chronic alcoholism was often a coping mechanism for the dull pains of penniless tortured artists whose art was worth millions, but at the end of the day, the bottom of an empty bottle reminded them of the depths they had reached in their own lives. In The Scarlet Letter, liquor is labelled a ‘demon rum’ which can be explained by toxic relationships. As if like a fruitless lover who hurts you so much that you crave its hurt endlessly, it is an addiction in bottled form, sold as products of capitalization. Unbottled and downed, liquor manages to drown the artist along the way, and somewhere drowning along are those gin-soaked pages which when bound together and sold, form the next Woolf or Fitzgerald or Hemingway. 

From the glass of whiskey to the glass ceiling, positive connotations attached to the consumption of alcohol by females have remained unshattered. This didn’t stop the Dorothy Parkers of the world in either their spiritual affiliations or their literary engagements. The only occupational hazard in literature seems to be the act of writing itself. Parker, and other female authors, depicted alcoholism to the same extent as their male contemporaries, but were much less famous than Hemingway.. Their reputations as women who indulged in drinking may have stolen some credit from them despite the fact they were the real-life incarnations of women depicted in the literary trope. The romanticism of a man’s drunken sleaziness heavily contrasts with a woman’s sour breath after not being able to keep her liquor down. 

– Poster of the movie adapted from Charles Jackson’s book of the same name, The Lost Weekend

The bitter aftertaste of alcohol is what Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend leaves you with in its intrusive depiction of an alcoholic’s situation, one which proves to be too realistic for all those who have even considered an Alcoholics Anonymous session. The harsh truth brought out in the book cannot be swallowed with a few gulps of burning liquor, making it harder to avoid and justifying the title given to it of ‘The Book Which Will Make You Never Touch Alcohol Again’. Jackson’s experience with years of alcoholism seemed to have taught him enough  to write this book much later in life after he had sobered up. Ironically, after the book achieved some success and came to be recognised for its depictions of the rock bottom one experiences in an alcohol-induced state, Jackson returned to drinking. His tumultuous journey was ridden with extreme lows and he owed his most tortured state to the one book which was left of no use to him. ​

– Van Gogh’s A Starry Night


From Van Gogh to Joyce, artists with tough dealings in their lives have admitted to having created their best works under the influence of alcohol. These tortured artists have broken families, deteriorating health, bouts of depression, dull pains from stressful lives in common, along with their decision to become artists. They all chose the same weapon in the huge war waging inside their heads and loaded it with different ammunition, be it spirits, rum, or whisky. And the liquor subsequently drowns the battleships in their head into a clear sea of thoughts, just long enough for their subconscious and conscious to temporarily meld together so that their fingers can weave melodious tunes with the typewriter seamlessly. The flow of intake ensures the flow of outtake. Whether it is whisky to calm the nerves, rum to lighten the load or spirits to duck the depression, alcohol has intertwined with art, and liquor has linked itself to literature inseparably. It is in this state that Fitzgerald writes about Jay Gatsby’s iconic entrance with colourful fireworks and a flute of champagne, next to his own empty liquor bottles with the blue and red police car closing in on the distance. He was as much of an artist as he was an alcoholic, sent to the hospital when he passed out and sent to jail when he didn’t. 

Everything is good in small quantities, especially when it’s truckload peaks your creativity only to push you into a depressive state. Literature throughout the years has been filled with tales of alcoholism and tales by alcoholic authors. William Faulkner revealed that his heaviest drinking binges happened between novels and continued for weeks, and Ernest Hemingway had the glorious insight that, “A man does not exist until he is drunk.” Safe to say, it seems like a little booze is a great way to develop characters inside novels, and a lot more than a little booze is a greater way to develop those novels in their entirety.


Mehak Vohra

Ashoka '21

professional procrastinator.