Sunday, August 4, 2013
The Dark Side of Hemingway's Drinking
There is a fine line between hard-drinking and alcoholic. I should know. I spent the better part of the last decade flirting with that line, at times swaying into both camps. When it comes to pop culture, the hard-drinking writer is something of a folk hero, often a legendary figure of mythical proportions (see: Hunter S. Thompson, Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, Hemingway). The hard-drinker is to be admired. Step over that fine line into the alcoholic territory, though, and you've suddenly found yourself in taboo waters.
The popular conception of Hemingway is that he was a hard-drinking, hard-living portrait of masculinity, surely a drinker to be admired. A quick google search will reveal a plethora of sites encouraging you to "Drink like Hemingway". Kenny Chesney even recently released an album entitled "Hemingway's Whiskey," glorifying the writer's life-long infatuation with the bottle.
In pop culture, it's not hard to see why the hard-drinking days of such writers are glorified. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous book? The Great Gatsby. Jack Kerouac? On the Road. Jack London? The Call of the Wild. The literary realm remembers the glory days of such writers, not the darker counterparts to the heroic drinking days. In the midst of the recent release of Gatsby the movie, most of American society would probably picture Fitzgerald a colorful, hard-partying figure of the roaring twenties. Lost in popular culture, however, is the fact that Scott Fitzgerald had such a problem with morning drinking - drinking away alcohol withdrawals from the night before - that Hemingway(!) of all people often cringed at his friend's embarassing public antics, to the point where Fitzgerald had to be avoided during some of the worst drinking spells. Few people know that Kerouac wrote perhaps the quintessential novel on delirium tremens - the final, dark stages of alcoholism - in Big Sur, or that Kerouac spent his finals years walking around his hometown in New England, bloated by alcohol, in a stupor that earned him town-wide pity. Fewer would probably know that Jack London wrote an account of his own alcoholism in John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs. As for Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, these folk heroes are lauded as the testament to towing the line between hard-drinking and alcoholism successfully, perhaps the most laudable drinkers in literary pop culture. What we don't see is the final years of Thompson and Hemingway's drinking, when the ravages of liquor began to gnaw away at their brains and their livers, leading both ominously down a path of fate involving a shotgun and their own hands.
And this is unfortunate. I've always sought after the darker tales of battles with the bottle. Any hack writer can put heavy-drinking tales to paper, but it takes true literary genius to account for those harrowing dark days when you come face to face with the devil himself in the midst of delirium tremens, as Kerouac did in Big Sur, or to account for a losing battle with the bottle when you can't put down the mescal despite your best intentions, as Malcolm Lowry achieved in Under the Volcano.
I'm somewhat of a self-proclaimed Hemingway afficionado. The deeper I delve into the Hemingway catalogue, the deeper my primary critique of his work gets - that he was unable to ever account for his experiences with alcoholism. This summer I read one of Hemingway's final novels in Across the River and Into the Trees, which is in essence a retrospective piece on his life as he approached the half-century mark of his life. Given the retrospective quality of the novel, it had the potential to be a masterpiece of nostalgia and regret - and Hemingway indeed thought it would earn masterpiece status in the way that The Old Man and the Sea would turn out to be years later. From booze to war to lost love (three failed marriages at this point in his life), Hemingway had a breadth of life experiences from which he could have worked. Instead, we get tidbits of war flashbacks that do not come close to achieving the war-ravaged emotions of "Big Two-Hearted River". Unfortunately, this novel aims low rather than reaching for the stars. In part, I blame this on Hemingway's unwillingness to address the role of alcohol in his life, which he continuously refused to do in any honest way throughout the course of his life.
Hemingway deserves as much blame as pop culture for his image as a hard-drinking folk hero rather than an alcoholic, though. For as much as pop culture perpetuated the myth of Hemingway the hard-drinking, hard-living icon, Hemingway himself was never capable of recognizing his drinking for what it ultimately became: a dark problem. While Hemingway had no problem calling out Fitzgerald for his drinking and recognizing that for Fitzgerald, pouring out the liquor cabinet was essential, he had quite the problem admitting his own demons. This denial, of course, is one of the underlying symptoms of addiction.
I'm currently about 500 pages deep into the 600 page tell-all Hemingway biography, written by Carlos Baker. This means I am starting to get into the dark side of Hemingway's drinking years, when the act of drinking was no longer a social outlet amongst expatriates in Paris or a military coping mechanism amongst his comrades in arms. In reality, alcohol had destroyed a lot in his life. The latter two of his first three wives both left him in part due to his reluctance to accept a sense of domesticity, opting instead to retain the late-night drinking sprees of his twenties well after he had grown old. Moreover, Hemingway suffered a number of injuries from automobile acts resulting from drinking and driving, some leaving him with concussions that further inhibited his alcohol-deteriorated brain. Further revealing is the fact that, after being wounded in the first great war, Hemingway's nurses were perturbed to find hidden bottles of cognac stashed away in his hospital room. But perhaps most revealing is that, when suffering from kidney problems and told by doctors to abstain from drinking, and finally in his late years when family and friends pleaded with him to put down the bottle, Hemingway was either unwilling or unable to follow doctors' or friends' orders.
Whether or not Hemingway suffered from alcohol dependence - the crucial turning point in any story of alcoholism - is disputed. In his later years, Hemingway is said to have drank a quart of whiskey per day. Though he set rules for himself to try and limit his drinking, he often was unable to abstain from the elixir past lunchtime. Ultimately, the alcohol began to rot Hemingway's brain - as it has been wont to do for so many illustrious writers. Self-medicating with alcohol in his final years led to a deep-seated depression, climactically resulting in that tragic day with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho. Though he called his own father a coward for committing suicide, Ernest was unable to escape the same fate, the terrors of alcohol and depression weighing like a black cloud over his soul.
I don't mean to critique Hemingway for his drinking. Someone in my shoes is certainly in no place to do so. Rather, I can only lament that the tragic story of the dark side of the bottle never found its way into Hemingway's writing. As is evident from Kerouac's Big Sur and Lowry's Under the Volcano, these types of tragic tales can result in some truly meaningful literature. It's a tragedy in itself that we never got to see what the master of American literature could do with similar material. All that's left is the mistaken perception in popular culture of a hard-drinking, hard-living man, an entirely incomplete portrait of the legendary Hemingway, and the wonder of what could have been.