- Reviewed by
Studies of addiction in literature typically approach the subject from a pathological perspective: Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer and Tom Dardis’ The Thirsty Muse, the two best-known of such works in the last decade, both go a long way toward exploring if not answering the riddle of why so many modern writers-including the majority of American winners of the Nobel Prize-dissipated at the hands of alcohol. Although somewhat limited by their author-oriented approaches, [End Page 350] which largely confine them to the feel of surveys rather than analyses, these books serve a worthy function by insistently dispelling the romantic myth of the drunkard’s holiday: unmoved by the mystique of the Hemingway and Fitzgerald lifestyle, both Goodwin and Dardis expose the self-justifications, denial, and sheer wastage in the careers of leading modernists. One senses that this book will inspire even greater interest in the subject, for The White Logic is the first critical work to locate the pervasive discourse of alcoholism in modernist texts in its cultural context. Although built upon solid biographical detail, each of Crowley’s seven chapters, spanning from W. D. Howells’ The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897) to Charles Johnson’s neglected The Lost Weekend (1944), looks beyond the ailments of modernist authors to ask a series of questions: how does the portrait of a particular “rummy,” “sot,” or “dipsomaniac” reflect the social construction of alcoholism as a moral defect or disease? How does alcoholism come to symbolize the distemper of modern American culture? What is the relationship between inebriation and modernist technique? And how is drinking gendered to serve as “a key sign of ‘manliness,”‘ a Jobian symbol of heroic suffering and coping?
Jack London’s John Barleycorn (1913) provides the controlling metaphor of the “white logic,” the “agonized sense of life’s hopelessness and worthlessness” (20) that intoxication at once exacerbates and consoles, by which Crowley defines the modernist narrative of inebriety: the alcoholic is a “prophet . . . a deadly serious man among men, a visionary with a tough-mindedness to match his rugged physical constitution” (33). By dramatizing intoxication as a metaphysical struggle, this genre transforms “the hopeless drunk” into “the modernist Everyman, a symbol of suffering humanity in the apocalyptic twentieth century” (80). The gallery of Everymen here includes both the usual suspects (Jake Barnes, Dick Diver) and a few less celebrated (Djuna Barnes’s Matthew O’Connor, John O’Hara’s Julian English), but rather than a psychological portrait of addictive behavior, Crowley’s approach is sociological: we begin to understand better why drinking is such a common motif in modernist literature the more we learn of the rise of saloon culture (which provides much of the backdrop of Barleycorn), the bourgeois imbibing at Prohibition-era country clubs (in Appointment in Samarra), and the Alcoholics Anonymous movement (with which [End Page 351] Weekend was associated in the 1940s). Time and time again, Crowley asserts that beneath aesthetic and philosophical justifications of binges and benders lie desires for homosocial bonding. Alcohol not only sanctifies the fear of women by creating predominantly male “inner circles” in which intoxication becomes a preferred form of impotence, but it also discharges homophobic anxieties by creating within these circles elaborate rituals of exchange (buying a round, for example) that police behavior.
The standout chapter focuses upon Barnes’s Nightwood, a novel so textually dense that critics often overlook its (admittedly obscured) verisimilitudinous qualities in favor of its luxuriant rhetoricity. What makes Crowley’s reading provocative is his argument that Barnes appropriates the modernist drunk narrative, transforming its tendency toward self-pity and denial into subversive farce: the philosopher-clown Matthew O’Connor, the moral center of the book (if Nightwood can be said to have a moral center), “carries the pessimism of the White Logic to the limit where the sublime tips over into the ridiculous and solemnity becomes too lugubrious to be endured without a belly laugh” (134). The O’Hara and Jackson chapters...