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  • "Alcoholite at the Altar":Sinclair Lewis, Drink, and the Literary Imagination

This is where I marooned him long ago, the son of Poias, the Melian, his foot diseased and eaten away with running ulcers.

—Sophocles, Philoctetes

"His end . . . was like a Greek tragedy."

—Dorothy Thompson to FrancisPerkins, 9 February 1951


The subject of alcoholism and the writer—especially the twentieth-century American writer—has received massive anecdotal attention, but little serious analysis. Critics cite with apparent approval an article by the psychiatrist Donald W. Goodwin that appeared fifteen years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association that begins: "Alcoholism is unevenly distributed among [End Page 581] groups. More men than women are alcoholic, more Irishmen than Jews, more bartenders than bishops. The group, however, with possibly a higher rate of alcoholism than any other consists of famous American writers" (86).1 Most of the critical literature on the writer and alcoholism is no more serious or enlightening than is Goodwin's generalization. Alfred Kazin and Bob Dunham, for example, evoking the lurid images of Hemingway's "Giant Killer" and Jack London's "white logic," string together a series of incidents that in the main portray the writer variously as a reverent or heroic or pathetic drunk. Such facile, unproductive characterizations do not advance the serious assessment of the effect addiction has on the art of particular American writers.2 And when Mark Schorer quotes an anonymous punster on Sinclair Lewis—"'an alcoholite at the altar'" (399)—the flippant witticism evokes yet another familiar image of the writer and liquor: an image of artistic creation through alcoholic inspiration. Indeed, Schorer's massive biography of Lewis—an American life he pointedly subtitles it—parades an exhaustive and exhausting record of his drinking behavior. With regard to any real insight into the relation between Lewis' illness and his art, however, Frederick Manfred is precisely right: "Mark Schorer missed him" (Lundquist, "Frederick Manfred Talks" 5).3 One must reluctantly conclude that literary critics, among others, seem to have been remarkably careless—even obtuse—when dealing with the alcoholism of writers. [End Page 582]

Over the years the American literary scene has, of course, been suffused with alcohol. At the height of Prohibition in 1927 Edmund Wilson published a "lexicon" containing "a partial list of words denoting drunkenness now in common use in the United States" (71). This list consists of 105 items "beginning with the mildest stages and progressing to the more disastrous," from "lit" and "owled" through "scrooched" and "spifficated" to "burn with a low blue flame" (71-72). The urbane and even frivolous tone of this article is in keeping with the public view of drinking in those times. A strikingly different picture, however, is depicted by Wilson in The Twenties. This private record overflows with examples of the destructiveness of drink among the literary elite and their hangers-on, a picture that contradicts the sophisticated "partying" publicly portrayed.

This ambivalence toward drink was forcefully, if somewhat differently, dramatized recently in the case of the poet John Berryman:

Berryman was admitted to the Abbott Hospital [in Minneapolis in 1970] in a state of alcoholism. . . . He left [the] hospital . . . after three days. . . . Three days later he was readmitted "with a flight of ideas, excessive creativity, hypersexuality, over enthusiasm and excessive drinking." Dr[.] Mayberg [Berryman's psychiatrist] saw clearly Berryman's feeling that sobriety was not productive for him as a lover or as a writer. . . . The first week of April brought another period of excessive drinking, at the end of which he was back in the hospital. The patient, according to Dr. Mayberg's chart, "was lethargic, stuporous, uncoordinated and diaphoretic on admission." He suffered from a marked tremor. There was no doubt that his alcoholism was acute and chronic. Again, three days later, he was discharged with quantities of Librium, Haldol, Thorazine, Tuinal, and multivitamins, after a course of treatment called "supportive with withdrawal."

The romantic notion that alcohol was both an aphrodisiac and a creative stimulant persisted in the face of Berryman's personal [End Page 583] horror. And commentators, who are presumably not themselves victims of the disease, have demonstrated no...


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