“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
The opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (likely his most famous, along with Rime of the Ancient Mariner) are rhythmic, vivid and creative. They are also, by Coleridge’s own assertion, fuelled by opium. He took laudanum and opium for various ailments from toothache to dysentery, and in this particular case, fell into a sedated dream. Upon waking, he began the poem. Sadly, he was interrupted by a business matter, and when he tried to recall the trancelike state in which he had begun the poem, found he was unable.
Without the reverie of the drugs, would Kubla Khan be what it became?
The drug choice may not often be opium today, but among authors, Coleridge is far from unique in using controlled substances. While there is no evidence that Lewis Carroll ever used hallucinogens, it has long been speculated upon, given the hookah-smoking caterpillar and giant mushrooms of Wonderland. And Jabberwocky sounds like the nightmarish incarnation of a particularly unpleasant acid trip.
Peruvian author Carlos Castaneda experimented with psychotropic plants like peyote as a way to reach heightened awareness and trances. Though he claimed the drugs weren’t necessary, they certainly helped. His Teachings of Don Juan touches on themes of spirituality, and mentions the connection of metaphysics and the mind-body connection in regard to natural hallucinogens.
Gonzo journalism founder Hunter S. Thompson was open about his love of drugs to the very end – after his death in 2005, his ashes were shot from a cannon atop a tower he designed himself, which depicted a fist clutching a button of peyote.
Of all the mind-altering materials authors dabble in, the most prevalent is of course, the sauce. Alcoholic authors seem a dime a dozen: the likes of Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, Kingsley Amis (pictured at right) and more have struggled with alcohol addiction. Amis even wrote books about the joys and pitfalls of being a drinker. His Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis is as funny and witty as it is educational, with chapters titled ‘The Hangover’ ‘The Boozing Man’s Diet’, and more.
Another writer who was anything but shy in his adoration of imbibing was Charles Bukowski, who was as infamous for his affair with the bottle as for his affairs with women. Alcohol and drunkenness are recurrent themes in his poetry, and reportedly contributed to the tumult of his relationships. In his poem A Radio With Guts, he wrote:
“I used to get drunk
and throw the radio through the window
while it was playing, and, of course,
it would break the glass in the window
and the radio would sit there on the roof
and I'd tell my woman,
'Ah, what a marvelous radio!'”
Even Ernest Hemingway had a lifelong battle with the booze, purportedly drinking gin in his tea at breakfast. Truman Capote allegedly penned In Cold Blood while downing a double martini before lunch, another with lunch, and a stinger afterwards, and volunteered himself for rehabilitation more than once. Both authors suffered alcohol-related health failures, Capote eventually dying of his.
Other writers bound to the booze include:
Dylan Thomas - the famous Welsh poet's official cause of death at age 40 was 'chronic alcohol poisoning'.
Tennessee Williams - Southern playwright who penned A Streetcar Named Desire lived to 71 despite fondness for alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates.
Jack Kerouac - off the wagon far more often than On The Road.
James Joyce - Irish author of Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake and more. Also binge drinker.
Aleister Crowley - muddled mystic who was steeped in the occult as well as cocaine, opium, heroin, alcohol and more.
Edgar Allan Poe - the dark, tortured mind who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven. Rumors of his drug use eventually proved greatly exaggerated, but he was certainly a drinker.
Aldous Huxley - As well as alcohol, the Brave New World author experimented with psychedelics including LSD.
Timothy Leary - famous for tuning in, turning on, dropping out - and drinking up.
Norman Mailer - twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Mailer struggled with alcohol and drugs throughout his entire life. He died in 2007 at age 84.
And that’s just a drop in the bucket (bottle?). We have to wonder whether intoxicant indulgences help or hinder the creative process. Does whiskey unclog writers’ block? Psilocybin mushrooms make a deadline a piece of cake? Or is it the euphoria, escapism and easing of pain that’s irresistibly attractive to writerly types? It’s hard to say, but can it be coincidental that so many artists and creative people fall prey to the same pitfalls?
At least one author will forever be associated with drink, but for his triumph over it, and his dedication to helping others afflicted by alcohol see that sobriety was possible and help was available. Bill Wilson published the first printing of his book, Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1939. He co-founded the program, which in 2006 had a reported 1,867,212 members in 106,202 AA groups worldwide.