Writers Under the Influence


When I was in high school everyone had to read and discuss “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) as part of one of our English classes. I suspect that we also learned a bit about his life, but we certainly didn’t learn that he was high on opium most of the time. In fact when he came up with the inspiration for his famous poem “Kubla Khan” he was high. Unfortunately someone knocked on his door and he had to talk to the person for an hour or so. When he once again sat down to write, he had lost the inspiration for the poem, and was never able to complete it.

Opium was sold by every druggist in England at that time, and no one knew (or cared) about the long-term effects of this narcotic. Opium could be taken in pill form or it could be mixed with alcohol to become what was known as laudanum. Laudanum was commonly prescribed by doctors for pain management, and even for quieting infants (a drop at a time) when they were fussy.

Coleridge, the youngest of ten children, was a brilliant student and was awarded a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge. He spent most of his time drinking and gambling, and eventually disappeared. Many months later he was found: he had joined the military. He was a totally inept soldier who didn’t even know how to ride a horse. His family raised enough money to buy his way out of the service, and he was discharged with a diagnosis of insanity.

He tried many jobs, and finally found his niche as a poet. A wealthy patron offered him a stipend of £150 per year for the rest of his life and he accepted it. The income was enough to allow him the freedom to do as he chose, and he chose to write and to take laudanum. He became addicted and was never able to overcome his dependence on it. He eventually realized his dilemma, but he couldn’t control his drug use. At one point he moved in with a doctor who regulated his laudanum usage, but Coleridge would sneak down to the local pharmacy to obtain additional amounts. When he died from heart disease in 1834 he was still a hopeless addict. Though one of the major English poets, he lost his family, friends, and finally his health to his addition. And his accomplishments represent only a fraction of the promise it held before he gave in to addiction.

Coleridge is not unique when we think of writers who squandered their gifts due to addiction to opium. Thomas De Quincy (1785 – 1859) first used laudanum in 1804 to dull the pain of a toothache, and realized that it heightened his enjoyment of operas and concerts, so he continued to use it. In fact, he authored an autobiographical book entitled Confessions of an English Opium Eater in which he discusses the pleasures and pains of opium use (with more emphasis on the pleasures than the pains). Other authors who used opium include Branwell Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, Wilke Collins, Francis Thompson, James Thomson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, and John Keats.

Edgar Allan Poe had a problem with both alcohol and laudanum (which was legal in the United States at the time) though he never took it consistently enough to become addicted. The pain he suffered from was depression. “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge,” he said. “It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.” “I do believe God gave me a spark of genius,” he also said, “but He quenched it in misery.” Shortly before his death, he disappeared, and was finally located in Baltimore. He was drunk and wearing another man’s clothes. He died in a hospital four days later.

Moving ahead in time, we come to “the lost generation” which included F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Their pairing was truly tragic because it was so destructive. They spent most of their time partying, drinking, and fighting with one another. While the extent of Zelda’s talent can be argued, there is no doubt that Scott could have done much more with his life if he and Zelda had never met. She ended up in a mental hospital where she died in a fire. Scott went to California to write movie scripts and to complete The Last Tycoon. He died from a heart attack before completing the novel that many consider the best writing he ever did.

Ernest Hemingway was also a member of the lost generation, and his drug of choice, like that of the Fitzgeralds, was alcohol. His heavy use of alcohol, health problems, and the depression that dogged him all his life lead him to commit suicide just as his father had done before him. His brother Leicester, his sister Ursula, and his granddaughter Margaux (an actress) also committed suicide.

Ken Kesey used LSD. William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas drank heavily as did Dorothy Parker. William S. Burroughs was a morphine addict. Truman Capote, who had a way with words, described himself this way: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.” The list of drugs and the list of authors who have used them goes on and on.

Some authors believed that drugs gave them the inspiration they needed to write while others concluded that drugs were destructive to their creativity. Which point of view is correct? More importantly, why do so many writers indulge heavily in alcohol and other drugs? Is there actually a link between writing and drug abuse or do we simply notice more often that writers have had substance abuse problems? I don’t have the answers to those questions. I wonder if anyone does.

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