10 Great Writers Who Battled Alcohol Addiction

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Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the United States; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012, 80,000 people lose their lives to it each year. Apart from the health problems alcohol addiction can create, it can also greatly affect the families of alcoholics, whose children may be neglected or develop poor self-image as a result. The disorder affects people from all walks of life, including the ten writers below, all of whom battled alcoholism during their careers and who sometimes had a family history of addiction. Yet they were often able to produce some classic works of literature, poetry and journalism despite their affliction.

10. William Faulkner

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William Faulkner is arguably one of American literature’s greatest writers and was crowned with both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (twice). However, the novelist and short story writer, who was born in New Albany, Mississippi in 1897, had one very specific tool that he used when creating classics such as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying: alcohol. Faulkner once baffled his French translator with a sentence he may well have composed while under the influence, admitting to him, “I have absolutely no idea of what I meant. You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.” That said, his heaviest drinking binges usually took place in between novels and could go on for up to weeks at a time. Yet even so, the writer remained productive until his death of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 64.

9. John Cheever

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Born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1912, John Cheever saw the effects of alcohol abuse firsthand from an early age, as his father Frederick fell into heavy drinking after losing most of the family’s money. The writer himself had a 20-year addiction to alcohol – possibly intensified by struggles over his bisexuality – and tackled the subject in his 1962 short story Reunion, about a boy who meets with his estranged, alcoholic father in New York City. The so-called “Chekhov of the suburbs” continued to drink even after a near-fatal pulmonary edema attributable to his alcoholism. However, in 1975, after he found himself being picked up by the police for vagrancy while sharing liquor with some homeless people, Cheever was checked into New York’s Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center. He remained sober until his death of cancer seven years later at the age of 70.

8. Dorothy Parker

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Dorothy Parker is arguably as much famed for her biting, often self-deprecating witticisms as she is for her writing and criticism. However, the Algonquin Roundtable founder – born Dorothy Rothschild in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1893 – battled with both severe depression and alcohol addiction during her career. It is reported that at one New York speakeasy she frequented, a bartender asked her, “What are you having?” – to which Parker replied, “Not much fun.” Upon commitment to a sanatorium, the writer apparently even said to one doctor that the room was fine but that she would need to leave around every hour to have a drink. Her marriages were also blighted by alcoholic tendencies in both parties. Parker continued to write for a number of outlets, though, including for radio, until her death from a heart attack in 1967. She was 73.

7. Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe is renowned for work that blends the macabre and the mysterious and has been widely credited as the pioneer of the fictional detective genre. However, his own life, which began in January 1809 in Boston, saw him turn to alcohol in reputedly large quantities, most notably after the tragic death of his wife Virginia from tuberculosis. He went on to find a new love, the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who said that she would only take his hand in marriage if he abandoned his drinking; Poe did not, however, and the engagement was broken. One psychologist has since proposed that he was a dipsomaniac. Poe’s death at the early age of 40 in 1849 remains clouded in mystery: it has been said that alcohol may have been the cause, but potentially also cholera, heart disease or tuberculosis, amongst other factors.

6. Truman Capote

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Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924, Truman Capote overcame a difficult childhood blighted by the divorce of his parents, a lengthy separation from his mother and various upheavals to produce literary landmarks such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Capote’s drinking in later life is said to have had a precedent in his own mother’s struggle with alcohol. He apparently repeatedly attempted to quit drinking – and was sometimes successful for a few months – before again falling off the wagon. Capote also battled an addiction to tranquilizers, to which he initially resorted after the release of In Cold Blood in order to calm his nerves. In 1984 Capote succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 59; “phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication” were also cited as contributing factors.

5. James Joyce

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Like John Cheever, James Joyce – who was born in suburban Dublin, Ireland in 1882 and was one of the pioneering modernist writers of the 20th century – had a father who was prone to drinking. As we now know that those with family members who have abused alcohol are more at risk of becoming alcoholics themselves, this might go some way to explaining Joyce’s own predilection for drink, as well as his son’s eventual alcoholism. It is suggested that his landmark 1922 novel Ulysses was written under the influence and that Joyce himself believed that he could not write as effectively without alcohol. He is also alleged to have used booze as a crutch to deal with misfortune. Yet despite all this, as an apparent “functional alcoholic,” Joyce continued to produce work that has been acclaimed as some of the best of the 20th century, until his death from peritonitis in 1941. He was 58.

4. Hunter S. Thompson

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To say that author and “Gonzo journalism” practitioner Hunter S. Thompson – born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937 – liked a drink would be an understatement. At a young age, he stunned his New York publishers upon their first meeting by downing 20 double Wild Turkeys in about three hours, then leaving apparently unaffected. Whiskey was a mainstay throughout his life, but other spirits, cocktails and beer were on the menu too. During the presidential election trails he covered, he’d alarm his fellow journalists by getting stuck into a Heineken six-pack and a bottle of gin at the beginning of the day. However, Thompson was unapologetic about his penchant for drinking, as well as his other vices, famously stating, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” His journalism and commentary continued to be published until his suicide in 2005 at the age of 67.

3. Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers wrote her acclaimed, bestselling novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was just 23, and she went on to forge a career portraying the lives of the lost and the downtrodden in the American South. However, McCullers – born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917 as Lula Carson Smith – is said to have worked consistently with alcohol by her side: a morning beer, followed by a steady stream of sherry; she then poured herself a martini before dinner and continued to imbibe throughout the night at parties. McCullers also explored alcoholism and its effects in her short story “A Domestic Dilemma,” published in her 1951 collection The Ballad of the Sad Café, which told the tale of a family afflicted by drinking issues. The writer herself was plagued by health problems throughout her life, and she died in 1967 from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 50.

2. Charles Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski – born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany in 1920 – liked alcohol so much that he once called it “one of the greatest things to arrive upon the earth,” along with himself. Being introduced to booze in his early teens began for Bukowski a lifelong love affair with the substance, chronicled in his novels and poetry. It also proved the inspiration for the 1987 biopic Barfly, which Bukowski wrote himself and which saw Mickey Rourke play the writer’s soused alter-ego Henry Chinaski. A several-year hiatus in his writing career was not due to a lack of inspiration but – as depicted in the movie – simply a result of the fact that he was drunk during that period. However, it has been claimed that Bukowski’s prodigious drinking helped with his natural tendency towards shyness and introversion, with the writer himself suggesting that it gave him a reason to live. Bukowski died in 1994 from leukemia. He was 73.

1. Ernest Hemingway

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Nobel Prize in Literature winner Ernest Hemingway had a unique take on tourism: he once said, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” Hemingway himself was no stranger to a tavern or two and was a famed patron of Key West, Florida joint Sloppy Joe’s. The writer, who was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, admitted to drinking since he was 15 years of age. During the final two decades his life, the author of modern classics like The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms was reputedly putting away a quart of whiskey a day – although he claimed he abstained from drinking while working. Perhaps surprisingly, he often seemed relatively sober after his feats of boozing, although the alcohol reportedly took a toll on his health. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway committed suicide, after suffering a period of depression.