No 479 The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing Book 8 of #20booksofsummer20

 Alcohol has had a starring role in the creative lives of some of the world’s most famous authors.  In an essay entitled Alcohol and Poetry Lewis Hyde noted that four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics, namely William Faulker, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

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The great William Faulkner is famed for saying, ‘my own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey’. It’s fair to say that Faulkner was being self-deprecating with the ‘little’ in that sentence and like the authors explored in Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs, his drinking informed his writing and vice versa.

Laing, who has a history of alcoholism in her own family, takes an informed and enlightening look at the lives and struggles of six male writers – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Raymond Carver – all of whose careers were both shaped and shaken by their drinking. Two of the six committed suicide and none of them lived to enjoy old age.

“I’m taking a little short trip to Echo Spring,” says Brick, a character in Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Echo Spring being both a brand of bourbon and a nickname for the liquor cabinet). In order to understand the link between alcoholism and creativity, Olivia Laing takes a longer trip across America, mostly by train, visiting the key sites in these writer’s lives. She maps their alcoholism, from the New York bars of Fitzgerald, and the beloved New Orleans of Williams’s youth and subsequent death; to Key West, home of Hemingway; and to the Mid-Western university towns where Cheever, Berryman, and Carver tried to manage teaching job, marriages and frightening drinking habits.

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Tennessee Williams, circa 1962

What results is an evocative blend of memoir, literary criticism and travel writing. Laing is an elegant writer and she is adept at weaving her own experiences, strong literary insight into these writers work, and the sociological and scientific background to alcoholism and the AA into a cohesive whole. She is a vivid observer of landscape and place and has a strong eye for capturing fleeting moments that occur when travelling.

By linking their biographies in with her own experiences, her writing takes on a real poignancy, particularly when she is joined by her mother for the last stop on her odyssey, to the place where Raymond Carver found a modicum of peace.

So why did these writers (and so many others) drink? Laing admits to varied reasons – unhappy childhoods, anxiety, boredom – but offers no easy answers. She does note the links the writers all share between the love of alcohol and the love of water. Hemingway and Carver loved to fish, Hemingway out on the ocean and Carver on the river. Williams loved to swim and Cheever’s stunning story The Swimmer, conflates a man swimming through the pools in his neighbourhood with his growing alcoholism. They could lose themselves and paradoxically find themselves in these liquids, these springs, in what Laing calls ‘a little fantasy of cleanliness, purification, dissolution and death’.

Thanks to her first-hand experience of life with an alcoholic, Laing is clear-eyed about the self-destruction at the heart of the alcoholic and is the first to admit that these men were often violent, unpleasant and even dangerous. Yet she also makes us care about them and more, importantly, cherish the great work they left behind.

We can never know why any one person drinks, let alone six people but Laing explores possible causes through incisive and often beautiful prose, insightful explorations into their work and, overall, with an air of empathy. The legacy of these writers is a testament to the winning out of talent over addiction.

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20 Books of Summer: 8/20

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

28 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I had this one from the library and renewed it about a million times before returning it unread. Maybe I should have another go!

    I’m impressed with your progess on your massive TBR pile/warehouse – mine is similar. Do you still end up buying new books while tackling it?

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  2. Hi,

    The percentage of alcoholic American Nobel literary winners is slipping if poets are included. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Dylan could not have been conceded the award if there were any great alcoholics writing these days. I also think that the “medication of choice” for our society has changed. Tortured souls may no longer isolate in taverns but at the CVS. I don’t mean to be flippant about the horror of alcoholism. I genuinely understand.

    The font of confessional outpouring and barleycorn may be shared. But based on the output of these writers, it’s too bad there haven’t been more troubled people working for the Peace Prize.

    Don

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s so long since I read this that I checked my review and found that I’d skipped bits towards the end, particularly the bleak John Berryman sections. I do remember appreciating the elegance of Laing’s prose you mention, on display again in The Lonely City. There does seem to be a link between intoxication, in one form or another, and creativity.

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  4. I’ve read Laing’s To The River and thought it was excellent. Her other books *do* sound very appealing and this one sounds as if it would be as good as “River”. Interesting she chose to focus on male authors – maybe women turn to other vices?? ;D

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  5. What an interesting idea for a book, may be she’ll tackle women who drink in another volume? It certainly sounds good and Echo Spring is such a lovely euphemism if only it wasn’t for something so damaging!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds interesting and well-written, though perhaps a little bleak for me. With very talented writers like this, I always wonder if in fact they would have produced more/better work without their addictions.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a deep post, Cathy. I love how you’re not afraid to address it head on.

    It can be touchy for some, but you go right in. After reading the article, I feel more interested in the topic than before. Where creatives get their inspiration and how their environment impacts what they pay attention to, contains fascinating insights to how the brain works.

    Any system when pushed to the extreme will reveal fundamental properties. Creativity is an extreme of brain function.

    Creative types are also far more sensitive in at least 1 sensory organ. They essentially take in more information from their environment. It can be overwhelming, alcohol and other drugs can help dampen the effect. They are hyper-responders.
    That’s my theory as to why they turn to them.
    What’s your theory?

    These topics are ripe for the exploring in my blog. I can’t get enough of this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I read The Lonely City not so long ago and loved how she writes. I have To the River on my wishlist and her novel Crudo, but hadn’t picked up on this one. It’s now added!

    Perhaps a follow up about women writers who drink could be called The Trip to Echo Falls.

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  9. I read this a number of years ago. As the parent of an alcoholic I found it especially enlightening and even, in the case of those writers who did overcome their addictions, hopeful. Lonely City is also wonderful and I recently bought To the River on sale. Her novel and a recent essay collection I understand to be less impressive (actually I’ve heard the novel is awful), but in this type of long essay form she is amazing.

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  10. This topic is fascinating. I think we all wonder if there’s a connection and, if so, what it is exactly. I feel like I’d end up with more questions than answers after reading this book. (Not necessarily a bad thing…)

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  11. I find Laing a very elusive writer – as with The Lonely City this felt like an atmosphere made of fragments rather than structured to argue one way or another. I’ve been studying adverse childhood experiences at work, so I feel more sympathetic to some of these writers who I might have dismissed as overprivileged whingers in the past. An interesting and, as you say, elegant read.

    Liked by 1 person

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