Poe & Alcoholism

Design for the poster and cover for The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, Edouard Manet

The X— Review,
Xburg College
Xberg, IA

Dear Editor:

This letter concerns the alcohol related references in your essay on Poe currently appearing in the Autumn issue of The X— Review. Since I’m a Poe-a-holic, so to speak, as well as being from Baltimore City, I have been following your excellent notes on Poe with much interest. However, the references you have made concerning Poe’s drinking may need additional clarification. Of course, I’m certain you are aware of the mountain of romantic American myths and total misunderstandings surrounding alcoholism—if not, there is an entire ocean of Wellness Lit dealing with the disease. (Classified as a real disease by the AMA for several decades.) Not to forget the disillusioned millions of drunks and druggies who, as the saying goes, “danced to the music,” and fell into the terribly unromantic sea of addiction.

How unusual and curious to read your description of Poe as: “… an ill-mannered drunk, charitably an alcoholic….”  After all the interesting reports and arresting descriptions of Poe’s drinking, second-hand accounts as they are, one can assume that he unfortunately was a chronic alcoholic. If not alcoholic, he indeed did have a problem with alcohol. Additionally, to say: “Poe’s actual problem was that his body could not tolerate alcohol…” is remarkably interesting and supports the facts stating that most alcoholics could be described as being allergic to alcohol. In most instances an alcoholic’s brain does not process alcohol as it does with those who are non-alcoholic. We are finding more and more convincing scientific evidence that alcoholism is a genetic disease. (Male offspring of fathers who are alcoholic have a better than 50% chance of being alcoholic, females a bit less.)

It is also known that medically diagnosed chronic alcoholics usually go through three separate stages of the disease before death occurs; these stages usually continue for years, but they are always progressive. During the first or early stage, the alcoholic keenly feels the benefits of the drug: the alcoholic is given euphoria as a gift; they suddenly feel more comfortable socially; more composed; more intelligent; alert; focused and in control—even more witty … etc. etc., and so on. In short, the alcoholic feels that they have found what has been missing in their lives, and the love affair begins. The second stage of the disease finds that the alcoholic needs more and more alcohol just to feel normal, or to get over the hangovers, desperate to find the spirits that now seem so elusive, but the desired effects are eluded and lost. Of course, at this time they are usually addicted, and the addiction needs to be fed. This mid-stage is most serious because in many cases the alcoholic OD’s and typically a blackout occurs. When an alcoholic drinks himself into an over-dose or blackout, entire periods of time can be lost from memory. (Given the circumstances of Poe’s last days, I have often considered that after a period of excessive drinking, Poe may well have been in a blackout, which lead to his strange death in Baltimore, but we really do not know.)  The third and last stage finds that only after a drink or two, the person who once could consume gallons, so to speak, and drink everyone under the table, is reduced to being incoherent, or more simply, a falling down drunk—someone who can’t hold their liquor!… And this brings us to your: “Any amount was too much for him, as Muddy said; after two glasses of wine,” ‘he was not responsible …’ (who was?)… ‘for his words or actions.’ “When Poe drank, he would become arrogant….”

Any justification Poe may personally have given as an excuse (reason?) for why he drank is telling and important; for example, this Poe quote: “… at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.”  This statement is proof enough for those of us familiar with alcoholism, that a serious problem existed. It also indicates that Poe was aware of it. Likewise, it may suggest that he felt powerless over alcohol, which is another well-known and accepted indication that he was alcoholic or a problem drinker. (Many alcoholics deny that they even have a problem and end-up with ruined lives or in an early grave, if not both.)

Many people in our society live wretched lives, but the thought of having a few drinks to straighten things out does not occur to them. On the other hand, if one begins to drink because of something, or one begins using alcohol for reasons other than social ones, well, then, perhaps he or she is using alcohol as an escape, indicating that there may be a problem.

Several recent poets and novelists have fought alcoholism: Lowry … Fitzgerald … Hemingway … Faulkner … Kerouac … Carver … Spicer … Berryman … Cheever … Exley …. O’Neill … O’Hara … Marquand … (John) O’Brien … Hubert Selby … Denis Johnson … Thom Jones … David Foster Wallace …. However, only O’Neill, Cheever and Carver died sober, that’s a small percentage. Oddly, it is pointed out quite often that many writers, especially the more notable ones, suffer(ed) from alcoholism. It is interesting, part of the misguided spin, but it is just a myth. It is true that successful writers’ lives are often scrutinized more than the average man in the street, but it is no different than any other chosen walk of life. In reality, it does not matter whether one’s a physician, an editor, a carpenter, or Indian Chief alcoholism like any damned disease is present.     


Timothy Resau

P.S. References

  1. Ironweed 28 Fall 1986. Lewis Ellingham, The Death of Jack Spicer.
  2. The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Editor, Bill Henderson, NY, Avon, 1976.
    Lewis Hyde, Alcohol & Poetry: John Berryman & The Booze Talking.
  3. (John) O’Brien, Leaving Los Vegas. Watermark, Wichita, 1990.
  4. ( ” ) ” The Assault on Tony’s. Grove, NY, 1996.
  5. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. Little Brown, Boston, 1996.
  6. (John) Berryman, Recovery. FSG, N.Y. 1973.
  7. (John) Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever. Knopf, NY, 1991.