What do Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and the poet John Berryman have in common? They’re all highly revered writers who made formidable contributions to American letters, of course. They were also career alcoholics.
What one vocation has to do with the other is the focus of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. While the writer-alcoholic dichotomy provides many subjects from which to choose, Laing selected her six with an eye towards two essential criteria. “I wanted people who had enough commonality of experience so I could have something to capture,” she says, “and the other thing that was absolutely vital was that I genuinely loved their work. The material of their lives was so dark that I wanted to have that balance. I didn’t want to be presenting them as completely dreadful people.”
Failed marriages, abandoned children and psych ward stays are among the darker details of their private lives, but Laing’s tone is far from condemnatory. “What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and, along the way, some of the many others who’d suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in the literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge,” she writes.
While as a reader Laing reveres their work, she has firsthand knowledge of the collateral hurt alcoholism can cause. Her mother’s ex-partner was an alcoholic, a fact that underscores her quest to understand the origins of the disease. To these ends, she crisscrosses the country, from Cheever’s New York to Williams’ New Orleans, Hemingway’s Key West through Fitzgerald’s St. Paul, Minnesota, traveling by train, plane and automobile. “These lives were lived in places. The places mattered to the people, and it interests me to go to them and see what’s still there, what’s absent,” she says. “It’s a way of thinking about absences and loss of memory while keeping the physicality of a life.” Laing is an amiable cross-country companion, witty with a ken for detail (especially regarding fellow Amtrak passengers). Her vision is equally acute when trained on an archive. “I’m so fascinated by archival work, by competing narratives and the ways the stories sort of change and morph over time. I feel like a private detective, [tracing] that process of how something from life translates into the work,” says Laing.
Part literary biography, part autobiography, part travelogue, The Trip to Echo Spring depicts landscapes with lyrical and lush prose juxtaposed with personal observations and carefully curated primary sources. Snippets from personal letters and interviews highlight the pervasive liquidity in the authors’ lives and works—and their opinions. “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that,” Williams says in an interview cited in the book. “And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking. Now my drinking has to be moderate. Just look at the liver spots I’ve got on me!” he exclaims (“moderation” may be somewhat disingenuous, writes Laing).
While some are successful at sobriety, for a time, no tidy explanation for or solution to the authors’ alcoholism is at hand. Laing explores neurobiological and psychiatric underpinnings, as well as that common ground of last resort, Alcoholics Anonymous, in puzzling it out. She observes, “Among [AA’s] central tenets are the beliefs that recovery depends upon a spiritual awakening, and that alcoholics can help one another by sharing their experiences: a kind of bearing witness that proved from the outset astonishingly powerful.” In that moment, the aim of the (recovering) alcoholic is perhaps indistinguishable from that of the virtuosic writer.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.