Mar. 24, 2022 – Any list of the great authors and poets of the 20th century would include countless addicts: Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Jean Rhys, William Styron, John Williams and poet John Berryman (pictured here) — all experienced varying degrees of addiction, which they explored over the course of their respective careers. Artist-addicts continue to inspire curiosity and obsession, but as we move farther from the 20th century and toward a reinterpretation of substance abuse that places it in the context of wellness and mental health, this figure seems increasingly a relic of a different era, like beehive hairdos or fallout shelters. Writers today certainly don’t broadcast their vices the way they used to, in their work or otherwise, and American culture no longer abides a drunken stupor as an inevitable state crucial to the creation of great art. Even as drugs have become more widely available and legally sanctioned, their use remains illicit — if a writer tackles the theme of substance abuse, it is almost universally done from the perspective of convalescence, of overcoming the addiction itself, which is what we now require of a user in order to have anything resembling a career. Where, then, have all the addicts gone?

In the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey wrote freely about their use of opium, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to a mixture of morphine and ether as “my elixir.” But the figure of the modern artist-addict truly began with Edgar Allan Poe. The Poe who has become almost mythical for his “beastly intoxication,” as one description of the author in his final days in October 1849 put it, is largely the creation of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who was the literary executor of Poe’s estate but in reality a resentful rival who attempted to assassinate the author’s posthumous legacy through the publication of dubious biographical materials that presented Poe as a lifelong loser, prone to drunken fits and unspeakable indiscretions, a man with “few or no friends.” Griswold effectively fashioned the portrait of the artist as an erratic degenerate.


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