Balzac had his coffee, Ken Kesey his peyote, Truman Capote his double martinis: the vices of the artists are sometimes as well known as their art. Writers took their drinking as seriously, and sometimes more seriously, than their writing, and where, how, and why they drank often became elements of their mythology. (That's Raymond Chandler in the photo above, perhaps enjoying his customary gimlet and vitamin shot.) Tin House has rereleased the previously hard-to-find manifesto of historian Bernard De Voto’s The Hour, which aimed to return a certain kind of gentility to the art of the stiff drink. Cocktail connoisseur and author Daniel Handler wrote the introduction, and we ask him about the lives of famous literary tipplers.
LQ: Firstly, where in the world is it six o’clock and what do you suppose they are drinking there?
DH: According to the Web, the closest I can find to 6 p.m. is parts of Newfoundland. In my experience, Canadians drink whatever's in reach, although their government makes sure that plenty of the good stuff stays out of reach. Whenever I travel to Canada I bring many liquid gifts, hoping that if customs catches me I can pretend I have no idea what a liter looks like.
LQ: Is there a national drink of Canada? I've never thought of Canadians as being particularly champion drinkers, though the Nordic darkness would suggest booze is a necessity. Bernard DeVoto declares that whiskey is the drink of American patriots. Is this generally still true? What about Coors? That's tapped straight from mountains. American mountains!
DH: True patriots need to fortify themselves with a far more potent fuel than domestic beer. I would be more specific than Mr. DeVoto and nominate bourbon.
LQ: Who is this Bernard DeVoto fellow, and why does he know so much about cocktails?
DH: Mr. DeVoto was a historian, critic, columnist, and general man of letters. He was a fierce defender of individual liberty and a proud torch-carrier for the American West. It almost goes without saying that he thus would be a wonderful man with whom to have a drink, and it is no surprise that he turns out to be very opinionated on what sort of drink that should be. Thus, The Hour.
LQ: There have been a great many writers—John Cheever, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, to name just a brief few—who could name drink as one of their particular vices. Charles Bukowski said “It yanks you out of your body and throws you against the wall.” Why did alcohol become such a staple of the creative mind when its tendency is to blot out most coherent thought?
DH: I'm sure there are those who would argue that alcohol has been popular among creative people precisely because it does block out coherent thought, but it seems more likely to be the result of spending so much time alone. Cocktail hour looks awfully entertaining after hours and hours of staring at the same paragraph. I should add that I see no particular correlation between creative talent and alcohol use—at least one of the writers you mention is a complete wreck, artistically, and geniuses can be found among the barflies, the teetotalers, and the muddle in the middle.
LQ: For the famous and infamous, it's interesting how the little plaques around a city tend to mark three things: so-and-so lived here, died here, and drank here. Why should the last be as important as the first two? Why mark this bar territory as something particularly charmed?
DH: For writing, so-and-so’s relaxed contemplation is really at the center of the work. So marking a place where that happened is a smarter tribute than where someone was born.
The Hour is currently available from Tin House Books.April 21, 2010
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