Drugs, sex, and experimental writing in post-War America — it’s a wonder that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road found publication in 1957. Dubbed a “barbaric yawp of a book,” its author “lacking the “symbolic spokesmen with anywhere near the talents of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Nathanael West,” On the Road came to define the Beat and Counterculture generations. The spirit of Kerouac’s novel is evoked in films like Easy Rider.
The legend of On the Road tells us that Kerouac wrote the book during a three-week, drug-fueled bender on a 120-foot roll of paper. There’s some truth to that — as the Benzedrine references in On the Road suggest. Kerouac is hardly the only author to write under the influence. Drugs and literature have been fond fellows for centuries. “The poet makes himself a voyant through a long, immense reasoned deranging of all his senses,” Rimbaud once said.
We’ve explored the stoner canon and other mind-expanding lit, but here are the famous writings — not necessarily about drugs (and by authors apart from the usual suspects) — that were written while under the influence.
Anything Stephen King wrote during the 1980s
The macabre author has been open about his addiction to drugs and alcohol during the 1980s, when he can barely remember writing some of his best-known works. During his darkest times, King was consuming mouthwash for the alcohol content and snorted so much cocaine that he was forced to stick cotton wool up his nose “to stop blood dripping on to his typewriter.” King’s addictions stemmed from childhood anxieties and, later, the death of his mother. A fear that he might be unable to write a best-seller without substances kept him consuming pills, booze, and other drugs. After The Tommyknockers was critically panned in 1987, King soon quit. Needful Things was his first book published after getting clean. “I was in a sensitive place anyway, because it was the first thing that I’d written since I was sixteen without drinking or drugging,” he told the Paris Review. “I was totally straight, except for cigarettes. When I finished the book, I thought, This is good.”
From The Week on Ayn Rand’s speed habit (originally prescribed to fight fatigue):
There was her 30-year use of amphetamines, beginning with Benzedrine in 1942, as she was rushing to complete The Fountainhead, and continuing with Dexedrine and Dexamyl into the 1970s. Until now it has been described as a two-pill-a-day prescription for weight control, but evidence in Heller’s book [Ayn Rand and the World She Made] indicates that it wasn’t seen that way by everyone. As early as 1945, her then-close friend, journalist Isabel Paterson, was berating her in letters with passages such as, ‘Stop taking that benzedrine, you idiot. I don’t care what excuse you have — stop it.’ Heller presents other evidence that Rand had periods of heavy use in the 1950s and ’60s. But the exact extent of her dependence on amphetamines is peripheral here to the broader self-delusion. As anyone who has had the experience knows, a good way to get a really, really distorted sense of reality is to swallow a couple of Dexedrines. If you want to take them anyway, don’t go around bragging that you never ‘fake reality in any manner.’
More books by Susan Sontag than you probably realized
Take it away, Susan Sontag (from a ’70s-era High Times interview):
I’ve tried, but I find it too relaxing. I use speed to write, which is the opposite of grass. Sometimes when I’m really stuck I will take a very mild form of speed to get going again. . . . I take very little at a time, and then I try to actually limit it as far as the amount of time that I’ll be working on a given thing on that kind of drug. So that most of the time my mind will be clear, and I can edit down what has perhaps been too easily forthcoming. It makes you a little uncritical and a little too easily satisfied with what you’re doing. But sometimes when you’re stuck it’s very helpful.
And on the reason for a long history of writers and stimulants, Sontag said:
I think it’s because it’s not natural for people to be alone. I think that there is something basically unnatural about writing in a room by yourself, and that it’s quite natural that writers and also painters need something to get through all those hours and hours and hours of being by yourself, digging inside your own intenstines. I think it’s probably a defense against anxiety that so many writers have been involved in drugs. It’s true that they have, and whole generations of writers have been alcoholics.
And since Susan Sontag has the floor, here are her thoughts on Sartre’s speed-induced writings about French novelist Jean Genet:
I think more writers have worked on speed than have worked on grass. Sartre, for instance, has been on speed all his life, and it really shows. Those endlessly long books are obviously written on speed, a book like Saint Genet. He was asked by Gallimard to write a preface to the collected works of Genet. They decided to bring it out in a series of uniform volumes, and they asked him to write a 50-page preface. He wrote an 800-page book. It’s obviously speed writing. Malraux used to write on speed. you have to be careful. I think one of the interesting things about the nineteenth century is it seems like that had natural speed.
Scottish novelist Walter Scott guzzled laudanum to fight stomach pains during the writing of Rob Roy (and The Bride of Lammermoor). From the Edinburgh University Library’s Walter Scott Digital Archive:
Work on the novel began in August 1817, but progress was hampered by a recurrence of gallstone-related illness. Suffering from intensely painful cramps, Scott was forced to take high quantities of laudanum while dieting almost to the point of starvation. Astonishingly, it was under these conditions that Scott wrote perhaps the most fluently readable of all his stories. The novel was finished by early December 1817 and was published on the 30th of the month.
W. H. Auden’s canon, probably
From Slate about the English poet, who had a woozy daily habit of pill-popping:
He took a dose of Benzedrine (a brand name of amphetamine introduced in the United States in 1933) each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine—“the chemical life,” he called it—for 20 years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco—although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”
The Power and the Glory
During a visit to China in 1957, English novelist Graham Greene reportedly said: “There are two things I want: a pretty girl to sleep with and to know where to get some opium.” Benzedrine got him through writing The Power and the Glory, about a rogue Roman Catholic priest during the ’30s in Mexico. Pills were also plentiful during Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938, during which he wrote a travel account (The Lawless Roads), which later informed the book.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
It’s said that Robert Louis Stevenson went on a six-day cocaine frenzy while writing his 1886 horror tale about the split personality of Dr. Henry Jekyll. The story supposedly came to him during a nightmare. But Stevenson’s wife and son claim he was bed-ridden and sick during that time. Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s stepson, said: “The mere physical feat was tremendous and, instead of harming him, it roused and cheered him inexpressibly.”
From the Washington Monthly on Voltaire’s insane coffee addiction:
“Voltaire was reputedly downing between 50 and 72 cups of coffee a day, a habit that many link to the brevity and mania of Candide.”
The writings of Louisa May Alcott
The Little Women author seemed to develop an addiction to opium and hashish after being diagnosed with rheumatism. The drugs helped her sleep. Blog Booktryst also writes:
Louisa May Alcott began using morphine to ease the after-effects of typhoid fever contracted during service as a nurse during the Civil War. She cannot have been happy about it. . . . The Alcott-Beecher collaboration [referring to The American Women’s Home] was written at the time, or very close to it, that Alcott began to use opium. She was convinced her post-typhoid ailments were the result of treatment with calomel, the mercury-based, highly toxic anodyne in routine use at the time; opium eased the discomfort of its side-effects. Alcott knew the evils of the opium habit (addiction was a concept unknown in the 19th century), and her stance on the subject made it a moral issue. That she continued to use it intermittently for the rest of her life is documented. She surely must have felt moral guilt. I suspect that she was actually a full-blown addict as we understand addiction today, her ongoing ailments having less to do with pathology than with withdrawal sickness and the difficulty of ever getting off the drug once and for all and feeling %100 right.