July 9, 2010
In the beginning was the word. And, for the most part, it was pretty good.
Man, being the insufferable blabbermouth that he is, covered every clay tablet, every stone wall, every bit of papyrus he could lay hand upon with love letters, crude graffiti, and bad poetry from the moment his four fingers and opposable thumb wrapped themselves about a stylus.
Literature was born. But something was missing.
The words needed some spark, some divine fire, some oomph to elevate them from mere scratches in the dirt to the rarefied heights of immortality. Writing needed a helpmeet; it found it in the unlikeliest of places: the fermentation and distillation of lowly plant matter -- alcohol.
The marriage of literature and alcohol is the most harmonious and prolific union of all time. From them have sprung, as from the head of Zeus, the novels, ideas, and poetry that have moved civilizations.
Writers wax long and eloquent in their praise of the divine liquid. And who would know better what magic a bit of ethanol lubricating the literary endeavors of the grey cells can produce? Consider William Faulkner:
Civilization begins with distillation.
Or Mark Twain:
Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.
Or William Butler Yeats:
The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.
Or the venerable Dr. Samuel Johnson:
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.
Astonishingly, college English programs neglect to highlight the remarkable synergy of literature and alcohol (perhaps from the fear that too many are experimenting rashly with the combination as it is). What a pity.
If such a course in the development of Literature Under the Influence were to be added to the education of impressionable young minds, it might look something rather like this (Lecture 1 is available for your perusal. Return at a later date for further intoxicating installments):
Book Lush 101: The History of English Literature, Adult Beverage-style
Let the lit flow freely
Lecture 1: Uncorking the beginnings of English literature, or “Hand me another mead, Wiglaf, this epic poetry is killing me”
Lecture 4:“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale”: Shakespeare and other Elizabethan drinking buddies
Lecture 5: Filled with the Spirit: John Donne, John Milton, and the KJV
Lecture 6: Getting back to the basics of the bottle with the Restoration writers
Lecture 7: Dr. Johnson & company and the Green Man Public House
Lecture 8: A taste of “the true, the blushful Hippocrene” with the Romantics
Lecture 9: Dickens, Wilde, and other Victorian lushes
Lecture 10: All’s fair in drink and war: alcohol-shocked writers before and during the Wars
Lecture 11: Angry young men getting nasty drunk
Lecture 12: “I have always smoked and drunk and loved too much”: drinking and writing in 1960s to 1980s England
Lecture 13: Who’s buying the rounds now? Alcohol in modern English lit
Amuse yourself with these offerings:
The Sensitive Inspector Syndrome -- the scourge of the modern British mystery novel
Lizzie Skurnick's Shelf Discovery and confessions of a nerdy and ungirly girlhood