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When spirits fuel the muse: Examining alcoholism and madness in literature and film

Here’s a statistic you won’t pick up in English 101: Of eight native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, five were alcoholics, including Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O’Neill.

“Alcohol is a factor if not the central focus of the three top modern novelists – Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald,” says Michael Carolan, an M.F.A. candidate and instructor at the University of Massachusetts. “As novelists they were addressing how man lived in the 20th century, and the answer was, through drinking.’ ”

But he says there’s a curious unwillingness on the part of the critical community to deal openly with alcoholic writers or to examine their works in light of their addictions. “Nobody looks at it, nobody talks about it,” Carolan said. “It’s been ignored and denied in literary criticism.”

Carolan has been working to remedy that oversight with his class “Dionysus Hitting Bottom: The Alcoholic Narrative in Film and Literature.” He has a 6-week session coming up through the UMass Division of Continuing Education starting June 2.

“The modern American canon would not exist without all this madness and alcohol,” he said, “so let’s look below the surface with a clear eye and explore the relationship between alcoholic authors and their characters.”

The class reflects the relatively new area of inquiry known as “addiction studies,” a multidisciplinary field that combines literary criticism with sociological and historical perspectives. It developed in the 1980s with the founding of Dionysus: Journal of Literature and Addiction and the publication of several related books, including “The Thirsty Muse” and “Alcohol and the Writer.”

Carolan said his class also brings together fields of addiction medicine, film studies, psychology, sociology, cultural and gender studies.

“It adds a new layer of perspective to anything you read or watch afterward,” said graduating UMass senior Chad Jewett, who took the class during winter session. “It’s an original and very interesting view on film and literature.”

Graduating English major Melissa McCullough was surprised to learn what she had missed in her first reading and study of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”

“I had read it before, but we had focused on gender stereotypes and I never gave a thought to the alcohol in it,” she said. “When I went back to read it – you know how college students are always highlighting books – I highlighted totally different sections of it.”

She said one strong eye-opener in the class was the 2002 book “Love on the Rocks,” Lori Rotskoff’s history of alcohol in American culture, from the rise of recreational drinking after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, through the shifting cultural definitions of alcoholism from moral failing to disease, or “sin” to “sickness.”

Carolan’s survey of the literature starts as far back as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” “It’s such a rich metaphor for alcoholism completely taking over one’s life,” he said. “Of the 10 chapters in the book, a full seven touch upon some kind of alcoholic drink and its consumption.”

In addition to literature, the class examines film portrayals of drinking, starting with the pioneering silents of D.W. Griffiths, who was not only the father of modern cinema, but also the country’s first alcoholic director, Carolan says.

The examination moves through the glamorization of alcohol in “The Thin Man” films of the 1930s, to the willingness to look at the dark side of drinking in Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” examining the desperate life of a chronic alcoholic, based on the book by Charles Jackson.

Carolan brings it up to the present with films like “28 Days,” the 2000 film charting a woman’s treatment for alcoholism, and the upcoming “Revolutionary Road,” based on Richard Yates’ 1961 stunning debut novel, due for release on the big screen in December, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as a couple firmly ensconced in 1950s cocktail culture.

Carolan, who moved with his wife and two children from the Washington, D.C. area to Belchertown in 2004, is currently working on his own novel related to the topic, a story of an addicted dentist in the 1950s, loosely based on his grandfather. A non-fiction rendition of the story earned him a writing prize from the Atlantic Monthly last year.

“Michael’s a terrific teacher,” said Jewett. “His own interest and passion for the subject is infectious.”

“He really engages everyone and values everyone’s opinion,” echoed graduating senior Andrea Catalina. “He’s laid back and down to earth and he makes it fun.

“He doesn’t judge,” she added. “When talking about these types of issues, it can get personal. He opens up a forum to talk about it and stimulates very interesting conversations.”
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source: Amherst Bulletin

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