Looking at the history of American literature, it’s easy to conclude that perhaps its brightest epoch shined during the times of the Roaring Twenties. It’s hard to argue against that idea, considering that the masterpieces of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot (among others) serve as chief evidence for the heavy-weight assertion that the 20s and 30s were the Golden Age of American literature.
That Golden Age, ironically, wasn’t forged in the urban settings that its works depicted or the Southwestern landscapes that inspired American painters and photographers of that same time period. Rather, the proudest point of American letters was written in a foreign milieu by a “Lost Generation” of geniuses who found their inspiration away from their homeland. The American authors became part of the expatriates—that elite group of painters, writers, musicians, and poets (in one word, artists) who made of Paris the capital of artistic genius and creativity.
The Americans, though, were faux-expatriates, since they were not escaping censorship (a spiritual death for artists) or political persecution (a possible true death) in the way their Spanish, Italian, and German colleagues were. American expatriates had left their homeland, either directly or indirectly, for a more hampering and surreptitious reason—they had to seek their inspiration as writers away from Prohibition.
The U.S. was deprived of its writers as soon as it became a dry land (not entirely, of course, but the Mafia influence entails an entire different discussion). The alcohol shortage not only robbed that period of its spirit(s) (literally and metaphorically), but it also meant a drought of artistic genius. The artists who remained in the U.S. either had just recently immigrated (e.g. George Gershwin’s family) or found refuge in the desert, with painters immortalizing the views of the Southwest and actors and filmmakers making of Hollywood a sinful oasis amidst the puritanical dry land.
It might be stereotyping at its worst (or best), but it’s also a fact: most artists like, enjoy, and thrive with drinking. It’s not a requirement, though it can surely be an enhancer. Alcohol, especially in its finest forms of wine and whiskey, can be both a symptom and a cause for passionate life enjoyment and creative inspirations. Not in vain did the Greeks relate drinking with the arts by worshiping Dionysus with both of those activities.
Artists, regardless of their art, are creators; they’re passionate creatures who tend to reaffirm life in all its capacities and opposite powers: pain and pleasure, love and hate, adversity and progress, chaos and calm… The moment those forces are constrained or banned, artists either escape or go extinct. Drinking stands out as one major embodying and emboldening action of that life reaffirmation that manifests through artists’ work.
Ultimately, the expatriate American writers of the 20s and 30s might be proof that no one can write “genius” without “gin”—or wine, or whiskey, or the lack of any spirit at all.