Novels often take 2-3 years to write their works. So during the third year of Prohibition in 1922, the New York Times Magazine asked: do writers need alcohol for greatness, and was Prohibition starting to affect the quality of American literature?
[Sir Arthur] Quiller-Couch asserted boldly that a total abstainer was imperfectly equipped for high literature. [George Bernard] Shaw took violent exception to this statement. He offered Shelley and himself as examples to prove it fallacious. He said, “If Quiller-Couch asserted that alcohol can add a single inch of gray matter to the brain, then I want to know how much he had had when he said it.”
Altogether, it seemed too good a fight to leave tucked away in England. So a number of American writers have been asked how they felt about it. Hamlin Garland supports Shaw. Irvin S. Cobb and Charles Hanson Towne stand up for Quiller-Couch, each in his characteristic manner. So does Samuel Hopkins Adams, with certain reservations. Gertrude Atherton and Robert Chambers find the issue incapable of a general solution.
What actually happened was a number of the most prominent American novelists of the Prohibition area avoided the question entirely by becoming expatriates living in Europe, where they could drink to their heart’s content. Notable examples include Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As for my personal opinion on whether drinking improves one’s writing? I’m publishing this blog post on a Sunday, after having just performed at a piano bar on Friday and Saturday night… and it’s hard for me to imagine that heavy drinking improves people’s ability to do much of anything cognitive.
Authors and Alcohol (PDF)
Published: Sunday, May 7, 1922