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The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction.

This book embodies a more ambitious and more interesting project than two other recent books with which it might be compared, Tom Dardis's The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer (1989),(1) an essentially biographical work that lays out the horrors visited upon the lives of four major American writers by their alcoholism, and Thomas Gilmore's Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century American Literature (1987),(2) which is little more than a descriptive summary of how four modem writers have represented drunkenness and alcoholism in their works. Professor Crowley (who teaches English at Syracuse University) has a more sophisticated aim and a more probing eye: he details the patterns created by the way Modernist novelists have used drinking in their work and scrutinizes their psychosocial - in some ways political - implications. Addressing work by William Dean Howells, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, Djuna Barnes, and Charles Jackson, his seven chapters take us from the lumpen-middle-class fatuousness of 19th-century American theories and attitudes concerning alcohol to the self-flattering evasions of these early 20th-century writers. The former seem to have floundered about between absurd and ignorant imitations of science on the one hand and quasi-Darwinian notions of primitivity and moral degeneracy on the other, while the latter found an imitation dignity in an infantile appeal to a form of "cosmic sadness" formulated by Jack London and passed on to a striking subgenre of the early Modernist novel in America. The title of the book is the name of the central concept in London's memoir John Barleycorn - a half-baked melange of Nietzsche and Spenglerian Weltschmerz, on account of which men are allegedly drawn to alcohol, a dodge London saw through - the White Logic of metaphysical despair, which becomes, according to Professor Crowley, the Modern Temper. This is more properly characterized, perhaps, as a shallow pose of despair taken up as a theme by lesser Modernists such as Hemingway and, lesser still, Fitzgerald (the inclusion of O'Hara and Jackson represents a fairly generous extension of the Modernist label, to be sure).

What takes the book well beyond the limitations of the predecessor works I mentioned is Professor Crowley's focus on the "historical formation" of the concept of the problem drinker and his taking a cultural studies approach rather than engaging in a more limited literary criticism. What he discovers is certainly interesting from both those points of view, though whether it can be accepted by social scientists without an untenable leap of faith is another question. The book presents a very interesting picture of the tension in these writers among several valences bestowed on drinking in their work and, to some extent, in their lives.

There is first of all the White Logic itself, seen at its most embarrassingly blatant in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but elsewhere as well, even in the far tougher work of Malcolm Lowry: an essentially adolescent appeal to an almost always ungrounded Weltschmerz that is used to justify or explain the boozing of the protagonist, whose awareness of it tends to be presented as a badge of moral worth. The never-confronted White Logic produces a problem often noted by critics of Fitzgerald's novels and other modern American novels-the near-impossibility of locating the cause of the hero's downfall or degeneration. Where William Dean Howells, a child of the American 19th century, with all its social Darwinism and folksy quasi-science, was perfectly open about the role of boozing in the decay of his characters, writers like Fitzgerald employ in their work an appeal to the White Logic, a strategy of denial every bit as effective as the strategies they drew on in their actual lives. The result has been reiterated puzzlement about motives and causes. Professor Crowley's position is D.H. Lawrence's - trust the tale, not the teller - and he cuts through the evasions of his authors and their critics to disclose the remarkably central role of drunkenness in the novels he examines.

Professor Crowley's analysis uncovers several other major patterns. He notes the strong gendering of drunkenness by these authors: drinking is preeminently a man's activity, and a measure of moral strength. In the hierarchy of drinkers he finds in Hemingway, a real man is one who can drink heavily but "control" his indulgence; the non-drinker evades the tests of true manhood; the out-of-control drinker is a sad but reprehensible threat; and the drinking of a woman, like that of Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, is always the concomitant of moral slackness or worse. The inevitable corollary of this is the homosocial, and eventually the homoerotic, function of masculine drinking. The homosocial world of drinking men must exclude women, of course, because they are incapable of the values inherent in male comradeship and are by nature ineligible for the experience of the trendy Angst that men alone can understand, and Professor Crowley finds abundant examples of unquestioned misogyny in these books. Women like Brett Ashley, moreover, and the lesbians who show up sooner or later in almost all the modern novels Crowley discusses, have the power to escape male control and are thus a threat to the male paradise of alcohol - not to mention the possibility that lesbians are a walking symbol of the homosexuality that the drinking protagonists fear more than anything. Professor Crowley's very interesting discussion of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes's succes d'estime, works out the deep and striking ambiguity of her revisions of the conventions of male drinking novels. As his commentary has it, Barnes evades the taboo of the genre by displacing what might have been the alcoholic excesses of her female protagonist (and of Barnes herself, for that matter) onto a drunken homosexual man, thus bringing out of the closet the dark and secret potentiality that shadows so many of the male drinking novels discussed here.

The literary interest of Professor Crowley's book declines when he turns to O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra and Jackson's Lost Weekend, but only because the texts themselves have less to offer. For one thing, the infantile pretense to Weltschmerz that characterizes the novels of Fitzgerald and that serves to disguise in them the centrality of alcoholism finds an even less persuasive manifestation in O'Hara. The redeeming value of the Jackson novel, for Professor Crowley's argument, lies in its commitment to the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of Professor Crowley's sub-themes is the shift in American thinking away from the concept of drunkenness as a moral weakness and toward acceptance of the disease theory of alcoholism. Where Hemingway (almost always) and the other modems discussed here ultimately come to echo 19th-century American moralism about drink (though they also, paradoxically, try to evade it), Jackson frankly opts for a disablingly mechanical Freudianism. It seems, then, that we come full circle. Much 19th-century thought, plainly reflected in the stories of Howells, takes drunkenness as the manifestation of degeneracy and thus tends to obliterate its possibility of human agency. In 1944 The Lost Weekend appeals to crude Freudianism to explain the malaise, and thus does the same thing.

Professor Crowley's methods rescue him from the weaknesses of the cultural studies approach. That strategy itself can be perfectly sound, but some of its practitioners manifest a touching indifference to the question of evidence, an indifference Professor Crowley does not share. He is a little quick in some of his propositions: one would like to know, for example, what evidence stands behind the two lists of putatively alcoholic writers he includes; and when he draws on the work of Robin Room and Donald Goodwin, he gives none of the data and no sense of the methodology they may be drawing on. But he furnishes plenty of evidence of his own, and his arguments are persuasive even when they are general. Whether the representations of fiction are reliable data for meaningful cultural analysis is something else again. One understands the temptation to draw inferences - current controversies about the effects of television are an example - but my own feeling is that a mode of analysis deeper than Professor Crowley's would be needed if we wanted to get at stronger explanations of the phenomena he reveals. The topic cries out for some kind of analysis from a class point of view, it seems to me - much of this book seems a commentary on some laughable tendencies of a rather narrow segment of the American "middle class" in the 1920s. And if the impulses Professor Crowley finds behind the strategies of these novels are really there, one would like to know what is behind them. But this is to carp. The White Logic as it stands is a provocative and illuminating study, and social scientists will know well enough what use to make of it.


(1.) Dardis, Tom. The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989. (2.) Gilmore, Thomas B. Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century American Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
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Author:Jackson, Thomas H.
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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