“The greatest blessing granted to mankind comes by way of madness,
which is a divine gift.”
Given the rich history of literary madness, is it possible for today’s creative writer to be well-balanced? Theoretically, yes. But such a writer tends to be at a disadvantage in the essentials of groundbreaking art: unbridled imagination and compulsive energy.
"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis," said author of Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron.
Desolation Angels Jack Kerouac called the loss of reason, “the highest perfect knowing.” He rhapsodized in his automatic writing travelogue, On the Road: “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved… the ones who burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and … everybody goes 'Awww!” Allan Ginsberg, a Bellevue psych ward alumnus, praised Jack, the Rocky Mountain Sanitarium grad: “Your stories of the madhouse are so actual that I feel again as I did in the Navy nuthouse -- scared and seeing through heads. I used to sit with the worst ones to learn.”1
All of life’s mysteries are explained when we realize not just artists, but everybody is
nuts, said Mark Twain. Freud agreed. Beckett explained that it was in our DNA: "We are all born mad. Some remain so."
William Saroyan voiced the reason for fear of “cure” by many creatives: “How do you take away from a man his madness without also taking away his identity?”
Artists agree that there are two kinds of crazy: Creative – good, Destructive– bad. But the first can morph into the second slowly or suddenly despite every effort to stop it. “We have a high rate of self-destruction,” E.L. Doctorow told the Paris Review. “Do we mean to punish ourselves for writing? For the transgression?”2
So, in the end, Maupassant was chained to an asylum wall, Virginia Woolf walked into a river, Sylvia Plath turned on the oven. Or the fire was lost altogether: so, Jerzy Kosinski put a bag over his head, Inge gassed himself, Hunter Thompson, Brautigan, and Hemingway retired at muzzle velocity. Before reaching the end of his own rope, David Foster Wallace said: “Ever notice that most writers shoot themselves in the evil uncontrollable command center – the head?”
The bi-polar Hemingway, whose physician father also blew out the command center, said that the best reason for not doing so was because of how “swell” life can become “after the hell is over." But, in the end, losing hope that his muse would return, The Sun Also Rises master was convinced his hell would be eternal. In the final irony, he said his asylum electro-shock treatments “put me out of business.”
Norman Mailer idolized Hemingway. His debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was hailed as greatest war novel since For Whom the Bell Tolls. When, six years after its publication, Hemingway remaindered himself, Mailer told the Paris Review that the tragedy had a message:
“Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.”
Let’s examine the four conditions underpinning that dangerous journey.
“I am the best in America, by God!”
As children, many writers were not strong, athletic, outgoing, or attractive. More than a few were sickly, withdrawn, odd looking. Some were poor students, some taken for retarded.
The godlike Byron had his clubfoot. Tolstoy thought himself “too ugly” to ever win a wife. Samuel Johnson suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome and scrofula neck burls. Dumas was 4’6”, had a hunchback and was, according to his bookseller, “a Creature not of our species.” The skeletal, pock-faced Sinclair Lewis looked like a fugitive of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. And so on.
Professional megalomania can overcompensate for such conditions and, later on, armor the artist from jeering colleagues, bullying critics and/or the philistine public.
One of the great 19th century neurasthenics was Edgar Allan Poe – short, hydrocephalic, moody. “It is my crime to have no one on Earth who cared for me, or loved me,” he wrote. After his actor father vanished and his actress mother died of TB, the three-year-old orphan was adopted by the implacable tobacco tycoon, Mr. Allan. At age 16, the boy wrote his first poem, “Oh, Tempora! Oh, Mores!” but Allan forbade its publication for fear Edgar might get a “swelled head.” His classmates already described him as “ambitious” and “inclined to be imperious.” 3
Allan discouraged his stepson from “eating the bread of idleness” – writing. After the young man was expelled from West Point for reporting to dress parade wearing only white gloves, he turned full-time to literature. “For God’s sake pity me,” he wrote home, “and save me from destruction!” Allan disinherited him.
Edgar moved in with his surrogate mother, Aunt Muddy, a seamstress. He married her 13-year-old daughter, his cousin, Virginia, whom he called Sissy. For the next two decades, the threesome lived on molasses sandwiches and dwindling hope. Poe’s average annual income was $100. In 1845 he earned a record $699, $9 of which came from “The Raven.”
After R&R at a Utica asylum in ’46, the novelist/poet/critic/editor resolved to make a fortune on “Eureka.” He wrote a friend that in this essay on the origin of the cosmos, he would “question the sagacity of many of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men (such as Aristotle and Bacon)… with no unwarranted fear of being taken for a madman.”
“My whole nature utterly revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself!” he told his publisher (his italics). Adding that he had eclipsed Isaac Newton himself, he told Putnam to print a million copies, 50,000 at the very least. Putnam advanced him $14, ran 750 copies, and sold 500 at 75¢ apiece.
After the Eureka debacle, Sissy died of TB. On the rebound, Poe dated grand dames. The first, poetess Jane Locke, was smitten. “I felt as if in the presence of a god!” Then, realizing he had psychological issues, she ghosted him. The poet -- who admitted to “becoming insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” -- now drank thirty times his maintenance dose of laudanum.
To his disappointment, Poe survived to lose his mind completely. In the end, he found himself in a Baltimore hospital -- shoeless and in another man’s clothes -- raving and pleading with the Almighty to “help my poor soul!”
Literary history teaches us that declaring one’s godlike genius, as did Poe, is mandatory for many a megalomaniac. As John Cheever pointed out: “I think writers are inclined to be intensely egocentric.”
Sinclair Lewis had once barged into a church and given God fifteen minutes to strike him dead as an infidel and thereby prove His existence. After the Almighty declined to do so (to the disappointment of many), the atheist was the first American to win the Nobel in Literature and to inform critics: “Let me tell you something: I’m the best writer in this here goddamn country!”
Even so, whether due to divine blowback or not, Lewis failed to produce any novel of real merit after his Stockholm apotheosis (as was the case with many of his successors). By the time Lewis died of alcoholism in 1951, William Faulkner had claimed the coveted award and declared: “I am the best in America by God!”
Not to be outdone, Faulkner’s own Nobel successor, Hemingway, felt compelled to up the ante on the First Deadly Sin with a Mount Sinai proclamation: “I don’t like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”
The first scribe to self-deify, perhaps inspiring the others, was Oscar Wilde. Explaining his depression to a friend one day, Oscar Wilde said: “I’m sad because one half of the world doesn’t believe in God, and the other half doesn’t believe in me.” Another time, asked to name his hundred favorite books, he declined, “Because I’ve only written five.” When entering America, he told the Customs official, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” After dying penniless and disgraced, the genius was laid to rest in Paris under a stone angel whose genitals were cut off and later, in a karmic twist, used as paperweights by the cemetery guards.
Due to the sobering example of Wilde’s hubris, others – except for the Nobel gods – satisfied themselves by advertising their worldly, if not heavenly, genius.
When Sinclair Lewis’s embittered rival, Theodore Dreiser, was asked how he wrote Sister Carrie at age 29, he blithely replied, “Genius, I suppose.” Later, he wrote his autobiographical novel, The Genius.
Others hedged their bets.
While some scribes decide that they’re geniuses before creating a work of genius, the humble wait. “I am about to become a genius," predicted Balzac, after finishing La Comédie Humaine. “By God, I think I have genius,” said Thomas Wolfe, after finishing Look Homeward, Angel. At age 53, Truman Capote preceded his own declaration with modifiers: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.”
Sometimes, though, a fellow genius will disagree. After Wolfe was nine years in the ground and defenseless, Hemingway wrote their publisher, Charles Scribner: “Tom Wolfe was a one-book boy and a glandular giant with the brains and the guts of three mice.” Then he weighed in the other self-proclaimed genius, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Scott was a rummy and a liar… with the inbred talent of a dishonest and easily frightened angel.”
By then Fitzgerald had been thrown from his Gatsby high horse and was drinking himself to stupor. “His [Hemingway’s] inclination is toward megalomania and mine toward melancholy,” he wrote. 4
A mother-coddled boy with a poor soap salesman father, Scott admitted to having “a two-cylinder inferiority complex.” But, like many greats, he reinvented himself. His Princeton roommate said he developed “the most impenetrable egotism.” Regularly late for class, he once told a professor, “Sir – it’s absurd to expect me to be on time. I’m a genius!” Later his classmate, Charles Scribner, rejected The Romantic Egoist. Weathering this and a hundred other rejections, in an Eden exile twist, he turned the Egoist into This Side of Paradise.
Even when his megalomania was at full mast, Scott was worried about one thing: his penis. His wife, Zelda, said it was too small. At least, in comparison to her French aviator’s. Gatsby’s creator grew so troubled that he consulted the great castrator himself on the matter. The man who could write like God was kind enough to console him with an adverb and adjective.
Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba (Photo: Unknown author)
“It’s perfectly fine,” Papa told him, adding helpfully, “Your wife just wants to destroy you.” Then he wrote a poem for his friend called ”Lines to be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Rock.” Scott soon set to destroying himself and writing about it in “The Crack-Up.”
Fixated on his own manhood, Hemingway never forgave his mother for dressing him in pink petticoats, calling him Ernestine and her “Summer Girl.” Later, Max Eastman delivered him a below-the-belt blow in a parody of Death in the Afternoon, “Bull in the Afternoon.” The satirist charged that Papa wore false chest hair and suffered from Erectile Dysfunction. The two had a throwdown in Scribner offices. According to Ernest, Max attacked him like “a clawing woman.” The heavyweight novelist said he didn’t “sock” the poet for fear of sending him out the window and down onto 5th Avenue.
His former patron, Sherwood Anderson, had written Gertrude Stein who suffered no insecurities about the size of her own penis, “There is the desire always to kill… he [Hemingway] cannot bear the thought of any other men as Artists… [he] wants to occupy the entire field.” 5
With a similar ambition, Stein wrote matter-of-factly in her diary: “I am the most important writer writing today.” She added, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing.” Hemingway, who might have avoided mirrors like a vampire, claimed that the Lost Generation matriarch’s talent had “gone to malice and nonsense and self-praise… But, I swear, she was damned nice before she got ambitious.”
Mark Twain, who wished to “outrival those whom the public most admires,”6 was Hemingway’s idol. Convinced that he himself was without match in the U.S., Papa took on dead European heavyweights. He claimed to have KOed Turgenev, Maupassant, then Stendhal. With characteristic modesty, he concluded, “But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.” 7
At the outset of his career, Tolstoy, embarrassed by his own arrogance, whipped himself. His friend, Dostoyevsky, spoke for the two of them when he confessed to his brother, “I have a terrible vice: a boundless pride and vanity.” 8
Steinbeck agreed. “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism,” he confessed. He believed that good writing came from “an absence of ego.”9 This helped him become a master of characterization, a difficult skill for the narcissist.
Fitzgerald admitted that all his characters, even his women, were himself.10 Hemingway refused to admit the same. Of his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, he wrote: “It will destroy the school of criticism that claims I can write about nothing except myself and my own experiences.”11 But the only thing different about his old man was that he was penniless, hadn’t been on the Cover of Life, Time or Argosy, and hadn’t tried to gaff his fellow fishermen.
One of the few colleagues Hemingway hadn’t found it necessary to cannibalize was Ezra Pound. Because Pound was a poet and never badmouthed him. But, in private, to Archibald MacLeish, Papa wrote: “If Ezra has any sense, he should shoot himself. Personally, I think he should have shot himself somewhere along after the 12th Canto, although maybe earlier.”
Pound spent twelve years in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. He composed his later Cantos here, on toilet paper. T.S. Eliot described meeting his friend, surrounded by raving or catatonic inmates. Deciding that he was just a “narcissist,” the doctors moved the poet to a private room. He became so comfortable here, he resisted leaving. Colleagues who were trying to spring him – Hemingway, Eliot, Auden, and others – were baffled.
After his release, Pound was asked by a reporter if he felt free. He said no, “When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”12
He moved to Italy. Here, battling depression, he came to agree with Hemingway: all his Cantos were indeed “botched” if not “worthless.” Early on, he’d been as cocky as his friend. But, in old age, the former Egoist editor told Allan Ginsberg, “I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron.”
“Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy,
poetry or the arts are melancholic?”
According to Scientific American (1995), writers are ten times more likely to be depressed than civilians, and eighteen times more likely to kill themselves. Hypersensitivity, anxiety, and self-doubt runs in the breed; moreover, artists – even the few who make it – are exposed to persistent personal criticism from editors, critics, colleagues, readers, and/or family and “friends.”
“I think a lot – not just a little, but a lot – about killing myself,” said Truman Capote. “I wake up hoping that I will die."
"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know," declared Hemingway, among of the fortunate few who, like Capote, enjoyed fame and fortune early on for what he called the “wrong reasons” and the “worst aspects” of his work.
The exiled author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, speaking from experience, called melancholy “the happiness of being sad.”
For some Misérables, misery can exert black hole gravity, and so wallow on the accretion disk, but does this adequately explain its grip on so many creatives? As the great philosopher, William James, observed: “Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world and, in nine cases out of ten, his inmost consciousness is of failure. Either his ideals are pitched far higher than his achievements, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and regarding which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.”
The real mystery of melancholy, as dystopian, George Orwell, once pointed out, is how people ever got the crazy idea that happiness is every man’s birth right. More mysterious and maddening still, is the idea that if an artist finds it unattainable, s/he’s either insatiable or has a screw loose. “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied,” novelist and NYU professor, Zadie Smith, recently told her students. “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy,” declared George Simenon after writing over five-hundred novels.
So, the age-old question: Must the writer suffer? Is the cliché of the “suffering artist” redundant?
Many masters were not renowned for their sunny dispositions. So, one might say yes. Misery is the mother of invention. Happy people often don’t bother themselves with artistic invention because they’re more or less satisfied with the way things already are. If they do create, it’s recreation. For Les Misérables it’s necessity, or what Freud called “substitute gratification.”
To the extent the artist is bummed -- feeling helpless, insignificant, alienated, pissed off -- creating an alternate reality, especially with a protagonist alter ego, is a power trip. But even if the writer tortures the hero unmercifully in his own mind, in a brutal society, or in a dystopia, at least he controls the puppet strings.
“Oh, I am so unhappy, so unhappy!” Dostoyevsky wept to his brother in the hiatus between The House of the Dead and Notes from the Underground. “I am tortured, killed! My soul quakes. I have suffered for so long… I have endured the most unimaginable tortures, but there must be some bounds! I am not made of stone!”
Then he would yo-yo with an epileptic attack. “I experience a joy that is unthinkable … complete harmony with myself and the whole world. This feeling is so bright and strong that you could give up ten years for a few seconds of that ecstasy.”
Fyodor’s admirer, Henry Miller, went further. “I discovered that this suffering was good for me, that it opened the way to a joyous life,” he wrote in his Rosy Crucifixion. “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” As an after-thought, he added: "To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.”
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Meudon, France, 1957. François Pages/Paris Match via Getty Images.
Miller’s idol, Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, was less upbeat. By day, he started out delivering babies, then became a TB and syphilis specialist. By night, he wrote novels.
“When in your life were you happy?” The Paris Review asked the ex-pediatrician in 1960.
Céline: “Bloody well never.”
Interviewer: “Do you detest life?”
Céline: “Well, I can’t say I love it, no. I tolerate it because I’m alive.”
Writing Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night helped him tolerate it. Feeling much the same about being on the planet, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the introductions to the good doctor’s last three novels, Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon.
“How’s life?” David Brancaccio of PBS, asked the Slaughterhouse-Five creator in 2005.13 “Well, it’s practically over, thank God,” sighed the 82-year-old who kept this Post-It memo on his refrigerator: Your planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of you.
The year before, the novelist – a chain-smoker like so many of his colleagues -- told the Spokesman Review that he’d filed suit against Brown & Williamson (now R.J. Reynolds) for failing to live up to the promise on their Pall-Mall packs to kill him.14 The author of “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” called smoking “a classy way to commit suicide.” He had tried the conventional, less classy way, in 1984, with pills and booze, and gone on to write about it in Fates Worse Than Death. "This is what I find most encouraging about the writing trades,” he wrote in one of the essays, “ -- they allow lunatics to seem saner than sane.”
"I do think that the quality which makes a man want to write
and be read is essentially a desire for self-exposure and is masochistic.”
James Jones, Paris Review interview
Since the age of Homer, the literary calling has offered most writers no retirement, no health care – for minimum wage, or no wage at all. In the old days, however, it did provide a chance for a book burning, if not an exile, torture, or execution; and, today, a chance at ulcers, a liver shutdown, or AA membership.
So, the writer’s family and friends are, understandably, mystified. There are many other far more rewarding vocations for a crazy. Not just in the arts.
So, as the prolific poet, playwright and novelist, Jean Cocteau, wondered: “This sickness to express oneself. What is it?”
As every student who had to do a book report or a “My Summer Vacation” memoir knows, writing is rarely fun. When The Paris Review asked William Styron if he “enjoyed” writing, speaking for himself and more than a few colleagues, the Darkness Visible author said: “I certainly don’t.”
So, why do it?
Sylvia Plath said she did it because her inner voice couldn’t be silenced. Anais Nin said she did it to “taste life twice” – in the instant and in memory. Steinbeck explained that his pen was a “wand” that exorcised confusion. Kafka said he wrote to simply to avoid becoming a “monster courting disaster.” Ken Kesey said writing was his way of saying “Fuck You!” to the Establishment.
Sigmund Freud thought it all came down to the id and his Pleasure Principle: “Writers write for fame, wealth, power, and the love of women.” At least posthumously.
But the father of psychoanalysis forgot one thing: immortality. Unlike the trades and services, literature can promise indefinite longevity. Busts, memorials, pantheons, postage stamps, fellowships in your name. At least, for the .000001%.
The more one becomes preoccupied with legacy, the more compulsive many tend to be about creating. Whether it’s a painful pleasure, or a pleasurable pain, the more the OCD whips himself. As Truman Capote, after a dry spell and a nervous breakdown, wrote in his preface to Music for Chameleons: “When God hands you a gift, He also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.”
To the nonprofessional this may seem like S&M. And, for some, like the Marquis de Sade, there may be an element of this. The greatest pain the aristocrat endured was when the terrorists of the French Revolution destroyed his magnum opus in progress, 120 Days in Sodom, and threw him in the nut house. But, following the example of the many irrepressible cons before him —Roger Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, Voltaire, Daniel Defoe, et al -- he rewrote the masterpiece in his cell.
Serious authors have no illusions about the mercilessness of their calling. As Anne Lamott pointed out in Bird by Bird, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do, you can either type or kill yourself." And she dedicated the book to a colleague who did just that.
Today, T.C. Boyle compares himself and his colleagues to “trained dogs… and Kafka’s Hunger Artist.” When the Paris Review asked him why, then, he kept writing, the PEN/Faulkner winner and USC Distinguished Professor of English replied: “Because writing is an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
OCD author marathon records are impressive. In his lifetime, Lewis Carroll cranked out 255 titles, Defoe 250, Dumas 271, George Simenon 400 (though the novelist was said to have regularly vomited from the strain). Sprint figures are equally stunning: Stephen King did The Running Man in 3 days; Stevenson Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde in 6; and Kerouac holds the short story gold, having finished 200 in eight weeks.
After finishing his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, in under eight weeks, Hemingway prophetically declared: “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure, only death can stop it.” Indeed, despite the dispiriting rejections and criticisms weathered by almost all, very few could go cold turkey pre-mortem. Notable exceptions range from Arthur Rimbaud who at age 19 abandoned poetry for gunrunning, to Philip Roth who retired nine years before his demise to give a debut novelist this career advice: “Quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture.”
“When they want to know about inspiration,
I tell them it’s mostly animus.”
Robert Frost, Paris Review interview
Given the purgatory of the addictive profession, is it any wonder that some writers – especially the head-strong but thin-skinned -- have been pissed? Because every artist, even the luckiest, must weather much criticism, it is essential, as the cliché goes, that he or she have “thick skin.” The fact is, however, that the most talented tend to be sensitive souls – bleeders – so, in lieu of scar tissue, each must find a way of living with hemophilia by venting.
“I’m now writing out of rage,” confessed Susan Sontag. “I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun.” After the New Republic panned Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon paean to the “religious ecstasy of killing,” the bullfighting aficionado raged:
“I would like to take a tommy gun and open up at 21 [Club] or in the N.R. offices or any place you name and give shitdom a few martyrs and include myself!”
One might understand such rage from an unpublished and chronically rejected writer, but from Hemingway, Sontag, and other acclaimed artists? The fact is that literary fame often brings even greater stress. As Malcolm Lowry wrote after his novel, Under the Volcano, became a sensation: “Success may be the worst possible thing that could happen to any serious author.”
First, with success often comes compulsive competitiveness. “Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed at,” fumed Flaubert. “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” said Gore Vidal. Second, with success comes the fear that one’s follow-up book will not live up to the first, and one will be dismissed as a one-hit wonder which may lead to the dreaded writer’s block. Most devastating of all, near the end of a celebrated career, the author may feel abandoned by the muse, and completely written out.
So, have many historic scribes been mad because they were mad, or mad because they were mad? A moot question.
Whatever the case, non-neurological mad usually starts out small. With irritation. “I go from exasperation to a state of collapse, then I recover and go from prostration to Fury, so that my average state is one of being annoyed,” said Flaubert even before the syphilis and epilepsy kicked into high gear.15 His annoyance went to misanthropy. “I detest my fellow-beings and do not feel that I am their fellow at all,” he continued.
But since misanthropy can be a handicap to character-driven fiction, other annoyed writers have backed off it a notch. “I’ve always been interested in people, but I’ve never liked them,” said Henry James, though he wrote tens of thousands of letters to acquaintances.
“I love humanity, but I hate people,” said Edna St. Vincent Millay who, like Elizabeth Barret Browning, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickenson, Djuna Barnes, and Flannery O’Connor rarely left the house.
When bailing from his writer-in-residence post at U of Michigan, Vonnegut was more circumspect when explaining his departure to the program director, “I’ve realized the only thing I hate more than listening to people is talking to them.” In Fates Worse than Death, he went on to explain: “I went briefly apeshit in the 1980’s in an effort to get out of life entirely and wound up playing Eightball in a locked ward for thirty days instead. I was pissed off.”
Thankfully, most other pissed-off scribes also locked themselves in a room and hammered out a Crime and Punishment, Misery, or American Psycho, rather than going Mr. Hyde or Charlie Manson on anybody. Still, no one on death row can beat a Dostoyevsky, Ellis, King, or other mild-mannered men of letters when it comes to murder and mayhem melodrama. Where does that talent come from?
“I do think many writers have what you might call a demonic nature,” Henry Miller told the Paris Review.
Demonic in origin or not, the ire of some metastasizes into I’m-mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mad. Vendetta mad. Grudge mad. “Getting even is one reason for writing,” said William Gass. “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” The American Book Award winner longed to fill Yahweh’s heavenly shoes during His fire and brimstone days: “I want to rise so high that when I shit, I won’t miss anybody.”16
Having spent years trying to get On the Road published while working odd jobs and cadging funds from his family, Jack Kerouac was no stranger to animus either. After being panned by critic Kenneth Rexroth, he raged at his philistine detractors: “Fuck you all! I'll bombard you with… works that’ll make you all go mad, you bunch of mad mother fucker no good bastards!" He wrote in his journal that due to his “melancholia and maniacal appearance,” he’d soon be thrown in the nuthouse. His friend, Alan Ginsberg, suggested he “lay down his wrath” and discover his “untroubled and tender” true self. “Beware of meeting me on the street!” Jack shot back. But twice he was nearly beaten to death by street thugs and made no attempt to defend himself.
Which brings us to loser mad. Humiliation mad. “Why has the South produced so many good writers?” wrote Walker Percy. “Because we got beat.” In his National Book Award winning The Moviegoer, he added: “All the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”
Before the South got beat, the preternaturally pissed Mr. Poe wrote of hanging cats, of burying villains alive, and boasted of “flogging” his rival, T.D. English, until he was “dragged from the prostate, rascally carcass” of his victim. The poet called his hypersensitivity “an over-acuteness of the nerves.”
Another sensitive southerner was Mark Twain. Unlike Poe, the humorist became rich and famous. But, shortly before his death, he admitted to being “full of malice, saturated with malignity.” He used his “pen warmed up in hell” on, among others: Bret Hart, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fennimore Cooper, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. Moreover, according to his anthologist, Bernard De Voto, he was involved in more lawsuits than any other author.
As for the other Confederate master, “Faulkner had a mean small Southern streak in him, and most of his pronunciamentos reflect that meanness.”
So said Norman Mailer17 who, besides savaging many of his colleagues in Advertisements for Myself, shanked his wife at a cocktail party. His arraignment statement to the magistrate read: “Naturally, I have been a little upset, but I have never been out of my mental faculties. … It’s important for me not to be sent to a mental hospital, because my work in the future will be considered that of a disordered mind. My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist I am sane.” 18 The judge, declaring that the novelist couldn’t “distinguish fiction from reality,” sent him to Bellevue for a seventeen-day evaluation. After charming his shrinks and begging his wife not to press charges, Mailer returned home. His next novel, An American Dream, opened with his hero, Rojack, strangling his wife, then anally raping her German maid.
Capitalizing on in-house talent such as Mailer, the long overdue Bellevue Literary Press was founded in 2007. The “micro-Knopf,” as New York Magazine called it,19 has published more than fifty novels to date. One -- Andrew Krivak’s 2011 The Sojourn – was a National Book Award finalist. Another -- Paul Harding’s 2009 Tinkers about an epileptic father and crazy grandfather, a manuscript rejected by all other publishers – won the Pulitzer. The publisher’s sister operation, The Bellevue Literary Review, has featured work by Charles Bukowski, Amy Hempel, Rick Moody, and Sharon Olds.
The oldest public hospital and psychiatric facility in the U.S. (founded in 1736), Bellevue has treated its share of artists over the years: Eugene O’Neil was admitted after his 1912 suicide attempt; in ’35 Malcolm Lowry was treated for alcoholic psychosis; in ’49 Allen Ginsberg pleaded insanity and checked in; in ’57, New Republic poetry editor, Delmore Schwartz, arrived in a straight-jacket after attacking art critic, Hilton Kramer, whom he dreamed had cuckolded him. 20
Saul Bellow immortalized his mentor, Schwartz, as the exquisitely mad hero of his 1976 Nobel Prize winning novel, Humboldt’s Gift: “From Bellevue he phoned me,” wrote Bellow. “ … He yelled, ‘Charlie, you know where I am, don’t you? … This isn’t literature. This is life.’”