I am focusing on America’s first Nobel Laureates in Fiction. I must exclude our only female writer PEARL S. BUCK, because from my understanding she didn’t drink. It is interesting it took only three novels in her THE GOOD EARTH trilogy to win her this most coveted prize. She was a regional writer, raised in China (her parents’ were American missionaries) and when she wrote of the land and the people, her work was enchanting. In later years when she chose to forsake her regional sensibilities, her work weakened considerably. All the writers I am presenting here are considered “regional”, some more so than others.
WILLIAM FAULKNER. His best work was behind him when he won the coveted prize some 20 years later. Up to that point, he had never been a commercial success (although the French held in high regard). He is a difficult read, employing the stream of consciousness method quite often in his books. He wrote about his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi and changed the name of his town and county in his books. He wrote of the degenerate aristocracy and the dirt poor with such realism, needless to say—he not was well-loved in his hometown. His small house shows signs of his drinking binges. The walls are covered with writing from his works. When his books were not selling well enough to support him, he lived off of short stories, became a screenwriter in Hollywood (something he detested, the two clashed). I believe he drank out of frustration. When he won his Nobel Prize in 1949, he began to sell (he even had a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1955, somewhat muddled WWI yarn THE FABLE). He wrote sporadically until his death. The award winning THE REVIERS was published posthumously with much acclaim and success—it fully revealed his sense of humor. And his later years were that of a genteel southern gentlemen living in Charlottesville, VA. This genius worked long and hard for his belated success.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY. Never a personal favorite, sprung out of the ex-patriot Lost Generation era of the 20’s. Success came relatively quickly for him. Most of his memorable works are set in Spain (again, a regional writer). He had already achieved success like Ms. Buck when he won this prestigious award. The 50’s saw a decline and lack of work on his part. His OLD MAN AND THE SEA was his last great book. He was a troubled man. He had to be in order to shoot himself. He died ironically, the same year as Faulkner in 1962. Did tossing the bottle inspire him….no. He was a known adventurer and time had caught up to him.
JOHN STEINBECK. This American great, defined the term Romantic Regionalist. He had paid his dues writing unsuccessful books. Then in 1935, a short work TORTILLA FLAT, received recognition and a year later the perfect novella OF MICE MEN, a book that was easily adapted into a successful Broadway show began to turn literary heads.. Steinbeck’s best works were his short prose. OF MICE AND MEN, THE PEARL, THE RED PONY, CANNERY ROW, are all considered classic literature today. He wrote about the downtrodden (not a very popular subject during The Great Depression). He ate and lived among the people he wrote about in 1939 he won the Pulitzer for THE GRAPES OF WRATH, one of true classic American novels. His work after CANNERY ROW became erratic and is wasn’t until a decade later in 1954, his magnum opus EAST OF EDEN brought him back to the forefront literary greats. He should have won The Nobel Prize then. The remainder of the 50’s saw little by Steinbeck. In 1961 he wrote THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT, a quiet novel about a shopkeeper with a conscious. The Committee took notice and a year later, he received the coveted award, much too late in his career. Like Faulkner, the timing was all wrong. The difference between these two was Steinbeck was a huge success before the award, Faulkner was not. What led him to drink? I think it was two things. After his death in 1969, his wife Elaine published his letters. Many were to his editor. Judging by the letters, he did not need an editor as much as he needed a “sounding board” or a good friend. He was also frustrated that he was never able to write another Great American Novel. His last book, which could hardly be considered a literary masterpiece, was the very popular and wonderfully enchanting TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE, where he toured the country in a battered RV along with his poodle. This was the lighter side of Steinbeck that rarely showed up in his works and to many is a classic piece of Americana.
JOHN O’HARA—The Nobel Should Have Been. He may not be as well-known as the other aforementioned greats, but was nonetheless, worthy of the award. O’Hara was definitely a regional writer. He wrote about his home—Pennsylvania. But unlike, Steinbeck, he delved more into the false values of high society. All his socially acceptable characters were doomed. He made no secret of his disdain for the upper crust. He was born into it, but after his father died, he grew up poor. He achieved success with his first and best novel APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA, a short and near-perfect work. His second novel rates right behind the first. BUTTERFIELD 8 was a call girl exchange. O’Hara wrote about a real life sensational murder of a high-priced prostitute in the 30’s. Like Steinbeck, his best work has always been his short work. Unlike Steinbeck, O’Hara a tendency to lose focus when he wrote long novels, as exhibited in A RAGE TO LIVE and FROM THE TERRACE. O’Hara was best suited for short stories. He was the only author in the 60’s to have collections high on the bestseller lists. This was in part due to the open sexuality of his work. This was always explored through dialog and was never explicit (by today’s standards), but it raised the eyebrows the reading public at the time, whetting their appetite. He probably had the best “ear” for dialog of any writer of his era. In many of his stories, plot, action and characterizations was based solely on dialog! It was written he thought he would win the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize. When his friend Steinbeck won, he conceded it was the right choice, if it couldn’t be him. On the surface this was an odd friendship, based on their different lifestyles and their writing styles. But friends they remained. O’Hara died a year after Steinbeck. His bout with the bottle I think was due to the loss of his wife.
Whatever the motives, I do not believe any of these greats, relied on intoxication to generate great work. All were so diverse in their lives and their work, yet there is this is one odd connection they all share in common—they were known for their drinking! We will never see the likes of these literary giants again in this country. They were the best of the 20th Century and 21st and textbook examples of how to write prose. But for potential or struggling writers, we can certainly learn a great deal from them.
Terry D. Robertson
Author of “Fill My Eyes
“The Backside of Yesterday"