The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

by Olivia Laing

Paperback, 2014




Picador, (2014)


Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six of America's finest writers.

Media reviews

The form Laing has invented mixes literary criticism and poetic reverie, travel reportage and confessional autobiography, and the fit is sometimes awkward. Casual conversations with fellow travellers pass the time but often have dubious relevance; her itinerary can seem – as she says of Scott Fitzgerald's jerky essay about his alcoholic crack-up – "circuitous and rambling". The subtitle promises a general answer to a question that the book avoids directly asking. Doesn't the creative imagination always require external help – from a deity or a muse as classical poets believed, or from the animating breeze exhaled by nature, on which romantic poets relied? Coleridge needed opium, and Aldous Huxley recommended a hallucinogenic cactus. Is writing itself addictive, a disease not a cure?

Despite its haphazard structure, The Trip to Echo Spring is original, brave and very moving. Laing's way of looking at a natural world that is free from human faults repeatedly prompts something like the "spiritual awakening" AA attendees hope for. Her insights shine with beauty yet are shaded by sympathy and compassion, as when she notices in passing a herd of deer with "faces soft and unguarded as sleepwalkers". Her recommended therapy, for drunks and for everyone else who suffers, is "the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone". The self-destructive subjects in her clinic testify to that; so does her own writing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Feign
A sad, beautiful, and important book. Many critics and biographers have speculated, pontificated or poked fun at the symbiosis between writers and the bottle, but Olivia Laing delves into their psyches in a quest to truly understand.

Focusing on six well-known writer-alcoholics—Hemingway (of course!), Scott Fitzgerald (of course!), Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver—Laing, a British author and critic with a background in science, set out on a trip around the USA to visit the places these men inhabited, read through mountains of letters and journals, and speak to surviving relatives, while poring through their published works, trawling for clues, aching for answers. Two committed suicide; two knowingly drank themselves to death. Laing strips the romance and the condemnation from their life stories and paints a picture of six troubled, not particularly likeable, artists.

The book, then, is mostly biography, part journalism about the physiology and psychology of alcoholism, part literary criticism, tied together with interludes of travelogue and memoir, the latter to reveal her deep personal motivations behind the project. The strongest writing is in her descriptions of place, in which the language soars, and Laing discovers meaning in the way the writer’s own setting affected his soul, as well as her own.

It’s almost an involuntary reaction to question the author for focusing on six American white men of Christian background. I’m not sure if it was her intention, but it seems to me that narrowing her enquiry to writers with certain similarities of background was necessary in this first foray toward finding a common answer to the question of the subtitle—Why Writers Drink. Does she find the answer? Maybe not, but she does find many surprising things in common in their own private probing in their journals, which she shares with the reader. Most of all, she achieves a certain intimacy with each writer, by distilling their excuses and behaviors into literary liquor which is both absorbing and disturbing to read.

There is a certain danger in plumbing the souls of erudite alcoholics—a deep, liquid sadness permeates every page, which lingers for days after finishing. I have to say that my admiration for these writers was knocked off its pedestal, but I’m left with a gut-wrenching empathy for each of them.

If you are a writer, or know one, or care about writers, I strongly, wholeheartedly urge you to read this outstanding book.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I thought I would love The Trip to Echo Spring. It was billed as an examination of the dark secrets and self-destructive tendencies of six major 20th century authors (F.S. Fitzgerald, E. Hemingway, T. Williams, J. Berryman, J. Cheever and R. Carver), with an eye toward answering the eternal question: why are so many great writers also alcoholics? In keeping with current trend towards genre-blending, the narrative also included the author's memoirs of her dysfunctional childhood, scientific information on the neurobiology of alcoholism, and even travel writing, as the author described her visits to locations associated with the six authors she profiled. It sounded like this book would be right up my alley.

The reality was disappointing. I found The Trip to Echo Spring difficult to stay with and filled with self-consciously lyrical writing that failed to move me. The narrative was annoyingly diffuse; perhaps its lack of focus was the result of trying to cover so much literary ground, summarize so many plots, and encompass so many genres.

The stories of all six men have been better told elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, author Olivia Lang is an excellent writer and literary critic. On the other, if one is going to write a biography about alcoholic writers and how their alcoholism affected their work, I would hope that the author could refrain from writing long, meandering pages about her own experiences with the disease. Lang explores the links between creativity and alcohol by exploring the work and lives of six writers: John Chever, Tennesee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Lang grew up in an alcoholic family and, trying to make sense out of her own life, took a journey (by amtrak no less) across America visiting the haunts of these writers while examining their lives and their works. She seems to be most enamored with Williams and Cheever. Her description at the beginning of the book of Cheever and Carver, racing to what appears to be an early morning pre-appointment with a liquor store owner to stock up on their daily supply of scotch gave me an image that won't quickly be erased from my brain. Likewise her critique of Cheever's story, "The Swimmer" made me want to go back and read the story again.

Williams is handled with the most sympathy. While she shows all the others in the depths of alcoholic degradation, she cuts him the most slack, painting the most sympathetic portrait in the book. She ls likewise fairly sympathetic to Fitzgerald, as opposed to Hemingway, although the story of the two of them careening back to Paris in an open car and drinking bottles of wine under trees during a rain storm is vivid, indeed. Berryman and Carver get less attention (perhaps because they are less known?), but the descriptions of Berryman's alcoholic excesses are probably the most disturbing in the book.

All of this is wonderful, but then Lang inserts herself in the narrative with pages and pages on her own unhappy childhood and her mother's alcoholic lesbian partner, along with rather pedantic discourses covering the clinical theories on the disease and ponderous paragraphs about Alcoholics Anonymous, none of which add to the book. Note to biographical writers: stick to your subject & save your personal traumas for another book.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
I don't have anything to add. This is a wonderful tale, well told The author held it together better than I would with all those weeks on the road. I could close my eyes and see the sights from the observation car - every railroad town looks like the same, run down disaster from the tracks.
LibraryThing member Icepacklady
I couldn't finish this book. It sounded good but I was bored. Didn't make it through the second chapter before I sent it back to the library.
LibraryThing member kara.shamy
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking was a totally fascinating read. I was spellbound by stories from the lives of the great writers whose relationship with drinking is discussed by author Olivia Laing in the book: John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway & Tennessee Williams. Also, the book surveys all sorts of viewpoints, including scientific theories, about alcoholism's development as Laing meanders across the broad, rich territory of her topic.

While I may not have realized as much as I read it, Echo Spring not only interested me intellectually but resonated with me deeply on an emotional level because it is such an unabashedly and intensely personal work. It almost felt like reading a memoir. Laing's interest in the topic is deeply rooted; her childhood was shaped by experiences with alcoholism in the family. Unsurprisingly, Laing's sensitivity to the complexities of alcohol abuse in different people's lived experience (rather than as an abstract phenomenon or one examined clinically or at all coldly) is an essential element of the framework of the book -- coming through in each vignette about one of the great writers discussed as well as in the structure and style of the text overall. Furthermore, the author's curiosity about the psychology of this addiction is extremely palpable throughout.

It may be worth pointing out that any weaknesses in this work -- or rather, elements that may be found less appealing by many readers -- stem from the source of the book's originality and many strengths -- that is, the author's personal relationship to her material. For example, I have noticed other reviews express some disappointment at the lack of narrative focus and the structure. In my own case, I was rubbed the wrong way a little bit by the particular emphasis placed on AA's 12 steps as the path to sobriety for people afflicted. This is of course a completely understandable authorial choice.

I definitely recommend purchasing and reading this unique look at some great writers and a widespread, longstanding problem faced by human beings.
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LibraryThing member Iambookish
While the subject matter totally grabbed me and enticed me to read this book, I'm afraid the content didn't live up to my expectations. I wasn't that interested in the author's that were chosen to analyze, which is my own issue, and the secondary story about Laing's journey across America i found not that riveting. It just wasn't for me, but I'm sure others will enjoy it.… (more)
LibraryThing member mahallett
A REALLY good look at alcholism. interesting, informative
LibraryThing member bibleblaster
This is one of those "think I'll read a few pages of this" books that pulled me in and captivated me from start to finish. There's no easy way to categorize this book, as it includes literary criticism, biography, memoir, reflections on addiction and recovery...and much more that I'm not thinking of right now. Laing expertly weaves all this together, looking at the role of addiction in the lives and works of six writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, Raymond Carver), She never talks down to the reader, nor does she trivialize her subjects; she doesn't oversimplify, but neither does she needlessly complicate matters when a direct approach is needed. She is willing to call out cowardice in these writers' lives and she is also generous in pointing out courage. The book is not only about recovery; it is as if she has internalized the twelve steps within the writing itself, seeking what is true as best she can, behind all of our posturing and all of our justifications and all of our excuses (speaking as an addict in recovery myself). Nicely done.… (more)
LibraryThing member Marc_Williams
I requested a copy of this book for review through Goodreads First Reads because I was intrigued by its title. When I received the book I felt the title combined with the cover artwork conveyed a sense of depth of and immersion in the subject of writers and their drinking, signalling a well written and thoughtful book.

In the introduction, the author set out how she intended to research and write the book and what she hoped to discover. She touched on her own personal life experiences that led her to write a book of such a specific nature. This seemed to me to be a primary motivating force behind the book's inception. I was particularly interested in this and felt that it was deserving of more space, however I found more detail later in the book.

The author provides a brief look at alcoholism as a diagnosable condition and explains that no one knows exactly how it develops but that it affects all classes. The author states, that she wants to follow the life journeys of the authors she is covering, physically by retracing their footsteps and metaphorically through the stages of alcoholism, in an effort to gain some insight into the effects of alcohol on these great writers and further insight into her own background.

The story starts as the author is landing in New York and I my interest is piqued. Are there links between creativity and destruction as two necessary and yet seemingly contradictory forces in life? How do these link with the uses and abuses of alcohol? Will I find useful insights in this book? In any case, the writing and storytelling are excellent, so I settle back to enjoy the journey.

The text provides well observed insights into the lives of these writers and how they developed their own particular problems with alcohol. The author looks at their early development and provides links to interesting research that may help to predict relatively accurately the likelihood of their developing problems. With a subject area as complex as this there probably is no definitive answer, simply a pointer to tendencies. In this respect, I was surprised at how well the author did in looking at possible predictors.

What I enjoyed most of all other than the specific subject matter itself was the prose, the author's ability to tell stories, one grand overarching story with the different writer's lives intersecting and interweaving.

I learnt more about each writer than I had previously known and felt enriched by the experience. It did not answer all my questions, but then, how could it? I enjoy good writing and was on the lookout for new authors and new approaches. This book satisfied me in all these areas.
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