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10 Writers' Mental And Physical Maladies

Posted: 10/23/2012 12:05 pm

The honors list of English literature is a roll call of dysfunction. Coleridge was a dope fiend, Joyce and Faulkner were high-functioning drunks, Sylvia Plath a hot bipolar mess. The epic social ineptitude of Swift, Milton, and Emily Brontë is suspicious for what we would now call Asperger's syndrome. Herman Melville was mired for decades in black depression. The Bard of Avon contracted his terminal illness in the wake of a marathon drinking bout. Why is literary achievement associated with so much gormless and self-destructive behavior? The answer may lie in the fact that the personalities of great writers are formed from a volatile mixture of the elements, a witches' brew of emotional nitroglycerin.

Those who claim that Shakespeare did not write his plays posit that only some rich, privileged, and highly educated person could have written them. This premise is fundamentally mistaken. Literary genius is more likely to arise from disappointment and chagrin than comfort and complacency; the wealthy and content have no need of imagination. Most great writers experienced emotional or financial turbulence in childhood. Swift, Defoe, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Melville, Thackeray, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath all lost a parent in childhood. Poe, Tolstoy, and Conrad were orphans. Byron, Melville, Dickens, Joyce, Yeats, and Shakespeare had debt-ridden fathers and sharp brushes with poverty. Shelley and Orwell spent desolate years in brutal boarding schools. Jack London was forced to work in a cannery at age 12.

What does an unhappy childhood have to do with creativity? In gifted and resilient individuals, stress and unhappiness in youth may help to develop the power of fantasy and imagination. They also increase the risk for mood disorders in adulthood, which have a robust association with literary creativity. Research by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison has shown that writers have a high prevalence of mood disorders, including major depressive disorder and bipolar affective disorder. The final ingredient in this combustible alembic is social awkwardness, ranging from mild introversion, to full-blown social anxiety disorder (Hawthorne) or Asperger's syndrome (as in Milton, Swift, Yeats, and Emily Brontë). Individuals with these conditions may be frustrated in their attempts to relate to others in more conventional ways, and seek an emotional outlet in literature. To complicate matters, writers may also become physically ill, either from dubious lifestyle choices, bad luck, or physical hardship. In Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough, I tackle 12 writers and their mental and physical maladies, and in many cases, explore their real-life medical mysteries.

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  • William Shakespeare

    The only medical fact known about Shakespeare with certainty is that his final signatures show a pronounced tremor. Compared to other Elizabethan writers, Shakespeare had an unhealthy obsession with syphilis. D. H. Lawrence wrote, “I am convinced that some of Shakespeare’s horror and despair, in his tragedies, arose from the shock of his consciousness of syphilis.” According to contemporary gossip, Shakespeare was notoriously promiscuous. An obscure satire called Willobie His Avisa seems to suggest that Shakespeare was part of a love triangle in which all three parties had venereal disease. The standard Elizabethan treatment for syphilis was mercury; as the saying goes, “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury." Mercury’s more alarming side effects include hypersalivation, gingivitis, and tremor. Did Shakespeare’s writing career end because of adverse effects of mercury treatment?

  • John Milton

    Milton went blind in middle age, which he attributed to his propaganda work for the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell. However, the more likely culprit was retinal detachment from severe myopia (Milton ruined his eyesight in childhood by staying up into the wee hours, reading the Greek and Latin classics). Milton is known to have “dabbled in physic,” or taken popular medicines of the day in a failed attempt to save his eyes. These may have included “mummy” (ground-up human bones), human sweat, cat-ointment, oil of puppies, and sugar of lead, the last of which may have ruined his kidneys and led to his gout.

  • Jonathan Swift

    Swift was a walking textbook of pathology. He suffered from Ménière’s disease, an inner ear condition that led to horrible bouts of vertigo and tinnitus, which he described as “a hundred oceans rolling in my ears.” His obsessive-compulsive disorder tanked his love life; James Joyce said that “he made a mess of two women’s lives." These were Stella Johnson, who may have been his secret wife in an unconsummated marriage, and the heiress Vanessa Vanhomrigh, who had a mad, futile passion for Swift. Swift had his most productive decade in his 50s, when he wrote <em>Gulliver’s Travels</em> and a great deal of smutty poetry. Swift’s subsequent behavior was increasingly bizarre. He may have had frontotemporal dementia, which in its early stages may be associated with increased creativity from loss of inhibitions.

  • The Brontë sisters

    All six of the Brontë siblings died of tuberculosis, a Victorian plague that killed off 1% of the English population per year. TB entered the Brontë household after the older girls were infected at the Clergy Daughter’s School. This was the place made infamous by Charlotte as the brutal Lowood School in <em>Jane Eyre</em>, where the girls were beaten, starved, and terrorized by tales of hellfire and damnation. Although the consumptive artist is a tired cliché, there may be some truth in it. The immune system is weakened by emotional turmoil, of which the Brontës had plenty. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had depressive episodes; brother Branwell had bipolar disorder and dipsomania; Emily, brainy and strange, probably also had Asperger’s syndrome and social anxiety disorder.

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Hawthorne suffered from pathologic shyness (social anxiety disorder). He hated to be touched, couldn’t make eye contact with people, and was known to dive into the bushes to avoid meeting strangers on walks. When his good friend Franklin Pierce was elected President, Hawthorne was appointed as the American Consul in Liverpool. Although this helped Hawthorne get rich, it was disastrous for his health. He came to rely on alcohol to get through social occasions and public speaking. Hawthorne died of a mysterious wasting illness. This was probably gastric cancer, once the most common cancer in America, due to the heavy consumption of carcinogenic salted cod and smoked meat in the era before refrigeration.

  • Herman Melville

    Melville probable had bipolar disorder. <em>Moby-Dick</em> was written in a near-manic state of exhilaration, and he was prone to depression and alcoholism as he aged. He shattered his scapula in a freak riding accident, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (data that emerged after 9/11 showed that bipolar patients are at higher risk for PTSD). Melville also had prominent physical symptoms, including disabling attacks of eye pain and low back pain, a rigid spine, and loss of height. Biographers have generally assumed that he suffered from psychosomatic illness, but his symptoms are more consistent with the autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis.

  • Jack London

    Jack London’s manic self-confidence helped make him the first millionaire author in history, but it also proved to be his undoing. Jack indulged in reckless misadventures while in the grip of bipolar disorder, surviving scurvy in the Yukon, alcoholic binges, and a suicide attempt in the waters of San Francisco Bay. When he developed leg ulcers from the tropical disease yaws on a disastrous sailing cruise in the Pacific, he ruined his kidneys by self-medicating with mercury. He continued to act as his own doctor, using a silver hypodermic needle to inject himself with opium, heroin, belladonna, and strychnine. He died of a morphine overdose at 40, probably by accident.

  • William Butler Yeats

    Yeats probably had Asperger’s syndrome. His awkwardness and eccentricity were legendary. He was fascinated with the occult, lost his virginity in middle age, and according to his wife, “had no interest in people as such, only in what they said or did.” Like many persons with Asperger’s, he had prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. He could not identify his own daughter, and once inadvertently lectured T. S. Eliot on the many defects of Eliot’s poetry. Yeats nearly died of brucellosis in 1929, but recovered thanks to shots of arsenic and horse serum. His brush with mortality inspired a quest to revive his sex drive, leading to a weird “rejuvenation” surgery. Gossips called him the “gland old man” and “a Cadillac engine in a Ford car.”

  • James Joyce

    Joyce described himself to Carl Jung as “A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.” In 1904, young Joyce’s fondness for Dublin streetwalkers led to a case of “gleet,” or gonorrhea. His frenemy, Dr. Oliver Gogarty, directed him to a local specialist, who would have given Joyce state-of-the-art therapy: penile irrigation with a purple solution of potassium permanganate. Joyce’s gonorrhea was gone, but he soon developed terrible attacks of eye pain and arthritis. This may have been an autoimmune illness triggered by genital Chlamydia. Joyce suffered through 11 grueling eye surgeries. Afterwards, leeches were applied to drain the blood and reduce the swelling. Not surprisingly, he developed a horror of the scalpel.

  • George Orwell

    Orwell once wrote, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness." This was literally true for Orwell. His health collapsed after writing <em>Homage to Catalonia</em>, and the heroic effort of writing and revising <em>Nineteen Eighty-Four</em> would kill him. Orwell was a “chesty” child. He had damaged bronchial tubes (bronchiectasis) from a bacterial infection in infancy. As an adult, he survived four episodes of pneumonia and a bullet through the neck, but succumbed to the tuberculosis acquired during his years of tramping, poverty, and vagabondage. Orwell underwent injections of air into his peritoneal cavity in a failed attempt to collapse the tuberculous lung, an ordeal that influenced the tortures of Winston Smith.