Why Real Writers Go Mad

Yes, you heard right. (Well, you did if you read the title out loud.) Real writers are subject to madness. I decided this because I found the pattern in real writing that I actually value as good writing.

Case in Point; Ernest Hemingway

The first book of Hemingway that I read in high school was For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a book about World War One, being an ambulance driver on the battle field, the transformations that combat experiences have on the soul, and trying to deal with the love of a woman, unsuccessfully, while the soul-sucking of recovery from battle is still taking place in your head. The story has a first-person narrator. It is told in a journalistic style that only presents the facts and doesn’t do any of the thinking and feeling for you. It makes the meaning of the story all happen in the reader’s head, as if the writer is not telling you what to think. But he actually is. And doing it masterfully. Of course, it captured me horribly because at the time I read it, the Viet Nam War was winding down, I had a draft number after turning 18 in 1974, and the Khmer Rouge attacked and took control of the SS Mayaguez in May of 1975, threatening to reignite the war and expand it into Cambodia. A wonderful book to read when you are faced with grim reality and the unfolding path to madness before you.

I also read The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea while in college as an English Major. I defy you to read either of those books and not see the madness gnawing at the writer.

Ernest Hemingway went mad from the post traumatic struggles he underwent as a consequence of WWI. His life ended when he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Deep depression is a form of madness.

Case in Point; Edgar Allen Poe

Of course, I chose the portraits of these authors on the basis of which ones are the most haunting I could find. Poe’s stare captured here reveals a pair of eyes that have seen the dark depths of his own soul, a horror you can’t compare to anyone else’s except through the words of a writer, because you can’t see into someone else’s soul in any other way. Your eyes weren’t built to do that.

And we all know the kind of stories and poems he wrote. My first encounter with Poe’s writing was either The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, or the poem, “The Bells“, all of which are deeply disturbing, and all of which I read in the Eighth Grade in Mrs. Erdman’s Class.

Poe became mad due to life-long grinding poverty brought about by foster parents who loved him and had money enough, but were too firmly devoted to the idea that helping someone out financially is a weakness not to be contemplated. His young wife died an early death from lack of funds for things like heat in the winter and food on a daily basis.

We don’t fully know why the madness caused his mysterious death. He may have had rabies when he died. Or it may have been a toxic reaction to large quantities of alcohol. Or he may have died from brain injuries due to an unexplained kidnapping and beating. But what we do know is that he loved certain people passionately and hated certain people passionately through his literary criticism of their writing. In fact, one of the authors he hated may have killed him as a murderous act of revenge.

Case in Point; Charles Dickens

When one thinks of Charles Dickens as a writer, madness is rarely the thing that comes first to mind. He wrote socially-observant comedies that emphasized engaging characters and detailed understandings of the settings and the times. There are a large number of clowns and comic villains in his stories. And his works seem a bit overbalanced against the darkness of the soul.

And yet he has his dark moments. I first read Dickens in Seventh Grade through The Christmas Carol. But Marley’s ghost and his ilk, especially the spectral Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come chilled me to the bone. I wept at the death of Tiny Tim even though it meant the other boys in my class could see me crying and would make me pay a price outside of the classroom.

On my own I went on to read more Dickens, including The Old Curiosity Shop in high school, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Great Expectations in college. I further read Oliver Twist while teaching Eighth Grade English. I also read my first author-biography of Charles Dickens, shortly after reading The Old Curiosity Shop.

I soon realized how much of his stories were autobiographical. Wilkins Micawber is a portrait of his own father and his time in the poorhouse. Wackford Squeers and other unflattering depictions of education reflected his own time in British boys’ schools where the odds of being molested by upper classmen were high. And the fact that a beloved young female relative died in his arms when he was barely out of boyhood probably caused the infamous death of the character Little Nell in the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.

There is madness in Dickens too. I mean, how can your writing reach the very heights of the Himalayas if it has never experienced the deepest depths of the ocean?

Case in Point; J.D. Salinger

Yes, I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. It was a right of passage in 1974. It was one of the three books that set me on my lifelong quest to find the best book ever written. (The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy and the Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry are the other two.) It is a book that first captured me by the feelings in the brain with the central image alluded to in the title. Holden Caufield (Salinger later confessed that this narrator was really him) dreamed that he was in a field a rye where children are playing and romping with abandon. Behind Holden is a bottomless cliff. As children occasionally run towards him and the cliff behind him, heedless and not seeing the danger, he decides he must catch them and turn them back the other way. And this is what the book is, Holden’s adventures for the first time in the adult world, experiencing the possible dangers, and then turning the readers around, back into the field of rye.

I of course read Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters afterwards in college. Buddy Glass, who narrates the story of brother Seymour’s suicide, is also an admitted character-identity for Salinger himself.

Has Salinger, too, gone mad? You can ask that about a man who suddenly stopped writing at the height of his success, and then ran away to a small shed in the woods where he wrote mash notes to teenage girls for twenty years?

Final Case in Point; Mickey

And why would I ever think Mickey is mad?

Well… this list is long.

Mickey was sexually assaulted by an older boy at ten. You can see the effects of that in all of his writings, including this one.

He’s fool enough to think he might be a real writer.

When he is in his cartoonist’s head, he portrays himself as a purple mouse. When he’s in his teacher head, he’s Reluctant Rabbit.

He thinks he can recognize great writing when he reads it.

He understands the books of H.P. Lovecraft far too well.

And he seems to recognize that same madness that can be found in Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, JD Salinger, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, and too many more that could also be named… in himself.

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Filed under artists I admire, autobiography, book review, characters, foolishness, humor, writing

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