During the 1970s and 1980s, the English departments of America’s most prestigious universities became infested with structuralists. No “leading” university was without one. Harvard had Barbara Johnson, a follower of Jacques Lacan who, in addition to teaching English and Comparative Literature, served as the university’s Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry. At other schools, structuralist professors emerged in fields that have no obvious relation to structuralism whatsoever. At Princeton, there was a structuralist mathematics professor, Paul Benacerraf.
Hardly anyone, of course, still reads the “scholarship” that was produced by these supposedly great minds. And why should they? Reading their writing is a chore. Jargon-ridden and tedious, it offers us no insights into why authors set pen to paper or which compositions are worthy of note. Simply put, it doesn’t pass the test of being true criticism.
But this does not mean that there was no good literary research produced in American academia in this period. One way college professors continued to make meaningful contributions to the study of literature was through biography. This was how Joseph Frank made a lasting impact with his highly regarded five-volume account of the life of Dostoyevsky.
Another means was the annotation and editing of collections by first-rate authors. This is among the reasons why Ruth Wisse’s work abides.
A new volume of essays by the English professor Roger Forseth (1927–2016), Alcoholite at the Altar: The Writer and Addiction, The Writings of Roger Forseth (IntoWords Press), offers another type of valuable literary scholarship. In the interests of full disclosure I should note that it was edited by Cassandra Csenscitz, a friend of mine who also happens to be one of Forseth’s granddaughters.
The product of a wealthy midwestern family, Forseth taught for many years at a relatively obscure school in the heartland, the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Consequently, his academic reputation derived almost exclusively from his editorship of a literary journal called Dionysos. Continued interest in the publication is such that its back issues have recently been made available online by the University of Sheffield in England.
The subject of the journal and of Forseth’s research was one with special resonance to him: what is the connection between addiction and writing?
The subject of the journal and of Forseth’s research was one with special resonance to him: what is the connection between addiction and writing? A reformed drinker who spent much of his early adulthood under the influence, Forseth was well aware of the research showing that writers have among the highest alcoholism rates of any profession. Forseth made it his life’s work to determine why this was.
Finding and identifying works of outstanding merit was much less an aim of Forseth’s scholarship than was bringing new appreciation and understanding to writers who were already recognized. Moreover, while Forseth’s essays often examine historical context—how the problem of substance abuse was viewed in different periods and how this relates to the literature of the time—his training was in the study of Romantic poetry and the British and American novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not in medicine. Thus, he uses the term “narcotic” in its popular sense of an illicit drug, rather than its technical sense of an opiate.
But if he is not offering readers detailed scientific analysis of the sources of addiction, he shows in these essays that his knowledge of literature was great and his sympathetic understanding of it undeniable. The author of a dissertation on Wordsworth, he was also familiar with all the novels of the best-known American fiction writers from Hawthorne through Bellow. He was particularly interested in a number of the realist authors who had problems with the bottle, especially Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the poet John Berryman.
Forseth’s interest is upon London’s elucidation of what he termed the “white logic”: the idea that inebriation might bring certain truths about life to the surface that could not be perceived without it.
Forseth writes at particular length about London’s autobiographical novel John Barleycorn. It is perhaps best known today for its introduction of certain cliché images of drunkenness, including the idea of a lush who sees pink elephants. Forseth’s interest is upon London’s elucidation of what he termed the “white logic”: the idea that inebriation might bring certain truths about life to the surface that could not be perceived without it. This dovetails with Forseth’s belief that early experiences with alcohol and other intoxicants can expand an artist’s powers of imagination, although at a great cost. For London, of course, this was a worsening of the habitual depression that prompted his suicide.
Like Blake and Nietzsche, Forseth considered great art to be a union of ecstasy and grace. In this view, intoxicants loosen the bonds that constrain thought and feeling, providing Dionysian insight by which to achieve greater accomplishments in later, more Apollonian moments of sobriety. Forseth saw drinking as an aid in the process by which literary masters create themselves, even as he readily acknowledged how debilitating and destructive alcoholism is.
As Csenscitz notes in her introduction, Forseth’s strongest feeling of spiritual connection was with Sinclair Lewis, the author he wrote about most frequently. His analysis of Lewis’s novels is consistently thoughtful and often revealing. It is also persuasive in arguing that one cannot understand his work without knowing of his drinking problems, which have been greatly underestimated in recent times. So, one might say, has Forseth’s own transparent and intelligent writing.