A review of The Road of Excess by Rebecca Shannonhouse for the Boston Globe that was originally published in print on May 4, 2003.
”Confessions of an English Opium Eater” may be the best-known narrative in the rich history of drug literature, but Thomas De Quincey is clearly not the only author to mine the depths of drug-inspired writing. In Marcus Boon’s ambitious book, ”The Road of Excess,” De Quincey is but one player in a massive ensemble of notable writers whose work is informed by their use – or study – of mind-altering substances.
In an impressive display of scholarship, Boon meticulously chronicles the connection between writers and drugs. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Jack Kerouac, writers’ personal odysseys into the dizzying world of drugs are depicted with a novelist’s eye for detail. Boon, an assistant professor of English at York University in Toronto, creates order of this heretofore largely uncharted history in five well-rounded essays examining how literature has been influenced by narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics.
Through liberal use of anecdotes, Boon helps transform what could have been a dry recitation of cultural and literary artifacts into a feast of historical surprises. In the opening pages, Voltaire, besieged by pain on his deathbed in 1778, becomes delirious after taking opium. Although his death could not be attributed to the opium alone (the cause was most likely prostate cancer), the drug was clearly being used in ample doses well before De Quincey so boldly publicized it in his autobiographical ”Confessions,” published in 1821.
Drawing from yet another corner of obscure drug history, Boon notes that Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a noted physician and grandfather of Charles, also had his day with opium long before De Quincey first took the drug. The elder Darwin not only prescribed opium as an antidote to hundreds of ailments but also wrote poetry about the poppy and other plants in his ”The Loves of the Plants” (1789). During that same period, a fellow physician and the author of the widely read medical text ”Elementa Medicinae,” John Brown (1735-1788), also touted the medicinal virtues of opium. Offering another shade of context to the opium saga, Boon reminds us that even William Shakespeare cast the drug in the pages of ”Othello.”
In consistently engaging writing, Boon also describes the popularization of morphine. Named after Morpheus, the god of dreams, morphine first entered the lexicon of drug literature in 1805, when a German pharmacist named Friedrich Serturner recorded his experiences in taking the drug orally. Even the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning partook of the oral morphine tradition that continued throughout the first half of the 19th century. With the discovery of the hypodermic syringe in 1850, morphine quickly won a following as an injected drug.
Boon introduces a modern sensibility in noting that the concept of addiction did not emerge until the 1870s, when German psychologists identified some of the more lugubrious effects caused by frequent drug use. Soon, the notion garnered support in France, where such notables as Prince Otto von Bismarck, General Georges Boulanger, and the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were already addicted to morphine. In 1877, one of the first addiction specialists, Edouard Levinstein, offered his ”authoritative” – yet short-sighted – opinion by noting that morphine had no long-lasting, detrimental effects on one’s ability to function.
Though Boon could have easily focused his book more narrowly on, say, the impact of drugs on 19th-century literature, it’s gratifying to see that he’s given us much more than a mere historical account. The modern-day heroin chronicler Ann Marlowe, author of the 1999 drug classic ”How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z,” is featured in the book. To demonstrate the influence of drugs on 20th-century writers, Boon introduces, among others, the Beat writers Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whose drug-induced writing comes closer than any other written work to capturing the wild and ultimately indefinable nature of the human thought process.
If one reads between the lines, Boon’s chapter on stimulants presents us with a compelling explanation for today’s pervasive Starbucks culture. Much like our highly commercialized coffee hangouts, the early coffeehouses promoted what Boon so aptly labels a ”culture of conversation.” But in the private lives of individual writers, the almighty stimulant served a more utilitarian function. We learn that Honore de Balzac, who was said to have consumed 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime, attributed much of his speedy writing technique to its effects. Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean-Paul Sartre also relied heavily on coffee.
In setting the stage for cocaine’s emergence, Boon points out that exhaustion was a frequent complaint among cocaine users when the drug was first popularized in the 1880s. As evidence of its salutary effects, sober medical accounts noted that cocaine delivered a powerful form of relief from fatigue. Sigmund Freud praised cocaine even more enthusiastically, noting that the drug cured morphine addiction as well as an assortment of medical ailments. Later, of course, it became apparent that cocaine was, in fact, addictive – a pesky detail that forced Freud to reconsider his zealous promotions of the drug.
Though it is a scholarly endeavor, Boon’s new work reads more like a wide-eyed, joyous romp through a literary statesman’s funhouse, where each room contains a masterfully told tale of opium or morphine, peyote or LSD, coffee or cocaine. We see a gallery of our most prized literary lions, many of them stripped bare of their pristine reputations. It is mind-teasing exercise that is well worth the trip.