Three years ago on a cold February day after eating some potatoes smothered in grilled raclette I walked into an alley across from the Borough Market, London’s large and old (11th century old) food market, and melted into a puddle of stupefied awe in front of one of the city’s hundreds of blue plaques denoting sites of historical significance.
I hadn’t been looking for it, but I’d stumbled onto the former location of The Tabard Inn, the spot from which Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims fictionally departed from on their way to Canterbury Cathedral at the end of the 14th century in order to commune with the bones of Saint Thomas Beckett. Chaucer’s twenty Middle English tales are meant to be the result of a story-telling competition the pilgrims compete in to pass the time. The prize for best story? Food and booze at the Tabard upon their return to London.
For me, a bibliophile and literary history fiend, this was an unintentional discovery of a personal holy site I hadn’t realized existed, and I don’t deny closing my eyes for a minute and calling forth images of the Knight and the Nun and the Monk and the Wife of Bath as if they were walking down a contemporary London street. I had arrived, by chance, at the metaphorical birthplace of English Literature, and that place, I realized, was essentially a pub. A pub that once abutted another public house called The George Inn, the oldest traveler’s inn still operating in London, a drinking establishment frequented by Samuel Pepys, and a place that, according to writer Pete Brown, is mostly likely to have been Shakespeare’s watering hole. From this spot, the Tabard in the 13th century, writers and bars have been inextricably entwined ever since.
My home, New York City, is full of them. There’s Chumley’s, which has been closed for years after a fire, but was once filled with book covers and ephemera from its long list of writer patrons including Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Steinbeck and others. There’s Pete’s Tavern, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in the city and which proclaims on its awning, “The Tavern O. Henry Made Famous.” There’s Bemelman’’ Bar at the Carlyle, where the Madeline children’s book creator bartered for a year and a half of accommodations from the hotel for the murals he painted on the bar’s walls. In addition to being memorialized in a series of superb essays by Joseph Mitchell, McSorley’s Saloon was written into a poem by e. e. cummings as “snug and evil.”
There are bars coast to coast where the Beats drank. Vesuvio’s claims Kerouac and Kettle of Fish in Greenwich Village does too. The White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had his last bender before he died days later, they also threw out Jack Kerouac on a regular basis, frequently enough that “Jack Go Home” is still scrawled by patrons on the bathroom walls.
Paris, France has their sophisticated spots like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore where the expat American writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank alongside Parisians intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. There’s James Baldwin’s Le Select, where David, his main character drinks in Giovanni’s Room after having a single drink at Closerie des Lilas, the place Hemingway wrote most of The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway, it should be pointed out, drank his way around the world through bars the way John Cheever’s drunk suburbanite in his famous story “The Swimmer”, swam home through backyard pools. In addition to his French portfolio, his most notorious watering holes are in Key West. There’s the place called Sloppy Joe’s, and another place that claims to be the original Sloppy Joe’s, and the place in Cuba that was actually the original Sloppy Joe’s. And the other place Hemingway drank in Cuba is El Floridita (pictured), which it is still there.
There are also the scores of bars without a distinct literary history that create their own through literary reference. Bars named Shakespeare and Melville and Bilbo Baggins. Edgar Allan Poe and his work is inspiration for dozens of bars up and down the East Coast. There are bars called The Raven and bars called Annabelle Lee. Poe was found in the gutter in Baltimore before he died, and The Horse You Came in on Saloon claims it was in their gutter. But the gutter was across town.
In her 2014 book, A Trip to Echo Springs writer Olivia Laing explores the connection between writers and heavy drinking, a phenomenon she thinks of as particularly American, and specifically focuses on John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Her book is a winding path through a hazy and fuzzy history of overlapping lives and sad stories. It’s a terrible picture of alcoholism and writers loss of creative energy and faith in their own talents. Surprisingly, perhaps, bars don’t figure much in her story of their drinking lives, even though we know they did, but the extreme drinking that did the most damage is the drinking these writers did behind the closed doors of homes, and how it eventually damages their ability to well.
Laing writes, “Alcohol affects the brain in many ways, but the one most tangible, even to the casual drinker, is the havoc it wrecks on one’s ability to recollect the past.” This is the conundrum of the literary bar. It capitalizes on the idea of good spirits of its shelves giving creative spirit to its customers, strong enough to inspire masterpieces. But what instead happens to the writers, who are famous for patronizing them, is the slow and steady quelling of a gift. In the end the bar needs the writer, more than the writer needs the bar.
There are exceptions to the sad stories, of course; J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis ran a writing group called The Inklings out of the Oxford pub, the Eagle and Child, for years, informally critiquing each other’s writing, and neither developed drinking problems.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit here that I’m a writer who barely drinks at all. I can’t stomach beer. Wine gives me migraines. Champagne is for special occasions. But whiskey warms and vodka fortifies when needed. I wish I could tolerate alcohol more, because it’s social and I love a good bar or pub, and I particularly love an old bar, a pub with signs and photographs and paneling, a history and stories. I’m the bar goer who will seek out a bar because of its tales, and wonder about the real stories, underneath the sawdust on the floor – and then I’ll order more often than not a seltzer and a snack. The best story, I’ve found so far, is that of the Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims departing. All the best stories happen once the writer has left the bar and writes them down.