An alternate title for Literary Rogues: a Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer could be: A History of American and European Literature: the Druggies and Alcoholics Who Made It Happen. It’s clear the author thinks of himself as one of these “literary rogues,” though his voice is often jarring and unwelcome in the narrative. Initially, I was concerned that Shaffer was glorifying drug use as a necessary agent of great literature, though he addresses this concern by the end of the book. Raymond Carver makes this clear, “I never wrote so much as a line worth a nickel when I was under the influence of alcohol.” Though that idea is complicated by writers like Coleridge who use their addictions as their muse (and create staples in the literary cannon like “Kubla Khan” under the influence).
The glorification and simultaneous condemnation of drug and alcohol use is not the reason to read this book. The light-hearted journey through the printed word that highlights the reigning literary genres in Europe and the U.S. makes this book an engaging read. The influence that these authors had on each other and the personal relationships between them are detailed chapter by chapter, drawing a line through literature that connects them by more than just their vices.
It’s fun to imagine these literary giants interacting with each other like children do in high school: “at a party hosted by fellow southerner Truman Capote, Faulkner asked the host if he could take a bath. When Faulkner wasn’t seen or heard from for forty-five minutes, Capote checked up on him and found the author in tears. Capote sat on the toilet and kept Faulkner company in silence” (142).
The journey takes us through England, France and the United States with Romantics, Realists, Decadents, Modernists, Postmodernists, Beatniks, New Journalists and more. From infamous Libertine, the Marquis de Sade (if ever a literary rogue if there was one) to infamous fibber James Frey, you will be entertained and informed. The subjects are portrayed as they were/are: real human beings with flaws and demons and no short amount of talent.