It’s no secret that some of the minds behind the world’s greatest novels weren’t the most sound. In fact, we as a culture tend to associate the mind of a writer with a sort of instability, a level of insanity that isn’t ascribed to most. Often described as a “tortured artist,” we’ve come to inextricably link creative and instability, and whether that’s to the benefit or detriment of the creative individuals of the world is very much up for debate. What we can be certain of, however, is that there remains an alarmingly high amount of evidence to suggest that writers (as a broad stroke), are a bit different then regular folk. That’s why we here at Goliath are taking a look at 10 renowned authors who were as crazy as you think, because we’re fascinated by the idea of unstable minds producing some of the greatest literary works of their generation.
10. Graham Greene
We’ve written before about our affinity for the underappreciated Greene, who penned classic spy novels such as Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American and The Heart of the Matter. An English author, Greene drew from his own experiences as a spy when writing these classic tales, and knowing so makes it little wonder that the stories themselves are so vividly realized. So why is he on this list? Well, he was notoriously difficult and unpredictable, perhaps due to the bipolar disorder he dealt with over the duration of his adult life. Labelled as “a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life,” Greene was often compelled to travel, write and engage in the espionage of which he became so fond (blurring art and reality, much?). Greene, who was also a devout Catholic and often struggled to reconcile his position in life with his religion, often touches upon the themes of instability in his works, perhaps leading to the suggestion that he is one of the most apt chroniclers of the neurosis and insecurity of contemporary life.
9. Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s struggles with mental illness have been well documented. The high modernist writer, quite possibly the finest of her generation, struggled with some level of manic depression for what is believed to the majority of her life. The author of seminal works like To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Woolf is often cited as an individual who suffered from the negative stigmas surrounding mental illness at the time of her existence; she was often at odds with her doctors, and in many of her works displays a distrust of the medical practices of her time. Woolf, who famously attempted suicide by walking into the ocean having lined her pockets with stones, most definitely deserves a spot on this list, as research into her reputed craziness supplies a bounty of evidence to suggest she was every bit as crazy as her reputation might lead you to believe.
8. Aldous Huxley
A man whose literary career was so formidable that he was nominated for the Nobel prize seven times, Aldous Huxley also carries with him a reputation as a somewhat crazed individual. The author of Brave New World, one of the most riveting and influential science fiction texts in the history of literature (it, in many ways, set the standards for much of the science fiction which would follow), Huxley was also known for his interest in and experiments with LSD, or “acid.” While it is believed that some of this interest was drawn from an affinity for the drug (and its ability to allow the mind to operate outside its normal set of parameters, with Huxley suggesting that LSD would “unlock” the brain in some ways), it has also been suggested that Huxley used the drug as a method of self-medication, as he suffered from a variety of ailments throughout the course of his life (there are differing accounts of how the illnesses affected his eyesight, which was said to be very poor).
7. Zelda Fitzgerald
While F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby remains one of the preeminent pieces of American literature (along with the rest of his literary output, most of which is stellar in its own right), many folks forget that his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, was both a celebrity and writer in her own right. Deemed “America’s first flapper girl,” Zelda Fitzgerald was a fashion icon who struggled with mental illness for the majority of her adult life. In fact, it was during her time in a mental institution, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, that she wrote most of Save Me the Waltz, her increasingly appreciated novel that helped historians and literary scholars realize that F. Scott wasn’t the only truly talented author in the family. Zelda, who exhibited a firm dislike of both Scott’s drinking and his friendship with Hemingway, carries a reputation as both a charming and chaotic woman who was able to sow both happiness and sorrow at the drop of a hat.
6. Philip K. Dick
If the name Philip K. Dick seems familiar to you without having read any of his work, it’s because the odds are very, very good that you’ve seen his name, along with the words “Adapted by a story from,” in front of a blockbuster science fiction film. Dick, whose works have been adapted into major motion pictures like Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, was one of the most prolific and influential science fiction authors in the history of literature. Dick was also, much like his sci-fi cohort Aldous Huxley, a fan of the intoxicants; he reportedly struggled with drug abuse brought on by bouts of mental illness, and in fact many of his stories address themes of addiction, mental instability and paranoia. Also the victim of strange hallucinations, Dick is a notoriously strange character whose mind provided the world with some of the most imaginative and engrossing science fiction literature in the history of the genre.
5. Hunter S. Thompson
You might find it strange that Hunter S. Thompson, the late gonzo journalist whose stories of drugs, music and sports have entertained and enthralled for years, is all the way down at number five on this list. Rest assured, that isn’t a slight against Thompson’s own brand of crazy (we’re big fans of his), but rather that there are other individuals on this list who make The Duke (as he was fond of calling himself) seem sane in comparison. Thompson, who penned stoner classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary while also carving out a prolific career as a journalist for Rolling Stone and ESPN, was a riotous character whose affinity for drugs, alcohol and rebellious behavior is well documented. Stories about his antics include writing a $2 million dollar check for cocaine and partying with the likes of Johnny Depp and Bill Murray. Gonzo, indeed.
4. Edgar Allan Poe
We’re not sure why we’d have to outline the reasons why Edgar Allan Poe finds himself at number four on this list, but we’ll give it a try for all our readers out there who skipped high school English (and just cultural studies in general). Poe, whose seminal works of poetry and short stories include haunting tales like “The Raven” and “The Tell Tale Heart,” was a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue and, yes, a heaping dose of insanity. A massively influential romantic writer whose works deal almost exclusively with death and the macabre, Poe carries a reputation so gleefully crazy that he has often been fictionalized in other creative endeavors, appearing as a genius madman or a tormented, brooding figure with an affinity for lurking and haunting. With a reputation like that, who knows what other secrets this macabre author had going for him.
3. Charles Dickens
It seems strange to suggest that the mind behind classic works like Great Expectations, Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities may not have been the soundest, but that’s exactly what some evidence into the mind of Victorian stalwart Charles Dickens suggests. Dickens, who is routinely cited as amongst the greatest authors ever to have put pen to paper, lived an extremely interesting personal life, one which has lead some individuals to suggest the late author was an unstable sort of character. Dickens, who also made notable works like A Christmas Carol, had a reputation as a bit of a ladies man, even in his old age and well into his marriage, a shocking sort of revelation for the man who gave the world Oliver Twist.
2. Sylvia Plath
Of all the authors in the world whose works are most closely associated with their mental illness, Sylvia Plath is undoubtedly the most famous. Her wildly influential text, The Bell Jar, earned her a place amongst her generation’s most respected writers; however, it also drew attention to her clinical depression, which she struggled with for most all of her adult life. Plath, whose works also include a wide variety of revered poetry and numerous collections, attempted to commit suicide multiple times before finally succeeding in 1963, at the age of thirty. She did important work while alive, however, and The Bell Jar remains one of the foremost texts called upon when studying depictions of depression in literature.
1. William Burroughs
Described by Norman Mailer as “the only American novelist…who may conceivably be possessed by genius,” William Burroughs is a character of epic proportions. The author of notoriously controversial texts like Junkie and Naked Lunch, Burroughs built a career on defying conventions of most any variety, but particularly of the moral, cultural and economic type. A lifelong drug addict whose affinity for heroin has been well documented, Burroughs was a brilliant but troubled author whose works satirize and draw attention to the inconsistencies present in everyday American life.