Drug (M)use: Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from 19th-Century Europe to 1960s America

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Timothy Cole Hale. This post is an abridged version of a paper that he will present as part of the panel, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor,” at the 2021 virtual conference of the American Historical Association next Tuesday, April 20th, at 1:00 PM Eastern. To read the full paper, please visit his website.

Left Brain v. Right Brain
Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Image courtesy of Tumisu from Pixabay.

Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe

In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. [1]

Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” [2]

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.

The Pleasures of Opium
Drawing of the “Pleasures of Opium” by illustrator Willy Pogany from 1908 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.

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