Further Reading


Bulletin of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 5(1): 49­53, 1986.

The Life Study of Alcoholism: Putting Drunkenness in Biographical Context

Stanton Peele
Morristown, New Jersey



James Boswell

The conventional wisdom among clinicians and others who study alcoholism is that the disease of alcoholism takes on an independent life and must be understood in its own terms — as a self-perpetuating, uncontrollable urge to overdrink. Personality characteristics of the drinker, the social setting of his or her imbibing, and other life events are irrelevant to this equation. The biographer, on the other hand, comes to a subject's drinking behavior from quite another direction, seeing alcoholism or drunkenness as a response to persistent personality and situational conflicts and other social and cultural pressures. This view — at once "ecological" and psychodynamic — is in fact the hallmark of good biography, for to dismiss overdrinking as some accidental trait in the actor's make-up would be to abrogate the biographer's job of deciphering a subject's life themes. The case of James Boswell is used here as a template for the life study of drunkenness.


In his widely heralded work, The Natural History of Alcoholism, psychiatrist George E. Vaillant (1983) rejected the idea that alcoholism is a response to inner conflicts the person experiences, or to psychological, situational, and interpersonal pressures of any sort. In taking this stance, Vaillant has adopted the currently popular "disease" mythology of alcoholism (Peele, 1984), which holds that alcoholism represents an inner urge to overdrink which is brought on in the alcoholic by exposure to alcohol. Originally presented by Alcoholics Anonymous after the demise of Prohibition in the United States, the disease ideology actually picked up the view of alcoholism promulgated by the nineteenth century temperance movement, with the major difference that alcoholism was no longer seen to be an inevitable consequence of habitual drinking, but rather was thought to occur only in those people with an inbred alcoholic tendency.

The idea that alcoholism is a disease was officially adopted by the American Medical Association in 1956, and has since become standard wisdom in the treatment field, in media announcements and pubic service broadcasts, and in the stylized public confessions of the many public figures who have come out of the closet to reveal that they are alcoholic. What is often missing from these accounts is a sense of the place the person's overdrinking has in his or her personal ecology, that is, the role of drinking in mediating internal and external life pressures. The power of the current disease ideology is made all the more evident by the fact that most people tend naturally to assume that alcoholics drink for emotional reasons and due to personal difficulties, a view that disease proponents attack as representing an outmoded "moral model" of alcoholism. The disease theory of alcoholism has in large part been successful in discrediting this opposing perspective, at least within the alcoholism field. Indeed, in an earlier classic work, Adaptation to Life, Vaillant (1977) himself took the approach that alcoholism was a psychological defense, a position he explicitly recanted in his later work due to his involvement in treating alcoholics and his association with AA members.

Biographers, on the other hand, are generally not content with this point of view. From their engagement with the deep-seated themes of their subjects' lives, they instead see alcoholism as a natural outgrowth of their subjects' overall beings, as perhaps an inevitable tendency given their subjects' situations (although not one which is neurologically or pharmacologically preprogrammed). To illustrate this point, I turn to the life of James Boswell, as described by his excellent biographer, Frank Brady (1984). Brady sets as his task an understanding of the role of Boswell's drinking as part of Boswell's "psychic economy." In doing so, Brady describes the "common but unfortunate mistake... [of taking] drinking as a cause rather than a symptom of malaise" (p. 109), the exact position Vaillant (1983) — in keeping with disease ideas — was at pains to refute.

The Man Boswell And His Drinking

James Boswell was born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland to a successful and titled family. Boswell studied law at the University of Edinburgh and became an advocate before the Scots bar. Although he had a moderately successful legal career, his espousal of unpopular causes and clients, his strong intellectual predilections, and a nature that chafed at the provincial bonds of Scotland combined to make Boswell a perpetual malcontent. He especially railed at his bondage to his father, Lord Auchinleck, who was a judge of the very court before which Boswell pleaded. The elder Boswell meted out an allowance to his son which made up half the younger man's earnings, while seeking to entail his estate to an heir other than his son (whom he simply didn't trust to manage it). This last matter was the source of continuous dispute between father and son, and signified Boswell's inability fully to come to grips with an adult role.

While conducting his business affairs in Scotland, Boswell periodically planned to escape to London, where he generally visited for two months of the year after his marriage. In London Boswell had become a respected intellectual figure, in part because of his legendary association with Samuel Johnson, the leading literateur of his time. Boswell was, of course, to cap his own sporadic literary career with his Life of Samuel Johnson, "by common consent the greatest biography ever written" (Brady, 1984, p.423). Boswell only completed this work late in his life, after his father's and his wife's deaths and after finally moving permanently to England. On his forays to London — but not exclusively then — Boswell consorted with prostitutes and carried on various romantic liaisons, often preceded by heavy drinking bouts. At home in Scotland too he drank heavily, leading him to "low haunts" (gambling dens and brothels) and to abuse his wife. His long-suffering spouse was, however, a model of forbearance (she and Boswell shared a deep and genuine affection), and Boswell was overcome with guilt and remorse when he was informed of this behavior (which generally occurred as a part of "alcoholic blackouts").

Recounting Boswell's frequent drunken escapades, Brady summarized the nature of Boswell's drinking problems in the following way:

Boswell never would become an alcoholic nor even a solitary drinker, and though drinking sometimes interfered with his daily practice it never impeded his legal career. Nor was he unusual: Edinburgh was full of hard-drinking advocates . . . . Nor would drinking keep him from finishing his two greatest books, with the extended daily labor they required. But Boswell, to apply Johnson's phrase, was a man "without skill in inebriation." He tended to get drunk quickly and then stay at the same level of intoxication for some time; if he went on for too long he either lost all control or blacked out. Aware that he was using liquor more and more as a release from his boredom with his daily life, Boswell reacted by swearing reform and reprobating his conduct in his journal . . . . he began to keep tabs on himself by noting each day how much he drank and what effect it had on him (pp. 108-109).

Boswell's Calvinistic effort to moderate his drinking through record keeping (one which seemingly marks Boswell as an early behaviorist) was generally unsuccessful. Clearly, contrary to Brady's estimate, most modern clinicians would call Boswell an alcoholic.

Brady's point, of course, is not that Boswell failed at moderation — Boswell also failed at vows of abstinence. On the other hand, Boswell sometimes drank a single glass of wine, had periods of moderate drinking, and did sustain periods of abstinence. For Brady, however, drunkenness and sexual license were necessary parts of Boswell's life. "Release, both imaginative and physical, was essential after long months of repression in Scotland under the supervision of his formidable father and loving wife." As a result, in London, he experiences "explosions of energy, fuelled by the release of desire in its triumph over restraint; and the resulting fullness and intensity of sensation make Boswell feel alive." Brady concludes with a statement that would scandalize the modern clinician: "Sober and chaste," although Boswell might have had less to apologize for to his wife and others, "he would have paid a high price in depression, and might well have lacked the vitality to write the Life of Johnson" (pp. 130-131).

What Brady adumbrates here is the idea that drunken excess was a form of adaptation for Boswell. Inextricably attached to his family and home in Scotland, frequently rendered into impotence by his relationship with his father, Boswell was only able to deal with certain crucial issues while intoxicated or "blacked out." For example, his wife was not his intellectual or spiritual match and yet Boswell was unable to deflect her subtle criticisms when he was sober. Rather, Boswell tended to agree with her assessments of his deficiencies. One wonders whether a man with a surer emotional grounding than Boswell would have had some cogent criticisms of his own to offer her. Instead, he threw oaths and furniture at her when drunk. (Boswell seems never actually to have hit or hurt his wife; like other alcoholics, his "total" loss of control during a blackout is only relative.)

As Brady points out in his analysis of Boswell's drinking, in many ways Boswell's behavior merely reflected that of his culture. It was customary, for instance, for jurists and jury together to retire to a local tavern following a trial to get drunk at the Crown's expense. Boswell's idol, Johnson, reported a five-year period during which he drank a bowl of punch every evening. Although Johnson was to abstain from alcohol late in life, his abstinence was of the relative kind disapproved by modern clinical practice which allowed him to drink on special occasions. Indeed, that Johnson's, Boswell's and their peers' view of alcohol was a distinctly pretemperance, predisease one is evident in Johnson's answer to Boswell's question of whether man were never happy: "Never," Johnson replied, "but when he's drunk." This seems to have been especially true of Boswell, whose most miserable periods — according to Brady — were those during which he was abstinent.


Brady's views would not find much sympathy in the modern alcoholism movement. Actually, Brady confronts the role of alcohol in Boswell's life in somewhat the way that most late eighteenth century Americans and British would approach it. Regular drunkenness was not an uncontrollable disease but a favored method of coping with personal misery and situational pressures. At the same time, alcohol itself was a valued companion and useful medicine, one which the society at large accepted and approved of. In the absence of a sense either of the inevitable addictiveness of regular heavy drinking or of the loss-of-control explanation for an individual's habitual drunkenness, those of Boswell's period might reprimand and moralize against his abandonment to alcohol. Brady goes beyond this moralism — aided by a sophisticated, modern notion of the role of social setting and of individual psychological dispositions — to place Boswell's drinking in its human content.

Brady is sensible of the pathological aspects of Boswell's addictions (for a person of this era, "addiction" meant "given over to a habit" and had none of its current medical connotations), which he analyzes in existential terms, as a function of Boswell's self-abnegation:

The serious problem Boswell's conduct created for him was that it tended to set up a vicious cycle: loose living eroded his self-esteem, always a quality in short supply, and the lower his self-esteem sank, the more recourse he had to drinking and whoring. (p. 415)

But Brady does not make the mistake (so typical of today's views of alcoholism) of imagining that all of Boswell's life was in vain because of his frequently compulsive drinking. Boswell's life — as it appears through the Johnson biography — "is lively with the ordinary round of eating, talking, and visiting; it is a study of vitality: a crowded canvas of animated figures, against the background of London, representing the full tide of human existence" (p. 443). Boswell, as Johnson put it, was "welcome wherever he went" because of his intelligence, good humor, openness, and interest in others.

Moreover, Boswell and Johnson — both oppressed by melancholy natures — were enlarged and rewarded by their acquaintance and love for each other. Boswell's biography of Johnson succeeds so well because it is informed by this love and appreciation of its subject, at the same time that it expresses the gifts of its author. What is most beyond the ken of typical views of the disease of alcoholism is how Boswell, whose greatest aspiration was to be loved and remembered, has become the most widely read and discussed author of his era. Somehow the imperfect elements of this all-to-human spirit came together to produce a work for the ages. This cannot be understood in terms of Boswell's neurosis, or as a result of an accident of history or temperament. Rather, the ability to create a work of art, and that work itself, must be understood as a process that occurs at an entirely differently level from that of personality and psychopathology (Peele, 1986). For Brady, the biographer, this process — while it could hardly be explained by Boswell's drinking — was ineluctably tied to it.

In the same way, drinking was a direct outgrowth of the rest of Boswell's life, even as it cannot account for either his misery or his happiness. "Drinking did not depress Boswell nor did sobriety maintain his moods of well-being; that he should have realized from his youthful period of sober abstinence in Holland, which he passed in gloomy despair. Activity, purpose, public recognition, and sensual gratification were his openings to happiness" (p. 421). Brady's rendering of the author's life, or any fully realized biography, makes clear exactly how much we lose when we attribute the act of intoxication to some unspecified disease. We may have reached an impasse in the alcoholism field where the personological study of alcoholism is only possible by those who are unaware of the conventional verities of the field.


Brady , F. (1984). James Boswell: The later years, 1769-1795. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peele, S. (1984). The cultural context of psychological approaches to alcoholism: Can we control the effects of alcohol? American Psychologist, 39, 1137-1351.

Peele, S. (1986). Personality, pathology, and the act of creation: The case of Alfred Hitchcock. Biography: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 9(3), 202-218.

Vaillant, G.E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.

Vaillant, G.E. (1983). The natural history of alcoholism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.