A history of the hangover.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 26 2008 8:06 AM

A History of the Hangover

Their prevalence during recessions; baseball and the hangover; the search for a cure; are all hangovers bad?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

There is no such thing as the perfect hangover, although anyone who has known more than one of them seems to have the perfect hangover cure. The roast beef sandwich, I've heard it said repeatedly, can't be matched.

Hangovers are not serious enough to be considered a medical condition, and there is, actually, no remedy for them—apart from old wives' tales and roast beef. They're neither a bad cold nor the flu, though they're serious enough to keep some in bed. But are hangovers always bad?

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Hangovers were for a long time associated with stock market crashes; the 1929 crash has been written about as if it were the hangover after the wild 1920s. Whether or not traders are more likely to hit the bottle after precipitous falls in the value of their shares is hard to say—not least because it isn't clear what's going on with markets. Are the fallen masters of the universe at Bear Stearns drinking away what remains of their portfolios? One hopes that an enterprising sociologist is doing fieldwork in the bars near the bank's headquarters.

It's easy to understand why, after a swift turn of fate, some men would resort to drink to numb the pain of the losses. But is it possible that it's not so much the drunkenness these men are after as its aftermath? A hangover provides something less intangible and more felt to consider than the horror of newfound poverty. One opinion has it that in circumstances such as those, a hangover isn't a disaster; during one, you decide to begin life all over again, swearing that, no, there will never, not ever, be another experience like this one. The born-again movement has always seemed to be an alcohol-related phenomenon.

Life-changing hangovers are part of popular myth. In the movie ThePhiladelphia Story, if it weren't for a hangover and how it was arrived at, there would be almost no twist to the plot. Tracy, played by Katherine Hepburn, realizes she's not in love with the man she's about to marry in the midst of such a bad hangover that she can't remember what happened the night before. In the movies—or some of them, at least—the hangover is often a form of punctuation or a paragraph shift, a moment of blistering agony but also of remarkable clarity. (In real life, the clearest of thoughts don't always emerge when you're trying suppress the throbbing going on inside you head.)

How many hangovers there are in the United States a year is an impossible question to answer: Different people react to drink in different ways. In Scotland, a country famous for its drinking, the hangover remedy bought in shops, Irn Bru—iron brew—is known by some as the true national drink, more than the scotch that has you drinking Irn Bru the next morning. It is said to be made from girders and, like spinach, gives you enormous strength—so much of it that you can will yourself out of any old hangover.

Edmund Wilson said he once inflicted a hangover on T.S. Eliot. "I gave him bootleg gin," Wilson told a friend about an evening he spent with the poet. "He is so shy that you have to drink with him to talk to him—and we both got into bad condition. The next morning he had an awful hangover and said his joints creaked, and I felt as if I had wantonly broken some rare and exquisite vase. I have felt guilty about it ever since." Remorse is one reaction to a hangover, even when it's not your own. And though the hangover itself always dissipates, the remorse sometimes does not, often because it's about neither the hangover nor the drink but something else—such as a broken vase or a lost friend.

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