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.

But if remorse is one part of the hangover, so is resolve—the refusal to give into the worst of it. This resolve isn't always there; capitulation is just as common. But the refusal to give in, or give up, isn't uncommon, and it's not always fueled by Irn Bru. Years ago, the story goes, an English cricket team toured India, and a maharajah believed he could influence what would be a five-day game by getting two of the players drunk. So he did, and the two men woke up the next morning with bad hangovers. Worse, when the game began, they were the first two players to bat. Yet they survived the entire day—all six hours of it. The adversity of their hangovers appeared to introduce further circumspection to their playing. As in baseball, keeping your eye on the ball is essential for a batsman, and I've heard this tale told to numerous players feeling the worse for wear before the start of a game—to remind them that this may be, improbably, their best day.

Kingsely Amis, for some the hangover godhead, knew all about the resolution associated with hangovers. He said of them that they exerted "a great restraining influence" on life. He also laid down the principle that anyone who says they have a hangover has no hangover, an observation that others less experienced than he might disagree with. Then again, it's not as if experience or another person's wisdom is tremendously helpful in identifying a hangover, and being told about hangovers worse than your own is really no cure.

The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and the English seem to have special relationships with the hangover. Why do societies drink? The answer is obvious, in a way, but not entirely. Several years ago, Nature, the science journal, published a report suggesting that drink was, from a biological point of view, engrained among the British. There are historical reasons for that. Fermented drinks contained none of the bugs that could be found in water. In Dublin in the 1940s, it wasn't unusual for people to give the young children Guinness when the water wasn't potable. Contamination-free water is one of the greatest public-health achievements of the last 150 years, and although a glass of water is often the last thing anyone with a hangover wants, it's the absence of water that's partly responsible for the hangover.

Not that there was anything peculiarly Irish, Scottish, English, or Welsh about bad water or about drinking brewed or fermented drinks—or about the hangover. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a bit of an expert. "The hangover," he said in a description of New York in the 1920s, "became a part of the day as well allowed-for as the Spanish siesta." The test pilots Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff operated on conditions of a near-permanent hangover. It was their fuel. Flying and drinking and drinking and driving was the military ethos—that's what you did. That's easier to understand among people for whom there really may not be much of a tomorrow. Not everyone is a test pilot living with the prospect of their next and potentially fatal crash.

Drinking and hangovers were for years part of the legislative process on Capitol Hill. In Sean Wilentz's The Triumph of American Democracy, 850 pages pass with barely a drink mentioned. That's a remarkable achievement; in reality, congressional committee chambers in the first half of the 19th century were stashed with liquor every night when there were to be deliberations over a bill, as Joanne Freeman, an immensely witty historian at Yale, pointed out in a recent talk about the violence among congressmen in antebellum Washington. Much of the violence on Capitol Hill during that period—and there were an immense number of fights within Congress before the Civil War—was fuelled by drink and hangovers. And much of the drinking, one suspects, was to fulfill that old Scottish piece of drinking wisdom known as the hair of the dog: The drink to get you out of this hangover and into the next one.

Christopher Hitchens has written memorably about smoking and drinking; in fact, there's almost no better place to begin a consideration of the hangover than with an essay he wrote in the early 1990s on drinking and smoking, which appears in his book For the Sake of Argument. As Hitchens points out, there has been a nicotine ingredient in the modern hangover, and quite a few people swear that it wasn't the drink that did them in the night before; it was the cigarettes. "Only a fool expects smoking and drinking to bring happiness," Hitchens wrote, "just as only a dolt expects money to do so. Like money, booze and fags are happiness, and people cannot expect to pursue happiness in moderation." In the absence of moderation, there will always be hangovers, and when one has finally receded there will sometimes be the elation at having seen it off—sometimes not.

Hangovers are typically of the morning, but they can last all day. Eventually, they pass. Life moves on. Never again is something that you say.

Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.