Of Books & Tea, part 1

Some of history’s greatest writers did their best work with the help of tea. Discover them in our three-part series.

Image by Denby Jorgensen

“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words,” novelist William H. Gass once penned.

Few acts are as revered and feared in equal measure as writing, which explains our fascination with how great writers do what they do. Given that tea clears the cobwebs, fuels the mind, and spurs creativity, it should come as little surprise that some of history’s greatest writers were avid tea fans who made the drink part of their hallowed creative rituals.

Get to know a couple of them in part 1 of our three-part author series, and come back next week for more.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Russian literary great, most famous for Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, couldn’t imagine a day without his favorite drink, once writing, “I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”

In her memoirs, Dostoyevsky’s daughter Lyubov described a man fastidiously dedicated to his work and daily routine, which, naturally, included tea. According to her, Dostoyevsky would write until 4 or 5 in the morning, then sleep on a sofa in his study until about 11. Upon rising he would do some gymnastic exercises, then wash “using a great deal of water, soap and eau de Cologne. He had a perfect passion for cleanliness, though this is not a characteristically Russian virtue. … It was his habit to sing while he was washing. His dressing-room was next to our nursery, and every morning I used to hear him singing the same little song in a low voice.”

He would then dress carefully in a fine white shirt with starched collar, which he had made by the best tailor in town and kept painstakingly clean. Then prayers, and, finally, tea in the dining room.

“He liked to pour out his tea himself, and always drank it very strong. He would drink two glasses of it, and carry away a third to his study, where he sipped it as he wrote. He smoked a good deal as he worked, and drank very strong tea. I do not think he could have stayed awake for so many hours without these stimulants.”

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Saul Bellow

As the son of Russian immigrants, this winner of both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature – amongst many other literary distinctions – surely grew up with strong black tea in the household, much like Dostoyevsky. As a writer, Saul Bellow’s prowess and legacy are magnanimous, but his fifth – and last – wife Janis captured the simpler, intimate, domestic tones of his daily work routine:

“I remember hearing the sound of the typewriter one morning, and feeling a thrill that his breakfast forecast – ‘I think I’ve got something here’ – was being realized. He was working in the house, and when I took him his tea, I stood by and listened for another volley of staccato fire. […]

He looks forward to this cup of hot tea with one round slice of lemon floating on top. The proper drink for a European Jew on an overcast day, Saul first observed when he visited the empty Jewish quarters of Polish cities. The lemon stands for the sun; the sugar and caffeine give the jolt you need when the surge from your morning coffee subsides.”

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