Coffee, the Great Literary Stimulant

October 21, 2022 | 8 books mentioned 1 12 min read

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Maronite priest Antonio Fausto Naironi once claimed that the greatest of miracles happened in ninth-century Ethiopia. It was then and there, in the province of Oromia, that a young shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats were prone to running, leaping, and dancing after they had eaten blood-red berries from a mysterious bush. Kaldi chewed on a few beans himself, and suddenly he was awake. Gathering handfuls of them, he brought them to a local abbot. Disgusted with the very idea of such a shortcut to enlightenment, the monk threw the beans into a fire, but the other brothers smelled the delicious fragrance and gathered. Naironi is a bit scant on the details, but for some reason the grounds were filtered into water, and the first cup of coffee was brewed.

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Such a perfect creation myth. Coffee, from the highlands of Ethiopia (still one of the largest producers), that ancient land which was home to the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, and where humanity first walked. The youthful innocence of Kaldi. And of course, the dancing goats, so perfectly Dionysian, so exquisitely demonic. Regarding Naironi’s apocryphal legend, William Henry Ukers writes in All About Coffee that there may even be “some truth in the story of the discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goats.” Regardless of the original prohibition, even the abbot came around to the medicinal, not to speak of the intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits of caffeine.

Born Mehrej Ibn Nimrum in Lebanon, Naironi moved to Rome around 1635 where he latter Italianized his name and wrote his most important work: the 1671 book The Art of Drinking Coffee. Naironi tutored Italians—who were not yet the people of the latte, the cappuccino, the espresso—in the sublimity of caffeine. Before coffee reached Venice, or Milan, or Florence, the flowering berries of the coffea plant had been roasted in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Aleppo; ground in Constantinople, Baghdad, and Damascus; and the result—which looks nothing so much like rich, black soil—had been filtered into boiling water in Mecca, Medina, and before them all, Addis Ababa. Naironi bemoaned that many in Christendom were “unaware of [coffee’s] qualities and good effects,” which he enumerated. Then as it is now, coffee allowed for meditation and exuberance, conviviality and alertness, endurance and brilliance.

uncommon grounds cover coffeethe conference of the birds cover coffeeCoffee’s early history is inextricably linked to religion, first the Ethiopian Orthodox and Copts who discovered it, and then the mystical Sufi Muslims who made it central to their devotions. Mark Pendergast writes in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World that they “adopted coffee as a drink that would allow them to stay awake for midnight prayers more easily,” seemingly a gift from Allah, who had forbidden alcohol. From Ethiopia, coffee took several hundred years to make its way across the Bab-el-Mandeh to Yemen, imported by the Sufi Imam Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhobhani, the experience of the first sip of dark roast not unlike what Attar of Nishapur describes in his twelfth-century epic The Conference of the Birds whereby “lost atoms to your Centre draw… Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide/Return and back into your Sun.” It’s hard to wake up without coffee, is what I’m saying.

A confession: I love coffee. The ritual of counting out scoops as if repeating the rosary, the brewing’s percolation which sounds like a prayer wheel, the first sip which feels like Nirvana. The rich, dark flavor—that if made correctly—tastes like punishment. I’ve heard it said, though it might be something that I made up, that the chemical trinity of all writers is caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. My last cigarette was in 2015, and I’ve been sober nearly as long, but God as my witness I will still be drinking black, burnt coffee until the consistency of my stomach is that of a colander, acid reflux scaring the long tunnel of my esophagus. Since I was 12 I’ve loved it, my gateway drug some Starbucks coffee-flavored ice cream, then into the juvenile delights of the Frappuccino, then the affected sophistication of the cappuccino, followed by the latte, and finally drip coffee, first with copious sugar and milk, then just the latter, and finally as dark and bitter as life itself, the beverage consumed the way it’s supposed to be. If I hadn’t started drinking coffee when I did, I’d probably now be 6’10”. My average amount of coffee is around eight cups a day, though often I’ll put on another pot by early afternoon. Sometimes I’m asked how I write the amount that I do; the answer is to be a recovering alcoholic with a caffeine addiction. When your natural nervous energy is supplemented with the psychoactive properties of methyltheobromine, you become a mechanism for transforming Arabica into words. “O Coffee!” reads a poem from 1511 by Abd-al-Kâdir in response to the objections of Mecca’s mullahs, for “thou are the object of desire to the scholar. This is the beverage of the friends of God.” Yes.

Coffee’s first recorded mention precedes Naironi by almost a century, printed in Rauwulf’s Travels in 1583, written by German botanist and physician Leonhard Rauwulf, who had availed himself of the beverage in the Levant. Of an unusual custom practiced in Aleppo, Rauwulf notes that in that ancient city “they have a very good drink, by them called coffee that is almost as black as ink, and very good.” Tolling off of the printing presses of Frankfurt and Lauingen was the first Western record of somebody enjoying the drink in the “morning early in open places… as hot as they can.” Johann Vesling, yet another German botanist and physician, in a 1640 edition of the Venetian traveler Prospero Alpini‘s The Plants of Egypt, opines that while coffee is common in Egypt, Arabia, and the Ottoman Empire, it is “scarce among the Europeans, who by that means are deprived of a very wholesome liquor.” Ukers, in his 1935 history on the subject, even claims that by the time coffee was introduced to Italy, Pope Clement VIII himself desired to pass judgement, concluding that “Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and making it a truly Christian beverage.” (Though it must be said that the author falls short in tracing the authenticity of this papal pronouncement.)

For all of these cloudy travelogues mentioning ink-black Saracen liquor which heats the brain and excites the limbs, by the late seventeenth century the drink had become a mainstay in that most seditious of institutions—the coffeehouse. “To Italy, then, belongs the honor of having given to the world the first real coffee house,” writes Ukers, “although the French and Austrians greatly improved upon it.” According to the official story, when the retreating Ottomans left bags of fresh coffee beans outside Vienna’s gates during their failed siege of 1683, the Austrians dragged the contraband back inside, and roasted, ground, and brewed the dark spoils of war, first adding steamed milk to a drink that the Turks believed should be served as dark, bitter, and sweet as love. Habsburg Vienna perfected café society, an urbane, elegant, and cosmopolitan milieu where writers would write, composers would compose, and agitators would agitate. The Blue Bottle Café, with its low, dark, arched ceiling and its servers dressed in pasha vests, opened in 1685, the first coffeehouse in Vienna. Café Landtmann on Ringstraße 22, founded in 1873, was favored by Gustav Mahler. FreudTrotsky, and Theodor Herzl usually opted for Café Central on Herringrasse 14, which opened in 1876. Café Museum in the Inner Stadt, established in 1899 and designed by Adolf Loos, was the preferred establishment of Gustav Klimt. Over Linzer torte and Apfelstrudel, Punschkrapfen and Dobostorte, and of course endless cups of coffee would come psychoanalysis and dadaism, special relativity and logical positivism, modernist literature and atonal music. Novelist Stefan Zweig—perhaps the most European man who ever lived—once said that such institutions are a “sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee.”

Caffé Florian, Café de Flore, Prague’s Municipal House, New York Café—for nearly a century Venice’s canals had been lined with coffee houses before the custom would find its way into Austria, France, Bohemia, Hungary, Holland, and even the cold shores of England. Difficult to envision now, especially if you’ve ever tried to get a decent cup in London, but the English were perhaps Europe’s most maniacal quaffers of coffee. The oldest continuous operating café in the world, established in 1654, still sells mugs of the stuff at Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, along with kofte kabobs and tabouleh, in keeping with the national cuisine of its seventeenth-century founder, a Syrian known as “Cirques Jobson, the Jew.” If Viennese coffeeshops produced Austro-Hungarian culture, then an argument could be made that they also birthed the British Empire. Fevered thoughts excited by prodigious caffeine consumption led to the establishment of the London Stock Exchange at Jonathan’s Coffee-House in 1698. They are where the Tories and Whigs first organized themselves as political parties, and where Jonathan Dryden and William Wycherley crafted Restoration literature (both men partial to Will’s Coffee House in Westminster). Scientists founded the Royal Society at the Grecian Coffeeshop. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin right on the table at that establishment. On the eve of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when for the second time in the century the British deposed a king (though this time without the decapitation), and the capital is estimated to have had an astounding three thousand coffee houses. Not incidental.

cover coffeeDuring the Middle Ages, the average Englishmen drank around seventy gallons of alcohol a year; ale was available at all meals, including breakfast. Taverns were wholesome dens of patriotism for merry old England, where heavy food and warm ale anesthetized. No wonder that drinking coffee felt like waking up for the first time: one pamphlet writer in 1665 enthused that “Coffee and Commonwealth begin/Both with one letter, both came in/Together for a Reformation/To make’s a free and sober nation.” Coffeehouses were called “penny universities” and were marked by what they weren’t—pubs. Suddenly, taverns were replaced with fevered dens of iniquity, with coffee as hot as the tempers and as bitter as the sentiments. Sedition, insurrection, and revolution were all feared. Now steady on their feet with clear eye and sharp mind, those gathered within coffeehouses—no longer pickled in ale—had some ideas. “Alehouses and taverns had a reputation as royalist-friendly spaces” writes Joanna Picciotto in Labors of Innocence in Early Modern Englandthough “Coffeehouses, in contrast, bread ‘Scandalous Reports.'” Taverns offered joviality, but coffeehouses presented solidarity; alehouses sold drowsy good-cheer, coffee roasters brewed fiery sedition. Ironically, long before coffee became the favored libation for teetotalers and prohibitionists, it was tarred with every bit the moral opprobrium that alcohol is targeted with. A 1663 broadsheet entitled A Cup of Coffee: or, Coffee in its Colours scurrilously opined that “For men and Christians to turn Turks, and think/T’excuse the Crime because ’tis in their drink,/Is more than Magick,” while nine years later the author of A Broad-side Against Coffee, or the Marriage of the Turk slandered, “Coffee, a kind of Turkish Renegade,/Has late a match with Christian water made;/At first between them happen’d a Demur,/Yet joyn’d they were, but not without great stir.”

No wonder Charles II, fearful of losing his head like his father, wanted to stamp out this drink both heretical and rebellious. Two days before Christmas of 1675, and the king released A Proclamation for the Suppression of the Coffee Houses, establishments which “devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majesty’s government, and to the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the realm,” fueled by an intoxicant which leaves the drinker not drunk but enervated, a quality which lends itself to “very evil and dangerous effects.” Ironically, caffeine was an addictive drug that had proliferated throughout England alongside another foreign narcotic, the Dutch liquor gin being as strong and astringent as Holland’s coffee, with English moralists sermonizing against both. Charles’s ban lasted just 11 days, so enraged was the populace. Not even the divine rights of kings could compete against caffeine. Charles feared that the “monarchy might once again be overthrown,” as Pendergast writes. His brother James was actually deposed shortly after his coronation, and this time by another Dutch import in the form of his brother-in-law William of Orange. Could the Glorious Revolution have been prevented if Charles’ suppression had been successful? I’m not not saying that, only that anyone who requires that first gulp in the morning understands that the taste of coffee is the flavor of freedom. Soon, however, and the British occupation of India shifted English palates towards Darjeeling and Assam and away from Arabica and Robusta. Perhaps colonialism abroad prevents revolution at home, but it does seem like the importation of tea did something to the once rebellious English soul. Meanwhile, 100 years after Charles’s proclamation, a group of Americans dumped those leaves intended for weak, tepid bilgewater into Boston Harbor, where they belong. The American Revolution followed. Though by the end of that century the London coffeehouse was nearly extinct, in Paris some 2,000 were still open on the eve of the French rightly putting their king’s neck beneath the guillotine. What coffee allowed for was the brewing of anarchy, but as processed through a keen alertness. Dangerous for autocrats in any time or place.

coverCoffee’s flavor may be bold, but it’s also dark. The drink was instrumental to this first globalized moment, the tumultuous, exploitative, and most of all violent period when modernity arrived. “Coffee has always marched hand in hand with colonialism through the pages of history,” writes Anthony Wild in Coffee: A Dark History. As such, coffee can be included alongside every commodity brought into Europe during the eighteenth century—chocolate and sugar, potatoes and tomatoes, tobacco and tea—Africans and Indians. The sugar which sweetened that coffee and the tobacco smoked over those porcelain cups were purchased at tremendous cost: the blood and labor of those who harvested and tended coffee plants. Coffee plantations proliferated in Portuguese Africa, Spanish South America, Dutch Indonesia, and throughout a Caribbean cannibalized by the European powers. Often there is an evasion of the fact that so much of what colonialism and slavery provided were material goods based in pleasure, the better for us not to draw parallels between the past and what global capitalism does in the present; the better not to make the disquieting connection between something which brings us joy and the tortures that were used to procure it. Cotton’s softness came from South Carolina and Georgia; sugar’s sweetness came from plantations in Martinique or Saint-Dominque; coffee’s richness from Jamaica or Brazil. The triangle trade brought humans from Africa and returned coffee to Europe; colonialism violently disposed the Mayans from their homelands in Guatemala and Oaxaca to cultivate the beans which fueled the European Enlightenment. No colony produced as much as French Saint-Dominique—60% of the coffee drank in Europe came from Hispaniola’s verdant hills—where 500,000 enslaved Africans toiled in brutal conditions. In his 1798 guide The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo, written for the benefit of English slaveowners in Jamaica, Pierre Joseph Laborie describes the exact manner in which children should be whipped, while bemoaning that a decade before the “fatal French revolution [had] introduced principles, incompatible with the conditions of the country.” A different revolution finally enacted those principles when the Haitians won their independence in 1804, the first successful slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere. Laborie’s plantation was torched.

coverSlavery is the “price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe,” Voltaire writes in CandideThe price which was paid for coffee too. Voltaire supposedly drank forty cups a day, mixed with mocha, another product manufactured out of the blood and sweat of humans. “The continuing importance of the western hemisphere in the world of coffee today is derived from the former colonial plantation economies of the region, based on slavery,” Wild writes, describing the troubled history of the second-most prevalent global commodity after oil. Today, every coffee-producing nation in Central America, much of the Caribbean, as well as Columbia, Venezuela, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam, are home to numerous coffee plantations in which workers toil in effective slavery, with the bulk of those beans sold in Western markets. Let’s not pretend that your venti is any more innocent than Voltaire’s mocha. That’s always been the question with the Enlightenment, a movement that expressed the equality of humanity with one hand while overseeing a master’s whip with the other—was it paradoxical or hypocritical? Which are we? Produced in the most appalling of circumstances, caffeine nonetheless fueled the very people who would write documents like The Declaration of the Rights of Man which acted as a revolutionary impetus throughout the world, including in the colonies. Coffee was an imperialist’s commodity and a revolutionary’s beverage. Allen, with a smidge of hyperbole, notes that “within two hundred years of Europe’s first cup, famine and the plague were historical footnotes. Governments became more democratic, slavery vanished, and the standards of living and literacy went through the roof.” The Enlightenment may have been birthed by coffee, but it had a complicated childhood.

covercoverNonetheless, caffeine was capable at generating self-encomiums, as writers found their muse within a cup. French poet Jacque Delille writes in a 1761 panegyric that a “liquid there is to the poet most dear, /’T was lacking to Virgil, adored by Voltaire, /’T is thou, divine coffee, for thine is the art, /Without turning the head yet to gladden the heart.” Delille was the French translator of Paradise Lostand apparently John Milton also enjoyed his coffee, writing in Comus how “One sip of this/Will bathe the drooping spirits in delight/Beyond the bliss of dreams.” Renaissance wits had their wine and Romantic bards their opiates, but coffee is the fuel of the truly modern writer. The adage attributed to Ernest Hemingway might have it that you write drunk and edit sober, but better to write while drinking coffee and to edit while drinking still more coffee. Alcohol helps you romanticize being a writer; coffee is what transforms you into one. Booze exists to turn the mind off, but caffeine is that which can keep it going. If writing requires focus, discipline, and persistence, coffee can supply all those things—and then some. “This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion,” writes Honoré de Balzac in Treatise on Modern Stimulants. “Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army… Things remembered arrive at full gallop…the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.” For all those martial metaphors, it’s notable that in 1850, Balzac’s was the rare death from caffeine overdose, succumbing after a bender of 50 cups.

covercovercoverAs a substance, only liquor is (rightly or wrongly) valorized more, so fundamental is the association of caffeine with writing. Dorothy Parker tempering her moods between espresso and martinis and telling a friend, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice” before she’s had her morning cup; Gertrude Stein declaring that coffee is “more than just a drink; it’s something happening”; Albert Camus apocryphally asking, “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” Then there is Jack Kerouac, producing On the Road in a jittery three weeks, his ecstasies about the “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing” smelling of cheap diner coffee, though I’m sure the amphetamines helped too. Richard Brautigan describes the sacrament in a poem from his collection Revenge of the Lawnhow there “was a jar of instant coffee, the empty cup and the spoon/all laid out like a funeral service. These are the things that you need to make a cup of/coffee,” that enjambment putting the focus on the subject, for “Sometimes life is merely a matter of coffee and whatever intimacy a cup of coffee/affords.” Ron Padgett understands this liturgy well, hypothesizing in his Collected Poems that his attraction to coffee is the “ritual/of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of/brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the/day on.”

How many cups of coffee have I ever had? So many cups, I think. The dark burnt espresso in the Gotham Café on First Avenue and pots of weak brown hallucinogenic joe at Ritter’s on Baum around 3 A.M.; the cappuccino with the perfect ratio of steamed milk at Phil’s in Navy Yard near the Anacostia and a Grande cut with coconut milk on Waikiki; my first drip dark brew at Arabica on Forbes in 1996, the spoonfuls of terrible instant prepared in my microwave, and the cup I’m drinking right now. Through it all, one inviolate reality: even bad coffee is preferable to no coffee. In the meantime, as concerns writing, let us all hope that the caffeine muse helps us produce literature as strong, bold, dark, and rich as the best cup.

is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions. A contributor at dozens of sites and the author of several books, this fall his contribution to Ig Publishing's Bookmarked series will be released, Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost.