Did Voltaire Start the Caffeine-Addicted Writer Stereotype?

The Candide author was known to drink copious amounts of coffee.

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The archetype of the caffeine-addicted writer has become something of a laughable cliché that finds its greatest mocking audience on the internet. Facebook memes and lifestyle YouTubers will stress it to exertion: a writer simply cannot exist, let alone produce quality writing, without their daily cups of coffee. The café, the main provider of this most sacred hot or iced beverage, is their natural habitat. Their headquarters. Their office and an extension of their living room. And the baristas are their extended family, and even at times know/understand their food preferences better. When a writer finds their favourite table and spreads out their tools of their trade, expect to find them planted there all day, a dirtied cup on one side, refilled at regular intervals, like an exhausted car that perpetually needs fuel. 

Partial, if not all, blame for this stereotype can be laid at the languid feet of the French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, more commonly known by his pen name Voltaire (1694-1778). In eighteenth-century Western Europe, coffeehouse culture had evolved into a phenomenon of its own. Starting off originally in the seventeenth-century as a breakroom setting where educated men gathered as an opportunity to socialize and discuss ideas while staying sober, the coffeehouse was now promoted further as an all-day substitute for a home workroom where irritable distractions—spouses, children, servants, pets, tradespeople—were left behind. 

In this aspect, the coffeehouse replaced the pub as a designated “second place” for many of these men of culture. Beforehand, much great writing was done in relative seclusion, in studies, and in private libraries, watered with something fermented like beer or wine rather than something that came from a bean. 

Not Voltaire, though. Drinks Without Borders speculates that biographers, most notably Evelyn Beatrice Hall with her widely successful 1903 The Life of Voltaire, have maintained the story for centuries that Voltaire not only frequented coffeehouses but downed an incredible forty to fifty cups of coffee a day. 

Furthermore, when confronted by his (rightfully) concerned personal physician about this dangerous, heart-tortuous habit, Voltaire reportedly, and defiantly, retorted with something along the lines of “Yes, it is a remarkably slow poison. I have been drinking it every day for more than seventy-five years.” Very in-character for Voltaire, to thoughtfully consider a professional opinion without necessarily accepting it. How much of all this is true is still being paraded in front of the history-accuracy jury, but what can be confidently established is that Voltaire was a coffee-crazed maniac and one of the first major writers of the Western European canon to be officially recognized as such. 

Voltaire also made it a point to popularize paying far too much for a cup of coffee and altering its taste with sugary, artificial flavor. He was the original Starbucks fiend and was likely no less picky with his order. According to his biographers, he liked to mix his coffee with chocolate, a very expensive, imported commodity in the eighteenth-century. Author Geri Walton makes an amusing comparison between Voltaire’s relaxed writer lifestyle and Emperor Napolean Bonaparte’s on-the-move soldier existence. Napolean drank his own coffee straight, bitter, black, and quick. Voltaire savoured his coffee and took it sweet and slow. Nowadays you’ll often hear of writers who are as meticulous about their coffee as they are about their manuscripts, and this characteristic certainly didn’t come from Napolean, a great conqueror but a failed writer with only an embarrassingly bad romance novel under his warrior’s belt. Voltaire, and his equally talented like, were clearly the true culprits. 

In the twentieth-century, Voltaire’s spiritual descendants claimed their own cherished coffeehouses like conquerors and specially made camp on Parisian soil. Ernest Hemingway praised the Paris writers’ coffee scene in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast and paints a particularly welcoming establishment as an everyday paradise: “It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.” And what did Hemingway write over his good French coffee? Only The Sun Also Rises and a scattering of his short stories. 

The French Existentialist philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Satre, both avid readers/critics of their predecessors like Voltaire, worked hard and held court in dingy but safe watering holes like the Café de Flore. The owners not only tolerated them, but they also accommodated them, perhaps sensing the notoriety their bohemian patrons would invite once they became famous. Beauvoir and Sartre did not consume nearly as many cups of coffee as Voltaire allegedly did, but their biographers can attest that it was their favourite hot beverage to go with a cigarette. They took in, without trepidation, all the slow poisons they could, Voltaire-style. Though it should be noted, even in Simone de Beauvoir’s time, her presence at a fixture at the Café de Flore was considered scandalous. By then it was accepted that there were professional women writers, and they did drink copious amounts of coffee, but they were expected to do so quietly, out of the public eye. Both of Beauvoir’s two most well-known biographers, Hazel Rowley and Carole Seymour-Jones, comment on this. And so Beauvoir emulated Voltaire and modern female writers emulate Beauvoir, which makes an interesting case for coffee being the root cause for all post-Enlightenment feminist literature. 

It’s become the fashion now for writers of all sexes and all backgrounds to congregate for coffee in a café and plot domination over the literary world. Many an execution decision for a good book has been made over the latte the local Mom-and-Pop does particularly well. Health anxieties surrounding chronic coffee consumption for creatives are a popular debating point, but there is no doubt that the centuries-long trend Voltaire started will continue relentlessly, as long as coffee beans are grown and the glorious nectar they yield is poured.