Douglas R. J. Small, Cocaine, Literature, and Culture, 1876-1930

Douglas R. J. Small, Cocaine, Literature, and Culture, 1876-1930 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2024), 264 pp. £85.00 Hb. Open Access PDF. ISBN: 9781350400092

Cocaine is a stimulant: simultaneously addictive and destructive, used recreationally it produces intense feelings of euphoria, energy, and joy, amplifying confidence and removing inhibitions. Often seen as a vice of the affluent, it is aligned with images of wealth, excess and arch-pretentiousness. Its depiction as the ultimate party drug derives from its representation in the 1970s and 1980s – ‘when the drug’s effects matched the tenor of the times’ (2). However, these images conceal the drug’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century associations when it was hailed as a revolutionary medicinal drug, being the first effective anaesthetic: able to eliminate pain without the need for the patient to be unconscious and under general anaesthetic. Europeans’ earliest experiences with cocaine began in the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquests of South America. Extracted from coca plant leaves, it was cultivated by the Incan Empire of the Western Andes for its properties which increased stamina, suppressed appetite, and intensified resilience. As a result, coca gained a primacy in Incan cultural life.

Douglas Small’s book takes us through the nineteenth-century history of this controversial drug’s cultural and social history. During this century, and most intensely from 1850 onwards, there was a revival of interest in the coca leaf’s properties, with horticulturalists noting that chewing of the coca leaves enabled users to ‘undertake greater muscular exertion’ (4). Small charts in the first chapter how the British public encountered coca in 1876 with the renowned American athlete, Edmund Payson Weston revealing that he chewed coca leaves during his walking races to improve his stamina and recovery time. Far from condemning Weston’s behaviour and suggesting that he was cheating (or ‘doping’ in modern parlance), his actions were met with approval. Victorian opinion held that Weston’s superiority as an athlete arose out of a combination of factors: bodily strength, sporting expertise, race preparations, diet, kit, and his unique walking style which enabled him to walk hundreds of miles with the minimum exertion. The coca leaves were considered another mere preparation, folded into his training regime, enabling the sportsman to be ‘the best version of himself’ (45).

Chapters two and three move from a discussion of ‘sporting ideals to medical ones’ (15). The second chapter considers how cocaine experienced the ‘fullness of its celebrity’ (6) in 1884, after Karl Koller, a Viennese ophthalmologist intern discovered that a mild solution of the drug, when introduced to the eye, would deaden the nerves’ sensitivity to pain. Thus, before the drug’s harmful consequences were fully understood, cocaine was ‘hailed as a glorious and transformative achievement of modern medical science’ (48), revolutionising anaesthesia. Small does not merely describe the virtues of the drug, however. He suggests that cocaine’s virtues offered a ‘template for the virtues of the ideal fin de siècle medical man’ (16). This is followed with an analysis of L. T. Meade’s ‘The Red Bracelet’, in which cocaine is presented as the ‘perfect drug’ ‘manifesting the character of the perfect medical man’ (16).

Chapter 3 explores how cocaine as an anaesthetic enabled the development of new cosmetic surgeries and tattooing, by removing the restraining limitations of pain. Small highlights the dark comic and gothic undercurrents as he examines the blurring of the boundaries between medicine and fashion. Patients could modify the aesthetic appearance of their own bodies, the body becoming free to be changed and decorated. Fictional accounts during the period, including W. C. Morrow’s ‘Two Singular Men,’ illustrate the ‘emancipatory and destructive potential’ (82) of cocaine. Whilst cocaine offered the opportunity for the body to be ‘individually customized and endlessly remade to order’ (82), it simultaneously threated the same body being subjected to unending ‘purposeless mutation’ (82). The result of these transformations being ‘mere freakishness’ (82). Using an impressive variety of fiction, newspaper, and medical sources, Small makes this case convincingly.

Chapter 4 continues the concentration of the dangers of cocaine addiction at the turn of the twentieth century, linking it to the medical profession’s overconfidence. Small explores the ‘possible blame that practitioners might have to shoulder’ (109) for cocaine’s destructive and dangerous side effects. The chapter presents cocaine addiction (cocainism) as being a unique and unprecedented horrifying affliction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using a quantity of medical sources. In depicting the aphrodisiac qualities of cocainism, as well as experiencing the hallucinatory sensation of having insects crawling the skin, addiction is characterised by a rhetoric of unprecedented horror. This links to the literature of the period and the chapter analyses Arthur Machen’s, The White Powder (1895), interweaving skin, sexuality, and hallucination, and reworking it into a supernatural horror tale. The chapter then moves to scrutinise how in contrast to the hallucinatory horror of addiction, cocaine could also constitute a site for pleasure. 

Chapters 5 and 6 continue this analysis, with Chapter 5 considering Arthur Conan Doyle’s presentation of Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine use in his stories. The chapter strongly argues that cocaine is bound up with the ‘nature of Holmes’s work and operates as a powerful synecdoche for the focussed perfection of Holmes’s professional life’ (143) but emphasises that he only uses it when ‘deprived of a more fulfilling excitement: his work’ (144). The chapter includes a range of examples of Holmes’s parodies from such sources as novels and newspapers of the period, to depict the intersection between pleasures of cocaine taking and the pursuit of self-indulgence, and professionalism emerging with modernity.

The final chapter depicts how the recreational use of cocaine became castigated, and rightly so, and racialised during the early decades of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, cocaine was perceived as being tied to Black American culture, aligned to other products of the ‘machine age modernity’ (18) such as jazz and modern dance and a threat to White masculinity. However, the chapter argues that whilst cocaine was perceived as being an instrument that ‘racially minoritized populations might use to corrupt’ (177) unwary White subjects, it could also be used to assert ‘White masculine dominance’ (179) in an uncertain and socially challenging environment. The chapter includes a rich analysis of fiction and journalism of Aleister Crowley, particularly his novel, The Diary of a Drug Fiend (1923), which portrays how cocaine enables the ‘White user to re-incise his own image on the destiny of the coming age’ (180), which is evenly balanced against the medical sources.

Overall, Douglas R. J. Small’s, Cocaine, Literature and Culture, 1876–1930, is a refreshing exploration of cocaine in the public imagination, concentrating on cocaine as it appears in fictional narratives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is an emphasis on cocaine use in Britain and America, with reference to its ‘discovery’ in South America. However, this is not a study of the global cultural history of cocaine – there is little reference to the history of the drug’s use in India nor other European states, which may be limiting to some readers. Despite this limitation, Small meticulously details the cultural history of cocaine, up to its ‘criminalization’ and subsequent ‘stigmatization’ (221) and approaches the drug ‘as metaphor’ (221), which is an interesting and novel method. The focus is upon the cultural reception and imaginative connotations of cocaine during the period 1876-1930, rather than merely an analysis of cocaine within the broader context of historical substance abuse and addiction. It has been impressively researched, utilising a vast selection of popular journals – such as Chambers Journal, The Scotsman, The Strand Magazine – and medical periodicals, including The Lancet, The British Medical Journal, The Dublin Journal of Medical Science,and The Scottish Medical and Surgical Journal. There is engaging analysis of a range of fictional texts by Conan Doyle, Machen, Morrow, and Crowley. Overall, this is a highly readable and entertaining, text. Small’s writing style is both fluent and entertaining, as he offers new and exciting perspectives on the use of cocaine during the period 1846–1930.

Jessica Thomas, University of Chester