If life imitates art, coffee is as integral to story as it is to life. Whether it’s a café in which two main characters share a pivotal discussion, or the topic that begins that discussion, a cup of coffee (along with cigarettes, a hat and a telephone) may be the one indispensable prop of classic literature.
From Hemingway to Salinger, to the entire Western genre, coffee keeps things moving, giving characters somewhere to be and something to do.
Hemingway And The Literary Ex-Pats
Ernest Hemingway is arguably the most famous “literary café” author in history. Hemingway was smitten with the idea of the Parisian café: he not only wrote in them constantly, he also used them regularly as settings in his novels. Perhaps the best-known of all these spots, many of them located in the Montparnasse district of Paris, is Café La Rotonde, mentioned in The Sun Also Rises; “No matter what cafe in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde." After lamenting the café’s recent surge in popularity, narrator Jake Barnes predicts the same fate will befall a brother establishment, Café Le Dome, in another ten years. Hemingway, having discovered the charm and singular ambiance of the classic French café, was grumbling at the prospect of others finding out the same thing!
The café was a favorite meeting place for this specific crowd of novelists: Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Dingo Bar; his favorite café, Les Deux Magots, was also frequented by Arthur Rimbaud, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre; La Closerie Des Lilas attracted (besides Hemingway, again) Henry James and Gertrude Stein; Sinclair Lewis preferred Harry’s New York Bar (actually a Parisian café, despite the name). Coffee hadn’t just taken hold of these authors’ working methods—it was already serving as the Third Place of choice for an entire literary movement.
Novels: The Western Genre
Coffee was a staple food on the range—not just to provide a hot drink, but also because the caffeine was necessary for whichever cowboys pulled night duty. At the same time, provisions were neither varied nor ample: water (often of questionable freshness), a sack of coffee beans and a hand grinder was usually the extent of the outfit’s coffee bar. This gave rise to the famous “cowboy coffee,” brewed by dropping grounds into a pot of water, bringing it almost to a boil over the campfire and adding a pinch of salt or sugar as desired. (Some claim dropping an eggshell in the pot after brewing is useful for settling the grounds.)
As such, coffee was a regular feature in novels of this genre. The classic The Ox-Bow Incident mentions a meal that Ma cooks for the men at which the character Gil forces the narrator to drink some coffee “because my teeth were chattering”; he proclaims it to be “better than the whiskey had been.” The ubiquitous beverage also turns up in True Grit, Lonesome Dove, the Little House books and Butcher’s Crossing; in the latter, which mentions coffee no fewer than twenty times, “the kettle of beans was bubbling and the faint aroma of coffee was beginning to rise from the pot”—implying, of course, nothing more nor less than cowboy coffee.
As you can see, by the early part of the 20th century, coffee was well on its way into the culture and across the nation, and our most famous authors were already reflecting this in their pages.