A sculpture of Balzac in Paris.
A sculpture of Balzac in Paris. Balzac/Shutterstock

Honoré de Balzac drank coffee for days on end, weeks on end, on an empty stomach, and they say it's how he croaked. The 19th-century French writer "died of caffeine poisoning." Some say he drank 50 cups of coffee a day, but it's not like he kept count, and it sounds like he drank way more than 50 cups a day when he felt like it.

Rebecca Brown once saw his desk and she could tell he was a coffee maniac just from looking at it:

One of the favorite things I own is a leaf I took from the house where Balzac lived at the end of his life when he was hiding out from creditors. His writing desk was in the house, slightly beaten up and dented all over the top where he had pressed too hard with his caffeine-fueled pen (he died of caffeine poisoning). I also have a picture of his coffee pot. People try to imitate the people they admire, and sometimes people try to get—or to get near to—a piece of them.

Balzac himself wrote (as translated by Robert Onopa):

Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides. Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring. Think about it: although more grocery stores in Paris are staying open until midnight, few writers are actually becoming more spiritual.

Amazing. For people with "excessive vigor," people who could really take it, he recommended drinking cup after cup of coffee on an empty stomach:

This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I've only had one cup today. If you need me, I'll be at the coffee shop across the street brutalizing my stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies.