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Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City

4 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674030572
ISBN-10: 0674030575
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lerner, associate dean of studies at the Bard High School Early College, presents a riveting account of the attempt to rid the Big Apple of alcohol. The temperance movement forged unlikely alliances: Norwegian church groups found themselves allied with African-American labor activists who believed that Prohibition would benefit workers, especially African-Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers also supported Prohibition, thinking a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products. But when Prohibition did come to New York, it was hard to enforce—corrupt cops sometimes set up shop in speakeasies. Prohibition raids were "marked by blatant displays of religious intolerances, class bias, and outright bigotry," says Lerner. Working-class neighborhoods, home to immigrants, were policed much more vigilantly than the dining rooms of WASP penthouses. Notions of a universal feminine morality were shattered by debates among women about Prohibition—organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union insisted that all women supported the "noble experiment," but women journalists and flappers insisted that some members of the distaff sex wanted to drink. Though Lerner's study is informed by the relevant academic literature, he avoids tedious scholarly debates about Progressive Era reform, resulting in a fascinating study that will appeal to anyone who cares about the history of New York. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

Nowhere was Prohibition more keenly felt or more hotly contested, Lerner argues, than in the diverse cosmopolis of New York City. The city’s immigrant and working-class populations, disproportionately targeted by the dry lobby, resisted in great numbers by distilling their own alcohol and frequenting speakeasies. Meanwhile, liberalized ideas about drinking, sex, and leisure bred cultural rebellion in the middle classes, whose alcohol-filled night life became the subject of magazine reportage. But illegal alcohol also fostered graft, organized crime, and violence, and, as concern over the Eighteenth Amendment became more widespread, the city organized politically. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, founded in New York, became the largest repeal group in the nation, and Governor Alfred E. Smith—the country’s Democratic Party leader on the issue—emerged as the "wet hope of the nation."
Copyright © 2007 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (December 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674030575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674030572
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,385 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lerner's fascinating book brings the period of prohibition to life -- from the early days of temperance campaigning, to prohibition's final undoing more than a decade later. Stories of individual people on all sides of the issue bring the book to life, making the it fun to read. And Lerner doesn't try to draw parallels to present day politics -- he lets you do that for yourself.

In an engaging, well-flowing narrative, Lerner covers prohibition from beginning to end, focusing on New York City. It was there that the dry campaign won an improbable victory, deftly manipulating the political system to secure a ratification that was not supported by popular opinion. Lerner describes a series of failed efforts to enforce prohibition in New York City. He shows how bigotry against immigrant groups was used to maintain support for prohibition. He chronicles a political climate in which anti-prohibition politicians were effectively silenced by prohibition advocates. And most interestingly, Lerner describes the role that women played in ultimately bringing prohibition to an end.

The book is meticulously researched (and heavily footnoted), but does not have the dry, academic feel of many history texts. Instead, Lerner enlivens the pages with anecdotes from prohibition agents, bartenders, managers of speakeasies, "jazz age" journalists, and New Yorkers of all social statuses.

If you read the footnotes, you will see that he draws these vignettes from an incredible variety of primary sources -- police records, notes of prohibition campaigners, newspapers and magazines of the day, court records and more. The effect is a rich tapestry of personal stories -- one that flows with his narrative and truly reflects the diversity of New York city.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had been looking for a book that told the story of Prohibition and Repeal. At first, I was concerned that the focus on the experience in NYC would not give me a good feel for how the Great Experiment played out nationally but that very focus made the politic clashes, moral arguments, failures of enforcement and gradual consensus about the need to repeal prohibition become more real by showing how the experience in NYC was central to attitudes that came to drive the national debate (even the most ardent Prohibitionists in the south and mid-west realized that they had to make Prohibition work in NYC if it was to be preserved nationally).

The book is clearly an adapted version of a doctoral thesis though the writing is non-technical and the story compelling, with the range of reactions to Prohibition fully captured by Mr. Lerner's focus on some very interesting people, organizations and social groups. The book may be slightly more interesting for the history buff (full disclosure, that's me) than the general reader but even a general reader will come away with an enjoyable and well-written account of a fascinating period in American history.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a well-narrated account of the era that delves deeply into the dynamics of the city, while connecting it to the broader social and political scene of the times. The book often focuses on the failings and discontent with the prohibition movement, giving a much richer perspective of why it failed. This coupled with the political details and stories of corruption made implications on the problems of dictating social choice, leaving the reader with much to think about.

I do not generally read much non-fiction, so at times I found a few spots a little dry, but overall the inclusion of lively anecdotes and keen insights made it an enjoyable and informative read for anyone interested in the subject.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The prohibitionists knew what they were up against in denying alcohol to Americans, but they also knew they would have no greater difficulty in enforcing sobriety than when they tried to do so in New York City. New Yorkers, it was said, spent literally one million dollars a day on booze in 1913, more than the nation spent on the salaries of public school teachers. They drank it up at over three times the rate of the national average. So prohibitionists paid special attention to New York City, and actually moved it into the "dry" column for the 18th Amendment to be passed in 1919. After that, New York City was one of the spurs to making prohibition unfashionable, and ridiculous, passé, and then obsolete. The story of prohibition's rise and fall in Gotham is told in _Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City_ (Harvard University Press) by Michael A. Lerner, a New Yorker well acquainted with the realms of the city involved in drinking and the ethnic groups it still harbors, many of whom had a special interest in keeping the city dry or wet. Lerner makes a convincing case that as we consider popular depictions of the "Roaring Twenties," we are likely to find amusing the governmental attempts to keep America from drinking, but there was more to it than just the prohibition of booze. Prohibition defined how much the government might try to reform its citizens, and it defined the politics of the times. There is no understanding, for instance, how New Yorker Franklin D. Roosevelt became president without taking prohibition into account.Read more ›
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