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Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle Hardcover – April 15, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Absinthe, a strongly alcoholic drink with a reputation of mythic proportions, is again in fashion, 90 years after it was banned in France and elsewhere as a cause of madness. The drink, a potent concoction of wormwood, herbs, and between 55 percent and 75 percent alcohol, continues to fascinate, and Hideous Absinthe is one of several recent books on the subject. Jad Adams, a writer of biographies of literary and political figures, focuses on two aspects of absinthe's history: its role in the bohemian literary and artistic movements of France and Britain and the efforts made to ban the drink. By the late 19th century, absinthe was not only a popular aperitif but, Adams neatly suggests, a drink of "display and provocation." Artists and writers celebrated its hallucinatory effects and referred to it affectionately as "the green fairy" or "holy water." Doctors, politicians, and social critics, citing medical research that indicated that one component of wormwood, thujone, caused hallucinations and madness, denounced the drink as "a quick coach to the madhouse" and, in the United States, "the green curse of France." Adams examines the development of these competing myths, which, he argues, were primarily the product of artistic, social, or political preoccupations. The book ends with an acerbic examination of the recent revival of absinthe and its myths, thanks to clever publicity, an increased public tolerance of drug use, and the Internet. Despite its sensationalist title and colorful dust jacket, Hideous Absinthe is a careful and considered account of a drink whose reputation has always exceeded its consumption. Adams examines the careers and often prodigious alcohol intake of such artists and writers as Paul Verlaine, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Oscar Wilde. He is, however, skeptical of claims that absinthe was the source of these artists' creativity or of their sometimes self-destructive drinking habits. Only in exceptional cases, such as Paul Gauguin's perceptions of color, does Adams discern any influence of absinthe. Rather, he stresses that artists and writers in Paris and London used absinthe as one of many symbols to express their defiance of traditional middle-class values. The banning of absinthe only added to its allure, and 20th-century writers such as Ernest Hemingway found the drink a useful device for fashioning an image of manly daring. Adams is equally skeptical of the scientific and medical evidence cited by those who sought to ban the drink. He argues that such supposedly objective evidence was, and in some cases continues to be, shaped by social or cultural influences. His prime example is the work of Valentin Magnan, France's foremost psychiatrist and a leading expert on alcoholism in the late 19th century. On the basis of laboratory experiments in which guinea pigs were injected with high doses of thujone, Magnan claimed that absinthe produced a distinct and dramatic form of madness called absinthism. Adams explores the dubious scientific basis of Magnan's experiments and their popularization in anti-absinthe campaigns. He is equally critical of more recent scientific research on thujone. Adams has read widely on his topic, from obscure poetry to the latest scholarship, and he can nicely juxtapose a scientific report on the supposedly devastating effects of absinthe with a minor poet's witty riposte. He is careful to acknowledge his scholarly sources, making this a useful book for those who want to read further. Historians or specialists on addiction will question some assertions, such as the extent to which women consumed absinthe or the impact of the drink's ban on later prohibition movements. France, after all, banned absinthe, but the French temperance movement was careful to distance itself from American Prohibition, which it judged excessive and puritanical. But even specialists will learn something from this balanced and informative account. Hideous Absinthe might also interest public officials contemplating a ban on reputedly harmful substances or those drinkers who, enticed by clever publicity, have tried absinthe and found its taste to be vile and its effects disappointing. As Adams observes, absinthe will always "fill the role required of it." Patricia E. Prestwich, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.


“Adams offers rich hitorical context, cultural perspective, anecdotes, and pointed observations. . . . This book is as titillating as it is sobering.”—New York Times Book Review

“A careful and considered account of a drink whose reputation has always exceed its consumption. . . . Even specialists will learn something from this balanced and informative account.”—New England Journal of Medicine

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press; 1 edition (April 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780299200008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0299200008
  • ASIN: 0299200000
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Domestic Shipping: Item can be shipped within U.S.
  • International Shipping: This item is not eligible for international shipping. Learn More
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,122,751 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Samuel Wells on September 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Adams covers the same info that Conrad and Baker discuss but with a tone of condescension and puritanism that blankets the text like a fine scum of oil over water. Halfway though the book I wanted to curse him; after listening to his boorish and uninspired NPR interview I wanted to punch his lights out. If you like feeling superior, this book is for you. Otherwise stick with Conrad.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Satia Renee VINE VOICE on January 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
After hearing the author on npr I was eager to purchase and read this book. The book is well researched and it is overflowing with gossip about those artists with whom absinthe has been so intertwined--Proust, Gaugin, et al. The author contends that the drink had little or no real impact on the creative abilities of the writers and painters of the 19th century who claimed that the Green Fairy was their great muse. The argument falls flat, however. Whether the drink spurred the creativity or not is not as clear as the belief of the artists that it did have a very powerful and empowering influence. It is all very "chicken or the egg" speculation but in the end, this book is a fun read if you want a little dish on the life and times of these absinthe influenced artists.
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27 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Different alcoholic drinks have reputations for appealing to different descriptions of people. The crowd of beer drinkers is different from those who favor cognac, as are those who like sherry different from those who drink single malts. There is no drink with so strong a reputation for a particular set of drinkers than absinthe. A cult drink in nineteenth century France, it has strong associations with poets and painters; the claims made for it have been extravagantly laudatory and condemnatory. It figures largely in literature and paintings of that time and place, which has only increased its reputation, good and bad. And it is still under prohibition in many countries, including the United States, which makes it forbidden fruit. Thus there is a good story, lots of good stories, to tell in _Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle_ (University of Wisconsin Press) by Jad Adams. It isn't too surprising that a main lesson of the book is that extravagant claims, positive and negative, for "the green fairy" are simply exaggerations.
Absinthe is a high-proof alcohol drink to which has been added essential oils of wormwood, plus aniseed or fennel, which taste like liquorice and gave the famous clear green color. It became particularly a drink for French Bohemian writers and artists. Adams shows, however, that the poets and painters who concentrated on absinthe as a subject were minor artists busy cultivating a bohemian atmosphere around themselves; the greater artists might have included it as part of their world, but had no particular fascination for it. Wormwood has a chemical called thujone within it, which might be a mild hallucinogen, but there is question that it would have had any significant effect at the dose provided in absinthe.
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