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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition Hardcover – May 11, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Daniel Okrent has proven to be one of our most interesting and eclectic writers of nonfiction over the past 25 years, producing books about the history of Rockefeller Center and New England, baseball, and his experience as the first public editor for the New York Times. Now he has taken on a more formidable subject: the origins, implementation, and failure of that great American delusion known as Prohibition. The result may not be as scintillating as the perfect gin gimlet, but it comes mighty close, an assiduously researched, well-written, and continually eye-opening work on what has actually been a neglected subject.There has been, of course, quite a lot of writing that has touched on the 14 years, 1919–1933, when the United States tried to legislate drinking out of existence, but the great bulk of it has been as background to one mobster tale or another. Okrent covers the gangland explosion that Prohibition triggered—and rightly deromanticizes it—but he has a wider agenda that addresses the entire effect enforced temperance had on our social, political, and legal conventions. Above all, Okrent explores the politics of Prohibition; how the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages, was pushed through after one of the most sustained and brilliant pressure-group campaigns in our history; how the fight over booze served as a surrogate for many of the deeper social and ethnic antagonisms dividing the country, and how it all collapsed, almost overnight, essentially nullified by the people.Okrent occasionally stumbles in this story, bogging down here and there in some of the backroom intricacies of the politics, and misconstruing an address by Warren Harding on race as one of the boldest speeches ever delivered by an American president (it was more nearly the opposite). But overall he provides a fascinating look at a fantastically complex battle that was fought out over decades—no easy feat. Among other delights, Okrent passes along any number of amusing tidbits about how Americans coped without alcohol, such as sending away for the Vino Sano Grape Brick, a block of dehydrated grape juice, complete with stems, skins, and pulp and instructions warning buyers not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long, lest it become wine. He unearths many sadly forgotten characters from the war over drink—and readers will be surprised to learn how that fight cut across today's ideological lines. Progressives and suffragists made common cause with the Ku Klux Klan—which in turn supported a woman's right to vote—to pass Prohibition. Champions of the people, such as the liberal Democrat Al Smith, fought side-by-side with conservative plutocrats like Pierre du Pont for its repeal.In the end, as Okrent makes clear, Prohibition did make a dent in American drinking—at the cost of hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries from bad bootleg alcohol; the making of organized crime in this country; and a corrosive soaking in hypocrisy. A valuable lesson, for anyone willing to hear it.Kevin Baker is the coauthor, most recently, of Luna Park, a graphic novel published last month by DC Comics.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Okrent, who has rescued an important, relevant, and colorful chapter of American history, explores Americans' relationship with the bottle dating back to the colonial era and analyzes the long-term effects of Prohibition on everything--from the rise of the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan to language, art, and literature. Fast-paced and fascinating, his narrative assembles a wide collection of comical stories and outrageous personalities, such as the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation. He explodes clichés and bypasses widely known tales of bootlegging and bathtub gin in favor of more unfamiliar accounts. Critics praised Okrent's elegant writing and careful research--even in all its details--and agreed with the New York Times Book Review that this remarkably fresh take on a forgotten era is "a narrative delight."
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Okrent describes that as the movement picks up steam it becomes dominated by a male dominated more professionally organized group the Anti-Saloon League, which allies itself with the progressives to push for a federal income tax amendment to the Constitution. This amendment was ratified in 1913 and was necessary in order to achieve Prohibition because half of the tax revenue of the federal government came from liquor taxes.
He describes how the alliance with the women's suffrage movement was augmented with support from corporate America, which believed that drinking lowered productivity, and nativist groups which disliked the German-American brewers Anheuser-Bush, Pabst, Schlitz and so on during World War I. Other allies included those susceptible to arguments about African-American stereotypes and fear of alcohol use in that community. The book goes on to tell the story of not only the political battles to get it enacted, but also how it was enforced and the failures of these policies to eventually how it ended.
Creativity manifests itself in several ways in the book. First the unique story of how it was enacted has gone unparalleled in American history as the only time the Constitution was amended for social policy reasons. Some of the exceptions are great stories of creativity in politics. Medicinal use of bourbon by prescription, allowing households to ferment wine themselves using grapes, sacramental use of wine by rabbis and priests who sold it to their congregants legally in any quantity, and last but not least those who stockpiled unlimited quantities before it took effect.
Smuggling was also a great story of creativity whether it be in pig bellies, coat pockets, cars, or boats. Ships would sell liquor just off the three-mile territorial water limits. All in all, it is a wonderful story of government policy gone wrong with many lessons to be learned still today. The creativity described in this book tells me that America is a culture of creativity although conformism is a strong countervailing force.
I found it interesting that this ridiculous piece of legislation made it as far as Congress, thanks to a few passionate "drys" and their well-organized efforts; as I read through the book, it struck me that, despite the fact this amendment was ratified by the majority of state legislatures (three-fourths are required for passage), it was far from popular, even among the politicians. Certainly something needed to be done about the excess drinking in the U.S. during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th, but Prohibition ended up being a typical knee-jerk reaction by a Congress in the thrall of a very powerful and well-organized coalition of "drys."
Putting this to current day, I'm reminded of the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002 (better known as Sarbanes-Oxley, or the knee-jerk reaction to Enron, Worldcom and Adelphia) and the so-called "Defense of Marriage" proposition (the right-wing conservatives' reaction to the idea of gay marriage). It seems as though few have learned from the Prohibition lesson that things are rarely black and white. Come to think of it, politicians these days are STILL beholden to a handful of special interests.
What really made this book for me, however, was Okrent's lively writing style. He presents the topic with humor and quips, far from the didactic style of many history books. I also liked how Okrent put the entire thing in context -- the fact that, for example, Prohibition likely wouldn't have come into being had it not been for women's suffrage or income tax was highly interesting.
This is my first "detailed" study of Prohibition, and this is a great introduction to the topic.
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I almost gave up but am glad I did not.