Books in the Background 4: Prohibition

Ron Berman


            In November 1917, the editors of Vanity Fair drew up a biography of George Jean Nathan that may well have been true but sounds like a composite of the ideal subscriber and the editorial staff.  From breakfast to the last orange blossom of the day, he creatively avoids relatives, rubes, and the rest of the middle class. Nothing historical troubles his mind and he "is not acquainted with a single clergyman, Congressman, general, or reformer." At the time, Vanity Fair consistently defined personal style as separation from respectability. The essays and verse of Dorothy Parker especially number the ways in which conventional conduct "cuts in on my social life." For a moment, in 1917, it looked as if Metropolis could free itself from the inconvenient mainland. But Prohibition changed the expectation.    


The War on Alcohol.  By Lisa McGirr. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 330 pp. $27.95.

            Lisa McGirr's study of Prohibition begins with history conveyed by "an entire genre of sensationalist books and movies set in the Prohibition years. They featured a colorful cast of bootleggers and gangsters, from Chicago's Al Capone to Ohio's George Remus.  In these narratives, bootleg liquor flows freely, cultural rebellion flowers in the back rooms of speakeasies, and criminal entrepreneurs make and lose fabulous fortunes and sometimes their lives. These fragmentary portraits of the Prohibition years have had an outsized impact on both popular and scholarly understandings of the 'roaring' twenties, or the Jazz Age." Such history, according to McGirr, has no historical basis and has "obscured one of American's greatest experiments in state building and its lasting institutional and ideological effects."

            The Temperance movement began with moral suasion:  It was about limiting the personal use of alcohol. The Eighteenth Amendment intended to subdue vice by government policy. It was directed at an industrial economy troubled by low productivity and resentful employees. If workers were sober, hourly production would increase. Immigrants would be more quickly absorbed into society if their ethic became a more Protestant Ethic. In order to become a national movement, Prohibition assimilated earlier campaigns to make public life both decent and conforming. In "The Fruits of Comstockery" (1926), Mencken described the moral basis of censure: "Comstock was a Puritan of the old school, and had no belief whatever in virtue per se.  A good woman, to him, was simply one who was efficiently policed." Reform was not at all interested in consent.

            McGirr cites the language of reform and its objects:  Women should be restrained from "unwholesome influences" at "unregulated" public dance halls, night clubs, and movie-houses. Such places were not understood to be social structures of their own but intrusions on an otherwise normative American scene. They were described in a new social language applying concepts of moral and physical health to marginal social groups.  That language suggested objective diagnosis of a condition requiring social control. That intellectual habit had recently become ingrained. Richard Overy's The Morbid Age (2009) shows that H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw extracted from biology the pseudo-idea of "decline" in body and mind.  Images of  "the social body" assailed by disease and psychological disorder were taken from biology and also from sociology, which at the time had a large element of quackery. A number of Fitzgerald's characters believe in crank theories; and in "Banal Story" Hemingway lampooned "the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas" served up by magazines. He noted especially a vague faith in the externalities of "Science" to solve social problems.

            McGirr states that reform had specific targets.  High on its list were neighborhood saloons, which were part of working-class culture. Another end was served by controlling "a newly emergent corporate middle-class" which looked very much like the readers of Vanity Fair. The book is about their social opposites:  formidable men and women from the provinces who did not at all resemble Mencken's evangelized yokels from the deep South.  Among them were journalists, novelists, and very able politicians; they were funded by John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and figures from the top of the social pyramid.  Prohibition assimilated movements and combined grievances.

            Reformers believed that poverty was caused by "idleness . . . and strong drink." Yet that avoided analysis of industrial conditions and of those economic variations transferring wealth from wage-earning to investment.  Historically, there has not been much that society can do about unemployment or "idleness." The two are not identical.  But the power of government during the war was an accelerant: "the antiliquor crusade now seemed part of the patriotic campaign to win the war."  If military life could be controlled, made sober and decent, so could social life. It is widely thought that the Great War caused—or rather provoked—personal freedom but it also provided examples of social control. 

            Hollywood history depicts "hatchet-wielding" raids on breweries where alcohol was produced—but it was  easier to control places where it was consumed. Movies show speakeasy patrons leaving champagne, money and furs behind as they flee police raids.  However, the middle-class consumer was far less affected than those lower on the social pyramid. Raids targeted marginal communities of immigrants, African-Americans, and other wage-earners far from Fifth Avenue.  Their neighborhoods were assumed to be venues of crime—although Michael A. Lerner's history of Prohibition in New York, Dry Manhattan (2007) states that saloons provided loans and cashed paychecks for industrial workers.  They stored personal valuables, took up collections, accepted packages, translated letters from the old country.  They provided newspapers and served as social centers. Saloons served food cheaply. They had public telephones.  These things were an unrecognized form of community. However, customers were socially invisible, especially those who were out of work. 

            McGirr points out that laws were selectively enforced.  One of the places where that happened was Oak Park, Illinois: "The energetic grassroots membership of the WCTU wasted no time. . . . Cook County Union president Iva Wooden, for example, mobilized even in the face of the violence and corruption of Capone territory working with federal officials to rein in violators.  Members targeted roadhouses where 'teenage girls' sold beer to 'all sorts of men,' touching on public anxieties over the new opportunities that unregulated traffic offered to young women. The Cook County president encouraged her members to step up, investigate, and report violations in their neighborhoods.  The Oak Park-River Forest Union heeded her call." In the twenties, the reform movement in the Midwest changed its motto "Education for Temperance" to "Education for Enforcement."  Inspirational songs ("Work for Enforcement Where You Are") were planted in the Michigan school curriculum, and local organizations worked with state officials who told them to watch druggists, physicians, and any stores selling "flavoring extracts."  The Good Citizens League of Zenith traded aprons and barbecue forks for night scopes, camo, and funny hats. You better not think about it. 

            McGirr believes that Mencken was right to classify Reform as "Puritanism" because so much of its program extended beyond the use of alcohol. Mencken predicted a change of social behavior in 1922: "the enforcement of Prohibition entails a host of oppressions and injustices . . . puts a premium upon the lowest sort of spying, affords an easy livelihood to hordes of professional scoundrels, subjects thousands of decent men to the worst sort of blackmail, violates the theoretical sanctity of the domicile, and makes for bitter and relentless enmities. . . .  it will gradually empty the United States of its present minority of civilized men.  Almost every man that one respects is now casting longing eyes across the ocean.  Some of them talk frankly of emigrating. . . . Others merely propose to go abroad every year and to stay there as long as possible." If that was true, then expatriates had reasonably defensible philosophical motives.

Ron Berman 05/30/2016

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