Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Drinking in America, From the Pilgrims to Today


It grabbed me from the first line: "The pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on a cold November day in 1620 because they were running out of beer." Thus begins the new book by Susan Cheever, Drinking in America: Our Secret History.

Cheever, the daughter of novelist (and drinker) John Cheever, brings a brisk, novelistic style and fresh attitude to her histories, weaving fascinating, little-known tidbits into interesting, readable volumes like American Bloomsbury and Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.

Here again, as in My Name is Bill (about Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), Cheever tackles Americans' love of alcohol. She makes clear at the outset that our ancestors relied heavily on beer due to unhealthy water found on sea voyages and elsewhere. Beer was served at the first Thanksgiving table, since "the Pilgrims' first barley crop had born fermentable fruit." By 1635, Plymouth had begun granting licenses to make and sell liquor, and public drunkenness had become unlawful. Puritain elder Increase Mather explained the dichotomy this way, "Drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan."

It's no mystery why voters want a president with whom they can enjoy a beer. George Washington, Cheever writes, lost his first election for the Virginia Assembly in 1755, but two years later "he delivered 144 gallons of rum, punch, cider, and wine to the polling places distributed by election volunteers who urged the voters to drink up.... Most elections featured vats and barrels of free liquor as well as the candidate in hand to drink along with his constituency." Two of Abigail and John Adams's sons and two of their grandsons died of alcoholism and Jefferson wrote that he wished Americans would stick with beer and eschew whiskey "that now kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families." Liquor was given to slaves to help keep them docile. 

"The American Revolution was instigated and carried on with energy provided by rum made from Caribbean molasses and with Caribbean distilling techniques," Cheever continues in a subsequent chapter.  Of the revolt against Washington's drive to enforce a tax on home-brewed whiskey, she adds, "The eighteenth century in America, beginning with the Whiskey Rebellion, was all about whiskey."

In a chapter titled, "Johnny Appleseed, The American Dionysius," Cheever picks up on Michael Pollan's observation that the beloved seed-sower was popular because he was bringing the possibility of alcoholic hard cider, not apples for eating, to the prairies. (As well as wine grapes, god-of-excess Dionysius was the patron of cultivated trees and the discoverer of the apple.)

To hint at motivations and explain events throughout the tale, Cheever adds her own insights, such as, "Alcoholics are inspired liars, and soon enough in an alcoholic family no one knows exactly what is true and what is not true." She delves into the stories of famous prohibitionists like P.T. Barnum and Walt Whitman, and her chapter on Ulysses S. Grant and the civil war brings the reader up to the present state of affairs concerning alcohol and armies. The failure of prohibition, and the effects of alcohol on Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon are touched on, as is the news (to me) that the Secret Service agents guarding JFK the day he died were hungover from an alcoholic binge the night before.

Cheever's tone isn't moralistic, and she acknowledges throughout the positive effects alcohol may had had on our history, such as inspiring writers and generals. She ends the book with a series of tantalizing "what ifs" had teetotalers had their way instead of drinkers.

It's important that marijuana reformers understand how deep the connection to alcohol runs in our country, and Drinking in America is, in that regard and many others, an illuminating and enjoyable read.


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