Sunday, June 20, 2010

Last Call

The Globe and Mail, June 11, 2010

Review: Last Call: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition, By Daniel Okrent
Reviewed by Jessica Warner

To John Allan Krout, long a fixture at Columbia University, goes the
distinction of having written the first real history of Prohibition.
Titled, simply enough, The Origins of Prohibition, it was published in
1925, five years after the start of the Noble Experiment and eight
years before its unlamented demise. Since Krout's time, it seems as
though scarcely a year has passed in which the public has not been
offered yet another book about Prohibition: In 1962, it was Andrew
Sinclair's Prohibition: The Era of Excess; in 1976, it was Norman
Clark's Deliver us from Evil: An Interpretation of American
Prohibition; in 1997, it was Edward Behr's Prohibition: Thirteen Years
that Changed America.

This year, it is Daniel Okrent's Last Call. Okrent is one of those
people who goes from strength to strength; his previous book, Great
Fortune, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history, and in
between writing books he has worked as editor for The New York Times,
and before that, for Life and Time. Last Call is his most ambitious
project to date, employing a small stable of research assistants and
involving Okrent himself in extensive archival research.

What they have produced is easily the most readable history of
Prohibition. It is also a history in which a Canadian, our own Sam
Bronfman, makes several appearances, consistent with a style whose
effect is achieved by a laying of vignettes, each revolving around a
colourful personality. Socialites and do-gooders, hellfire preachers
and feminists, politicians, brewers, vintners, farmers and tycoons –
the cameos are endless, deft and always entertaining.

Last Call, in short, is history as Dickens would have written it:
strong on characters but weak on plot. The problem is that it also
happens to be history as Carlyle would have written it, which is to
say that what the reader is really being offered is a populist variant
of the Great Man theory of history. There are so many dominant
personalities in the book, each talking over the other, that its
stated objective, to explain how and why America came to have
Prohibition, is too often lost sight of.

This shortcoming makes the book's first chapter its weakest. Here,
Okrent paints with a broad brush in an attempt to fast-forward the
story from the hard-drinking days of the early 19th century all the
way up to the dawn of the Progressive Era. The need to peg events to
colourful personalities is presumably the reason why the story starts
in the 1840s with the Washingtonians, a temperance group whose members
included one of the great showmen of the age: John Bartholomew Gough.
Gough's theatrics make him just the sort of historical character we
all love to read about, but reality, alas, was considerably drabber,
for the Washingtonians were one of history's dead ends, and in any
event they were neither the first nor the largest of the original
temperance societies.

The 11 chapters on Prohibition proper are the heart of the book, and
they more than make up for its rocky start. There is, as one might
expect, a great deal about flappers, gangsters and rum-runners, but
the more thoughtful chapters focus on the ways in which businesses
managed to adapt and even thrive. A good example is the loophole in
the Volstead Act that allowed individual households to ferment up to
200 gallons of fruit juice a year. The exemption was a fob to all the
farmers who had no intention of giving up their hard cider, but it was
very quickly seized upon by California's vintners: Blocked from making
wine, they managed to make even more money by selling raw grapes to a
thirsty nation. Soon, they were tearing up their vineyards and
replanting them with vines producing the tough-skinned Alicante
Bouschet grape; a few years later, they were marketing dehydrated
blocks of grape juice that could be reconstituted as barely drinkable

Prohibition is one of those topics that always seems to elicit facile
comparisons, the usual candidate being the so-called War on Drugs.
Okrent, to his credit, does not give into this temptation. Or rather,
he intersperses his text with dots and allows the reader to connect
them. The comparison he suggests, ever so subtly, is in many ways even
more unsettling. It is this: A determined minority pushed through
Prohibition, and had the Great Depression not come along, it almost
certainly would have succeeded in blocking repeal. The inference?
Watch out for the Tea Partiers. They represent but a small fraction of
the American electorate, and that makes them all the more dangerous.


Jessica Warner is a member of the graduate faculty at the Institute
for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Her most
recent book is All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in