The surprising ways in which a failed social experiment helped shape modern America.
In this splendid social and political history, McGirr (History/Harvard Univ.; Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, 2001, etc.) offers a vivid account of Prohibition (1920-1933) and its “significant but largely unacknowledged” long-term effects on the United States. Writing with authority and admirable economy, the author traces the decadelong effort to discipline the leisure of urban immigrants, led by Protestant clergyman driven by “a powerful animosity toward working-class drinking in the saloon.” With support from temperance groups and businessmen (“Until booze is banished we can never have really efficient workmen,” said one manufacturer), the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages not only gave rise to the familiar Prohibition story of bootlegging, violence, and speak-easies but also had diverse, wide-ranging consequences that resonate to this day. Drawing on archival research, McGirr shows most importantly how the war on alcohol greatly expanded the role of the federal government, especially with regard to policing and surveillance. Prohibition awakened the nation’s religious right, spurred the electoral realignment that resulted in the New Deal, and served as a “cultural accelerant” that began with the emergence of urban nightlife and drinking by women and youths and spread “ideals of self-fulfillment, pleasure, and liberation” across the country. These and other perceptive insights are contained in a bright, taut narrative that covers everything from the growing popularity of jazz to the selective enforcement of Prohibition in places from Chicago to Virginia to the tenor of everyday American life in these years. McGirr’s discussions of the class aspects of the “dry” crusade will leave many feeling that booze—and the supposed criminality of the saloon—was the least of the problems.
An important book that warrants a place at the forefront of Prohibition histories. General readers will love it, and scholars will find much to ponder.