A distinguished biographer and cultural historian offers a fascinating look at the place and function of alcohol throughout American history.
Cheever (E.E. Cummings: A Life, 2014, etc.) begins with a compelling premise: that “drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections and politics.” When the Pilgrims made their long and dangerous voyage to America in 1620, beer was crucial to their well-being; when it began to run out, beer became the reason why they landed in Massachusetts rather than Northern Virginia. George Washington owned and operated his own distillery. During his time as a commander of the Continental Army, he “helped his soldiers fight by getting them a little drunk,” unwittingly beginning a tradition that wedded alcohol to military endeavors that continues to this day. Alcohol—and in particular, rum—also became tied to the Colonial economy through slavery. By the end of the revolutionary era, two distinct attitudes toward tippling had emerged: that it was “a gift from God” but that its result, drunkenness, was “a curse from the devil.” While individuals began preaching temperance in the 1800s, alcoholism began to leave its ugly genetic legacy in many highly respected American families, including Cheever’s own. The anti-alcohol crusades of the 19th century led to Prohibition in the 1920s. But rather than “make the country healthy…it made them sick” while increasing the crime it was supposed to eradicate. When drink became legal again under Franklin Roosevelt, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and the author’s father, John Cheever, “made up for the generations before and after them” by drinking to excess while creating an enduring, and poisonous, link between writing and alcohol. As implicated as she is in the history of drinking in America, Cheever does not condemn it. Instead, she offers a colorful portrait of a society that, like her own family, has been indelibly shaped by its drinking habits.
An intelligently argued study of our country’s “passionate connection to drinking.”