The Pilgrims may have been brave. According to Susan Cheever, they were definitely drunk.
“The Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on a cold November day in 1620 because they were running out of beer,” Cheever writes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History. “Their legal charter from King James was for a grant of land in Northern Virginia, but instead they anchored illegally and carved their first community from the sand, laying the foundation of the American character: flinty, rebellious, and inspired by adversity.”
From our nation’s boozy beginnings to Prohibition and back again, Cheever shows there’s nothing quite as American as being pie-eyed: In Drinking in America, “enthusiastic drinker” George Washington plies his voters with punch, cider, and wine, and his soldiers with double rations of rum. Alcohol plays significant roles in Paul Revere’s ride, the Kennedy assassination, and McCarthyism.
“What I want from any book I write is for readers to look up from the last page and see the world in a new way,” Cheever says. “Here, it’s, wow, alcohol is a powerful force in our history and in our world today—perhaps in my own family, they might say. I want to make drinking visible, and that’s a big task. For me, when I write, the stakes are very high.”
Cheever is an award-winning, bestselling author known for writing on life, alcoholism and American history. Drinking in America is a potent cocktail of all three. For example, the chapter entitled “The Writer’s Vice,” on that generation of American writers known for their hangovers as well as their hardcovers, includes a colorful remembrance of her father, John Cheever:
“My father’s earliest memory of being a writer in new York was of going to a party at Malcolm Cowley’s apartment during Prohibition and getting so drunk on bathtub gin that he vomited all over the luminaries,” she writes.
Cheever shares that she, too, struggled with alcoholism, and that she hasn’t had a drink in over two decades.
“As a reader, I want to know that the writer has money on the table, that the writer has something at stake. That’s why I love nonfiction,” she says. “I did want to say to the reader, I’ve got this in my bones, you know? I care about it for many, many reasons. I’m not just floating an argument here.”
Drinking in America is not without its arguments: “Educating Americans about drinking is a good idea, but outlawing drinking is a bad idea. Prohibition did not work in 1920 and it will not work now,” Cheever writes. But, above all, it’s about identifying the unseen intoxicants that so greatly impacted—and imperiled—our nation. Like the two drinks that could put cheap date President Richard Nixon into a rage, demanding that his staff “bomb the shit out of this or nuke the shit out of that—orders usually not even remembered the next morning,” she writes.
“I was so surprised by Nixon!” Cheever says. “I just had no idea, and many people didn’t have any idea, because he wasn’t the kind of drinker who drank a huge amount and got drunk and fell down. He was very controlled—he didn’t drink until he got to the Navy—but it didn’t take much to undo him ... and even I hadn’t realized how much his drinking had to do with the way he governed the country. It made me very sympathetic to Kissinger, actually, who was like the wife of a drunk, or the husband of a drunk, always running around trying to mitigate the circumstances.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.