Book Review: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

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I like a good social history and I love beer and wine, so Last Call really sounded like a win-win situation for me. This is Daniel Okrent’s history of, well, the rise and fall of Prohibition. Let me confess here that I skimmed much and could not force myself to get through the last 70 or so pages, so this is an incomplete review. Okrent describes all the key figures on the “wet” and “dry” side of the movement towards and then away from Prohibition in the United States. These include the head of large organizations like the Anti-Saloon League, headed by Wayne Weeler, a man who many folks believe essentially controlled Washington for much of the Prohibition period; housewives who lead prayer vigils outside of saloons; suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony; and, yes, the Klan. Why not the Klan? If you want to know the answer to the question, how, at the national political level, did we get to Prohibition in the United States, this book will answer that question, and quite thoroughly. As suggested above, there’s a bizarre coalition that coalesces around Prohibition. Women feel abused by their hard-drinking husbands and fathers. Folks like Sylvester Graham, inventor of the cracker and advocate of all kind of dietary reform (including vegetarianism) felt drinking was unhealthy, physically and socially. What about the Klan, you ask? The Klan comes in because of the connection between drinking and immigrants. The damned Jews with their kosher wine, the Catholics with their altar wine, the Germans with their beer! Note, most of the WASPs in this story went and bought out whole liquor stores in the days leading up to the official enactment of Prohibition and just moved it wholesale to their large mansion houses.  But, damn the immigrants!  What a very old story in American history.

Here’s another interesting tidbit about Prohibition–no one stopped drinking! Ooops! Historical estimates say that the rate of alcohol consumption may have gone down a little bit in the wake of Prohibition, but if you wanted to drink, you still could. And the reality was, most people still wanted to drink. I’ll come back to that, but loopholes included alcohol prescribed for medicinal purposes. If you’re fan of The Great Gatsby you might remember that Gatsby made his money through “drug stores.” Fitzgerald’s readers would have known this was code for bootlegging. “Medicinal” alcohol was perfectly legal, so you could still get booze from drug stores. Many saloons shut down for one night and then reopened the next morning as “drug stores.” Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis could also get wine, and this little industry kept the California wine country alive through Prohibition, to which I say, thank God and who cares if he’s Jewish or Catholic! The number of rabbis in particular suddenly exploded during Prohibition. It was legal to drink “intoxicating beverages,” just not to make it or buy it, so wealthy people just stocked up and lived off what they had. And families were allowed to make a certain amount of alcohol out of fruit, so there was a booming industry in grapes being shipped out of California to East Coast cities, another way vineyards in California stayed afloat. And of course, there were speak easy’s, a flotilla of rum runners all along the East coast and Al Capone.

There’s a lot of interesting information in this book about the zany people involved in Prohibition and the general wackiness of this period in our history. There are two things that still made this hard for me to read. First, if most people wanted to drink, and continued to drink after Prohibition, how in the hell did Prohibition happen? Okrent focuses on the story at the level of politics and politicians, mostly. There’s a lot about various presidents’ positions on being “wet” or “dry.” There’s a lot about key figures like Wheeler, and even a whole host of less key figures. But I wanted to hear how Prohibition fit in with the general cultural milieu of the time period. How did folks on the street feel about Prohibition? What was it like to live under Prohibition?  These stories are largely at the margins of Okrent’s book, and I understand this just wasn’t the story he wanted to tell, but it’s what I wanted to hear.

Wayne Weeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League

Second, I missed a kind of big picture arc in the book. Perhaps this is my sociological background, where we’re sometimes inclined to over-theorize (always in the search of the theory of everything), but I got so lost in the details, I wanted to be reminded of the big picture, if there was a big picture to be reminded of.

So, basically, I know a lot more about Prohibition now than I did before, but a lot of the more interesting questions for me are still unanswered, because, is it me, or does it just seem deeply wrong to make alcohol illegal? If there’s a serious lesson for us to be learned, it involves why many people became “wet” and worked to overturn Prohibition. When alcohol is illegal, it is also unregulated. We know a lot about the mob violence that ensued, but there was also no way to patrol a drinking age under Prohibition. Younger people began drinking more in imitation of the adults around them. Many people became “wet” when they saw the effects of this lack of regulation.  The lesson seems to be that even if you don’t like a particular behavior (drinking, or say, smoking pot), it might be better to make it legal and regulate it than it is to make it illegal and invite a free for all.

Favorite quotes:

This is about President Hoover, I believe.
“Because he was an engineer, he believed that all problems had solutions.”

Really, no need to explain that one.

Coming soon (really):  Everything Good Will Come, by Sefi Atta

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Comments

  1. Hello! I am hopping by from the Book Blogger Hop. I am always glad to meet more bloggers who love nonfiction. Sorry you didn't make it all the way through this book! :)My blog is totally nonfiction books; drop by sometime!

  2. This sounds interesting, although I agree that it would be nice to have the more personal aspect included. It seems like that would have tied it together better.

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