Feature

Book of the week: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

Okrent has written a “witty” and well-documented new history of Prohibition. 

(Scribner, 468 pages, $30)

Daniel Okrent’s “witty” and well-documented new history of Prohibition convincingly demonstrates that America’s 14-year ban on alcohol was more than just a passing blunder, said Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. An activist minority had been painting drink as a demon for 100 years—with good reason. “Figuring per capita,” Okrent writes, “multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea what much of the 19th century was like.” Still, the temperance movement only gained momentum when it became bound up with rural America’s fears about urban and immigrant culture. And it took an unusual confluence of events—including a war-driven aversion to German-American beers—for crusaders to finally realize their dream. “By 1920 everything was in place for a bold new government intrusion into everyday life.”

But the ban on booze was full of holes, said Chris Lehmann in Bookforum. “Medicinal” whiskey was sold legally in drugstores, “sacramental” wines were distributed through Catholic parishes, and batches of dyed industrial alcohol killed or crippled hundreds of desperate drinkers. Prohibition “also mainstreamed hypocrisy and criminality,” creating America’s first nationwide criminal syndicate. The problems were so numerous, and obvious, that Prohibition went out with a whimper after the Depression hit, when Washington needed the revenues that alcohol taxes could provide. Still, Okrent teases out many legacies of the era that are often overlooked—from the idea of hosting small dinner parties at home to “the deep engagement of women in political issues.”

For all the good things we’ve inherited from Prohibition-era culture, Okrent also convinces a reader that America is much better off today, said Russ Smith in The Wall Street Journal. “Red” and “blue” America aren’t nearly as bitterly divided as the “drys” and “wets” were. What’s more, a return to the “jaw-dropping” levels of corruption among 1920s cops, judges, and politicians has become unimaginable at a time “when the mere suggestion of malfeasance or hypocrisy makes the news.” In 1933, when a freshly inaugurated President Roosevelt began the process of repealing laws against intoxicating beverages, the Anheuser-Busch brewery paraded a team of Clydesdales to the White House to celebrate. Prohibition was dead. “It’s safe to say that the country will never order another round.”

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