Friday, December 3, 2010

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

As Repeal Day is nearly upon us (this Sunday will be the 77th anniversary of Utah's ratification of the Repeal amendment, thus ending Prohibition), there is no better time than to discuss Daniel Okrent's history of Prohibition, Last Call.  The book chronicles the rise of the prohibition and temperance movements, the changes in society that resulted from the end of the saloons and the launch of the speakeasy, and the lasting legacy of the Prohibition era even after Repeal was achieved in 1933.

Last Call was published in May of this year and is a well researched tome of over 400 pages including notes and a copy of the Constitution of the United States.  Overall it is very good, but it gets bogged down in minutiae at times and takes a silly amount of glee in exposing the hypocrisy of wet and dry politicians of the era.  At times Okrent writes as if everyone was violating the Volstead Act by drinking during Prohibition and then at other times acknowledges that alcohol consumption declined by 70%.  There is also an overemphasis on the glamorous speakeasies and nightclubs, when most Americans in the 1920s and early 30s were of significantly lesser means than the socialites and urbane city dwellers drinking at the likes of the 21 Club.  As a whole though, this is an excellent volume for those seeking to better understand how American drinking culture evolved and the very real legacy of Prohibition.

I found one of the most amazing aspects of the story to be that only thirteen years after Prohibition went into effect, the "wet" forces managed to change the opinions of American citizens and legislators away from the dangers of the drink and get the 21st Amendment passed by both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states.  This was the only time in American history that a Constitutional Amendment has been repealed and it took several key steps to make it happen: the death of Wayne Wheeler, the most forceful advocate for Prohibition, the evidence that the laws of the country were not being enforced, the changing composition of the American electorate to a more urban/immigrant/Catholic/Jewish mixture from the predominantly WASPish and more rural base, the rise of the criminal underworld in the form of "organized crime, and the onset of the Great Depression.  Okrent's depiction of the rise and impact of Wayne Wheeler is perhaps the strongest portion of Last Call.  There is likely a 200 page Wheeler biography lurking in this book.

Much ink is appropriately spilled on the Anti-Saloon League, which was one of the most powerful pressure groups in American politics in the first quarter of the 20th century.  The sign outside San Francisco's neo-speakeasy Bourbon & Branch is labeled the Anti-Saloon League, and until reading Last Call, I did not realize that it had been a real organization, let alone the driving force behind the enactment of Prohibition.  While Prohibition did not end drinking, it did put an end to the typical Saloon and changed the way that Americans drank.  In particular it became acceptable for women to drink in public and for men and women to drink cocktails together, something that was new, for Saloons had largely been the exclusive domain of men.  Juices and mixers claimed a more prominent and lasting place in cocktail recipes, for the liquor available during Prohibition was often of low quality and poor tasting, which required the addition of other ingredients to mask the flavor of the alcohol.

Okrent does a good job of making the views of both the wet and dry protagonists understandable and doesn't demonize either side.  He removes some of the Hollywood sheen from the mythic stature of Al Capone and illuminates the lengths to which Americans would go to satisfy their thirst and the comical maneuvers that the bootleggers took to satisfy that demand.  If you find it hard to imagine how a country whose founding fathers included those who had stills on their lands and were famous for their collections of wine could enact a Prohibition against virtually all alcohol, Last Call is a fascinating read.  That forces who fought for decades for temperance could achieve their goal and then be vanquished only a decade later is a peculiarly American tale. I recommend this book, though some sections could better be skimmed than read.  What better way to celebrate Repeal Day than by drinking a delicious glass of craft beer, quality wine or a well made cocktail and  sit down to read this book to better understand the history of what led to the current generation of beverages and appreciate how fortunate we are to enjoy the bounty that we do?

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