Drinking in America

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America is a strange book. It is interesting, entertaining, and informative, but it is also a bit odd. Deciding between it and Lender and Martin’s 1987 book of the same title, I opted with Cheever’s for being more up-to-date and promising greater readability. I expected it to be sociological as well as historical. It wasn’t. Cheever takes a single–very useful–lens through which to view her subject: the tension between temperance/prohibition and alcoholism/overindulgence. In her breezy history, she shows how the pendulum swings between these two poles throughout American history.


Her narrative is not comprehensive but episodic. Each mini-narrative of a historical figure or event or era illustrates how American attitudes and behaviors were shifting at that time. Each stand-alone chapter is meant to be representative–and also eye-opening. Cheever asks us to consider how alcohol and drinking habits affected some of our most hallowed events–the Mayflower landing, Paul Revere’s ride, the Civil War, even the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hers is not so much the Great Man view of history; call it the Drunk Man view of history.


Some noted drinkers were groups: Pilgrims, the tavern-denizens of the Revolutionary era, twentieth century writers. Alcoholism has run in families: to wit, the Adamses and the author’s own, the Cheevers. More than a few presidents and politicians were affected by their drinking habits: Ulysses Grant, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon.


It was interesting to learn how beer–or, rather, its shortage–may have affected the Pilgrim’s decision to settle in Cape Cod rather than continue on to Virginia colony. Wrote Cheever: “The decision to land illegally in a hostile place, partially caused by a shortage of beer, was not an auspicious beginning.” [22] The operative word is “partially.” Cheever knows she can’t hang the full weight of history on that one limb. Beer may be the raison d’»átre for her chapter on the Mayflower, but it is hardly the sole focus of the chapter. Cheever writes a lot of backstory and a lot of the story which involves no alcohol at all into her chapter on the Pilgrims. (This was the odd part for me.) I skimmed these parts. She ends the chapter with a series of unanswerable questions. Was the Pilgrims’–along with their fellow travelers,’ the Strangers’–“inauspicious” start based on erratic decision-making which itself was the result of near-constant inebriation? This feels like a stretch.


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If the Pilgrims were pro-drink, the much more numerous Puritans who followed were anti- (mostly). Yet, the pendulum swung toward indulgence over the course of the next two centuries. By 1776 the average American was drinking on average twice as much as the average drinker today. Cheever doesn’t provide a footnote on this statistic, but her narrative of revolutionary fervor fomented by drink is convincing. She shows us patriots and Sons of Liberty and Green Mountain Boys discussing tactics in the tavern. Tactics which get overtaken by the influence of alcohol in favor of more impulsive, flamboyant action. Think: the Boston Tea Party and the Gasp√© Affair. As John Adams himself observed, “I know not why I should blush to confess that molasses [rum] was an essential ingredient in American independence.” [73] This is the center of the story Cheever tells and the reward for the reader who has picked up her book.


By 1820, we read, our forebears are imbibing triple our average 2015 daily consumption. And it is daily. Even children, Cheever would have us believe: before, during, and after school. And so we learn that that great American icon of wholesomeness, Johnny Appleseed, has a hidden side, like that of the Pilgrims’ beer, conveniently missing from the standard telling of his story. The undersized, sour apples known as “spitters” were for making cider, as in hard cider. Cheever quotes from Michael Pollan to make her point: “Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.” [90] Whisky and corn liquor, too, became ubiquitous for being an easy way to get surplus crop to market–and to allow for daily consumption on the farm


This peak in alcoholic indulgence brought its own reaction in the form of the temperance movement. By 1834, we learn, five thousand local temperance societies with an estimated total membership of eleven million. The movement would build through the decades before culminating in Prohibition, complicating the picture entirely. The pendulum would swing toward excess in the middle decades of the twentieth century, until the start of another temperate era circa 1980. Cheever’s words to describe that final transition were evocative for me:


The kind of drinking and wild behavior that seemed so glamorous and extreme in the mid-twentieth century is no longer tolerated. People no longer get falling-down drunk at dinner parties, grope the hostess, take swipes at the chandelier, and weave their way down the driveway to drive home squinting in order to keep the road’s central line in sight. What was normal in the 1950s and even the 1970s is now not done. What changed? [168]


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Yes, I do equate the 1970s (and early 1980s) with wild drinking because that was when I, age 16-20, experienced my own wild, alcohol-fueled nights. (Alcohol aided my sociability, lessened my inhibition, and offered the possibility that something–I knew not what–might happen.) Yet there were ugly scenes from real life, too. I had witnessed my share of inebriated adults in line with Cheever’s description above. These images would have been reinforced by many more that entered my consciousness through movies and television. In any case, it is one of the rewards of living long that you never know when you might read a discussion of something historical that you can place your own story within.



Perhaps my favorite chapter was the one on Richard Nixon. He was not an alcoholic, Cheever insists, but he had an unusually low tolerance for alcohol. When he did drink, he quickly and invariably became a drunk. We learn that Henry Kissinger’s title, National Security Advisor, had a double entendre, the second being “nanny” to the president when he became too drunk to function. [198] During the opening days of the Yom Kippur War Nixon was AWOL–passed out or otherwise non-functional. Two weeks later, when the war reached its climax and Soviet intervention threatened a nuclear conflict, Nixon was again “asleep” and unwakeable. Kissinger was calling the shots. [205]



“In presuming to write history,” Cheever says in her acknowledgements, “I anchored my story to as many excellent books as I could find.” Cheever’s book was not what I expected as a history of drinking in America perhaps because Cheever is not a historian. She is, according to her Wikipedia page, a biographer, novelist, and memoirist. She is also a recovered/recovering alcoholic, in a family of alcoholics. In her conclusion, she makes clear that she was not interested in telling a dispassionate history that would be “as far away from memoir as it can get.” [218] She wanted to show how a mundane behavior like the consumption of alcohol can influence even the grand sweep of history–and it certainly has ours.


I’ll give the last word to Puritan minister Increase Mather whom Cheever wisely quotes early in her book: “Drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” [32] Does anything more need to be said?


Cheever, Susan. Drinking in America: Our Secret History. New York: Twelve, 2015.

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