A Few Good Books
Looking for a good book to read about Prohibition and temperance? Here are a few of my favorites:
Frederick Lewis Allen published Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's in 1931, and many consider it the best book written about that decade. Chapter X is called "Alcohol and Al Capone," a great summary penned during Prohibition on why the "noble experiment" was such a colossal failure. Allen writes as a journalist, not an academic, and his prose is excellent.
Jack S. Blocker, Jr. wrote American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform (1989). In it, he pointed out the cyclical nature of American drinking - and how periods of heavier drinking push reformers to crack down. This has been a perpetual battle in American history, one that we're witnessing today with college campus crackdowns on binge drinking.
Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (1976) is regarded as one of the best studies on the anti-alcohol movement from colonial days to the end of Prohibition. It is more of an academic treatment than a popular read. Clark paints a coherent picture of middle class values that led to Prohibition, as well as a changing society that undermined it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
(1924) is a novella based on an honest-to-gosh real bootlegger, George
Remus, and probably the most well-known book from the 1920s. Every high
school student reads it, and it's worth reading again and again.
K. Austin Kerr, Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League (1985) is the quintessential history of the ASL, the organization that muscled in Prohibition. The ASL has gone extinct, but it was a powerful advocacy lobby, the National Rifle Association of its day.
Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (2007) is really a great read while providing a significant scholarly addition to this fascinating era. Reading Lerner's book is like learning about Prohibition for the very first time: his story is fresh and insightful, and full of new research. I love this book!
Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1922) is one of the best novels that emerged from the 1920s. It's a satirical roast of Midwestern middle class Protestants, ballyhoo, and bullyism. Grant Wood satirized these Americans in his 1930 painting American Gothic, but Sinclair Lewis beat him to the literary punch in Babbit. Written early in Prohibition, it captured the hypocritical stance of many people that Prohibition was a good thing for others to obey.
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (2006) tells how beer became America's favorite alcoholic beverage, then nearly lost it all to Prohibition.
William J. Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979) is the seminal work on Americans and alcohol in the 19th century, one that shows how the great American whiskey binge of the early 19th century led to a church-based response, the temperance movement. Rorabaugh laid the foundation upon which much subsequent alcohol social history is built.
...and someday I'm hoping my own book, The Prohibition Hangover, will be added to this worthy cannon.
Three views of the Sam Adams Brewery (Boston Beer Company) in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts. On the left, the brewery entrance. In the middle, the original smokestack from the Haffenreffer Brewery. On the right, the brewhouse.