Thursday, January 14, 2010

Garrett Peck's best books about Prohibition

Garrett Peck is a freelance journalist who has written mostly within the alcohol industry trade circles. Based in Washington, D.C., he also regularly conducts tours of historic sites that hold a significant place in the temperance movement in and around the district. His new book is The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet.

Peck's best books about Prohibition:
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.

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's 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 Babbit (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.

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. This is the grandfather of 'em all.

And one day I hope that my own book, The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet (2009) will be added to this worthy cannon.
Visit Garrett Peck's website.

--Marshal Zeringue