Thursday, March 08, 2012

Book review: Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent's Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is probably as close to an exhaustive history of Prohibition in the United States as one can reasonably expect.  Okrent covers it all:  the sodden state of the general populace in the pre-Prohibition days, the utterly bizarre coalition of forces that made Prohibition possible, the myriad personalities, both dry and wet, that inhabited the political and cultural landscape throughout, and Prohibition's legacy, which is still with us today.

That old adage about politics making strange bedfellows was never more clearly demonstrated than in the decades leading to passage of the 18th Amendment, invoking Prohibition.  Okrent describes the unlikely coalition of suffragists, Southern Baptists, Ku Klux Klan, moralists, Know-Nothings, wealthy industrialists, and women suffering from abuse and neglect by drunken spouses that held together to make Prohibition a reality.  Mistrust and scape-goating between the nation's brewers and distillers, as well as full doses of nativist xenophobia and Bible-thumping racism provided kindling to the unlikely fire.  Colorful historical figures (William Jennings Bryant, Carrie Nation, and political wizard, Wayne Wheeler, among others) completed the forumla.

The book is dense.  Jam-packed with information.  The subject-matter, of course, requires it.  But keeping track of the various players and factions is arduous.  At times, the book is a bit dry (no pun intended).  Okrent is not a poet, but he does liven up the text with humor and simile (with varying degrees of success).

For those fascinated with history, this is an enjoyable book.  Readers might be surprised to learn just how much of the current national zeitgeist is a legacy of the crazy Prohibition era.  When one reads about how hypocrisy, greed, and appeals to base prejudice and ignorance combined to manifest perhaps the biggest farce in national history, it is easier to understand the stultifying behavior of our own modern-day politicians.

In today's United States, the idea that a coalition could form to pass a Constitutional Amendment is nigh on inconceivable.  And how much more so the idea of an amendment that so fundamentally affects individual life-styles?  But, as Okrent points out, it was no less unimaginable in the late 1800s, when the Prohibition movement first stirred to life.  Inconceivable.  But it happened.

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