“Here’s to alcohol,” Homer Simpson once famously said, “the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems.”
This simple quote from one of America’s great animated philosophers might sum up our country’s relationship with booze, from the days of the pilgrims all the way to today’s latest age of (relative) temperance. Or so might say Susan Cheever, author of Drinking in America: Our Secret History (Twelve; October 12, 2015). The book is a unique cultural tour seen through the perspective of one of our favorite pastimes—and one of our darkest problems.
“Since the beginning, drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections and politics,” Cheever writes. “The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history, is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present.
“At times, we don’t seem to be able to moderate our drinking,” Cheever writes. “At other times we blame it for everything. We love it or we hate it … In some decades, we banned alcohol, and in others we drank so much that foreign visitors were astonished.”
Either way, there was hardly a time in our history in which our relationship to alcohol didn’t help define us as a nation, Cheever writes. “Drinking is a cherished American custom, a way to celebrate and a way to grieve and a way to take the edge off. It brings people together. It makes social connections easy. It loosens inhibitions . . . The American Revolution, the winning of the Civil War, and the great burst of creativity in American literature in the 20th century were all enhanced by drinking.”
Cheever writes about the pilgrims of the Mayflower, “blown forward by their fears about running out of beer.” She describes 19th-century America, a time in which the copious amounts of corn being grown by American farmers led to a nation so awash in corn whiskey that elementary school children starting the day with “flip”—a mix of grain alcohol and fruit juice. Temperance movements that had their roots in the mid-19th century culminated in Prohibition of the 1920s—only to give way to the post-World War II and Cold War era. “An opportunity for another alcoholic episode in our history,” according to Cheever, who points out that during this period, “drinking continued to be what lubricated the dark side of American business practices.”
In addition to chronicling how alcohol has shaped events and the American character for centuries, the book addresses the problems that have arisen due to our national obsession with drinking. “Although in the 21st century there are more laws and more stringent social controls on drinking than there have ever been in our history, we are drinking enough to make alcoholism a significant public health problem,” she writes. She points to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control report in which the agency found that 88,000 adult Americans die every year of alcohol consumption. More than a million alcohol-related emergency room visits are made annually, while 10,000 traffic fatalities per year are blamed on alcohol.
And Cheever knows only too well about the dark side of our nation’s obsession with drink. Her father, novelist John Cheever, was an alcoholic as is Cheever herself. She writes that during the 20 years since her last drink, she has studied both alcoholism and temperance and their effects on both individuals and cultures. “Our country has a rich history of temperance movements and temperance crusaders—from Walt Whitman to Carrie Nation and Phineas Barnum—and this, too, is part of our drinking history.”
And this drinking history, she says, is part of our national story, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, from the settling of the West through Prohibition, from the McCarthy hearings to the Kennedy Assassination to the days of Watergate. “Our national character is inextricable from our drinking history,” writes Cheever.
“It began with New England, with the Pilgrims landing that afternoon in what is now Provincetown Harbor, driven by many forces both natural and man-made,” she writes. “One of those forces, a force of both pleasure and pain, a force of both brilliance and incompetence, was their passionate connection to drinking.”