Any kid who made it through high school in the States probably knows something about the history of alcohol in America. Like the fact that General Ulysses S. Grant was a bit of a lush, or that the original settlers drank a lot of beer, or that Prohibition was a miserable failure that gave rise to bathtub gin and organized crime and the current scourge of speakeasy-inspired cocktail bars.
What you might not know is just how indelibly drinking—and opposition to drinking—has touched some of the most important moments in our country’s timeline. And for that we have Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America: Our Secret History, a look at how alcohol and alcoholism has played into 14 major chapters of American life. “The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history,” writes Cheever in her prologue, “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.”
It’s Cheever’s goal to reinsert those tipples back into the history from which they’ve been excised. A perfect image for that mission: a Currier & Ives print from 1848 of George Washington standing in front of his troops with a glass of madeira in hand and a bottle of refills on the table. That engraving was later amended in the early years of the temperance movement, reimagined sans glass and with the bottle morphed into a tricorne hat.
From the moment the Mayflower Pilgrims, wanting for beer, decided to land on Cape Cod rather than their chartered destination in northern Virginia, our national obsession with alcohol was born, argues Cheever. “The decision to land illegally on Cape Cod had a huge effect on the later fate of the Pilgrims and the way in which the American character was formed. An illegal landing in a hostile place, partially caused by a shortage of beer, was not an auspicious beginning.”
Since then, our country’s tolerance for drinking and drunkenness has swung back and forth between periods of massive, near-ubiquitous indulgence—the 1830s and the mid-20th century were particularly sodden ages—and periods of crackdown. In the early 18th century, the American colonies became world famous for their drinking, both in terms of quantity—the average colonist, Cheever cites, spent a quarter of his income on booze—and in terms of prevalence: Everyone drank, from toddlers up. By 1820, drinking peaked, with the average American consuming more than triple what we do today.
But soon, that excess created a backlash: By 1834 there were roughly 5,000 nationwide temperance societies (most famously the Washingtonians), claiming 11 million members. With the rise of industrialization, the realization that drunk workers were not ideal, and the simultaneous rise of the women’s suffrage movement, national attitudes toward drinking began to shift. A century later the country had gone whole hog in the opposite direction, passing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and launching Prohibition in 1920. It was an attempt to legislate against drinking that had the opposite effect, giving birth to another hedonistic era in the decades that followed. Our association of writing with alcoholism, a topic that has sparked several books, is a direct result of Prohibition, Cheever argues: an extrapolation based on a handful of examples of prominent hard-drinking, mid-century writers whose behavior was a reaction to their experience of that dry decade. But though Prohibition is largely regarded as a miserable failure, Cheever detects that the country may be swinging back in that direction again: Our increasingly health-and-longevity-focused society, she concludes, may soon lead to another misguided attempt to legislate against alcohol addiction.
Cheever uses these sociological and historical trends to create a loose architecture for her book, but she’s best when writing about the way alcohol—its abuse and its rejection—affected personal lives, and when she digs up fascinating historical nuggets. Like the fact that George Washington lost his first election to the Virginia assembly in 1755, and then won two years later after he delivered 144 gallons of booze to the polls. Or the fact that early physician and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush believed in both the disease theory of alcoholism and in the lurking danger of spontaneous combustion.
Alcoholism haunts American history, and has shaped it, for better or worse. The Adams line may have boasted two presidents, but the family was also plagued by what must have been the alcoholism gene: Two of John and Abigail’s sons and two of their grandsons died tragically in early alcohol-related deaths. Ulysses S. Grant is criticized for his drinking, but perhaps, Cheever speculates, it was his drunken bravado that actually led to his success in the Civil War. (Lincoln, a famous nondrinker, seemed to think so.) Meriwether Lewis, the man responsible for opening up the American West, descended into alcoholism upon his return from his famous expedition to find a water route to the Pacific. But the West, Cheever argues, was won at least in part by teetotalers, like Wyatt Earp, who had a terribly adverse reaction to alcohol and may have used his sobriety to his advantage in running gambling games, investing in silver mines, and shaping his own legacy in Hollywood.
More recently, Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist reign of terror may have succeeded for the time it did only because the Internet wasn’t available to disseminate images or videos of his belligerent antics—including physically assaulting a Washington Post columnist in public—which were, at least in part, spurred on by the alcoholism that eventually killed him. (“Kiss my ass” was McCarthy’s response to a friend who pleaded with him to cut out the drinking mere months before he kicked the bucket.) The gunman who killed JFK may have had an unwitting assist from Kennedy’s secret-service agents, many of whom were hungover and slow to react after a late night of knocking back booze. And when, in 1969, a TWA flight was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and diverted to Syria, a very drunk Nixon, partying with friends in Florida, repeatedly instructed Henry Kissinger by phone to bomb the Syrian airport. In the morning, writes Cheever, the president had no memory of the incident. And many of us have no memory that Nixon, who started drinking only in adulthood and whose tolerance was unusually low, was likely an alcoholic.
It’s clear when I get on the phone with Cheever that she feels empathy for the people about whom she writes, even the ones—Nixon, McCarthy—whose behavior and politics have been judged harshly by the history books. After all, she’s been there herself. Drinking in America is something of a passion project for Cheever, who is a recovering alcoholic (she’s been sober more than 20 years), a memoirist about her addiction (Note Found in a Bottle), and the daughter of John Cheever, one of the 20th century’s more famous alcoholics. Cheever references her family history at various points in the book, something she initially intended to avoid but added at the insistence of her editor. Now she’s glad she did. “The history books that we revere, you never know who the writer is, where he—or Doris [Kearns Goodwin],” she jokes, “is coming from. They don’t reveal their own biases. History is deeply biased. If you don’t reveal your biases, it’s hard for me to connect in the same way. I want to know where the writer is standing.”
Read on for more from Cheever about the boozy tidbits that most surprised her, why alcohol gets written out of the history books, and whether the beer-swigging Pilgrims were severely dehydrated.
What’s the origin story of this project?
It’s a work in progress, the origin story. I’ve always been obsessed with American history, New England history. I wrote a book about Concord, Massachusetts. I wrote a biography of Louisa May Alcott. I wrote a biography of E. E. Cummings. And of course for decades I’ve been fascinated by addiction and recovery and how they work, starting with my own experience as a child. So those two things were going on separate tracks. And they just collided and made this explosion. As soon as I had this idea, I knew it had to be a book. There’s usually a long agonizing run-up to me deciding what to write about. Not this time. It was really like, Oh! Then I read Daniel Okrent’s wonderful book Last Call! The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. In his prologue there’s a little bit about drinking in American history. I emailed him, and he very sweetly sent me to Eric Burns, who had written a book called Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, about American history and alcoholism, mostly focusing on the 19th century. I was off to the races.
Were you surprised to discover how little this history had been written about?
I was so surprised. The whole time I was writing, I was going, “What? Really?” Mark Twain said no discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader. It was really a voyage of discovery. And I thought I knew a lot about these two subjects, but it turned out that the presence of alcohol, either from the point of view of temperance or from the point of view of drunkenness, has had a huge effect on our history. And I was constantly surprised. I thought I knew a lot about Abraham Lincoln. I know the difference between the first Inaugural Address and the second. I’ve read a million biographies. I had no idea that his mother had made him promise not to drink on her deathbed. I had no idea that he had lectured to the Washingtonians, that he was a temperance man. And I really had no idea that he was one of these rare individuals that didn’t drink and didn’t judge. When they came to him and complained that Ulysses S. Grant was drinking too much, Lincoln said, “Bring me some barrels of what he’s drinking so I can give it to my other generals.” He was such a pragmatist. I already knew I admired Lincoln, but that’s a rare person, who can not drink because of whatever’s happened in their family, what they’ve seen drinking can do, but also not judge people who do drink. What a guy!
What’s your theory on why alcoholism has been ignored by history? Is it because it was taken for granted and so never noted? Or is it a form of patriotism to ignore drinking, to avoid revealing the private behavior of our national heroes?
One of the rants that I have is how much of current events is controlled by drinking and it never gets reported. Donald Trump is a very good example. Donald Trump’s brother died of alcoholism. Donald Trump has talked about this quite a lot. Donald Trump as a result never drinks, hates drinking, won’t let his children drink. This is a big deal and it doesn’t get reported. Just the way that whatever was the real story with George [W.] Bush’s drinking didn’t get reported. I trained my kids to read the Times and go: Where is the drink in this story?
But the second part of the answer is that we like our history in a certain way. There’s a kind of gravitas that we really like. Because it isn’t just the drinking that gets left out: the sex gets left out, the food gets left out, the clothes get left out. All the things I’m interested in, they get left out. When I wrote American Bloomsbury, I was writing about Emerson and Thoreau, and Longfellow and the Alcotts, I included the women, and when you include the women you get the clothes and the food. I don’t know if you want to call it the underbelly of daily living. I don’t really care so much about the constitutional amendments, although I had to learn about them. I cared about what people were eating. Or drinking. Or who they were. I like to know about the texture of life. And I think when it comes to American history, a lot of that doesn’t get reported.
Like, for instance, Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: no sex and no drinking. I mean, this is a family that’s been dogged by mental illness and alcoholism from the beginning. Not there! Eleanor’s love affair with Lorena Hickok. Not there! And people loved that. I don’t know whether it’s because we feel it’s disrespectful to admit that our leaders were human or what. But we do like history written in this very high-minded way.
Here’s an example: Until I read your book, I didn’t know that Richard Nixon was a drunk. I’m 31. Is that because I didn’t live through that history? Or is it not widely known?
I didn’t, either! I was surprised. I lived right through it. I thought he was creepy. I knew he was a crook. But I didn’t know he was a drunk. The first hint I had of it was in Frost/Nixon. There’s that scene where he drunk-dials. And I thought, Ohhh. But I didn’t really think twice about it until I was writing this book and people would say to me, Nixon, Nixon, Nixon. Then I read a bunch of biographies and there it was.
Do you think the reason we didn’t know that was because his alcoholism wasn’t typical? He seemed high-functioning?
It wasn’t high-functioning when it wasn’t. But yes. Someone was asking what is the answer to our addiction and alcohol problem. The answer is education. We’re not very well educated about the different forms alcoholism can take. We still have a tendency to think of it as somebody who drinks too much too often. Nixon drank too much too often, but for him too much was not very much. And he didn’t drink at all until he was an adult. Alcoholism is actually mysterious. It’s clearly genetic. On the other hand, it’s not as if it’s sitting right there in front of us and we’re not understanding it. It’s hard to understand.
But with Nixon: Yes, his alcoholism looked very different. Well, actually, it looked a lot like Ulysses S. Grant’s alcoholism. But it looked different from William Faulkner’s alcoholism. And I think that made it harder to believe or harder to pick up. But I do think that we actually have a public-health crisis when it comes to education about addiction in this country. And there’s still not the understanding of it that we need to have in order to effectively deal with it. But I also think that the people who understand alcoholism the best are the Alcoholics Anonymous people. And they’re like: You’re an alcoholic if you say you are. Meaning, it’s pretty mysterious who’s an alcoholic and who’s not. They say it’s a self-diagnosed disease. That’s a fairly aggravating definition.
You said that you’re interested in studying women’s lives to get at the texture of history. But this is mostly a book about men. Did you choose to focus on men because you wanted to get at the most seminal events in American history, and that’s who was involved? Or was it just too difficult to find examples of women and alcoholism throughout American history? Maybe that’s your next book?
I think both of those things are true. In other words: They don’t write a lot about drinking men; they certainly don’t write about drinking women. But in the temperance part of the book, there are a lot of women, the way that the temperance movement and women’s suffrage came to the surface together. I was trying to think of essays to write, and it occurred to me I could have done more with Abigail Adams. This was a woman who knew she had brought alcoholism into the family. Can you imagine?
Did she feel guilt?
I don’t know if she felt guilt or fear. She wrote about it very obliquely. But she and her sisters knew their brother was an alcoholic who died of it. And she saw two of her sons die of it and two of her grandsons. There wasn’t anybody dying of it in the Adams line before she married John Adams. She didn’t say, “I brought this into my own family and caused tremendous heartbreak because I’m a carrier.” But I wonder what that must have been like. I always liked her, but it really made me have so much respect for her. To have one child die of alcoholism is an unimaginable tragedy. To have two? And two grandchildren?
And John Quincy Adams—ever since that, he acted like he drank sulfuric acid. Well, no wonder? Two brothers, two sons. And they didn’t know what it was. They called it the scourge. They knew it was bad. But they didn’t really understand even as well as we do now.
I wished there were more women. I wasn’t so aware until I finished. One of my favorite books that I’ve written was American Bloomsbury, and the whole formula for that book was that I took Concord, Massachusetts, in the 19th century and added the women. The revelation for me was when I found that Louisa May Alcott had lived across the street from Emerson, and had based Laurie [in Little Women] on Henry David Thoreau. I didn’t even realize they were in the same town. I had studied Emerson, I had studied Thoreau. Nobody had ever told me Louisa May Alcott was the little babysitter girl. And Margaret Fuller. The women in that equation were tremendously powerful and interesting. But with this book it was hard to find women.
There were women who came into the chapter about alcoholic writers, which is an interesting chapter for a lot of reasons. It felt to me sort of like a little self-contained section, where you focused on culture instead of politics and sociology. Why?
You make a good point. That didn’t occur to me. And you’re absolutely right. I just was plowing along, and Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking came out. I read it and thought, Wait a minute, this isn’t right. Because I was deep in the 19th century at this point. I thought, Wait a minute, [the equation of writers with alcoholism] didn’t start until the 1930s. Like everybody who writes that book—and there are many—they all use the same five writers, because that’s all there are. It’s not happening now. Our writers now are not drunks. I just went, “Wow! This whole myth about writing and drinking is actually restricted to two generations.” And I got so excited about that. But you’re right, I didn’t notice that it completely changed the tone of the book—that it wasn’t about politics, that it was about culture. Sorry!
No, I think it’s fascinating.
I mean, I was so interested. Because everybody thinks it’s all writers who drink. But in fact no writers drink now. You can’t name me one! And it was the same in the 1800s. Maybe Poe. But Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Dickinson? None, zero, not even a ghost of a problem. Whitman was a temperance guy. The Alcotts, they just didn’t drink. It wasn’t on their menu, so to speak. I got very excited. Because for obvious reasons I don’t like the idea that writers have to drink. As a writer who doesn’t drink, I just got very excited about it and tore through the chapter without noticing that it doesn’t really belong in the book. Maybe no one else will notice?
Well, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t belong in the book. I would just say, to me, it felt meaningful that you wanted to include it. It’s not the only place that you reference your family history, your father’s history. You weave that throughout. Did you learn anything about your family that you didn’t already know writing about them here?
I pretty much had it. I’ve been criticized a lot for writing about myself and my family when, according to critics, it wasn’t necessary. So my original intention was not to put any of us in this book at all. But my editor, I think very wisely, said we need a Cheever thread. And it’s true that when I read a history book, I want to know who the writer is. So I did put in a Cheever thread. History is not monolithic; it’s as personal as memoir. It really is. I’m reading [David] McCullough’s Wright brothers book, and it’s fascinating, but it’s all about the engineering. That’s not the book I would have written. It’s great that he wrote the book he wrote. But I have to guess about his fascination with engineering and his lack of interest in food, sex, and drinking. I don’t want to guess. I like to have a sense of who the writer is. I want to say to the reader: “This is who I am. This is a recovering alcoholic writing about alcoholism. You might need to know that.”
Before I let you go, can I ask you a question that’s been bugging me? You write about how the Mayflower Pilgrims drank beer instead of water, because drinking water was far more dangerous. But were they just horribly dehydrated at all times? How do you survive on no water?
Well, it’s very hard. I don’t think it’s good for you. But If you can’t drink the water . . . You’re just thirsty all the time. And it was 6 percent beer. I thought maybe it was 2 percent, maybe it was near beer, right? Nuh-uh. It was real beer. But they didn’t survive; half of them died that first winter. Half! The starving time. So it’s not a good recipe for good health.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The post In Drinking in America, Susan Cheever Puts the Bottle Back in the History Books appeared first on Vogue.
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