To John Allan Krout, long a fixture at Columbia University, goes the distinction of having written the first real history of Prohibition. Titled, simply enough, The Origins of Prohibition, it was published in 1925, five years after the start of the Noble Experiment and eight years before its unlamented demise. Since Krout's time, it seems as though scarcely a year has passed in which the public has not been offered yet another book about Prohibition: In 1962, it was Andrew Sinclair's Prohibition: The Era of Excess; in 1976, it was Norman Clark's Deliver us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition; in 1997, it was Edward Behr's Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America.
This year, it is Daniel Okrent's Last Call. Okrent is one of those people who goes from strength to strength; his previous book, Great Fortune, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history, and in between writing books he has worked as editor for The New York Times, and before that, for Life and Time. Last Call is his most ambitious project to date, employing a small stable of research assistants and involving Okrent himself in extensive archival research.
What they have produced is easily the most readable history of Prohibition. It is also a history in which a Canadian, our own Sam Bronfman, makes several appearances, consistent with a style whose effect is achieved by a laying of vignettes, each revolving around a colourful personality. Socialites and do-gooders, hellfire preachers and feminists, politicians, brewers, vintners, farmers and tycoons - the cameos are endless, deft and always entertaining.
Last Call, in short, is history as Dickens would have written it: strong on characters but weak on plot. The problem is that it also happens to be history as Carlyle would have written it, which is to say that what the reader is really being offered is a populist variant of the Great Man theory of history. There are so many dominant personalities in the book, each talking over the other, that its stated objective, to explain how and why America came to have Prohibition, is too often lost sight of.
This shortcoming makes the book's first chapter its weakest. Here, Okrent paints with a broad brush in an attempt to fast-forward the story from the hard-drinking days of the early 19th century all the way up to the dawn of the Progressive Era. The need to peg events to colourful personalities is presumably the reason why the story starts in the 1840s with the Washingtonians, a temperance group whose members included one of the great showmen of the age: John Bartholomew Gough. Gough's theatrics make him just the sort of historical character we all love to read about, but reality, alas, was considerably drabber, for the Washingtonians were one of history's dead ends, and in any event they were neither the first nor the largest of the original temperance societies.
The 11 chapters on Prohibition proper are the heart of the book, and they more than make up for its rocky start. There is, as one might expect, a great deal about flappers, gangsters and rum-runners, but the more thoughtful chapters focus on the ways in which businesses managed to adapt and even thrive. A good example is the loophole in the Volstead Act that allowed individual households to ferment up to 200 gallons of fruit juice a year. The exemption was a fob to all the farmers who had no intention of giving up their hard cider, but it was very quickly seized upon by California's vintners: Blocked from making wine, they managed to make even more money by selling raw grapes to a thirsty nation. Soon, they were tearing up their vineyards and replanting them with vines producing the tough-skinned Alicante Bouschet grape; a few years later, they were marketing dehydrated blocks of grape juice that could be reconstituted as barely drinkable wine.
Prohibition is one of those topics that always seems to elicit facile comparisons, the usual candidate being the so-called War on Drugs. Okrent, to his credit, does not give into this temptation. Or rather, he intersperses his text with dots and allows the reader to connect them. The comparison he suggests, ever so subtly, is in many ways even more unsettling. It is this: A determined minority pushed through Prohibition, and had the Great Depression not come along, it almost certainly would have succeeded in blocking repeal. The inference? Watch out for the Tea Partiers. They represent but a small fraction of the American electorate, and that makes them all the more dangerous.
Jessica Warner is a member of the graduate faculty at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Her most recent book is All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in America.