Prolific author Susan Cheever provides in her latest book, Drinking in America, a pleasing survey of the role of alcohol in crucial episodes of the history of the United States. She starts out with the importance of beer on the voyage of the Mayflower and ends with Richard Nixon's inability to hold his drink. On the way, she sets out the social history of the early settlers, Paul Revere, the whiskey rebellion, Johnny Appleseed and hard cider, the Civil War, the start of the temperance movement, Prohibition, the use of alcohol by great American writers of the twentieth century, Joseph McCarthy's alcoholism, and the assassination of President Kennedy. For the most part, her theme is that the importance of alcohol has been underappreciated by historians. She emphasizes the dangers of alcohol, people's great desire to include drink in their lives, and the folly of laws outlawing alcohol.
Cheever doesn't appear to have done any original research here. Rather, she summarizes information available in a number of existing sources. The strength of Drinking in America is bringing together plenty of information in an accessible form. Cheever has a talent for setting out history in a way that brings it alive without resorting to the sort of sensationalism that one often sees, for example, on cable TV shows that address similar topics. Occasionally, she brings in her own personal story as an alcoholic and a child of an alcoholic, her father John Cheever, as a way to reflect on some of the personal stories of others, and this helps the reader to relate to her. She also brings humor in, which balances some of the sad stories she relates. The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Barbara Benjamin Creel is even-keeled and well-produced.
This book is a useful starting point for those looking to understand the social history of alcohol in the United States, and could then lead to more detailed research into particular topics. She clears up some popular misconceptions about historical figures, such as Johnny Appleseed, and she helps clarify the attitude of those who are against alcohol. The original Puritans were strongly against drunkenness, but they celebrated drinking when it was done in moderation. Cheever argues that the United States has had difficulty finding a balance between the use and the abuse of alcohol for much of its history. She likes the phrase "the American character" which seems on the simplistic side, but it does help drive her point home.
© 2015 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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