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Review: 'Drinking in America' fascinating, yet not without flaws

Susan Cheever begins Drinking in America: Our Secret History, her sober look at the subject, with a nifty detail: "The Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on a cold November day in 1620 because they were running out of beer." But then in the next chapter we find: "The Mayflower's first foray onto the shore of Cape Cod was made so that the ship's women could finally do the laundry."

The first version makes a better case for her thesis, namely that we're a nation of sots. Whether our bibulous history is, per her subtitle, a "secret" seems questionable. Her impressive eight-page bibliography would seem to attest that our — hic — intake of spirits has not entirely gone unnoticed by our historians.

Cheever is the well-regarded author of numerous books, including four memoirs, several biographies (E.E. Cummings and Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) and five novels. She is a professed recovering alcoholic, thus the subject matter is rich terrain. Her father, the author John Cheever, also was an alcoholic.

As a nation, she says, our drinking has been subject to pendulum swings. From the 1620s, when we ran out of either beer or clean shirts, we increasingly drank like fish until the 1820s. The way she tells it, it's a miracle we managed to win our independence, because we could barely stand up straight. "By the time of the Revolution, the colonists' drinking habits had escalated until each colonist was drinking almost twice as much as the average person drinks today."

The militia at Lexington was cross-eyed drunk. Ethan Allen began his day with a rum-and-hard-cider eye-opener. Other popular quaffs of the day had names such as "Rattle-skull and Bombo, Cherry Bounce and Whistlebelly Vengeance." Next time I'm in a snotty hotel bar, I'm going to ask the bartender for one of those. And make it a double.

We got thirstier and thirstier until about the 1820s, at which point, Cheever says, we began to taper off. (News of this must not have reached the Wild West.) Then, a century later, we went wacko overboard in the other direction, banning booze altogether. After the Volstead Act was repealed, happy hour returned. (Thank God.) Again, the pendulum swung. We became happier and happier, until we arrived at the Era of Don Draper (Mad Men), and John Cheever.

Susan Cheever is on her most solid ground in the sections of the book that have to do with artistic drinking. She includes a heart-lacerating quote by her father: "If you are an artist, self-destruction is quite expected of you. The thrill of staring into the abyss is exciting until it becomes, as it did in my case, contemptible."

She notes that "all five of our twentieth-century literature Nobel laureates were alcoholic — Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck." (A proud tally, although it omits the century's two female American laureates, Pearl S. Buck and Toni Morrison, neither known to be drunks.) And those are the ones who made it to the top. Lots of other great writers who didn't receive the Nobel laurel were just as pie-eyed. Today, the pendulum seems to have swung again. Cheever says that most of our leading literary figures are fairly abstemious. Whether this will make for more interesting biographies remains to be seen.

There's a bit of padding in the book, of material that is extraneous to the subject matter. We get, for instance, a recapitulation of the Mayflower voyage; of the Civil War battle at Shiloh (because of Ulysses S. Grant's history of drinking); a bit of Wyatt Earp (a teetotaler); George Armstrong Custer (a "dry drunk").

This quibble aside, I was fascinated (and depressed) to learn that Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard left his post at Ford's Theater to go boozing at a nearby bar. That was determinative.

Perhaps as sadly consequential was the elbow-bending by a number of John F. Kennedy's Secret Service detail during the wee hours of Nov. 22, 1963. Hangovers do not improve reaction time. The driver of the presidential limousine fatally applied the brakes after the first shot, providing Lee Harvey Oswald a better target for his next. Worst of all, none of the agents noticed what many bystanders had: a rifle protruding from the sixth floor of a book depository. This section makes for wrenching reading, even if the material is not new, much less part of a "secret history."

Also entertaining in a grim way is Cheever's account of Richard Nixon's tippling. Nixon didn't need much to get blotto. One drink would usually do it. He apparently also socked his wife, Pat, on occasion, leaving her with a black eye. His aide John Ehrlichman told him in 1962 that he refused to work "for a drunk." Nixon promised to be good. He wasn't, although Watergate is not blamed on his drinking.

Poor Henry Kissinger seems to have spent much of his time countermanding cuckoo bombing orders from a half-in-the-bag Tricky Dick. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger finally "had to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to disregard any military order originating in the White House." I'm really, really glad I didn't know this at the time.

The book is marred by some factual errors, including the assertion that "750,000 men [were] lost in combat during the Civil War." As many as two-thirds of those casualties were the result of disease and other causes. Defense Secretary James Forrestal didn't shout, "The Russians were coming!" when police found him in the street in his pajamas, raving and deranged. (Not to nitpick, but it is a famous — and pretty great — quote: "The Russians are coming!")

Cheever also makes some questionable assertions: "No one thought the Civil War would happen"; "Writers are outlaws"; "[Sen. Joe] McCarthy became a celebrity in an age before celebrity." Whatever one's view of the George W. Bush presidency, it seems a reach to ask rhetorically, "Was President George W. Bush our generation's Joe McCarthy?" And then to answer it: "Of course there are plenty of differences between Bush and McCarthy — one was a two-term president and the other a flash-in-the-pan firebrand, but both danced with the devil of alcoholism and both contributed hugely to our culture of fear." The point being?

Cheever concludes, "One of the things many of our modern historians miss are [sic] the effects of alcoholism." Is it really true that our historians aren't smelling the booze on the national breath? Her own diligent researches would appear to contradict such an assertion.

Drinking in America: Our Secret History

By Susan Cheever

Twelve, 258 pages, $28

Review: 'Drinking in America' fascinating, yet not without flaws 11/18/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2015 11:18am]
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