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  • Temperance, Mass Culture, and the Romance of Experience
  • Thomas Augst (bio)

In a New York Times editorial from November 2004, Steven Waldman observed, "if Mr. Bush hadn't had a drinking problem, he wouldn't be president today. . . . It was that journey that enabled him to connect to many people who struggle with their own sins and foibles" (A31). Circulated in videos and books through grass-roots organizations, this story helped to make the president (despite his extraordinary privilege) an ordinary "sort of guy you'd want to have a beer with," as polls repeatedly put it. At the same time, it bolstered his status as a culture warrior defying the supposed moral relativism that mainstream media are thought to have propagated, especially since the 1960s. In both senses, President Bush plays a character first made familiar 20 years before the Civil War, when the personal experience of the reformed drunkard acquired extraordinary public visibility as a story that spoke with unique sincerity and influence to mass audiences. The lasting presence and force of this story in the US invites us to consider the aesthetic shape and social functions of moral discourse in public life. Through what institutions and practices of temperance reform did this "journey" of a drunkard's redemption acquire its sameness in the antebellum era, and with what consequences for conflicts over moral authority with which we continue to live?

Like other social reform movements, temperance borrowed techniques of mass politics such as the rally and the convention, and mobilized republican iconography of liberty and bondage to become what Michael Warner has called "a civil society phenomenon, arguably the largest and most sustained social movement in modernity" (34). With the formation of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance in 1828, the movement was forged [End Page 297] through coalitions of Protestant churches, social elites, and professional experts, and institutionalized through the formation of regional and national voluntary societies. Creating networks for the dissemination of lectures and tracts, these societies sought to change public opinion and regulate the liquor trade, and ultimately produced profound changes in social customs, legal policy, and municipal governance. By the Civil War, 13 states had passed laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol, and another five had almost passed such laws. Within the broad history of temperance reform, and perhaps at the center of it, a simple story about the drunkard's becoming sober turned the domestic lives of ordinary men into a new kind of public spectacle purveyed by temperance societies, fiction, drama, and the lecture hall. Recently scholars have interpreted the cultural implications of this story, reading literary texts such as Walt Whitman's Franklin Evans (1842) or T. S. Arthur's Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There (1854) in particular as evidence of developing ideologies of class and gender that animated antebellum reform.1

By focusing on the origins of the experience story at meetings of a temperance society called the Washingtonians, I wish by contrast to interpret and explicate material and historical forms of temperance discourse as contested modes of literary practice. At a moment when the ideological status and social uses of written texts were themselves the objects of critical debate, technological innovation, and institution-building, the drunkard's story generated larger contests for moral authority that were waged between professional elites and ordinary people within relatively new forms of mass communication such as the newspaper and the popular lecture, as well as across the evolving literary genres of sermon, novel, autobiography, and stage melodrama. In an era when Americans were, as Tocqueville famously observed, continually forming associations, the Washingtonian romance of reform represented a secular confession, a de-sacralization of moral knowledge that would help make personal experience central to the civic rituals and social practices of modern liberalism. Born at the historical crossroads of mass culture and moral discourse, elite literacy and popular theatricality, the drunkard's story taught individuals and communities to govern themselves and one another in new ways, helping to transform an ancient virtue of moderation into a distinctively liberal practice of freedom.2

1. Networks of Experience: Institutional Literacies and the Drunkard's Confession

Although it would...


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pp. 297-323
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