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The Saloon and the Mission

Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture

Eoin F. Cannon

Publication Year: 2013

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, sobriety movements have flourished in America during periods of social and economic crisis. From the boisterous working-class temperance meetings of the 1840s to the quiet beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s, alcoholics have banded together for mutual support. Each time they have developed new ways of telling their stories, and in the process they have shaped how Americans think about addiction, the self, and society. In this book Eoin Cannon illuminates the role that sobriety movements have played in placing notions of personal and societal redemption at the heart of modern American culture. He argues against the dominant scholarly perception that recovery narratives are private and apolitical, showing that in fact the genre’s conventions turn private experience to public political purpose. His analysis ranges from neglected social reformer Helen Stuart Campbell’s embrace of the “gospel rescue missions” of postbellum New York City to William James’s use of recovery stories to consider the regenerative capabilities of the mind, to writers such as Upton Sinclair and Djuna Barnes, who used this narrative form in much different ways. Cannon argues that rather than isolating recovery from these realms of wider application, the New Deal–era Alcoholics Anonymous refitted the “drunkard’s conversion” as a model of selfhood for the liberal era, allowing for a spiritual redemption story that could accommodate a variety of identities and compulsions. He concludes by considering how contemporary recovery narratives represent both a crisis in liberal democracy and a potential for redemptive social progress.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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pp. C-i

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. ii-ix

Table of Contents

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pp. x-xi

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xii-xvi

This project had two origins, one professional and one personal. In the first, I was on the lookout for popular or vernacular counterparts to what Michael Szalay has termed New Deal Modernism in literature. I was interested in narrative, imagery, and social practices in the 1930s and 1940s that expressed neither radicalism nor reaction but that spoke, in one way ...

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Introduction: Addiction Recovery and the World as it should be

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pp. 1-20

Neither George Bush nor Barack Obama claims to be an alcoholic or a drug addict. Nevertheless, in these turning points in their autobiographies, the forty-third and forty-fourth presidents invoke conventions of addiction recovery narrative to convey their passages from early-life drift to sober purpose. Bush’s late turnaround fits the template of the classic...

Part I: Redemption and Ideology

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1. The Drunkard’s Conversion and the Salvation of the Social Order

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pp. 23-51

Jeremiah McAuley, by every nineteenth-century indicator, was doomed to a wicked life and an early death. Heredity, upbringing, environment, religion, habits—each was as bad as could be, and the sum predicted irreversible degeneracy. His father was a counterfeiter in Ireland who abandoned his family. He was raised by a foul-mouthed Papist grandmother,...

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2. “What a Radical Found in Water Street”

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pp. 52-82

The conversion narratives told by drunkards in the rescue missions of Lower Manhattan were popular stories in the Protestant America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to appealing to religious sentiments, they showed middle-class society how it could affirm its own righteousness by redeeming the outcast and even the...

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3. The Varieties of Conversion Polemic

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pp. 83-114

The drunkards reformed at evangelical rescue missions in the late nineteenth century anchored their conversion stories to pragmatic needs and oriented them toward egalitarian ends, and in doing so created a flexible form for applying addiction-redemption language to all manner of social purposes. But this reformist structure notwithstanding, in both...

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4. New Deal Individualism and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

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pp. 115-152

The birth of Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s was a turning point in the cultural history of alcoholism and addiction. A.A. grew rapidly, and by midcentury it had taken hold not only as a means of recovery, but also as a source of conventional wisdom about alcoholism, informing its depiction in film, fiction, and memoir. While the efficacy of A.A....

Part II: Literature and Recovery

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5. Literary Realism and the Secularization of the Drunkard’s Conversion

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pp. 155-176

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the sensational conversion of very bad men was a well-established phenomenon in American religious revival, so much so that it was a subject of satirical humor. Despite also being the target of such mockery, though, the drunkard’s conversion remained popular in the literature of religious and moral uplift, accepted as ...

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6. The Drinker’s Epiphany in Modernist Literature

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pp. 177-199

T. S. Eliot, in his 1937 introduction to Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, urged its readers not to repeat the mistake of an unnamed reviewer, who recoiled from Barnes’s “horrid sideshow of freaks.” Instead, Eliot insisted, one must understand her queer, dissolute expatriates as exemplars of the human condition. To read them as mere deviants, the poet wrote, ...

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7. The Iceman Cometh and the Drama of Disillusion

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pp. 200-222

Eugene O’Neill’s life and work seem to fit the pattern of the alcoholic modern writers. Born in 1888, he was a ferocious binge drinker in his early adulthood, accruing the kinds of legends that make a hard-drinking writer’s reputation. From 1907 to 1915, between trips at sea, he spent lengthy periods in some of Manhattan’s rougher saloons and boardinghouses.1 Biographers ...

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8. Recovery Memoir and the Crack-Up of Liberalism

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pp. 223-247

In his 1956 memoir The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair traces the theme of alcoholism through his life and times, focusing on the dozens of writers, artists, politicians, and workers he knew who were its victims. Beginning with the dizzying instability of his childhood due to his own father’s periodical binges, he documents his booze-saturated early environs in both ...

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Conclusion: Addiction in a New Era of Recovery

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pp. 248-262

New kinds of sobriety stories have always emerged during times of socioeconomic crisis. Because these crises have been those of urban industrial capitalism, poor city neighborhoods have been the settings for these stories since the temperance era. The slums and addiction are concrete manifestations of modern society’s sociopolitical failures: the first in ...


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pp. 263-310


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pp. 311-321

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 322-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762721
E-ISBN-10: 1613762720
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499928
Print-ISBN-10: 155849992X

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 863041126
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Saloon and the Mission

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Alcoholism -- Social aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Alcoholism -- Treatment -- United States -- History.
  • Alcoholics -- Rehabilitation -- United States -- History.
  • Temperance in literature.
  • Alcoholism in literature.
  • Rescue missions (Church work) -- United States -- History.
  • Recovery movement -- United States -- History.
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