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  • On Prohibition
  • Robert Slayton (bio)
Michael A. Lerner. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. 351pp. Notes and index. $22.50.
Lisa McGirr. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. xxii + 330 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $27.95.

Since its inception, Prohibition has been viewed within two distinct contexts. The first, original lens was that the era was a zany, wild time. Take a look at the introduction for the television show The Roaring 20s, broadcast from 1960 to 1962. Images show flappers and young men in stylish fur coats dancing the Charleston, speakeasies, a man drinking from a hip flask, and police firing tommy guns during an auto chase with bootleggers. Meanwhile, the theme song extols: “The wild and reckless, never boring, roaring . . . twenties.”1 Malcom Cowley wrote of the decade: “Everywhere was the atmosphere of a long debauch that had to end,” or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald summed it up in “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” this was simply a decade focused on “what was fashionable and what was fun.”2

With the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment and then its ultimate repeal, the leading conception was equally simplistic: that Prohibition was a disaster, that it just did not work. There was little in the way of analysis of what it meant for U.S. society and history. The latest example of this approach was Daniel Okrent’s popular and widely reviewed (including an increasingly rare piece in the Sunday New York Times Book Review), Last Call (2010). At the outset, Okrent asks the reader, “How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions. . . . How the hell did it happen?” In answering this question, he provides some explanations (“a tax, a social revolution, and a war”) and a great many wonderful stories, such as: “It was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar.” In the end, however, it comes down to a sense that Prohibition simply collapsed. [End Page 478] Okrent bluntly concludes: “In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure.”3

Two recent books have remedied this absence of analysis by providing major new interpretations of what Herbert Hoover labeled “The Noble Experiment.” Michael Lerner’s Dry Manhattan takes a look at Prohibition in New York City, using it as a test case to wring out the national implications of the movement to restrict alcohol. Lerner views the struggle to enforce the Volstead Act as one of the United States’ greatest examples of cultural/political wars, seeing it as a struggle over major issues. To Lerner, “Prohibition embodied a fourteen-year–long cultural conflict over the nature of American identity . . . and the political future of the country.” It became “the defining issue of the 1920s, one that measured the moral and political values of the nation . . . a key to understanding the cultural divides that separated Americans . . . as the United States was transformed by rapid economic growth and demographic changes” (p. 3). When New Yorkers rejected Prohibition, they instead “championed a style of political reform better suited to modern America,” leading to the New Deal in the next decade (p. 5). Even more, their opposition announced that city dwellers and immigrants from the recent Southern and Eastern European waves were Americans too, determined to take their place as citizens and as fundamental parts of the American mosaic. Prohibition was no simple story of ineptitude but “a debate about competing visions of American society” (p. 6).

New York was actually seen as the great prize by the dry forces, its eventual vote for reform demonstrating the reform movement’s power and the strength of the tactics they had mastered. William Anderson, one of the Anti-Saloon League’s leading figures, made it his personal assignment to win over a state that seemed so unlikely a target. Making use of advocacy techniques and a legislature gerrymandered to give...

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