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“IF YOU saw an Anti-Saloon Leaguer shake the hand of a saloonkeeper,” wrote Amy Porter in the October 30, 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, “and the two of them walk and talk together as thick as thieves, your first question might well be: Where am I? The answer would have to be: At the School of Alcohol Studies at Yale. Nowhere else, probably, has such an event taken place.”
Placed adjacent these opening sentences was the happy picture shown above, featuring E.M. Jellinek, with a coyly grateful smile, flanked by two clearly delighted Yale Summer School students, one from the temperance tradition and the other from Seagram’s. Porter’s article was titled “Wet and Dry School” – thus telegraphing from the get-go that the new institution took no position on the great alcohol controversy and cultural schism that, by 1943, had preoccupied the nation for more than a hundred years.
Such magazines as Collier’s, Look, and Life provided the photo journalism of their day. Several photos of the Yale school’s activities, faculty, and students accompanied Porter’s text — these credited to Collier’s photographer Hans Knopf-Pix. Four are reproduced in this post.
Porter’s focus on the possibility of a happy coming together — call it a national reunion — of Americans around the alcohol issue illuminated an important and yet little discussed latent function of “the new scientific approach” to alcohol that Jellinek and his Yale school colleagues proffered. Closing the old dry-wet schism strengthened national unity just when the country needed unity most, during the great and ongoing national emergency of the Second World War.
But how? How exactly was science fitted to that unity promoting task? Porter’s three-page article, brief as it was, found hints of how in Jellinek’s approach to the new Yale school.
One unity-serving feature of science was its commitment to objectivity and political neutrality. Jellinek made good use of it. Porter quoted the school’s director: “‘Our object is not to convert anyone to any point of view,’ said Doctor Jellinek. ‘We wish only to explore the problems of alcohol for the information of seriously interested persons.'” Porter also noted: “Doctor Jellinek scrupulously avoids advocating any particular solution. ‘We present facts, and the student can make such use of them as he sees fit. Most facts can be used to bolster any argument, wet or dry.'”
But how did the mere provision of information – even rock solid science – help bring the two former cultural adversaries together? Jellinek executed an outflanking maneuver on the old adversaries by suggesting there was a much wider universe of information bearing on alcohol-related issues than they had previously been exposed to. In a similar vein, he argued that necessary knowledge hadn’t yet percolated out to key players in the alcohol social arena. “As Doctor Jellinek sees it,” wrote Porter, “the stumbling block in the path to a solution has been the lack of scientific information among barkeeps and temperance workers, jailers, doctors, judges, preachers, teachers, war-plant bosses and Army officers—all of whom in the course of a day’s work may have to make decisions affecting people who drink to excess.”
Jellinek and the new Yale school also diffused the old conflict by implicitly suggesting there was a new sheriff in town. All educational enterprises are of course also authority claims. The mere fact that the Yale summer school program was called “a school” harbored that key implication. Schools provide venues for an instructor’s superior knowledge to come in contact with students’ lesser knowledge. Hence, the new science’s claim to a new cultural hegemony is tacitly affirmed by the students’ mere willingness to attend something called a “school” on this subject.
Beyond objectivity and the tacit claim to superior knowledge, Jellinek found additional touchstones for the new scientific authority. He even suggested a group-therapeutic value for the school’s sessions. Porter quoted him: “‘They are curious about one another, and that’s a good thing,’ said the professor, happily performing introductions. ‘They need one another’s ideas.'”
Inevitably, some of the well-worn symbols of science’s cultural authority turned up in Porter’s article too. For instance, the Yale alcohol group’s Leon Greenberg was pictured in a white lab coat working with lab rats — incidentally described in the picture’s caption as “blind-drunk and dead-drunk rats.”
The Yale school’s pedagogic fare wasn’t entirely unproblematic for some students, however. Instructional attention to the subject of alcoholism drew mixed responses from dry students. The temperance movement traditionally harbored ambivalent feelings about alcoholism. Why try to help the broken bodies at the base of the cliff, an old temperance saw said, when one could build a sturdy fence at its top to keep people from falling?
Porter quoted a student named Reverend W. D. Bayley, of Manitoba: “I am not interested in a man who has ever drunk so much whisky that he had a hang-over the next morning. The sooner that man and others like him die from a cobbled liver, the better off society will be.”
Dry opinion was deeply divided on the Yale school from the outset. Whereas no less a dry leader than Ernest H. Cherrington agreed to sit on the school’s board and wrote a glowing account of it’s first session in The Voice (Oct. 1943), the official publication of the Board of Temperance of the Methodist Church, on the other hand, Ernest B. Gordon, arguably the dry literature’s William F. Buckley, Jr., excoriated the school for its neutrality theme’s crypto-wet implications (Alcohol Reaction at Yale, Francistown, N.H., 1946). (Jay L. Rubin’s memorable 1979 article, “Shifting Perspectives on the Alcoholism Treatment Movement 1940-1955” (Journal of Studies on Alcohol 40:376-386), offers a fuller picture of initial dry responses and the subsequent evolution of dry disenchantment with the Yale school.)
Jellinek positioned himself safely above the fray. His pronouncements and demeanor conveyed an avuncular mildness, a lightness of touch, and even a little comic relief. It was a role performance doubtlessly well suited to both the superior station the school afforded him and the spirit of friendly understanding toward all viewpoints he wished to convey. Porter didn’t miss this aspect of Jellinek’s presentation of self in her account, either. “A young woman social worker,” she wrote, “addressed Doctor Jellinek, ‘You’ve told us the bad effects of drinking. Can you tell me if there ever are any bad effects from not drinking?'”
“‘Well,’ said Jellinek, ‘there’s halo pressure—a very dangerous thing.'”