A pensive stone figure sits outside the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., atop a platform reading, “what is past is prologue.” But if a new exhibit, “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” is any indication, perhaps it should more appropriately read, “what is past is pregame.”
Note from Ron: Here is another tribute to the late Joe Gusfield, authored by Harry Gene Levine. It circulated via email among some of us old-guard alcohol and drug history types a few days ago. And, when I asked him, Harry was kind enough grant permission it be published at Points. The italicized first paragraph, below the Picasso image, offers Harry’s suggested introductory words for the piece. I’m also going to take the liberty of adding, as a comment, below, my response to it when it was sent around by email. I really like this piece. Thank you, Harry!
In 2000 I was invited to join a panel at the meetings of the Law and Society Association devoted to Joe Gusfield and his book Symbolic Crusade. I wrote a four page presentation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Since hearing of his death I have been thinking about him a lot and dug up the paper. It’s kind of sweet. — H.G.L.
Joseph R. Gusfield’s book, Symbolic Crusade, discusses the temperance movement in America history. I too have studied the American temperance movement and would like to begin with a brief description of the temperance and prohibition crusade that I didn’t write but wish I could have: the first paragraph of Symbolic Crusade.
For many observers of American life, the temperance movement is evidence for an excessive moral perfectionism and an overly legalistic bent to American culture. It seems the action of devoted sectarians who are unable to compromise with human impulse. The legal measures taken to enforce abstinence display the reputed American faith in the power of Law to correct all evils. This moralism and utopianism bring smiles to the cynical and fear to the sinner. Such a movement seems at once naive, intolerant, saintly and silly.
One of the difficulties of writing like that is that it involves discussing so many things at one time. Every sentence in that paragraph talks about the American temperance movement, and about topics other than the temperance movement. I propose that double or triple focus is part of Gusfield’s intellectual genius. For many years I could not even recognize that Joe was focusing on several things at once. I myself am often unable to see even one thing at a time. At first I usually only see part of one thing. Then, like Columbo, the rumpled detective played by Peter Falk, I return scratching my head, thumbing through my notes, and asking again about something that still confuses me.
I’ve been reading Gusfield’s books and articles for twenty-five years trying to understand how he produces his distinctive intellectual, emotional and perceptual effects on the page and in the reader. I would like to report a few things I have figured out about Joseph R. Gusfield’s sociology. Continue reading →
(Editor: Today’s post is from Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.)
It’s back-to-school time, and that means talking to college students about the dangers of binge drinking and the risks of sexual assault. And while parents, health care providers and social science researchers might think those topics go together, health education experts and university administrators call the combination a “third rail” of discourse, to be avoided at all costs. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many universities rely on Department of Justice funding for sexual-assault prevention. But that grant program considers alcohol and substance use “out of scope.” This split might seem like a straightforward bureaucratic division, perhaps to avoid duplication or redundancy. But historians know that such patterns do not come out of nowhere—this disjuncture has a history, and it is a complicated one for feminists.
Anna Loan-Wilsey is currently at work on the third book in her Hattie Davish Mysteries historical fiction series, set in the midst of the 1890s women’s temperance movement with a female detective at its center. The first installment, A Lack of Temperance, was published last fall to positive reviews in Library Journal, Mystery Scene, and Publisher’s Weekly. The series’ second book, Anything But Civil, releases in October 2013. The in-progress third Hattie Davish novel is A Sense of Entitlement. Loan-Wilsey holds a Master’s in Library and Information Science from McGill University in Montreal and works as a librarian and information specialist in rural Iowa. Her blog features research and ephemera that may interest Points readers and proves Loan-Wilsey an accomplished historical detective in her own right.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I would tell them I’m a writer of historical cozy mystery novels set in late 19th century America, where the violence is off-stage, there is little gore, no pets or penguins get hurt, and my main character is Catholic. I think they would like it.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your Hattie Davish Mysteries series, and specifically A Lack of Temperance?
There is a reason my novels are set in the late 19th century (or Victorian era). I love history myself and consider researching and writing about the era the closest I’ll ever come to inventing a time machine. I would hope then that my stories and settings, real, historically intact towns across America, would appeal to anyone who enjoys history. Specifically, however, I believe the Points audience would appreciate my using the temperance movement as the background setting for the mystery. In fact, I’ve had many reviews that mention the fact that they knew next to nothing about the temperance movement before reading A Lack of Temperance. I’m glad my book has served a purpose beyond mere entertainment. Continue reading →
Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.
Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.
Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events. Continue reading →
Note: Points’ managing editor, Eoin Cannon, favors us, today, with an interview on his just-out, new book, The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). BTW, Big Congratulations, Eoin!
Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it. It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.
I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.
This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture.
So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. Continue reading →
Spending a quiet St. Patrick’s Day with my parents and, as many of us do at a certain age, shamelessly rifling their old personal documents, I came across this item of interest.
It is my father’s Pioneer Pledge, his oath at the age of sixteen to “abstain for life,” albeit with some language about “reparations” that may or may not apply to future “sins of intemperance” as well as past ones. He took it in 1960, near the historical peak of membership in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, the movement founded in 1898 by the Jesuit priest James A. Cullen. Continue reading →