The Points Interview — Eoin Cannon

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!

Cannon-coverDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

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. Cannon

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 →

Historical Documents of Temperance, Post-Pat’s Day Guilt and Remorse Edition

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.

Sacred-Heart-PledgeIt 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 →

The Little Saloon on the Prairie

With interests in heritage tourism and addiction history, I am always looking for intersections between the two. I found one unexpectedly last summer in Alaska, visiting several brothel museums that celebrated the madams’ business acumen and bootlegging success. I learned recently that Kentucky has a Bourbon Trail with the tagline “Where the Spirit Leads You,” while the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has its own American Whiskey Trail, starring George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon. Needless to say, these sites demonstrate the power of history to make political and economic arguments in the present. A fuller discussion of them will have to await my next road trip.

Heirloom booze.

Ye olde employee of Beam Inc. (NYSE: BEAM).

Meanwhile, not all museums or cultural attractions want to highlight the role of alcohol, especially when they are cultivating a wholesome image befitting their connection with classics of children’s literature. As an example, heritage tourism is booming at the sites associated with the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where visitors confront a complex mix of history, original and replica buildings, and landscapes, all viewed through the lens of well-loved texts.

Continue reading →

The Question of Temperance in Idaho’s Constitution

Author’s Note:  Washington State’s privatization of liquor sales in 2011 has stimulated renewed interest in this option in neighboring Idaho, where liquor sales fall under the monopoly control of the Idaho State Liquor Division.  The claim that the ISLD has a constitutional mandate to promote temperance harbors a number of rhetorical utilities for the anti-privatization camp.  But is such a claim justified?  Below, I take another look at the history of Idaho’s state constitution to find out.  – Ron Roizen   

William H. Claggett, president of the Idaho constitutional convention

William H. Claggett, president of the Idaho constitutional convention

Does the Idaho State Liquor Division have a constitutional responsibility to “promote temperance”?

As it happens, the word “temperance” appears in one place only in Idaho’s constitution:

Article III, Section 24, which is titled “PROMOTION OF TEMPERANCE AND MORALITY,” reads as follows:  “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people, and the purity of the home. The legislature should further all wise and well directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.”

This temperance provision dates back to the original 1889 text of Idaho’s constitution, making it more than 120 years old.

Continue reading →

The Points Interview — Ian Tyrrell

Editor’s Note:  Australian Americanist, Ian Tyrrell, the last president of the Alcohol & Temperance History Group and the first president of the newly renamed and reconstituted Alcohol & Drugs History Society, shares a few reflections on his recent book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton University Press, 2010).

1. Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book is about late 19th century U.S. missionaries and moral reformers who wished to change the world not by turning everybody into Americans, but by Christianizing it and ridding it of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and other “sins.” But in the process, these people were changed, and the movements they led were changed. The experience of trying to change the world influenced reformers and missionary supporters back in the United States, creating a strong sense of the need for moral reform at home, and for the idea of a Christian nation achieved through exertion of state power.

Ultimately, I am showing how the world was, more than a century ago, already a very connected place with a United States that was surprisingly affected by overseas influences and engaged in exerting moral influence abroad. My American story is of a nation newly linked as part of a worldwide web of communications. Continue reading →

Bottling Up Emotions?

Editor’s Note:  Does the lens of emotion bring into focus otherwise vague or unnoticed aspects of temperance campaigns?  Guest blogger Stephanie Olsen, of the recently launched Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, argues yes, it does.

The history of emotions has become a trendy topic recently, with some scholars arguing that it is an essential category of analysis, not unlike class, race, or gender. Several research centers have sprung up in different countries in the past few years, in England, Sweden and Australia.  At the Max Planck Center for the History of Emotions in Berlin, where I work, the theme has inspired many diverse and interesting topics, spanning regional and thematic divides.  But does this new field have any resonance for the history of alcohol and drugs?  Can it provide any new insights?

The history of emotions is about showing how emotions themselves have a history (how they change over time) and how they actually help to shape history. It is also about questioning how emotions were instrumentalized in different times and places and to what end. The temperance movement certainly appealed to the emotions, especially when the campaigning was directed at children or when appeals were made to adults to support children’s causes.  No British movement was clearer in this tactic than the Band of Hope.

The Band of Hope, founded in Leeds in 1847, was an influential multi-denominational, mainly working-class national movement. Frustrated at the slow speed of supportive legislation, temperance reformers saw the most effective way of creating a temperate society was through the education of the young.  Their characters, including their emotions, were more malleable than those of adults. Though the temperance movement among adults was controversial, there was little debate that temperance was necessary among children.(1) The Band of Hope societies were generally structured around midweek meetings with music, slides, competitions, and addresses on the importance of total abstinence.(2)  Band of Hope periodicals, the most widespread in this period being Onward and the Band of Hope Review, were an important part of the movement, whose ultimate aim was not only the inculcation of its values through its publications but also recruitment for Band of Hope meetings.

At its peak the Band of Hope attracted well over three-million juvenile members, all of whom were required to sign a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol. Continue reading →

The Points Interview — H. Paul Thompson, Jr.

Editor’s Note:  H. Paul Thompson’s book, A Most Stirring and Significant Episode: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Black Atlanta, 1865-1887 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012),  is due out this month.  Thompson positions his study as part of a recent reawakening of scholarly interest in the importance of religion as a freestanding source of 19th c. temperance and prohibition ideas and initiatives.  “This neo-religious school,” Thompson suggests, “includes, among others, James Rohrer, Robert Abzug, Douglas Carlson, and Michael P. Young.  They argue that temperance reformers’ biblical and religious discourse, worldview, and organizations must be understood on their own terms, and not as a cover for sublimated class, status, or political anxieties, or as ruses for cynical attempts at cultural dominance.”  Points warmly welcomes Paul to our forum! 

1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’m not exactly sure what bartenders understand because I am one of the few (maybe the only?) historians of temperance who actually does not drink!  That said, my work places a lot of emphasis on the religious and ideological basis for the nineteenth-century temperance movement.  Ironically, much of that foundation had changed in key ways by the time national prohibition commenced.  Here’s my best effort.   In a nutshell, my bartender should be thankful for all of the central, eastern, and southern European immigrants who flooded this nation at the turn of the twentieth-century — and their descendants — because they permanently transformed the reigning paradigms of U.S. culture.  He owes every patron whose name ends with a “ski” a great big “Thank You!” for helping to overturn America’s nineteenth-century evangelical Protestant-dominated worldview and for facilitating a decline in the influence of evangelical organizations and their leaders. America’s move away from historic republican ideology and discourse furthered this departure from past ideas too.  (But I wouldn’t bring this up unless I knew the bartender were working his way through a graduate history program.)  The split between conservative and liberal Protestantism in the early twentieth century, caused by the rise of modernism, also went a long way toward undermining the institutional, theological, and ideological forces that had undergirded the anti-alcohol movement for a century.  Of course I suppose he could also thank Al Capone, FDR, and the groups that fought to overturn the 18th Amendment as well. Continue reading →