SUSAN CHEEVER OPENS her book with a detail I don’t remember from any of my corny grade-school lessons about the Mayflower: the story of the Pilgrims landing at Cape Cod, in part, because they were running out of beer. Water wasn’t potable in the 17th century, and drinking about a gallon of ale a day kept passengers healthy and disease-free during their hellish 66-day voyage. Beer was medicine to them, as well as a rare dose of happiness, but by modern standards, our famous first settlers were also sailing while intoxicated. The tale of their miserable passage across the Atlantic, and their doomed first year, during which half their party died, has become the stuff of American legend. But Cheever introduces a compelling question: to what extent did all that booze save them, and to what extent did it scramble their decision-making? Were the Pilgrims cursed — or drunk and sloppy?
It’s a good time to rethink US history. The successes of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton suggest a hunger to reckon with our own grim past. Centuries into the American experiment, it has become clear that in the rush to shape our own mythology, a great deal of complicated humanity has been edited out of the official record.
So why not look at the role of alcohol? “Since the beginning, drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections or politics,” writes Cheever in this brisk drinker’s companion to US history, which runs a black light over the archives to ask: who was loaded, and why did it matter? Cheever is well equipped to tell this alternate narrative. She is the daughter of one of the great drunks in 20th-century literature, John Cheever. Twenty years ago, she too sobered up, and since then has been devoted to exploring the role of addiction in American life, with a memoir about her family’s relationship with alcohol (Note Found in a Bottle, 1999), and one about sex addiction as well (Desire, published in 2008). In between the two, she wrote My Name is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the brilliant and troubled founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s the fourth of Wilson’s famous 12 steps that made it common practice for sober folk to dig into their own pasts in order to articulate the role of alcohol — to create a “searching and fearless moral inventory” — and with Drinking in America, Cheever submits the US to a similar investigation. Along the way, we see a country struggling to negotiate its freedoms, nurtured by alcohol and undone by it as well.
In the harsh early years of the New World, drink was a necessary balm. Settlers sipped their way through icy winters. Schoolchildren were weaned on flip, a cocktail meant to keep the young ones hardy. Alcohol was sustenance, celebration, and fortitude. Even the notoriously prim Puritans believed in the power of booze, though they warned of its dangers as well. As Massachusetts Bay Colony elder Increase Mather put it, “Wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” The tricky question is: when does the one tip over to the other? The Puritans were the first to place restrictions on alcohol consumption, and as Cheever writes, “the difference in attitude toward drinking between the Pilgrims and the Puritans would split the 17th century Great Migration to America into two factions.” You can still find these warring philosophies today — “the one that holds our freedom to eat and drink as an essential liberty, and the one that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community.”
For a long time, drinking tracked alongside the good of the community. Cheever describes local taverns as “the cradle of the revolution.” And through the 18th century, she explains, a steady stream of beer and rum helped to unleash the bravado and defiance necessary to inch toward independence. The patriots who tossed tea into the Boston Harbor in 1773 hadn’t planned on doing so, but they were blasted after hours of drunken scheming. “Perhaps if they had been sober,” Cheever writes, “the night would have been different; they were not sober. They were drunk enough to change history.”
As the American Revolution ignited, “drinking seems to have gone hand in hand with heroism.” Alcohol was liquid courage for soldiers shivering in their foxholes and succor for the wounded. Drinking among the troops was simply a given. One of the many double-edged powers of alcohol is its ability to delude, to make a person feel safe and comforted in the face of other realities, and perhaps no one needs that delusion more than a person facing death. After the war ended, alcohol provided the centerpiece for the Founding Fathers gathering to discuss a fledgling democracy, as well as an incentive to get voters to the polls; yes, it was often a reward at the voting booth. In fact, George Washington lost his first bid for a seat in the Virginia Assembly when he declined to tempt voters with booze. (He never made the mistake again.)
Among the most pleasurable parts of Cheever’s book are these portraits of early, casual drinking life. We have come to associate alcohol with sin — an outgrowth of religiosity dating back to the Puritans — and yet here we see booze in a more innocent light, something like an energy drink, or a nice cup of Joe. John Adams drank a tankard of cider upon waking. Washington ran a profitable distillery at Mount Vernon. Irish immigrants built the Erie Canal fueled by whiskey. Johnny Appleseed, the staple of children’s fables, sowed his seeds not for apples to eat but apples to drink. Cheever calls him the American Dionysus for his role in spreading hard cider across the land.
All that drinking had a tremendous dark side, though, perhaps nowhere more evident than with the native population, which was simply devastated by alcohol. American Indian Movement chairman John Trudell has said that “the conquest of the continent had depended on the Native Americans being drunk.” But they weren’t the only ones showing the ill effects. By the 1830s, America was the drunkest country in the world. The industrial revolution pushed men into the factories, where drinking on the job could end in death. Workers blew their paychecks in the bars, and returned home to unleash violence on their wives and families. The alcohol that had once stirred democracy was destroying it.
Prohibition may seem nuts now (apparently it seemed nuts then, too), but to understand why we outlawed drinking in 1920, it helps to understand what a spectacular mess it had made. The movement was fueled by a few forces (including a religious revival that cast alcohol as “the liquor evil,” and a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment hoping to ward off an influx of Italian, Irish, and Germans, all of whom came from drinking cultures), but more than anything else, Prohibition was tied up with women’s suffrage. Banning alcohol was an attempt to reform the domestic sphere, to make the home a safer place, and suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony first found their voice in the growing temperance movement. Writes Cheever, “No one dreamed that women would ever drink the way men did” — which is only one of the faulty assumptions of the 18th amendment. The first generation of feminists has given us so much, but they could not have conceived of Amy Schumer.
Of course, Prohibition turned out to be another disaster. But this dramatic pivot — from a nation of drunkards to a nation of supposed teetotalers — is what distinguishes America’s drinking story from that of other Western democracies like England and Australia, where alcohol played a similarly historic role. Cheever doesn’t dwell too long on Prohibition, which has been well covered in Ken Burns’s documentary and Daniel Okrent’s excellent history Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, among many other places, but she traces this cultural pendulum swing back to the Puritans. “The American character is subject to wild extremes,” she writes, and this teetering back and forth between indulgence and abstinence can be seen not only in our alcohol use but also our politics, our guns, our relationship to food and sex. We are not a country of moderates. We like to go to extremes.
Going to extremes is also a hallmark of alcoholic behavior, by the way, and several times during the book Cheever notes the overlap between the problem drinker’s personality and various American characters. Stubborn, defiant, resistant to change. This approach can be illuminating, turning those sepia-toned historical figures in wigs into uncertain young men with tankards of rum in their hands. It can also make for a few awkward moments, though, as when Cheever suggests that Ulysses S. Grant couldn’t get rid of the “-ism” in alcoholism (recovery slang), or when she ties Nixon’s moodiness and self-pity to his drinking. It’s not that she’s wrong, but something about the explanation feels insufficient, like diagnosing characters from Shakespeare according to the DSM.
As Cheever inches into the latter part of the 20th century, her book becomes a bit unfocused, perhaps because it’s harder to find “secret drinking histories” in modern times. A chapter on paranoid alcoholic Joseph McCarthy, who died of cirrhosis of the liver, feels unrealized. Another, on John F. Kennedy’s bodyguards, some of whom were hungover on the day he was shot, is an interesting thought experiment that doesn’t really go anywhere. Could these men have saved the president if they weren’t dragging after a night at the bar? Well, probably not, but I wish Cheever had widened the lens a bit to address the larger culture of 1960s drinking. She hits her stride again, however, in a chapter on literary drunks, which she localizes to mean artists from 1920 to 1970. Many writers tackling this topic have focused on the timeless interplay between alcohol and creative inspiration, but Cheever defines the literary drunk more narrowly, as a figure who emerged in the shadows of Prohibition, which made alcohol seem outlaw, and two world wars, which made drinking feel necessary. Neither the 19th nor 21st century have seen such full-throated indulgence as with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and their ilk, although it’s hard for me to buy Cheever’s assessment that “sobriety today is more fashionable than drunkenness.” (I’ve attended too many writing conferences that looked like booze-drenched episodes of The Bachelor.) Still, she is correct that some of the most famous figures of 21st-century literature have found sobriety to be a path to success in the long run. David Sedaris, Stephen King, and Mary Karr speak openly about quitting drinking. One of the most celebrated novels of the 21st century, Infinite Jest, is about recovery. Cheever sees no loss in this shift. “There was nothing glamorous about [that generation’s] drinking. It was, as my father noted, more contemptible than useful.”
Drinking in America ended too soon for me. I wanted Cheever to trace America’s drinking patterns into today. I kept wondering about the “why now” question. How does our longstanding relationship with alcohol speak to the current moment — as we peel back a long prohibition on pot and as pharmaceutical drugs displace the liquor bottle in many people’s hidden cabinets. While overall drinking has dipped in recent decades, women’s drinking has continued to endure as a symbol of empowerment. I was disappointed Cheever never mentioned these trends. Is it annoying to argue that a history book doesn’t contain enough timeliness?
The peculiar story of alcohol in any country is that it represents both liberation and entrapment, inspiration and destruction. The Puritans were right: alcohol is heaven and hell. How any individual, or any country, negotiates the switchbacks of such a slippery freedom is complicated, indeed. In his classic memoir on slavery, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that booze had kept many of his brothers in chains.
The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt […] that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.
What a tangled history alcohol can weave across eras, races, and genders: booze is independence in a glass, and it is also another prison.