Doing Something That Doesn’t Work For Five Hundred Years

Drunkenness of Noah - a problem that's been with us a long time

Drunkenness of Noah – a problem that’s been with us a long time

Author Susan Cheever sets out to fill a gap in American History with Drinking in America, Our Secret History, and her personal life doubtlessly influences her writing. A third of the way through the book, Cheever writes of her own family’s battle with alcohol and notes that “alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” She herself stopped drinking when “brought to my knees by alcoholism.” Authors of straight history “texts” don’t get personal in the body of their work.

Despite her family, Cheever acknowledges that alcohol, and the “unstoppable” “crazy courage,” “both brilliance and incompetence” of drunks, has contributed to America. Drinking has led to American disasters and triumphs. “Rum could make you brave, confident, and scornful of conventional obstacles.”

She offers excellent retellings of many familiar pieces of history: the Pilgrims and Puritans (not the same people at all!), the Revolution, Civil War, woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, Kennedy’s assassination – with vivid details I had never read. The idea that some of the Pilgrims’ difficulties were due to most of them being drunk (by modern standards) almost all the time is intriguing. And you’ll find some famous names revealed as heavy drinkers, along with others who hated alcohol and drunkenness, beginning with the Pilgrims. Reviewers on Amazon point out Cheever’s speculation and factual errors (“riddled” says one), and her book isn’t footnoted like a text would be, but it’s worth your reading time.

But I’d like to note her comments on history. While there have been historians seeking to push an agenda or prove a point, “modern history, for the most part, claims to be objective… observant neutrality occasionally punctuated with some wise commentary. There are many advantages – no ax to grind, no idea to sell, no political point to make. But there are disadvantages… Historians miss a lot.”

This view of history limits our perspective. She notes that, after reading “hundreds of indexes and tables of contents, and dozens of books… [she finds that] few historians even mention drinking and its effects.”

I assume historians skip across drinking in history, in part, because ascribing any positive outcome to drunkenness is embarrassing – or at least, counterintuitive. The idea that inebriation was part of daily life for men, women, and children (!) as well as founding fathers and Nobel winning authors simply doesn’t click.

Yet it seems to me that the truth is worth knowing, and Cheever’s book offers something to add to my view of history. It does reinforce my basic feeling that The War on Drugs is a mistake, and I try to be skeptical of books that confirm my pre-existing biases. But even punishments from the 1600s that would be considered torture today didn’t stop drunkenness, which pretty much agrees with the effects of modern punishments on drug addicts. Perhaps, by ignoring an element of history, we are repeating it.

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