Books · Emotional Health

Book Review: ‘Drinking in America: Our Secret History,’ by Susan Cheever

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Cheever’s book is called “The Writer’s Vice.” Here she examines the fact that in the years following Prohibition the United States produced a remarkable number of talented writers who are almost as famous for their drinking as they are for their writing. “In the mid-twentieth century,” she writes, “five of the seven Americans who won the Nobel Prize were alcoholics—Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck.” This is a topic to which Cheever brings a unique perspective since her father, John Cheever, was also a celebrated author and alcoholic, and she herself is a recovering alcoholic. Though Hemingway reportedly comforted Fitzgerald, when he was despairing about his own drinking by saying “of course you’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are,” Cheever takes the point of view that this is not true of good writers in general but is a vice particular to mid-20th-century American writers.

First of all, she dispels the myth of the romance of the hard drinking writer. Many of these men (and some women) died from effects of their drinking or committed suicide. Dorothy Parker quipped at one writer’s funeral, when someone remarked that the corpse “looked good,” that of course he did, “he hasn’t had a drink in three days.” While initially alcohol may loosen inhibitions in a way that improves creativity, in the long run it impairs language and thought processes. Eventually it turns on the writer, as Christopher Hitchens remarked: “alcohol is a good servant but a bad master.” Cheever observes that alcoholic writers who kept on writing produced less talented and even feeble work in the later years, and that alcoholism did terrible damage to their families as well. John Cheever, notably, was able to stop drinking during the last 20 years of his life and produced many great stories in that time.

Susan Cheever’s thesis, however, that drinking to wild excess was confined to this generation seems plausible to me. The role that Prohibition played was to make alcohol “counter-cultural”— anti-establishment, so to speak. “Even writers who were not alcoholics drank with abandon in the post-Prohibition world,” Cheever writes. Alcohol still had some of the magic of “something available only to those smart enough and sly enough to be unconventional, energetic, and to live outside the deadening strictures of bourgeois life.” That could just as easily be written about the counter-cultural aims of young people in the 1960s who used drugs, disdaining drinking as a habit associated with their parents and the establishment.

I won’t give away the frightening revelations that this book makes about the role drinking to excess played during the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Suffice to say that Cheever’s thesis that American history has been impacted (and almost put off course) in some very important aspects is dramatically illustrated here in ways that were completely unknown to me. Her subtitle —“America’s Secret History” — goes to the root of the problem. Because of our ambivalent relationship to alcohol, our shame and the wide pendulum swings in our attitude about it, drinking has never been wholly integrated into our culture in an open, normative way. While some may argue there is no way to be normative about a substance so easily abused, Americans have a particularly rocky relationship to the bottle. Anything we can learn about it helps, and this book is an important and highly entertaining step in the right direction.

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  • douglas mcintyre October 29, 2015 at 7:11 am

    Outstanding review

    Reply