Book Review: “Last Call” by Daniel Okrent

Published by Scribner

Prohibition would likely never happen in today’s North American society. So, as with most things of the past, it’s easy to look back at it in befuddlement and wonder how on earth such a thing could ever have been. You can now stop wondering. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise And Fall of Prohibition can tell you virtually everything you ever wanted to know about this unique era in American history.

It was a perfect storm of circumstances that brought Prohibition into law. Or rather that enabled an extremely vocal pressure group called the Anti-Saloon League and its allied organizations to force Prohibition into law. The movement for women’s suffrage was joined at the hip to the “dry” cause, given that many of those who first wanted liquor declared illegal were members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; giving women the vote was crucial to getting the “right people” into public office. Racism played its role as it also did in the similar movement to censor Hollywood films. And finally World War I was instrumental in the ASL’s battle against the brewery companies — most of which were operated by German-American immigrants. Ultimately, in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution went into effect. And America was dry.

But not really. Because of course anyone who still wanted a drink could still easily find one…at a rather higher price and in rather lower places. People didn’t drink all that less, they just had to hide it more. And sometimes they didn’t even bother to hide all that effectively, given how much the enforcement agencies formed to deal with lawbreakers were soaked in corruption. Finally, after a decade of speakeasies, rumrunners, and the mob, another perfect storm of circumstances and public sentiment forced Prohibition off the books for good.

Okrent spins the narrative of an entire era with aplomb, drawing compelling portraits of some very colourful characters and framing them in sometimes amusing stories. Politicians and activists who were publicly “dry” but privately “wet”; speakeasy operators who went to great lengths to ensure customers that their liquor was just what it said on the bottle while filling up the empties in the back with rotgut; and of course the famous mobster Al Capone who as a master of public relations preferred to paint his bootlegging as a public service that gave the people what they wanted. Sometimes Okrent is a bit rambling, at least in the early chapters, as he gets into tangents and digressions that are more about the people than the social history but it isn’t unwelcome, although it does lead to a bit of confusion of chronology in the beginning. His narrative voice is a little less restrained than is usual even for a non-academic history; he becomes animated enough to use a few minor swear words — swear words! — and there’s even some repetition (as you just saw) to emphasize a surprise.

One surprise I learned was that the income tax was first introduced in the US to ease the pain of letting the liquor tax go (you can’t collect on illegal substances). Some who campaigned for Repeal hoped that the tax would disappear as well, but of course it didn’t. And Americans pay income taxes to this day.

Reading about Prohibition has had some interesting effects on me. The first and most obvious is the way I see alcohol. I don’t drink since I can’t stand the taste, but whenever I’m with friends at a restaurant or pub, or pass by a brewery, I can’t help but feel a little bit more knowledgeable about its history. I know where you’ve been, beer, and what people have done with you. The other effect is a greater awareness and perhaps appreciation of the issues and arguments surrounding the current debate over legalizing marijuana; it becomes harder to argue against if you also agree that Prohibition was wrong as I do. Many of the things people say now about weed were also said back in the day about spirits. It’s food (and drink) for thought.

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