Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent:

Snippet of Amazon's summary: Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.

That should give you an idea of the range of this book. Okrent leaves no rock unturned in this detailed history of the Prohibition era. The book starts with the political manueverings and personalities that got the 18th amendment passed. All fascinating. It moves on to describe the legal, political, judicial, economic and social impacts of Prohibition's enactment and enforcement, not just in the United States but in Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. Finally it tackles the rather fast fall from favor and repeal of Prohibition and closes with a short reflection on how the movers and shakers of the time have been essentially erased from our cultural memory.

In individual paragraphs and sections, the book is great. The stories are carefully researched and detailed and the individuals and events are really interesting. When taken in portions of more than a couple of pages however, it's just dense. Especially the first half where the movement is kind of gelling from different sections of society. There's no overarching narrative, so it's hard to stay engaged. I ended up reading it in 15 minute stints on my lunch break (thus, it took 4 months to finish). The actual Prohibition-era sections were much more fun, a lot of Baptists & Bootleggers type stuff.

Fans of history will enjoy this book, especially those that are amazed by the power of lobbyists (hint: Prohibitionists invented modern lobbying). It may be dense, but the individual stories are fascinating and often amusing. I recommend the book and intend to check out the PBS miniseries that is it's companion.

2 comments:

miranda. said...

I really liked the Ken Burns documentary. It's like 5 1/2 hours long, but really entertaining and informative. Would you recommend reading the book to someone who has already seen the doc, or do you think the doc is plenty of information? I mean, I'm not writing a paper on Prohibition or anything, I just find it to be an interesting topic.

Abby-Wan Kenobi said...

I haven't actually seen the doc yet, but in the afterword Okrent mentions that the two pieces were made my friends over the same period, but weren't made as a collaborative effort. They did independent research and didn't have any back and forth over which stuff made it into the finished products. I assume that means that the content may overlap, but it is not the same. I'd recommend skipping to the bits of the book that look new or interesting. It's kind of a slog for the first 40%.