Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review -- Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Vivienne Sosnowski's When the River's Run Red (previously reviewed herein) recounts the travails that beset the American wine industry as a result of the Prohibition Amendment to the constitution.  While Sosnowski "paints a broad-brush picture of the national battle leading up to the institutionalization of Prohibition ...," Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," conversely, takes us down into the weeds of the Prohibition fight.

This book is a sweeping history of the pre-Prohibition American drinking culture, the politics of the Prohibition Amendment, the economics and governance of the Prohibition experiment, and the subsequent repeal fight. It is a tour de force of political history which delivers great detail and insight into the politics of a significant period/event in American history.

From its pages rise powerful organizations and individuals that are a distant memory for some of the current generation and a revelation for others.  Neal Dow, Susan B. Anthony, Francis Willard, Mary Hanchett Hunt, Carry Nation, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler, and Andrew Volstead are a few of the individuals/institutions  figuring prominently in the social experiment that was Prohibition.  A number of strange alliances were forged on the side of the "Drys" (those in favor of the Prohibition Amendment): Southern anti-black forces using the Prohibition movement to take voting rights and alcohol away from blacks; Progressives wanting to better the lot of the "unfortunate" immigrant; income tax lovers; and suffragettes.

The author shows  a confused and erratic response by the entities that would be most affected by a prohibition on the sale of alcohol: the brewers, the spirits industry, and the wine industry.  The wine industry was very small and was, for the most part, an inconsequential player in this battle.  The beer and spirits industries were engaged in internecine warfare and, in addition, the brewers were somewhat compromised by their German roots at a time when the US was involved in WWI.

At this point, you are only one-third of the way towards completion of the book.  The author continues on with a similarly comprehensive treatment of the Prohibition years and corruption and incompetence that was inherent in the management of the process, the rise of organized crime, the actions of the "legitimate" brewers and spirits companies during the Prohibition years, the plethora of bootlegging activities that were undertaken, and the resulting fortunes accumulated.  The fight for repeal arrays the elite of American society, led by Dupont who sees an excise tax on alcohol as a perfect antidote to the income tax to which he and his cohorts are subjected to under Prohibition.  The author closes with a look back at what became of the major players in this drama.

The author does a phenomenal job of bringing these historical personalities and events to life and carefully elucidating their roles in shaping the America that we know today through their actions in a key historical period in the annals of the republic.  This is a must read but will require a fair amount of time to negotiate its 400 pages (inclusive of appendices) of weighty facts.


  1. From the first page I found this book interesting, well written and easy to read. The author adds just enough humor and irony to his writing to make it more interesting without ruining the topic or the book. Though Prohibition ended in the early 1930's, there are things in this book to learn for those of us living in the 21st century.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments. I also enjoyed this book immensely. It is incredible how a number of the political issues and groups that were around in those days seem to have risen from the dead in today's environment.