What comes to mind when you think "Prohibition"?
Eliot Ness, maybe, leading a raid on one of Al Capone's warehouses, axes crashing into barrels of whiskey or beer. Or do you picture a trio of shimmering Flappers dancing the night away in a speakeasy?
In "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," Daniel Okrent paints a fuller picture, including "bloated bodies of ... hijacked rumrunners washing up on the beach at Martha's Vineyard, their eyes gouged out and their hands and faces scoured by acid," and crippled men in Kansas, "their lives devastated by the nerve-destroying chemicals suspended in a 35-cent bottle of Jake."
This is a great book: witty and graceful, balanced and deep. It is captivating social history told in a narrative that races along like a Bimini rumrunner angling into a South Florida bay. It also lays the groundwork for an upcoming Ken Burns PBS documentary, which is likely to do for Prohibition what Burns did for the Civil War, jazz and baseball.
Okrent tells how the 18th Amendment shaped the country in ways great and small and lasting -- from travel (the modern cruise ship started as a "booze cruiser") to taxes (the new income tax made up for lost excise taxes on liquor, beer and wine). Mixed drinks were born of necessity when a person couldn't be sure what he was drinking and needed something to cut the chemical taste -- or the lethal toxicity.
"Last Call" is peopled with fascinating characters: Carry Nation and Billy Sunday, Gustave Pabst and Adolphus Busch, Upton Sinclair and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But Rep. Andrew Volstead, author of the act that sought to make the United States dry, was "about as colorful as the snow that each winter blanketed his hometown of Granite Falls, Minn., and no more eager for the spotlight than a cloistered monk."
Late in his life, Volstead said he wanted to be remembered as author of an act allowing farmers to organize cooperatives. "He did not get his wish," Okrent writes.
The book shows the effects of World War I on public policy. "We have German enemies in this country, too," a dry politician told the Milwaukee Journal in 1918, as the 18th Amendment began its ratification circuit through the states. "And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller."
Xenophobic "drys" targeted immigrant groups, often Catholic or Jewish and coming from an imbibing culture. They looked with alarm at the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges of northern Minnesota, where federal investigators found 256 saloons in 15 mining towns, "their owners representing 18 distinct immigrant nationalities." Prohibition was precursor to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.
"In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure," Okrent writes. "It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail and official corruption."
But in one respect, he concedes, the 14-year experiment had to be considered a success. During Prohibition and for decades after, Americans did drink less.
Chuck Haga is a former writer for the Star Tribune.