WHEN WE STUDIED American history in school, and we read about the colonists and the holy Founding Fathers, we weren't told that most—if not all—of our historical American heroes were more sauced than cranberries on Thanksgiving. We weren't taught that one of the reasons the pilgrims settled in Cape Cod rather than their original destination in Northern Virginia was the Mayflower's dwindling beer supply, or that General Ulysses S. Grant's courage while bringing the Union Army to victory was fueled by copious amounts of Old Crow.
Drinking in America: Our Secret History, the new book by biographer, historian, and memoirist Susan Cheever, seeks to remedy these and other omissions in the American narrative. This is Drunk History, but thoroughly researched and soberly elucidated.
"The American Revolution, the winning of the Civil War, and the great burst of creativity in American literature in the 20th century were all enhanced by drinking," Cheever writes in her preface. She explores each of the major developments in American history—from the Mayflower landing to the Revolutionary War, from the Civil War and the expansion of the American West to the ratification of the 18th Amendment and the rise of organized crime—and relates the ways in which alcohol hovered over these events like a benevolent (or malevolent) deity. "[A] glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini," she writes, "was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present."
In describing alcohol's devastating effects on John and Abigail Adams' family, Cheever writes, "Not everyone in an alcoholic family is an alcoholic, but everyone is influenced by alcoholism." This could just as easily apply to Cheever's own family: She's the daughter of notorious boozer (and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer) John Cheever. She has also had her own struggles with alcohol, recounted in her 1999 memoir Note Found in a Bottle. Few other biographers are as intimately connected to their subjects as Cheever, but, in trying to cover so much ground in under 300 pages, Drinking in America offers more of an anecdotal read than an authoritative history.
Though explored at greater length in Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring, Cheever's chapter on early 20th-century American authors shows how the madness of Prohibition was responsible for the burst of creativity and all-around drunkenness in American literature. "Twenty-first century American writers do not drink much," she writes. "Twentieth century writers after Prohibition made up for the generations before and after them."