If you’ve watched “Drunk History,” the Comedy Central series in which someone gets a little tipsy before recounting important events from United States history, you already know alcohol can play a humorous role in the retelling of our collective story as a nation.
However, in “Drinking in America: Our Secret History,” Susan Cheever recounts the many vital and decidedly less hilarious ways booze has influenced our country’s most noteworthy moments, from the Pilgrims’ beer-soaked arrival on the Mayflower to Richard Nixon’s volatile presidency.
Early on, Cheever sets the timeline for America’s bipolar relationship with alcohol, from being deemed the “drunkest country in the world” in the 1830s to the Prohibition era a century later. She notes that “the American Revolution, the winning of the Civil War, and the great burst of creativity in American literature in the twentieth century were all enhanced by drinking.”
Of course, she is quick to acknowledge the “dark side” of alcohol, a subject that carries personal significance for Cheever, as she herself is a recovering alcoholic.
One subject the book tackles is our romanticized fascination with the alcoholic writer, a list that includes William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others in the canon of American literature. Cheever does not shy away from the way liquor devastated these men’s lives.
“Although drinking may seem to be an aid to writing for a few ephemeral years, it almost always turns on the writer — eating away talent, which leads to inferior and even embarrassing work, and shutting off the flow of genius. … Drinking did terrible damage to these writers and their families, and it may have done a subtler and more serious act of destruction on the American ideal of a writer’s life.”
Equally fascinating is Cheever’s look at Nixon’s presidency. Disparagingly called “our drunken friend” by his aides, Nixon had a notoriously low tolerance for alcohol that led to many potentially disastrous orders. National security adviser Henry Kissinger took on the role of “dancing around the president’s homicidal, drunken orders” to bomb or nuke this place or that — orders he frequently did not remember giving the next morning.
“President Richard Nixon, with a drunkenness that was both secret and hidden, brought this country to the brink of World War III and changed forever the way we view our government,” Cheever writes.
That’s not to say “Drinking in America” is all recklessness, hangovers and regret. Cheever repeatedly acknowledges the tavern’s role as a central point of the social and political activity in early American communities, playing a vital role in defining the tenacious, rebellious spirit that helped create our nation, for better or worse.
Throughout the book, Cheever addresses serious subjects with casual and at times humorous prose, making this book surprisingly fun to read. You won’t find this booze-filled version of American history in any textbooks, but as with any good barroom conversation, you’ll learn just as much.
In the spirit of “Drunk History,” you might find yourself sharing some of Cheever’s revelations after a few glasses of wine this holiday season.
“Drinking in America: Our Secret History” by Susan Cheever (272 pages; Twelve; $28)