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'Drinking in America' review: Susan Cheever takes a sober look at our boozy nation

Susan Cheever, author of

Susan Cheever, author of "Drinking in America" (Twelve, October 2015) Credit: Michael Falco

DRINKING IN AMERICA: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. Twelve, 258 pp., $28.

Pick a keyhole on history and shift your weight for another tilt on who we think we are and why. Wars are different through the eyes of generals and refugees. History changes when you include women in the story, and gays, and hedge-fund babies. In history according to me, the lesson of Watergate -- follow the money -- makes the most sense out of chaos.

Susan Cheever is following the booze. In "Drinking in America: Our Secret History," the novelist, social historian, memoirist and -- pertinent here -- member of a famously alcoholic family has charted this country's character and narrative through the fascinating flows and perils of spirits.

Why did the Pilgrims land the Mayflower on Cape Cod instead of Virginia in 1620? They were running out of beer. Where did some of the liquor confiscated during Prohibition end up? At President Warren G. Harding's parties in the White House.

Cheever is full of such shocking and often delightful revelations of a history we never learned in school. But her mission -- and it does read like a mission -- is not to entertain us with scenes of Paul Revere fortified for his ride with tall draughts of rum or Johnny Appleseed scattering seeds to grow apples too sour for anything but hard cider. Although the stories are really good ones, Cheever's book is dry and sober and, from time to time, repetitious and unapologetically scolding.

Cheever, a former Newsday columnist and author of "My Name is Bill," the story of Alcoholics Anonymous, says in the prologue that she has "studied alcoholism for decades, beginning when I wrote about alcoholism as an editor for Newsweek magazine in the 1970s." Her father, novelist John Cheever, got sober through AA, and, she is unequivocal in her conviction that "alcoholism is a family disease." She says she hasn't had a drink in 20 years.

Like the family of John Adams, who lost two sons and two grandsons to drink, the Cheevers -- all the way back to a Boston schoolmaster in the 17th century -- is "a family with all the distinction, myth, talent, and destruction that alcoholism entails."

As she explains clearly, there are two strains of American belief about drinking: "the one that holds our freedom to eat and drink as an essential liberty, and the one that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community."

She sees this historical tension between strains on a "drinking pendulum." The colonists had social and economic reasons for their daily beers (even for babies). The American Revolution was inspired in taverns, its courage fortified by rum. Civil War soldiers got whiskey from a barrel. "A lot of war was waiting, and whiskey made the time go faster."

Ulysses S. Grant, who won, drank heavily. George A. Custer, who ultimately failed, didn't touch the stuff.

The temperance movement grew as a reaction to the excesses of the 1830s, petered out with the failure of the 18th Amendment and has an intriguing connection to the push for women's rights. Cheever goes into merciless detail about the alcoholism of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and, especially, Richard Nixon, and documents that some Secret Service agents guarding JFK on the day of the assassination had been out drinking the night before.

Cheever believes the pendulum is swinging back toward temperance, and justifies her optimism with some eye-opening anecdotes. She doesn't mention the millions using recreational pain meds or the menu of craft cocktails in every other diner, but, as she might agree, our "secret history" doesn't end with a book.


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