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Back in the Day

That Devil Rum

Recounting a truly bizzare period of American history in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Book Cover Though my education was decidedly inferior (a product of the Chicago Public Schools and lower-tier universities), that dis-educational experience did not seem to affect my interest in history and its broadest expression, the various narrative arts (for which I still owe thanks to mother who pushed me into my autodidactic predilections). Though these days I am more sympathetic to the short biographical essay or the concise analytic monograph, credit must be given even when a book’s subject spills over into 500 or 600 pages or so.

Thus I am compelled to note that journalist-turned-historian Daniel Okrent (Great Fortune), whose honorable career includes being a founding editor of a noble exercise, New England Monthly, has labored diligently to produce Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition(Scribner), an accessible account of an unruly subject.

Through the period in which the Eighteenth Amendment (and the enabling legislation known as the Volstead Act) was in force for 13 years (1920-1933), the outlawing of alcoholic beverages was much more about control of the political system, as Okrent sees and convincingly shows. Which is why the preceding amendments to give women the vote and to establish the income tax must be examined. As well as the involvement of a splendid cast of characters covering a period of over four decade: Susan B. Anthony and Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan and bootlegger Sam Bronfman, Jack London, Pierre S. du Pont and H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky, Joseph Kennedy, and federal official Mabel Walker Willebrandt and Wayne Wheeler (these last two, who wielded enormous influence, are all but forgotten today).

The possibility exists, given the complexity of prohibition’s grand opera and its recession into the dim days popularly known as “back in the day,” that if Americans know of prohibition all, it is through the cartoonish TV and motion picture characterizations of Eliott Ness and the so-called “untouchables”. Okrent’s prodigious research and effort to make clear a Rubik’s Cube of interplay between multiple forces and factions in Last Call does much to accessibly set the record straight.
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