The name Susan Cheever signifies quickly (especially her last name) to anyone in love with postwar American literature.
She is, indeed, the daughter of short-story master, John Cheever. As such, she is also the trailblazing author of the memoir, Home before Dark (first published more than 30 years ago, when memoirs were neither much encouraged nor at all in vogue). In one fell swoop, that deeply textured narrative confronted alcoholism, fathers, and family dynamics, and shocked some readers due to its confessional elements.
She has also written five novels, other memoirs, and notable biographies of Louisa May Alcott, E. E. Cummings, and Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).
With her new chronicle, Drinking in America, the author’s lifelong preoccupation with what alcohol does to human beings and how personal histories are affected by one’s drinking habits coalesces once again. Only this time, it’s a national story.
The subtitle of Drinking in America is “Our Secret History.” And that’s no lie. In 14 smoothly written, well-researched, provocative pages, Susan Cheever makes the case that from its inception centuries ago to the recent epoch of fear and anxiety presided over by George W. Bush, alcohol abuse has had a major impact on the course of American history.
She notes that it’s a topic that has been largely taboo. How right she is.
Her narrative benefits from a strict chronological order, creating a dual storyline of America’s unfolding as a nation-building, conquest-oriented quest mixing personal independence with “manifest destiny,” all set against the chronic and sometimes embarrassing fact that along the way we’ve oftentimes been a nation of drunks.
In Chapter 1, Cheever sums up: “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 other that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community. The one created a level of drunkenness in the 1830’s that shocked European visitors. The other instituted Prohibition in the 1920’s. The one holds our right to drink the way we choose as sacred. The other tries to legislate drinking habits by age, hours of availability, open-container laws, and general disapproval. All this began with the Pilgrims and the Puritans.”
Right there, from the very get-go, Cheever’s new book sets its course. Her chapter titles alone remind us of the timeline of American history. For example: “The Mayflower: A Good Creature of God” and “The American Revolution, the Taverns of the New World” are followed by “Paul Revere: ‘The British Are Coming!”
Then, of course, there are “Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Rebellion” and “John and Abigail Adams’s Sons and Grandsons.”
It is staggering to learn how horrendously the family of John Adams was afflicted by the perennial troubles induced through his heirs’ heavy drinking. And such heavy imbibing is recorded and recapitulated with dozens of anecdotes and distressing revelations as the later chapters unfold: “”The Civil War” and “The American West” leading to “The End of the Nineteenth Century and the New Temperance Crusaders,” which, of course, lead to the chapter titled “Prohibition.”
From pacifying combat soldiers with dispensations of rum or whiskey to the rise of the Mafia in relation to the lunacies of Prohibition, our history is booze-filled.
Cheever is powerfully informative in her assessment of “The Writer’s Vice,” which makes Chapter 10 a miniature survey of the lives and legacies (often wrecked, in many ways tarnished) of an array of distinguished American authors, who somehow managed to create great works, despite their grievous alcohol abuse.
On this issue, Cheever is impressively forthright: “Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Carver and Cheever. By the time my father’s generation of writers started publishing in the years after World War II, being a writer almost always meant being a drunk. My father embraced this personality with enthusiasm. At the age of seventeen, he wrote a story entitled ‘Expelled,’ moved to New York from suburban Boston, and sold the story to the New Republic.”
As a demographic, generational phenomenon, Susan Cheever apprehends an era that was, quite routinely, sickening, but pitched as sophisticated (even now, if you measure by the popularity of “Mad Men”).
She recounts with grim accuracy the all-American postwar literary landscape: “Even writers who were not alcoholics drank with abandon in the post-Prohibition world. The writer and New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, once told me that he got so drunk at a party at my parents’ that he realized, when he got out to his car, that he had literally forgotten how to drive. My father’s friend Jack Kahn wrote a memoir in which he mentioned in passing that he got up some mornings and vomited before brushing his teeth—he was amazed at the reaction he got. Not everyone was so hungover that they had to vomit in the mornings? This discovery became the talk of the suburban party circuit. Who were these abstinent people? Thank God they were far away. Everyone in our world drank and drank until they couldn’t anymore.”
However, it wasn’t just like that in the world of Susan Cheever and her famous father (who died, after 1975, dried out for once and for all).
The final chapters of Drinking in America present downright disturbing accounts of the devastating degree to which the Secret Service detail for JFK was sluggish at best and blatantly dysfunctional in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when the president was murdered by ambush in broad daylight. A cadre of JFK’s Secret Service detail had been up partying until nearly dawn that day, violating their oaths in spades.
Cheever is also insightful and astute about the degree to which Sen. Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting crusades were fueled by his self-destructive alcoholic mania. Similarly, President Richard Nixon’s exceedingly low tolerance for alcohol caused nothing but worries and frequent admonitions from his closest aides and advisors. Sometimes, orders given by Nixon in the middle of the night, with his mind disoriented by too many cocktails, would be ignored. As for the next day? Nixon forgot his own orders.
The great value of Susan Cheever’s new book is that she impels us to face the sorry fact that the history of our society is soaked in alcohol. This is a frightening story.
Drinking in America: Our Secret History is also a necessary and admirable book.
(M. J. Moore is a regular contributor to the Neworld Review.)
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