Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature

Review of Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, by Kathleen Drowne (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2005)

It is hard to imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald writing This Side of Paradise, The Damned and the Beautiful, or Tender is the Night without a highball topped-off with some stiff alcohol to loosen his creativity and imagination. As we have come to know Fitzgerald the person, the chances are good that he rarely went without. During the years these novels were written, however, the sale of alcohol was illegal in America. In Fitzgerald's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, the nuances of the plot are tied together with national prohibition and the ways in which individuals sought to escape the legal confines of what many Americans considered to be an absurd moral intrusion into their lives. As a result, alcohol and its prohibition became a literary topic, not just for Fitzgerald, but for many authors who wrote and published between 1920 and 1933, the American "dry" years.

Before the eighteenth amendment took effect, European critics were already discussing what would happen to American literature without the influence of alcohol. Some argued that few teetotalers had ever became great writers or poets, and since prohibition under the Volstead Act included advertising alcohol, these critics facetiously suggested that American censors would have to start expurgating references to the "ecstasies" of alcohol found in Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. While such censorship never occurred, Kathleen Drowne, in Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933, argues that prohibition did in fact "exert a profound influence on American literature."

In her five lengthy chapters, Drowne seeks to discover the social and cultural ramifications of prohibition by taking a representative body of literature written and published during the prohibition era and use it as a lens to understand American life during this period. Drowne concedes that many writers during the period were ambivalent toward prohibition, and their literature reflected their indifference. But for others, she argues, prohibition became the fulcrum of moral and civil disobedience by those who formerly considered themselves law-abiding citizens. For many of the previously apolitical writers, she argues, the amendment created the opportunity for political engagement. Through their literature, these writers constructed story lines that included the venues in which the politically charged debate raged, such as bourgeois house parties, nightclubs, luncheons, as well as lower class speakeasies and cabarets. In general, her method draws upon revealing the "literary presence" of characters involved in the nuts and bolts operations of prohibition and its opponents, including bootleggers and moonshiners, as well as youthful flappers who patronized the illegal establishments.

Drowne contends that the dearth of scholarly material on the topic of literature and prohibition is surprising because of the number of writers who were under the influence of alcohol for their art. The connection is odd, because the use of alcohol for art is apolitical and in no way determines the political interests of those artists who excessively used libations in order to write. Consequently, one may inquire as to whether the issue was as politically compelling as Drowne contends, or whether those people who ignored the law did so for political motives or simply continued to drink out of apathy, habit or addiction. Drowne's answer is that regardless of the strength or weakness of one's political convictions during prohibition, ignoring the law was chic, as fashionable as "bobbing one's hair, dancing the camel walk, smoking cigarettes, and tearing around town in automobiles." Drowne argues that these social manifestations were the era's cultural form of political civil disobedience; these actions infused prohibition with political intrigue.

Filling a hole in literary history is Drowne's intention. Although the force of her argument depends upon the political seriousness of those who considered prohibition a worthy subject in a novel's plot line, her greater purpose, she contends, is to simply reveal the many facets of American society and culture during the Jazz age. The book is admirable in this pursuit. The historian and literary critic gains appreciable perspective on topics as diverse as inebriation and sobriety, progressivism, the effects of the Great War, as well as the effects of prohibition on both the middle and lower classes. As well as writers, the book puts teetotalers, flappers, bootleggers, and the impoverished African Americans who suffered from "Jake Leg" into literary and historical context.

The fables of the prohibition era that contemporary Americans have come to know through such contemporary movies as The Untouchables or Bullets Over Broadway have only increased the mystique of the "dry" decade. Drowne does not seek to de-mystify, but to acknowledge our fascination with the prohibition era and its literature. To her credit, I find myself compelled to read many of the books that she critiques in order to supplement my rather conventional and limited nineteen-twenties literary diet of Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.