A new book by an English professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla explores the impact of National Prohibition on American literature.
“The 1920s have often been thought of as the beginning of the modern era,” says Dr. Kate Drowne, author of Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933. “The end of World War I and the rise of technology and mass media influenced a lot of the literature produced during the twenties, but Prohibition was also a strong influence on writers.”
In her book, which will be published in December by Ohio State University Press, UMR’s Drowne examines fiction by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker and others.
“The book focuses on how literature depicted a nation that had a growing distrust of law,” says Drowne, an assistant professor of English and technical communication. “With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, America suddenly became a nation of lawbreakers, many of whom had serious doubts about the wisdom and efficiency of the government.”
Drowne first became interested in Prohibition while researching information on her grandfather, who was a semi-professional hockey player in the 1920s. As she was researching newspaper articles about her grandfather on microfilm, she noticed the news was dominated by stories about Prohibition.
“People quickly learned how to get around the Prohibition laws,” Drowne says. “For example, some vineyards marketed dehydrated grape bricks – to make grape juice – with instructions for what not to do, or you’d end up with wine.”
But it was only illegal to manufacture, sell and transport alcoholic beverages. Buying and drinking alcohol weren’t technically against the law, giving rise to speakeasies and other illicit establishments where patrons could still get some version of their favorite drinks.
Drowne devotes book chapters to bootleggers and moonshiners, to the culture of drinking, to various semi-public drinking establishments and to different kinds of private parties. She uses literary passages to illustrate popular attitudes of the day. Among the fictional characters examined are Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Lewis’ George Babbitt.
“Hypocritical characters like Babbitt thought Prohibition was good for other people – as long as they didn’t have to give up their own habits,” Drowne says. “There are many conflicting studies regarding whether people drank more or less during Prohibition. Drinking apparently did become quite popular among the wealthy, who could afford prestigious, high-quality smuggled liquor that was far beyond the budgets of ordinary people.”
Of course, not all of the smuggled liquor was expensive or high quality. According to Drowne, thousands of people in the Midwest were blinded or paralyzed in 1930 by tainted batches of Jamaican ginger extract or “jake.”
“Prohibition had its truly tragic elements,” says Drowne, “and many of these elements can be traced through the literature of the Jazz age.”