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Considering it lasted for barely more than a dozen years, Prohibition really gave American life a kick.

From 1920, when it went into effect, until 1933, when it was repealed, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol in the United States. Its objective: to rid America of what many considered one of its greatest curses - booze.

But as Daniel Okrent makes plain in "Last Call," a breezy but compelling history of "the noble experiment," the ill-thought-out and ill-enforced law had a very different result. By accelerating the developments of everything from the dinner party to an expanded role for the federal government, Prohibition jump-started the modern era.

Okrent - whose books include "Nine Innings," a captivating look at the world of baseball through a single 1982 game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles, and whose resume includes a stint as the New York Times' first public editor - does a terrific job of showing the hangover effects of Prohibition.

The evolution of organized crime on a national level, the rise of the speakeasy and bootleggers and bathtub gin: If you've seen "The Untouchables," none of this may sound new to you.

What makes "Last Call" fresh, however, is the way Okrent looks past the familiar stories to get at the devilish details. Among the cliches he bursts: Because of Prohibition, Americans actually drank less booze, not more.

He also shows that, for a movement aspiring to purify the human body and spirit, its heart wasn't completely in the right place.

While it was begun with good intentions, the push to ban alcohol also was fueled by anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-African-American hatred. When the U.S. entered World War I, the nation's beer-makers - nearly all of them German - were depicted as traitors, making the drive for Prohibition even easier. (It didn't help that many brewers raised money for the German war effort.)

The opposing forces weren't much better.

The liquor and beer industries financed campaigns against women's suffrage, reasoning that if women won the right to vote, they'd vote to outlaw alcohol. And, when popular sentiment began building for repeal, a group of super-wealthy leaders financed the charge, hoping a return of legal liquor (and the federal excise taxes that went with it) would lead to an end to the onerous income tax.

We know how that turned out.

Okrent's sometimes-snarky tone can be a distraction, but his dismissiveness is understandable, considering the political, legal and criminal stupidity that marked the era.

The out-with-a-whimper nature of Prohibition's demise has obscured its role in reshaping life as we know it - and that may be the most potent plus of "Last Call."

Take dinner parties. They were invented when you couldn't risk buying liquor elsewhere. (Many modern cocktails began there, when illicit booze tasted so awful it had to be mixed with something else.)

Okrent, who will be featured in a Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition next year, comes up with a slew of developments that the short-lived law made possible, from Caribbean tourism to NASCAR.

While he might be taking that last turn a little fast, he certainly rates a toast for rescuing Prohibition from its sideshow status in the history books to a crucial chapter in American life.

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