Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner, 2010)
Last fall, PBS aired Ken Burns’ latest documentary project on the subject of Prohibition. One of the advisors used for the film, and who appeared onscreen, was Daniel Okrent, who had his own book on Prohibition in the United States. Both projects’ developments ran in parallel; the inevitable cross-polination between the two led Okrent to call his and Burns’ works first cousins.
Like Burns’ doc, Okrent begins Last Call in the late 19th century with the rise of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League. From the point of view of almost 100 years later, it just seems ludicrous that the movement toward Prohibition went as far as it did, toward its enshrinement in the Constitution of the United States. It wasn’t necessarily the enduring issue to begin with, but other events (such as the First World War) made Prohibition front and centre in the second half of the 1910s.
Okrent weaves many stories: from the crusaders who brought Prohibition from a religious movement to a political one; to those within government who weren’t really enamored of the whole thing and went out of their way to avoid enforcing the Volstead Act; and the bootleggers and criminal masterminds who built empires around the provision of illegal liquor to the masses. He then spends the last chapter winding down those stories, describing what happened to them when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, ending a 13-year experiment in alcohol proscription. Some have been forgotten into the mists of history, while others (Al Capone being an obvious example) live on in popular culture.
Clocking in at almost 400 pages, Last Call may be long, but it’s certainly not dull. It is a very intriguing look at the Prohibition era, and is a good complement to Ken Burns’ doc, but is just as enjoyable by itself, or perhaps your favourite drink.
Related: my review of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol