cover image Drinking in America: Our Secret History

Drinking in America: Our Secret History

Susan Cheever. Hachette/Twelve, $28 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4555-1386-4

In this whimsical history, author Cheever (My Name Is Bill) examines four centuries of America’s dysfunctional relationship with booze. Her story opens with the Pilgrims landing at Cape Cod “because they were running out of beer” and ends with the ascension of Alcoholics Anonymous. Cheever focuses on the role that giggle juice played in central events of U.S. history, including the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, the Civil War, Prohibition, and the Red Scare. She also highlights important figures in the history of drinking, including John Adams (and his family), Ethan Allen, Ulysses Grant, and her own father, John Cheever. Cheever’s central observation is fascinating: “few historians even mention drinking and its effect... on events,” an oversight she strives to correct. Yet some of her suppositions feel weak: that the Revolutionary War might not have happened if the colonists hadn’t been such partyers; that the Civil War might have been lost if Grant’s drinking hadn’t been tolerated; that Kennedy might not have been assassinated if his Secret Service team hadn’t been so hungover. Cheever is at her most fascinating when she sticks to facts: for example, in 1820 the average consumption of alcohol was three times what it is today, and children were sent off to elementary school fortified by ”flip,” a mixture of fruit juice and grain alcohol. The melting pot, it seems, was also a mixing bowl. (Oct.)