Susan Cheever is the author of the new book Drinking in America: Our Secret History. Her many other books include American Bloomsbury, My Name is Bill, and Home Before Dark. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. She is based in New York.
Q: You write of drinking, “It is our big solution and it is our big problem.” How has alcohol taken on this dual perception?
A: It’s always had a dual perception. One interesting thing about our history is that we have trouble telling the difference between drinking, which is so great, and drunkenness, which is so dreadful. The big question is, where is the line between drinking, which is so good, and drunkenness, which is so bad? It always has a dual meaning.
Q: You write in the book about the pendulum swinging back and forth throughout U.S. history when it comes to attitudes about drinking.
A: The pendulum goes one way in the 1830s, when everyone is cognizant of how much alcohol helps in [various] jobs…it goes the other way in the 1930s, when we pass a constitutional amendment outlawing it. One of the interesting things about the duality is that it’s one of the great goods and one of the great evils, in one thing.
Q: In the book, you note, “The terms alcoholism and alcoholic were not even coined until the 1840s.” How did those terms come into being, and how did perceptions change during that period?
A: I don’t know the etymology of the terms, but what happened in the 1840s, and began in the 1830s, was that we were drinking so much--that’s what gave rise to our temperance movement.
The history of America and its drinking is the history of the tension between people who want to drink and the temperance movement. An extremely powerful movement rose up in the middle of the 1800s, opposed to drinking.
Temperance meant different things to different people. But an anti-drinking movement grew up in the 19th century in this country, and that’s when terms like alcoholism—a negative term—began to come into our language. In my mind, the temperance movement is the most interesting thing in the book…
Q: Getting back to the pendulum, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to alcohol consumption in this country?
A: I think—and there’s a lot of disagreement on this—we’re going toward prohibition. That’s one of the reasons I felt driven to write the book. Legislation doesn’t work when it comes to addiction. There are other ways to cut back: Look at smoking. We outlawed marijuana and heroin—look how that worked.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we raise the drinking age soon. The frontal cortex is not fully developed until 25. People are increasingly fed up with the almost 100,000 people killed in drunken traffic accidents a year. In the world I move in it is no longer acceptable to be drunk. Fifteen years ago, it was. Now people don’t think real drunkenness is funny…
We’re moving toward finding drunkenness less and less acceptable. [That's] fine, but I don’t want us to make the same mistake again. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book—to say, Whoa, we’re going back toward this. But binge drinking on campuses [continues].
Q: You describe your own family history with alcoholism in the book. How did that history affect you and your decision to write this book?
A: I’m fascinated by alcoholism. It was a feature of my childhood, and my adulthood. There’s still a real mystery at the heart of it. Some people come out of alcoholic families and are not alcoholics; some [become alcoholics]. The brain chemistry is very interesting on this…
A lot of factors go into creating a problem with drinking. Most people don’t have a problem with drinking. Alcoholics are 10 percent of the population. One thing we don’t like to see is that it’s a family disease. Look at the Adams family…for every one alcoholic, [others] become distorted from having to deal with the alcoholic.
It’s our second or third biggest public health problem. It’s a huge problem; it costs gazillions of dollars, and there is a mystery at the heart of it—why some people are able to stop…
Q: How typical was the Adams family in terms of their situation with alcoholism?
A: Totally typical, but what a tragedy—not all [families] lose four people in two generations. But it’s typical—you can see that Abigail Adams’s brother was a bad alcoholic and she brought the genetic component into the family. She and her sisters wrote a lot about their brother.
You can have the genetic piece, the abuse piece [affecting the likelihood toward alcoholism], and still not be an alcoholic…
The Adams family is such a sad story. I had no idea [John Quincy Adams] lost two brothers and two sons [to alcoholism]. Of course he was cranky. They didn’t really know what was happening.
Even John Adams, one of the smartest men, didn’t quite understand when his beloved son Charlie acted out and was dying. He got angry, which was not a useful response. How do we understand the country without understanding that two of the men who shaped the country were driven [by the effects of alcoholism in their family]?
Q: What about the role of women when it came to alcohol and the temperance movement?
A: The role of women around the way the country dealt with alcoholism is fascinating. At the end of the 19th century, people thought women didn’t drink. A couple of women, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, switched their allegiance to getting the vote for women.
Women became temperance crusaders—[it was seen as] a problem that affected women through men. They realized that without the vote, they had nothing to say about anything. The women’s vote and prohibition were twined around each other. People thought, Give them prohibition and they won’t need the vote.
Of course, it turned out women drink too. The model of the man spending his paycheck in a bar while the women raised the children was not what happened…as history has gone forward, we’ve come to see more and more that alcoholism is not gender-specific.
It’s fascinating to me how something in the culture wants women to be insulated from alcoholism. Even today, we find drunken women more upsetting than drunken men.
Q: Your book covers centuries of American history. How did you decide what you were going to research?
A: It was hard to research. I never know what I’m doing when I start a book. I’m hoping to take the reader on a journey where we’re discovering interesting things [together]. That was more marked with this book.
As I started the research, I was amazed at the profound effect drinking had on our history. I spent time in the library stacks, [and] my jaw was dropping…
I finally brought it down to 13 or 14 incidents or eras that I was going to research. Then it was like doing 13 different books. When I did the Civil War, I did the Civil War—it didn’t go with what came after or before.
I was looking for mentions of drinking in people’s books, and people’s letters. I became one of the finest index-readers I know. I learned a lot about how indexes work and don’t work…
I was amazed by how much drinking was in American history and how little was written about it. But also, so little was written about the food, the clothes, the medicine.
In our histories, we don’t do a lot of daily life. What I want to know from history is what their daily life was like…Our history is so male and so distant—that’s not what interests me. What interests me is human problems I can identify with…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb