January 16, 2010

Prohibition, temperance, and T. S. Arthur

90 years ago today, the 18th Amendment took effect in the United States — establishing 13 years of prohibition of the sale, manufacture, and consumption of alcohol. In honor of this "Noble Experiment," it's worth looking into some of the literary figures who believed in the sober lifestyle back in the 19th century.

Early in his career, editor/anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold advocated for a temperate lifestyle in the 1830s. Years later, he would come to enjoy vintage wines. Poet/abolitionist James Russell Lowell was a teetotaler for a (short) time after his marriage, likely due to the influence of his wife Maria White. His anti-alcohol stance was so strong for a time that his neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow worried that Lowell would force him to destroy his wine cellar. Lowell, however, was infamous for his drinking while an undergraduate at Harvard and, perhaps, sneaking a few drinks when his wife wasn't looking.

Edgar A. Poe struggled to control what would now be called alcoholism throughout his short life. Aware of his problem, he went as long as 18 months without drinking at one point before finally looking for help. In 1849, he took a vow of sobriety and became a card-carrying member of the Sons of Temperance. Thirteen years before Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman published a book called Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842) — a temperance novel. The poet later called the book "a damned rot" and said he was actually drunk when he wrote it.

Perhaps the most important anti-alcohol writer was Timothy Shay Arthur, the New York author of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There (1854). The story is told by an infrequent visitor to a new tavern in Cedarville named Sickle and Sheaf, founded by Simon Slade. Over his ten visits, the narrator witnesses the downfall of the tavern owner, his guests, and the town in general — all because of alcohol.

According to the publisher's preface:

"Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" gives a series of sharply drawn sketches of scenes, some of them touching in the extreme, and some dark and terrible. Step by step the author traces the downward course of the tempting vender and his infatuated victims, until both are involved in hopeless ruin. The book is marred by no exaggerations, but exhibits the actualities of bar-room life, and the consequences flowing therefrom, with a severe simplicity, and adherence to truth.

Halfway through the novel, Slade the tavern-keeper is described by a character: "He does not add to the general wealth. He produces nothing. He takes money from his customers, but gives them no article of value in return —nothing that can be called property, personal or real." The book's chapter titles include "Some of the Consequences of Tavern-Keeping," "More Consequences," "Sowing the Wind" and (wait for it) "Reaping the Whirlwind." Alcohol leads to neglect, domestic abuse, gambling, and even murder. According to the book, not only is the tavern-keeper ruined, but also the entire town. "Does the reader need a word of comment on this fearful consummation?" the author asks at the end of one chapter. "No: and we will offer none."

During Prohibition (which lasted from 1920 to 1933), a feature film of Arthur's book was released, directed by William O'Connor (his other films were mostly Westerns), based on a 19th-century stage version adapted by William H. Pratt. Cheers!

*The image above is the bar room in question, from an early edition of Arthur's book.

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