Review: A history of America’s drinking and sobriety

“Drinking in America: Our Secret History” (Twelve), by Susan Cheever

Alcoholism and sobriety loom large in the work of Susan Cheever, the recovering alcoholic daughter of the great mid-century American writer John Cheever, whose own struggles with alcohol are legendary.

“My father was addicted to alcohol and it showed. I was addicted to everything, and that was much easier to hide,” she writes in her new book, “Drinking in America: Our Secret History.”

“I haven’t had a drink in more than 20 years — 20 years during which I have obsessively studied both alcoholism and temperance and their effects on individuals and cultures.”

In this latest work Cheever serves up a sober cocktail of American history, dividing it into “pendulum swings” of overindulgence and abstinence told through stories of its leading teetotalers and drunks.

At the dawn of American history, we learn, the Pilgrims landed the Mayflower in New England “because they were running out of beer.” She describes the Revolutionary War battle at Lexington Green as a “classic encounter between those who drink too much and those who have to deal with them” — that is, the militiamen, who’d been boozing for hours at a tavern on the green, and the British soldiers.

In the Civil War chapter she scolds historians for “scant or no mention of the effect drinking had on the troops, the generals or the progress of the war.” Joseph McCarthy merits a chapter, in part, because he was a drunk, while the material on the JFK assassination focuses on how members of his Secret Service detail were out drinking until the wee hours the night before.

All histories have a point of view, and Cheever frankly admits hers. She writes about drinking in America to better understand her family, she says. “The Cheevers ... are a family with all the distinction, myth, talent and destruction that alcoholism entails,” she writes in a chapter about alcoholism in John Adams’ family. “Whether they are Cheevers or Adamses or whoever else, alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.”

As with any alternative history, Cheever offers up sideways views that are intriguing but inconclusive. That empty vodka bottle on a Lehman Brothers executive’s desk after the 2008 collapse? A striking image, but it doesn’t prove anything. Yes, America has had a long, checkered history of drinking, but so have many nations and peoples. Cheever claims “our national character is inextricable from our drinking history,” but some readers may disagree.