Reading ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ really got me thinking about prohibition in novels. It’s funny, because it’s one of those historical events that I have trouble believing ever happened so I keep missing it in fiction, unless banged over the head with it.
Prohibition was in force from 1920-1933! I think I tend to forget about it because there was so much psychedelic madness going on in European literature at the time. Across the Atlantic people are writing and reading: ‘Parade’s End’, ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’, ‘Orlando’, ‘Stepenwolf’, ‘Decline and Fall’, ‘The Trial‘ and ‘Ulysses‘. I think I’ve always assumed that these books were mostly written, and read, under the influence of alcohol. It just seems incredible that books which belong next to a good full glass of something strong were written when no one in America could legally buy such an important reading aid.
I’m in New York now and, far from attemting a retro 1930s temperance experience, I’m revelling in the Speakeasy nostalgia. Still it feels like a good time to note down my all-time favourite Prohibition read:
‘Babbitt’ is a fantastic novel, depicting the minor joys and trials of a bigoted small minded everyman who loves his all-American life. ‘Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey the laws against motor-speeding…’ Amongst the many superb set-pieces in the novel are the pages of instructions explaining ‘the manner of obtaining alcohol under the reign of righteousness and prohibition’. It is an account of sweaty guilt and paranoia, ‘exquisite shivers chilled his spine and stomach, and he looked at every policeman with intense innocence, as one who loved the law, and admired the Force and longed to stop and play with them.’ Babbitt is humiliated and cheated by the sale but, once armed with the booze, ‘he had a number of titillations out of concealing the gin-bottle under his coat and out of hiding it in his desk. All afternoon he snorted and chuckled and gurgled over his ability to “give the Boys a real shot in the arm tonight.”‘
Laws may change, but human nature doesn’t and this is the first book that I’ve read to show prohibition in the suburbs rather than in the speakeasies. ‘Babbitt’ inhabits a different world to the bohemians and flappers of most of my 1920-30s American reading. I find it human and real and wonderfully believable, stripping back the myths of this period and replacing them with humanity in all its petty glory. As an antithesis to the excesses of ‘The Great Gatsby’, and the soul-crushing bleakness of ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, I’d like to recommend ‘Babbitt’ as a top all-American read.