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AA and the Redeployment of Temperance Literature


This essay is an examination that, primarily comparativist in its approach, links publication materials from the temperance and Prohibition periods with the Big Book to show how AA's narrative antidotes to the traumas of modernity (sited in alcohol abuse) were as much the product of premodernist and turn-of-the-century hysteria as they were an attempt to write a new chapter in America's relationship with alcohol based on contemporary medical and social research.

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1 Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, 3rd edn (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.; York: Hazell Books, Ltd, 1976).

2 Fletcher, Holly Berkley, Gender and the American Temperance Movement of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2008), 8.

3 Edwards, Justin, Permanent Temperance Documents of the American Temperance Society, Volume I (Boston: Bliss, Perkins, Marvin and Co., 1835).

4 Berkley Fletcher, 5.

5 Gusfield, Joseph, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1963), 45. W. J. Rorabaugh also notes Quaker concern regarding America's alcohol use in the Revolutionary War period, citing Anthony Benezet and John Wesley's 1774 pamphlet The potent enemies of America laid open: being some account of the baneful effects attending the use of distilled spirituous liquors, and the slavery of the negroes. See Rorabaugh, W. J., The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 36. The direct correspondence between temperance and abolition would remain a clear, if contested, issue throughout the 1800s.

6 Levine, Harry G., “The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 39, 1 (1978), 151–2; Fingarette, Herbert, Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1989), 17; Reynolds, David S. and Rosenthal, Debra J., “Introduction,” in Reynolds, and Rosenthal, , eds., The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 4.

7 “The habitual temperate drinker ought to open his eyes and take the alarm. We remark, then, the habit is a dangerous one: when the taste is formed, and the habit established, no man is his own master and with all his prudence the temperate drinker is liable to die a sot.” Western Temperance Journal, 1, 5 (15 March 1841), 38.

8 Morone, James A., Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 284.

9 Levine, Robert S., “Fiction and Reform I,” in Elliott, Emory, ed., The Columbia History of the American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 130–54, 137; Rorabaugh, 196.

10 John W. Crowley, “Slaves to the Bottle: Gough's Autobiography and Douglass’ Narrative,” in Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup, 115–35, 121.

11 Sinclair, Andrew, Prohibition: The Era of Excess (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 284, 290–3, 306–27.

12 Alabama Congressman and author on race degeneracy, Richmond Pearson Hobson, speaking in the House of Representatives in an early version of the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1914, observed, “Liquor will actually make a brute out of the Negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes. The effect is the same on the white man, though the white man being further evolved it takes longer to reduce him to the same level.” Congressional Record, 63rd Congress, Third Session, 1914, 507. The Hobson Resolution Debate failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority, winning by 197 votes to 190. Sinclair, 175.

13 Harper, Frances E., “Temperance,” in A.M. E. Church Review, 7 (1891), 373. Cited in Boyd, Melba Joyce, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 75.

14 Crowley, 128.

15 Frederick Douglass, “Country, Conscience, and the Anti-slavery Cause: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, on 11 May 1847,” in The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume II, 1847–54, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 57–68, 64–5. Crowley (at 128) cites this attack on the black temperance march as one instigated by an Irish immigrant mob. The racial politics of later, more militant temperance thought are evident in the writings of Congressman Hobson. In 1911 he published The Great Destroyer, in which he made clear the racial stakes at the heart of southern temperance: “In America we are making the last stand of the great white race and substantially of the human race. If this destroyer cannot be conquered in young America, it cannot in any of the old and more degenerate nations. If America fails, the world will be undone and the human race will be doomed to go down from degeneracy to degeneracy till the Almighty in wrath wipes the accursed thing out.” Hobson, Richmond Pearson, The Great Destroyer (Washington, DC: n.p., 1911), 10.

16 Levine, “The Discovery of Addiction,” 165.

17 Frick details how other formats, in particular stage melodramas based on temperance and anti-slavery novels, were a significant feature of both the temperance and abolition campaigns. Stage versions and touring productions of Timothy Shay Arthur's Ten Nights in a Bar-room and What I Saw There (1854) “joined other popular nineteenth-century stage favorites” such as Uncle Tom's Cabin in dramatic cycles that reflected the “cyclical nature of American temperance reform.” Frick, John W., Theatre, Culture, and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 148, 11. Such was its success that “Ten Nights rivaled its abolitionist counterpart [Uncle Tom's Cabin] in popularity on the road and no theatrical season was complete without at least one production of it coming to the local town hall or opera house.” Ibid., 148.

18 Not all such commentaries supported the temperance message, however. In an 1851 letter to Hawthorne, Melville subversively declares, “It is a rainy morning; so I am indoors, and all work suspended. I feel cheerfully disposed, and therefore I write a little bluely. Would the Gin were here! If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise … and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven) … how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold that now so distress us.” Melville, Herman, “Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne,” 1? [sic], June 1851, in Leyda, Jay, ed., The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville 1819–1891 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), Volume I, 412–13.

19 Sinclair, 106, 131.

20 Merz, Charles, The Dry Decade (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1970), 10.

21 Beecher, Lyman, Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance (Boston: Perkins and Marvin, 1828).

22 Edwards, Justin, Permanent Temperance Documents of the American Temperance Society, 20.

23 Cuyler, Theodore, “Sermon on Christian Recreation and Unchristian Amusement” (New York: E. D. Barker, 1858), 12.

24 Ibid., 12–13.

25 Sismondo, Christine, America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 132. Sismondo notes that Maine's “radical solution” to alcohol control, particularly among immigrant populations and most notably the Irish, was “inspired in part by Beecher.” Ibid., 132.

26 Ibid., 6.

27 Butler, Jon et al. , Religion in American Life: A Short History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 247, 249. Levine records that in 1850 alone, 200,000 Catholics immigrated into the US. Levine, “Fiction and Reform I,” 147.

28 Billington, Ray Allen, “Maria Monk and Her Influence,” Catholic Historical Review, 22, 3 (Oct. 1936), 283–96, 283.

29 Leonard, Ira M. and Parmet, Robin D., American Nativism, 1830–1860 (Huntington, NY: R. E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1979), 54.

30 Billington, Ray Allen, “The Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” New England Quarterly, 10, 1 (March 1937), 4–24, 9, 12.

31 Reed, Rebecca, Six Months in a Convent; or, the Narrative of R. T. Reed (Glasgow: John Roberstson, 1835). Reed had attended the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown in 1831 (as a student) and 1832 (as a would-be novice) before departing and beginning work on what would later become Six Months in a Convent. Her accounts appeared to confirm “stories of barbarities” in the convent; when a real nun, Elizabeth Harrison, briefly left the convent due to exhaustion in July 1834, various rumours behind her temporary departure did the rounds in Boston: “It was generally believed that she had been forced to return and cast into a deep dungeon in the cellars of the convent for punishment.” On 11 August 1834, a mob burned the convent to the ground. Billington, “The Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” 10, 11, 15–16.

32 Monk, Maria, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk; or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in A Convent Exposed (1836; rept. London: Canova Press, 1971). Billington notes that one Reverend J. J. Slocum acted as the principal writer of the tale that also attracted the attention of the editors of the American Protestant Vindicator, who later supported the unfounded allegation that Monk's “second pregnancy had been arranged by the Jesuits to discredit her exposures.” Monk thereafter declined into drink and dissipation, dying an imprisoned pickpocket in 1849. Billington, “Maria Monk and Her Influence,” 286–87, 295–96.

33 Reynolds, David S., Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1988), 65.

34 Johnson, Paul, A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 6. For more detailed connections between these issues see ibid., 55–61 and 79–135; and Rumbarger, John J., Profits, Power and Prohibition: Alcohol Reform and the Industrializing of America, 1800–1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 4, 37, 184.

35 A.H., Edmund and Margaret; or, Sobriety and Faithfulness Rewarded (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1822).

36 Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance, 55, 59.

37 David S. Reynolds, “Black Cats and Delirium Tremens: Temperance and the American Renaissance,” in Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup, 26.

38 Crowley, “Slaves to the Bottle,” 116.

39 “We, whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society for our mutual benefit, and to safeguard against a pernicious practice injurious to our health, standing and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen, that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider.” Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade, 40. In his book Sobering Tales: Narratives of Alcoholism and Recovery (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 115, Edmund O'Reilly celebrates the structuring trichotomies within AA practice: imposing “a dynamic trinary structuring process on the relentless binary alternation of alcoholic hopelessness creates the possibility for new patterns of cognitive practice to develop through accustomed linguistic channels, primarily the narrative modes” of AA storytelling. However, as the Washingtonian pledge indicates, such tripartite formulations (“our health, standing and families”; “malt liquors, wine or cider”) structured temperance methods of recovery, most specifically this predecessor of AA practice, a century before the Big Book narratives were compiled.

40 Reynolds, “Black Cats and Delirium Tremens,” 27.

41 Crowley, “Slaves to the Bottle,” 134–35.

42 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” in The Complete Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Dorset Press, 1989), 476–83.

43 Walt Whitman, Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times, in The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley, Volume II, The Early Poems and Fiction, ed. Thomas L. Bresher (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 124–239.

44 Arthur, Timothy Shay, Ten Nights in a Bar-room, and What I Saw There (1854; rept. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964).

45 Ibid., xliv.

46 Ibid., 238. Once again, as with the Washingtonian pledge, note the trichotomies deployed here by Arthur (“the young, the weak, and the innocent”; “strong, wily, fierce”) in his characterizations of alcohol misuse and its victims.

47 Sinclair, Prohibition, 63.

48 Yale, Charles, Temperance Reader: Designed for the Use of Schools (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1835), 68. Also quoted in Mosier, Richard D., Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Issues in the McGuffey Readers (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1965), 216. Mosier mistakenly attributes the quotation to Beecher.

49 Yale, Temperance Reader, 8.

50 A Temperance Physiology: for Intermediate Classes and Common Schools, with a preface and endorsement by A. B. Parker, M. D., LL.D. (New York and Chicago: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1884), 123.

51 Ibid., 160.

52 Ibid., 162.

53 National W.C.T. U. Annual Leaflet (Illinois: n.p., 1886), 14.

54 Berkley Fletcher, Gender and the American Temperance Movement of the Nineteenth Century, 5.

55 Sinclair, 150.

56 Sinclair, 293, 316–27; Behr, Edward, Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011), 52; Swartz, James A., Substance Abuse in America: A Documentary and Reference Guide (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012), 32.

57 Hopkins, Alphonso Alva, Profit and Loss in Man (New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1909), 234–45.

58 Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade, 7.

59 Levine, Harry G., “The Birth of American Alcohol Control: Prohibition, the Power Elite, and the Problem of Lawlessness,” Contemporary Drug Problems (Spring 1985), 63115.

60 Gusfield, 126.

61 Warner notes that the Washingtonian leader John Gough had also argued that intemperance was both a disease and a sin. Nicholas O. Warner, “Temperance, Morality, and Medicine in the Fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe,” in Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup, 136–52, 138–39.

62 A 1981 study by Ogborne and Glaser concluded that “affiliates of A. A. are more likely to be men, over 40 years of age, white, middle or upper class and socially stable”. Cited in Miller, William R. and Hester, Reid K., “Matching Problem Drinkers with Optimal Treatments,” in Miller, R. and Heather, N. K., eds., Treating Addictive Behaviors: Processes of Change (New York: Plenum, 1986), 182. Miller and Hester conclude elsewhere in this text, “In spite of the fact that it inspires nearly universal acclaim and enthusiasm among alcoholism treatment personnel in the United States, Alcoholics Anonymous (A. A.) wholly lacks experimental support for its efficacy.” William R. Miller and Reid K. Hester, “The Effectiveness of Alcoholic Treatment: What Research Reveals,” Treating Addictive Behaviors, 121–74, 135. The fact that AA has proven to be successful for some individuals is not in question, but, as Fingarette argues, “The vast majority of heavy drinkers never try AA, and most who do join drop out.” Indeed, he notes, quoting Shaw et al.'s Responding to Drinking Problems (1978), “the AA programme of recovery is simply not acceptable or attractive to the majority of people suffering problems from drinking.” Fingarette, Heavy Drinking, 89. Furthermore, Miller notes, “uncontrolled studies reveal a high dropout rate, perhaps as high as 80% to 90%.” Miller, William R., “Controlled Drinking: A History and a Critical Review,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 44, 1 (1983), 68–83, 73.

63 Alcoholics Anonymous, xiii.

64 Ibid., 17.

65 Ibid., 62, 14. Glickman, Lawrence B., “Rethinking Politics: Consumers and the Public Good during the ‘Jazz Age,’Magazine of History, 21, 3 (July 2007), 1620.

66 Alcoholics Anoymous, 564.

67 Kurtz, Ernest, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1979), 50.

68 Alcoholics Anonymous, 15.

69 See “Why One Man Out If Nine Goes to Church,” Literary Digest, 31 Aug. 1929, 24; Handy, Robert T., “The American Religious Depression, 1925–1935,” Church History, 29, 1 (March 1960), 316.

70 Hankins, Barry, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, The Roaring Twenties and Today's Culture Wars (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 19.

71 Jackson, Charles, The Lost Weekend (1944; rept. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1989).

72 The Lost Weekend, dir. Billy Wilder (Paramount, 1945).

73 Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, dir. Stuart Heisler (Universal-International, 1947).

74 Days of Wine and Roses, dir. Blake Edwards (Warner Bros., 1962).

75 A Star Is Born, dir. George Cukor (Transcorn Enterprises for Warner Bros., 1954); A Star is Born, dir. Frank Pierson (Warner Bros., 1976).

76 “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Quoted in Leff, Leonard J. and Simmons, Jerold L., The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), 284.

77 Ibid., 284.

78 Ron Roizen summarizes concerns over the bona fides of Jellinek's medical qualifications and notes, “The great Jellinek, hero of an emergent alcohol science field – with or without a doctorate – appears to have been a rather marginal figure with respect to his academic & scientific background & certification.” See

79 Jellinek, Elvin, The Disease Concept of Alcoholism (1960; rept. New Haven: Hillhouse, 1972). It should be noted that even Jellinek, the man credited with formulating a medical model that accords with AA practice, sounded a note of significant caution with regard to AA's evolving monopoly of alcohol treatment: “there is every reason why the student of alcoholism should emancipate himself from accepting the exclusiveness of the picture of alcoholism as propounded by Alcoholics Anonymous.” Ibid., 38.

80 Fingarette notes that Jellinek dispensed with sixty other questionnaires, many returned by women, because the responses differed greatly from the data provided by the men. Fingarette, Heavy Drinking, 21. Denzin's The Alcoholic Society also based its research on A. A. members, premised on the assumption “that each alcoholic is a universal singular.” Norman K. Denzin, The Alcoholic Society: Addiction and the Recovery of the Self (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1987), 1.

81 “The rigid three-part structure of the A. A. narrative forces a restriction of scope and limitation of focus upon the narrator; benevolent but austere confinement to a particular form and direction is imposed. The structure encourages an evocation of A.A.'s utopian ideology without concession to any alternative narratorial designs.” Edmund O'Reilly, “‘Bill's Story”: Form and Meaning in A. A. Recovery Narrative,” in Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup, 180–204, 193. Elsewhere, O'Reilly highlights how Bill's story “falls into three parts, anticipating and enacting the narrative formula that Wilson will provide in chapter 5 of the Big Book (‘How It Works’), and establishing the pattern for almost all stories of addiction and recovery to come.” Edmund O'Reilly, Sobering Tales, 112.

82 “He Sold Himself Short,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 291. Denzin notes how, “Transformed into a storyteller, the member learns how to talk about the self of the past from the standpoint of humor and tragic irony. By radically transforming himself or herself, the alcoholic transforms the world he or she lives in.” This particular AA language “permeates, as a threatening presence, every interaction that occurs between patients and their counselors.” Denzin, The Alcoholic Society, 177, 198.

83 “Women Suffer Too,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 229.

84 Ibid., 30, original emphasis.

85 John W. Crowley, “‘Alcoholism’ and the Modern Temper,” in Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup, 165–79, 172.

86 Blocker, Jack S., Fahey, David M., and Tyrell, Ian R., Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, Volume I (California: ABC-Clio, 2003), 436.

87 Crowley, “‘Alcoholism’ and the Modern Temper,” 172.

88 Denzin, The Alcoholic Society, 349. Following his belief that AA members are representative of all alcohol dependents within US society, for Denzin and supporters of the disease model of alcohol addiction, AA is the only method of recovery, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. See Peele, Fingarette; Stanton, Diseasing America: Addiction Treatment out of Control (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989); Peele, Stanton and Brodsky, Archie, The Truth about Addiction and Recovery: The Life Process Program for Outgrowing Destructive Habits (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990); see the Stanton Peele addiction website at

89 “More about Alcoholism,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 33.

90 “A Vision for You,” ibid., 151. The phrase “King Alcohol” was one familiar from numerous temperance tracts; to take just one example, from the 31 December 1841 edition of the Western Temperance Journal, 192: “The last knell of King Alcohol is tolling and the valley is echoing with the sound of the temperance hymn.”

91 “To Employers,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 141.

92 “There Is a Solution,” ibid., 21.

93 ‘The Doctor's Opinion,” ibid., xxiv.

94 “Dr. Bob's Nightmare,” ibid., 173.

95 “The Newshawk,” ibid., 258.

96 “Home Brewmeister,” ibid., 299.

97 “The European Drinker,” ibid., 233.

98 Denzin, The Alcoholic Society, 349.

99 “The Man Who Mastered Fear,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 277.

100 Ibid., 280.

101 Ibid., 280.

102 Reiff, Philip, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966), 176. Kurtz responded to this in relation to AA practice: “if religion is where therapy leads when it takes on hope, then effort expended to understand Alcoholics Anonymous as a religious expression of American hope in the therapeutic twentieth century is a worthy historical endeavor.” Kurtz, Not-God, 169, original emphasis.

103 Daniel Snowman, American since 1920 (London: Heinemann, 1978), 126.

104 Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A. A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957).

105 Kurtz, 132.

106 Alcoholics Anonymous, 331.

107 Ibid., 436.

108 O'Reilly, Sobering Tales, 98, discussing Donald Newlove's 1981 memoir Those Drinking Days, notes how, “Like most AA narratives, Newlove's story dwells on what happened before the onset of sobriety; stories about drinking seem to be more interesting than stories about not drinking, and certainly contain higher levels of dramatic contrast, abjection, violence, unpredictability, and, occasionally, euphoria.” What such an observation overlooks is the long-standing temperance ethos within American writing that provided AA narratives of recovery with the template for such revelations.

109 Morris E. Chafetz and Harold W. Demone, Alcoholism and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 165.

110 Ibid., 161.

111 Arthur H. Cain, “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?” Harper's, Feb. 1963, 48, 49, 50, 51.

112 Cain, Arthur H., “Alcoholics Can Be Cured – Despite A. A.Saturday Evening Post, 19 Sept. 1964, 6.

113 “Five Votes Down,” aired 13 Oct. 1999, dir. Michael Lehman.

114 However, despite prohibited drugs replacing alcohol as the focus of recent decades of American drug-enforcement policy, Levine and Reinarman have identified a similarity of approach between the temperance era and the present day: “the use of drinking as a scapegoat explanation for social problems, which was so prominent in nineteenth- and twentieth-century temperance and prohibitionist rhetoric, is reproduced today in antidrug campaigns.” Levine, Harry G. and Reinarman, Craig, “From Prohibition to Regulation: Lessons from Alcohol Policy for Drug Policy,” Milbank Quarterly, 69, 3 (1991), 461–94, 485. In terms of televisual representations, while highly successful series such as The Wire (2002–8) and Breaking Bad (2008–13) have confronted drug use in unequivocal and unprecedented ways, they perpetuate the Twelve Step approach to possible recovery through attendance at NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings.

115 Edmund O'Reilly, Sobering Tales, 100.

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