tv Book Discussion on Drinking in America CSPAN December 26, 2015 3:48pm-4:32pm EST
novelist as she launches her newest book, "drinking in america: our secret history." you'll tell us the secrets. her distinguished bibliography includes the 2015 biography of e.e. cummings, "a life," which was chosen by "the economist" as one of the best books of that year. it is now considered the definitive biography about iconoclastic, shall we say, poet. and other biographical works include american bloomsbury, the leading figures of the transcendentalist movement, and my name is bill, bill wilson, his life and the creation of alcoholics anonymous. and "home before dark: the groundbreaking biography of her father," writer john cheever, and treetops, a memoir. she's also the author of five novels and a frequent contributor of essays and articles to leading
publications. ms. cheever is influential in shaping and scene thing our lit care -- sustaining our literary culture as a member of yado and of the authors guild council and is a faculty member at bennington college and the new school in new york city. in her fascinating and compelling new book, ms. cheever traces the pervasive influence of alcohol at key moments over centuries of american political and cultural history. from the beer shortage induced illegal landing of the pilgrims at cape cod to the assassination of president kennedy and president mix sop's last days in the white house. nixon's last days in the white house. and explores its impact on many historic and literary figures in between and since, all toward asking the central question; what forms a national character?
ladies and gentlemen, susan cheever. [applause] >> hi. thanks for coming. and, yeah, the pilgrims. so it's, it's a great honor to be here at a store that's really the center of the literary universe in this country. if not the world. [laughter] i'm just going to talk about in this book a little bit and read three short sections from it and hope that it somehow informs you and intrigues you at the same time. one of the, one of the great privileges of being a writer is that we get to make history come
alive, which is really pun. we -- really fun. we get to take the pictures off the wall and make them dance and make them eat and make them drink and make them fall in and out of love with each other. we can notice that ulysses s. grant was a short man who adored his life or that alexander hamilton hated drinking because his father was a drunk who took off and left him with his mother. or that henry thoreau was louisa may alcott's faith teach -- favorite teacher. and we can include not just the momentous events that happened, which is why we put these people in history books, but also the texture of their everyday lives. did their shoes hurt? how are they feeling about themselves that day? were they thinking about what they were going to have for dinner, right? that kind of stuff. which really takes us there into history. the food, the sex, the clothes and, of course, the drinking. in this book by looking at
drinking in america and showing its influence on events, identify tried to bring -- i've tried to bring our heroes and our villains to life on the page. i hope that if you read this book, you'll come to think of john quincy adams as a sad friend who lost two brothers and two sons to alcoholism and sympathize with henry kissinger who had the unenviable job of baby sitting a drunk. this book has, i spammed, you know, four -- spanned, you know, four centuries in this book. it starts with the pilgrims, it goes through the american revolution, the civil war, senator joe mccarthy and the red scare, the jfk assassination. you know, i just took a bunch of events in which alcohol seemed to have or did have a huge effect on what happened and went through them, start anything 1620. -- starting in 1620. so it really all begins with the pilgrims, and i'm going to start
with them, as rhonda did. and i'm hoping i can find a way to read and have you hear me at the same time. and i'll probably go for about i think it's about 18 minutes, sarah? my daughter's in the back. she timed me earlier. and then i hope you'll ask ask me questions, because i love to answer questions. and as i'm sure you all know, when henry david thoreau moved to walden pond in 1845, the last thing he had in mind was writing a book about it. he really didn't have anywhere else to live. he'd moved in with the emersons to do a favor to emerson, because emerson went to europe, and the household needed a head. emerson came back from europe to find that thoreau had done his job all too well -- [laughter] and emerson said to thoreau, you can't live here anymore, and he said, what am i going to do, move back in with my mother? he said i have this little lot on walden pond, go out there and build yourself something. and so thoreau did, but he didn't think he was going to
write about it. he thought he was going to write a book about a river trip he took with his brother. but hawthorne asked him to come and give a little talk at the concord ethenium, so he came and gave a talk about the river trip. and in the q&a all anybody wanted to know was what it was like to live in a shack at walden pond. so i believe that q and as are magic. [laughter] and i know that this one will not disa i point us -- disappoint us. all right, here we go. the pilgrims landed the mayplayer at cape cod, massachusetts, on a cold november day in 1620 because they were running out of beer. their legal charter from king james was for a grant of land in northern virginia, but instead they anchored illegally and carved their first community from the sand, laying the foundation of the american character. since the beginning drinking and t.a.r.p.es have been as -- tavernings have been as much a part of american life as
churches and preachers or elections and politics. the interesting truth is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard crieder the, a flask of whiskey was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the american story from the 17th century to the present. and one of the things that's unusual about american drinking is our ambivalence. so there are countries where people drink more x there are countries -- and there are countries where people drink less. but there is no other country where we were the drunkest country in the world in 1830, and we outlawed it entirely in 1830 -- 1930, and we were on our way to being up there, and now we're back. so we get the medal for ambivalent lends when it comes to drinking. every century our drinking pendulum swings wildly, and that's not so true in other countries. that's something, you know, we're a cup of extremes, and -- a country of extremes, and we
either love it or hate it. so now i'm going to read the longest of the three sections which, you know, it's been said by, actually, a washington native, strob talbot, that in his wonderful book "the great experiment" -- i'm always selling other people's books -- that we began to win civil war when lincoln fired his sober general and hired his drunken general, grant. and indeed, that is when the tide seemed to turn. and it did seem to turn because of grant's can-do attitude, what are we going to call it? because of grant's refusal to admit defeat, because of grant's forward motion that nobody could seem to stop. as lincoln said of grant, he's a man who gits. he was also a man who drank. so here goes grant.
of all the drunken generals who fought during the civil war -- and there were many -- the one who most famously battled the bottle was ulysses s. grant. born the son of a leather or goods producer in ohio, grant was sent to west point where he graduated in the bottom half of his class. at west point he fell in love with his roommate's sister, julia. he proposed. she demurred. he proposed. she asked for more time. his father disapproved of julia. her parents disapproved of him. after a four-year courtship, he finally won her over, and they were married in 1848. the couple adored each other in intriebty and drunkenness. they had four children. almost 40 years later, grant's dying act was to finish his autobiography so that they could be supported after he died. a soldier's life is not his own, and grant was posted from camp
the ohio and mississippi rivers. >> grant did not drink and did not tolerate drinking among his men. grant's next engagement was more complicated and perilous but equally victorious. now a major general-granter his forces south and by this time, of course, he had started drinking again. on the morning of april 6, 1962, the confederate army launched a surprise attack. the first day of the battle, which is also the battle of shilo, all these battles have two names, and the confederate named the battles after the places where they were fought. sharpsburg-manassas, bull run,
and the union army named them after a landmark, shilo, et cetera, okay? so, i call it pittsburgh landing but it was really show -- shilo. the first day of the battle was disastrous gut grant's troops held on, grant was not around. it was said he was visiting troops across the river. night fell without a retreat from the union, although many of anyone two miles closer to the tennessee river in defeat from where they had begun the day. the troops were exhausted. many people thought the union was beaten, including the union general and grant's friend, william tecumseh sherman. he had been in the tick of the battle, slowly losing ground. grant had been absent during the first day and his men thought he had been drinking. sherman, who had his own struggles with reputation when he had been treated for a nervous condition earlier in the
war, was ready to quit. perhaps he thought the war was over. then during the night grant reappeared it was raining hard and he set up a tent next to a tree, ignoring the pain in his foot. general sherman found grant under the tree, just before dawn, smoking a large cigar. the rain was heavier thunder and lightning had gun begun to flash true the trees. the trees were dripping water, the bat feateds were a sea of mud, but grant was puffing away as if he war in a gentleman's club with a it? er of brandy. as the storm passed away to the south the two men stood quietly looking toward the rolling hills beyond the battlefield in the darkness. standing there, sherman said he couldn't bear to talk about
retreat, although he still believed it was necessary. well, grant, we have had the devil's own day, haven't we, he said? yes, grant replied. we'll lick them tomorrow, though. grant was right. instead of being finished off the next day, union launched a furious attack and drove the confederate army back to its original position. sherm yap summed it up, general grant is a great general. he stood by me when i was crazy and i stood by him while he was drunk, and now we stand with each other always. now i'll go to the conclusion, which the more of -- i guess i don't re-read it -- the more i think about this book, the more i become interested in different okays we write history. and i do think there's a new kind of writing history that is
growing up in this country, that is very exciting, and i do think that more and more historians are including people's intimate lives rather than just the monumental parts and the big ingestions and there are many historians who are doing this, who actually take you to the place and let you be in the scene with the people that they're writing about. and that what -- i of the be one of those historians. i hope that i in this book take you to that place and let you feel what it was like to be grant on that night or feel what it was like to be ethan allen at tie -- ticonderoga. also somewhat drunk. so this is my conclusion and we're coming back to the may mayflower for my final words about the nature of history.
in the second week of december 1620, almost a month after the mayflower landing on cape cod, after braving unimaginable hardships, the journeys, the failed explorations inhospitable cape cod fans, winter storm that almost wrecked the ship they were using to explore the coast. a dozen men landed in what would come to be named plymouth harbor. they landed right around the bend in province town harbor but nye they couldn't settle there so they spent a month looking for a place to settle. i'm not saying that this happened because the ration was a gallon of beer a day, but they were between two of the greatest harbors in the world, new york and boston, and they got in their ship and made little circles until they found a place to settle, plymouth. not that there's anything wrong with plymouth, but they had to
drink beer because they couldn't drink the water. so the way you drink water, they drank beer. so, if there's any possible thing they might have needed to do with a clear head, that was very difficult for them. i mean, you know -- anyway, that's note point of this paragraph. sorry. for -- bradford's view of history, lake men of miss companions on the may flower, was entirely shaped's hi knowledge of the king james byele old testament which was completed a few years earlier. every sea was the red sea, a voyage was the voyage of the israelites, every hardship was biblical. whatever happened to the pilgrims happened in larger historical and context, overseen by an erratic and loving god.
this is the controlling idea through which we saw and wrote bat everything. bratford took history personal. modern history claims to objective:-under historians write as if they're reporting events with an unbiased eye, this happened and that happened. thisser is our modern equivalent of god's way, neutrality punk waited with wise commentary. there are advantages to this history. the historian has no axe to grind no idea to sell no political point to make, but there are also disadvantages. one is that in taking a broad dispassionate view historians miss a lot. their emphasis is on the sweep of time, not on the moments that make up our lives. they're never personal. their opinions and the assumptions on which they base their lives are hidden. their history is as far away
from memoir as it can get inch these books we see the panoply of history through the narrow keyhole of our own day in time. our own beliefs and knowledge. we're stuck in the first quarter of the 21st century, and looking back over the past 400 years is like trying to make owl the details of a ship on a far horizon. historians make many decisions how to deal with this should we bring modern only to bear on the characters, what kind of language to use, how we acknowledge the differences in language between then and now, how will we factor in our own tolerance for, say, women's rights or racial integration into times where those things were unheard of? so, those are the questions, and now i'm going to -- rhonda set me up perfectly. the national character. what creates a national character? america is another name for
opportunity, wrote ralph waldo emerson, an opportunity that start with the pilgrims taking the opportunity and landing in the wrong place. the american attitude toward the law, the american attitude toward hardship, the american i. sis citizen on doing things to benefit at the individual come from that cold afternoon in province town harbor. character is a come bun nation of environment and experience and the american character was being formed in those minutes when the pilgrims finally, exaltedly reached the beach. to survive they have to develop a fierce individualism and a craving for freedom that will spread down from the bent arm of the cape, toward what will become the louisiana purchase, and westward to where their feisty spirit will settle huge tracts of land and explore seemingly impassable rivers and mountain ranges them american character has been formed by 100 forces. defining it as someone was
written is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. it began with new england with the pilgrims landing that afternoon in what is no province town harbor, driven by many fathers, natural and manmade, and one of the forces, force of both pleasure and pain, a force of both braillans and -- brilliance and emends e competence-incompetence was the passion for drinking. thank you. [applause] >> so, questions. nod. >> [inaudible] somewhat of a blurring of the lines between psycho analysis of history and history -- >> i don't think it's about getting inside people's psyches. we want do that -- exactly. so, this young maintenance
asking -- try to rephrase his question fairly -- if is new history is more like psycho analysis than history or psycho analysis as the old history or is anything like psycho analysis. my answer is, no, i don't think this new history i'm talking about or that i'm writing is going to get inside people's psyches. that's what novelists do, i hope. on a good day. i think it's bullet the details that make up their everyday lives. in other words, you can sea the wright brothers invented the airplane or you can say on such and such a date, wilbur write -- wilbur writhe's shoes hurt and he okra for breakfast.
i want to get down to every day so i feel as a reader i was there, to, and to whack on the wright brothers, i want to know were the wright brothers -- i'm not saying that my questions weren't answered by dave mccullough's marvelous book -- where did that inspiration come from? those guys outworked everyone else be a factor of seven million, and what was it they had, coming from dayton, ohio, that enabled them to just go back at and it back at it and back at it until they got it, and even after they got it go back at it because nobody cared, right? so, that's what interests me. >> i was just curious how gotted into in this topic and putting various historical incidents
together? >> that's a good question. how did i get interested in this topic, for me, writing comes from obsessions. i usually don't know that i'm writing a book. i usually just can't stop thinking about something. so it's all about obsession. there's an obsession expert in our audience. for a long time an obsessed with american history and also obsessed with alcoholism and recovery, both because i have personal experience with, my father had experience with it, and it's very interesting. so, i think one day -- i knew about the pilgrims and the beer. it's fairly commonly known. and one day i thought, whoa, i wonder if these two things actually go together somehow, and so i started reading, starting with the pilgrims, and i was amazed. this is the book where i sat on
the floor of the library going, you're kidding. really? it was really -- i was so surprised. there were so many things. senator joseph mccarthy, i had no idea. he died of cirrhosis, right? there's no -- i was very careful not to do any guessing to keep the bar for alcoholism -- if you don't die of liver disease before your 30 you're not an alcoholic in my definition in this book. i kempt it as small is a could but it was amazing to me, the effect that alcohol had on our history, starting with the american revolution. which arguably was planned in the basement of the green dragon tavern, the boston tea party, they went to the ships to secure the tea to securely the tea so it cooperate be shipped back to england, and guess what, they threw it overboard instead, and guess where they had just been?
the green dragon tavern. so over and over again, i was like, what? so, in that way it was very satisfying. thanks good. question. >> thank you for being here, as a report i think your ability to take the disparate information and bring it together is fantastic. >> thank you. >> as a retired educator, i would -- if i weren't to lazy i would like to come back and write a curriculum with lesson plans for the book you. can't argue with what you read and kids would be interested in that. very few schools in america that would let you promote that but would make history alive, and toes a recovering alcoholic, you're writing is very important you. made bill w and others live. so as any students say, you got
skills. now the question, you are the daughter ofon cheever. but from the professional end, what are advantages of being the daughter of john cheever? could you comment on that, advantages and disadvantages. >> sure, the question is -- i think you can all hear these questions, right? so, my daughter is in the audience. i'm not going to tell you which one but just noes answer this question -- so, you know, how can one talk about one's parents in two minutes? you're right, there were many advantages and many disadvantages. let me just say that the advantages people think i had are not the ones i had. my father did not want me to be a writer. he did not want any of us to write. the considered it was miserable life. it obviously was. i didn't want to be a writer
either issue couldn't agree with him more until i was 35. but i saw -- and for a long time it was like i learned nothing from him, and he was very careful not to teach me myth. once when i was in the 30s i took him out to lunch, i had a -- i took him out to lunch and said, okay, you teach people. give me some writing advice. and he said, don't use dialogue tags. so, i did not get write agenda vice from -- writhing advice from him, although that's pretty good advise but i did see writing is something you could do and i did see sometimes he was so excited that he couldn't keep him from reading his work to us.
>> with all the have to go to public school now and can't pay for braces and all the misery and all the late nights and all the -- and the house where we lived, my father had a little study, and and my bedroom were on the same floor so i knew he was in there knocking around at 3:00 in the morning. still i saw him -- i saw it was do-able and that really all he did was he just did it every day all the time. the other great benefit was i grew up in a household where books were king, and this is one of my best story about my father. i won't answer all night but we were living in italy for a while so english books were gold, and he went out one day and came book with "a woman in white." i was 12. so i started reading it and when the time came to go to school i told him i was sick. i said i'm way too sick to go to
school, and i had the book under my covers, and he came into my bedroom and saw the book, and he said, okay. so it was that kind of household, and i think that -- you know, all good writing comes from reading. if you're not reading all the time, you lob -- it's going to be very hard for you to write well, and so i grew up in a family of books and we were all reading. >> i'll ask a followup. then you come over and i'll follow you. we won't spend time -- i thought one of the most interesting parts of your book -- i never considered it -- was -- you talked about the flow and change in america which you kindergarten but just from a writing standpoint you had emerson,, and hawthorne, and then poe, more maniac than
alcoholic, and then you have the period of hemingway, fitzgerald, et cetera, up to your father and his contemporaries. heavy drinkers, the mad man era, and now i think if you look at writers today, very much in a decline -- >> not drinking. >> some drugs but not -- now, do you think the writers are ahead of their time, reflecting their time? what's your thoughts on that? always a question, writer is hailed -- reflecting. >> in the most interesting chapter in the book i tackle the idea that all writers have to drink. that drinking is sometimes, somehow helpful to writing. what i pointed out when i thought about it a little bit is that this only was true from 1920 to 1980. it was not true in the 19th 19th century. as you remember, mathison said all the american literature was written in five years between 1850 and 1855. referring to moby dick, emerson,
walden, all those books. those guys didn't drink. they weren't drinkers. so, if you had to drink to write, what about all those guys who wrote american lilt schnur and so i kept looking and looking and i realized that the whole myth in this country of drinking and writing is just these two generations of writers, and i believe it was caused -- at least partly caused by prohibition, which made drinking far more attractive to writers who need to find their own way, break the law, whatever you want to call it. and now writers now don't drink. our contemporary writers don't drink. there's the occasional -- but really they don't. so it's a very isolated moment, and i actually don't think they were ahead of their time or behind their time. i think it just has nothing to do with writing.
in other words, i think those guys were drunk because of prohibition, drinking looked really good. they did it. and i think when the effects of prohibition wore off, writerred stopped doing it. i actually don't think that drinking is going to help your writing or really hurt it, ate least not for a while. in the end it does hurt it, of course, butter i think those two things are separate. the question i can't answer is why do people want to believe this? why are you all going to walk out of here and say, yeah, she was really smart but that thing she said about write that related to drinking, that's not right. and i don't have the answer to that. >> i just want to good back to your comments about history and the new history, because i'm a business journalist, and i've been sort of really irritated at this tendency of a lot of
business journalism that writes about history, especially about the crisis and about some of the things in the past. they write it to be hbo-ready. and you lose a lot of the details. and i think when you have a cultural history, that might be nice to be there, to be at plymouth rock, bet when you're talking about subjects that need the details and instead they're worried about what color they were wearing, don't know -- maybe you can just elaborate a little more about the trends or tendencies you're seeing in that kind of writing, nonfiction writing, amongst your colleagues and peers. >> okay, i'm just appallingly ignorant when it comes to business writing so i can only guess. i think essentially memoir has eaten biography and ills now on its way to eating history, and i'm all for that. i'm a big fan of memoir, and so
i just thing what is happening is there's more and more intimacy in all of our writing, and let me just whack about memoir. memoir has a tremendous political dimension. it has given a voice to people who never had a voice before women. sir -- servants, people's whose stories weren't hurt before and because of that of that we have developed memoir shame. authority challenged by fact. and we're at the beginning of the golden age of memoir and only begun to see what can be done with memoir. i think at the same time, memoir with it intimacy is irresistible and it certainly now -- if you notice when you read a profile of someone in a magazine, the writer is always also a character. in other words, that is moving forward in that way. and i think it's also going to happen with history, that we're going to have more and more -- a
real feeling about what these people's lives were like. really, i don't want to go back to wright brothers. think of another book of hoyt we have -- of history we have all read. with the pilgrims don't want to know they did this amazing thing and discovered this new world. i want to know, were they hungry? i hate the word relatable but i want to know in what way were they like me? what was on their minds? what did they worry about? so, that is, i think, when i'm talking about when i talk about a new history, although certainly sounds pretentious, doesn't it. sorry about that. next question. >> i want to talk a little a lit the skit friend -- skit schizophrenia in america about drinking and not drinking and i love starting with this the bat of shiloh.
i'm from tennessee and the entire economy of tennessee before the civil war consists of whiskey, which was then transported up the tennessee river, from pittsburgh landing, down to new orleans, to sell it. it was their on cash crop, but then later, half of the counties in tennessee to this day are still dry. so, i'd like you comment on hugh you could go from the sole economy on a cash basis, before the civil war, to half of the counties being dry today, and how that transformation happened historically and where you think it's going to go, because i know you have observations about that. >> again, ignorance. don't know much about tennessee hoyt but a that's what we do. we were only able to pass the prohibition amendment because -- thanks to alexander hamilton, the entire economy of the united states was bailed on liquor taxes until 1916. so we couldn't have prohibition.
right? but so they passed the income tax amendment and then we could have prohibition. so, it's so weird how we are about this, and this coming together of dry and wet is just -- i mean, the same counties that had liquor as their primary means of income, become dry. our ambivalence is astonishing. i don't have the tablets on which it's bryant why we're so ambivalent. automatic i notice is that we are -- all i notice is that we are. think it's the streams stream -- extremes of the american character. either we're pro this or anti that. a very passionate people. hough is that. >> one more question. do you use a first person who has talked about alcoholism and history. so this is why i want to ask you this question. has to do with paris yesterday.
my experience with alcoholism is it's an addiction, and that once you take one drink, you want more or a -- a sip, you want more, and to me -- i have never thought about this until i was sitting here -- to me, terrorism is an addiction of sorts also. one has a firm belief about something and once you start wanting to push that belief and punishment on other people, it keeps going, and in fact what -- a what has been said, this is just the beginning of the storm. so, as a person who has talked about the relationship of history and this addiction, do you have any thoughts about this other addiction of terrorism, or what we -- and understanding of it? thanks. >> well, it's a terrifying
question, and i don't know how it works with isis, but i do know that the 9/11 guys were drinking the night before. and that's pretty much all i know. in other words, i don't see alcoholism the way you do. i think for most people they can have a drink and it's no big deal and they can have -- for an alcoholic, whoever that is, whether you're born that way or who even knows, there's a mystery to it, if you have a drink you want more and then more and then more and then more. i so i don't know if that how terrorism works but it's a very interesting question, and i urge you to find out, and let me know. how is that? thanks. >> thank you very much. >> thank you. [applause]