How American Authors Helped Push an Agenda of “Temperance”
Carl Erik Fisher on the "Drunkard" Character and Early Prohibitionist Campaigns
In the ten years from 1830 to 1840, the amount that Americans drank dropped by almost half, the biggest decrease in the nation’s history—more even than the decline caused by Prohibition in the 1920s. In fact, though the early temperance movement could be called “prohibitionist” in the loose sense that it was an anti‑drug movement seeking to forbid alcohol, no legal prohibition was required; reformers simply changed hearts and minds about the nature of drinking. Organizations like Lyman Beecher’s American Temperance Society papered the country with tracts, pamphlets, and printed sermons full of cautionary tales. Popular writers picked up on the idea, and soon the country was awash with temperance stories: poems, how‑to books, novels, plays, songs, paintings, and drawings—all of which contributed to a significant transformation in how people understood alcohol problems. Out of these efforts, a new and important character soon rose to the forefront of the national consciousness: a consistent and abiding story about the “drunkard” and the nature of intemperance.
In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Black Cat,” the tale of a kind and gentle man who is slowly, insidiously warped by drinking. His beloved cat Pluto watches sadly as the man becomes moody and irritable, then violent. Possessed by “the Fiend Intemperance,” he beats his dog, his rabbits, his monkey, and his wife. (“My disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!”) He viciously cuts out Pluto’s eye, then drowns his guilt in wine. Overthrown by the “spirit of perverseness,” he hangs the poor creature from the limb of a nearby tree. Soon a demonic, doppelgänger Pluto appears and goads the man into burying an ax in his wife’s head. With shades of Poe’s better‑known “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell‑Tale Heart,” the story culminates with him bricking up her body in the wall of his basement.
Poe, sadly, was drawing on a deep well of personal experience to craft this allegorical tale. His older brother had died after years of alcohol problems, and he himself struggled with addictive behaviors for much of his life. He gambled his way out of the University of Virginia, lost editing jobs because of his drinking, and repeatedly estranged his colleagues with his uncontrolled binges—he was even satirized as a drunken literary man in the 1843 temperance novel Walter Woolfe, or, The Doom of the Drinker. Some six years later, he was found delirious in the streets of Baltimore. He died four days after that.
Though “The Black Cat” is Poe’s most obvious treatment of addiction, much of his work is shot through with related themes: the divided self, a descent into insanity, a supernatural struggle against a seductive, shadowy, and irresistible evil. Just five months after his brother died, he published one of his earliest stories, “Metzengerstein,” about a debauched nobleman whose “perverse attachment” to a “demon‑like” horse drives him to insanity and death.
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Poe had ample reason to be preoccupied with alcohol, but his stories were just one drop in a flood of writing about the drunkard, a new character in American writing. Around this time, a remarkably consistent story about intemperance came to prominence, portraying the drunkard as overcome by the irresistible desire for drink and experiencing a total loss of control. According to this “drunkard narrative,” if the person is redeemed, it is only because salvation has come from a powerful external influence. Crucial to the drunkard narrative is a predictable, inevitable downward arc, one graphically displayed in a famous 1846 lithograph, “The Drunkards Progress,” which shows a man descending into desperation, crime, and death by suicide, framed by the sad tableau of his wife and child huddled in front of their burning house. It was a parable of downfall in which alcohol is the fatal flaw, and it proved to be remarkably popular.
In 1842, temperance advocates commissioned Walt Whitman to write Franklin Evans—his first novel and his bestselling work during his lifetime—describing an innocent young boy who is ensnared by intemperance. (Whitman later denounced the book, claiming he wrote it in three days while drunk and calling it “damned rot—rot of the worst sort.”) Herman Melville won praise from a temperance journal for his 1850 novel White-Jacket, in which he insists that sailors are predestined to be “driven back to the spirit‑tub and gun‑deck by his old hereditary foe, the ever‑devilish god of grog.” Timothy Shay Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There, a graphic tale of the horrible consequences of intemperance, was the second‑most‑popular book of the era, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many of the most popular stage plays in all of 19th‑century American theater were based on stories like this, culminating in long scenes graphically illustrating the horrors of delirium tremens.
The country, so saturated by alcohol itself, was now saturated with stories about drunkards. One researcher has estimated that during the 1830s, 12 percent of American novels had temperance themes. A critic writing in 1837 was already bemoaning the “hackneyed” stories and “literary or clerical mediocres” clogging up the temperance genre, without “a single original idea” between them.
These pervasive stories were extraordinarily effective, spreading far and wide the notion that to be possessed by “the Fiend Intemperance” was to be destroyed by a progressive and inexorable loss of control. There is no drunkard narrative without the pharmacological determinism of Beecher’s demon rum: the idea that the power resides in the substance itself. Once a hard‑drinking nation, a vast portion of the country soon agreed that alcohol was inherently and irresistibly dangerous. Pharmacological determinism presents an intensively powerful image that can be invoked for all sorts of social and political purposes, and it has had remarkable endurance, so much so that, 150 years later, almost the exact same story about the possessive power of a drug was being told about crack cocaine.
Excerpted from The Urge: Our History of Addiction by Carl Erik Fisher. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Penguin Press. Copyright © 2022 by Carl Erik Fisher.