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Friday, December 4, 2015

December 4, 2015: AmendmentStudying: Prohibition Culture



[December 6th marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of perhaps the most important amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for five other amendments, leading up to a special weekend post on the 13th!]
Three texts that help us understand the world that the 18th Amendment made (and the 21st unmade).
1)      The Great Gatsby (1925): One of the most ambiguous elements in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is the nature (indeed, the existence) of Jay Gatsby’s criminal activities. His association with stereotyped Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (one of Fitzgerald’s lowest points), among other factors, seems to suggest that he is indeed involved in organized crime. Yet at the same time, “organized crime” in the 1920s often meant the bootlegging of illegal alcohol, a crime that would become not a crime less than a decade later and that even in the era of Prohibition was widely practiced and accepted. However we read this element of the novel, Gatsby is deeply tied to and reflective of Prohibition.
2)      The Untouchables: If Gatsby offers a vision into the permissive culture of alcohol that remained (if it was not indeed deepened) during Prohibition, Eliot Ness’s 1957 memoir and the 1959-63 TV show and 1987 Brian DePalma film based on it give us instead the law enforcement perspective on the era. Al Capone was of course involved in numerous criminal enterprises, but as this clip from the film illustrates, The Untouchables in all its forms focuses explicitly on his bootlegging activities. Which is to say, if some Prohibition-created criminals were probably as ambiguous and in many ways harmless as Jay Gatsby, others were certainly as evil as Al Capone—and the story of both Prohibition and the justice system throughout this period must include the latter figures and histories as well.
3)      Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature (2006): As Fitzgerald’s novel illustrates, Prohibition didn’t just produce new versions of crime and law enforcement, of course—it also produced literature and culture, and a great deal of it. Indeed, I think the case could be made that jazz itself wouldn’t have emerged in the ways it did without the era’s clubs and speakeasies, and they wouldn’t have existed in the forms they took without Prohibition. All these and many other historical and cultural questions are engaged with in depth by Kathleen Drowne’s impressive book, a must-read for anyone interested in not only Jazz Age literature and culture, but the world the 18th Amendment made.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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