The newest documentary film series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premieres on PBS this Sunday night. The three-part series is entitled Prohibition, and it tells “the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.”
Getting the talking head treatment this time is historian Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan, an acclaimed study of the Prohibition era in New York City. Some other cities could claim to have been “wetter,” Lerner explains, but New York was notorious in the 1920s for its defiance of the dry laws and its more than 30,000 speakeasies and nightclubs. Nowhere in the country were the clashes and questions surrounding Prohibition more visible than they were in New York City.
Lerner argues in Dry Manhattan that those very clashes and questions are often neglected by those of us taught by popular culture to look back on the Prohibition era as one of the most glamorous and thrilling periods of modern American history. These pop culture depictions, Lerner explains, have rarely succeeded in conveying the importance of Prohibition to the history of the twentieth-century United States:
Given the frivolous nature of our popular depictions of the “Roaring Twenties,” it is easy to dismiss the dry laws as part of a comical attempt to stop Americans from drinking. But there was much more at stake in Prohibition than booze. In addition to being the most ambitious attempt to legislate morality and personal behavior in the history of the modern United States, Prohibition embodied a fourteen-year-long cultural conflict over the nature of American identity, the reach of moral reform movements, and the political future of the nation. Prohibition indeed was the defining issue of the 1920s, one that measured the moral and political values of the nation while shaping the everyday lives of millions of Americans. Prohibition thus provides a key to understanding the cultural divides that separated Americans in the 1920s, as the United States was transformed by rapid economic growth and demographic changes.
As the country’s cultural capital, financial center, media headquarters, and largest city, New York was the “foremost battleground in the war against demon rum.” Its ethnic and racial minorities had their own take on the law, and Lerner explains their view of Prohibition as a “crusade rooted in the bigotry of the dry movement and its distrust of ethnic and racial minorities.” Their opposition spread to the city’s middle and upper classes, and soon much of the city was openly flouting the law. Ultimately, argues Lerner, the conflict over Prohibition was a debate about competing visions of American society that revealed deep divisions within the United States over individual rights, personal liberty, and the limits of reform. And those are divisions that we know haven’t yet been resolved.
Take a look at the trailer for Prohibition, and watch on PBS this Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights.