Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
I've been meaning to read this since a coworker recommended it to me about two jobs ago, and now that I've finally gotten around to it I must say that it was worth the wait. There's nothing earth-shattering about Daniel Okrent's thousand-foot view of Prohibition- which covers the early marginalized social movements that cascaded into a constitutional amendment, the culture and characters spawned by that legislation, and some of its lasting effects (suffice it to say that the law of unintended consequences plays a significant role in that particular chapter)- but he has successfully distilled his subject, locating and elaborating on both its most fundamental elements and those that persist in the popular imagination. Al Capone and Joe Kennedy naturally make cameo appearances (how could they not?), but the narrative (rightfully) focuses on some of the forgotten characters who defined the era in its own time, such as Mabel Willebrandt and the Bronfman family. There's an entire chapter devoted to the cultural impact of Prohibition (my personal favorite part of the book) that hews closely to the established modern perspective of the era, but Okrent focuses his book not only on the speakeasies and bootleggers but also on the (legal!) cider and "sacramental" wine that also helped to saturate the dry-in-name-only 1920s
This marriage of the known, the assumed, and the vital-but-nearly-lost-to-the-dustbin-of-history
helps to create one of the most enlightening, yet entertaining, popular histories
I've ever encountered, to say nothing of Okrent's wry sense of humor and his always
sarcastic, often hilarious, and rarely intrusive asides.
Okrent's account of Prohibition is at once accessible and academic; he does not sacrifice substance for style and doesn't dumb down some of the more arcane aspects of his subject as much as relate them to the casual modern reader. A basic understanding of the constitutional history of federal versus state power, individual rights versus the government's interest in protecting the people at large, and other ongoing conflicts is crucial to fully appreciating the scope and impact of Prohibition; Okrent ignores the temptation to gloss over these battle and describes them by placing them within the context of the events in his book, illustrating both the issues themselves and the shape of the era. The result is a lucid account that informs without adopting the posturing so common to written histories, even from those that claim to appeal to the masses, and a book that meets its target readers- the casual history buff- where they are without imposing judgment. The research behind the book is evident in its thoroughness and its lengthy series of endnotes, but it permeates the book without any of the snottiness that often accompanies such books. Last Call is a rare popular history that is amusing and educational, an enjoyable book that has left me with a sense that I have a much better grasp on the Prohibition era than I did before: and, after all, what more could you possibly want from this book?