“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

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Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.

Awkward.[**]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017. http://www2.avs.org/benjaminfranklin/chaplin.html.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.

 

Writing and the Art of Paper Craft

What my hobby taught me about my writing.

There should be a limit to one’s ability to feel embarrassed by juvenilia and other potentially cringe-worthy work. Like that first poem I wrote and work shopped, if it still existed anywhere.[*] And yet early efforts in some ways, whether they subsist only in one’s memory or in actual, viewable format, possess a certain strength in their imperfection—something I’ve recently discovered by reminiscing other artistic endeavors:

I vividly remember my first camera, how it felt: the textured red plastic case with the smooth black cord I now would call a wristlet strap.[†] Its rectangular flash stick—my camera didn’t take cubes, which I felt were far cooler. I was ten or thereabouts. I kept most photos, even bad ones, in an album that had sticky pages with plastic covers. With age, the glue became visible wherever photos weren’t. Somewhere along the line, I learned about acidic (not archival) paper. I did not necessarily become better at photo taking.

By high school/college, I switched the photos to an album now called a scrapbook. It had manila pages and clear photo corners, which I found disappointing. I thought the pages and corners would be black, like the scrapbooks of yore, the kind my grandparents remembered from their youth. Removing the old photos proved to be challenging. They’d peel and tear on occasion, the cantankerous, yellowed glue refusing to graciously cede its grip. This time, I added some captions, school awards, and the like.

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One of the bad but interesting photos: the double exposure makes it look like a great spirit horse decided to join us on the ride. (Photo by R. Gould.)

It didn’t occur to me that I was revising my first draft. (I still kept many of the bad photos because they were all I had or were wrong in the right way. Because sometimes, mistakes[‡] can be cool.)

Side projects, both sweet and hilarious, informed my process. My friends and I decorated clipboards for each other using photos, magazines, stickers, and contact paper. Concepts from collage shaped my scrapbook. How these projects somehow gave me permission to make my own wedding invitations,[§] and how I never questioned that I could do so even though I’d never created cards previously.

(I sketched designs and found instructions on the Internet, and I made every last invite, with half the tools and knowledge I have now. There are a few mistakes, but fewer than I’d guessed there’d be.)

I’m working on new projects, considering re-doing a few old albums with the more modern approach I currently use. I worry if my projects are too conventional, my captions too cute and canned. I’m working up some new phrasing. I’m an editor, after all.[**]

And somehow this proves that even when I’m not writing, there’s this writerly quality to what I do and that I improve, try new things, and find surprising measures of success that sometimes make me amazed that I did what I did. Then, this epiphany clicks: my older writing is just that—older. It’s only a step in the process of becoming a better writer.

What projects inspired your writing or changed how you saw your work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] It doesn’t. I checked.

[†] Of course, no photos of this long-gone camera exist, which amuses me because I remember it more clearly than some of the events my 110 recorded.

[‡] Mistakes or errors are signposts to success. They point where you need to change direction, learn more, or just try harder.

[§] Permissible but not by my any means sensible. Hating every over-the-top romantic and/or too expensive card that felt very much unlike us also fueled this decision.

[**] I re-read my posts and fix the tiny grammar errors. Yep, editing all the way out the door and to the store.

Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they reconcile. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers themselves weaving a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension to a novel that dramatically opens with Iris learning that Laura committed suicide. This added tension is important, too, because the storytelling (darting among accounts) reflects Iris’s reluctance to reveal all that transpired, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that the truth will be silenced.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

As Iris spins the tale of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge: blindness, silence, and sacrifice. Atwood employs the first two of these strands as physical traits of characters from Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruel society where the wealthy force slave children to weave carpets until the children become blind, resigning most to a life of prostitution. The rich, unwilling to hear pleas for mercy, also sever the tongues of sacrificial maidens. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell them how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion, as do blindness and silence. Here, Atwood shifts from literal blindness to a failure to recognize or understand, just as sacrifice stems from more noble if misguided impulses. Iris’s father, Norval, generously retains his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) but fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his own family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto how it may be without merit. Implicit in her reflections about her father’s business mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the silent accusation that his prudence may have spared his daughters from a grim future. In this manner, the ever-wily Iris protests discreetly that blame does not lie solely with her. But she has a point: as female child then and a woman later, she always had less agency.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, motivated by love to endure. Liliana Chase suffers her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness, is a bit heavy handed here). She dies following a miscarriage. The girls pattern themselves after their mother’s sacrifice. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, finds such love burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. She shoulders the resentment of this duty into old age.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Review by R. GouldConcealment and Secrets

As Iris’s tightly held secrets begin to unravel, the effects of concealment—both blindness and silence—become apparent. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid mistreatment by their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. And what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter as a consequence of Erskine’s careful predation. Having not witnessed his actions, Iris is confounded by Laura’s unexpected and (to Iris’s mind) too calm account of wandering hands. She can’t imagine why a man would touch a child. However we might dislike it, her view is explicable given the historical context (children knew little of such abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” also plagues the abused and prevents justice. For Iris, concealment serves as a useful survival strategy in her dealings with the manipulative Geffen siblings, whereas silence places Laura at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one, concealing her suffering rather than trusting Iris to accept her story, is both tragic and understandable.

It’s concealment that ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have confessed to her daughter, Aimee, or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is immaterial. Atwood’s narrator is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may earned some redemption by giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

View all my reviews

Reading Past and Future

Ready to read in the new year

Generally speaking, I avoid the whole “new year, new me” resolutions that plague the early days of January. In my part of the world, January tends to be cold and grey with a chance of snow. After the merry and bright of the darkest nights of December, January already feels like the morning after the night before.[*] Why add the pressure of life-changing resolutions?

To be fair though, I have the bookworm’s long-standing goal to read more, regardless of which part of the year it is. It’s been a rather poignant plan at times, when I haven’t had enough free time to read deeply the way I wanted to do or the focus when I did have time. In 2016, however, I felt like I read many amazing books, although I always wish for more time to read more.[†] With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the notable books I’ve read (links are to posts that discuss these books).

Since I’m making lists, I thought I’d consider books for 2017 as well. Normally, I let my birthday and Christmas presents[‡] dictate the books that I plan to read for the upcoming year, and I find other books that interest me as the year progresses. I am, however, hoping to get a few suggestions from my readers. Please feel free to post your suggestions in the comment box!

2016 Notable Reads[§]

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne[**]

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2017 To-Read List

All the Living by C. E. Morgan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo[††]

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

Read a good book lately? Share your reading recommendations in the comment section below! Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*]For some of us, this might be literally true on New Year’s Day.

[†] Just like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode.

[‡] Nothing is sadder than when you DON’T get books for a present.

[§] I’ve read more books than are listed here, but these are the ones that truly stood out as I was putting this list together. Some of these books are also re-reads.

[**] I still can’t believe I’d not read either of these books as a kid.

[††] I’ve actually been trying to read Les Miserables for ages. The problem is it’s so long that I start losing the plot when I put it down. I’m working on finding time to read it uninterrupted so that I don’t lose where I am.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

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Defining character means many thing for writers. (“Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0. )

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

Unknowable Versus Lacking Character

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-hye rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-hye’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Characters at Crossroads

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses.[§] “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[**] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Defining Character

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[††] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequences’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991.)

[§] Black Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[**] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).
[††] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

 

Christmas Stories and the Naughty List

The ruiners of Christmas are all about wish fulfillment. Just not yours.

For the last several years, my husband and I have hosted the Christmas Day festivities.[*] When we’re finally alone and things have been cleared away enough for now, we kick off our own holiday celebration by watching The Ref. After weeks of holiday hustling and making the feast festive, we’re ready for a grittier Christmas tale.[†]

And there’s nothing quite like watching the holidays go a bit off the rail.[‡]

You see, Christmas stories can’t seem but to help ending well.[§] The question is really how does everything go wrong and then get righted. Because most stories about Christmas tend to capture our anxiety about making the holidays perfect—the just-so gifts, the traditions warmly observed, the delicious spread, the making of new, joyous memories—in contrast to the more likely realities of working late on/through holidays, indifferent gravies, suspect presents, and cranky kids. Christmas isn’t going to be perfect.

But in Christmas stories, there’s at least someone to blame.

Enter the villains of Christmas, the wicked and nasty folks who won’t let the rest of us have our fun. In sharp contrast to our real lives, the rotten are readily reformed—or at the very least, they are thwarted. Some are one-dimensional characters, really more plot devices than people (the Grinch). We delight in their nastiness and cheer for their comeuppance (the thieves from Home Alone). For more complicated characters, writers have the trick job of convincing us that these characters can be cruel while remaining capable of recognizing that they are the problem (Scrooge). We’ve got to believe they can see the world through other people’s perspectives.

And that may well be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled by the Christmas tale—the gift of understanding. We witness the remorseful father who accepts a child for whom that child actually is (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer), the miserly bosses who finally understand how their workers truly need funds (A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and the green men who finally get holidays are bit more than consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas!). However cheesily and unrealistically, we are filled with hope. Perhaps we, too, can find a way to open our own hearts and understand or make ourselves understandable to others.

Or at least thwart those who won’t be nice.

Happy Holidays! And be good to each other.

Who is your favorite Christmas villain and why? Post in the comment section below! Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] This is meant to be a lighthearted holiday piece. If you are among those for whom the holidays are a difficult time and are reaching a crisis point, please seek help. You are valuable. For more support, check out https://psychcentral.com/lib/telephone-hotlines-and-help-lines/.

[†] To be honest, there’s a small part of me that identifies with the Grinch railing about all the “NOISE, NOISE, NOISE” of the holidays, all of which deserves a few humbugs.

[‡] Or, rather a lot, in the case of The Ref. Larceny, divorce, and blackmail aren’t your typical holiday tropes.

[§] Except, I’m told, the movie Krampus. But it is mostly comedy/horror film, so it’s not exactly in the standard Christmas genre.

On Reading, Compassion and the Way Forward

Walter_Geikie_-_Drunken_Man_-_WGA8520.jpg
Drunken Man. Walter Geikie [Public domain], via Wikipedia Commons

When I read Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,[*] I was on a semi-reading hiatus, although not necessarily by choice. My drunk-love affair with reading novels was temporarily on hold because I lacked the energy to immerse myself in these all-absorbing worlds.[†] While I felt a certain grief for this change (and still do), I re-routed my reading to shorter works of fiction, tried to carve out times when I could read novels, and contented myself with reading other writings ranging from the news and nonfiction.[‡]

Hence, I found the Last Call, a lengthy meditation on period of American history I never fully understood. How did religious and/or conservative groups manage to impinge on everyone else’s freedom to drink? Or ineffectively, considering the rumrunners and speakeasies that resulted.

How indeed.

Because nothing is so straightforward. The “drys” effectively represented what Okrent called “five distinct, if occasionally overlapping components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists…and nativists” (42). Of these, the reasons many women had for supporting prohibition were all too sobering. Women often were the victim of husbands whom spent their paychecks on alcohol, frequented prostitutes—passing along diseases to their unknowing spouses—and abused their spouses and children. And so they protested, because it was the means to gain control of their lives (Okrent 12–19). It’s difficult to disparage teetotalism when faced with this suffering. Prejudice’s role against immigrants (characterized as drunken) was also tempered by the ideals of some progressives who wished to improve the life of immigrants—even if that meant repressing them. While I don’t condone the latter, I at least now appreciate that there were those who felt empathy for urban immigrants  (48–50).

It’s a powerful lesson, examining the underpinnings of a puzzling era. There was no monolithic group who demanded the end of drinking alcohol so much as a series of actors doing what they thought best.

I’ve often thought of this book a great deal recently, marveling how many disparate threads were woven to limit the rights of the United States’ citizens and the consequences. In a time where we might angrily denounce other people’s political choices after a highly contentious election, it’s tempting to forget that people wanted change and chose what they thought was the right way forward.

We might benefit from examining what we learned, lost, and gained from Prohibition and other contentious eras—how we might protest for positive change and compassionately help those who need our assistance without trampling their rights. During these difficult days, we might not anticipate how our lives will change but we can choose how we handle those changes.

How has reading helped you find compassion for others? Post your comments below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Okrent D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

[†] Results of the post-pregnancy period and raising of young tots vary among individuals. But prepare your reading time accordingly.

[‡] I remain uncertain as to why I was able to focus on nonfiction works versus fiction. The possibilities range being able to easily regain my spot in a narrative with which I had some familiarity (Prohibition) to the relevance of certain subjects (baby books). Either way, I’ve never read so slowly as I did then.