John Barleycorn Must Die: The War Against Drink in Arkansas
By Ben F. Johnson III, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, hardcover, $19.95.
A whole lot of Arkansas history involves this ongoing war between people who want to take a drink now and then and those who are bound and determined to keep them from it. So Professor Johnson’s account of drys vs. wets in the Natural State could have been a weighty tome indeed. But it is only 106 pages, many of them taken up with old pictures of our notorious soaks and their often more notorious nemeses. And it turns out that brevity here is a much-appreciated virtue because this old war is just not as interesting as it should be.
With all the colorful characters and colorful rhetoric, moonshiners and revenooers and harridan Furies hatcheting up teakwood bars, you’d think a lively tale would unfold, but it doesn’t. That might have something to do with Prof. Johnson’s stolid prose style, which favors drowsing sentences by starting them with big adverbs, but the main varmint here is more likely topical. That is, when it comes to mulling and pondering a subject at considerable length, if there’s anything more depressing than a bunch of drunks carrying on, it’s a bunch of moralizers who want to mind everybody’s business but their own.
The two sides have been going at one another in these climes for two hundred years, and the debate has never amounted to much more than melodramatic posturing, and there’s no end to it in sight. Local option is the only compromise that’s lasted very long, and probably the secret to its longevity is its stupidity. About all it’s good for is that each side can take some small comfort from knowing that local option is a perpetual irritant to the other.
The pendulum swings one way and then the other, and nobody is satisfied with the status quo, but nobody finally much gives a damn. The liquor lobby is happy enough getting to royally screw poor and middle-class drinking people, and the apostles of uplift are happy enough that poor and middle-class imbibers are getting royally punished for their sin. A hundred and six pages is probably about all of such merriment that a sane and reasonably sober reader could stand.
Our earliest drunks were certain of the Native American elements seduced into dependency by the English colonial and early American frontier rum-runners, and by rogue French firewater peddlers. And our earliest reformers were the French and Spanish colonial authorities determined to stop this infernal traffic or at least to get themselves a piece of the action. (That last is, of course, the position at which all the authorities ancient and modern eventually wind up.)
The drunks had the upper hand in the territorial assemblies, and into early statehood, but the shan’ts, inspired by the Second Great Awakening, with Methodists inevitably bearing flambeaux at the head of the pack, had taken it away from them before the antebellum expired.
It was through the temperance movement that Gilded Age and Progressive Era women successfully and somewhat furtively wrested some long-overdue rights and privileges from the besotted sex, and it was on temperance issues that white women and black people of both sexes forged a kind of never-acknowledged alliance that was to have important consequences and political impact for decades.
The drys finally killed the corner saloon and brought forth the bootlegger with statewide Bone Dry legislation and then the Noble Experiment. But neither side prevails for very long in this old war, and Arkies soon discovered, as did their countrymen, that prohibition just didn’t work. It didn’t work elsewhere in the country for a number of reasons, and it didn’t work here because it deprived a state in utter beggary of its surest time-honored source of tax revenue. We relegalized Old Panther Piss at the same time and for the same reason that we relegalized horse racing: so we could slap a sin tax on it, so our schoolteachers might then receive at least an occasional turnip as occupational compensation rather than the weekly and semesterly zip to which they were becoming accustomed as the Great Depression deepened. So the state could get the piece of the action that it had foolishly denied itself, in other words.
Not much happened in the Liquor War in the next 30 years except that it got harder to wet a dry country or dry up a wet one, and that the private-club charade that had worked as an integration dodge also worked to wet a few parched whistles in some of these Saharan fens and hollers. The late Winthrop Rockefeller was able in the 1960s to bring primitive mixed-drink relief to the state’s urban oases only by pitching it as an essential industrialization prerequisite. Shoe-factory magnates and cement-plant bigs just weren’t going to come to a place that scorned their pal Harvey Wallbanger. Such was the argument that carried the day.
Prof. Johnson follows this never-ending “war” from the 18th into the 21st century, almost up to the present day. In 2005 it’s still essentially “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room,” only maybe a little less sophisticated. In a recent episode, the drys were hassling the governor, himself a teetotaler, to pack the Alcohol Beverage Control board with more Carry Nations and Ben Bogards so the board’s mission might become one of pure denial rather than grudging regulation. They want him to give the drinkers as hard a time as he’s giving practitioners of other vices, e.g. homosexuals. He’s had to walk a fine line to keep everyone on all sides of the issue equally unhappy, but so far he has managed -– a feat more impressive for his meantime having made the middle ground as insufferable as that on either extreme.
This stuff used to be mildly entertaining. It no longer is. A hundred and six pages of it is still tolerable, but it begins to wear thin before you get halfway home.
(Editor’s note: Ben Johnson will appear at the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock on Friday, March 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. He will sign copies of his book, and copies will be available for purchase. Admission to the museum is free.)
More new, recent and upcoming books that might be of particular interest to Arkansas readers:
I Still Miss Someone: Fans and Friends Remember Johnny Cash
By Hugh Waddell, Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, hardcover, $22.95.

The Arkansas-born singer had an awful lot of relatives, most of whom weigh in here, and an awful lot of flunkies, who do the same, and an awful lot of spiritual advisers, who ditto. The author, or chief rounder-up of testimonials, is his former publicist.
Religion and Public Life in the Southern Crossroads
Edited by William Lindsey and Mark Silk, Alta Mira Press, Walnut Grove, California, $55 cloth, $19.95 paper.

A survey on how religion in the South has influenced public policy. Lindsey, the coeditor, is dean of instruction at Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
Quest for Identity: America Since 1945
By Randall Bennett Woods, Cambridge University Press, New York, $65 cloth, $25.99 paper.

A study of major themes in recent American history, by a leading historian at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Thinking Through Kierkegaard: Existential Identity in a Pluralistic World
By Peter J. Mehl University of Illinois Press, Champaign, $35 cloth.

The author is a professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. The book is due in the spring.
The Writing Life
By Ellen Gilchrist, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, $28 cloth.

The best-selling novelist and writing teacher at the University of Arkansas
has 50 brief personal essays about the writing life, most of them set on campus at Fayetteville. The book is due in March.
The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere
Edited by Richard H. Steckel and Jerome C. Rose Cambridge University Press, New York, $19.99 paper.

A text that is said “to define the emerging field of macrobioarchaeology,” in which the health of individuals going back 5,000 years or more is studied through skeletal remains. Jerome C. Rose teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Offerings from the University of Arkansas Press this spring include a
profile of the yesteryear country-music trio, the Browns, from Pine
Bluff — that would be Jim Ed, his sister Bonnie, and his other sister
Maxine — with the book written by Maxine.