- - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

RUM MANIACS: ALCOHOLIC INSANITY IN THE EARLY AMERICAN REPUBLIC

By Matthew Warner Osborn

University of Chicago Press, $45, 268 pages, illustrated

Although history professor Matthew Warner Osborn concentrates on how alcohol influenced this country two centuries or more ago, perhaps the greatest virtue of his learned, intelligent study is the light it sheds on the phenomenon that continues to plague us right up to the present. Given the cost to society — in money and in so much else — of addiction to alcohol (and to other substances), it is salutary to learn about the roots of the problem.

Mr. Osborn writes: “‘Rum Maniacs’ traces how and why heavy drinking became a subject of medical interest, social controversy, and lurid fascination in the early American republic. At the heart of that story is the history of delirium tremens [which] changed how the medical profession observed, understood, and treated the more general problem of alcohol abuse. Indeed, the delirium tremens diagnosis became the basis for the medical conviction and popular belief that habitual heavy drinking was pathological — a self-destructive compulsion that constituted a psychological and physiological disease.”

Mr. Osborn begins his book with a terrifying account of the hallucinations Edgar Allan Poe suffered in the throes of delirium tremens, the first of a long series of literary takes on the process from Charles Brockden Brown to Jack London that enliven this scholarly book. In addition we hear about movies such as “The Lost Weekend,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Shining” and even the recent “Adventures of Tintin.” There is even a lengthy and fascinating disquisition on Walt Disney’s “Dumbo,” a film that “established pink elephants as the standard cliche for delirium tremens.”

The care with which this author discusses terminology and his appreciation of the gradations it underwent over the centuries is impressive:

“I have tried to define and use terms common in the nineteenth century, such as ‘delirium tremens,’ ‘intemperance,’ ‘inebriate,’ and ‘drunkard,’ as they were used during the period, but some remain in use today, though their meanings have changed . I use ‘alcohol addiction’ to describe compulsive drinking, but for the most part I avoid the modern ‘alcoholism,’ a particular disease model developed by physicians in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The word came into common use in the twentieth century.”

The fine terminological distinctions chosen and an aversion to facile buzzwords and modes of thinking mirror an admirable fastidiousness of analysis. These add up to careful and wise judgment.

“Rum Maniacs” traces the effect of Colonial times on the early American republic. The gin craze that plagued mid-18th century Britain was reflected in the rum craze that afflicted North America in the wake of the West Indian sugar development, which brought molasses in large quantities to the 13 Colonies. Expansion to the frontier led to whiskey production on a prodigious scale. With this alcoholic tide came a lot of figurative drowning and understandably a strong desire to hold back this flood.

Mr. Osborn notes the religious component in the temperance movement that may have colored the scientific and medical attacks upon it. Since it was fundamentally a “moral movement,” its rational arguments were seen as mere window-dressing. He recognizes that such a large social problem, animated also by other forces, would draw a variety of responses, but stresses the validity and supreme importance of the medical and scientific underpinnings.

If one character stands out in “Rum Maniacs,” it is the protean figure of Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician who signed the Declaration of Independence and was a key figure in the Revolutionary War and the nation it brought into being. As Mr. Osborn writes, “The same political commitments that inspired Rush’s temperance activism also shaped his ideas about medicine and medical practice.” He provides a fascinating example of the doctor’s discriminating attitude toward alcoholic beverages in his picture of “A Moral and Physical Thermometer,” which lists beer, wine and cider alongside milk and water as drinks of temperance, with hard liquor in its various forms as intemperance.

As Mr. Osborn cogently notes, “Through delirium tremens, alcohol addiction became a psychological and physiological disease that reaffirmed middle-class values and exerted a perverse fascination born of status anxiety, repression and desire.” His tracing of alcohol addiction’s trajectory from the gutter to the living room tells us a lot about the evolution of American society from its Colonial and frontier days to modern times. Along the way, he sheds a good deal of light on the enduring temperance movement and that famously unsuccessful “noble experiment,” Prohibition.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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