Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ghost of Wayne Wheeler

For the second time in a month, Wayne Wheeler has come to haunt me......

For those of you who do not know who Wheeler is, he was the Washington, D.C. face of the Anti Saloon League.  That is to say, he headed up the League's D.C. legislative affairs office (a nice way of saying he was a lobbyist) and helped craft both the 18th Amendment as well as the Volstead Act.  Not unlike Shumaker, Wheeler was lucky enough to die before Prohibition came to an end, for surely seeing his life's work undone would have killed him.

Now, I say he's come to haunt me because earlier this month in a review of Prohibition, it was pointed out that I didn't make much comment about Wheeler in the pages of my book.  And that is a fair criticism, to an extent.  It's not as if I didn't know who he was, but rather, it is that he plays almost no role (at least none that I really came across in the years I spent working on Shumaker) in what Shumaker did in Indiana.  Wheeler didn't draft Hoosier dry laws, and when Shumaker wrote to League officials it wasn't to Wheeler.  While I very much intend on making some more mention of him should I get the chance to craft a second edition of the book, to say that it is lacking because Wheeler doesn't play a prominent enough role in Shumaker's story is to not realize that it is Shumaker's story, not Wheeler's that I was trying to tell.

Be that as it may, a student of mine sent me a link to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Wheeler this week (hence the "second" haunting experience in a month), which you can read here:  The author is Daniel Okrent, who has a new book out about Prohibition (which is going to be used as part of Ken Burn's upcoming miniseries for PBS about the Dry Era).  Okrent, I think it is safe say based on reading both the article and his book ( wants to know  why/how Prohibition came to pass, and in looking to have a main character to explain it all (or perhaps even to blame) he settled on Wheeler.  Indeed, his article title calls Wheeler "the man who turned off the taps."

I have no problem with this in the main.  Wheeler was important for the coming of Prohibition.  He also was a national figure.  And he has an interesting story.  But I do have problems with some of the implications.  First, that (to again quote Okrent) Wheeler "foisted temperance on a thirsty nation," is to fall into the old Wet trap of arguing that Prohibition was "put over" on the nation.  It wasn't.  Wheeler was but the tip of the spear, so to speak, of what Drys had been working for since the late 19th century (at least).  This is why understanding what was going on at the state level (such as with Shumaker) is so important.  The coming of national prohibition was the culmination of efforts across the nation.  It was not just because a small cadre of Drys sent Wheeler to Washington!

In all actuality, if you want to "blame" someone for the coming of Prohibition, blame the brewers who dominated the saloon trade in the early 1900s who refused to abide by even the most basic of laws.  There would have been no Wheeler (or Shumaker for that matter) had Wets not provoked them by disregarding laws and being a part of political corruption (not to mention other things).  At the end of the day, it was American Society at large, both wets, drys, and damps, that produced Prohibition.  Not Wayne Wheeler (or Shumaker for that matter) all by himself.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

One Year On

So, a year ago today "Prohibition" officially became part of the book world.  And what a year it has been!  Thanks to all of you who now own a copy (whether I compelled you to do so or not)!  At last check, the book is in libraries in 39 states and 4 foreign countries (United Kingdom, Canada, Taiwan, and Germany).

The past week or so has also brought with it two more academic reviews.  The first, from American Catholic Studies ( no doubt due to my publisher being Notre Dame, which was a balanced review.  But the one I was in many ways waiting for was in the Indiana Magazine of History ( which was probably as close to a raving review (in all the good ways) that an academic can hope for.  All in all, all good!

Lastly came news that I'll be speaking at the American Historical Association's annual meeting in January 2011.  The location is Boston.  The topic will be Shumaker.  Considering in the coming months I'll be crisscrossing Indiana (Munster in May, Franklin in July, Indy in August, Goshen in October), starting next year in "the city on a hill" sounds just about right!