Book Review: Last Call

Daniel Okrent. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scriber, 2010. 480 pages.

Prohibition is one of the great riddles of American history. Looking at it from the distance of three generations, it seems inexplicable that Americans voted to outlaw intoxicating beverages, and it seems clear that the drys were on the wrong side of history. From our perspective, the debate seems so one-sided that the passage of Prohibition seems a mystery. But at the time it made sense to many Americans, and seemed like a good idea. Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL reintroduces us to many of the key players behind the 18th amendment, the Volstead Act that followed, and those who enforced and broke the law in the next decade.

Okrent brings to life the men and women who shaped–and eventually brought down–Prohibition, and rescues many of them from obscurity. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, the political strategist considered in his lifetime to be the most influential man in America, is perhaps the keystone to understanding the hold that drys maintained on the American political process before and after the passage of the 18th amendment. Mabel Willebrandt, US Assistant Attorney General in charge of prosecuting Volstead Act violations, is also brought into focus, as are a host of other key players, from Canadian distiller Sam Bronfman to Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, the most famous pair of Prohibition agents of the 1920s. Reading this book really brings the characters back to life.

Okrent has pulled together a readable synthesis of the scholarly and popular historical material on Prohibition, and LAST CALL is a great popular history of the movement that lead to the law and the period that followed its enactment. If anything, some readers might consider the book a bit too detailed in some sections, but this doesn’t detract from Okrent’s accomplishments in presenting a single-volume history of a complex topic and period in American history.

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