Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Saloon and the Mission

The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture

Eoin F. Cannon
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Saloon and the Mission
    Book Description:

    Since the middle of the nineteenth century, sobriety movements have flourished in America during periods of social and economic crisis. From the boisterous workingclass temperance meetings of the 1840s to the quiet beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s, alcoholics have banded together for mutual support. Each time they have developed new ways of telling their stories, and in the process they have shaped how Americans think about addiction, the self, and society. In this book Eoin Cannon illuminates the role that sobriety movements have played in placing notions of personal and societal redemption at the heart of modern American culture. He argues against the dominant scholarly perception that recovery narratives are private and apolitical, showing that in fact the genre’s conventions turn private experience to public political purpose. His analysis ranges from neglected social reformer Helen Stuart Campbell’s embrace of the “gospel rescue missions” of postbellum New York City to William James’s use of recovery stories to consider the regenerative capabilities of the mind, to writers such as Upton Sinclair and Djuna Barnes, who used this narrative form in much different ways. Cannon argues that rather than isolating recovery from these realms of wider application, the New Deal–era Alcoholics Anonymous refitted the “drunkard’s conversion” as a model of selfhood for the liberal era, allowing for a spiritual redemption story that could accommodate a variety of identities and compulsions. He concludes by considering how contemporary recovery narratives represent both a crisis in liberal democracy and a potential for redemptive social progress.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-272-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION Addiction Recovery and the World as It Should Be
    (pp. 1-20)

    Neither George Bush nor Barack Obama claims to be an alcoholic or a drug addict. Nevertheless, in these turning points in their autobiographies, the forty-third and forty-fourth presidents invoke conventions of addiction recovery narrative to convey their passages from early-life drift to sober purpose. Bush’s late turnaround fits the template of the classic drinker’s salvation, in which an experiential low point (a bad hangover) prompts acceptance of the God-given regeneration modeled by an evangelist. Obama, by contrast, casts his turn from the path to addiction as part of a process of racially inflected identity formation, in which a young black...

  5. Part I Redemption and Ideology

    • 1 The Drunkard’s Conversion and the Salvation of the Social Order
      (pp. 23-51)

      Jeremiah McAuley, by every nineteenth-century indicator, was doomed to a wicked life and an early death. Heredity, upbringing, environment, religion, habits—each was as bad as could be, and the sum predicted irreversible degeneracy. His father was a counterfeiter in Ireland who abandoned his family. He was raised by a foul-mouthed Papist grandmother, then sent to New York City at thirteen to live with a sister. There he commenced a life of drinking, brawling, and stealing, in the notorious Fourth Ward on the East River waterfront. As an adolescent he became an accomplished river thief, and in 1857, at the...

    • 2 “What a Radical Found in Water Street”
      (pp. 52-82)

      The conversion narratives told by drunkards in the rescue missions of Lower Manhattan were popular stories in the Protestant America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to appealing to religious sentiments, they showed middle-class society how it could affirm its own righteousness by redeeming the outcast and even the degenerate, and in doing so safely open its ranks to a broader social spectrum in a time of economic and demographic transformation. In this manner, the sanctification of formerly drunken men and women did some needed cultural work in Gilded Age America, helping imaginatively to make sense...

    • 3 The Varieties of Conversion Polemic
      (pp. 83-114)

      The drunkards reformed at evangelical rescue missions in the late nineteenth century anchored their conversion stories to pragmatic needs and oriented them toward egalitarian ends, and in doing so created a flexible form for applying addiction-redemption language to all manner of social purposes. But this reformist structure notwithstanding, in both performance and print, the original stories remained products of the sentimental culture of the nineteenth century; their sensational low-life scenes, dramatic plot reversals, and triumphant piety exhibit as much. The genre’s popular appeal and plausibility as nonfiction depended on the contemporary prevalence of these devices. How, then, did the drunkard’s...

    • 4 New Deal Individualism and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
      (pp. 115-152)

      The birth of Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s was a turning point in the cultural history of alcoholism and addiction. A.A. grew rapidly, and by midcentury it had taken hold not only as a means of recovery, but also as a source of conventional wisdom about alcoholism, informing its depiction in film, fiction, and memoir. While the efficacy of A.A. for alcoholics remains the focus of debate, its cultural impact is unquestioned.¹ Historians have attributed this proliferation to a number of factors. A.A. helped fill the post-temperance, post-Repeal need for a conception of the dangers of alcohol that limited...

  6. Part II Literature and Recovery

    • 5 Literary Realism and the Secularization of the Drunkard’s Conversion
      (pp. 155-176)

      By the second half of the nineteenth century, the sensational conversion of very bad men was a well-established phenomenon in American religious revival, so much so that it was a subject of satirical humor. Despite also being the target of such mockery, though, the drunkard’s conversion remained popular in the literature of religious and moral uplift, accepted as both the ideal and the reality of missionary endeavor among the poor of the industrial-era city. Gospel rescue missions proliferated, and reformers both secular and religious began to give close scrutiny to drunkards’ conversions, in particular. This was especially true as religious...

    • 6 The Drinker’s Epiphany in Modernist Literature
      (pp. 177-199)

      T.s. Eliot, in his 1937 introduction to Djuna Barnes’s novelNightwood, urged its readers not to repeat the mistake of an unnamed reviewer, who recoiled from Barnes’s “horrid sideshow of freaks.” Instead, Eliot insisted, one must understand her queer, dissolute expatriates as exemplars of the human condition. To read them as mere deviants, the poet wrote, would be “not only to miss the point, but to confirm our wills and harden our hearts in an inveterate sin of pride.” For Eliot,Nightwood’s frantic, lovesick, and alcoholic misfits illustrated the futile and compulsive nature of all desire. “It seems to me that...

    • 7 The Iceman Cometh and the Drama of Disillusion
      (pp. 200-222)

      Eugene O’Neill’s life and work seem to fit the pattern of the alcoholic modern writers. Born in 1888, he was a ferocious binge drinker in his early adulthood, accruing the kinds of legends that make a hard-drinking writer’s reputation. From 1907 to 1915, between trips at sea, he spent lengthy periods in some of Manhattan’s rougher saloons and boardinghouses.¹ Biographers credit this time spent in the lower depths for helping to form his philosophical pessimism and his democratic social ethos. His plays often use heavy drinking to signal these values, in scenes that resonate with the canonical modern novels.The...

    • 8 Recovery Memoir and the Crack-Up of Liberalism
      (pp. 223-247)

      In his 1956 memoirThe Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair traces the theme of alcoholism through his life and times, focusing on the dozens of writers, artists, politicians, and workers he knew who were its victims. Beginning with the dizzying instability of his childhood due to his own father’s periodical binges, he documents his booze-saturated early environs in both New York City and the South, and the centrality of alcohol to hisJungle-era social analysis, before turning to his time amid the “group of brilliant and brave Americans who lived to write and died for wine.”¹ He dwells at length...

  7. CONCLUSION Addiction in a New Era of Recovery
    (pp. 248-262)

    New kinds of sobriety stories have always emerged during times of socioeconomic crisis. Because these crises have been those of urban industrial capitalism, poor city neighborhoods have been the settings for these stories since the temperance era. The slums and addiction are concrete manifestations of modern society’s sociopolitical failures: the first in the landscape, the second in the person, and together mutually constructive of a pathological social environment. The most intricate and influential narrative exploration of this historic trope in the early twenty-first century wasThe Wire, a series created by David Simon that centered on the drug trade in...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 263-310)
  9. Index
    (pp. 311-321)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 322-324)