The New York Times: Alcoholism in America

“The fight against addiction is one of America’s great liberation movements,” Christopher M. Finan writes in his introduction to “Drunks: An American History.” Like other such fights, it is “marked by periods of progress and devastating reverses.”

Temperance movements grew throughout the 19th century, leading to states banning alcohol and, finally, the national prohibition law that took effect in 1920. The law coincided with a withdrawal of government support from many institutions, like the Minnesota Hospital Farm for Inebriates, that were meant to help. Banning alcohol, it was hoped, would do the trick.

In the early 20th century, Henry F. Milans, an alcoholic ex-journalist, had heard a doctor tell medical students of his condition: “This man can never be cured! He must die as he has lived, a drunkard. Nothing can save him.” Finan writes that Milans very likely joined the United Order of Ex-Boozers, a group of mutually supportive alcoholics organized by the Salvation Army. It was a precursor of sorts to Alcoholics Anonymous, the creation of which is detailed in “Drunks,” including the organization’s early wrestling with how explicitly religious it should be. One of its 12 steps originally stated that “God could restore us to our sanity.” God was revised to a “Power greater than ourselves.”

Finan’s chapter on A.A. brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s treatment of the group’s tenets in “Infinite Jest.” “And that was the first night that cynical Gately willingly took the basic suggestion,” Wallace wrote, “to get down on his big knees by his undersized spring-shot Ennet House bunk and Ask For Help from something he still didn’t believe in, ask for his own sick Spider-bit will to be taken from him and fumigated and squished.”


“I’ll be in the supermarket pushing the baby around, and people will sidle up and want a selfie. Which I never mind. Weirder is when you catch people taking selfies with you in the background. Wish you’d just come over and say hello.” — Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Houston Press

The Year of Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this month, and publishers are celebrating with new editions and adaptations of his work. “The Illustrated Walden” recreates a 1902 edition that included 30 engravings, daguerreotypes and period photographs. “A Year in the Woods,” a picture book illustrated by Giovanni Manna, selects excerpts from “Walden” for a condensed view of Thoreau’s time in the woods. And Jeffrey S. Cramer has edited and annotated “Essays,” a selection of Thoreau’s writings about slavery, Massachusetts, apples and other subjects. In this issue, the historian Douglas Brinkley considers Thoreau’s environmental legacy beyond the shores of Walden Pond.