Another Prohibition: Uncovering the Real 1920s

Emily Bernard
Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance:
A Portrait in Black & White

(Yale University Press, 2011
)

Marni Davis
Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
(New York University Press, 2012
)


The popularity of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and PBS’s Prohibition, one a multi-season drama series, the other a multi-hour documentary series, has ignited popular interest in the legendary Prohibition era of the Roaring ’20s. These two television productions are complementary, providing viewers with a vivid sense of just how much of American life was affected by the moralistic campaign against alcohol consumption.

Boardwalk Empire, like many movies and TV series before it, attempts to capture a subjective sense of the ’20s, what it was like as a particularly lived experience. Prohibition applies Ken Burns’s grand, didactic storytelling style to a very troubling period. Together, they add a great deal to our understanding of this critical era of American history.

More troubling, Jewish resistance to Prohibition contributed to a deep anti-Semitism shared by many “drys.” Davis documents a mounting current of anti-Semitism that starts well before Prohibition was introduced and continued throughout the era.

The U.S. faced a major nativist movement in opposition to the profound social destabilization caused by America’s great industrial revolution of the late-19th century. It drew together a diverse assortment of resentments, coalescing around temperance.

Most importantly, this round of nativist revival benefited from sophisticated organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, the Immigration Restriction League, and the Klan. They not only captured the Republican Party, but used it to mobilize federal and state governments to impose its moral values on all Americans. Their efforts culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment.

Alcohol, and the saloon, was seen as the root cause of all social ills. But nativists also championed racial purity and sought to prevent the alleged “pollution” of the white Protestant American “stock” by freed slaves and immigrants, especially Jews. They opposed science and the teaching of evolution. Yet, they supported the pseudo-science of eugenics and engaged in a war against “feeblemindedness,” especially targeted at African-Americans and immigrants. They opposed the “new woman” symbolized by the flapper, a modern, 20th century woman who was urban, held a job and had money in her pocket, had a basic education, and who, especially at night in speakeasies, liked to drink, smoke, wear makeup, and dance to jazz. Perhaps most threatening, the new woman had access to birth control information, contraception, sex education—and sex.

Two recent publications, Emily Bernard’s Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance and Marni Davis’s Jews and Booze, add to the complexity of this very complex historical moment. These two academic works take the reader into worlds that are only tangentially touched upon in Boardwalk Empire and Prohibition.

Bernard explores the interracial issues at the heart of the “new” Negro movement and New York’s literary scene; Davis details the role of the alcohol trade in the Americanization of European Jewish immigrants. These two books are, like the two TV series, ships in the night, anchored in time but passing each other in analysis. Nevertheless, they each add important information and insight to the story of the ’20s.

Carl Van Vechten is an all-but-forgotten figure of Gotham’s once celebrated arts scene. Born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, into a prosperous and progressive family (his father financed Negro schools in the south and his mother was a suffragist), he escaped to Chicago and attended the University of Chicago.

After graduation, he became a reporter for a couple of Chicago newspapers; he lost one job after writing a negative review of the publisher’s heartthrob. So, in keeping with the culture of the well-to-do of the pre-WWI era, he undertook the grand tour of the Continent, meeting many of the new bohemians, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; they became lifelong friends. Stein referred to him fondly as their son.

Returning to New York and, after divorcing his first wife, Van Vechten married the Russian-born dancer and actress, Fania Marinoff. He soon became a popular figure in the city’s literary scene, a critic at the New York Times and New York Press, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, and a popular novelist; later in life, he became a photographer. But most importantly, after receiving a sizable inheritance he gave up day work and became a well-known man-about-town.

During the ’20s, Van Vechten played an unprecedented role in the city’s cultural life. He was an indefatigableschmoozer who knew everyone who was in the know, from Salvador Dalí to Theodore Dreiser to Helena Rubenstein. His spacious aparment at 150 West 55th Street became a gathering place, a salon, for the cultural elite redefining America’s artistic sensibility. On a given night, guests might include George Gershwin playing show tunes at the piano, followed by Paul Robeson singing Negro spirituals, and ending with James Weldon Johnson reciting poetry.

It is his relationship with African-Americans, as friend, literary champion, author, and lover (for he had a number of black male lovers), that is the centerpiece of Bernard’s study. Her work is not a biography, but a critical engagment of a challenging subject.

While Bernard’s book benefits from extensive scholarly research, finding innumerable nuggets from personal correspondents and making interesting connections with many literary works, she doesn’t seem to know how to resolve the mystery at the heart of her story: What explains Van Vechten’s relation to the black experience?

Van Vechten published his most successful and scandalous work, Nigger Heaven, in 1926, at the height of Prohibition. Much of Bernard’s discussion focuses on the challenge the work posed among the black literati, splitting them like no other work of the era.

Reading the novel today, it comes off as a literary melodrama, a morality tale of failed love, misspent ambition, and the sins of illicit desire. (One of the weaknesses of Bernard’s study is that she doesn’t lay out the book’s plot, so it might be difficult for those who haven’t read it to fully appreciate her argument.)

The book is a soap opera chronicling the lives of two principle characters, Mary Love, a librarian, and Byron Kasson, an aspiring writer. They are “dark” skinned, middle-class, and college-educated “New Negroes,” struggling not only to establish a love relationship with each other but confronting deeper forces within themselves. As they confront these challenges, they struggle to find their places within Harlem’s social hierarchy and New York’s larger, Jim Crow white world.

Van Vechten confronted fierce opposition over his use of what we today call the “n” word, including from his father. Many were also scandalized by the novel’s portrait of a lascivious Harlem, playing to white “slummer” fantasies about black life. W.E.B. Du Bois, the champion of the “Talented Tenth,” hated it; Johnson vigorously defended it.

Writing in the leading black publication of the era, The Crisis, Du Bois raged: “Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven is a blow in the face,” and added, “it is an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of the white.” Johnson, who was a close friend of Van Vechten, expressed a more accepting sensibility, cautioning: “It is all life. It is all reality.”

Bernard details Van Vechten’s personal and professional relations with such important literary figures as Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Walter White, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, and Rudolph Fisher. In passing, she also touches on his friendships with the artist Aaron Douglas and the legendary blues singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. At the end, one is impressed by the diligence of her scholarship and effort to tie the use of the “n” word to today’s popular black culture, but unsatisfied by her critique of Van Vechten, who remains a mysterious figure.

The first Jews arrived in what became the U.S. in the mid-16th century, settling in what is now Texas but was then part of the Spanish New World empire. A century later, Sephardic Jews began to settle in the major port cities along the Atlantic coast, especially New York. They came, not as slaves like Africans, but as merchants and traders; they came, not stripped of their culture and history, but exporting a rich tradition going back centuries.

Jewish immigration to the U.S. went through two major waves during the 19th century. The first occured during the pre-Civil War era and brought German Jews and saw them spread from the larger east coast cities to smaller cities and towns in the Midwest, West, and South. According to Davis, the second wave, from 1880 – 1920, brought two million Jews from Eastern Europe and, in particular Russia, to the U.S. This mass migration transformed not only the class and social character of American Jewry, but the character of the cities where they settled.

Davis’s book offers a unique keyhole into the Jewish immigration experience in two important respects. First, by focusing on the alcohol trade, it discusses a topic often overlooked in conventional discussions of Jews in America. Second, in addition to passing discussions of New York and other major cities, her book offers an invaluable consideration of Jewish settlements in smaller cities, most notably Atlanta, Newark, and Cincinnati.

This comparison, between Jews in major and smaller cities, provides insight into how, on the one side, Jews cultivated ethnic community within urban ghettos like New York’s Lower East Side and, on the other, were required (because of their relatively small numbers) to deal with non-Jewish populations. In both cases, alcohol helped lubricate the process of acculturation.

Davis’s study makes clear that alcohol, and the alcohol trade, has long played a vital role in Jewish history. First and foremost, it was part of their religious sacrament; second, alcohol consumption was part of popular social life, whether in the home or in public institutions like saloons; and third, alcohol distilling, distribution, and sales were legitimate trades, especially in Russia and the eastern Pale. Jews brought these traditions to America.

Looking at Cincinnati at the turn of the 20th century, Davis found that Jews accounted for about 5 percent of the city’s population, but made up about a quarter of its liquor trade. Going further, she argues that during Prohibition upward of half of the nation’s bootleggers may have been Jews.

Many of these bootleggers took advantage of a loophole in the Volstead Act that regulated Prohibition enforcement. Jews, like Italian Catholics and others, were able to produce, sell, and consume sacramental wine as part of their religious practices. This fueled a deep split within the Jewish community between those who sought to be loyal new Americans, thus honoring the 18th Amendment, and those who opposed the imposition of goyim laws on the Hebrew people.

Together, Bernard’s Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance and Davis’s Jews and Booze shed valuable light on often overlooked aspects of the Roaring ’20s. While they may not dwell on the most cinematic aspects of prohibition, they are still worthy additions to the history of one of America’s most vibrant and divisive eras.

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and regularly contributes to AlterNet, CounterPunch, and Filmmaker; check out DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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