Drunkard's Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair and Recovery

By White, William L. | Contemporary Drug Problems, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Drunkard's Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair and Recovery


White, William L., Contemporary Drug Problems


Drunkard's Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair and Recovery, by John Crowley (Baltimore, MD, and London, England: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 202 pp., $15.95 (paper).

Listening to Lazarus: the voices of America's first "reformed drunkards"

There are historically obscure points where the fields of temperance history, alcohol studies, and addiction studies dramatically intersect. John Crowley has illuminated one of the earliest and most interesting of such intersections in his latest book, Drunkard's Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair and Recovery. This article reviews Crowley's latest contribution, analyzes the reform narratives presented in this work for their portrayal of the processes of addiction and recovery, and reflects on what these narratives tell us about the rise and fall of America's most celebrated 19th-century alcoholic mutual aid society.

I. Context: the Washingtonian Movement

Rising alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems during the late 18th and early 19th centuries triggered abstinence-based cultural revitalization movements among Native American tribes and the emergence of the American temperance movement. Published stories of addiction and recovery that began to appear in the 1820s and 1830s challenged the belief that `"There was hope for our friend, if the yellow fever or even the plague was upon him; but none if he became a drunkard."1,2 Reform narratives emerged as something of a cultural phenomenon after six "hard cases" organized their own abstinence-based mutual aid society in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1840. This society was founded on the assumption that the reformed drunkard could reach his still-drinking brethren in ways that no one else could.

For the reformed inebriate knows each avenue to his brother's heart; he highly (sic] touches the strings on which hang all his sorrow; no rebuke mingles with his invitation of welcome . . .

The Washington Temperance Society that was launched in Baltimore spread rapidly through the United States and at its peak claimed a membership of same 600,000-of whom 150,000 were confirmed drunkards.3, 4 The Washingtonian Movement reached its zenith in 1843 and then entered a period of rapid decline. This decline has been attributed to many factors: conflict with existing religious and temperance groups, damaged credibility resulting from the relapse of prominent members, ineffective organization, failure to maintain the original closed (drunkards only) meeting structure, internal strife (particularly debates over the role of religion in personal reformation and the advisability of the legal prohibition of alcohol), and the lack of a clearly defined long-term program of recovery.5

The Washingtonian Temperance Society placed the reformed drunkard at the head of the temperance table and used the vivid portrayal of his own fall and rebirth as an invitation for others (drunkards and moderate tipplers) to pledge themselves to lifelong abstinence from all alcoholic drink. The Washingtonians placed "experience sharing" at the center of the process of personal reform. During the early 1840s, Washingtonian temperance missionaries carried a message of hope to the drunkard by reaching out to those still suffering (active recruitment), by serving as traveling temperance orators, and by telling their stories of personal decline and resurrection in newspaper articles, pamphlets and books.b The most fully developed of the temperance narratives that emerged within the Washingtonian Movement are the focus of John Crowley's Drunkard's Progress.

II. A brief review

John Crowley is not a newcomer to the study of the portrayal of alcoholism within American literature. His book The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction was a significant contribution.' A more recent essay, comparing the narratives of John Gough and Frederick Douglass, is a remarkable piece of research that raised for the first time the question of whether Douglass should be classified as one who reformed himself from the excesses of drink and, as such, should be positioned historically as the first African American who framed abstinence within the context of cultural as well as personal survival.

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