The Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act, was passed in the U. S. Congress on this day in 1919. An anti-Puritan in all things, H. L. Mencken attacked Prohibition from all sides, portraying it as the enemy of freedom, conviviality, even health: “Most of the trouble from so-called overeating comes from underdrinking.” Mencken was also a devoted home-brewer, though one letter to a friend admits that this could indeed get unhealthy:
Last Sunday I manufactured five gallons of Methodistbrau. It turned out to be very tasty … but I bottled it too soon, and the result has been a series of fearful explosions. Last night I had three quart bottles in my side yard, cooling in a bucket. Two went off at once, bringing my neighbor out of his house with yells. He thought that Soviets had seized the town. I have lost about 12 good Apollinaris bottles, but still trust in God. Next time I shall wait until fermentation is finished. Just now another blew up in my cellar. However, I have the bottle covered with bags, and there is no damage. I invited two beer fanatics to test the stuff last night. I opened the bottle wearing heavy automobile gloves and with bagging and a fire-screen to protect me. When the stopper was thrown back, all save about two gills blew out. But the fanatics pronounced the two gills very soothing.
Religious groups had established Temperance lobbies in the U.S. for decades before Prohibition, of course — Mencken’s “Methodistbrau” might allude to this. The following Mark Twain quote, from 1907, might even foretell Mencken, who was Teutonic and, in his own proud self-description, “ombibulous”:
I don’t think prohibition is practical. The Germans, you see, prevent it. Look at them. I am sorry to learn that they have just invented a method of making brandy out of Sawdust. Now, what chance will prohibition have when a man can take a rip saw and go out and get drunk with a fence rail?
“I don’t think I’ve ever drunk champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast on several occasions, but never before, before. “
— Paul Varjack to Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was published on this day in 1958
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.