A Review of “Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City by Michael A. Lerner
Research and Methodology
HIS 3375 Spencer Johnston
Troy University February 16, 2012
Michael A. Lerner’s Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City gives readers a fresh look at America’s Prohibition era. His decision to limit his study to one city proves that less is quite a lot more. Historians of prohibition conventionally highlight the topic as a national issue. By focusing on New York City, Lerner chose to abandon broader implications that would have only clouded perceptions of prohibition, as it was locally. We are guided as readers through the evolutionary processes of prohibition within the expansive microcosm of 1920s New York and shown a wealth of pertinent documents from the time. Principally, Lerner’s Dry Manhattan drives home how the city and its prolific inhabitants overcame to develop “a very different approach to addressing social problems” in spite of the political misguidedness and exploitative “fail[ures]” of prohibition.
Michael A. Lerner, PhD, holds an academic administrative position at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, New York. In addition to writing Dry Manhattan, Lerner’s other studies have primarily been centered on urban society and 20th century American history. His expertise for the city in which he spent his college years at Columbia and New York University and gained plural degrees is quite profound and lends nicely to his highly certifiable knowledge of American history.
Dry Manhattan tells a thorough account of prohibition in New York City. William H. Anderson, head of the Anti-Saloon League and by far the era’s most instrumental force in abolishing alcohol, begins to focus his ambitious efforts on the likes of New York City. Spearheading the prohibition movement, Anderson and other fundamentalist conservatives of the prohibition movement viewed New York as a stronghold of immoral activity and ultimately he placed himself there as a means to reform the city. He was right in thinking that opposition to prohibition was strong in New York. Not only were a significant portion of working class New Yorkers employed in one way or another by the alcohol industry, a great number of citizens from all walks of life were accustomed to drinking alcohol for many reasons, including ironically religion. It was “a drinking culture,” Lerner informs, “in 1914, [there were] more than 13,000 drinking establishments [that] dotted the city.” The opposition to prohibition was often sporadic and wavering. The reason for this is largely that the groups that opposed the measures often had little in common with one another (or so it seemed). For instance, Irish and German immigrants were unlikely to form a political agenda together on most issues. Similar differences throughout the opposition challenged the solidarity of the anti-prohibition movement. Once prohibition was finally here to stay, chaos began to ensue at the heart of the city’s communities as dissatisfaction grew. The rate of incarceration spiked, youth alcohol use went up and elaborate organized crime networks served a necessary means of employment for many. The years of prohibition, although chaotic and problematic ultimately brought together isolationist bands of immigrants, laborers, civil rights groups and other concerned and honest citizens to form a group that transcended their differences and celebrated their likeness as Americans. As a result of this great social cause that brought so many together, great strides in social reform materialized during the era.
Lerner presents Dry Manhattan with great precision and at times, should be taken with a grain of salt. He only ever so often offers insight into his own sentiments on the topics of prohibition. But, like most historians, he does let morsels of his tendencies be known. Lerner states, “the passage of … [the 18th] amendment was less an expression of popular will than the product of political opportunism and a generation’s worth of aggressive lobbying.” Although his interpretation of historical evidence isn’t entirely untrue, Lerner’s words can at times be opinionated. To the moral bit, Lerner insists, “it (prohibition) was a victory based more on…lobbying than on national call for moral reform.” Being a historian in the 21st century, Lerner’s sentiments span much of present day academia’s views on the topic of prohibition. Scholars and students of today are able to objectively observe temperance movements and the prohibition era from an outsider’s viewpoint. A view as such is obliged to discredit advocates of prohibition, because of our sense of 21st century social norms and Lerner in this way is no different. “Although Lerner is aware of the literature on the temperance movement…he does not engage its findings.” His decision to exclude much information on the ills of alcohol abuse was likely not to act as a defender of immoral behavior, but to further highlight the immoral behavior of those he sought to reveal as the true sources of prohibition’s dysfunction: William H. Anderson. Because of post-sectionalism and urban/rural tensions that charged the issue of prohibition, one can affirm with the greatest of ease that Lerner’s interpretation of the era, while historically accurate, is that of a well-educated, 21st century urbanite, plain and simple. His method of describing the rural-based, prohibition movement has been the object of scrutiny as well. Consequently, criticisms that the author “presents prohibitionists as one-dimensional bigots…blind to the failure of their reform” materialized.
Lerner’s potential biases aside, his related urban insights do yield valuable findings particularly concerning immigrants and African-Americans, where these populations were most heavily concentrated. By citing “ethnic publications…[the author] has significantly expand[ed] our understanding of the National Prohibition [sic] experience among those groups.” Scholars have argued that Lerner’s “account of [prohibition’s] Repeal is less [than] satisfying” in that it left “some serious issues unaddressed.” While the repeal of prohibition is a popular topic among young historians and scholars, Lerner’s decision to fix his scope on less played out avenues isn’t appreciated by everyone, but should be exalted as it is strikingly diligent and forthcoming. The book’s readers are the beneficiaries of the author’s labor.
The solid nature of the information in this book is essential to its worth. The vast number of resources Michael Lerner has compiled are astonishing and brilliantly pieced together. He makes history fun and reasonable by using valuable historical information from familiar sources such as The New York Times and Amsterdam News. He takes advantage of the wealth of information here and gives greatly detailed glimpses into 1920s American culture.
Lerner’s Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City has become one of the most popular accounts of the history of American prohibition to date. Its ease of use and historical assertiveness read more like a novel than a dissertation. The immense amount of historical documentation within this book makes it an absolute top shelf read for historians seeking new, creative or different information. While Dry Manhattan has its biases, it goes above and beyond to serve its purpose. Readers will take away from it a new sense of the social magnitude of the issues of prohibition. Abandoning a safe and warm tendency to follow the conventional prohibition era topics to appease students and scholars of the status quo will not do for Michael A. Lerner. Dry Manhattan will likely continue to be praised for some time to come for its unique focuses and utter wealth of beautifully compiled and interpreted information.
Bard High School Early College. “Faculty Biographies.” http://bhsec.bard.edu/manhattan/faculty/ (accessed February 13, 2012).
Lender, Mark Edward. Review of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner. Journal of Social History, Vol. 42 Issue 3 (2009): 811-812.
Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Pegram, Thomas R. Review of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner. American Historical Review Vol. 113 Issue 1 (2008): 203-204.
 Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.
 Lerner, 2.
 Lerner, 14.
 Lerner, 13.
 Lerner, 13.
 Thomas R. Pegram, review of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner, American Historical Review Vol. 113 Issue 1 (2008): 204.
 Pegram, 204
 Mark Edward Lender, review of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner, Journal of Social History, Vol. 42 Issue 3 (2009): 812.
 Lender, 812.