Dry Land


At my local CVS Pharmacy in Virginia, I can buy dental floss, nail polish, aspirin, and mailing envelopes. I can also purchase booze: Yellow Tail Merlot, an orange-labeled substance claiming to be sangria, and three flavors of Bud Light, just for starters. A few blocks away, a neighborhood store hawks Dubonnet, Belgian ales, hard cider, and nine kinds of Russian wine. If I drive a few minutes by car, I reach a shop whose aisles glitter with brands of liqueurs, distilled spirits—even absinthe.

This intoxicating bounty seems normal—almost necessary. So I have often wondered how on earth America managed to pass, and live with, the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol. (The amendment was ratified in 1919, took effect in 1920, and was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendment.)

Now I’ve watched the three-part, five-and-a-half hour documentary Prohibition, premiering on PBS on October 2, 3, and 4, and I wonder no longer. Celebrated director Ken Burns and his partner, Lynn Novick, have crafted a brisk and absorbing film that brims with insights, not only into the broader cultural and economic forces that turned the United States—in theory—dry for thirteen years, but also into the episode’s long-term legacy.


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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.