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The Wet Parade by Upton Sinclair
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The Wet Parade (1931)

by Upton Sinclair

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In Louisiana, the youngest member of the wealthy and aristocratic Chilcote family, Maggie May, grows slowly into the frightening knowledge that there is "something wrong" with her beloved father. The girl proves to be the only one with any influence over Roger Chilcote, and from an early age her life becomes dedicated to amusing, distracting, guarding and pleading with her father by turns. A bitter battle is waged for many years; it ends with one last period of hospitalisation - and a straight-razor. Standing over her father's body, Maggie May swears to devote her life to the fight against the dangers of alcohol.

In New York, the young Kip Tarleton helps his mother and aunt to run a small private hotel for displaced Southerners, like themselves. The nominal head of the family is Powhatan Tarleton, whose main contribution to the family business is to drink its profits. Working night and day to lift the burden from his mother's shoulders, Kip takes a temperance oath - and sticks to it, in spite of the ridicule of his friend Jerry Tyler, an aspiring journalist and an occupant of the hotel. Through Jerry, the Tarleton Hotel acquires something like a celebrity resident when his college friend, Roger Chilcote Jr, a poet and an aspiring playwright, comes to stay. Kip is dazzled by the glamorous Roger and grateful for his friendship - and never more so than when it paves the way for Kip's introduction to Maggie May, now a beautiful young woman, gentle, shy, and kind - but implacable of the subject of alcohol and her brother's drinking, which he insists is "merely social" and a necessary part of being "a gentleman": phrases that Maggie May heard only too often from her father.

When the passing of a Prohibition Act is first mooted, Roger, Jerry and their crowd find the very thought of it hilarious, certain that it could never happen; and although they are wrong in this, in their subsequent insistence that while the law may have been passed, it can never be enforced, they prove to be on firmer ground. Hampered on one hand by government with little commitment to the law's enforcement, and by the other by an already corrupt system that sees boundless opportunities for profit in the situation, the Prohibition faction faces a painful uphill struggle. But there are those determined to take up the fight against the havoc wrought by alcohol, among them Kip Tarleton, who becomes the most despised of all government operatives, a Prohibition Agent; and Maggie May, who astonishes herself no less than her family and friends by embarking on a career as a public speaker - a "temperance lecturer"...

The Wet Parade is Upton Sinclair's take on what was, at the time of his novel's publication, a serious and ongoing social issue: the enforcement - or rather, the failure to enforce - the National Prohibition Act, otherwise known as the Volstead Act, or more simply as "Prohibition". This is a compelling story from an author committed to his subject, on top of the facts and figures, and in control of his material; although of course it cannot be to us what it was to contemporary readers, because we now know what they could not - the end of the Prohibition story. The novel takes its title from a real demonstration staged in New York by the anti-Prohibition faction - the "wets" - after the passing of the amendment. Sinclair is clearly in favour of Prohibition, or of some push-back against the incredible consumption of alcohol across all walks of life (people who think drinking is out of control today will find this novel an eye-opener...if you'll pardon the expression); but he is equally aware that the laws had little chance in a society where corruption was endemic.

One of the most impressive features of The Wet Parade is its scope. It follows America's fortunes through the first decades of the 20th century; through WWI and the post-war recovery; through the cyclic prosperity and crashes of "the Jazz Age" and finally into the early days of the Depression. Given its grim subject matter, this is by no means an entirely grim novel. It is, by turns, thoughtful, humorous, sardonic, and angry, as it describes a world awash with alcohol, set against a background of political and legal corruption that goes all the way to the top: the Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations take their lumps in turn. We see how, for every person in favour of Prohibition, there was another profiting by it; how, at the level of the street, a new form of crime, "organised crime", began to make an appearance, not only not hindered but actually supported by a network of policemen, lawyers and judges earning huge profits from bribery and "protection", and with the few real efforts made to enforce the law falling inevitably upon those lacking the money or the friends necessary to make the charges go away. It was, at all points, a case of one law for the rich and another for the poor.

While this is a fascinating history lesson throughout, I found one of its most interesting aspects to be its depiction of Maggie May's accidental evolution from shrinking Southern belle to career woman - and its consequences. Starting out as a church speaker, Maggie May has great success as a temperance advocate, taking her personal experiences to a wider and wider range of audiences, and finally earning an income by it. Kip, by now her husband, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being regarded as "Mr Maggie May Tarleton" as he escorts his wife to her lectures, makes her bookings, and keeps her press clippings. He doesn't like it, but ruefully accepts it; although the situation is certainly a factor in his decision to apply for a position as a Federal prohibition agent - a job that, in the ultimate absurdity, requires him to drink liquor, so that he can swear under oath to what it was. Soon both the Tarletons are working, she days, he nights, while they share the care of their two children with Kip's mother and aunt, whom they support.

After the birth of her second child, Maggie May seeks advice from one of her colleagues, the alarmingly practical Unitarian minister, Dr Craven, who points her towards a compliant medical practitioner. Maggie May loves her children, but if she is to meet her professional commitments, she cannot have any more - and she begins practising birth control, by means illegal at the time. What's more, having done so, she then becomes a font of secret knowledge for her female friends.

Sinclair is fully alive to the ironies of Maggie May's situation: that in her dedication to seeing the Prohibition laws enacted in both letter and spirit, she deliberately breaks another kind of law; and in context, the inclusion of this subplot not only feels like the author's support for the availability of contraception (even while giving her his help, Dr Craven points out to Maggie May that this too is a case of one law for the rich, another for the poor), but Sinclair's admission, even as he makes his case for Prohibition, that "the law" is sometimes anything but black and white.

The idea flashed over him---what would Roger Chilcote say, if he should find out about that day's adventures! Roger, who had so many times been heard to declare it as the main ambition of his life, to get this prim and proper young brother-in-law thoroughly soused, stewed, pickled, piffled, pifflicated, loaded, ossified, bunned, sloped, fiddled, frazzled, corned, jiggered, jugged or jagged! Imagine what the brilliant editor of the Gothamite would have made of it; the story of a sainted young wowser...sent out on a salary of six dollars a day, commissioned to spend eight hours of his time conscientiously visiting saloons and speakeasies, blind pigs and blind tigers, sample-rooms and barrel-houses, dives and doggeries, to imbibe unlimited quantities of substances carefully specified in the Volstead Act...
2 vote lyzard | Jul 22, 2011 |
Prohibition has not failed- prohibition has not been tried. Try it! ( )
  wrichard | Dec 3, 2005 |
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