Editor’s Note: Today Points welcomes Kevin Kaufmann, who recently completed “‘Rigorous Honesty’: A Cultural History of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1930-1960” in the History Department of Loyola University, Chicago, under the direction of Lewis Erenberg. Dr. Kaufmann is currently a Pre-Health Advisor at Loyola University; when away from his academic life he blogs about random things and the Chicago White Sox.
1) Nothing’s more popular right now than taking potshots at over-specialized, overstuffed, jargon-y academics. Prove the haters wrong by describing your dissertation in terms that the average man in the street could understand.
My dissertation focuses on the early roots and early history of Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically from ca. 1840-1960. It begins with an examination of how the temperance movement of the nineteenth century and the prohibition movement of the early twentieth century informed the creation of AA, especially what themes, images and cultural touchstones were used by the group that resonated with its earliest members.
The next major component is a discussion of how 1930s Great Depression culture, when AA was founded, influenced the early design of the program and finally how Alcoholics Anonymous changed through the mid part of the century to meet the new realities of wartime and post-war America.
2) It’s the rare graduate student who heads off for a phd thinking, “I’m going to write about drugs in my dissertation!” How would you describe the genesis of your project relative to your coursework, your advisor’s work, the state of your discipline, etc.?
I can genuinely say that I had an eureka moment when it came to my topic for the dissertation. I was working on folk music in Chicago with every intention of writing my dissertation on the urban folk scene from 1945-present. I hadn’t formally done anything with it, mostly just seminar papers and the like. I was reading for my comprehensive exams and came across the work of Warren Susman, and it had a profound effect on me. I was taking a shower and thinking about his article on the culture of the 1930s (sad that this is the kind of thing I think about in the shower, I know) and what he was describing, at least to me, was very much a description of AA. Basically Susman went against the conventional wisdom of the 1930s as a decade of radicalism but more a turn toward a traditional view of the United States. He primarily focused on the renewed interest in folk art and music and the work of Norman Rockwell. Part of this idea of traditionalism in America was the need for Americans to feel like they were not alone, that they needed to belong to something, be with others. I particularly gravitated toward that notion with regards to AA. I literally got out of the shower sat at the computer in a towel and wrote the first draft of my dissertation proposal.