Alcohol and drugs historians have long lamented the archival limitations of studying past substance users. Substance users typically enter the historical record through retrospective oral histories, the archives of hospitals or prisons, or popular books and media. All these sources have shortcomings: oral histories are riddled with the errors of human memory, institutional archives are usually limited to clinical and criminal records, and popular culture is distorted by sensationalism or artistry. As Bob Beach, Miriam Kingsberg, and Joe Gabriel have argued on Points’ pages, finding the “user’s perspective” is historically difficult.
Editor’s Note: This week, Bob Beach continues his discussion of evidence in the archives. This essay is based on his recent trip to the Harry J. Anslinger Papers at Penn State University.
I know he was simply doing his job, but it was a strange experience. This was not my first archive trip. But when the gentleman in charge of the Harry Anslinger papers collection at Penn State approached, by way of introduction, I couldn’t help but notice that he was sizing me up, almost like a bouncer would size up a potential nightclub patron who looked much too young. Perhaps I should have worn a tie.
In an almost accusatorial tone, he wanted to know why I was there, what I was looking for in the collection, what my motives were. He gave me a brief lecture on the importance of accurate note-taking and documentation. After a few minutes talking to him, he realized that I was a serious researcher and would not pose any threat to the collection. But he shared vague war stories about people that have been through the collection, some of whom misrepresented the collection as a whole, and some who stole documents to add to personal collections to add ammunition to what seems like a never-ending war on our first drug czar.
Valentine’s Day is among the sweetest holidays celebrated in the United States, both figuratively and literally. On February 14, 2015, according to diet data supplied by MyFitnessPal, Americans were 37 percent more likely to indulge in chocolates than on any other day of the year. (Chocolate-covered items, however, were up 323 percent and “conversation heart” candies increased a staggering but hardly surprising 3,777 percent.)
On the first weekday after an indulgent occasion like Valentine’s Day, you might notice colleagues pouring packets of Sweet’n Low in their coffee or sipping a Diet Coke instead of the regular, sugared variety. You might even do it yourself. Personally, I became doubly interested in the history of artificial sweeteners as a user of sugar-free products but also from my academic preoccupation with consumption. I’ll return to this point soon, but first I’d like to share some fascinating parallels between the substances some of us study and artificial sweeteners I found in historian Carolyn De La Peña’s Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.
Editor’s Note: Readers of Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, the Alcohol and Drugs History Society’s journal, are aware of Jonathon Erlen’s ongoing bibliography of recent dissertations related to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Until recently, Dr. Erlen, the History of Medicine Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, curated and published his dissertation lists in …
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re long overdue for an interview about the superb new essay collection, Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press, 2014). The collection is edited by Gretchen Pierce, an Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University (and a past contributor to Points) and Aurea Toxqui, an Associate Professor …
Note from Ron: Here is another tribute to the late Joe Gusfield, authored by Harry Gene Levine. It circulated via email among some of us old-guard alcohol and drug history types a few days ago. And, when I asked him, Harry was kind enough grant permission it be published at Points. The italicized first paragraph, below the Picasso image, offers Harry’s suggested introductory words for the piece. I’m also going to take the liberty of adding, as a comment, below, my response to it when it was sent around by email. I really like this piece. Thank you, Harry!
In 2000 I was invited to join a panel at the meetings of the Law and Society Association devoted to Joe Gusfield and his book Symbolic Crusade. I wrote a four page presentation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Since hearing of his death I have been thinking about him a lot and dug up the paper. It’s kind of sweet. — H.G.L.
Joseph R. Gusfield’s book, Symbolic Crusade, discusses the temperance movement in America history. I too have studied the American temperance movement and would like to begin with a brief description of the temperance and prohibition crusade that I didn’t write but wish I could have: the first paragraph of Symbolic Crusade.
For many observers of American life, the temperance movement is evidence for an excessive moral perfectionism and an overly legalistic bent to American culture. It seems the action of devoted sectarians who are unable to compromise with human impulse. The legal measures taken to enforce abstinence display the reputed American faith in the power of Law to correct all evils. This moralism and utopianism bring smiles to the cynical and fear to the sinner. Such a movement seems at once naive, intolerant, saintly and silly.
One of the difficulties of writing like that is that it involves discussing so many things at one time. Every sentence in that paragraph talks about the American temperance movement, and about topics other than the temperance movement. I propose that double or triple focus is part of Gusfield’s intellectual genius. For many years I could not even recognize that Joe was focusing on several things at once. I myself am often unable to see even one thing at a time. At first I usually only see part of one thing. Then, like Columbo, the rumpled detective played by Peter Falk, I return scratching my head, thumbing through my notes, and asking again about something that still confuses me.
I’ve been reading Gusfield’s books and articles for twenty-five years trying to understand how he produces his distinctive intellectual, emotional and perceptual effects on the page and in the reader. I would like to report a few things I have figured out about Joseph R. Gusfield’s sociology.
(Editors Note: This post was written by Dr. Lucas Richert, a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan.)
In recent years, the modification of marijuana laws in the United States, multiple doping scandals in professional sports (from Lance Armstrong to A-Rod), and the right-to-die debate have helped focus the public’s attention on drugs. At the same time, academia, policy-makers and interest groups all have a need for superior information about the complex role that recreational drugs and pharmaceutical products play in our lives.
According to Alan Leshner, “There is a unique disconnect between the scientific facts and the public’s perception about drug abuse and addiction. If we are going to make any progress, we need to overcome the ‘great disconnect.’”
Progress, whatever that meant for Leshner, will certainly be accompanied by a public discussion. And psychiatrists will continue to play a major role in shaping our understanding of drugs.
Virginia Berridge, a professor of history and director of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently alerted Points to a new briefing her organization published earlier this year. “Local and National Alcohol Policy: How Do They Interact?” is a concise and useful treatise on the difficulties of integrating local and national alcohol policies in the United Kingdom, with resonance for American scholars and those doing transnational work.