David Reynolds’s The Serpent in the Cup is a study of the role of temperance in American literature.

Hawthorne, for instance, drew on themes and images from temperance reform in his story. In the short story, “A Rill from the Town Pump,” which Reynolds describes as an “ur-source of some of the main concerns of Hawthorne’s later fiction,” features a monologue from a town’s water pump. Water, the pump argues, is the great reformed of the age, quenching thirst and tearing down “distilleries and brew-houses.” Water purifies from the degradation of drink: “In the moral warfare which you are to wageand indeed, in the whole conduct of your livesyou cannot choose a better example than myself, who have never permitted the duct, and sultry atmosphere, the turbulence and manifold disquietudes of the world around me to reach that deep, calm, well of purity, which may be called my soul. And whenever I pour out my soul, it is to cool the earth’s fever, or cleanse its stains” (40-41, the last quoted from Hawthorne’s story).

Whitman likewise associated alcohol with pollution and temperance with purity: “In Leaves of Grass he constructed a poetic persona who embodied temperance, strength, and health but who had no direct association with such movements. Some of his poems used the language of dark temperance, associating drunkards with impure or disgusting things. ‘A drunkard’s breath,’ he wrote in ‘A Hand-Mirror’; ”unwholesome eater’s face, venerealee’s flesh, / Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous, / Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination’ (LGC, 26869). Similarly, in ‘Song of Prudence’ he decried ‘Putridity of gluttons or rumdrinkers,’ ‘privacy of the onanist’ and ‘seduction, prostitution’ (LGC, 374)” (52). 

In a notebook, Whitman wrote, “I have resolv’d to inaugurate for myself a pure perfect sweet, cleanblooded robust body by ignoring all drinks but water and pure milkand all fat meats, late suppersa great bodya purged, cleansed, spiritualised and invigorated body” (quoted, p. 52).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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