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Kevin Kaufmann, “‘Rigorous Honesty’: A Cultural History of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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.

Creating a Demand for Coffee that AA Would Later Meet

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.

No Radical Visions in These American Dreams

As far as how it relates to my advisor’s work, well it is pretty much the exact opposite of his thesis about the 1930s and its culture.  While the great majority of scholars see it as a period of great liberalism and even radicalism, I take the counter approach with Susman, and view it as a much more traditional, even conservative period, especially culturally speaking.  This is apparent in Alcoholics Anonymous when one considers how it does not challenge society, like many previous attempts at temperance, but rather the individual.  In short, the system (capitalism, the American Dream, Horatio Alger, what have you) is not broken, the individual is, and is in need of fixing to become a productive member of that system once again.  I’m very happy to say that Dr. Erenberg was an excellent advisor precisely because we disagreed so profoundly about the era.  He pushed my thinking, challenged me and I think made the final draft a much better project than it would have been otherwise.

I don’t want to get into the state of History per se.  There is far too much to cover and discuss, but as far as the history of Alcoholics Anonymous is concerned, I would argue two things.  First, there still isn’t enough scholarly work done on the group, or the recovery movement in general and I feel that is unfortunate.  AA and its children have had a profound impact on US culture (and to a limited extent, world culture) and yet I feel that as a community, historians in particular, have only scratched its surface.  Second, related to the first point, is that much of what is written on AA falls too much into “fan” literature.  It tends to be poorly written, poorly researched and very agenda driven, either too pro or anti Alcoholics Anonymous.

3) What’s in your dissertation’s future? What do you plan to do to turn it into a book (or a series of cutting edge articles)? Currently, my dissertation is in a state kind of like the ark in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, sealed away in the deep recesses of a warehouse.  I don’t know if other new PhD’s feel the same way, but right now I have a feeling of, “Been there done that.” My interests have moved on somewhat and I’m much more excited about doing something new than going over the old saws.

Having said all that, after all of that work on the dissertation, I want it to start working for me.  Having just finished my first marathon, I want to start using the time that was devoted to running long distances to reworking the parts in the dissertation that my committee mentioned still needed work.  I have consulted with a number of colleagues about getting involved with the publishing world and have set my sights on attending the major conferences of my discipline, talking to editors and beginning the process of getting my foot in the door.  I would like to keep it all together and publish a book, but I’m not adverse to publishing articles.

4) Quick! what’s best and worst about your dissertation? The best thing about my dissertation is that it’s finished!  Sorry, old joke.  I would say the best thing about my dissertation is my treatment of AA during and after World War II.  I think I present the spread of AA via the war economy and population shift very well and not many accounts, if any, truly, tie the AA experience into the home front wartime narrative.   I argue that AA’s spread conforms to the population shift from the east and Midwest to the southwest and west and corresponds to urban growth in those regions.  Further, just as the war affected US home culture, AA membership was affected in similar ways, namely the increase of women as active members, African-Americans gaining more acceptance and the war helping to make AA a truly national (soon international) organization.  It not only confirms what many say about AA, that it is a uniquely American institution, but expands on that idea and demonstrates on a very practical level that Alcoholics Anonymous was very much a part of the American experience.

Dry to Sober: a History

The worst thing about my dissertation is the discussion of the influence of early temperance and prohibition movements on the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wanted to get to AA as soon as I could and I feel like I could have delved even deeper into the predecessors, especially their activities of the twentieth century, and how they affected the creation of the group.  Also, one of the biggest criticisms I received was the lack of numbers in the dissertation, particularly membership numbers.  While all committee members understood that as an anonymous group a head count was unlikely, other methods of counting could have worked, (i.e. number of groups, how they spread and where) and it would make for a much stronger work.  In the revision I hope to make another trip or two to the AA archives and look at how the fellowship spread, namely referencing the time and place new groups arose.  Offering more qualitative analysis to those numbers will be the volumes of correspondence the Central Office had with new groups as they started and matured.


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