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The Points Interview — Eoin Cannon

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Note: Points’ managing editor, Eoin Cannon, favors us, today, with an interview on his just-out, new book, The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). BTW, Big Congratulations, Eoin!


Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it.  It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.

I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.

This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture.


So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. 

Second, my attempt to understand the A.A. recovery story as a cultural artifact of New Deal-era liberalism might strike some as either too broad to be interesting or too specific to be defensible. For starters, one must accept a definition of “liberalism” broad enough to encompass a foundational concept of the social self — in line with a longstanding practice among theorists (and critics) of liberalism through each of its historical phases. My A.A. chapter showed how the Big Book’s stories of individual redemption envisioned the alcoholic in the same way FDR envisioned the nation and John Dewey envisioned frontier individualism — as models of self-interest whose failures were now wholly exposed by a “hitting bottom” experience that, at the same time, revealed a path toward a new, cooperative kind of self-interest. In subsequent chapters I showed that while A.A. remained successfully free from political associations, the kind of public recovery story it helped birth – in memoirs and films and in institutional approaches to addiction – neatly exhibited both the ideals of the liberal era and their ultimate fragmentation in the face of elements such as consumerism, social injustice, and reactionary conservatism.

Lastly, I think historians might be alternately intrigued and frustrated by my treatment of a narrative form as a primary object of historical analysis. Instead of treating each text simply as evidence of its author’s experiences or intentions, I dwell at length on particular texts whose narratives displayed the “architecture” of the redemptive story especially well, whether by example, by exception, or, most compellingly, via literary adaptation.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I love the elite-street partnerships that made the rescue missions and their literature possible. I have a particular fondness for Jerry and Maria McAuley and their relationship with Helen Stuart Campbell. The McAuleys were illiterate immigrants, an ex-thief and ex-prostitute living in a common law marriage, but they secured the patronage of high-status New Yorkers to fund their evangelical social work among the tenements of their own waterfront Manhattan neighborhood. They embraced uptown New Yorkers’ Protestant religious commitments but not at the expense of protecting the dignity of their own and their fellow slumdwellers’ class, ethnic, and gender identities. The McAuleys’ wisdom and dynamism undermined Campbell’s and others’ elite assumptions about the poor and the possibility of dramatic, positive change.

Jerry McAuley (1839-1884), Maria (McAuley) Gilbert (d. 1919), Helen Stuart Campbell (1839-1918).

Jerry McAuley (1839-1884), Maria (McAuley) Gilbert (d. 1919), Helen Stuart Campbell (1839-1918).

Campbell should be as well known as her colleague Jane Addams and her protégé Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Campbell was a prolific novelist, reporter, theorist, and activist. She was an extraordinary intellectual pioneer, not just because she was a female economist in an almost exclusively male field, but because she approached serious structural questions by starting from working people’s actual household budgets — an Elizabeth Warren of her day, but who of course could neither vote nor run for elected office.

In any case, instead of making herself the reader’s tour guide to the slums, as so many of her fellow reformers did, she wrote herself into reform activism as a guest in the McAuleys’ world. She suggested that a middle-class person cannot have the eyes to see this world until he or she has undergone a personal conversion of the kind that facilitates such humility. She experienced the poor drunkards’ conversion testimonies as the inspiration for such change. She saw the McAuleys’ commitment to universal spiritual equality as a model for a genuinely democratic understanding of economic forces and their effects. The enlightened self-interest they taught her runs through and links the long traditions of recovery and social idealism in the 20th century, from these stories’ direct influence on William James all the way to the writings of Anne Lamott and David Foster Wallace.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would like to make up for my book’s neglect of the Washingtonians by learning more about their influence on the temperance societies and revival movements of the decades between their heyday and the rise of the rescue mission movement. How much, for example, did Washingtonian testimonial techniques, social contagion, and working-class mutual aid survive to influence the evangelical conversion testimonies around which the rescue missions were structured?

I also would like to see a more thorough investigation of the relationship between evangelical culture and socialist conversion narrative. Did, for example, socialist conversion stories simply borrow Christian tropes to model change or were they more often products of millenarian Christians who saw socialism as the coming divine dispensation?

And, finally, I would like to look more closely at recovery stories associated with radical movements, such as Malcolm X’s. In my book I associated “mainstream” sobriety movements with periods of socioeconomic reorganization — during which “dissolution” was a real danger for more people and in which people craved stories of redemption and reinvention. But radical movements have also often included foundational recovery stories and calls for sobriety, in ways that I think may have more to tell us about the deep connections between addiction and social relations.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Nathan Lane, because he has recently played Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. In a chapter of the book I detail this play’s excavation of the “culture of the saloon and the mission” and the way Hickey’s voice ranges across its different registers, from the hardboiled to the holy-roller.

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