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1920s Prohibition and Alcohol

How Prohibition Romance Novels Portrayed Alcoholism

By Sophia Stameson (2023)

Prohibition in America (1920-1933), also known as the Jazz Era or the Roaring Twenties, was a time filled with underground bars, secret, flirtatious nightlife, and booming parties hosted by the ultra-wealthy. Romance novels throughout the 1920s and early 1930s explored these lavish lifestyles through their characters and the romantic relationships they had. While at the time alcoholism had not been given its modern medical definition, many during the early temperance movement “came to see alcohol as an addicting and even poisonous drug,” renouncing alcohol as it “led to the breakdown of the family” and “weakened the social order.” (Olson, Gerstein, 1).  Despite the rise of the Anti-Saloon league, a dominating prohibition group that sought the destruction of saloons and bars, and other temperance groups, the lack of enforcement around Prohibition led to the thriving success of “bootlegging, moonshining, and speakeasies”(Olson, Gerstein, 1). Shown through the similarity in published content of certain romance novels and reactions from the public and critics, I will argue that while some American romance novels written and published during the Prohibition Era feature characters who experience ruined lives and romances as a result of their relationship with alcohol, other equally or more successful novels portrayed wild parties, “loose” ways of living and alcohol positively. Regardless as to whether these books were written and published to be pro or anti-Prohibition, publishers approved and sold novels where characters had access to alcohol. 

For example, one of the most prevalent authors of the time was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose novels reflected on the devastation that would be caused by unbridled wealthy Americans with the 1930s economy crash. With his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald started to become a household name, despite the book receiving some pushback from critics. Published by Scribner’s in 1922, The Beautiful and Damned follows the story of a young married couple, Gloria and Anthony, who are waiting for Anthony’s grandfather to pass away so they can inherit his fortune (Fitzgerald, 1922). The majority of the book follows the couple having lavish parties and becoming mindless alcoholics, until eventually Anthony is disinherited. After a long legal battle, the couple eventually wins the money back, but lose themselves and their love for each other in the process, ending the story on a rather somber and sober note. While not featuring the happy ending that romance novels in prior times had, author Pamela Regis argues in her book A Natural History of the Romance Novel that twentieth century romances like The Beautiful and Damned marked an industry shift from previous romance novel ideals of simple courtship and betrothal to focusing on a heroine’s “acquisition of property… that she should marry the partner she chooses” and that the hero plays “a much larger role in the narrative,” no longer guaranteeing a happy ending (Regis, 111). Additionally, Regis notes that twentieth century romance placed an emphasis on the “emotional elements of the heroine and hero’s relationship,” reflecting on and developing the couple’s love rather than just assuming love exists (Regis, 111). While still following a courtship between two lovers, The Beautiful and Damned was significant in that it no longer guaranteed this happy ending, rather focusing on the increasing emotional turmoil of a young couple battling alcohol abuse, which ultimately destroys their relationship. Author Kathleen Drowne comments that in The Beautiful and Damned, Gloria’s life as a flapper made “the burden of marriage [fall] particularly heavily,” on her and that the couple’s drinking throughout the story shifts from for fun to the only way the couple can “escape both the relentless boredom of their situation and their frustrations with each other”(Drowne, 83). The 1920s marked a significant shift in the romance industry, as stories about love and courtship no longer had a clear cut, happy marriage in the end, but instead were daring enough to reflect changing societal ideals and some even featuring subtle political commentary. 

Additionally, relatively early into Prohibition, Scribner’s, a large, well-established New York publisher, chose to push Fitzgerald’s story of a romance that was ruined by alcohol. In the story, alcohol is life for the husband and wife, but it is also what destroys their love. While the central plot of The Beautiful and Damned was a dark depiction of alcoholism, Scribner’s made a less pro-Prohibition choice in terms of cover art. While Fitzgerald’s wife drew a cover depicting a young, naked woman in a martini glass and fire burning over the title for the novel, Scribner’s instead went with a more tame version of the cover simply showing the main story’s couple sitting down (Bruccoli, 99). While perhaps subtle, the choice of cover art by Scribner’s might indicate that while they were willing to publish content that focused on the things alcohol ruins, they were not willing to appear so openly pro-Prohibition on the covers of their books. Additionally, based on an ad from a Scribner’s Magazine published in 1922 after the release of his book in March, Scriber’s was highlighting the positive reviews of his novel, displaying comments like how The Beautiful and Damned was another “provocative document [on the] high-spirited, groping youth” (Scribner’s Magazine, 28). While these reviews are positive, they say nothing of the overt themes about the devastation of alcohol, rather commenting on the representation of the “groping,” or the relatively sexual and provocative youth featured in the novel. 

Although Scribner’s advertised the positive reviews of Fitzgerald’s second novel, many critics found the book too immature and one-dimensional in structure and lacking improvement from his first novel, This Side of Paradise. For example, one reviewer from the New York Times said that while the novel “is well written,” that he one day hoped for Fitzgerald to write with “a less one-sided understanding” (“Beautiful and Damned (Book Review)”, 16). Another critic noted that while the rushed amount of ideas is as “startling” as the “the incipient philosophy of the author,” she argued that the book was important “because it presents a definite American milieu” (Shaw, 419). Consistent with the other critics, another wrote that while Fitzgerald was undeniably talented in writing this “young love” story, “his knowledge does not extend with the same accuracy to the seedy side of life” (Doren, 318). Based on critics’ reviews, most argued that the novel, while indicating Fitzgerald’s talent, lacked the realistic nature of the “seedy side,” of American life at the time. With “speakeasies” and a booming “black market in booze,” critics were perhaps insinuating his failure to show how the wild youth and drinkers in America were taking advantage of the lack of enforcement surrounding Prohibition, many still enjoying illicit drinks for high prices (Olson, Gerstein, 1). 1920s youth culture was so strongly intertwined with a willingness “to drink unpalatable liquor with unrestrained enthusiasm” and to go to the “flapper set” where “parties and dances” happened, yet Fitzgerald’s novel fell short in as didn’t romanticize this culture (Drowne, 73). Although Shaw pointed out that the book presented a well-defined social environment, many critics like Doren and the NY Times argued that this environment and the failed romance that took place was not accurate or likable in the current times.

Similarly, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, also published by Scribner’s in 1926, followed the love and relationships of mostly drunk Americans and English travelers post-WWI. While there is no betrothal, Hemingway’s version of romance will also reflect this shift to focusing on “the hero” and the emotional courtship between characters (Regis, 111). Yet again featuring heavy drinking from almost all the characters, portraying them as a part of this wild youth culture, Hemingway’s novel also received similarly negative reviews to that of Fitzgerald’s, despite being praised in modern times as a classic and one of Hemingway’s best works. Rather than finding love, similar to The Beautiful and Damned, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises ends with the courtship fizzling and dying out as the characters turn to alcohol, love unrequited. At the time of release, one Dial critic accused his characters of being shallow, while another reviewer accused his characters as being empty and “[reduced] to caricature” (The Sun Also Rises (Book Review), 73; Tate, 642). Similar to The Beautiful and Damned, Hemingway’s novel received much criticism for flat and ingenuine character arcs, seemingly due to their alcoholic tendencies. On the contrary, one recent journal article by Jeffery Schwartz notes that The Sun Also Rises was important as it served as, according to Schwartz, a commentary satirizing the Anti-Saloon League, who believed if bars were eliminated that people’s taste for alcohol would eventually fade away (Schwarz, pg 180-201). While many critics at the time focused on the one-dimensionality of the characters, many failed to comment on Hemingway’s critique of the Anti-Saloon League. In the book, one of the characters even says “The saloon must go, and I will take it with me,” which Schwarz argues many readers at the time would have recognized as a commentary on how many real-life artists were leaving America to adventure in Europe where alcohol was legal (Schwarz, 181). Despite its lack of mass popularity upon release, it will be seen again with The Great Gatsby that Scriber’s continued publishing novels that commented on alcoholism and Prohibition. Not only were these books significant as they ushered in a new type of romantic storyline, one that didn’t have to end happily, they also featured significant amounts of influence from the culture created by Prohibition. Additionally, the critical reviews and popularity of the following two romance novels illustrates that books depicting the bleak world of alcoholism were not as well received at the time of publishing as novels that romanticized and glorified heavy drinking culture. 

Although Fitzgerald’s earlier book was criticized for its lack of realism and ingenuine portrayals, his later book, The Great Gatsby and Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes both received extremely positive reviews from critics at the time, despite their character’s relationships with alcohol. In The Great Gatsby, readers follow Nick Carraway, who moves next door to the extravagant and wealthy Jay Gatsby. Throughout the story, the two bachelors party and drink with a host of characters, including the lost love of Gatsby’s life, Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan. While still managing to be a story following a painfully failed romance due to alcohol, The Great Gatsby arguably did not demonize alcohol as The Beautiful and Damned, but rather made its appearance feel common, and almost welcome. In the novel, Gatsby’s character flaunted his money, which was earned through the illegal sale of alcohol. With a sudden large amount of income, Gatsby hosted massive, wild parties, not unlike what was actually being hosted in the 1920s. Unlike the drabness of alcohol portrayed in Fitzgerald’s prior novel, the presence of alcohol in Gatsby used for partying and escapism appeared less as a tool of destruction, and rather in Daisy’s case captured the representation of “married people in 1920s literature who, while dissociated from youth culture in most ways, [shared] with them a taste for illegal alcohol” (Drowne, 83). According to Drowne, putting “a cocktail in the hand of a character” was equivalent to giving readers a page about the character’s “politics and ideologies” (Drowne, 92). Despite the politically incendiary nature of creating characters who drank, by creating a more relatable, believable world, the romance with both a failed courtship and the mature marriage of Daisy, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby managed to resonate positively with critics and readers. While Gatsby’s undoing is certainly in part caused by his abuse and illegal bootlegging of alcohol, drinking appears in the novel as a way for the characters to loosen up, party and escape from the disappointments in their lives. While not all critics were enthralled by Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, many, including The Dial, felt that in no prior novel had Fitzgerald ever reached such “artistic integrity and the passionate feeling which this book possesses” (Seldes, pg 162). Another critic even acknowledged that although “in subject-matter the book is not essentially different from his other stories …. the virtues of this book are its painstaking, often exquisite, workmanship and its humor” (Great Gatsby (Book Review), pg 341). Although the original sale of  The Great Gatsby was short by 20,000 copies, one can argue that the book’s critical popularity is still an important indicator about what reviewers of these new-style tragic romance novels felt at the time (Mizener, 1960). As seen through these books, 1920s writers experimented with a new take on romantic plots, perhaps ones where the hero and heroine don’t end up together.  

In line with the realistic, partying portrayal of the 1920s written in The Great Gatsby, Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was wildly popular upon release in 1925 and featured a world filled with alcohol consumption, mainly without consequence. Mainly following the European exploits of two American flappers, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, the story was a unique romance in that the female protagonist was consistently more interested in drinking and money than pursuing a true romantic relationship. Rather, the main focus of the story featured Lorelei “trading sexual favors for expensive gifts” and getting into comical shenanigans, including once convincing her eventual husband’s mother that Scientologists drank champagne religiously (Raub, pg 117; Loos, 1925). While still ending in typical romance fashion with a marriage, Raub argues that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was far from a typical female romance novel, given the freedom of sexual expression from Lorelei. In line with Regis’s argument that books in the twentieth century “present portraits of women in command of their lives,” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes explored a female heroine who was not swooning for love, but she was determined to achieve her goals of wealth and the lifestyle she sought for herself (Regis, 111). Out of all the books covered in this essay, this relatively promiscuous book ended up being the most popular in terms of sales and critical reviews. The New York Times found her book to be “civilized, human, ironic and never crude in its effects” while another critic said “it was the season’s funniest book … [filled with] sly, sophisticated spontaneity” (Mankiewicz, pg 21; “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes… (Book Review),” pg 8). The “astonishing sales” of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes not only made Loos “a millionaire and a celebrity,” but was significant as her novel was admired by fellow famous writers including “James Joyce, Edith Wharton, H.L. Mencken” and others (Hammill). As a seemingly instant critically acclaimed novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes succeeded in playing with the concepts of romance and female expression, but also openly included the joys and fun of drinking. The mass success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes provides a unique example of how a comedic portrayal of wild escapades involving heavy partying and drinking was actually well received by audiences in the 20s. 

In conclusion, romance novels written and published during Prohibition normalized drinking and even excessive drinking. While The Beautiful and Damned and The Sun Also Rises faced some mixed criticism and accusations of one-dimensional character arcs, the reception of the two books featuring glorious parties combined with drinking, The Great Gatsby and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was relatively more positive, especially for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Clearly, whether portrayed as destroying life or positive and fun, certain romance novels utilized alcohol as a means of shaping their characters and changing typical romance narratives for the time. 



“Beautiful and Damned (Book Review).” The New York Times (Early City Edition), March 5, 1922, 16. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526096597&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Bruccoli, Matthew J., et al. 2003. The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. University of South Carolina Press.  p99. quoted in “The Beautiful and Damned,” Wikipedia, last modified 22 March 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beautiful_and_Damned

Doren, Carl Van. “Beautiful and Damned (Book Review).” Nation 114 (March 15, 1922): 318. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526096589&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Drowne, Kathleen. Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2005. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/28267

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Beautiful and Damned. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.

“‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ the Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady (Book Review).” The Boston Transcript, November 25, 1925, 8. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526140506&site=ehost-live&scope=site

“Great Gatsby (Book Review).” Outlook (1893) 140 (July 1925): 341. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526136565&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Hammill, Faye. “‘One of the few books that doesn’t stink’: the intellectuals, the masses and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Critical Survey 17, no. 3 (2005): 27+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A141047067/ITOF?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=3c77ed3b

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926.

Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.

Mankiewicz, H. J. “‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ the Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady (Book Review).” The New York Times (Early City Edition), December 27, 1925, 21. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526140516&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Mizener, Arthur, “Gatsby, 35 Years Later” The New York Times, April 24, 1960.


Olson S, Gerstein DR. Alcohol in America: Taking Action to Prevent Abuse. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1985. 1, Drinking in America. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK217463/

Raub, Patricia. “A New Woman or an Old-Fashioned Girl? The Portrayal of the Heroine in Popular Women’s Novels of the Twenties.” American Studies 35, no. 1 (1994): 109–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40642587

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Accessed April 22, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Scribner’s Magazine. “The Beautiful and Damned.” Advertisement. Scribner’s Magazine, April 1922, 28. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015056077533&view=1up&seq=968&q1=Fitzgerald

Schwarz, Jeffery A. “‘The Saloon Must Go and I Will Take it with Me’: American Prohibition, Nationalism, and Expatriation in ‘The Sun Also Rises.’” Studies in the Novel 33, no. 2 (2001): 180–201. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29533442

Seldes, Gilbert. “Great Gatsby (Book Review).” Dial 79 (August 1925): 162. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526136641&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Shaw, Vivian. “Beautiful and Damned (Book Review).” Dial 72 (April 1922): 419. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526096568&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Tate, Allen. “The Sun Also Rises (Book Review).” Nation 123 (December 15, 1926): 642. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526156474&site=ehost-live&scope=site

“The Sun Also Rises (Book Review).” Dial 82 (January 1927): 73. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brr&AN=526156470&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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