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Monday, July 08, 2013

Owed to Volstead

Guest Blogger Dept.: A giddy contributor to George P. Putnam’s Nonsenseorship, a 1922 volume cocking a sustained snoot at the Volstead Act, Wallace Irwin (1875-1959) was a novelist, essayist, poet (best known for light verse) and all-around satirist. He achieved his greatest success – and guaranteed subsequent obscurity – with an ongoing lampoon of the Japanese that began in 1907. Racial stereotyping aside, he worked in forms (the light-verse sonnet was a favorite) that haven’t endured. Here’s a delightful example of his versification.


Wallace Irwin composing
under the influence of
synthetic gin and
Andrew Volstead.

Drawing by Ralph Barton.
I – First Round

Prune extract and bright alcohol, so wooden
One kills its flavor in rank fusel oil!
C2-H3-HO – a rather good ’un
To mix with fruity syrups in our toil
To give our social meetings after dark
Their necessary spark!
And you, most heavenly twins,
Born of one mother –
Although our woe begins
When, through our mortal sins,
We can’t tell which from t’other –
And Methyl!
Like Ike
And Mike
Strangely you look alike.
Like sisters I have met
You’re very hard to tell apart – and yet
The one consoles more gently than a wife;
The other turns and cripples you for life.

Such spirits as these, and many more I summon
From many a poisoned tin,
Or many a bottle falsely labelled “Gin.”
Or many a vial pathetic,
Yclept “Synthetic.”
Like Dante on his joy-ride Seeing Hell,
Fain would I take you down
Through sulphurous fires and caverns bilious brown
Into the Land of Mystery and Smell
Where Satan steweth
And home-breweth
While thirsty hooch-hounds yell
Their blackest curse,
Or worse:
“Vol-darn our souls with each Vol-blasted dram
That burns our throats and isn’t worth a dam!
We drink, yet how we dread it –
Vol-stead it!”
They’ve said it.

II – Short Intermission to Change Meter

In Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-three
A. Lincoln set the darkies free;
In Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen
A. Volstead muzzled the canteen
And freed the millions, great and small,
From bondage to King Alcohol.

Was it not thoughtful, good and kind
For such a man of such a mind
To show an interest so grand
In his misguided native land?
And don’t these statements illustrate
Our Nation’s progress up to date?
We’re freedom-loving and we’re brave
And simply cannot stand a slave.
And when a crisis needs a man
From Mass, or Tex. or Conn, or Kan.
That man steps forward, firm of chin –
So Andrew Volstead came from Minn.

He came from Minn, to show the world
That gin is wrong
And rye is strong
And Scotch to limbo should be hurled.
Thus with his spotless flag unfurled
He went against the Demon Rum
Who snarled, “I vum!”
Got sort of numb,
Rolled up his eyes, lay down and curled
While all the saints of heaven above
(Including Mr. Bryan’s Dove)
Cried “Rah-rah-rah!
And siss-boom-ah!
Three cheers for Health and Christian Love!
But, Andrew dear –
Say, now, look here!
You’re not including wine and beer!”

Then Andrew Volstead squared his chin
And answered briefly, “Sin is sin.”
No compromise
With the King of Lies!
Both liquor thick and liquor thin
We’ll cease to tax
And use the axe
Invented by the Man from Minn.
For right is right and wrong is wrong –
A spell has cursed the world too long.

The curse of drink –
Stop, friends, and think
How, reft of spirits weak or strong,
My Nation will be purified
Of all corruptions vile.
The lamb and lion, side by side,
Will smile and smile and smile.
The workman when his day is o’er
Will hurry to his cottage door
To kiss his loving wife;
He’ll lay his wages in her hand
And peace will settle on the land
Without a trace of strife.
The criminals will cease to swarm,
Forgers and burglars will reform
And minor crimes will so abate
That lower courts – now open late –
Will close and let the magistrate
Go to the zoo
Or read Who’s Who.
In short I do anticipate
A thinner, cooler human race,
Its system cleansed of every trace
Of inner fire
And hot desire
And passions spurring to disgrace.
“’Tis simple,” said the Man from Minn.,
“To cure the world of mortal sin –
Just legislate against it.”
Then up spake Congress with a roar,
“We never thought of that before.
Let’s go!”
And they commenced it.

III – Tone Pictures Suggesting Conditions in U. S. A. Some Two Years After Alcoholic Stimulants Had Been Legislated out of Business

Grandma’s sitting in her attic,
Oiling up her automatic.
Mid-Victorian is her style,
Prim yet gentle is her smile
As she fits the cartridges
One by one, and softly says:

“Grandson is a Dry Enforcer.
Grandpa is a Legger –
All for one and one for all –
I’ll never die a beggar.
Bill brings booze from Montreal,
Grandpa lets him through –
Oh, life’s been rosy for us folks
Since the red-light laws went blue.”

Pretty Sadie, aged fourteen,
To a lamp-post clings serene.
“What’s the matter?” some may ask.
On her hip she wears a flask
Labelled “Tonic for the Hair” –
“Hic,” says Sadie, “we should care!”

“Father is a corner druggist –
Why should I abstain?
Brother is a counterfeiter,
Printing labels plain.
I can buy grain alcohol
As all the neighbors do;
And if you treat me right I’ll lend
My formula to you.”

Sits the plumber, man of metal.
Joining gas-pipes to a kettle.
’Neath the bed his wife is lying
Rather silent – she is dying
From some gin her husband gave her.
He’s too busy now to save her.

“Things,” he sings, “are looking upward;
I am making stills.
Soon we’ll cook the stuff by wholesale,
Running twenty ‘mills.’
What we make and how we make it
Doesn’t cut no ice.
Anything you sell in bottles
Brings the standard price.”

In the gutter, quite besotted,
Lies the drunkard, sadly spotted.
People pass with unmoved faces –
Why remark such commonplaces?
Just another Volstead duckling,
Rolling in the gutter chuckling:

“Over seas of milk and water,
Angels’ wings a-flappin’,
Now we’re purified and holy,
Things like me can’t happen.
Liquor’s gone and gone forever –
Even the word is lewd:
Otherwise there’s somethin’ makes me
Feel like I was stewed.”

IV – Finale – A Short Interview with the Human Stomach

Last night as I lay on my pillow,
Last night when they’d put me to bed
I spoke to my dear little tummy
And wept at the words that I said:

“My sensitive, beautiful tummy
That once was so rosy and pure!
My dainty, fastidious tummy –
O what have you had to endure?

“You once were inclined to be fussy;
You turned at inferior rye;
You moped at a dubious vintage
And shrieked if the gin wasn’t dry.

“But now you are covered with bunions
And spongy and morbid and blue;
You bite in the night like an adder –
O say, what has happened to you?”

Then my sullen and sinister tummy
Rose slowly and spoke to my brain;
“Say, boss, what’s the stuff you’ve been drinking
That fills me with nothing but pain?

“Today you had ‘cocktails’ for luncheon –
They tasted like sulphured cologne.
They were followed by poisonous highballs
That fell in my depths like a stone.

“I am dripping with bootlegger brandy,
I ooze with synthetical gin;
And the beer that you make in the kitchen –
Ah, dire are the wages of sin!

“The cursed saloon has departed,
And well we are rid of the plague;
But I’m weary of furniture polish
With the counterfeit label of Haig.

“Yea, gone is the old-fashioned brewery
And the gilded café is no more....”
Here my tummy jumped over the pillow
And fell in a fit on the floor.

– from Nonsenseorship, G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1922.

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