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From the beginning, bars have been one of this country’s most popular venues for disruptive socialization. Though even temperance reformers as long ago as 1820 considered colonial regulations of public drinking to be severe, the fact remains, according to David Conroy, a scholar of liquor history, that “the tavern was the most numerous institution in colonial New England.” Conroy explains: “In taverns men did not ordinarily sit according to their place in the local social hierarchy or merely listen to sermons and exhortations. Here there was at least the possibility for greater assertion in posture and conversation. And in drink men might abandon the constraints that governed interaction in most public situations and thus make taverns a fertile breeding ground for new possibilities in social and political relationships…The tavern (was) a public stage upon which men, and sometimes women, spoke and acted in ways that … challenged the authority of the social superiors…”

One of this country’s preeminent social scientists, Clifford Geertz, explains how drinking and tavern behavior came to be subversive, even seditious. Geertz posits that drinking customs contribute to social mobility, that communal relaxation and intoxication grease the mechanisms of horizontal and vertical interaction and power sharing. David Conroy discusses this thesis in the context of 17th-century America: according to Puritan leaders, the English drinking customs brought to this country “no longer integrated society in a manner considered beneficial. In other words, the ‘functional’ value of these customs and habits had come to be considered ‘dysfunctional’ as new value systems were articulated, sanctioned by religious creed, and promoted.” Nevertheless, the wheels were rolling. Taverns continued to increase in number, and today we live in an intemperate society.

Colonial New England equivocated over the question of alcohol. On the one hand, colonial lawmakers placed strict censures on drinking to make its problems appear removed from their communities. They sold liquor only to nonresidents and strangers in the hope that locals would drink at home; in addition, they permitted new inns and taverns only on major roads in the hope that travelers rather than locals would access them. On the other hand, places with names like the Lamb, the Liberty Tree, and the Eastern Stage House played significant roles in the lore of Colonial New England. Because inns were crucial to travelers stranded by unpredictable stage schedules and so forth, law required that they provide lodging, food and drink to anyone at anytime, including Sundays. Even a Puritan minister, after all, might have desired a hot toddy after a long winter day on the road from Andover to Boston.

It didn’t take long for the patterns of bar behavior which we have grown accustomed to emerge. David Conroy tells the story of an early bar brawl: “In April 1721, blows were struck in Richard Hall’s tavern just across the street from the Town House in Boston. The incident involved two prominent gentlemen. Elisha Cooke Jr. Boston selectman and representative said or did something that provoked John Yearmans, a supporter and associate of royal governor Samuel Shute, to strike him… Christopher Taylor became outraged that his hero Cooke, the leader of the opposition to the royal establishment in Boston, had been assaulted. ‘Damned Yearmans,’ Taylor cried, ‘why don’t he come out to me. I wish I could see the dog come out — God I would have some of his blood.’” The story is less interesting for the fight — to be expected between a royalist and a revolutionary in colonial Boston — than for Taylor’s reaction, which strikes us today as predictable, if not inevitable. The important lesson concealed in our history of public drinking may seem obvious, but it deserves to be repeated, especially to those who do not drink in bars: the social alliances to be found in bars, not the liquor, attract customers. The booze merely lubricates social intercourse, whether friendly or adversarial.

The current fondness among our upper classes for dives, I believe is but a part of the larger vogue for retrograde styles and behavior in both entertainment and advertising. Think, for example, of the current craze for swing dancing or of how California’s anti-smoking laws have given those bars that disregard them the appeal of a Harlem speakeasy. These trends belong to the larger social phenomenon called nostalgie de la bouse, meaning, literally “nostalgia for the mud,” a motif best described by Tom Wolfe in 1970 in his biting essay “Radical Chic.” Wolfe’s essay parodies the radical postures assumed by New York’s elite in their support for the Black Panthers, a sometimes criminal and often anti-Semitic organization.

On January 4, 1970, the Jewish maestro Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, staged a party in their 13-room Park Avenue apartment to raise money for the Black Panther Defense Fund. With his usual baroque stylizations and caustic wit, Wolfe reported on the soiree in his essay, which first appeared in New York magazine and then in his book, Radical Chic Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. The phrase nostalgie de la boue was first used by Emile Augier (1820-1889) in his 1855 play La Mariage d’ Olympe. In his satirical dramas, Augier, a moralizing Social Realist, poked fun and Paris’s rich, and especially at the corrupting consequences of the struggle for wealth. “Radical chic” is Wolfe’s updated term for the nostalgie de la boue, or the liberal’s romanticization of the gutter and downtrodden “primitives,” that Wolfe identified in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wolfe could not resist the contrary image of insurgent, side-burned Black Panthers edging toward canapes and “Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi,” all of which were “offered to them an gadrooned silver platters by (white) maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons.”

Wolfe employs pop psychology and amateur Marxist economics to explain the attitudes and peculiar behavior of the “limousine liberals” he observed at the Bernstein’s apartment: “Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated ‘middle class.’ They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes, and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders…During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-Frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and Jose Torres…” According to Alicia Ostriker in her Partisan Review critique of Wolfe’s essay, William Blake perforated this flimsy ideology in the 18th Century: “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor, / And mercy no more could be, / If all were as happy as we.”

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