Sunday, June 27, 2010
Review: Bernard DeVoto's "The Hour"
Bernard DeVoto's slim 1951 volume "The Hour," recently reissued by Tin House Books, is a curious case in the annuls of drink literature. This "Cocktail Manifesto" is obviously the work of a crank behind whose rigid, irrational, hard-and-fast rules about drinking few would fall in line. Yet, the book is beloved by cocktails drinkers and historians.
DeVoto was an accomplished man. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He had a column in Harper's Magazine for 20 years. He edited the papers of Mark Twain, was a novelist, composer, professor and many other things in his crowded 58 years. And yet, today, he's best remembered for his smallest book, in which he tries to impose an all-encompassing, moral philosophy of life on the Martini and the Cocktail Hour.
It's difficult to ascertain the tone of "The Hour." If it's satire, it's too subtle to be carried off. If it's written in all seriousness, it's too doctrinaire by half. What can one do with a man with thinks there are only two cocktails in the world (the Martini; and a slug of whiskey); who thinks "a slug of whiskey" is actually a cocktail; who called Manhattans "an offense against piety"; who abhors rum in all forms; who think fruit juices of no kind belong in the cocktail world; who really just hates almost everything that one might throw one down's throat, and all the people who don't abide by his narrow dicta; who sees blasphemy and treason all around him? One can only call him a kook, a nut, or worse—a bore. He's the kind of man it would be amusing to drink with once, because he is so utterly absurd and would make for fine entertainment; but with whom it would be torture to drink with twice. (Imagine him judging your drink choice carefully, eyeing your character for flaws.)
And yet. And yet.
DeVoto writes so well we can't dismiss him outright. It's that sort of writing that once was common in American letters, and is now all but vanished; the kind that is ostentatiously learned, showing off its academic bona fides, declarative and slightly purple, happily making with the five-dollar words and time-honored archaic phrases. How can you not appreciate a man who writes things like, "But there is a deadlier enemy than these, the man who mixes his martinis beforehand and keeps them in the refrigerator till cocktail time. You can no more keep a martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there."? Or "Hot drinks are for people who have had skiing accidents, though it is an open question whether anyone who skis is worth giving liquor to or his life worth saving." Or "Better to inherit a rye so laid away in 1915 than great riches... A rye thus becomes an evanescence, essential grace. It is not to be drunk but only tasted and to be tasted only when one is conscious of having lived purely."
A man who composes such thoughts, whatever else he may write, becomes lovable.
Also, though he is ultimately absolutely serious about what he's saying, he seems to have a sense of humor about himself; too many of his credos are expressed in such over-the-top language ("Nothing Sweet. If I'm repeating myself, it's because I know you and have got to check up on you."), he must have known how ridiculous they sounded.
Finally, we like the book because DeVoto's on to something. He's sanctimonious about something that we think has a certain sanctity about it. You have to respect and warm to that. Too much regard for the Martini is better than too little. And some of his ideas about the ritual of drinking—why we drink and how we should drink—are sound and correct, even to this day. The final chapter, "The Hour," in fact, is, in its entirety, a beautiful piece of poetic truth. It should be read by anyone who looks forward longingly to the release and relaxation of the civilizing moment known as The Cocktail Hour—which is 6 PM according to DeVoto, no earlier and no later.