The Drunken River: An Introduction
The “drunken river” is not a particularly popular image. It certainly pales in comparison to the Homeric “wine-dark sea” and the Thai and Lao “mother of waters.” When it has been used for literary purposes, the epithet usually signifies a meandering or unwieldy waterway, mimicking an inebriate. Global folklore even suggests that the course of certain rivers was carved out in the footsteps or by the wisdom of a drunkard: imprecise but deliberate. I think that is an excellent metaphor for a blog on the alcohol of the Connecticut River Valley. Inevitably, we will wander here, and that is a good thing.
The Drunken River was also the original and working title for the 2018 exhibit at the Connecticut River Museum. We changed it following the good advice of thoughtful people, who noted that the exhibit included elements on temperance and prohibition and the problems of alcohol and therefore deserved a more sober title. The Thirsty River fit the demand perfectly. I was, however, always enamored of The Drunken River and wanted to see that name somewhere in print.
The title obviously invokes the long history of alcohol in the River Valley since European colonization. Cider and beer were omnipresent from the start, but as the exhibit and this blog explores, the Connecticut River was also a prominent historical location for the manufacture of rum, gin, whiskey, vodka, and premade cocktails. Mead was once an important commodity and has recently returned to the Valley. Wine, brandy, and fortified wine likewise play significant roles. Cocktail culture opened up the region to virtually every kind of liquor or fermented drink that could be imported, from tequila to saké. And today, thanks to the nourishing influx of immigrant populations, we find new tastes and traditions including palm wine, kvass, huangjiu, soju, and even chicha.
As a folklorist, I cannot overstate the influence that alcohol has had on human civilization and the Connecticut River Valley. Countless stories, rituals, songs, festivals, handicrafts, and other works of expressive culture testify to its preeminent place in social life. Even for groups that abstain—consider, for example, certain communities of Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, and Sikhs in the Valley—the prohibition itself is a marker of cultural identity. The general and historical absence of alcohol among indigenous people is similarly noteworthy, as are contemporary movements for moderation or the redress of addiction.
In time, I hope to address these rich and complex issues, and I welcome your suggestions, corrections, and responses. And as my Italian and Polish grandparents used to say, na zdrowie and cin cin—cheers!