Stylist at the Bar
Bernard DeVoto’s ode to the cocktail.
BY ALAN LIMNIS
[From the autumn 2010 issue.]
AND THEN ONE DAY, one stumbles yet again upon a stylist previously unheard of, and is surprised and delighted. To wit, the following paragraph from The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto:
All those decades, all those bars. The Holland House or the Astor House or the St. Nicholas toward which the Englishman on tour made by hackney coach from the boat, so that the magnificence of the New World could burst on him in his first hour—such acres of mirror, such mountains of glasses, such gas chandeliers tipped with a thousand points of flame, and all the ryes and bourbons of a continent to cleanse away the peat-taste of his Scotch. The Knickerbocker...I had at least this break from fate, that I got here in time to know the Knickerbocker. It has been exactly reproduced in the most beautiful corner of paradise, with the starry heavens stretching away, admission by card only and saints to serve a probationary period before they can get cards. The Murray Hill, the Parker House, the Planters House, the St. Francis—the Silver Dollar, Joe’s Place, the Last Chance Saloon—river boats and tents at the railhead and tables set up under the elms when the clergy met in convocation or the young gentlemen graduated from college—the last Americans in knee breeches, the first in trousers, deacons in black broadcloth, planters in white linen, cordwainers and longshorement and principals of seminaries for young women and hard-rock men and conductors on the steam cars and circuit riders and editors and rivermen and sportsmen and peddlers—twenty-two hundred counties, forty-eight states, the outlying possessions...Nothing stopped us from sea to shining sea, nothing could stop us, the jug was plugged tight with a corncob, and we built new commonwealths and constitutions and distilleries as we traveled, the world gaped, and destiny said here’s how.
That is from a chapter entitled “American Spirits,” and it is by Bernard Devoto, winner of a 1948 Pulitzer Prize, a 1953 National Book Award, and writer, from the mid-1930s on, of the Harper’s column “The Easy Chair.”
Every generation loses many of its excellent writers to the mists of time. This is probably unavoidable, and maybe preferable—we each benefit from the sense that the world, or a voice from which to approach it, can be newly discovered. But it’s not true. And thank God, because one also needs to meet friends. The gravity, style, and humor DeVoto brings to writing about liquor bear the marks of a man who already knew every style dictum William Strunk handed to E.B. White, who had read Rilke’s letters and heard in their tone the chance for laughs, and who was being seriously playful and earnestly arch sixty years before the invention of the McSweeney’s website or “The Office.”
DeVoto takes crazy risks—is the paragraph above about whiskey, patriotic hyperventilation, or just sheer brio?—but zips right through the peril. Zipping along with him, one laughs aloud, breathless. And then one thinks: All right, Bernard. Maybe I will have that drink.