How the Drug User Became a Junkie

Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation examines the emergence of addiction recovery communes in post-World War II United States, and centers the political activism of self-identified ex-addicts in the national struggles over the possibilities and boundaries of radical participatory democracy in the long 1960s. Welcome to Points, Jordan!

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 8.36.11 AMFour years before William Burroughs’ Junkie was published, Norma Lee Browning, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, described how a middle-aged housewife had gone from a “pretty woman” to “an old time incurable junkie.”[1] Browning’s casual use of “junkie” reflects her mainstream audience’s likely familiarity with the term, whose usage in popular media to describe drug addicts (to use another loaded term) had skyrocketed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The term was a type of shorthand for inevitable physical and moral devastation. To be a “junkie” or involved in “dope peddling” was to “descend into unimaginable levels of baseness” before death, if she was “unable to break the hold of drugs.”[2] Today, the word has the connotation of a slur, a dehumanizing epithet that paints a person as wild and dangerous. 

Yet a look at the term’s genealogy, along with its close associate, “dope,” reveals surprising conceptual and practical links to an industrializing Gilded Age and Progressive United States, a time when the most familiar “junkie” was the “junk man” who worked in the flourishing trade of old and discarded items, as American consumers and producers piled up more trash than ever before. Traces of this lineage appear even today, like in the character Bubbles from the famous HBO show The Wire, depicted as a “junkie” in both senses. 

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Teaching Points: Using Drugs as a Gateway to Historical Methods

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Adam Rathge, director of enrollment strategies and part-time history professor at the University of Dayton. Rathge is also a drug scholar and a longtime friend of Points. He continues our Teaching Points series here, explaining how drug and alcohol history can be brought into the classroom and can be a vehicle for understanding historical methods. Enjoy!

During the coming Spring semester at the University of Dayton, I’ll be teaching HST 299 – Historical Background to Contemporary Issues. This will be my second time teaching the course. It is offered once a year by the History Department and open to students of all majors, with rotating topics driven primarily by faculty expertise and current “headline news” issues. In my case, this means teaching about drugs by focusing on current trends in marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis. From the department’s perspective, the topics are somewhat secondary to the true purpose of the course, which is designed to “focus on the methodology of history as a discipline and on the utility of historical analysis for understanding contemporary political, social and economic issues.” As such, in my version of the course, drugs become the gateway to teaching historical methods.

Over the fifteen-week semester, I divide the course into three, roughly five-week blocks. The first block covers recent developments with marijuana legalization. The second block explores the ongoing opioid crisis. The third and final block provides time for scaffolding the research process on a headline news topic of each student’s choosing. In essence, the first two blocks are designated topics on contemporary issues that allow the class to work through a guided model of historical methodology together, while the third allows them to put those skills into practice for themselves on a topic of interest. Each five-week block, therefore, introduces not only the topic at hand but also skills relevant to reading, writing, and thinking like a historian.

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Towards a Global History of Intoxicants: The War on Alcohol

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she brings a global focus to drug and alcohol history and reviews Lisa McGirr’s book on federal Prohibition. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-18 at 8.23.09 AMLisa McGirr’s stimulating recent book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) links early twentieth-century temperance to the origins of the muscular federal authority we know today. Historians typically trace the enlargement of state power to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the United States out of the Depression in the 1930s. However, McGirr points to earlier growth in the Prohibition era. By creating new categories of legal violations, the ban on brewing and selling alcohol transformed crime into a “national obsession” for the first time in American history. The government responded to public panic by expanding law enforcement—a measure whose effects linger today in such forms as the War on Drugs.

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Exorcising the Demon (Drinks) in “Severance”: Mad Men Roundtable, Part I

Editor’s Note: Points prides itself on offering historically-informed analyses of modern phenomena, and there is perhaps no better phenomenon for our collective eyes than AMC’s overwhelmingly popular series Mad Men. As the show begins the second half of its last season, Points managing editors Claire Clark and myself, as well as contributing editors Mike Durfee and Kyle Bridge, offer our thoughts on how intoxicants are being used in the series, what they mean to the characters, and what modern viewers can read into their use. 

We bring you the first part of our roundtable on Mad Men today, and look forward to another at the season’s close. – EBD

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