To inaugurate the last decade of the 20th century, Life magazine published a special issue devoted to honoring the 100 most important Americans of the century.(1) Among the luminaries chosen appeared the name of William Griffith Wilson, or simply "Bill W," as the lore of Alcoholics Anonymous has it.
Life's elevation of Bill W to the peerage of influential Americans is not without its ironies: yesterday's drunken anti-New Deal ranter become today's icon of personal self-reformation, and now on a par with Franklin D.
Bill W's elevation also coincides with the resurgence of this country's phobic concern with alcohol, and prompts the question whether (and to what extent) we can retain our popular understanding of him as essentially an alcoholic drinker whose debilitating illness was responsible for his crippling financial failure in the years following the great stock market collapse of 1929.(2)
Reconsidering Bill W's story also requires us to re-examine the context that spawned and nurtured it--the Great Depression.
Samuel Shoemaker's Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City and a similar cell in Akron, Ohio, Bill W's two cells of reformed drinkers assessed their shared Depression experiences, discovered their drinking problems, and, with the assistance of John D.
"Bill's Story," which first appeared in 1939, maintained that Bill W learned the truth about alcoholic disease from Dr.
In this sense we have only a phenomenological representation--a distillation of a supposed essence--of what we are asked to take as Bill W's life in the years 1917-35, when he is supposed to have been overcome by alcoholism.
In part, our difficulties with Bill W's life derive from the sources themselves.
In this connection the vernacular surrounding customary drinking is extraordinarily colorful and ambiguous, which further complicates our efforts to get at the historical Bill W. When, for example, Robert Thomsen writes in the 1970s of Bill W's "benders," his meaning can be understood quite differently by a reader born in the 1930s than by one born in the 1980s.