Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire Introduction

Think nonfiction history books are boring? Nelson Johnson is here to change your mind. His 2002 book, Boardwalk Empire, is all about the rise of Atlantic City… and it's absolutely ridiculous. We're talking vice squads that work for mob bosses, sheriffs who do gangster's bidding, and more illegal activity than you could fit in the entire series of The Sopranos. And it's all—every last bit of it—completely true.

Atlantic City is a crazy, one-of-a-kind place, founded by a failed doctor looking to make some quick cash. Sound interesting yet? Just wait until you see the insane stuff that happens as the city grows, when local bosses like Enoch "Nucky" Johnson and Louis "The Commodore" Kuehnle rule the town like warlords.

And hey, you might even learn a thing or two about American history along the way. You'll witness the rise of the railroad and the incredible changes it brings. You'll watch as Prohibition gives Atlantic City's criminals more money than they know what to do with. You'll even have a front row seat to the demise of the political machine that runs Atlantic City for decades upon decades.

Johnson took a unique path to becoming a writer. Though he was fascinated with books from an early age, he shelved his dreams to pursue a career as a respected attorney and judge. Boardwalk Empire began as a passion project—you know, something to do in his free time—but quickly snowballed into a full-blown book. Just like Atlantic City itself, you might say that the book took on a life of its own.

So here's the bottom line: Yes, historical nonfiction can be pretty freaking dry. This, however, isn't one of those times. Atlantic City and the characters that build it is so strange and fascinating that not only are you likely to have a hard time putting Boardwalk Empire down, you'll also soak up some history without even realizing it. And if nothing else, you'll definitely find yourself daydreaming of the perfect mobster nickname.

What is Boardwalk Empire About and Why Should I Care?

Atlantic City has a bit of a reputation. It's where people go to cut loose, to gamble and eat and indulge in excess, a place known for its bawdiness instead of its class. In short, Atlantic City is the exception—the break from the norm of our ordinary daily lives.

But here's the thing: In reading Boardwalk Empire, we don't just get up close and personal with Atlantic City. The place is a reflection of the United States and its development, a reaction to the country's evolution as much as it is a player in said evolution. We learn about how new technological developments can revolutionize the world overnight, about how businessmen and politicians can run the show through backroom dealings. We even learn a thing or two about organized crime—more than we'd learn from watching Scarface, at least.

So though the book focuses on Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire actually tells the story of the birth of the modern era, a.k.a. the age we currently inhabit. We see it all, from the rise of the railroad, to the age of the automobile, to the birth of consumer culture. And it goes down easily, thanks to the glitz, glamor, and guts of Atlantic City and its leaders.

Boardwalk Empire Resources

Websites

Press of Atlantic City
Want to stay up-to-date with the latest news from Atlantic City? We got you covered.

The History of Temperance and Prohibition
This website, hosted by Ohio State University, will tell you everything you need to know about the rise of Prohibition.

Movie or TV Productons

Boardwalk Empire
To be honest, this highly praised HBO series isn't exactly based on the book—it merely uses (and repurposes) its central characters. That's the beauty of fiction.

Articles and Interviews

"How Boardwalk Empire Found Nelson Johnson"
In this interview, author Nelson Johnson describes his journey to becoming a writer and the unique path that led him to write his first book about Atlantic City.

The Real Nucky Johnson
Not everyone is pleased with how the real people from Boardwalk Empire are depicted in the HBO series. Check out this article if you don't believe us.

The Incredible Shrinking Action in Atlantic City
This article, written years after the publication of Boardwalk Empire, will give you a sense of the struggles that Atlantic City faced shortly after the book came out.

Video

Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"
This is a great song that your dad probably liked a lot.

An Interview with Nelson Johnson
Want to learn more about Nelson Johnson's motivation behind writing Boardwalk Empire? Look no further, friends.

Audio

"Down on the 'Boardwalk' with Terence Winter"
Check out this interview with Terence Winter, creator of the Boardwalk Empire HBO series.

"Gamblers Win Big In Atlantic City with Unshuffled Decks"
Ever wondered what happens if you try to outsmart a casino? Listen to this NPR broadcast to find out.

Images

Nucky Johnson
Check out this vintage shot of Nucky enjoying a night on the town with his lady friend.

The Boardwalk
Want to know what the Boardwalk looked like during Nucky's time? Have no fear—Shmoop is here.