American Fun

When was the last time you had fun? If you accept John Beckman’s definition in his new book, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, the answer is “less recently than you think.” Going to a movie or playing a video game is not the kind of fun Beckman has in mind; these he disdains as passive, commodified entertainment, the blandishments of a capitalist culture industry. For Beckman, fun is only really fun when it verges on disorder, when it breaks conventions and even laws, maybe a few bones for good measure. “Risk, transgression, mockery, rebellion — these are the revving motors of fun,” he writes.

Crucially, this kind of liberating fun involves “eluding laws together.” And in American Fun, Beckman is primarily interested in moments in American history when transgression was a way of building impromptu communities — which is to say, when fun became political. Starting with earliest Colonial times, American Fun picks out moments when fun — dressing up, dancing, telling stories, good-natured brawling — served to advance American democracy. This kind of fun, Beckman writes, “model[s] good citizenship,” often by bringing people together in ways that flout official taboos. It is a Whitmanian vision of comradeship that cuts across racial and sexual boundaries.

This notion leads Beckman to celebrate some of the most famous moments in American history and to excavate some of the more obscure. There is no more officially sanitized event in our national past than the Boston Tea Party, for instance. Yet, as Beckman points out, the actual event was a rowdy and playful improvisation, more like a big prank than a dignified protest. The men and boys who dressed up as Indians to dump tea into Boston Harbor did so in a spirit of what Beckman calls “revolutionary fun,” in which enjoyment was a form of political virtue: “In this moment they were experiencing their democracy firsthand, perhaps more purely than they ever had or would again.”

For Beckman, fun is especially fun when it involves thumbing your nose at some killjoy or puritan. His book begins by contrasting the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth Rock with the nearby settlement of Merry Mount. While the former, led by sober William Bradford, enforced strict religious laws and dealt hostilely with the local Indians, the latter, led by gleeful Thomas Morton, fraternized with the natives and danced around maypoles. The contrast between these early American communities already appeared to Nathaniel Hawthorne as an emblem of the country’s dualism: on the one hand, the official culture of acquisition and repression; on the other, the dissenting power of sheer hedonism.

Beckman has a lot of fun himself beating up on Bradford and celebrating Morton. He writes as if the decision about whether to have fun or be an asshole — a puritan, a killjoy, a hypocrite — was more or less a matter of individual choice and character. “Radical movements like Thomas Morton’s launched their snowballs at cranky despots and let the people in on their joke,” he writes, and who wouldn’t prefer to throw snowballs than be hit by them?

But this kind of analysis, satisfying though it may be, is not really historical (and in fact Beckman is not a historian but an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy). By attributing everything to individual character, Beckman makes it easy for the reader to take sides and enjoy the pleasure of self-righteousness and moral superiority. For all its inveighing against moralism, in fact, American Fun is a very moralistic book; it is full of heroes and villains and leaves no doubt which side the reader is supposed to take. Thus Beckman makes clear that Samuel Adams is a good guy because he liked to hang out in bars, while John Adams is a snotty prig because he didn’t.

A deeper approach would take note of other facts that might explain why Bradford and Morton acted as they did. The Plymouth Colony was an agricultural community that meant to be permanent, which is why it included both men and women. Merry Mount was a trading community that lived lightly on the land and included no women or children. These economic and social facts immediately make clear why they would have contrasting approaches to their Indian neighbors, to internal discipline, to sex and religion. Temporary communities can devote themselves to fun and so stay appealing to posterity. Not every society in the making is quite as repressive as the Pilgrims were; but they all need laws and institutions, which are no fun but can’t exactly be avoided.

Indeed, it is striking how many of the examples of fun celebrated by Beckman involved transient all-male communities; the book might be subtitled, after Hemingway, “Men Without Women.” The “Jack Tars,” the sailors of Colonial America who helped fuel the Revolution, were all men who lived most of their lives at sea. The Forty-Niners, whose exploits in the mining camps of California and Nevada form one of Beckman’s most picturesque chapters, were also men far from home, free to drink, gamble, and cross-dress. To Beckman, these miniature societies are role models, teaching us how to live democratically, in a freewheeling, authentic fashion. It might be more instructive to see them as holidays from reality — liminal places that define themselves against a more sober mainstream and couldn’t exist without that dull but sustaining background.

As American Fun approaches the present, it continues to divide its subjects into sheep and goats. The Americans who flocked to P. T. Barnum’s spectacles and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show earn Beckman’s disdain, because “such fun was vicarious…. It consumers were unspecialized, indiscriminate, omnivorous, expecting little more than varieties of distraction.” African-American jazz musicians and Harlem Renaissance poets, on the other hand, were admirable, enjoying “soaring personal freedom and deeply erotic social interaction,” despite the constraints of racism and oppression. In the 1960s, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies are fun and politically virtuous. Today, teenagers playing video games are retrograde: “What sort of nation does this amusement foster?… A twitchy one, to be certain, and sedentary.”

One of the fun things about fun is that it is a zone free from judgment and responsibility. But in American Fun, that freedom is turned inside out: it’s not enough to have fun, you have to have the right kind of fun, the vigorous, transgressive, communitarian kind. Beckman manages to reinstate obligation in the middle of liberation and turns fun into something more like duty. In this sense, American Fun offers a more genuinely American approach to fun than it probably intended.