American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt

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Here is an animated and wonderfully engaging work of cultural history that lays out America’s unruly past by describing the ways in which cutting loose has always been, and still is, an essential part of what it means to be an American.
From the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Americans have defied their stodgy rules and hierarchies with pranks, dances, stunts, and wild parties, shaping the national character in profound and ...

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American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt

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Here is an animated and wonderfully engaging work of cultural history that lays out America’s unruly past by describing the ways in which cutting loose has always been, and still is, an essential part of what it means to be an American.
From the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Americans have defied their stodgy rules and hierarchies with pranks, dances, stunts, and wild parties, shaping the national character in profound and lasting ways. In the nation’s earlier eras, revelers flouted Puritans, Patriots pranked Redcoats, slaves lampooned masters, and forty-niners bucked the saddles of an increasingly uptight middle class. In the twentieth century, fun-loving Americans celebrated this heritage and pushed it even further: flappers “barney-mugged” in “petting pantries,” Yippies showered the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, and B-boys invented hip-hop in a war zone in the Bronx.
This is the surprising and revelatory history that John Beckman recounts in American Fun. Tying together captivating stories of Americans’ “pursuit of happiness”—and distinguishing between real, risky fun and the bland amusements that paved the way for Hollywood, Disneyland, and Xbox—Beckman redefines American culture with a delightful and provocative thesis.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Howard P. Chudacoff
…spirited and challenging…makes for provocative reading…American Fun provides an original perspective on how ordinary folk left a mark on the historical landscape in a way that has not received full recognition.
Publishers Weekly
Beckman, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, traces the “three tributaries of American fun—the commercial, playful, and radically political,” from Thomas Morton’s anarchic Merry Mount colony in the 1620s to its modern counterpart, Burning Man. Accounts of politically motivated fun like the Boston Tea Party and the Yippies’ attempt to levitate the Pentagon are presented along with tales of pranksters like Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum, as well as accounts of playful hoaxes, such as the “Electrical Banana,” in which a 1960s underground newspaper convinced mainstream media that smoking dried banana peels produces “a cannabic effect.” Beckman laments the commercialized fun of organized sports as well as the neutering of counterculture spirit by Madison Avenue advertising or pop culture’s “test-tube teens.” He also traces African-American culture from Pinkster festivals and Brother Rabbit folktales—later hijacked by white journalist Joel Chandler Harris—to the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of hip-hop in the 1970s South Bronx. Other notable characters include the “b’hoys and g’hals,” Irish street gangsters with an affinity for Shakespeare; the Merry Pranksters and their LSD-infused parties with the Hell’s Angels; and Jazz Age flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Beckman captures the rambunctiousness, subversiveness, and inventiveness of the American spirit, as well as its ugliness, violence, and bigotry. He also raises interesting questions about complacency and “the death of fun.” (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
A lively, entertaining history of American fun. Notwithstanding its obvious subjectivity, the definition of "fun" has changed significantly since early American colonization. Yet Beckman (English/U.S. Naval Academy; The Winter Zoo, 2002) is undeterred by the challenge of drawing out what he believes to be a uniquely American idea of fun as an act of rebellion. Using a cast of familiar characters—Samuel Adams, Ken Kesey, Mark Twain—as well as lesser-known Americans—Thomas Morton, King Charles and Buddy Bolden, to name a few—Beckman argues that it is quintessentially American to participate in pranks and tricks. (The Boston Tea Party is a prime example.) For Beckman, it is this "boldness in the face of adversity and restraint" that characterized early American fun. It was social, political and, above all, daring, and it represented an appeal to the democratic principles that would come to define the still-maturing republic. But, as "fun" became more popular, Americans were quick to exploit the economics of leisure. Fun was now a matter of entertainment—"Barnumization," as Beckman puts it—a big business that no longer relied on prankster risk. "These pleasures were fleeting and superficial—by design," he writes. "Nothing was at stake, except the ticket price." These two strands of fun continued to develop in parallel, defining their respective ages, from Jazz Age exuberance and the subversive counterculture of the 1960s to 1980s hypercommercialization and today's digital zombie-ism. While there is no shortage of irreverent and diverse examples that key in on various stages of fun's development in America, Beckman is often so diffuse in his breadth that his argument seems to be lost. His conclusions, moreover, slide dangerously close to exceptionalist rhetoric. Are Americans the only people that partake in such revelry? Nevertheless, he does identify uniquely American experiences that define a collective understanding of fun as a protest against the established order, even if one is a part of that order. With a novelist's care for detail and storytelling, Beckman offers a remarkably expansive, if flawed, cultural history.
From the Publisher
“The historian who revisits well-trodden ground must offer either something new or at least a new way of looking at it. In American Fun John Beckman does both—stringing unfamiliar episodes of U.S. history together in a new and ingenious way.” —The Washington Post
“The key to this spirited and challenging book is in its subtitle: ‘joyous revolt.’ . . .  American Fun provides an original perspective on how ordinary folk left a mark on the historical landscape in a way that has not received full recognition.” —Howard P. Chudacoff, The New York Times Book Review

“This freewheeling history . . . richly demonstrate[s] how Americans have often blended defiance and wit with the pursuit of liberty.”  —The New Yorker

“This is a history of ‘a raffish national tradition that flaunted pleasure in the face of authority.’ That sort of fun has made America what it is, and it is a pleasure to read a book that explains historically this essential nature of part of the American character. . . . Fun . . . and informative to boot.”  ­­­­­—Columbus Dispatch
“[I]n his adventuresome new history, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt. . . . Beckman, an English professor at the United States Naval Academy, makes a powerful case that fun may be good but should always be at least slightly less than clean.” —The Daily Beast 

American Fun is ecstatic, erudite, anarchical and utterly irresistible. It’s the great cultural history of busting out and cutting loose that we’ve always wanted and always needed. This is a party you don’t want to miss.” —Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians
“John Beckman’s American Fun is a raucous, frequently dazzling tour through the country’s wild and crazy side, the joyous out-of-control culture that, as he writes, ‘flouts couth.’ In an age of bleak spectacle, Beckman reminds us in living color that ‘folk fun’ and ‘coarse civility’ are deep in the American grain. At once learned, thrilling, splendidly written and wicked smart, this is the best book I've read about popular culture in ages—or ever.” —Todd Gitlin, author, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage

“A raucous, anarchic shadow history of celebrations, pranks, and joyous rebellion, American Fun chronicles the American penchant for high energy, authority-flouting acts of fun. . . . In the end, with modern permutations of American fun, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt offers a history that is about fun and is fun to read. It illuminates the very American tradition of stickin’ it to the man, dancin’ in the street, and havin’ a blast.”  —New York Journal of Books
“John Beckman’s American Fun offers an alternative history of our culture, zeroing in on the many ways in which our country’s fun making was spurred on by subcultures formed in opposition to that Waspy standard.” —Bookforum

“A lively, entertaining history of American fun. . . . With a novelist’s care for detail and storytelling, Beckman offers a remarkably expansive . . . cultural history.”  —Kirkus Reviews
“Folksinger and Yippie organizer Phil Ochs once proclaimed, ‘A demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off.’ There’s even a band named Fun. But who could ever have predicted that there would be this unique, comprehensively researched, scholarly approach to 400 years of fun in America, a historical tradition of ridicule that has served as a threat to the status quo—from King Charley to Dick Gregory, from Thomas Morton to Ken Kesey, from Mark Twain to Abbie Hoffman—in a myriad of forms that provide a strong sense of continuity. Like pasta fazool, which features a bean in every macaroni, a satirical ploy is embedded with a level of irreverent truth. ‘Laughter,’ said Malcolm Muggeridge, the editor of Punch, ‘is the most effective of all subversive conspiracies, and it operates on our side.’ And now, with the aid of technology, that process can go viral, fast and furious. Joyous revolt, after all, is not an oxymoron.” —Paul Krassner, author of Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture
American Fun reads like a graphic novel as John Beckman connects the dots between Thomas Morton, the flappers, Abbie Hoffman and punk rock, celebrating fun as a great American value.” —Andy Shernoff, founding member of The Dictators

“Beckman captures the rambunctiousness, subversiveness, and inventiveness of the American spirit, as well as its ugliness, violence, and bigotry.” —Publishers Weekly

“This rollicking and patriotic paean to American ‘rough play’ deserves a serious look.” —Booklist

“Beckman challenges our understanding of American Puritanism by showing that we’ve been an essentially prankish, fun-loving nation. Colonists reveled wildly, Patriots mocked Redcoats, slaves lampooned masters, the Twenties roared, Hollywood entertained, Yippies invaded the stock market, and the Internet isn’t entirely sober-minded either. Have fun reading.” —Library Journal
American Fun is that rare and lovely thing: a serious and original work of history which entertains from the opening pages to the conclusion. John Beckman captures a vital, yet neglected, feature of American life—the untrammeled pursuit of happiness—and will have you grinning as you learn.” —Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

Library Journal
Author of the debut novel The Winter Zoo, a New York Times Notable Book, Beckman shows that from Colonial revels to the Roaring Twenties to the Yippie invasion of the stock market Americans have been less puritanical than prankish.
The Barnes & Noble Review

When was the last time you had fun? If you accept John Beckman's definition in 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.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908179
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 511,133
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

John Beckman is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Granta, Book, McSweeney’s, and Arizona Quarterly, among other publications. His novel The Winter Zoo was named a New York Times Notable Book. Beckman lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, the critic Marcela Valdes, and their baby daughter.

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Read an Excerpt


On April 15, 1923, eight marathon dancers, aged nineteen to twenty-eight, outran the law for a chance to make history. For twenty-nine hours straight, as weaker contestants limped off the floor, they had twirled and swung each other’s bodies to the fox-trot, two-step, and bunny hug. At midnight, New York police enforced a law that put a twelve-hour cap on marathon activities. They ordered the kids to cease and desist, but the dancers wanted none of it. They danced en masse out the doors of the Audubon Ballroom, across the 168th Street sidewalk, and into the back of an idling van. They danced in the van’s jumpy confines all the way to the Edgewater ferry, on whose decks they danced across the choppy Hudson, before being portaged like a cage of exotic birds and released into New Jersey’s Pekin dance hall.
They had been there only an hour when more cops shoved them along, and so it would go for the next two days. The venues kept changing, and the comedy mounting, as they crossed and recrossed the tri-state lines, cheerfully dancing all the while. They shed a few compatriots to squirrelly exhaustion and gave reporters a private audience in an undisclosed Harlem apartment. Back in the van, they cut fantastic steps on their way to Connecticut, where the contest would reach its strange conclusion.
The New York Times, filing updates as the events unfolded, struck a distinctly American tone: they touted the dancers as the pinnacle of youth—of vigor, ambition, free expression—calling them “heroes and heroines . . . alive with the spirit of civic pride.” But they scorned the cops as “mean old thing[s]” who should have been ashamed of enforcing “meddlesome old laws.” As tensions mounted they framed a rivalry between the upstart “West” and the noble “East.” (Dancers from Cleveland had set the record only a few days before.) The upshot of all this ballyhoo, of course, was that the reporters took none of it too seriously. The Times just wanted to join the party and to let their readers join it too.
But their patriotism wasn’t all tongue-in-cheek. Youthful antics in the 1920s were often held up as national virtues. Alma Cummings, who had set the first dance-marathon record that March, was honored with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Avon O. Foreman, a fifteen-year-old flagpole sitter, was recognized in 1929 by the mayor of Baltimore for showing “the pioneer spirit of early America.” In an era when Prohibition had divided the country and the KKK had nearly five million members, the splashy high jinks of free-spirited youths were for many a welcome vision of good-natured resistance. They called to mind the Sons of Liberty—or Huck Finn lighting out to the territory.
Things got weird in the marathon’s endgame. At two o’clock on Sunday morning, when the van arrived at an athletic club in East Port Chester, judges disqualified two of the last four contestants for sleeping in transit, leaving Vera Sheppard, nineteen, and Ben Solar, twenty-three, to rally for the record. At 8 a.m. Solar broke away from Sheppard and “wandered aimlessly toward the door, like a sleep-walker.” Smelling salts revived him for precisely two minutes. When he collapsed, and was out, the ever-vigorous Sheppard—performing “better than at any time during the night”—galloped on with a series of relief partners. The good citizens of Connecticut, fearing for her health, or maybe her soul, had police stop the madness at 3:30 p.m. Only with special permission was she allowed to dance past four o’clock, at which point she demolished the world record. “Miss Sheppard’s condition at the close,” the Times reported, “was surprisingly good.” She had also lost a cool ten pounds.
Vera Sheppard wasn’t your typical rebel. An office worker from Long Island City, she lived at home with her father and two sisters and gave dance lessons most nights till twelve. She wasn’t even your typical flapper. But when her sisters attributed her endurance to prayer and the fact that she didn’t drink or smoke, Sheppard preferred to answer for herself. Showing all-American pride in her ethnic difference, she told reporters: “I’m Irish; do you suppose I could have stuck it out otherwise?” What kept her going for sixty-nine hours was “thinking what good fun it was.”
Sheppard liked to dance, and she was willing to risk it if what she liked was against the law. More to the point, she enjoyed those risks. But her Jazz Age “fun” wasn’t just the boon of a wealthy country at the height of its powers. It wasn’t even a whirl on Coney Island’s Loop-the-Loop. Her cheeky dance across three state lines, as pure and innocent as it seemed, was underwritten by centuries of studied rebellion that made it quintessentially American. Sheppard and her cheering section at the Times were heirs to a raffish national tradition that flaunted pleasure in the face of authority.
This book traces the lines of that tradition.

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Table of Contents


1.  The Forefather of American Fun
2.  Jack Tar, Unbound
3.  Technologies of Fun
4.  A California Education
5.  Selling It Back to the People
6.  Barnumizing America
7.  Merry Mount Goes Mainstream
8.  “Joyous Revolt”: The “New Negro” and the “New Woman”
9.  Zoot Suit Riots
10. A California Education, Redux
11. Revolution for the Hell of It
12. Mustangers Have More Fun
13. Doing It Yourself, Getting the Joke


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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 14, 2014

    Fun? I don't think so.

    I don't get John Beckman's idea of fun. The Boston Tea Party may have been fun, but I wonder what Nathan Hale would say abut that? The Chicago Convention in 1968 may have been fun, but I wonder what all the gassed protesters would say about that? The Chicago Days of Rage may have been fun, but I wonder what Richard Elrod would say about that............No Thanks Mr. Beckman I'll make my own fun.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2014


    The books called Fun Loving You

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2014


    "I'm there where are you?"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2014



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