Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Characterby Jack Hitt
America’s self-invented tinkerers are back at it in their metaphorical garages—fiddling with everything from solar-powered cars/b>/i>
WHAT IS IT THAT DRIVES THE SUCCESS OF AMERICA AND THE IDENTITY OF ITS PEOPLE? ACCLAIMED WRITER AND CONTRIBUTING EDITOR TO THIS AMERICAN LIFE JACK HITT THINKS IT’S BECAUSE WE’RE ALL A BUNCH OF AMATEURS.
America’s self-invented tinkerers are back at it in their metaphorical garages—fiddling with everything from solar-powered cars to space elevators. In Bunch of Amateurs, Jack Hitt visits a number of different garages and has written a fascinating book that looks at America’s current batch of amateurs and their pursuits. From a tattooed young woman in the Bay Area trying to splice a fish’s glow-in-the-dark gene into common yogurt (all done in her kitchen using salad spinners)
to a space fanatic on the brink of developing the next generation of telescopes from his mobile home, Hitt not only tells the stories of people in the grip of a passion but argues that America’s history is bound up in a cycle of amateur surges.
Beginning with Ben Franklin’s kite and leading all the way to the current TV hit American Idol, Hitt argues that the nation’s love of self-invented obsessives has always driven the country to rediscover the true heart of the American dream. Amateur pursuits are typically lamented as a world that just passed until a Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg steps out of his garage (or dorm room) with the rare but crucial success story. In Bunch of Amateurs, Hitt argues that America is now poised to pioneer at another frontier that will lead, one more time, to the newest version of the American dream.
“Hitt is smarter than Malcolm Gladwell, a better storyteller than his colleagues at This American Life, and a better reporter than any big name you can think of.” --Baltimore City Paper
“I ask myself if there's a better non-fiction writer in America than Jack Hitt . . . and come up with nobody. I've been following and stealing from his work my whole career. His usual mode is to convince you that you're reading a rollicking yarn, while with his left hand building a serious and unexpectedly persuasive argument. In Bunch of Amateurs he brings that to perfection. The book is about cranks, but it is also about the strange crucible of social tensions and intellectual assumptions inside of which our ‘knowledge’ gets made.” --John Jeremiah Sullivan
"Hitt is a virtuoso storyteller and a skilled distiller of complex subjects." --New York Times
"How embarrassing it is to be asked to craft a blurb for Jack Hitt. I'm not fit to carry his bags. Few writers are. Bunch of Amateurs is completely sublime; beautifully written, hilarious, brushfire protean in the erudite shifts he makes--high culture, low, science, history, music, you name it--and just wonderfully rollicking. Who else can have one simultaneously laughing out loud and waiting with bated breath for Benjamin Franklin to alight from a carriage in Paris in 1778? No one but Jack Hitt, that's who. Like I said, it shames me to endorse him, so unfit to the task am I, but endorse him I must. I have no choice. You must read this book." --David Rakoff
"Jack Hitt is a latter-day Twain: a Southern storyteller and Yankee skeptic who slaughters sacred cows with unfailing wit and a childlike sense of wonder at the world. This makes him the perfect guide to the wacky yet inspiring universe of American inventiveness. Hitt's playfully profound book had me laughing with pride at the amateur in us all." --Tony Horwitz
“…a fabulous tribute to amateurs….This is a totally absorbing gallery of oddballs and obsessives on the brink of possibly great discoveries, written by a man with a deep appreciation for amateurs and their pursuits.” –Booklist
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Read an Excerpt
In a forested bottomland of southeastern Connecticut,amid stony outcroppings and strewn granite boulders, lies an unusual cluster ofnine beehive-like stone shelters. As far back as anybody can remember,including the Pequot Indians, the area has had a funny name: Gungywamp. When Ifirst heard about the place, I called around and found David Barron, then thepresident of the Gungywamp Society. He invited me to join him on a walk in thewoods with some fresh recruits, mostly married couples in their fifties. Hetold me that the Gungywampers believed that the odd stone huts are Celticdwellings, an abandoned camp left by Irish monks who visited America fifteenhundred years ago.
After parkingour cars on the side of a remote road, a dozen of us slipped into the woods.Barron, a tall man with sprouts of white hair exploding out from under a Greekfisherman’s cap, marched with vigor, bubbling with enthusiasm. As a guide, hecut a familiar figure. He possessed a partiality for crippling puns. Whensomeone had to peel off early from the group, he shouted to them, “Shalom onthe range!” He smoked so much his white mustache was tainted yellow. He had asalty way of sprinkling his comments with innuendo that amused the wives, yetaffected a Victorian coyness about cursing. When I found some trash—beer cansand cigarette butts—obviously left at one shelter by some teenagers, he let flythe foulest term possible: “Sheitzen!”
Then Barron ledus to a large rock. He wanted to know if we noticed anything. There were somelichens on it, not much else; we stared intently. Barron explained that therock had faded carvings on it and that one of them was a Chi-Rho, a symbol thatsuperimposes the letter X over the stem of a capital P and served as an earlyemblem of Christianity. We all squinted.
“This particularstyle of Chi-Rho was common among Irish monks during the fifth to seventhcenturies a.d.,” Barron told us excitedly, linking the symbol to a time when acertain Brendan the Navigator of Ireland, according to legend, sailed west insearch of the Promised Land of Saints. “Do you see it?” We all leaned over,carefully scanning every blotchy divot. An uneasy silence, broken only by thecracking of twigs beneath our boots, seized the forest.
Slightly annoyedat our befuddled postures, Barron turned an exasperated, upturned palm towardsome mild indentations. He sneeringly referenced skeptics at Harvard and Yalewho had looked at this evidence and were unimpressed. “Haaaavard,” he said withthick snark. Right away you got the sense that there were two kinds of esotericknowledge at odds here. The elite evidence-based world
of “Yaaaaa-uuuull” and this other kind ofknowledge—Barronic knowledge—that meant you had to see things differently.Barron took a piece of chalk from his pocket and traced over some worn dimplesand there it was. A white Chi-Rho leapt off the speckled gray of the boulderlike a 3-D trick. Many in the crowd ooo’d and aaah’d. It was an emotionalmoment to stand in this quiet hardwood bottomland and suddenly feel itinstantly transform into a place of antiquity. A new idea had us in its grip,this notion that Irish mariners once stood right here fifteen hundred yearsago. Then again, a few of us eyeballed another nearby chiseling, smoothed downby weather in much the same way, and we wondered what runic name it went by: JCIII.
When you come across a guy like David Barron, you think,Haven’t I met him before? The eccentric demeanor, the cocksure certainty forhis ideas, that panting cascade of arcane information about things likeChi-Rhos. He’s the guy with enough self-accumulated knowledge about localarchaeology and medieval orthography and lithic architecture to cobble togethera theory about this place. He’s a type, right? Individuals like Barron can bemen or women, old or young, but chances are their gusto for their singularobsession is captivating (or irritating, depending on your mood that day). Andone other thing—I’m speaking from personal experience now—part of this packagetypically involves an unusual hat.
We all knowthese people. They are recurring American characters. These people areamateurs.
I say Americancharacters not because the rest of the world doesn’t have amateurs. Of course,every place has them and they are everywhere. At its most fundamental, anamateur is simply someone operating outside professional assumptions. The wordderives ultimately from the Latin but comes into English via the French wordamateur, meaning “lover” and, specifically, passionate love. Or obsessive love.This powerful emotion usually indicates someone’s embrace of a notion(invention, theory, way of life) as a compulsive passion for the thing—not themoney, fame, or career that could come of it. But there are differences.
In Europe and onother continents, the word hints at class warfare. Credentialism in the OldWorld suggests the elevation of those occupying a certain station. Amateurs maybe taken seriously but, almost by the power of the word, are kept in theirplace: isolated outside some preexisting professional class, some long-standingnobility.
In America,amateurs don’t stay in their place or keep to themselves. So once the wordcrossed the Atlantic Ocean—whether by St. Brendan or a more traditional way—itcame to mean all kinds of, often, conflicting things. “Amateur” can signifysomeone who is nearly a professional or completely a fool. The word alsoencompasses
a sense of being pretentious (mere amateur) orincompetent (the meaning one first hears in this book’s title). In fact, lookit up in Roget’s Thesaurus and it’s a wasp nest of contradictions—falling underfive rubrics of meaning: dabbler, dilettante, bungler, virtuoso, and greenhorn.In America, we’re a little touchy about this word, and for good reason.
Historically,our amateur ancestors grew out of the Ben Franklin tradition of tinkering athome. In the mid-nineteenth century, the homebrew style had to contend with asocietal drive to professionalize, a movement that accelerated with the arrivalof the Industrial Revolution. That was an era when, for example, the AmericanMedical Association (formed in 1847) sought to distinguish legitimate doctorsfrom snake-oil salesmen, itinerant abortionists, and other makeshift charlatanspeddling miracle tonics. Many disciplines organized professional guilds likethe AMA or created university departments to grant credentials to the seriouspractitioners of a craft over the self-schooled.
But theoutsiders never really went away. American professionals have had to grow upright alongside their striving, awkward, amateur cousins in the same way thatthe first attempts at gentry in the Old South had to contend with theirtoothless cousins named Fishbait or Elrod, sleeping in the bushes outside themansion. The embarrassment of our amateur origins, in every estate of Americanendeavor, is always lurking just around the corner.
In Europeanpopular culture, amateurism is practically feared. It’s Europe that gave us the“mad scientist”—an amateur straying into the realm of forbidden knowledge—whosemodels are Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll. In America, we soften that image frommad to absentminded. We admire that kind of risk-taker. Our amateur scientistsmight resemble the character in Back to the Future played by Christopher Lloyd(whose hair has a passing resemblance to Barron’s). The mad scientists ofEurope spawned monsters. Our absentminded professors created flubber, an absurdconfection whose most unusual property is that it enables our dopey hero toattract a girl.
So we thinkamateurs are hopeless dreamers, made practically adorable by their obsessivelove for some one true thing, and each and every one of them charged with thepotential of being a genius and making a crucial discovery. There’s somethingquintessentially American in that version of the character, isn’t there? Thelovable Poindexter who just might possibly stumble upon the next big thing.
While the wordmay be complicated and full of contradictions, the American amateurs thatconstantly pop up throughout our history are, basically, one of two kinds ofcharacters. They are either outsiders mustering at some fortress of expertisehoping to scale the walls, or pioneers improvising in a frontier where noprofessionals exist. If every country forms its national character at thetrauma of birth, then we are forever rebelling against the king or lighting outfor the territories.
On a late afternoon, Barron and I hung out for a while atthe Gungywamp structures. They are charming shelters—about the size of a goodtool shed built with flat stones stacked closer together as they get to thetop, which is formed by a large, flat capstone. The entire construction, exceptthe opening, is often covered in dirt, which in turn is overgrown with grasses.Being inside feels extremely ancient. Barron wanted to show me the mainbuilding. He believed it to be an oratory, a one-room chapel, examples of whichare still standing in Ireland. These edifices began going up in Ireland aftera.d. 400, when the Christian church opened for business there. In thisparticular hut, there was a “vent hole” whose orientation, it was accidentallydiscovered in 1987, admitted light only twice a year—on the equinox.
Barron gave me asharp look, flaring his eyes and nostrils. His hat seemed to pop up a bit andmeant to signal that the proof was fairly conclusive, right? That I was aconvert, right? I flashed a neutral smile. Earlier that day, I had spoken toConnecticut’s state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni. He let me know right awayhe was quite tired of this crowd and couldn’t they see already that the stonebuildings were just colonial root cellars or pigsties?
Across from thevent hole was another small opening at the ground level that Barron wanted toshow me. In Ireland, Barron continued, such doorways were common in thesechambers. They led to hidden rooms where Celtic farmers might wait for thepassing of an invading horde of Vikings. The dark hole was not more than a footand a half square.
“A secretpassageway,” Barron said. So I crawled in.
When Ioriginally hung out with Barron, I loved all this. Stories about crackpotamateurs like the Gungywampers are a journalistic chestnut. First and foremost,they require a slightly oddball protagonist who can supply lots of characterdetail (some editor is always urging the writer to “make it zany”—that word ispractically jargon in the modern magazine business). And in order to reallybring it—the zany—you not only need a Gungywamp zealot who curses in weirdGerman like Barron, but you also need his foil, an official expert bristlingwith skepticism. So I was good to go, article-wise. I had the two keycharacters in the crackpot subgenre.
I was thinkingabout all this when I crawled out the other end of the secret tunnel. I was in anotherconical room also shaped into a rounded pyramid. It was just tall enough for meto set my six-foot self into a crouching stand.
I sat down onthe dirt floor in the secret chamber and illuminated the drywall masonry withmy flashlight. Even though this story was coming easily, some of the detailsweren’t dovetailing. Sitting in this little room, and touching these oldstones, I began to ask myself: Why would any colonial build nine verylabor-intensive root cellars so close together? A collection of outbuildingslike this doesn’t occur anywhere else in the United States, and how manystorehouses for potatoes and squash do you need in the eighteenth century? Whowould ever build a solar-oriented root cellar? Why would any farmer create acrawl space in a pigsty that led to a hidden chamber? So instead of rushing tomy computer to write the usual crackpot
story, a new question popped into my mind: What if DavidBarron were right?
The first thing one usually hears about the era of theself-taught theorist and the garage inventor is it’s supposed to be dead. TheGolden Age of American Amateurism is over. You can read all about it incountless books with tombstone titles, such as Thomas P. Hughes’s classicAmerican Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm1870–1970, or any of a shelf full of books with titles beginning The Endof?.?.?.?More broadly, the entire American experiment seems to be shuttingdown, if you read Naomi Wolf’s book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to aYoung Patriot.
I’m not sure I’dwrite America’s obit just yet, for the same reason that I wouldn’t write theclosing chapter of amateurism either. Every generation likes to think that itstime has grown too complex and sophisticated for any real homebrew breakthroughs.But then, each generation also discovers that what they thought were veryexpensive, highly unobtainable technologies suddenly turn into the nextgeneration’s play toys.
A few years ago,the technology for looking through surface materials—like those full-bodyscanners at airports—was incredibly complicated and expensive. Already,amateurs online have hacked the technology and created cheap DIY versionsinvolving little more than certain cameras, a combination of filters, andspecific wavelengths of light. This homemade method for peering beneathpeople’s clothes is about to do for those old “X-ray specs” ads in comic bookswhat the cell phone did for Star Trek’s “communicator badge.” Make it real, andcheap. Like it or not, nude imagery is about to undergo the same change-up thatpersonal information on Facebook did only a few years ago. And on we go.
Like so manytrends in this country, amateurism is no different. It’s not a moment thatends, but a cycle that’s always coming around.
Businessscholars have attempted to deconstruct how such amateurs succeed and one notedtheory, published in the Harvard Business Review, argues that outsiders are notburdened with the “curse of knowledge.” It turns out that ignorance is blissand, in many cases, a more productive perch to start from. Not knowing anythingabout something is often precisely what’s needed to see something new. And thenthe cycle starts over.
That’s why, inthe 1970s, IBM’s top executive could say that the world would only need a fewcomputers, because that’s how they saw it. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak werenot cursed with such presumptions and so famously went into Jobs’s Cupertinogarage and roughed out an early desktop computer from parts sold in the localelectronics store or improvised with skills picked up at the now-famousHomebrew Computer Club.
Amateurismmysteriously summons America back, like some Great Gatsby imperative, to thatvery mythological garage to begin once again the work of thinking about thingsfar away from expert prejudices. It’s not a coincidence that Hewlett-Packardrecently restored the original garage in 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto,California, where Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett first formed their company in1939 (and then provided Disney with some of the sound equipment used in makingFantasia). That quintessential location is the temple of American amateuringenuity, and after stepping out to report the stories in this book, I foundthat plenty of folks still hie to this sacred space (literally) every weekend,hoping to make the big breakthrough.
Meet the Author
JACK HITT is a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and public radio’s This American Life. He also writes for Rolling Stone, GQ, Wired, and, of course, Garden & Gun. He has won the Peabody Award, as well as the Livingston and Pope Foundation Awards. His stories can be heard on This American Life’s greatest hits CD, Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes, and The Best Crimes and Misdemeanors: Stories from The Moth. He is the author of a solo theater performance, currently touring, entitled Making Up the Truth.
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