The key to this spirited and challenging book is in its subtitle: “joyous revolt.” The revolt depicted in “American Fun” derives from John Beckman’s somewhat narrow definition of what constitutes fun. For his purposes, it requires active, spontaneous and unscripted participation, not passive amusement or entertainment contrived by the vaudeville circuit’s B. F. Keith or by Walt Disney.
Fun, Beckman asserts, is something to be had; it comes from the people; it is had by a group; it is risky; and it has a purpose. Adopting an unusual interpretation of American history, Beckman, a professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, explores the ways outlaw, oppressed and otherwise defiant groups reacted to their condition by creating and celebrating acts of raucous jubilation that represented quests for freedom. Both politically directed and self-rewarding, these rebellions, he says, had a peculiarly American tinge because they not only promoted their own brand of civility but also “turned social conflict into joyous upheaval and have strengthened the nation in the face of adversity.” This is a big claim, one that makes for provocative reading but also for a degree of skepticism.
Beckman locates joyous revolt in every era. The template for it all, he writes, was set by Thomas Morton, a renegade from British Puritanism, who in 1627 founded a quasi-utopian community 30 miles from the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Plantation. In a colony aptly named Merry Mount, Morton and a group of freed indentured servants, along with some cooperative Indians, thumbed their noses at their prim neighbors by practicing forms of ribaldry and hedonism in wild celebrations. Their unruly behavior included a maypole and revels of singing, dancing and licentiousness: fun, not violence. In Beckman’s view, this same blend of opposition and festiveness characterized other early events, like the Boston Tea Party, where, he contends, fun-loving Jack Tars (seafaring men) joined with other classes to convey their grievances through rebellious enjoyment. The pursuit of happiness thus involved happiness itself.
From there, the narrative proceeds through the 19th and 20th centuries down to the present. Beckman examines the pursuit of happiness during the antebellum era in the activities of enslaved African-Americans who used fun as a means of resistance. Their celebrations of holidays called “Election Day” and “Pinkster,” which consisted of multiday festivals of singing, dancing, drinking, gambling, joking and competition, brought release to a people normally deprived of such pleasures. The fun of these occasions also included forms of mimicry and ridicule of white society’s prudery, racism and privilege. These sometimes threatening, always joyful, outbursts of fun, Beckman concludes, gave enslaved people control over their own bodies and helped them build an alternative and sometimes oppositional community.
Similar communities grew up in the American West, where gold rush miners, echoing the Merry Mount revelers, sang, danced, gambled and drank themselves silly in defiance of Eastern decorousness and temperance. One of the most notable recorders of the frivolity, as well as a participant in it, was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who made such fun and pranks famous in “Roughing It.” A century later, the same oppositional frivolity could be found among Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, then, later, the hippies and yippies, who all craved personal freedom — and the drugs that went along with it — from the stodgy, corporate world around them. Their ethos was “revolution for the hell of it.”
Nor should it be thought that riotous fun was confined to one gender. Flappers and the “new woman” of the 1920s, symbolized by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Clara Bow and Mae West, used bravado and eroticism to breach patriarchy’s barriers to pleasure.
Music plays a large role in Beckman’s outline of the challenging, riotous fun of recent times. The syncopated, erotic rhythms of jazz, often enjoyed by interracial groups, inspired laughter, dancing and partying, much as Pinkster had done in an earlier era. The anarchic nature of punk pulled outcast kids into their own community, symbolized by the raw, reckless and physically dangerous mosh pit. Hip-hop was (and is) a do-it-yourself culture that empowered dispossessed black youths, followed by alienated white youths, to challenge authority, especially the cops.
After presenting these and other examples of frolic and defiance, Beckman concludes that “fun — especially fun in the midst of struggle — is the personal and communal experience of freedom. All it requires is a cavalier attitude toward killjoys, tyrants, limits and timidity.”
Sometimes, however, he tries too hard to read fun into the midst of struggle. Just because the Boston Tea Party is called a party, for example, does not mean that it was joyous. It was serious business, and Beckman’s evidence that a mob of colonials was having a grand time dumping tea into the harbor is slim. Moreover, he makes his argument without fully considering consequences. He scatters words like “tumultuous,” “rowdy,” “festive,” “spontaneous” and “uproarious” throughout the text, but there often was another side to this fun. One person’s riotous joy can be another’s torment.
In Beckman’s eyes, the boisterous Boston colonials who tanked up on rum and wine, then invaded and trashed the fancy home of Massachusetts’s governor, Thomas Hutchinson, to protest the Stamp Tax, took great delight doing so. Not so much Governor Hutchinson. On a much larger scale, the same could be said for the Western Indians, who fell victim to young, unmarried, drunken men mingling rowdy fun with vicious racist violence. Occasionally, the fun-lovers themselves became victims, as when white servicemen murderously attacked Zoot Suiters in Los Angeles in 1943.
As these examples suggest, the coarse civility that Beckman says accompanied the communal experience of freedom often teetered on the edge of, or descended into, mob ferocity. Riotous fun is not always civil, and it cannot always be restrained. The various episodes that Beckman selects to illustrate “fun in the midst of struggle” could be matched by incidents of death and destruction resulting from fun in the midst of struggle. Unlike the joyous upheavals Beckman selects, these degenerations, fun as they might have been for some of the participants, did not strengthen the nation.
Nevertheless, “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. Fun, as Beckman describes it, has been “the joy of the one joining the joy of the many in a powerful wave of common purpose.” That purpose is the assertion of freedom by the oppressed, the unfree, the underprivileged and the alienated during hard times. Whether it was the Revolutionary era, the age of antebellum slavery, the 1920s or the ’60s, laughter and merrymaking acted as forms of resistance. The fun was in the doing, not the watching, and the doing marked a quest for liberty otherwise denied.
Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt
By John Beckman
Illustrated. 402 pp. Pantheon Books. $28.95.