Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt
By John Beckman
Pantheon Books, Hardcover, 9780307908179, 402pp.
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
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.)
“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
“[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