John Beckman’s nonfiction debut, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt (Pantheon, 2014), joins the shelf of recent cultural volumes like Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage or Hip: The History by John Leland that view a weighty historical landscape through the prism of ribaldry and misbehavior. It’s a wildly entertaining work of sociology that pulls in examples from all corners of this country’s young history, from rent parties and teenage rumbles, to snowballs thrown at Redcoats, as well as pranks pulled on multinational corporations.
Though the writing leans towards academia (I can imagine a few university presses where this would’ve been a lead title), Beckman, a professor of English at the US Naval Academy, brings a storyteller’s craft to the proceedings. In addition to bylines at Granta and McSweeney’s, he is also the author of The Winter Zoo (Henry Holt, 2002), a libidinous post-Soviet thriller that yielded reviews alluding as often to Henry James as to Henry Miller. His fiction background is evident on the page. To the author’s credit, for all the incredible stories and descriptions of pranks, graffiti, and dust-ups, the book still reads like a “cultural history of fun,” rather than a “fun history book.” His style hews closer to the Mark Kurlansky category of history writing, as opposed to dad-nonfiction or voice-heavy, pop-nonfiction.
Unlike some of Kurlansky’s most celebrated efforts, this isn’t a microhistory. Beckman’s argument encompasses a wide swath of political activism and youth culture, not just hoax-happy hucksters like PT Barnum and fact-bending newsmen such as Mark Twain, but Puritan-pranking settlers, Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, turn-of-the-century jazz luminaries, sex-positive flappers, status quo-smashing Yippies, and anarchy-spewing punk rockers. In this case, “all’s grist that comes to his mill.”
Definitions of the titular F-word abound between these covers, though the introduction’s “pleasure in the face of authority” best suits the material. His examples of civil disobedience and racial inclusiveness get closer to the truer meaning of this “joyous revolt” than the family-friendly distractions provided by Walt Disney or PlayStation, who have found ways to monetize the pursuit of happiness by sanding the edges of rough play. We might all be “marks,” but the author comes short of blaming consumers for being sucked into the risk-free avenues that corporate America provides, be it through television, video games, or amusement parks. The money-hungry bastards have just made it so much easier. If, say, you’re trying to show your children a close-up view of animals, a petting zoo is a blander but safer option than a local farm. And a circus, however sickly and sad the exotic animals within may be, will always be cheaper than visiting a wildlife preserve on a foreign land.
The dichotomy between these different types of fun brings forth some of the most damning passages; he posits that the pursuit of fun, even in the face of danger or imprisonment, was once seen as a virtuous action of the young. Now, not so much. This finger-wagging aside, there are thankfully only a few “lessons” that this cheeky but brilliant book puts forth. For his first book of nonfiction, the author has constructed a persuasive and mirthfully detailed premise proving that fun is not a byproduct of America’s rebellious spirit and fierce individuality, but an essential ingredient. And woe to the fool who’d want to corrupt such a rollicking good time with something as boring as morals!
American Fun by John Beckman
Review by Andrew Wetzel