American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt

John Beckman. Pantheon, $28.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-307-90817-9
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.)
Reviewed on: 10/14/2013
Release date: 02/04/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 331 pages - 978-0-307-90818-6
Paperback - 432 pages - 978-0-345-80377-1
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