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Fun for Freedom



Rob Hardy


I always ask my patients what they are doing for fun. It isn't a good sign to hear the reply "Nothing," and it's only slightly better to hear, "Watch TV." I am much happier to hear that patients are going fishing with friends, or playing basketball or or gardening or going for walks with family members. I am convinced that fun of this sort is healthful for anyone, but it isn't the sort of fun that professor of English John Beckman writes about in American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt (Pantheon Books). The pranks, hoaxes, dances, novel costumes, wild parties, and riots he describes here (James Joyce described such activities as "the shoutmost shoviality") make an alternate history of America, one that emphasizes that participating in this sort of fun is essential to the American pursuit of happiness. Beckman takes pains to distinguish this sort of endeavor from the more commonplace entertainments and amusements, telling of "outrageous, even life-threatening fun." This is a history of "a raffish national tradition that flaunted pleasure in the face of authority." That sort of fun has made America what it is, and it is a pleasure to read a book that explains historically this essential nature of part of the American character. 




To start it all off, everyone knows the Puritans were no fun. An initial governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, was, Beckman says, "the first American curmudgeon." He had come to the New World "to build a fortress in the wilderness where he could wall out natural and social evils and wall in his tidy hive of 'Saints.'" Perhaps he and his bunch instilled incipient democracy, the work ethic, and religious devotion into the national temperament, but there was another side of settling the New World that Beckman wants us to acknowledge, the efforts of "The Forefather of American Fun," Thomas Morton. While the uptight members of the Plymouth Colony worked and fretted, Morton founded the Merry Mount colony a few miles away. Morton's naughty name for his settlement drew tut-tutting from Puritan observers. "Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless, he anticipated the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic." Merry Mount was populated with freed servants and welcomed Indians, whose culture and whose lusty women his followers appreciated. Morton disdained the upright Puritans; he referred to the leader Myles Standish as "Captain Shrimpe." The Merry Mounters enjoyed overmuch "wine & strong waters," complained Bradford. They scandalously celebrated May Day by raucous dancing around the previously forbidden Maypole, and they celebrated harvests and their general success frequently; Merry Mount was prosperous. Their stern Calvinist neighbors couldn't stand it, and attacked the settlement and forced it to disband. Miles Standish ordered the Maypole chopped down, and Merry Mount was burned to the ground.  




We have forgotten Morton's story, but Nathaniel Hawthorne commemorated it in his story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount, and he knew the stakes: "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire," he wrote. Score the first inning for gloom, but jollity kept on slugging. From Bradford vs Morton, we go to John Adams vs Sam Adams. The cousins were both Whigs, both with Puritan forebears, both with Harvard educations, and they both opposed British loyalists. John, however, was landed gentry, a sober, gentlemanly, prudent lawyer who could be counted upon to take the view of the elites. Samuel declined to go into law and stuck to business, especially as a producer of malt for the brewing of beer, and he kept in touch with the commoners and the taverns on the Boston waterfront. John and his fellows, the merchant elite of Boston, approved of the boisterous demonstrations against taxation, but it was Sam and the Sons of Liberty who carried them out. There was afterward, even in Boston, a reluctance to accept the historic value of the mob's works, but we all now love the story of the group's climactic act, the Boston Tea Party. This is the archetype of the fun Beckman examines throughout his book. It was no dignified protest, but a prank brewed in the taverns, a jolly vandalism with a political point, performed by men and boys in the costumes of Indians. "In this moment," writes Beckman, "they were experiencing democracy firsthand, perhaps more purely than they ever had or would again." 




The slaves didn't get a chance to experience such democracy, but they scored some fun hits of subversive revelry even in their chains. Drawing on African cultural traditions of the trickster, the slaves in America wove stories of Brother Rabbit who could outwit dumber but more dangerous characters like Brother Wolf. "If white ministers," writes Beckman, "told slaves that they were beasts, soulless and doomed to serve their masters, the storyteller, especially through Brother Rabbit's example, taught them their minds were their best resources and their souls were full of irrepressible joy." The dancing and songs were part of the fun, too, a brand of culture that accepted us and them and celebrated the dichotomy. If you could do the steps, if you could sing the song, if you got the joke, you were part of the community, and if you didn't, the joke was on you. A boisterous nocturnal start in southern slave quarters was to grow directly into slang, styles of humor, music, and dance that are now appreciated worldwide.  




A surprise is the bumptiousness for freedom within the mining camps of California and Nevada. Men left back east the middle class shopkeepers and joined "a makeshift society where cursing, pranks, gambling, song, and the capacity to hold their fiery drink were counterweights to honor and bravery." Since women were scarce, the men were free to cross-dress. Flouting cultural norms was part of the radical civility of the new society, a glue that held things together. Then there was the coast-to-coast rebellion against the Eighteenth Amendment: "In the Jeffersonian spirit of hedonism and rebellion, the wets (or 'Wild Wets,' as they were punningly known) felt no obligation to honor a law that denied their self-defined right to pursue happiness." Bathtub gin and bootlegging became common hobbies, and speakeasies were headquarters of revolt. Even socially conservative William Randolph Hearst reflected, "If the American people had had respect for all laws, good or bad, there would have been no Boston Tea Party." 




Flappers joined in the fun, and developed their own slang, fashion, and hairstyles. Playing with prohibitions like drinking or the enjoyment of flirtations and sexual activity made the flappers ground troops in the New Woman revolution. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took a drug-drenched show on the road and got a chilly reception when they showed up to visit Timothy Leary. There were Yippies who had the time of their lives tweaking the noses of their elders and of the police. Abbie Hoffman put his finger on just what makes "American Fun" different from simply having a good time when he remembered visiting Antioch College and seeing students having naked swim-ins in the school pool, taking drugs, and communing with teachers. "Everything was so beautiful, I was completely bored after three hours. The school lacked the energy that comes from struggle." And sometimes the struggle was not fun; for example, the rebellion at Stonewall was "an act of grim determination; there was nothing lighthearted about it."  




The most recent manifestations of this sort of fun include Improv Everywhere, which delights in causing cheerful chaos in public places. They pull lots of funny, anarchic stunts, but are most famous for the annual No Pants! Subway Ride now held on metro lines all over the world. The best political stunts are performed by the Yes Men. When it became known in 2010 that General Electric paid zero in taxes and had even claimed a $3.2 billion benefit from taxes, the public was outraged, but GE originally said it just didn't legally owe any taxes and was entitled to their boon. They recanted in a press release a few months later, and said they were returning the billions because it was the right thing to do, causing a grateful nation to reflect on their sense of responsibility. It turned out that the press release came from the Yes Men, and was a hoax. GE then had to put out a genuine press release saying they were doing no such thing. There are many funny stories here in a lively look at a jumping and jubilant aspect of American history. Reading the book is no struggle, reading it is no blow for freedom, reading it is not bucking the power brokers; reading it isn't that sort of fun, but it is fun nonetheless, and informative to boot.



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