By John Beckman Pantheon. 402 pp. $28.95
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.
Beckman’s thrust is that from its earliest days, our society has been riven by competing cultures: the dominant one of diligent worker bees juxtaposed against a seditious gang of rowdy party animals mocking authority. Even as the Puritans were striving to build an austere theocracy in New England, they were defied by a character named Thomas Morton, whose Merry Mount colonists disported themselves in free-spirited revelry.
Beckman says the Boston Tea Party was “pure American fun,” and no doubt it was. He recounts the antics of Western gold and silver prospectors whose outlandish conduct was immortalized by Mark Twain. He sees the Roaring Twenties as a decade-long party in which hedonism undermined Prohibition, an era replicated in the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll motif of the ’60s.
Beckman cites African Americans as a leading force for joyful levity. Even during the antebellum period, when most of them were held in bondage, they orchestrated riotous multi-day celebrations called “Pinkster” events in the North and “Place Congo” in the South. He pays tribute to the raucous music and dances that originated among blacks in New Orleans and Harlem. America’s most original and durable culture, he says, “got its roaring start in the southern slave quarters, among Americans who valued possibly more than anyone the liberty and equality they were denied.”
From P.T. Barnum to Mae West, from Merry Mount to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, from flappers to hippies, from the Sons of Liberty tossing tea into Boston Harbor to the Yippies showering the New York Stock Exchange with cash, Beckman extols anti-establishment fun people. He clearly sympathizes with free-spirited hell-raisers, and without question they have contributed to this nation’s diversity and character. But as he acknowledges, many of the exuberant rebels he honors died young because of booze or drugs, and their legacy was arguably ephemeral. Everyone likes to have fun, but at the end of the day someone must do the work, and that can be a problem when you’re drunk.