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American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 4, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Fun, argues Beckman, is the secret ingredient in American culture. When the Sons of Liberty dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, their message to the British was earnest, but their true power came from the rude and rowdy joy with which they carried out their actions, for this was what ultimately bound them together. Having fun—raucous, participatory, antiauthoritarian frivolity—was the impetus behind the “ring shout” dances of African Americans in the antebellum South, the practical jokes of California gold-rushers, the “joyous revolt” of the “wets” during Prohibition, and the hippies and yippies of the sixties. And although it wasn’t always intended to be political, Beckman suggests that having fun has been key to Americans’ ability to manage deep conflicts and see past their differences. The “big American joke,” argues Beckman, is that “fun—especially fun in the midst of struggle—is the personal and communal experience of freedom,” and as such has defined America, despite the efforts of various uptight constituencies and the constant threat of P. T. Barnum–style commercialization. This rollicking and patriotic paean to American “rough play” deserves a serious look. --Brendan Driscoll


“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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307908178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307908179
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #237,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Poole on February 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This cultural history of pranks, shenanigans, elevated hijinks and low-down skylarking looks at various forms of monkey business (read: fun) as the root of radical democracy, then turns into a spirited critique of those who try to co-opt fun and turn it into spectacle for financial gain. It's funny, smart, joyous, engaging, important (but never self-important) and serious as hell without being stuffy or stagnant. Great book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
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. There was, however, a competing colony called Merry Mount, begun by the “Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless” Thomas Morton. Merry Mount was populated with freed servants and welcomed Indians, whose culture and whose lusty women his followers appreciated. 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.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Dixon Jr. on January 11, 2015
Format: Paperback
My suspicion about this book is that the author had a great one hundred page discussion: too long for a journal; too short for a book. So, he concocted this "fun" idea and whipped up the first 230 pages so that he could end with a pretty good account of the counter-culture activities of the last fifty years or so. Skip to Chapter 10; that's where the book really begins. The rest seems to be filler with helper-skelter accounts which somehow fit the "fun" category that I never quite understood, although I think he comes close to articulating it best on p. 312: " -- especially fun in the midst of struggle -- is the personal and communal experience of freedom." Well, I guess so.

My personal peeve here is that, amidst all this discussion of iconoclastic "fun," there is scant reference to the Marx Brothers. Clara Bow gets pages of discussion; the Marx Brothers, a bare two brief mentions in the entire book. Come on. Beckman is clearly influenced by Howard Zinn; I don't think he succeeds nearly as well as Zinn did. So, buy the Zinn book, and, if you must, check this one out of the library.
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2 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Roxanne on May 31, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This book is derived from the author's dissertation for his UC Davis PhD (2000). Mostly description, not much analysis. Fun can be physically and politically dangerous; it makes jokes at and causes consternation among the establishment, and eventually gets coopted and commercialized. The author's attitude seems to this reader a tad bit old fashioned in that he draws attention to the sexiness of women and gay men, but not to the social (as distinct from erotic) aspects of their gender and sexuality. He sprinkles the word Eros here and there but doesn't define it convincingly. Too much about headline-grabbing partying in the twenties and sixties, not enough about everyday kids' street fun, which could be pretty dangerous physically and socially in the eyes of parents and kids. Lots of generalizing and glorifying that seemed strange to this reader, who was there for the final four chapters of this book.
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0 of 12 people found the following review helpful By W. Mc. on May 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book as a gift for someone who was recovering from surgery. I thought it would be a light, fun read but it seemed more like a textbook. I didn't like it and returned it.
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