You’ve heard the story of the Englishman who sailed to North America in the 1620s in search of a new way of life. He looked back on the fraught religious environment of England and swore that on this continent life would be different. He envisioned a civilization based on equality, freedom, and above all, “a barrel of excellent beare [beer].” This man was, of course, Thomas Morton.
In what is now Quincy, Morton founded Merry Mount, “[h]is experiment in insanely energized democracy” that offered if only for a few years (1627-1630) a different vision of the way American culture might have developed — had William Bradford, governor of the Mayflower Colony, and his fellow Pilgrim killjoys never shown up.
John Beckman’s new book, “American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt,’’ is an attempt to drag yahoos like Morton back into the mainstream of American history because, as Beckman writes, “American democracy hasn’t been fortified by passive citizens . . . but by active, resistive, DIY citizens.” Citizens, he suggests, like Morton, who was “[c]heerful, curious, horny, and lawless . . . a radical democrat and reckless hedonist.”
Beckman, an English professor at the US Naval Academy, pits Bradford against his bête-noir Morton, thus establishing a key conflict in the nascent American psyche: The Man vs. He Who Sticks It to The Man. Bradford battled the native Wampanoag; Morton befriended them. Bradford outlawed “gameing [sic] and reveling in the streets”; Morton encouraged it. Most significantly, Morton released his English bondsmen from their labor contracts and treated them and the local Native Americans as equal partners in building a new society.
As a result, Merry Mount prospered, celebrating its success with drinking, parties, and a raucous May Day celebration. But this “harmless mirth” brought the wrath of their stern Calvinist neighbors, who in 1628 attacked with an armed militia and forced the settlement to disband. When John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans showed up two years later to build their “city on a hill,” one of their first acts was burning what was left of Merry Mount to the ground.
From our post-“Animal House’’ vantage point we readers already know that Merry Mount was merely the start of the American party. “American Fun’’ takes the reader from the Colonial period (the Boston Tea Party) through the antebellum South (slave gatherings in New Orleans’s Congo Square) through westward expansion (Mark Twain’s reports from the Gold Rush boomtowns and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show) to 1920s flappers, Woodstock, and finally the punk scene of 1980s California.
Beckman states right away that he’s not interested in mere “entertainment” nor simple “amusement” but “outrageous, even life-threatening fun.” He isolates “three tributaries” of American fun: “the commercial, playful, and radically political . . . [that] pour nutrients, pollutants, and sheer life-force in to the great American gulf.” The pursuit of happiness is, after all, every American citizen’s unalienable right.
Beckman wants to show how fun has functioned as an engine of democracy, a unifying force for ‘the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic.’
Analyzing fun, however, is no joke: the better one does it, the more one risks sounding like a hungover college roommate describing last night’s epic pub crawl. While Beckman, whose previous book was the novel “The Winter Zoo’’ (2002), writes with wit and energy and mostly rises to the challenge he’s set for himself, it can be a bit of a buzzkill to hear a joke explained.
Beckman wants to show how fun has functioned as an engine of democracy, a unifying force for “the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic.” His admiration for the “unsung America of rebels, merrymakers, outlaws, and freaks” is obvious.
Yet apart from Morton’s quashed experiment, did fun really bring Americans together? Raucous merrymaking helped solidify distinct group identities, but it rarely seemed to unify Americans across racial, gender, or class boundaries.
From the muddled racial politics of the original 1773 Boston Tea Party, which featured white men dressed like Indians (but no actual Indians), or Pinkster, the 19th century celebrations, which allowed African-Americans to celebrate their culture apart from whites, most of the fun times featured here are members-only events. The rough “fun” of the California Gold Rush era was, as Beckman points out, a racially- and gender- segregated phenomenon, not to mention a genocidal tragedy for the Native Californians. And on it goes, from Los Angeles’s anti-Latino Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 to the nearly all-white hippies and Yippies of the 1960s. Did Americans have fun? Sure. Did that fun allow “the people to form close bonds in spite of prejudices, rivalries, and laws”? Maybe not.
And what’s so American about “American fun,” anyway? Beckman argues that there is a “striking pattern” here: “A group of rebels . . . takes joy in resisting a stern ruling class and entices the people to follow its lead . . . It’s the fun of breaking the master’s laws.” OK, but isn’t that what fun is everywhere? Visions of ecstatic Brazilian samba lines danced in my mind as I pondered this new frontier of American exceptionalism.
Where Americans have really excelled is in the art of making fun pay. P.T. Barnum was famous not only for his circus acts but for his inspirational books, the last of which was titled, “The Art of Money-Getting” (1880). George C. Tilyou, creator of Coney Island’s modern amusement park, learned Barnum’s lessons well. “We Americans want either to be thrilled or amused . . . and we are ready to pay for either sensation,” Tilyou explained. “Laughter,” he boasted, “made me a million dollars.” Not everyone was laughing. When Maxim Gorky visited Coney Island in 1906 it didn’t seem fun at all. “What a sad people you must be!” Gorky reportedly said. Let’s blame it on William Bradford.