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Originally published Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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‘American Fun’: diligent worker bees vs. party animals

In “American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt,” Annapolis historian John Beckman makes case that America is split by competing cultures — diligent workaholics and “a seditious gang of rowdy party animals,” writes reviewer Hank H. Cox.


The Washington Post

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“American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt”

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 American 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.” He recounts the antics of Western gold and silver prospectors whose outlandish conduct was immortalized by Mark Twain. He sees the Roaring ’20s as a decadelong party in which hedonism undermined Prohibition, an era replicated in the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll motif that began in the ’60s.

Beckman cites African Americans as a leading force for joyful levity. Even when most were held in bondage, they orchestrated riotous multiday celebrations called “Pinkster” events in the North, “Place Congo” in the South. 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 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. But as he acknowledges, many of the exuberant rebels he honors died young from booze or drugs. Everyone likes to have fun, but someone must do the work, and that can be a problem when you’re drunk.



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