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It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. From the Boston Tea Party to rock ‘n roll, Americans have always taken their fun seriously. But the joyous rebellion that marks so many turning points in American history is more than mere amusement. It’s been the crucial ingredient in revolution, resistance, and generational shifts. We cut loose, American style, with author John Beckman.
- John Beckman Professor of English, U.S. Naval Academy; author, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Our Declaration of Independence says it all, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From the Boston Tea Party to hip-hop. Our nation has always embraced rebellion and revelry, pulling pranks, breaking rules and up-ending hierarchies. There's an irrepressible notion of fun at the heart of the American spirit. So how has a nation of freed-loving rebels managed to mostly keep the peace and stay united?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA new book says our shared sense of fun may be one of the ways we've managed to survive generational, class and racial divides. Joining us to talk about this is John Beckman. He is an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of the book, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." John Beckman joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN BECKMANThank you for having me, Kojo. It's a delight to be here
NNAMDIYou, too, can -- delighted to have you here. You, too, can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What role do you think rebelliousness and revelry have played in American history? 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. John Beckman, you say fun is a national value, right up there along with self-reliance and democracy. Can you explain?
BECKMANWell, it seems like quite a claim. But I think, certainly following my years of research into the subject, I can stand behind it. It's -- in even the worst of moments in American history -- when Americans were fighting for their freedom against the British or when Americans were enslaved in the South, in the Wild West, when people were just struggling to survive among people who were different from them -- fun, and by that I mean this boisterous almost pugnacious, joyful activity, was something that brought people together and kept them from getting violent.
NNAMDIMost of us are familiar with our countries Puritan beginnings, which makes the story of one Thomas Morton all the more remarkable. Tell us about Merrymount.
BECKMANWell, it's true. Most Americans -- and this may be on the citizenship test -- have to know about William Bradford and Plymouth Plantation. Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620, when the Pilgrims, the separatists and proto-Puritans came over on the Mayflower. And they constructed this spikey fortress to wall-out the wilderness and to wall-out Native Americans and all of these things that they felt were threats to their religious community. And regardless of what you may think of the Pilgrims, you can't really deny that they were an authoritarian community and that they were opposed to many forms of bodily pleasure.
BECKMANAnd they were opposed to a kind of personal and cultural difference. Well, about two years later, this other Englishman named Thomas Morton came over on summer vacation. He was this pettifogger lawyer who had been trained at the Inns of Court in London, which means he had had not only a legal training but a training in revelry and in Ben Johnson-style satire. And rather unlike the separatist Pilgrims, who really didn't like what they saw in the New World, who were intimidated by the natives and the wilderness, he loved it. And he rolled around in it.
BECKMANAnd he came back a couple of years later to found his own colony, which he founded by rather untoward means. He convinced nine bound servants to throw off their chains and to disobey their master and join him in this kind of radically democratic community that was devoted, yes, to fun. And they drank and they danced and they consorted with the Native Americans in all sorts of platonic and not-so-platonic ways. And ultimately their community culminated in this -- well, first of all, very economically successful community, which rankled the Pilgrims, because one thing they wanted to be was economically successful.
BECKMANBut also it was just this attractive place called Merrymount that a lot of the young people of the colonies kind of wanted to join up with. And it all came to a head in 1627, around May Day, when they constructed this maypole and they were dancing around it and drinking beer and singing these bawdy songs that were, you know, lobbed direct shots at the Pilgrims and in quite witty ways. And the Pilgrims sent their militia, headed off by Miles Standish, up to Merrymount, chopped down the maypole and put Thomas Morton in chains and sent him packing back to England and assert, you know, the authority of kind of stolidness in the colonies.
NNAMDISent him out of the country back to England.
BECKMANSent him packing.
BECKMANMerrymount sounds like a 17th century hippie movement. But the Puritans are the precursors to what we refer to today as the establishment.
BECKMANIt's a -- that's a pretty fair analogy, that I think that that -- that very conflict plays itself out -- and this is a story I'd rather tell in "American Fun" is over the centuries. And it plays out pretty clearly between the counterculture and the establishment in the sixties. But it plays itself out in the twenties, in the 1920s and 1820s in all sorts of very vivid ways.
NNAMDIIt seems that the battle between societies rules and those resisting those rules is at the heart of our national identity all the way back to the Mayflower.
BECKMANIt's at the heart of our national identity for many people. I think many people identify with that sort of resistance. Because we don't have a monolithic culture. We have plenty of rule-bound Americans. I think many Americans, almost all are rule-bound in their national identification. But a lot of people -- I think a lot of Americans resist their very puritanical nature and they enjoy breaking rules at the same time. So it's this dance between legalism and scofflaw behavior that kind of defines the American.
NNAMDIHence, Madonna. John Beckman is an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He's the author of the book, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." He joins us in studio. If you have questions or comments, give us a call, 800-433-8850. What era in American history do you think embodied the spirit of fun? The twenties? The sixties? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. You say that in the early days of our republic, it wasn't musket balls, not cannonballs, but rather pranks, mockery, satire and snowballs that set the tone. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BECKMANI can. They -- I'm referring to this tradition of rebellion that began with a more violent rebellion in 1747, the Knowles Riots. It was against British impressments of officers in England, but became more refined over the early revolutionary period, especially by the work of the Sons of Liberty and the Loyal Nine and these groups of largely merchants, but also guided by the likes of James Neal Otis and Samuel Adams, these very, you know, populous politicians of the era, to use the sort of playful, rebellious culture of the people -- whether it's arising out of Guy Fawkes parades or out of just drinking in taverns, and this general sense of joie de vivre to resist the British as one person.
BECKMANSo the patriotic spirit, whether it was in resistance to the Stamp Act or certainly this is in resistance to the Tea Act, took the form of fun. And there was a lot of playful revelry that was showing the British just who these patriots were.
NNAMDIColonial America was a top-down society. But what went on outside the upper levels became the seeds of the revolution to come. Tell us about John Adams' visit to a dockside tavern.
BECKMANYeah, I believe this was in 1763 or so. He was 25 years old. He writes, you know, beautifully of it in his diary, as he wrote beautifully of most things in this era. But he, himself, was kind of a wallflower. And he was opposed to taverns. And a couple of months earlier he had written that he thought that the taverns were dangerously becoming the nurseries of our legislature. And he, himself a Puritan and of strong Puritan stock, thought that taverns should be put in their place. But he walks into this tavern just to smoke a pipe. You know, he's got an afternoon to kill. And he encounters what he calls riot and revelry.
BECKMANAnd all of the rooms are just packed with people drinking and smoking and dancing. And in one downstairs room in particular, he encounters this rake named Zab Hayward who is commanding the whole room with his antics and his jokes, and he's flirting with four or five women at the dance floor at once and drawing them out and cracking these great jokes. And it's clear that, for all of his resistance, John Adams -- who over the course of this era will be resisting a lot of the crowd actions that this rather resembles -- for all of his resistance, is also kind of drawn to it. You know, you can see that he sees the delight and the value in this.
BECKMANThe humor with which he writes about it makes that clear.
NNAMDIHe was drawn to it, but not as much as his cousin, Samuel Adams.
BECKMANNo. Not as much as his cousin, Samuel Adams, who himself was also a Puritan and who wrote -- he even called himself a Puritan in much of his writings. But he was somebody who appreciated the street party, especially for its political potential. And not for ways that would confer power on to him as a politician, but the ways it would empower the people. Because that's the sort of kind of political thinker he was. And so we can look to him for maybe some of the best articulations and the most persuasive screeds for why people should party in the streets for the good of their country.
NNAMDIOur guest is John Beckman. He's an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He's author of the book, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." Don your headphones, please, John, because we're about to go to the phones...
NNAMDI...where Nelson in Silver Spring, Md., awaits us. Nelson, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NELSONOh, thank you. I just wanted to underscore some of the things that have been said by pointing out that during -- as a precursor to the American Revolution, the Son's of Liberty, which your guest mentioned, dressed up as Indians...
NELSON...and threw tea into the Boston harbor. And what's fascinating about that is something that's interesting about America and its mobility, in that Indians represented the American id. And the Colonists, of course, lived in the -- or presumed to live -- presume they lived in the American ego and super-ego. That I find fascinating. This whole notion of masking, which points to mobility in a society. In fact, the American con man might be the -- America's great contribution to literature, in, if you look at, of course, "Huckleberry Finn."
NELSONYou didn't have characters like that -- people who, the duke and the prince, who could move up and down and make all kinds of pretenses and make a life out of it. They couldn't do that in England. Fagin -- and if you look at Dickens, the character Fagin in "Oliver Twist." He, of course, recruited a bunch of thieves. But he was not -- they were not (word?) . That's simply it.
NNAMDIThumbing their nose at authority, John Beckman?
BECKMANYes, definitely. Well, the examples you give of Native American masquerade in this revolutionary period I think is spot-on. And Philip J. Deloria writes wonderfully of this in his book "Playing Indian." I think that Native Americans were in many ways co-opted in this whole culture as kind of a permission to, you know, if you dressed as a Native American, then you could behave in all of these libidinal ways by, you know, rebelling against the British while still in, you know, in light of day being a good Puritan colonist.
BECKMANAnd that's a sort of masquerade and liberty of masquerade that plays out indefinitely all throughout the 19th century in blackface minstrel. So, yeah, it takes on the same sort of liberating cast. But, yeah.
NNAMDIOn to Chris in Washington D.C. Chris, your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISThank you. I'm enjoying the show. Your story of this -- was it Warden? The early troublemaker?
CHRISMorton, Morton. Okay. It made me think of a book I read many years ago called, "Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture." And it limbs from very early on the idea that many, many Americans wanted to break out of this whole puritan thing. And they wandered off to join the Indians and they created alternative communities. And so I just wondered if your guest was familiar with this wonderful book.
BECKMANI'm -- you've caught me. I don't think I've read this. I must though. It sounds absolutely spot on. Maybe I wouldn't have had to write this book if I'd read that book. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Chris. Fun and rebellion have also served to break down some class, some racial boundaries all the way back to the waterfront taverns that you mentioned earlier. Talk about that.
BECKMANWell, yeah, the waterfront taverns were the -- in New England were -- and, well, certainly all down the coast but I think the boundaries between class were much more rigid as we know in New England. And in the 1760s and '70s in particular people were found, you know, they were more socially accepted in taverns, you know, making connections between classes and even between races than they would be on the streets.
BECKMANAnd so back to Samuel Adams, that's one reason why he was so effective is that he himself as a politician would be able to go into the taverns and speak to people from various classes and help them talk to each other...
NNAMDIDock workers and bare-shouldered women dancing to the jigs of African American fiddlers. These were the beginnings of the American Revolution.
BECKMANI think they were. I think the more comfortable you become with people who the society tells you to fear or to resist, the better you know them personally, the healthier the society that comes from your revolution will be.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with John Beckman about his book "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." Feel free to call us, 800-433-8850. Do you think Americans are particularly inclined to break rules, pull pranks and question authority, 800-433-8850? Send us an email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Beckman. He's an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He's the author of the book "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt" which is what we're discussing right now and inviting you to join this discussion by calling 800-433-8850. John Beckman, fun of course is not always political, but at key moments in our history some people have harnessed the power of fun towards that end. And you found joyous rebellion in every era of history. However, you point out that no matter how high the stakes and no matter how tough the circumstances, we've basically managed to keep things mostly civil. How is that?
BECKMANWell, I think we can thank fun for that in many ways in that when you're really having fun and now just kind of having thrills at other people's expense but if you're, you know, having this more than merrier sort of fun, this sort of self regulating kind of principle comes. And you want the fun to keep going. You want the other people to have fun. And in most of these eras, whether it's in African American slave culture in the, you know, 17th, 18th and 19th century or it's in, you know, the wild west, you have these really kind of dangerous intense environments where people really want to get along.
BECKMANSo if they're dancing or they're cracking jokes or they're pulling pranks on each other, they're testing each other's, you know, limits of violence, and also inviting them to enjoy their differences in more, you know, playful ways. So I think it's just kind of the nature of fun that people really want to get along. They can't ignore their differences. They can't ignore the tensions but they kind of want to play with them a little bit. And that, I think, generates strong community in the process.
NNAMDII'm curious. You're an English professor and you're a novelist. What sparked this book for you?
BECKMANWell, I guess what sparked the book was that I was raised in a remote part of the country and went to Catholic school and lived, you know, under rather authoritarian regime in...
NNAMDIWhere were you raised?
BECKMANIn Dubuque, Iowa. And my friends and have had really kind of risky rebellious fun to entertain ourselves. And it was kind of where our identities were formed at an early age. And so when I became, you know, a scholar in later life, I hadn't quite gotten over the sense of fun and my appreciation for it. And I, first of all, went looking for it in the literature of the 1920s. And that's where the germ of this idea appeared. So that's proper English professor material, right.
BECKMANBut the -- when I went looking for the origins of this, you know, in early America and then how it stretches up to the present and I see it everywhere, and not just in the literature but in the -- in people's, you know, cultural behavior and in people's, you know, conflicts with each other. I thought cultural history is really the way to skin this cat. So when I finally saw the shark in the mouth, I knew I was going to need a bigger boat.
NNAMDITell us about the word itself, fun. Where does it come from and how has its meaning evolved?
BECKMANWell, in its earliest kind of Elizabethan sense is it tends to refer to mockery and to making fun of people. In the 18th century however, this new -- this kind of sense of the word enters the dictionary. It's like Samuel Johnson's dictionary of high merriment and delight. And I think that the tension between these two forms is like mockery but general sort of playful activity come together in a lot of the episodes in this book.
BECKMANWe tend not to and, you know, when we hear the word fun initially think of this as it turns out. Usually when people hear the word fun they think of recreation. They think of amusement. They think of entertainment. And there's a very good historical reason for this but the -- and that is basically the gilded age and P.T. Barnum and, you know, the popularization of these sorts of commercialized fun.
NNAMDIThe amusement industry has always been quick enough to step in even early on. Talk about -- or continue to talk about P.T. Barnum and the beginnings of mass entertainment.
BECKMANYeah, well, he was really brilliant in taking this really kind of raw, risky, dangerous, active fun of the people and turning it into a commodity. And he himself, as he writes in his autobiography or his couple autobiographies was raised in kind of a prank happy culture. But this real familiarity with pranks was something that he turned into big business.
BECKMANAnd so an early example of this would be when he legendarily encountered the greatest dancer of the Jackson age, William Henry Lane dancing in a Five Points bar. And because he was African American he couldn't put him on stage so he put him in black face and made him a black face dancer. And this is just a pure example of P.T. Barnum's humbug but he's also taking ownership of this already, you know, accident form of the people's fun and turning it into something that he can sell.
BECKMANAnd by the post (word?) period when his Big Top hit the road, everyone was following his example of how can you make money off of people's fun and then also get people to line up and sit in seats and watch it as opposed to having it themselves.
NNAMDIThat, for me, is a fascinating distinction because we seem to confuse today fun with that kind of entertainment. We say amusement parks are fun, we say going to Disney World is fun. For you what's the difference?
BECKMANWell, the confusion, first of all, is very important. They want us to be confused. The real confusion, I think, began in the late 19th century when George C. Tilyou, who was another brilliant person raised in Coney Island, very familiar with how people have fun on the beach, developed -- invented all of the great machines of Steeplechase Park. Which thrilled people, you know, with centrifugal force and, you know, had them spinning on these wild parachute rides and things that really made them feel personally in danger and, you know, gave them that sense of a risk, when in fact they weren't in danger at all.
NNAMDIThey were in a controlled situation.
BECKMANYeah, they were in a controlled situation. And they were paying for it. And even though they were inches away from the greatest playground on earth, the beach, you know, they were there in these machines that made them feel as if they're having this sort of genuine fun. And that confusion is something that I think the entertainment industry has just gotten better and better at such that...
NNAMDINot just the entertainment industry but allow me to have Pete in Washington, D.C. talk about another industry.
NNAMDIPete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETEHi. Thank you for taking my call. I am from Trinidad and Tobago and one of the biggest culture shocks that you have is football -- American football. It seems to me that it's America's favorite pastime but few people actually play the game. They live vicariously through the players, you know. And it's kind of remarkable, like, why do you like this game if you never get to play it?
BECKMANI think that's an excellent example. And it is a nice distinction with what the rest of the world calls football, soccer, where, you know, the rest of the world also plays in soccer.
NNAMDIEverybody likes to play.
BECKMANYeah, but it's a great spectator sport here. And that also can be blamed, I think, on the great inventions of the gilded age. That's when sports became really systematized. And that's when spectator sports were on the rise. And so we pack into stadiums to watch football as opposed to playing pick-up games in our local parks or in our fields. It is kind of an irony of American football.
NNAMDIPete, thank you very much for your call. We now play fantasy football.
BECKMANFantasy football, even that much -- well, that's at least a little more participatory than just watching on television, but it's a fine distinction.
NNAMDIIn fact, any time someone invents a new form of fun, someone somewhere is ready to market it. What do we lose when fun becomes a kind of vicarious entertainment like Pete was just describing?
BECKMANI think we lose a lot. We lose almost everything. We lose a sense of risk. We lose a sense of personal investment. There's no creativity involved anymore. You're receiving someone else's product, whether you're playing a video game or you're watching television or you're riding the latest rollercoaster. You have no roll in this at all except for to pay for the ticket.
BECKMANNow a video game, that's where it gets a little bit more confusing because it's highly participatory, and I think that a lot of the high-tech fun that we have today through our devices or televisions really makes us feel as though we're in charge. But once again, it's extraordinarily passive. You're sitting on the sofa with a little plastic console in your hand with a limited movement and limited investment.
NNAMDIOn to Paula in Washington, D.C. Paula, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULAHi. Thank you so much for the opportunity to say hello to you and your guest again.
PAULAYou're on the point that I'm most concerned about, I think. I'm realizing more and more that our schools are no longer building playgrounds. We're not focusing on kids being kids and giving them a chance to be exposed to art, music, everything that creates imagination and creativity. Without those two things we are not going to be a future country that has any real strength of individual processing. Because we aren't giving them that real experience of creative challenge.
PAULAI have students sometimes that say they've been bored or they're bored. My mother would've never allowed me to say I was bored. She always said I had to learn to entertain myself. And I'm so grateful for it. I taught creative drama for children for years. It's one of the best gifts you can give our future as a democracy. And I am -- I can't wait to read your book, and I wish you well...
PAULA...and can't wait to hear what you have to say. Thank you.
NNAMDIJust go outside and play, words that seem to be disappearing from the lexicon. You recently had an op-ed in the New York Times where you talked about kids and risk-taking. What was your point?
BECKMANNow, my point was very similar to the caller's point, maybe the same point except, well, the headline, which surprised me, but delighted me was that all children should be delinquents. And I'm not sure that I would go quite that far. But my point was that children should be allowed to enjoy themselves on their own terms without all of this grownup mediation.
BECKMANAnd I think one of the reasons the caller's students say that they're bored or, you know, our children say, we're bored all the time, which is, you know, a natural inclination for a child to feel bored, is that they're used to being so over stimulated by these little devices that are out of their control that they've forgotten how to stimulate themselves, their own minds. And that's actually hard work when I think back on all the time that I spent outside, which I wrote about in this op-ed. You know, for better, for worse, and some of it was kind of delinquent activity, very delinquent activities, some that was quite dangerous.
BECKMANBut it also required a lot of investment on my part. You know, my friends and I would be out of doors throwing our bodies into these situations for hours on end using our imaginations to make them that much more interesting, riskier. And if you're not building those muscles of imagination of just like play creation, I think you can very easily get bored. You have to be on that job. But once you've done that job, I think you're much better off for life. I think those are resources that you can continually tap into.
NNAMDIWell, when I was a teenager, my parents allowed my friends and I to jump on our bicycles and ride 30 miles, 40 miles away from town and camp for an entire week...
NNAMDI...just a group of boys by themselves. But you're a parent yourself today.
BECKMANI am, right.
NNAMDIHow does it feel when we are -- today consider what are known as helicopter parents? We're very protective of our children. We want them to wear helmet all the time.
NNAMDIWe don't want them to take unnecessary risks. How do you balance that with the concept of having fun the way you and apparently I grew up?
BECKMANWell, that's the rub right there. That's a terribly difficult question. I'm also very much a person of my times. I'm a helicopter parent to the extent that I've got a two-year-old. And I want to keep her from all physical harm. But I also want her to know the limits of what's risky. If I just protect her and I don't let her learn how to protect herself she's not going to benefit from that.
BECKMANAnd so I think it's a real balancing act. We're up against so many -- like any parents would be put in jail for letting their kids go off on a bike ride, you know, an adventure for a week these days in America. It's just that that that's all over the news, right, parents who even let their kids play in a park for an afternoon are put in jail, which is just absolutely tragic. But even given those sorts of stringent conditions, we have to be able to be able to work within them to give our kids the freedom to figure out their own fun. And I think the first way is to take away the devices. The kids will feel the pain and we will feel the pain but I think that the devices are the first thing getting in the way.
NNAMDIOn to Laurel in Washington , D.C. Laurel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURELHi. Good afternoon. One area that I would like to respectfully disagree with you guys on is the way that devices that allow social media, such as for example Instragram, to really allow folks to be included in other cultures and other's lives in ways that they wouldn't be able to, I think can be very enriching spiritually and emotionally. I see on Instagram tons of young people from places like the Gaza Strip or in Asia connecting with kids in the United States and Canada who will never have the opportunity for that cross cultural exchange in their experiences through their photos and what they do just by seeing them.
LAURELAnd I also think that you see this coming up as people age maybe have lack of mobility, really being able to connect with old friends and see their photos and families and events through things like Pinterest and Facebook. And I think that that has merit in this discussion as well.
NNAMDIA digital version of pen pals when I was growing up.
BECKMANYeah, it's just the evolution of that, pen pals 2.0. Oh, I absolutely agree with you. And no sooner was that phrase take away the devices out of my mouth and I realized how puritanical that sounded. Because, of course, I'm on Facebook and I see the -- I'm not on Instagram yet because I guess maybe I'm too old for that. I'm just -- I should be possibly because of all of the reasons you say. I think that we have all of these opportunities for connecting with people across cultures, across, you know, nations. But I think there possibly should be moderation in how we use this technology.
BECKMANAnd if we can use Instagram as an avenue towards actually making human contact, like face-to-face contact with people, all the better. Because I know that it's good for that as well.
NNAMDILaurel, thank you very much for your call. Here is Don in Bethesda, Md. Don, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DONI'm wondering if you've heard of any of the work on the neuroscience of play or play that's defined as purposeless activity where researchers have shown that especially with children, if they do not have enough time to and exercise their instincts to play, that it can lead to violent behavior when they're adults. And the research also documents this in animals. We've all seen dogs playing with each other. And one talk I heard, the presenter actually showed a wild polar bear playing with a sled dog, which he could just as well have eaten.
BECKMANYeah, this research is getting a lot of play…
BECKMANPurposeless activity. But I think that's an especially rich phrase and fortuitous one because so much of fun is being -- has always been dismissed as being frivolous, as being purposeless. And the irony of this term is that it has such great purpose. It has the utility…
NNAMDIPurposelessness is a purpose.
BECKMANAbsolutely. That's -- I think Kant said that in a different way. But it's this purpose that just gets undervalued. Absolutely. Let people do -- kind of go off the grid for a while and see what they discover. It would serve them well.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we get back we'll continue our conversation with John Beckman about his book, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." You can call us at 800-433-8850. When we come back we'll be talking about the jazz-age era of flappers and speakeasers -- speakeasies. What do you know about that, 800-433-8850? Send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Beckman. He's an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." And speaking of being an English professor at the Naval Academy, we got this email from Dave, in Reston, Va., who says -- I've got to find it.
NNAMDIBut it does have to do with how do you teach fun at the Naval Academy? "How does it work? How does it work out, teaching fun at the U.S. Naval Academy?"
BECKMANThat's a great question. Years ago, I did have a seminar for seniors on "American fun." And we ended up having great fun that semester. But I don't just teach fun. I teach, you know, critical theory and all kinds of…
NNAMDIFun in rebellious cultures, what Dave says.
BECKMANBut those always find their way in, but I think the -- maybe what's implied behind this question is, well, in this uptight environment of the Naval Academy, how could you possibly convey the idea of fun?
NNAMDIThis is a place where people are taught to respect authority.
BECKMANAnd they are, absolutely, thoroughly. But just for that reason, you know, the whole history of "American fun," you know, owes to authoritarian cultures. And the Naval Academy is, you know, the authoritarian culture par excellence. And so the students there are actually very studied in having fun on their own.
BECKMANThey're really great at resisting and pulling pranks and stunts and they're, I think, just in general, wonderfully satirical. So they don't really need my help in teaching them fun. But when we start talking about fun they have a lot to contribute and they teach me quite a lot.
BECKMANGetting back to the book, the 1920s, the jazz era of flappers and speakeasies was, perhaps, our country's most joyous decade. What was, for you, the essence of that period?
BECKMANEssence is tough because it was just such a wild and multifarious period. But I think if I were to boil it down to an essence, it would be kind of the late, new woman movement, in the -- certainly in the most vivid form of flappers and what was then called -- especially after the Alain Locke anthology, the new negro movement or the Harlem renaissance because in both of these groups, among women -- especially young women -- and among African Americans, both of whom were emerging politically during this period.
BECKMANFun was really how they -- having fun, and really rebellious fun, was how they kind of fought on the front lines of gaining cultural access and gaining sort of political authority. So I think it -- if we look at this as an era of joyous revolt, those are the real avant-garde.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, there's the flapper, who…
NNAMDI…embodies the spirit we've been talking about.
NNAMDII also love the flappers' dictionary.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about that.
BECKMANWell, this was just this wonderful thing that appeared in Flapper Magazine, in July 1922, which in many ways was kind of the year of the flapper. That was the year that Zelda Fitzgerald wrote the Requiem for the Flapper, I think she called it, because she was so jaundiced about the whole history of this thing that she claims to have created herself. But it was also -- and I think this was Zelda's problem, the year when it just kind of went viral, as we say these days. It was -- it became this mainstream phenomenon.
BECKMANAnd in Flapper Magazine they just gave us this glossary of 163 terms, which, as they say, were for the girl with the jitney body, who also had a limousine mind. And I'll just read a little passage from the book here that…
BECKMAN…that is -- mostly uses these terms. So there are a million quotation marks in this paragraph here. But -- so most of these terms are actually the flappers' terms. "The glossary gives a peak in to the flapper's high standards. She liked smoke eaters, girl smokers, and floor flushers, dance hounds, and most certainly weeds, flappers who take risks. These are all ducky, the cat's particulars."
BECKMAN"But she snubbed bush hounds, rustics and others outside the flapper pail, warned against killjoys, werps, canceled stamps, crepe-hangers, Lens Louises. And called out the worst kinds of men by name, gimlets, weasels, oilcans, slimps, monologists, Banali-hoppers, Airedales, pillowcases, mustard plasters, dew droppers, walk-ins, corn shredders, rug hoppers, bell polishers and those cellar smellers with noses for the cheapest booze."
BECKMANAnd I'll skip ahead here a little bit because they go on and on and on. "Her wit, in general, ran deep. Dogs were her feet and dog kennels, shoes. Meringue was her idea of personality. But beneath all the smoke and meringue and makeup, was a steely eye for realism. Male gold-diggers were 49ers, bootleggers were embalmers, and undertakers were sod busters. Munitions were the flappers' face powder and rouge."
NNAMDIYou say that from the beginning, freedom was more than an idea. It was something to be practiced. Can you explain?
BECKMANRight. Certainly. We're very familiar with the ideas of freedom in American history. They kind of are a (word?) associated with even the Mayflower Compact. But definitely they're expressed in the most compelling way in the Declaration of Independence and they're laid out and codified in the Constitution. But real democracy has always taken place on the streets. And it's, you know, not here in Washington and, you know, the halls of legislation or in the White House -- that's where maybe ideas of freedom are exercised.
BECKMANBut people have to find freedom on their own. And so whether it is African Americans on Congo Square on Sundays in the 1820s, you know, dancing their feet off all day long before they have to go home and work, or it is the patriots, you know, storming the Dartmouth for all of its tea, you have people actually throwing their bodies into the activity of freedom. And, you know, like setting themselves free. Because no government's actually going to set you free.
NNAMDIYou spend some time exploring the ways that slaves resisted the brutality of their circumstances and their lack of freedom. Can you talk a little bit about some of the means by which do that?
BECKMANWell, I think the most organized and maybe oppressing ways this was done in the late 17th and early 18th century was through Election Day and Pinkster Day festivals, in which you'd have thousands of people gathering -- sometimes thousands, like in Albany, N.Y, in 1803, on Pinkster Hill. Thousands of people following -- in that case -- this wonderful man, King Charlie he was known, or King Charles, who would lead a dance party of the most outrageous proportions for a week out in public, and draw people of all races and classes to join the party.
BECKMANSo that's, I think, kind of an extraordinary example. But certainly throughout the Briar Rabbit stories there's a strong thematization of fun and transgression. And this actually became a curriculum within slave culture for how you can resist the master and assert your own humanity and your own identity through dances, through jokes, through games like the Dozens and all sorts of contests.
BECKMANIt was a really complex and, as I say, it was kind of a technology of fun that pervaded slave culture and gave them this practice of freedom we were talking about earlier, in spite of the fact that they were absolutely disenfranchised and had no political purchase.
NNAMDIBut I do remember reading -- and you do touch on Frederick Douglass writing about Christmas when the slave masters would allow the slaves to have a lot more alcohol and to engage in a lot of drinking and partying because he saw it as a relief valve for the slaves, without which that they would have rise up in an appalling earthquake, as what he calls it. Yeah.
BECKMANYes. Right. Well, and it was kind of the controversy, as I point out, of the moment.
BECKMANBecause as Frederick Douglass -- who, of course, was one of our great American thinkers. He was also in a kind of Puritan vein. And he was -- when he was writing his narrative he was still working -- he was working within the reform movement, which was in leagues with the temperance movement. And that was his personal belief that the slaves classed off between the ones who partied -- and played into what he felt was the masters' hands -- and those who were more industrious. However, Solomon Northup, who now has become popular because his…
NNAMDI"Twelve Years a Slave."
BECKMAN…his "Twelve Years a Slave," has won an -- many Oscars and become a bestseller. He writes a very different opinion about the slave Christmas celebrations. And said that these were the moments when the slaves were able to best express their humanity. And best able to be themselves. And he himself was a musician and you can imagine that he participated fully in these activities. So I guess the jury's still out.
NNAMDIOn to Daniel, in Great Falls, Va. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELGreat show, Kojo. Thanks. And I think Dave in Reston had a good point. It must be hard to teach fun in the Navy.
BECKMANEasier than you think.
DANIELWhat I called about was, you know, earlier you were talking about how…
DANIEL…spectator sport like football may not be considered as fun as going out and kicking a soccer ball. But…
BECKMANA radical statement. I'm going (unintelligible) dangerous, I'm sure.
DANIELI'm just wondering at what point, you know, where you see now like a super-fan culture where people spend hours blogging and, you know, have almost social network around, you know, these kind of sports and sport culture, if that becomes that or if that's just farther and farther away from it.
BECKMANI would never want to devalue the high-grade fun of tailgating and of masquerade and of just all of the great fun that comes with fan culture. It's -- fans are not purely passive. They…
NNAMDIYeah, I go to the Navy football games. I can tell you about tailgating.
BECKMANThere you go. For instance -- yeah.
NNAMDISome feared real revolution during the 1960s. And many periods you talk about in the book were periods of upheaval. But you say the joyous rebellion that you write about is more likely to strengthen democracy then to endanger it. What do you mean by that?
BECKMANWell, if I -- first of all, it's attractive. And a lot of people get involved in it. For instance, the yippies, who were one of these great threats or one of these supposed threats of the '60s were just a bunch of wonderfully intelligent clowns. And they wanted -- they didn't want to incite riots. They wanted people to get out and have fun. And they wanted them to get to know each other and participate in this larger resistance to ideas that they just thought were bad and limiting freedom. So I think that during that period -- I was just an infant, but I think you were talking in the break -- it sounds like it was a very generative period.
NNAMDIA heady period for me in the 1960s.
BECKMANHeady, heady period. I -- participating without -- participating in rebellion without necessarily causing the violence, builds really strong social bonds and gives, you know, kind of can set a nation on its course, can set a person on his or her course.
NNAMDIIt certainly set me on my course. But I'm afraid we're out of time. There's so much more in the book, including the birth of Hip Hop, which came as a result of upheaval. John Beckman, he's an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. The book is called, "American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt." John Beckman, thank you so much for joining us.
BECKMANThank you, Kojo. I had great fun.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening -- see we have real fun here because we're doing something. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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