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Book Review: American Fun by John Beckman

Their unruly behavior included a maypole and revels of singing, dancing and licentiousness: fun, not violence. The pursuit of happiness thus involved happiness itself. From there, the narrative proceeds through the 19th and 20th centuries down to the present. These sometimes threatening, always joyful, outbursts of fun, Beckman concludes, gave enslaved people control over their own bodies and helped them build an alternative and sometimes oppositional community.

American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt

Similar communities grew up in the American West, where gold rush miners, echoing the Merry Mount revelers, sang, danced, gambled and drank themselves silly in defiance of Eastern decorousness and temperance. Nor should it be thought that riotous fun was confined to one gender.

The syncopated, erotic rhythms of jazz, often enjoyed by interracial groups, inspired laughter, dancing and partying, much as Pinkster had done in an earlier era. The anarchic nature of punk pulled outcast kids into their own community, symbolized by the raw, reckless and physically dangerous mosh pit.

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Hip-hop was and is a do-it-yourself culture that empowered dispossessed black youths, followed by alienated white youths, to challenge authority, especially the cops. All it requires is a cavalier attitude toward killjoys, tyrants, limits and timidity. Sometimes, however, he tries too hard to read fun into the midst of struggle.

Just because the Boston Tea Party is called a party, for example, does not mean that it was joyous.

American Fun Quotes

Moreover, he makes his argument without fully considering consequences. Like pasta fazool, which features a bean in every macaroni, a satirical ploy is embedded with a level of irreverent truth. Joyous revolt, after all, is not an oxymoron.

Have fun reading. John Beckman captures a vital, yet neglected, feature of American life—the untrammeled pursuit of happiness—and will have you grinning as you learn.

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