“American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt,” by John Beckman (Pantheon, 432 pages, in stores)
To many of today’s adolescents, it probably seems as if fun only began with amusement parks, electronic media and modern games, but those of us who are older know better. This book shows that having fun is universal and has been taking place forever.
Author John Beckman begins by picturing what colonists did in the 1600s to relieve the monotony of making a living when it was a more arduous task than today. The struggle for independence from British rule even had its moments; the Boston Tea Party — we now know — was partly for fun.
The early years had games, contests, debates, oratory, dances, music, picnics, spelling bees, political pranks ... Beckman is thorough in hitting all the bases.
One of the book's most enlightening aspects is Beckman's examination of what slaves did in addition to their terrible toil.
Nighttime gave them a chance to shed some woes and enjoy each other's company. They could sing, dance, feast, play games, hold contests and, interestingly enough, get laughter from mimicking their owners.
Not all fun through the years has been wholesome.
Brothels have been present in every generation and so have drinking, gambling and political misdeeds.
Motion pictures have offered pleasure to multitudes for more than 100 years, even in the depths of the “Great Depression” of the ’30s.
Fully explored is the history of that medium as well as that of radio, television and electronic games.
Fun for the rich has often differed from that of the poor.
The wealthy may have yachts, foreign travel, special collections, private swimming pools, fine cars and country club memberships. Reading the book sent me back to young days when I would hear my aunts and grandmother tell how people in their remote rural community found entertainment. Literary contests in the country schools, pie suppers, ice cream socials, carnivals, country fairs and church activities were all part of the mix. Let's not forget books!
Visiting was prevalent. Neighbors would meet on porches and in yards in summer and gossip and spin tales, some frequently retold. Such sessions would involve religious and political debates. An aunt of mine told of having a 16th birthday party that featured making ice cream and so much dancing that part of the front porch collapsed.
Beckman, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, has written for The Washington Post and other publications. Among his work is a novel, “The Winter Zoo.”
Forty-six pages of end notes may appear to be excessive, but the further explanations enabled the author to make the book flow. Otherwise, the reader would have gotten bogged down and lost interest.
Sociology comes with history and makes this 432-page book worthwhile in understanding life in America.
— Dennie Hall,
for The Oklahoman