Here is an animated and wonderfully engaging work of cultural history that lays out America’s unruly past by describing the ways in which cutting loose has always been, and still is, an essential part of what it means to be an American.
From the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Americans have defied their stodgy rules and hierarchies with pranks, dances, stunts, and wild parties, shaping the national character in profound and lasting ways. In the nation’s earlier eras, revelers flouted Puritans, Patriots pranked Redcoats, slaves lampooned masters, and forty-niners bucked the saddles of an increasingly uptight middle class. In the twentieth century, fun-loving Americans celebrated this heritage and pushed it even further: flappers “barney-mugged” in “petting pantries,” Yippies showered the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, and B-boys invented hip-hop in a war zone in the Bronx.
This is the surprising and revelatory history that John Beckman recounts in American Fun. Tying together captivating stories of Americans’ “pursuit of happiness”—and distinguishing between real, risky fun and the bland amusements that paved the way for Hollywood, Disneyland, and Xbox—Beckman redefines American culture with a delightful and provocative thesis.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)
On April 15, 1923, eight marathon dancers, aged nineteen to twenty-eight, outran the law for a chance to make history. For twenty-nine hours straight, as weaker contestants limped off the floor, they had twirled and swung each other’s bodies to the fox-trot, two-step, and bunny hug. At midnight, New York police enforced a law that put a twelve-hour cap on marathon activities. They ordered the kids to cease and desist, but the dancers wanted none of it. They danced en masse out the doors of the Audubon Ballroom, across the 168th Street sidewalk, and into the back of an idling van. They danced in the van’s jumpy confines all the way to the Edgewater ferry, on whose decks they danced across the choppy Hudson, before being portaged like a cage of exotic birds and released into New Jersey’s Pekin dance hall.
They had been there only an hour when more cops shoved them along, and so it would go for the next two days. The venues kept changing, and the comedy mounting, as they crossed and recrossed the tri-state lines, cheerfully dancing all the while. They shed a few compatriots to squirrelly exhaustion and gave reporters a private audience in an undisclosed Harlem apartment. Back in the van, they cut fantastic steps on their way to Connecticut, where the contest would reach its strange conclusion.
The New York Times, filing updates as the events unfolded, struck a distinctly American tone: they touted the dancers as the pinnacle of youth—of vigor, ambition, free expression—calling them “heroes and heroines . . . alive with the spirit of civic pride.” But they scorned the cops as “mean old thing[s]” who should have been ashamed of enforcing “meddlesome old laws.” As tensions mounted they framed a rivalry between the upstart “West” and the noble “East.” (Dancers from Cleveland had set the record only a few days before.) The upshot of all this ballyhoo, of course, was that the reporters took none of it too seriously. The Times just wanted to join the party and to let their readers join it too.
But their patriotism wasn’t all tongue-in-cheek. Youthful antics in the 1920s were often held up as national virtues. Alma Cummings, who had set the first dance-marathon record that March, was honored with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Avon O. Foreman, a fifteen-year-old flagpole sitter, was recognized in 1929 by the mayor of Baltimore for showing “the pioneer spirit of early America.” In an era when Prohibition had divided the country and the KKK had nearly five million members, the splashy high jinks of free-spirited youths were for many a welcome vision of good-natured resistance. They called to mind the Sons of Liberty—or Huck Finn lighting out to the territory.
Things got weird in the marathon’s endgame. At two o’clock on Sunday morning, when the van arrived at an athletic club in East Port Chester, judges disqualified two of the last four contestants for sleeping in transit, leaving Vera Sheppard, nineteen, and Ben Solar, twenty-three, to rally for the record. At 8 a.m. Solar broke away from Sheppard and “wandered aimlessly toward the door, like a sleep-walker.” Smelling salts revived him for precisely two minutes. When he collapsed, and was out, the ever-vigorous Sheppard—performing “better than at any time during the night”—galloped on with a series of relief partners. The good citizens of Connecticut, fearing for her health, or maybe her soul, had police stop the madness at 3:30 p.m. Only with special permission was she allowed to dance past four o’clock, at which point she demolished the world record. “Miss Sheppard’s condition at the close,” the Times reported, “was surprisingly good.” She had also lost a cool ten pounds.
Vera Sheppard wasn’t your typical rebel. An office worker from Long Island City, she lived at home with her father and two sisters and gave dance lessons most nights till twelve. She wasn’t even your typical flapper. But when her sisters attributed her endurance to prayer and the fact that she didn’t drink or smoke, Sheppard preferred to answer for herself. Showing all-American pride in her ethnic difference, she told reporters: “I’m Irish; do you suppose I could have stuck it out otherwise?” What kept her going for sixty-nine hours was “thinking what good fun it was.”
Sheppard liked to dance, and she was willing to risk it if what she liked was against the law. More to the point, she enjoyed those risks. But her Jazz Age “fun” wasn’t just the boon of a wealthy country at the height of its powers. It wasn’t even a whirl on Coney Island’s Loop-the-Loop. Her cheeky dance across three state lines, as pure and innocent as it seemed, was underwritten by centuries of studied rebellion that made it quintessentially American. Sheppard and her cheering section at the Times were heirs to a raffish national tradition that flaunted pleasure in the face of authority.
This book traces the lines of that tradition.
Excerpted from American Fun by John Beckman. Copyright © 2014 by John Beckman. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
John Beckman is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Granta, Book, McSweeney’s, and Arizona Quarterly, among other publications. His novel The Winter Zoo was named a New York Times Notable Book. Beckman lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, the critic Marcela Valdes, and their baby daughter.