THE UNITED STATES OF ABSURDITY: UNTOLD STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY
Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds
Ten Speed Press, 2017, 144 pages
The United States of Absurdity is a mix of the rapid-fire wit and non-sequiturs of Car Talk, the bad boy flippancy of Howard Stern, and offbeat history. Its authors, Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, are stand-up comedians that host a Los Angeles-based podcast called The Dollop, from whence much of the material in this book derives. Their collection of bizarre episodes from the past is analogous to offerings such as Strange History (2016), The Weird and Mysterious United States (2016), and America’s Strange History (2014). Ultimately, such outré agglomerations of factoids draw their inspiration from the phenomenal success of the Kenneth Davis’ Don’t Know Much About History franchise and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me blockbuster. Anthony and Reynolds add something those other titles lack: running commentary that’s frequently outlandish, bawdy, scatological, and filled with expletives. It’s not suitable for classroom use.
The book is divided into somewhat arbitrary categories—Great American Characters, Medical Breakthroughs, Best of American Sports, When Americans Go Wrong, Very Bad American Ideas, and American Tails—with short vignettes within each. We get freak show stars such as Grady F. Stiles, Jr. (1937-92), the “Lobster Boy,” who was born with claw-like appendages (ectrodactyly). Stiles grew drunkenly despondent when neither of his wives birthed a similarly endowed heir and eventually murdered his daughter’s fiancé. We are also treated Mike the Chicken, a fowl that was beheaded in 1945 but avoided the stewpot and lived for another two years on the stage. One of the more appalling characters in the book is Ervin Arnold. Between 1919 and 1921, this Newport-based sailor convinced authorities to help him ferret out gay sailors by using (allegedly) straight sailors to have sex with them. The ensuing scandal led Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt to resign, lest it ruin his political ambitions.
Especially noteworthy is how the authors reveal the darker sides of famous people. Who hasn’t heard of the Heimlich maneuver? Did you know that Heimlich was also a quack that claimed he could cure cancer or AIDS by inducing malaria in patients? Even more horrifying were the misapplications of a procedure invented by Dr. Walter F. Freeman: the lobotomy. For skin-crawling creepiness, few have abused science like Dr. John Lilly, a drug-addled lunatic who once told his wife that aliens abducted him, removed his penis, and handed it to him. When told his organ was still intact, he insisted it was a mechanical substitution. Well: who wouldn’t allow such a man to conduct an experiment (1965) aimed at decoding dolphin communication by having a woman live with and sexually stimulate a cetacean?
To say this book strolls on the bizarre side understates. Remember the guy (Rollen Stewart) with the rainbow Afro that used to troll TV cameras and flash a John 3:16 sign? Did you know he’s serving life for kidnapping? Do you recall the Ford Pinto? In 1973 it was used as a flying car prototype and proved even less airworthy than road-ready. Are you aware that former baseball star Lenny Dykstra was a low-life huckster? Or that an unexplained “meat” shower fell upon Kentucky in 1876? (One theory is that it was vomit from a flock of vultures caught in a storm!)
Not all of the authors’ “untold stories” pass muster. Dr. John Brinkley of goat gland transplant infamy has been the subject of books and a documentary, the 1974 Cleveland Indians ten-cent beer night riot is well-documented, and loads of people know about the 1970 White House encounter between Nixon and Elvis. Still, most of the stuff in this book is unorthodox fodder from which skilled teachers can fashion fun learn exercises.
This is the kind of book from which I would have read to classes as a change of pace in my high school teaching days. That is, had it been written in appropriate language. One gets the sense that Anthony and Reynolds are hamming it up for those who are already fans of their shtick. Things that work on a comedy stage or podcast often come across as sophomoric on the page. They tell of Dykstra’s attempt to curry favor with teammates by farting at a table full of priests thusly: “Then they were all, ‘Oh yeah, he’s awesome'” (loc. 316). They seldom shy from the tawdry and cheap. They make lots of (too) easy sex jokes in discussing Ervin Arnold’s homosexual witch-hunt: “…his investigation consisted of sending straight men to be gay with gay men. Yes, this was a good plan and absolutely not gay” (loc. 861). They conclude with, “Arnold eventually left the Navy. He was never punished. (But ooooohhh how he wanted it be…”) (loc. 882). There is an ongoing joke of “God we love alcohol” and lots of F-bombs. Typical is a toss-away line in the story of Leonard Borchardt (1882-1923), who allowed himself to be covered in tar and horsehair to pass as the savage Oofty Goofy: “He said yes before he knew what he was supposed to do. That’s what we call a massive fuck-up” (loc.337).
All of this makes The United States of Absurdity equal parts fascination, revelation, puerile, and juvenile. As much as I admired a break from the turgidity of scholarly prose, I yearned for less obvious and broad humor, as well as less structural randomness. Anthony and Reynolds play loose with chronology, eschew any semblance of historical significance, and opt instead for “Fun Facts.” I’m all for making education more fun—as long as it does, in fact educate. Mine this book, but please don’t assign it—unless you want to leave teaching for stand-up.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The deadline for submitting a proposal for the fall conference has passed. We had a record number of submissions this year and will only solicit papers to round out panels where necessary.
Thanks to all for submitting and please don’t be discouraged if your paper can’t be accommodated this year. You will hear from us very soon as we will meet on June 12 to assemble the preliminary program.
WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION? (Revised Edition, 2016)
By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 324 pages
For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no need to pose the question raised in the title of John Fea’s monograph. Most self-identified evangelicals adamantly insist that it was, and humanists and political progressives vigorously assert that the Founding Fathers intended that a “wall” be erected between church and state. You might expect Fea to side with evangelicals, given that he’s a believer and a professor at a Christian school, Messiah College. He doesn’t. Nor does he cast his lot with those who take the opposing view. As a historian, Fea sees nuances, not nostrums. His is a take that, depending upon the openness of the reader, will be seen as a rare middle view within a polarized nation, or will induce outrage.
He begins this edition—the first appeared in 2011—with a recounting of recent reactions to his work. Predictably, he has been attacked by both born-again believers and committed secularists. Neither is satisfied with his insistence that how one answers the central question depends upon several subordinate questions. These are not political questions, though the debate is often discursively framed that way. For example, during his values-centered 2016 presidential campaign Mike Huckabee insisted that “most” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers. In truth, just one was a man of the cloth: New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Fea, however, suggests it really wouldn’t matter if all had been ministers; hard-right conservatives such as Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and David Barton fail to define their terms. Was America founded as a Christian nation? It depends upon what one means by “Christian, “founding,” and “nation.”
In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.
Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.
But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.
Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
We are pleased to invite you and your institution to participate in in the 5th International OXFORD SYMPOSIUM ON POPULATION, MIGRATION, AND THE ENVIRONMENT. The summer session will be held 3 and 4 August 2017 at St Anne’s College, Oxford, U.K. Alternately, you may prefer to attend the 6th International meeting that takes place 7 and 8 December at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
Attendees are welcome to either present a paper or participate as a panel member/observer. Participants of the Symposium may submit complete papers six weeks after the conclusion of the meeting to be peer-reviewed by external readers for possible publication in Symposium Books or sponsored academic journals.
Conference Oxford has hundreds of affordable bedrooms in Oxford colleges available, offering splendid views of college quadrangles and gardens. Further accommodation information can be found here. https://www.oxford-population-and-environment-symposium.com/venue/travel-and-lodging/
· Keynote speaker – David Coleman, Emeritus Professor of Demography; Associate Fellow, Department of Social Policy, University of Oxford.
We welcome papers that take an interdisciplinary view of the main themes of the conference: world population increase, human migration and environmental sustainability.
· The Symposium seeks to cover a broad agenda that includes disciplines such as economics, education, environmental studies, agriculture, law, political science, religion, and social studies.
· Topics for presentation may reach beyond these areas; our website contains an extensive list of suggested topics.
· Participant abstracts will be published online in the conference proceedings. Papers presented at the meeting will be subsequently peer-reviewed by external readers for possible inclusion in Symposium Books or sponsored academic journals.
· See abstract submission and registration deadlines below:
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