“I think that part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one’s mettle to be challenged.”
In Nick Offerman's second book, he takes the opportunity to praise some of his favorite people in history/real life for their gumption. Plus this book gave him an excuse to meet his heroes. Or apparently proposition Carol Burnett with a three-way with him and Megan (so far she says no) and to go on about his husband, Jeff Tweedy. Whatever floats your wooden boat, sir! (Offerman is definitely obsessed with wooden boats in here.)
For the record, the list of people featured in this are: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tom Laughlin, Wendell Berry, Barney Frank, Yoko Ono, Michael Pollan, Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Nat Benjamin, George Nakashima, Carol Burnett, Jeff Tweedy, George Saunders, Laurie Anderson, Willie Nelson, and Conan O’Brien. Yeah, you may not have heard of some of those names unless you do woodworking.
The first three (Washington, Franklin, Madison) makes this book feel like another stop on the Hamiltrain, even though he wrote it before that became a thing, har. Offerman has read the Washington Chernow and was just as amused as I was to find out about Washington’s purchases of certain books and Spanish fly.
And then there's Benjamin Franklin: “For Pete’s sake, he wrote a scientific letter to the Royal Academy of Arts of Brussels suggesting that research be undertaken to explore methods of improving the odor of human flatulence, a letter that later came to be entitled “Fart Proudly.” If there had been any question up to this point that Ben Franklin was my kind of guy, this one piece of writing would extinguish all doubt.” Amusingly enough, I can report that in 2015, someone's actually working on this.
Nobody expects you to praise James Madison these days (except for the Becoming Madison author), but Offerman does. I love his descriptions of the Founding Fathers as characters: “John Jay, of course, the “hot one”; John Adams, roundly admired for his marriage to Laura Linney; Alexander Hamilton, who famously attended every meeting with his fly “accidentally” wide-open, even the influential French aristocrat Gilbert du Motier, commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette, or “Stinky Pierre,”…. and let’s not exclude Thomas “Juicy Low-Hangers” Jefferson….That said, it may then come as a surprise to the reader that I have chosen one of the least outwardly colorful, or “pimpin’,” Founding Fathers to round out my initial threesome:”
He’s drawn to Madison because he wrote everything down and interwove innovative philosophies into our documents. He likes his even-keeled approach and consummate reportage, work ethic and commitment to neutrality. He wrote down everything.
“In the Federalist papers, he wrote, “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” In other words, if things are relatively calm, we the people will come up with any old bullshit to squabble about, because it’s in our nature, because deep down, we’re dumb as shit.”
The author also loves Frederick Douglass's drive to read--he started learning to read by observing that letters were written on ships during construction-SF for starboard, LA for aft. “By means of assiduous studying, Frederick Douglass was able to surreptitiously master his first four letters.” He collected every stray bit of paper he could find and traded bread for lessons in reading, copied the kid in the house’s homework. “Douglass could literally have been killed for merely trying to learn to write his own name. Talk about gumption. This guy makes George Washington look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
Of course he loves Teddy Roosevelt: “Roosevelt, now governor of New York, engaged the services of a championship wrestler to swing by the Albany office three or four afternoons a week to wrestle him. This program, agreeable to Roosevelt, did not, however, meet the approval of the comptroller.” The comptroller would not honor the bill for a wrestling mat, so Roosevelt hired a professional oarsman to wrestle with him instead. On their second session, the oarsman got a broken rib and Roosevelt bruised some of his ribs and nearly dislocated his shoulder. “Roosevelt finally but reluctantly relinquished his insistence that wrestling occur at his office.” Of course he survived an assassination attempt, still gave his speech for 90 minutes as he bled, and never had the bullet taken out. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Finishing off the historical figures, Offerman finds himself admiring Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the architects of Central Park. Besides that achievement, he was hired by the New York Times to tour the Southern states and report on the true state of slavery. His report proved that slavery didn’t make sense economically-lots of inefficiencies, nobody’s motivated to use any gumption, which costs you money. Naturally, everyone in the South loved him for his honesty...
And then we get to the author's other favorite Roosevelt, Eleanor: “Hey, it’s a woman!” While this book does have somewhat less women than men in it, the author mentions that well, history is written by the side that didn’t lose. “Reading our histories, one can begin to wonder if there were even any women about, excepting the amount of coverage Ms. Crockett received for her heroic contributions at the Alamo.” He calls her the first lady of gumption. Notable thing about her: “Apparently, when she came upon subject matter that was beyond her knowledge and she asked the adults about it, the book would suddenly disappear. (Note to parents: There is no better way to make your child crave a forbidden item than hiding it away from them.) She would spend days hunting down the concealed books, which I imagine would be considered pretty tame by now. For example, she remembers it occurring with Dickens’ Bleak House. Good God, what I wouldn’t give to get my nieces to take a break from the Bieber chat rooms (or One Direction, or whomever the cute-boy pablum of the moment might be) and read some Dickens!”
After the historical figures, the author moves on to, well, more personal heroes of his. He loved Tom Laughlin, of the movie Billy Jack. Sadly, Tom died right before Nick was about to arrange to meet him--but he did get invited to the funeral. “The priest kicked things off with a reverential welcome, and I was aghast as it slowly dawned on me that there was to be no flaming pyre? No sacrificial bighorn sheep or grizzly bear? “There won’t be any trumpets blowin’ come the judgment day”? What the fuck?! Didn’t these people know whom it was we were burying today?” He was briefly disappointed and then it improved from there. At the end, one of Laughlin's kids pulled her dad’s favorite quotes from books and distributed them along with SASE envelopes, with instructions to use them if and when you accomplish a dream, write it down and send it to her. Nick says he’ll write to her about this chapter. ”That seems an awfully sincere thing to say without a joke at the end, but I am going to let it fly.”
Like in his previous book, Offerman needs to take some time to fanboy about Wendell Berry. “He is eloquent, he is beautiful, and he is funny as shit. I have left out so much. There is a cornucopia of beauty and joy and mirth and tragedy and romance and charm and nature and humanity to be found in his writing. There is a bumper crop of common sense. Perhaps his greatest talent is to be found in his proclivity for telling it like it is.”
Okay, at this point I'm not going to give rundowns of every person on the list because I'm getting tired, but it's an entertaining read, and even if the charms of woodworking are a wee bit lost on me to comprehend, clearly the author had fun and did some deep thinking and pointed out lots of fun facts about people that are entertaining and something to chew on as well. So, four stars.
Random Facts and Quotes Corner:
Quote from Barney Frank: “Look, this job certainly didn’t make any sense in terms of maximizing my income or minimizing my stress or maximizing the comfort of my life. I think it’s a wonderful job to have, because I’m able to work to make fundamental changes in society and improve the quality of people’s lives and eliminate and diminish unfairness at various times. If I wasn’t able to do what I thought was important public policy, it would be a stupid job to have.”
Carol Burnett has the best bathroom sign, which says “Euphemism.”