Sure, you’ve got your Honest Abe and your steadfast Molly Pitcher, your Daniel Boone and Dale Evans. But how do the vice-ridden rest of us fit into American history?
As Russell (History and Cultural Studies/Occidental Coll.; Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Re-Making of the American Working Class, 2001) writes, this lively, contrarian work concentrates on the “drunkards, prostitutes, ‘shiftless’ slaves and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society.” Such people seldom figure in standard histories, and one of the things in which they engaged and still engage, namely sex, seldom turns up in the pages of earnest monographs. Russell examines the constant tension between preservers of order, such as John Adams, and those who extolled unrestrained personal freedom, such as—well, if not Sam Adams, then perhaps topers such as he, for drinking also figures heavily in these pages. In New York at the time of the Revolution, “there were enough taverns to allow every resident of the city to drink in a bar at the same time,” a feat never reached since. In the Virginia of the Founding Fathers, no public business was conducted without a large drink somewhere within easy reach. Taverns, often havens of the lower class, were “the first racially integrated public spaces in America,” a democracy of vice. They gave members of different races and ethnicities the chance to study and imitate one another and to indulge in what Russell terms “informal renegade behaviors.” The author links advances in personal freedom to these unbridled working-class heroes—and to a few other surprising figures as well, including the mobsters who owned New York’s gay nightclubs, the hippies of yore, the “tango boys” and other juvenile delinquents who, by Russell’s fruitful formulation, won the Cold War for the West.
A sharp, lucid, entertaining view of the “bad” American past.