American founders worried about limiting our expectations if we only understood ourselves through lists. In the original case, the question revolved around the perils of listing fundamental rights. That list became our Bill of Rights, a document that many mistake for the sum total of their constitutional rights. That’s what Madison was afraid would happen.
More than two hundred and twenty-five years later, Nick Offerman has his own list for us and a powerful example of how to understand lists as a set of forward-looking propositions that require our participation.
In Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, Offerman presents a list that includes four categories, twenty-one stories and not a single thing to be gained by memorizing any of the above. Introducing his work, he writes, “part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one’s mettle to be challenged.” The potential of Offerman’s project isn’t about knowing who is “in” and who is “out” but in understanding this “mettle-testing.”
Gumption first imagines someone has asked, “What makes America great?” A tired question that usually only gets taken seriously during candidate debates, Offerman transforms it into a springboard to muse casually about our past and think deeply about what we should understand about our shared history. He uses a yawn-worthy question to create a fresh opportunity to interrogate the ongoing experiment we call the United States of America.
The list of the gutsiest amongst us doesn’t just look back to the past. There’s a present and future where it’s possible to improve on the previous model.
This writing will endeavor to examine some examples of the ways in which we as Americans have used the powers of freedom bestowed upon us to become more decent as a people, which I believe was loosely the idea when the whole shebang got started.
Offerman believes the American people were founded to be a more decent people than they were in 1787 and were thereby designed to pursue, with persistence, those ideas that will make us even more decent today. His understanding of the American people allows for their fallibility as much as it does their potential.
This struggle with our ailments recurs throughout Offerman’s work and often identifies the place in time where we prove our mettle.
The opening set list, the Freemasons, is easy to write off if you’re just skimming names on the Table of Contents. There’s little intrigue when one finds that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison made it onto another list of old white guys who made this country great. Offerman presents these guys as, “the magnificent sons of bitches who founded our United States” while brandishing, “a courage that is hard to fathom and a serving of foresight that very well beggars my modern imagination.” Offerman’s articulation of being beggared carves out a new space for understanding the American experience through the stories we all thought we knew.
Washington is understood through the fight for American independence alongside the American Enlightenment when “the self-evident truths of an individual’s right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’” required colonists to rise up against “the onerous hand of monarchist rule.” Offerman marks this moment in our history as one “when the corncrib of gumption was fully stocked” because these men “had the temerity to make this moral choice even when the life-threatening odds were stacked against them.” As though drawing the chalk outline around the tired and trivial ways we re-tell these familiar stories, Offerman reminds us that failure was not only possible, it was imminent. He muses that few Americans could be provoked to get up off the couch today without reasonable odds that their energy expenditure will result in success.
Franklin earns praise not for his achievements alone but that they were compelled by an “insatiable curiosity,” a self-evaluation that pursued perfection while expecting to fall short of it and a concern that Americans might “be lulled into a dangerous security… being both enervated and impoverished by luxury.” Offerman thinks through Franklin’s story as a model for living diligently so that productive pursuits and luxuries serve one another. James Madison’s story is one of a “diminutive man” who could hardly command the attention of a crowd but who still became the one guy the founders trusted “to write up both the captain’s orders and the owner’s manual” of the new government. Madison’s role as “The Father of the Constitution” is a small detail as Offerman instead asks what we can learn from Madison’s work ethic and commitment to follow-through. Madison saw what needed to be done and did it in a way that made the whole enterprise sustainable.
Largely a list of familiar historical legends, the Freemasons section of the book concludes with the story of Frederick Douglass. After announcing, “Hey, it’s a black guy!,” Offerman describes Douglass as a “priceless sword” for the abolitionist movement. He explains that Douglass worked through a combination of, “searing common sense, an inspired talent for language, and a furious commitment to justice, all resting solidly upon the bedrock of his all-too-real history in bondage and brutality.” He shares his realization that all the snapshots of Douglass’s life presented in the classrooms of Offerman’s youth had provided only the “bullet points of horror,” while doing nothing to communicate the self-determination and perseverance that made Douglass’s story possible. Reading Douglass’s own words, Offerman says he could finally see why the proslavery crowd feared Douglass as “a firebrand” who would be “powerfully instrumental in helping to bring about the end of slavery.” Understanding the depth of misery Douglass endured made it possible to see that he wielded extraordinary strength.
Offerman refers to it as gumption and mettle-testing, but Douglass provides the logic for why it matters.
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Idealists: Becoming a More Decent People
The proposition the progress emerges through struggle marks Offerman’s shift to achieving maximum horsepower. The answer to what makes America great is not one that’s fixed in the past. It’s one that requires something from each of us who would call ourselves an American. The next section of the book honors the Idealists, individuals who “continue to pay homage to our founding principles.” Offerman shows how they each represent a personal commitment that shapes public ideas and makes it possible for the American people to continue to become more decent.
Offerman initiates this list with Theodore Roosevelt, another example of how “a properly applied dose of gumption” makes it possible to use a previously unknown strength. This section includes massive demonstrations of power exercised by otherwise ordinary people who sought to open up NYC’s Central Park for all residents to enjoy (Frederick Law Olmstead), to appeal to common sense for the sake of accepting people of all races, genders and abilities (Eleanor Roosevelt), to own and represent unpopular policy positions (Barney Frank), to create art that requires re-examining dogmatic thinking (Yoko Ono) and to drag those who would skirt decency into the light of the public eye (Michael Pollan). Offerman’s storytelling often makes clear that these people we know to be remarkable could have chosen to stay comfortable on their own couch. This technique makes it possible to understand how their ideas about the American people and their country added up to a discomfort and dissatisfaction that refused to accommodate the usual cost-benefit analysis.
His own craftsmanship often seeps into Offerman’s perspective on a story but two stories in this section work to reveal what he sees in the basic proposition of having a craft to practice, whatever it is.
His own words blend with Wendell Berry’s work to demonstrate that the search to understand our purposes is worthwhile for its own sake and that understanding those purposes requires working towards them. There is more to be understood but that understanding requires practice.
Offerman’s appreciation for Tom Laughlin’s work is sentimental while sacrificing nothing about its substantive contribution to the project. Offerman explains that Laughlin “stubbornly persisted” in promoting a film his production company dropped as a failed venture. Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack, a film he booked into theaters himself in 1971. Today the film is recognized as the highest-grossing independent film of all time.
Offerman turns to Roger Ebert’s words to tell us what to make of this success and Laughlin’s place on our list, recognizing that his
…movies are personal ventures, financed in unorthodox ways and employing the kind of communal chance-taking that Hollywood finds terrifying. The chances they take sometimes create flaws in their films, but flaws that suggest they were trying to do too much, never too little.
Offerman interprets this as the highest praise for a person. The suggestion being that Laughlin’s “heart was in the right place and the utmost of gumption was employed.”
Making the Gumption
This accolade makes for a perfect pivot to Offerman’s final section, the Makers. Remarking that these are “some pretty cool kids” at the “back of the bus,” he tells us how their music, furniture, poetry, art and punchlines make for the strongest conclusion a work like this can achieve. Offerman writes that “their creations enkindle within us the flames of gumption, as we seek each our own path to lead lives that enlarge and also depend upon the lives of others in America and beyond.”
Making appearances in this closing act are familiar people like Carol Burnett, Jeff Tweedy and Willie Nelson but their stories achieve new altitudes, accompanied by the less familiar stories of Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Nat Benjamin, George Nakashima, George Saunders and Laurie Anderson. In Offerman’s retelling of an evening spent with his friend Conan O’Brien, the entire list comes together with force and magnitude. It’s a quiet and unassuming moment, one that’s easy to miss.
Offerman refers to Conan’s after-dinner musings as “Irish jazz-riffs” so there’s a bit of a set up to navigate first.
The two are talking about how people their age often get angry about change and how to best avoid that trap. To stay young, Conan says, “the thing that I would like most… is to accept change; be interested in change.” This leads to a monologue about human nature and the drive to seek rewards. After achieving a reward, your average human wants to repeat endlessly whatever behavior it was that got rewarded.
Then Offerman writes,
Instead, my host suggested, we prosper by ‘keeping our eyes upon our own test or running our own race. By working hard, building things, writing things, making things, and trying to better yourself, trying to be a good person, that is our life’s work. That’s how you proselytize, is by doing it.
Everything in your body’s going to tell you to hunker down and shake your fist at the sky like King Lear, it’s like — try not to go that way. The easy way to go is to say, ‘It’s all gone to shit,’ when the great moral of the story, I think, for your book should be, that It’s always been shit.
That’s the big finish. Move beyond its merits as a punchline to consider it as a provocation.
The gumption that fuels our collective efforts to make America great resides in understanding the difference between concluding “It’s all gone to shit” and that “It’s always been shit.” It’s the difference between an easy opt-out and a complicated obligation to try anyway. Offerman’s list of America’s “gutsiest troublemakers” becomes a guide for recognizing that both conclusions are reasonable in most circumstances but only one leaves a mark.
The American enterprise is realized through the collection of these unlikely marks and the impossible details make the stories worth telling. Offerman’s list is a civilized battle cry for democratic people of the 21st century, “Get off the couch!”