This is a book called Bunch of Amateurs because that last word most accurately captures this essential quality that runs through these stories. I also call it a search for the American character, because there's just something fundamentally American about heading off to one's garage to reinvent the world.
Amateurs are often wrong, crazy, fraudulent, or twisted. There is typically a pomposity among amateurs that, well, one just has to get used to. They are often nerds, if younger; cranks, if slightly mature; eccentric, if aged; and — it should be said — at just about any age they can be total jackasses. But these are just the characteristics of people obsessed with a new idea, following their bliss, in love (amo, amas, amat — amateur) with one true thing.
Who cannot love amateurs like the gungywamping David Barron? Not merely because these people are loopy and fun in a knight errant sort of way, but because even the amateurs who have it all wrong but are obsessed are typically on to something. It's just often not the something they think they are on to.
I've hung out with a lot of amateurs who were misguided or, for now, lost in a world defined mostly by their own private conspiracy theories. But their views of the larger profession or frontier against which they were pushing usually led to some cool thoughts. What I always liked about hitching my own curiosity to someone else's amateur passion was that it granted me access to a world, like a travel writer, in a way that few others get to see. Think of this book as a hitchhiker's guide to amateurism. In each chapter I get in somebody's car and go somewhere, and often no place near where the driver thought we were heading.
I sought out the venues where amateurism seemed to be thriving — those multimillion-dollar contests and those weekend hobby clubs hoping to break out into something important. Some disciplines are just teeming with amateur passion right now and long have been — astronomy and paleontology, for instance. It's probably not a coincidence that both fields take us into the biggest questions. If you're going to fiddle around on the weekends, why not solve the secret of the universe or the mystery of life? I hitched a ride on the ongoing controversy of Kennewick Man in part because the amateur anthropology in that case drove so revealingly off the rails. And I couldn't resist the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker because no amateur pursuit takes us so far afield, lost in bureaucratic thinking, the drama of experts failing, the hidden history of Dixie's postwar destruction, and the very American fantasies motivating the restoration of the land.
In this book, there is a search for the original American amateur and the baptismal moment of defining this country as a nation of garage invention and second acts; the story of a fortress of expertise under attack by banshees eager to bring down the walls; an expedition into the world of weekend warriors meeting in their clubhouses plotting scientific revolutions; an intermission of error and total amateur fiasco; and, finally, a visit to one of those perpetual frontiers where amateurs continuously have (and always will) come to discover — in this case, literally — new worlds.
It's a series of stories that glimpse the ongoing American experi ence, the one told repeatedly throughout our pop culture's sacred art, such as The Wizard of Oz. Just who is the Wizard? A cranky old expert whose breakthrough achievement occurred long ago (during the Omaha State Fair, if the balloon is to be believed). He is no longer certain that his expertise will sustain his reputation, so he hides out in his fortress and engineers a mighty façade of smoke and fire he can belch at others who challenge what he has to say.
And who challenges him? Rank amateurs improvising their way through the deep dark forest. Their roundabout journey is a way for them to discover their own emerging capacities as unfinished creatures of intellect, compassion, and courage. Sure, that story might have been a metaphor for the qualities needed to get Americans through the Depression (what I always heard growing up). But The Wizard of Oz is also an American narrative about self-invented outsiders overwhelming the domain of professionals.
What does happen in the finale? The Wizard is revealed to be merely a washed-up blowhard who's been dining out on the tattered remains of a dated and jejune credentialism. And what is it that the Wizard offers the three great amateurs — the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion? Emblems of expertise: a diploma, a testimonial, and a medal.
"Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers," the Wizard tells the Scarecrow, assuring him in most un-European terms that he's as smart, if not smarter, than any credentialed thinker. "And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have .... But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma!" The adventure's the thing, of course, but it's always nice when a self-made pioneer winds up with, say, a genius grant — something that happens all the time in our culture. We're Americans. We love that stuff. This is our temple and our American idol.
From Bunch of Amateurs by Jack Hitt. Copyright 2012 Jack Hitt. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.