With a quick glance at the cover of Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, comedian Nick Offerman’s second book, one would think it’s an ode to the macho attributes of America. Offerman, who played reserved libertarian Ron Swanson in the TV show Parks and Recreation, sports a dirty pair of overalls on the cover, his grizzly arm grasping a mallet. In the background, the faces of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Willie Nelson and Yoko Ono are etched on Mount Rushmore, and most of them match Offerman’s stony countenance.
But I should have known better; Offerman’s book reveals America’s struggles and successes with humor, thoughtfulness and a critical lens.
In Gumption, published in May 2015 by Dutton, Offerman explores his list of 21 American heroes, ranging from fiery Freemasons and comedians to outspoken musicians and politicians. Offerman starts with the usual gang of history book figures — the George Washingtons and Benjamin Franklins — but then explores lesser-known legends such as actor Tom Laughlin and toolmaker Thomas Lie-Nielsen. The Joliet, Illinois, native also devotes chapters to Chicagoland legends such as Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, bestselling author George Saunders and experimental musician Laurie Anderson.
The author starts with the backstory of each American hero and then expands on the issues they advocated for. Offerman even interviews several of them, providing invaluable insight into modern advocates and revealing a bit about himself in the process. In his interview with Late Night host Conan O’Brien, the pair discusses how to maintain respectful relationships, leading Offerman to note his discontent with NBC and its reluctance to promote Parks and Recreation.
The book touches on heavy topics: war, tolerance, technology, religion and the meaning of life. If it was written in a dry and fact-driven style, readers might exasperatingly chuck their book at the nearest wall. But it’s Offerman’s unabashed humor and sincerity that kept me hanging on to every word. He addresses the reader personally, and his deadpan humor is a reminder that Ron Swanson is alive and well.
Offerman’s wit especially shines when he blends historical facts with modern perspectives. When discussing how James Madison (who Offerman describes as “hella smart” and “a colonial Dumbledore”) arrived 11 days early to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia, the author lets his imagination run rampant.
“Did [Madison] leap around the room, commanding the attention of the assembly with his winning flourishes and fulminations? … Did he run a deep flag pattern, burning Aaron Burr, who stood futilely holding his own jockstrap while Madison caught a fifty-yard toss from General Washington for a game-winning touchdown, resulting in a flamboyant Madison nut grab and moonwalk across the end zone? He did not. He sat close-mouthed as near as he could manage to the action, and he took notes.”
Gumption’s goal is clear: to motivate readers to become better people and think critically about their decisions, whether that means taking more hikes like Theodore Roosevelt or rising above hate like openly gay politician Barney Frank. This message is especially relevant to college students as they head to the voting polls; it urges us to cast a critical eye on current issues.
One of the system flaws Offerman addresses throughout the chapters is race and gender issues. He acknowledges Theodore Roosevelt’s despicable treatment of American Indians and pays particular attention to women’s rights, stating that when all genders are treated fairly we’ll have more time for laughter.” He notes that these issues are far from being settled.
“We [white men] are lazy assholes. That’s our nature, so I say let’s at least cop to it,” writes Offerman. “We haven’t remotely righted every wrong; we’ve merely made things just good enough to stop people b*tching as loudly.”
Gumption isn’t without its flaws. With all Offerman’s discussions on diversity, there are only six people on his list of heros who are not white males — and Offerman knows it. He confronts his lack of representation by beginning minorities’ title chapters with “Hey, it’s a woman!” or “Hey, look, it’s a Japanese American!”
Much of Eleanor Roosevelt and Yoko Ono’s chapters are flooded with descriptions of the famous men in their lives, leaving me to wonder if Offerman made a typo in the chapters’ titles. He also explains how a “woman’s touch” would benefit politics and decision-making, as if women don’t drop bombs, lie or manipulate.
But Offerman never claims to be the guru of “gumption.” He, much like the rest of us, continues to learn.
“Own your doubts. Recognize our fallibility as humans, admit we can never possibly know even half of everything, and so embrace the unknown and thereby, embrace one another,” he writes. Nick Offerman will perform at Colossus on Feb. 27. Gumption is available on Amazon for $17 and available to check out from the Loyola Libraries.