Review: "Bunch of Amateurs" celebrates dropouts who achieved greatness

Special to Lowcountry LifeJuly 1, 2012 

The subtitle of "Bunch of Amateurs" is "A Search for the American Character," and its goal is to prove that we lead the world because we are amateurs. By "amateurs," the author Jack Hitt is talking about people who are not governed by professional assumptions and who think they can do anything. He argues that the tradition began with Benjamin Franklin, a "tinkerer" and dropout with little professional training who discovered electricity, created hundreds of inventions, became an important writer and was instrumental in the founding of our republic.

Hitt contrasts Franklin with John Adams, a man of "protocol and schedules, reasoned decisions and a disregard for foolishness" -- in short, a professional. He uses the conflict between these two men as a metaphor for our instinctive conflict between the man who goes by the rules and the one who cares little about rules and sees no problem too difficult to solve. The fact that both were men of considerable accomplishment does not seem to bother him.

In addition to Franklin, who as a teenager "broke with his apprenticeship in Boston and ran away to Philadelphia to reinvent himself as a Great Man," he cites other "dropouts" who personify the American character: Mark Twain, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs and so on. But he is not interested in famous men; his heroes are those who "headed off to one's garage to reinvent the world."

Being a Southerner, Hitt is fascinated with the search through Arkansas and other swampy sections of the South for a bird long thought extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker. A supposed sighting in April 2005 became a national story, with coverage in Science and other journals, an interview with the "sighter" on "60 Minutes," several books and countless newspaper stories and, in the end, a strong suspicion that the elusive bird may be extinct after all. Hitt sums up by quoting my favorite South Carolinian, Alex Sanders: "Over the past 35 years, I've often been asked, 'Where is the ivory-billed woodpecker?' I've always answered truthfully, 'I don't know where he is now, but I know where he was when we needed him ... when we need him again, we'll find him.' "

After devoting more than 50 pages to the futile woodpecker hunt, Hitt reports on the amateur search for new forms of genetic engineering; this segues into genealogy and the search for the first man; and then the massive amateur hunt for life on other worlds. This leads to an examination of the creation myths believed by the leading religions, and on to a chapter called "Eyeing Heaven."

Further searching eventually leads him to a Belgian teenager named Claude-Anne Kirshen, who fled Europe ahead of the Nazis and wound up as a housewife in New Haven. In 1950, President Harry Truman decided to publish the papers of the founding fathers, among whom is Franklin. The discovery that many of his papers were in French led to the hiring of a young French speaker named Lopez. She, it turned out, was the former Claude-Anne Kirshen, who became fascinated with Franklin, wrote several books about him, and is nowidered a leading expert on his life. Hitt sees her as a kind of symbol of his thesis: "To walk away from everything that one is -- whether it's fleeing a repressive nation or simply out the back door for the garage -- that is real freedom. It's a story that everyone who lives here or comes here realizes is true, that the amateur's dream is the American dream."

This is a noble effort to justify his theme, but it doesn't quite work. Hitt has a lot of fun looking for evidence to support it, but in the end he didn't quite find what he was looking for. Hitt, whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's and Garden and Gun, is an occasionally engaging writer, but he doesn't have to tell us everything he learned.

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