Book Review: Nick Offerman's Gumption
The Parks & Rec actor profiles 21 of his personal heroes who have worked to make the world a better place
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., June 12, 2015
Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakersby Nick Offerman; Dutton, 400 pp., $26.95
The bookmark I've been using as I read this book is a coupon for a free doughnut from Dunkin Donuts. I deliberately chose this to mark my progress through Nick Offerman's somewhat humorous exegesis of his spin on American exceptionalism because if a piece of paper that fits into the palm of your hand that's worth a hunk of fried glazed dough isn't the epitome of American ideals, I don't know what is.
And yet there are as many interpretations of what and who constitute our nation's sense of itself, and Offerman uses this collection to stake his claim in the conversation. Perhaps unintentionally modeled after John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Offerman's personal hall of fame demonstrates what he defines as "gumption" (the courage to make the world a better place, along the same lines of our nation's storied Founding Fathers) and what it means to "relight the torch of freedom" within this context. Over the course of these 21 essays, Offerman combines assiduously researched biographical profiles, interviews, and personal reflections to assemble a composite of American gumption through a fairly left-leaning lens. The result is moderately funny, at times thought-provoking, and mostly interesting.
Offerman is clearly circumspect about his place in the world and how he can do his part to improve it. As a humorist-cum-social critic, he's no Mark Twain, but there are a few genuine belly laughs to be found in these pages. But Offerman often strains to be politically correct while also grandstanding on the myriad ways we've murdered our planet; he's clearly sincere, but he's also not quite as evolved as he would like us to think he is. It may be difficult to relate to some of the ideas he's espousing when: a) he uses phrases like "the woods were infested with Native Americans," and b) he writes about sitting down to lunch at Chez Panisse with Michael Pollan. If you could boil down the essence of hipster white male privilege into two sentence fragments, it would be those.
At the very least, Gumption may inspire readers to compile their own lists of Americans who have deployed their ideals in service to a higher cause. I'll start with the genius who came up with the idea of a coupon for a free doughnut.