On Amateurism: Interview With Jack Hitt, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview with This American Life contributing editor Jack Hitt about his recent book, Bunch of Amateurs, published by The Crown Publishing Group. Read the first part of my interview here. Be sure to read through to the end of the interview for an opportunity to win an awesome prize. This one will surely inspire the amateur in whoever wins!

MAKE: The word “backyard” in the United States conveys the image of someone working outside institutional or “credentialed” constraints (backyard scientist, for example), not solely the outdoor space behind a home. What is it about the American character, and even lexicon, that allows for such a unique understanding of who and what an amateur is (and where they work)?

Jack Hitt: This basic narrative—the immigrant journey, lighting out for the territories, or going West, young man—gets played out in miniature in many backyards. That distance from the house—with its domestic burdens of spouse and children, bills and realistic demands—all the way to the dreamy loopy inventive freedom of a garage is more existential than geographical. It wasn’t mere serendipity that led David Packard, at the height of the Depression in 1938, to grab his pal William Hewlett and slip into his garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto. The place has since been restored to its original look and is now a Registered Historic Landmark, acknowledging this very American temple of self-motivated ingenuity. Who doubts that the same landmark status awaits 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos where Jobs and Wozniak squirreled away during the crummy days of mid-seventies stagflation to invent the desktop computer? The Maker movement flowers in the wreck of the worst economic contraction since 1929 or perhaps 1893. Coincidence?

MAKE: Did you ever find yourself attracted to the fields of amateur study you yourself were writing about? Or do you consider yourself an amateur of any field since writing about it?

Jack: Personally and most recently, I have been fiddling around with solar panels and a home-built electric car. If you’re asking the question as a therapist, I’d say my interest dates back to the time when I was eleven and my dad took me into his little workspace beneath the staircase in our house. He was fixing something and showed me how to operate a drill. Not long after, he died, and I guess on some level, I’ve been trying to get back to that place beneath the stairs ever since.

MAKE: Throughout your book there is this recurring topic of genealogy. Not only of your own genealogical quest (as “the great48-grandson of Charlemagne”), but of amateurs tracing a line back through American history (via writers, inventors, actors, etc.). Why do amateurs – I’m thinking about the Spirit of America here – reference their creative progenitors? Is it because we as a country are still so new? Or are there other conditions, factors of influence that also shape this spirit?

Jack: We all grow up being told that our ancestors came here because they longed to escape tyranny and sought religious freedom. Um, please. That’s a choice bit of marketing, frankly. Ask any British grade-school student who the Puritans were and they’ll tell you terrorists and extremists. And that’s more true than not. Otherwise we were indentured servants brought here under contract or slaves stolen out of their houses or second sons from England, chafing under the nonsense of primogeniture. From the passenger manifest of the Mayflower to characters in the mini-series Roots, it is a common story of embittered newcomers, cut off from a past and driven to begin afresh. That is what created our national character, or what we might now kindly call the amateur spirit. F. Scott Fitzgerald once foolishly said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” What was he drinking? This is the land of nothing but. Starting from scratch — amateurism — is all that we got, a fact we rediscover in the aftermath of every wave of immigrants or economic collapse.

MAKE: And lastly for our readers, do you have any words for makers to reconcile their dreams, their aspirations, with the “pursuit of happiness”, not only with regards to the Declaration of Independence, but also to the playful nature of being an amateur as you frame it.

Jack: Most people know that Thomas Jefferson is the author of the Declaration. But less known is that John Adams edited the draft (almost certainly for the legal concepts), and Ben Franklin edited it too, probably for the felicitious and sly phrasing for which he was famous. In those days the cliché phrase that would ring in anyone’s ear was “life, liberty and property.”—the classic British notion of why governments were instituted at all. I like to credit Franklin for that little edit. We don’t know for sure. But it’s hard to imagine Franklin not being displeased at the ungainly thud of that last word— “property.” For England, a nation obsessed for nearly a millennium over the role of land, it made sense. But Franklin wrote a good bit about happiness and the role random chance had in it. One of his favorite images was the kite. He wrote a piece about floating on his back in the Boston harbor as a little boy, being pulled here and there by his kite. An exaggeration to be sure (imagine an 18th century kite doing anything other than getting airborne) but Franklin understood the unquantifiable element in all creativity, one that Makers understand in their core but which eludes the flat-footed B-school profs who write those plodding tomes every season about “entrepreneurialism” and “innovation.” The thing they can’t put their finger quite on is that sense of playfulness, the cheery free-floating randomness of being caught in the flow of an obsessive idea, lost in a garage. Franklin captured it in an airy, somewhat ungraspable phrase, the pursuit of happiness—setting into motion the real American dream.

That concludes our two-part interview with Jack Hitt. Thanks to Jack for his time and to you for reading. And now for our final prize giveaway, and yes, that’s a robot up for grabs! Specifically, it’s a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT 2.0, a buildable, programmable robot. This kit comes with 612 pieces and instructions to build up to 4 types of ‘bots.

To enter to win: All you have to do is leave a comment below! Comments left before June 14th at 11:59PM PST will be eligible to win this prize. Be sure to leave a valid email so we can contact you if you win. Feel free to tell a story about your own amateur pursuits, although it’s not necessary for a chance to win. For complete rules, click here.

These prizes are provided by The Crown Publishing Group, publishers of Bunch of Amateurs.


I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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