‘Search for the American Character’ Hitt celebrates amateur achievement

Jack Hitt celebrates America’s tradition of gifted amateurs in his new book.

In exploring the possibilities of an idea, a gifted, industrious or inspired amateur is not constrained by the professional’s assumptions or restricted to a body of “authoritative” knowledge.

The amateur enjoys complete freedom of movement and thought.

“One of the cool discoveries about amateur pursuits,” says Charleston-born author Jack Hitt, “is that if you are not being paid and if your work room or lab is entirely self-built and if there is no deadline and if you’re in there for the love of the thing, then everything that gets you closer to your vision is a kind of success — even, paradoxically, failure.”

Hitt’s new book, “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character,” takes a probing and humorous look at the tradition, from eccentric to zany, of amateur achievement in the U.S.

The word “amateur” connotes different things (and different shades of meaning) in various cultures. In the U.S., says Hitt, the definition is at its most broad.

“In Europe, the word still means someone essentially working outside the respectable confines of professionalism. Here, the word is a confusion of contradictions, meaning everything from a dilettante to a greenhorn to a connoisseur.

“This melting pot of definitions suggests our own thrill and shame at the fact that Americans often feel on some level that they are faking it and don’t really belong to the club they somehow have joined.”

It’s also why amateurs are so preoccupied with prizes and awards, Hitt suggests.

“We long for outside confirmation, especially since we fear that someone will look around the corner of our invented selves and find our toothless cousins, Fishbait and Elrod, and suddenly learn the shameful truth.”

Born and raised in the Holy City, where he got his journalistic start at Porter-Gaud School, Hitt is a Peabody Award-winning writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Outside and National Public Radio’s “This American Life.”

On Friday, he brings his touring one-man show, “Making Up the Truth,” to the Spoleto Festival USA for a four-day run.

In his new stage act, Hitt spins “extravagant, almost unbelievable” true stories dating from his early childhood and extending to the gallery of colorful characters he had encountered in decades of taking the nation’s pulse. All this, woven through the latest experiments in cognitive research, which purport to answer the question he’s most often asked: “Why do these things always happen to you?”

Apparently, they don’t. Or so he’s been told.

But that’s another story. Back to amateurs. Not all tinkering must culminate in a work of genius or a revolutionary product, such as Apple, Facebook or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Is there not value in the effort, in the exercise of imagination?

“Most amateur pursuits go nowhere, of course,” says Hitt, whose pieces also have appeared in “Best American Science Writing,” “Best American Travel Writing” and “The New Kings of Nonfiction.”

“Some wind up in utter lunacy. But for the vast majority, there is a certain pleasure first described by the Hungarian-American theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high” — perhaps the most fun name to say, ever).

“His concept of ‘flow’ holds that there is a very satisfying state of mind that occurs when one is totally absorbed by some action that one loves, a near meditative state of satisfaction arguably captured in our Declaration by the phrase, ‘pursuit of happiness.’ ”

Hitt gleefully admits he prefers the company of cranks and neurotics, and “Bunch of Amateurs” is well-populated with them. But in many cases, it’s a productive neurosis.

Hitt sees the process as a characteristically American phenomenon, an impulse that gets revived with every generation of Americans and every incoming tide of immigrants.

“One of the great bits of patriotic marketing in this country is that immigrants came here for noble reasons of personal freedom or religious liberty. But most Americans were driven out for being extremists (Puritans) or dragged out against their will (slaves) or sent over under contract (indentured servants).

“A great many others were disgruntled second sons enraged at the idiocy of primogeniture. Whatever the journey, the destination was a place where the idea of complete self-invention became a given.”

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.