May 13, 2004
Americans have no single governing persona, and that's as it should
be: The Land of the Free has no room for a goose-stepping, nationalistic
identity. We're mongrels. We believe in and are motivated by thousands
of unique, different things, all sprouted from hundreds of intermingling
cultures and subcultures. So when you try to define “Americana,”
as journalist Hampton Sides has in his new book, Americana:
Dispatches From the New Frontier, you must travel across
what Sides calls "an archipelago of tribes," floating
down a Mississippi-like vein fed by innumerable tributaries. Sides
does that and more in his collection, taking readers for an entertaining
and sometimes visceral spin through several years' worth of profiles,
first-person accounts, human adventures and fly-on-the-wall
observations that touch down among Eden-like environments, Harley
riders, Tupperware salesladies, 9/11 survivors and spelling-bee
champs, and mine the larger-than-life personalities of such all-American
figures as G. Gordon Liddy and skateboard mogul Tony Hawk.
Sides, who will introduce the book tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the
Tattered Cover Book Store in Cherry Creek, says he owes his initial
fascination with America's tribes to his boyhood in Memphis, one
of the nation's truest cultural melting pots and an epicenter
of American music, where pop icon
Elvis Presley himself lived and was laid to rest. As a teen, Sides
watched Presley's faithful fans return year after year to Graceland
and was drawn in by the fact that their fervor never died down.
"It was such a marvelous freak show, and I found it fascinating,"
he recalls. "And I began to wonder, 'What
is it about this country that bonds these kinds of tribes together?
Where do they come from?" But his interest seems to go beyond
fascination; there's a certain amount of attachment, too. He likes
them. "These people are all for real; they're not kidding,"
he says of his diverse subjects. "It's true you
can have fun with some of these groups, but I try not to be mean-spirited.
They don't harm anybody."
And Sides, true to his word, returns the favor. Engendered by
a crack facility for vivid, pictorial prose, he invites readers
into each story with him. Read them, and you'll simultaneously
become one with and stand back from the idiosyncratic crannies
and backwaters that define American life. e
May 2, 2004
"Hampton Sides had no idea how tough a task organizing an
anthology of his essays would be.
One reason the job was so laborious was that Sides decided to
massage those articles that had previously been published in magazines
such as The New Yorker, Outside, Penthouse
and The New Republic.
They wouldn't be merely reprints of the originals. "It ended
up being a lot more work than I thought. There's three times as
much material that I had to read as what we actually published,"
Sides, a Santa Fe resident, said in a phone interview.
Reading was one thing. Editing was something else.
"Then every single piece was edited, basically trimmed, cut.
In some cases where I had the original draft before I sent it
to a magazine, I often worked off of that. Several pieces are
two or three times longer than what was (originally) published,"
All of this toil went into the collection titled Americana.
The book is divided into seven sections. The first is on "American
Originals," whom Sides described as "quintessential
American people." One is G. Gordon Liddy, one of the burglars
convicted in the Watergate break-in, who was running an academy
for corporate security in Southern California. Another is Indian
activist Russell Means.
Another section is on "American Edens," perfect places
or places that he said are idyllic wildernesses. One article here
is on rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon during
a man-made flood.
The section, "American Rides," has a piece on the Airstream
travel-trailer, another on bike couriers in Washington, D.C.,
and a third on the famous Harley Davidson rally in Sturgis, S.D.
In the section "American Obsessions," there's one essay
on Santa Fe's restrictions on architectural style.
Sides satirizes style regulations and those who enforce them:
"(Scene from a Peckinpah Western that was never made: Billy
the Kid is holed up in his new Pueblo style house in Santa Fe,
surrounded by a posse of concerned citizens from the review board.
'Billy, this residence is not regulation!' they say.
"'Sorry, boys!' Billy says, poking his Winchester out one
of the windows. 'I will not accept pebble-dash stucco! And I'll
paint my house any damn color I want!' '')
Sides, a Memphis, Tenn., native, moved to Santa Fe to work at
Outside magazine, where he has been an editor-at-large.
He is the author of the book Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten
Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission. And last
year he was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Sides is at work on a new book about Kit Carson and the submission
Navajo people during the Long Walk.
"It's hard to research, to write. I'm not working strictly
with documents and it's an unbelievably complicated period in
our history, meaning you've got a number of Civil War battles
taking place," he said.
"The villains aren't really villains and the heroes aren't
really heroes. It's kind of like Bosnia (that way), but it's absolutely
May 5-11, 2004
Your typical anthology of magazine articles is a heaping helping
of sloppy seconds, a mismatched bunch of stories far removed from
the hot moments that inspired them. But while some of the pieces
in Hampton Sides' collection Americana do indeed have
that not-so-fresh feeling (a 1994 dispatch, for
example, tells us all about some crazy "rave" thing
the kids are into), most hold their ground, thanks to his cracking
good journalism and storytelling craft. An editor-at-large for
Outside magazine, Sides seems happier writing about nature
than pop culture; but the guy's a pro, and none of his
stories—many of which originally appeared in The New
Yorker and The New Republic — fails to go
down as smoothly as a Seinfeld rerun.
With an admitted lack of certainty about what America "means,"
Sides nonetheless has amassed a collection of articles and essays
that capture the country's elusive qualities, noting that America,
supremely confident, has run out of geographical space and is
now venturing into new social frontiers.
In the collection of 30 stories, Sides illustrates the amazing
breadth and depth of American preoccupations and idiosyncrasies.
He gate-crashes the ultra-exclusive, conservative Bohemian Grove
resort in California and then chronicles a rafting party for the
human-engineered flooding of the Grand
Canyon, the reentry ceremony for Biosphere 2 in Arizona, and the
anything-goes weekends in the California desert. He profiles an
array of individuals, from Native American radical Russell Means
to extreme skateboarder Tony Hawk. In a section on post-9/11 America,
Sides profiles three survivors of the terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center and explains his decision not to embed himself
as a journalist in Iraq. With an eye for detail and the absurd,
Sides, author of the highly acclaimed Ghost
Soldiers (2001), presents a vivid portrait of the restlessness
and inventiveness of Americans.
"Editor-at-large Hampton Sides follows up on his 2002 bestseller
Ghost Soldiers with Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier,
a smart, colorful collection of 30 nonfiction pieces, many of
which first appeared in Outside. Sides hangs with skateboad
legend Tony Hawk in Las Vegas, rafts record flow in the Grand
Canyon, and races a rickety, traditional log canoe (on which 'every
moment is lived with the awareness that catastrophe is imminent')
on the Chesapeake Bay."
The San Francisco Chronicle
April 25, 2004
Hampton Sides earned critical applause and national recognition
for Ghost Soldiers, a dark, chilling narrative about the rescue
of World War II POWs who'd survived the Bataan Death March. Now,
with Americana: Dispatches From the New Frontier, readers can
discover some of the fine journalism that he's written over the
years for publications such as Outside magazine and The New Yorker,
alongside fresh, previously unpublished material.
He writes stories about truly American themes and
subcultures, be they Grand Canyon techno raves or a Tupperware
salesladies' convention. The collection also includes some sobering
features on America, post-Sept. 11.
Much of the collection's charm rests in its gallivanting, "road
trip" narrative form, with stops across the map, as Sides
gathers the odd-fitting pieces that, once assembled, best define
Americana. He immerses himself in unlikely locales and situations,
everything from a Harley-Davidson rally in South Dakota to a stealth
invasion of the Bohemian Club's exclusive Russian River retreat.
And unusual but alluring characters permeate the book: American
Indian leader Russell Means, Iditarod founder Joe Remington and
G. Gordon Liddy are just a few.
The latter section of Sides' anthology forgoes
the levity and humor and focuses on the contemplative mood of
the country today. It relates human- interest stories that render
a thoughtful, inquisitive look at contemporary America: portraits
of three Sept. 11 survivors, Sides' decision to "unembed"
in Iraq and a dramatic account on the first casualty of the recent
war. Nevertheless, the essential thread remains the same: The
fabric of America lies in its freedoms.
The Seattle Times
April 25, 2004
The author of Ghost Soldiers retitles his wonderful
1992 book, Stomping Grounds, and expands it from 8 to 30 essays.
Playful but never mean-spirited, Sides serves as both historian
and anthropologist as he studies Tupperware parties, caravan clubs,
the Iditarod and other all-American phenomena.
The Courier-Post (New Jersey)
April 23, 2004
You may be familiar with Hampton Sides as the journalist who un-embedded
himself on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After getting utterly spooked during a particularly graphic and
unappetizing lesson about the use of gas masks, the young father
of three opted out of frontline coverage of the war. His admirably
candid account of his decision, first published last spring in
The New Yorker, is among the 30 pieces anthologized in Americana,
a showcase for a great reporter and eloquent writer at the top
of his game.
A Tennessee native and Sante Fe, N.M., resident who is editor-at-large
for Outside magazine, Sides may also be known to readers as the
author of Ghost Soldiers, a celebrated 2001 book about U.S. troops
imprisoned in the Philippines during World War II. But while Sides'
affection for and understanding of the American military is palpable
in Americana (which is subtitled “Dispatches from the New
Frontier”), his takes on matters related to the U.S. armed
forces are as clear-eyed, unsentimental and insightful as those
about other aspects of life in these United States.
Among them: a wonderful account of the inevitable clash between
science and religion in Mormon-sponsored archaeological expeditions
("This is Not the Place"); a sobering sketch of American
Indian activist-celebrity Russell Means ("Chief Without Indians");
and an appropriately rocking profile of skateboarding icon Tony
Hawk ("The Birdman Drops In").
Also noteworthy are Sides' interview with Mel White, the formerly
closeted gay man who ghost-wrote for the famously homophobic Pat
Robertson and Jerry Falwell ("The Gay Eminence"); a
fond but dispassionate exploration of the testosterone-fueled
quest for the ultimate sound system ("Chasing the White Witch");
and his amazingly un-snarky tales of iconic American products
such as Airstream trailers and Tupperware ("The Silver City"
and "Sisters of the Bowl," respectively).
The final section, which focuses on post-9/11 America, provides
Americana with an emotionally resonant coda that lives up to this
superb book's ambitions. Much has been written about what happened
in the World Trade Center on that awful day and much more will
(and must) be. But Sides' interviews with eyewitnesses and/or
the loved ones of victims are breathtakingly powerful. The same
goes for "First," a heartbreaking story about 2nd Lt.
Shane Childers, the first American casualty of the war in Iraq.
If Americana is not already on President Bush's
reading list, it ought to be.
The Tucson Citizen
April 23, 2004
Hampton Sides is one of America's better writers. The native of
Memphis is editor-at-large of Outside magazine and author of the
recent bestseller Ghost Soldiers. For 15 years, he traveled throughout
America. One of the first things he discovered is that our country
is still very much a frontier, but one that is less geographic
than it is social.
The result of his experiences is a remarkable new collection of
30 essays documenting the experiences he encountered during his
travels. As might be suspected, Arizona is well represented in
the collection. For example, he describes his visit to the Biosphere
complex near Oracle the day when several thousand people were
on hand to welcome the inhabitants back to the outside world after
spending two years working inside the planetarium. His regional
experiences also include a fascinating visit with American-Indian
activist Russell Means on the Navajo Nation near Chinle and participating
in a giant techno-rave near the lip of the Grand Canyon. Other
high points of Americana include visits to the Indy 500 of bass
fishing, a spelling bee championship, the annual biker festival
in Sturgis and a surprising encounter with political renegade
G. Gordon Liddy.
Sides paints vivid literary pictures of our country
that are witty, wry, illuminating and never dull. At the core
of each essay is a tartness that is distinctly American.
April 1, 2004
This is a collection of 30 pieces written over 15 years by Sides,
editor at large for Outside magazine and the best-selling author
of Ghost Soldiers. As the title indicates, the contents chronicle
a variety of times and places that for the author paint a portrait
of what Americans are all about. Each piece is detailed and absorbing,
from a fascinating account of breaking into an exclusive male
retreat to the moving description of the death of an American
marine in Iraq. What differentiates Sides from other writers is
his intelligent, witty tone and well-crafted mix of appropriate
dialog, historic research, and personal observation. In his account
of breaking into Bohemian Grove, for example, Sides explains the
history of this Republican stronghold, both written and in legend.
He also describes his initial unsuccessful attempts, including
a reconnaissance mission by canoe. With extensive publicity and
an author tour to major centers, this book will be in demand at
public libraries, and it will be enjoyed by many readers.
"This may be the best road trip you’ll ever
take—full of strange visions, hilarious detours, and sudden
beauty in unlikely places.” —Burkhard Bilger, staff
writer at The New Yorker
"The ancient boyhood impulse to 'Get In,' as Hampton
Sides puts it, fuels this rollicking book. An entertaining investigative
trek through parts both familiar and strange."
—Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
"Hampton Sides’s America is a flabbergasting place. Funny
but never at the expense of his subjects, wise but not wiseass,
Sides seeks out decidedly non-average Americans who dig themselves
deep into things.” —Mary Roach, author of Stiff
"This is a dream adventure you’ll likely never get;
fortunately, Sides has been there. Wry, exuberant, and always
compassionate, Americana is pure pleasure. —Doug
Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way
"Inside this riveting collection we find a country
of hotly competing tribes encamped on the headlands of a still
undefinable frontier. These incisive and often humorous stories
comprise the vanguard of a new literature about America and its
— Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert
"Sides liberates his story from documentary and turns it
into epic. . . More than any monument, Ghost Soldiers is
the memorial both prisoners and liberators deserve." —The
"Riveting and patriotically stirring without
ever slipping into mawkishness or sentimentality."
—The New York Times
"[A] beautiful account of heroism . . . Sure to be a classic."
"The greatest World War II story never told." —Esquire
"Told with skill and intelligence, this is the story of a
stirring and heroic rescue operation in World War II. Ghost
Soldiers belongs on a shelf with General Hal Moore's and Joe
Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once...And Young, and Mark
Bowden's Black Hawk Down."
—David Halberstam, author of Playing for Keeps &
The Best and the Brightest
"A scribe among our tribes, Sides is a pleasant companion
and guide. A lively book about the odd national mania of ours
for huddling among the like-minded." —The Washington
"Clever, wry. . . A native of Memphis, site of Presley’s
Graceland, Sides is no stranger to weirdness, and his aplomb in
the face of exceedingly idiosyncratic behavior stands him in good
stead." —The Wall Street Journal
"Indifferent to expense and personal danger, Sides roams
from sea to shining sea to catalog the folkways of America’s
benign cults... A glorious sashay beneath a Tupperware rainbow.
It’s grand to hear a young author so nicely crying Wolfe."
—The Boston Globe
"With eloquence, tart humor, and sympathy, Sides serves as
historian, gleeful observer, and anthropologist...This is enticing
reportage—readable, informative, and filled with divertingly
eccentric anecdote." —The Seattle Times
"A vastly enjoyable excursion into American obsessions...the
true heartland of America, explored by a friend. . . A joy."
"An ebullient chronicle of America’s liveliest subcultures
and our marvelous penchant for extremes." —Booklist