About two-thirds of the way through Nick Offerman’s Gumption, the Parks and Recreation actor, humorist and woodworker leans in and describes what the word means to him.
“Part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one’s mettle to be challenged,” Offerman writes, explaining what ties together the 21 people—from founding fathers to writers, comedians and craftsmen—he chose to profile in the book.
That the definition appears during Offerman’s essay on perhaps the most unknown of the book’s “gutsy troublemakers,” boat builder Nat Benjamin, is telling. As he reveals elsewhere in the book, Gumption is a collection of Offerman’s personal heroes, and what links them together is anything but fame. That Benjamin, a Massachusetts expert in the ancient craft of wooden boats, is included alongside the likes of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt indicates that gumption can be found in any hard-working, imaginative, persistent and optimistic soul.
Every individual in the book, like Offerman himself, embarked on a lifelong series of self-imposed challenges. When failure happened along the way, it was never more than a temporary pause until gumption got things moving again.
In a book that pairs breezy, self-deprecating humor with well-researched and insightful passages, Offerman first revisits the founding fathers (“magnificent sons of bitches”) to establish his thesis—that gumption remains a guiding force in the lives of America’s most notable achievers. While it’s in these chapters that his humor shines (particularly in the fart jokes about Benjamin Franklin), the book grows more interesting as Offerman transitions from the past to write about the troublemakers he’s had the pleasure of meeting.
Still, Offerman maintains his focus during these early chapters, demonstrating what can be accomplished—the creation of an entirely new nation, based on the not-always-realized notion of democracy—with the many traits of gumption: perseverance, discipline, curiosity, diligence, idealism, intelligence, fearlessness, valor, vision and courage.
The book leans heavily toward the masculine troublemakers, with just four of the 21 chapters featuring a female luminary. Offerman is obviously aware of this imbalance, joking in the opening line of Eleanor Roosevelt’s chapter (“Hey, it’s a woman!”) and lamenting that one of America’s greatest flaws is the country’s long-standing resistance to the march toward gender (and racial) equality.
The reverence he holds for Eleanor Roosevelt, Yoko Ono, Carol Burnett and Laurie Anderson, however, meets or exceeds the torch he carries for the rest of his heroes, save perhaps Wendell Berry. And judging from his inclusions, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Mavis Staples, Susan Sontag or Nina Simone also making Offerman’s short list. (He mentions initially working from a list of at least 40 subjects.)
The most engaging chapters are the ones where Offerman relates personal conversations with his subjects. Writers Berry, Michael Pollan and George Saunders, comedians Burnett and Conan O’Brien and musicians Anderson and Jeff Tweedy come alive in Offerman’s prose as thoughtful and authentic people, above and beyond their achievements.
But above all, his heroes share an unwavering work ethic. “I am always hugely inspired (and personally relieved) to learn of the hard work that was required of any of my heroes before they could arrive at the level of mastery for which they ultimately garnered renown,” Offerman writes in the Burnett chapter (though it’s a sentiment that could have emerged anywhere in the book).
In the end, what emerges is a deep respect for the individuals Offerman highlights, but it’s impossible not to respect Offerman himself and the abiding egalitarian spirit that guides him and “gumptionators” everywhere. He writes with both humor and gravity, mixing anecdotes revealing his steadfast adoration for his wife Megan Mullally with astute commentary on politics and religion. Here is a man fully engaged with the world beyond Hollywood, who shares the individuality, the authenticity and the love of the outdoors with the people he most admires.