GLS 592: The Beat Generation and American Culture
Instructor: Mike Wentworth
Cassady and Kerouac on left; Burroughs and Kerouac on right
One of the most significant, and certainly the best-known, social and cultural movements of the l950s was the Beat Movement, a movement that even its most notorious spokespersons were hard-pressed to define, and even then in fairly ambiguous terms. John Clellon Holmes, in his essay “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation” (l958) states the case directly:
Providing a word that crystallizes the characteristics of an entire generation hasalways been a thankless task. . . . But to find a word that will describe the group that is now roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight . . . is even more difficult, because this group includes veterans of three distinct kinds of modern war: a hot war, a cold war, and a war that was stubbornly not called a war at all, but a policy action.
The “crystallizing” word, of course, was “beat,” and it originated, as Holmes recalls in a later essay “The Name of the Game” in “the middle of a long, intense, only half-serious conversation” between Jack Kerouac and Holmes in November l948. Holmes had been goading Kerouac to describe “the peculiar quality of mind” projected by “the young hipsters of Times Square” as they walked down the street—“watchful, catlike, inquisitive, close to the buildings, in the street but not of it”—and Kerouac responded
“It’s a sort of furtiveness. . . . Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there’s no use flaunting on that level, the level of the‘public,’ a kind of beatness—I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves, because we all really know where we are—and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world. . . . It’s something like that. So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”
Holmes himself elaborates, though no less elusively than Kerouac, on “beatness” or “being beat”:
Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,” as being emptied out. It describes a state of mind from which all essentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up; to be existential in the Kierkegaard, rather than the Jean-Paul Sartre, sense. (“The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”)
More specific than the state of Beat consciousness described by Kerouac and Holmes are those characteristic manifestations of such a state, manifestations closely identified in the popular mind with the essential Beat character: a passive resistance to “square society”; an attraction to “far-out experiences” (sex, drugs, jazz) as more authentic than conventional forms of experience; a predilection for eccentric forms of expression; the absolute belief in “the creative power of the individual soul” (hence, the Beats’ adulation of such artists as Charlie Parker, James Dean, and Dylan Thomas) and a more general insistence upon the self-determined, and self-determining, autonomy of the individual. For Holmes, however, the most distinctive and significant attribute of the Beat Generation is its spiritual quest for meaning, purpose, and value in a world where the pursuit of such goals applies, if at all, only in the most superficial and crassly materialistic sense. Thus, according to Holmes, the dilemma confronting the Beat Generation “might be described as the will to believe even in the fact of the inability to do so in conventional terms” (“The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”). Speaking of Kerouac’s On the Road, Holmes observes that what makes Kerouac’s characters “beat” is the fact that
even though they rushed back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side. (“The Philosophy”)
Later, noting, once again, the Beat Generation’s relentless search for answers which may ultimately lead to jail or madness or death (one recalls the “best minds” of Ginsberg’s generation as depicted in Howl), Holmes summarizes that
They may never find the faith that Kerouac believes is at the end of their road. But on one thing they would all agree: the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable. (“The Philosophy,” italics added)
What this all means should become progressively evident through our reading of key “Beat” texts across a variety of genres. Along the way, we will discover and investigate a number of recurring themes and issues such as the notion of friendship and community, the visionary experience of the road, self-adventuring and experimental lifestyles, the prerogatives and responsibilities of the creative artist, and the quest for self-enlightenment. We will also examine the uneasy affiliation of the Beat movement with mainstream American society in the late l940s and the l950s, a period that witnessed an unprecedented rise in economic prosperity and earned income which, in turn, triggered an equally unprecedented rise in consumerism, home ownership, and marriage and birth rates. We will likewise examine the Beat movement’s revisionary critique of such traditional American values as material success, endless abundance, technology as savior, and the idea of America as a special nation even as we examine the Beats’ radical reaffirmation of other traditional American values such as self-reliance, individual freedom, the primacy of experience, and the open road as a means of self-discovery and self-illumination. Finally, we will attempt to discover, through our interactive contact with our assigned readings, what was so distinctive about the beat experience in terms of the various interests, attitudes, values, convictions, and aspirations that defined that experience and to determine to what extent such experience is resonant with the experience of subsequent generations, including, of course, your own. The latter consideration is of special interest to me since the “Beat” movement seems no less appealing and fascinating now than it was twelve years ago when I first taught this course. So, what’s the “big deal,” anyway? In answering this question, you should ultimately discover as much about yourselves, however distantly situated in time and place from the “original scene,” as you do about such legendary figures as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg who, though long or recently dead, continue to haunt the American cultural landscape.
You will be expected to produce twenty-four double-spaced pages of text over the course of the semester. You can satisfy the written requirement in terms of any one of the following three options.
Option Number One
Three “short” critical/analytical essays, each of which should be eight pages in length and each of which will constitute one-third of your final grade.
Option Number Two
Two “intermediate” critical/analytical essays, each of which should be twelve pages in length and each of which will constitute one-half of your final grade.
Option Number Three
One longer critical/analytical essay, twenty-four pages in length, which will constitute 100% of your final grade.
Due dates for each option, together with suggested essay topics, will be noted at our first class meeting.
William Burroughs, Junky
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Ann Charters, The Portable Beat Reader
Holly George-Warren, The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture.
John Clellon Holmes, Go
John Clellon Holmes, Passionate Opinions: Cultural Essays
Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir
Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson, Going Going Gone: Vanishing Americana
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man
John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation
William Burroughs, The Cat Inside
James Campbell, This Is the Beat Generation: New York-San Francisco-Paris
Ann Charters, ed. Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation?
Ann Charters, ed. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956
John Clellon Holmes, Representative Men: The Biographical Essays
Arthur Knight and Kit Knight, eds. Beat Vision: A Primary Source Book
Matt Theado, The Beats: A Literary Reference Guide
Though by no means required reading, to establish a socio-cultural frame of reference for the Beat Movement, you might want to read any of the following texts.
Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook
T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Inner Circle
Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
David Halberstam, The Fifties
Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s
Grace Metalious, Peyton Place
Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders
Vance Packard, The Status Seekers
David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character
Miriam G. Reumann, American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports
J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly
Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Note: Burroughs, Cassady, and Kerouac images courtesy of http://www.rotten.com/library/bio/authors/beats/jack-kerouac/.
Last Update: February 8, 2012