American Socialist, January 1958

[Louis Proyect: Despite the homophobic sour notes, this is a very perceptive article about the artistic reflections of social changes in the US that preceded the political and cultural rebellions of the 1960s.]

A Review Article: Chronicle of the Beat Generation

by George Hitchcock

ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Viking Press, New York, 1957, $3.95.

HOWL AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg. City Lights Bookshop, San Francisco, $.75.

AMERICANS have a peculiar affinity for marking their history off in decades. Each decade in turn gives rise to its particular and often exaggerated Zeitgeist, which literary and social historians promptly embody in a ‘generation.’ Thus we have had ‘the lost generation’ of the twenties, ‘the socially conscious generation’ of the thirties, ‘the war generation,’ and now in the fifties we have a rising aspirant for the title in the so-called ‘beat generation.’

How much historical validity this categorizing actually has and how much it owes to our Madison Avenue habit of summing up every complex problem in a slogan, must remain for the time being open questions. But here in San Francisco, at least, we do have a very lively and vocal ‘beat generation’ and the work of Ginsberg and Kerouac is the most illuminating guidebook to an understanding of it.

First, a little etymology. The word ‘beat’ is, I take it, employed in three different senses, although even insiders don’t appear to have reached agreement on the exact degree of its ambiguity. In addition to its obvious sense there is the jazz connotation and, finally, a sort of shorthand where it is assumed to stand for ‘beatific.’ The meanings are interlocking and more or less——depending on your mood—interchangeable.

The historians and publicists of the ‘beat generation’ have been the poets Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Lipton, although it is arguable how much direct influence they have had upon writers for the most part twenty years younger than they and concerned primarily with the attitudes of their own contemporaries. Rexroth is a distinguished poet and critic who for nearly thirty years has nurtured and kept alive on California soil a sort of transplanted Chicago anarchism. He is a caustic, opinionated man who sometimes appears as if he were sitting for a statue of ‘the last Wobbly,’ but he is also a scholar of genuine ability and one of the few authentic poets the Pacific Coast has yet produced. Lipton is a midwestern anarchist who now preaches ‘total disaffiliation’ from American society and urges his fellow-poets in Southern California to adopt a voluntary ‘vow of poverty’ as a practical method of escaping from the corruption of the dollar sign. Both are vigorous pacifists.

If Lipton and Rexroth can be called the elder prophets, Allen Ginsberg certainly has every claim to be known as the movement’s Jeremiah. For as the Lord is reputed to have revealed to Jeremiah in the wilderness: ‘And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof, but when ye entered, ye defiled my land and made mine heritage an abomination,’ so Ginsberg in a neon wilderness cries out against the corruption of America, lamenting the destroyed lives and blighted ambitions of his generation, not omitting those ‘who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.’

THE publication here of his ‘Howl and Other Poems’ created the closest thing to a literary sensation the West Coast has known in many years. The title poem is a protracted cry of rage, Biblical in form and surrealist in imagery, often turgid and at times hysterical, yet never lacking in explosive energy. It is the work of a literary dynamiter for whom anguish, marihuana and defiant homosexuality are all avenues of protest.

Orthodox society was quick to get the point. The Collector of Internal Revenue, a prominent Republican politician, ordered an entire edition of ‘Howl’ seized in transit from its British printers to its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco poet and book-seller. Ginsberg’s occasional use of un-bowdlerized Anglo-Saxon was given as the excuse, although Rexroth and others charged that the hand of the archdiocese was behind the seizures. Protests to Washington and the obvious lack of legal grounds resulted in the release of the edition.

The San Francisco police, perhaps with prompting from the same source, then got into the act. Officers of the Juvenile Bureau arrested Ferlinghetti and his clerk on very much the same charge that the officials of Athens brought against Socrates twenty-four hundred years ago—‘corrupting the young’—in this case by offering ‘Howl’ and a semi-anarchist literary magazine, The Miscellaneous Man, for sale.

The resulting trial attracted national attention and saw a nearly unanimous united front of the city’s intellectuals in defense of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. A distinguished list of authors and critics took the stand in defense of ‘Howl’s literary qualities, while the District Attorney’s office, largely staffed by Democrats, offered a somewhat shame-faced case for the prosecution. Judge Clayton Horn’s ultimate decision for the defense surprised no one in particular, but his opinion was both literate and libertarian and should serve as a valuable precedent. In many ways it was an advance over the historic Woolsey decision (ending in 1933 the American ban on Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’) as it emphasized in particular the importance of protecting the rights of social criticism.

‘Howl’ is at present selling merrily through another edition, Ginsberg was last reported sunning himself in North Africa, and the censors are presumably licking their wounds in the confines of the Olympic or Bohemian Clubs.

The second salvo in the battle of the ‘beat generation’ has now been fired via the respectable Viking Press. It is ‘On The Road,’ a novel by Jack Kerouac, a 35-year-old adopted San Franciscan who once played football at Columbia University. This last piece of information is not as meaningless as it sounds, for he approaches writing like a half-back on an endless touchdown run. He has already completed eleven full-length novels, of which ‘On The Road’ is only the second to reach print, and if he can maintain his present pace is likely to set new mileage records for the medium.

He writes breathlessly in a potpourri of styles and with almost total recall of the materials of his own wandering life. ‘On The Road’ is a sort of saga of a generation of rootless, restless lumpen-proletarian bohemians who endlessly traverse the face of America in search of her significance. They live in defiance of the norms of our prosperity, working at odd jobs when they have to, but preferring, when possible, the alternatives traditionally available to the hobo. From New York to New Orleans to Denver to San Francisco to Mexico City—this is the track of their ceaseless hegira. Everywhere they seek the ultimate in ecstatic experience, whether it be in driving a borrowed Cadillac a hundred miles an hour across Iowa, in all-night philosophic discussions, marihuana, jazz, or copulation.

Kerouac’s hero, a ‘jail-kid’ from Denver, Dean Moriarty, is a sort of intellectual Elvis Presley filled with a frantic hunger for life who leaves a trail of burned-out automobiles and women behind him from one end of America to the other. His characteristic manner of speech can be conveyed only by an example:

‘He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, ‘Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man!’ and ‘Phew!’ and wiped his face with his handkerchief. ‘Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears.’

Moriarty and his friends live in a souped-up world of continuous exhilaration as if the Second Coming is momentarily to be glimpsed around the corner. His psychological state could accurately be defined as approaching the manic. The philosophizing in which he and his friends are eternally indulging is all rubbish-—and generally self-conscious rubbish. It is compounded of bits of Zen Buddhism, Saroyan, hop-talk, and Hemingway, with a generous admixture of the mystical primitivism of D. H. Lawrence s ‘The Plumed Serpent.’ Nor do any of his characters ever really do anything or communicate with each other—they assume, instead, attitudes of angst which Kerouac apparently feels are proof of their uniquely inspired visions. ‘See, we are really MAD,’ he seems to be telling us over and over again. ‘Cool, beat, and MAD.’ Since the characters are precisely as MAD at the beginning as they are at the end and nothing else changes very much, we may be excused if we have grown to feel a certain weariness toward them.

But beneath the cultish nonsense and literary borrowings there is another aspect to ‘On The Road,’ and it is this which gives the book its value. For in his naive outpouring Kerouac gives us at least one authentic picture—the picture of a submerged America, the America of an alienated, protesting generation which wanders from meaningless job to meaningless job in the depths of her psychic forests, a part of America expatriated in its own land. And this tragedy is not merely the personal one of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise—it is the tragedy of our society, glittering on its suburban surfaces and anarchic and despairing in its true heart.

UNLIKE Ginsberg, Kerouac feels no Messianic outrage at this tragedy; it might be argued, indeed, that he never gets the point of his own story, so enchanted is he by an ‘our gang is wonderful’ feeling. But the point is there, and Kerouac’s naive enthusiasm in the end proves an even more effective tool for laying it bare than Ginsberg’s rhetoric.

Kerouac should be distinguished from his gallery of hipsters. As a writer he owes more to the romanticism of Thomas Wolfe than he does to the ‘cool cats’ of his own generation. He has warmth and compassion, and does not suffer from the pessimism or explicit homosexuality which limit Ginsberg’s approach. Sensing his own expatriation within America, he ten4s to identify himself with his fellow outcasts in our society, particularly among the Negro and Mexican peoples.

‘At lilac evening,’ he writes, ‘I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . .’

Romanticized as this version of Negro life is, it helps to illustrate one of the great differences between this generation of ‘expatriates’ and those other expatriates of the so-called ‘lost generation’ of the 1920s. For what has changed is not the philosophizing—all the ‘frantic’ talk can’t disguise the same old content—but the social position of these bohemians. The expatriates of the twenties—and here I think of ‘‘Tender is the Night’’ and ‘‘The Sun Also Rises’—nearly all had money or at least pretended that they did, and they rejected American materialism in favor of the more urbane values of a decaying European upper—class civilization. But the expatriates of Kerouac’s ‘beat generation’ are aliens within their own country and in their frenzied quest for inner truth are being drawn toward the sources of new life and hope within that country.

I hope that I have indicated that Kerouac is a remarkable writer, although not for reasons of which he himself seems aware. But as a document of our times his ‘On The Road’ rises far above the cult which helped give it birth and may, in time, be that movement’s chief justification.

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