Theory on why the Beats strayed from the American transcendentalists. Why do you think they didn't want to be American transcendentalists?

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It's hard to imagine the Beats not wanting to be compared to the transcendentalists because many appear to have been highly influenced by the likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and their contemporaries. If they were adamant at any point about not being compared to the earlier movement, it...

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It's hard to imagine the Beats not wanting to be compared to the transcendentalists because many appear to have been highly influenced by the likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and their contemporaries. If they were adamant at any point about not being compared to the earlier movement, it was likely out of a desire to be seen as their own distinct generation than on ideological grounds, for the two movements have much in common regarding spirituality, non-conformity, and the importance of the individual.

Both movements were influenced by eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and chafed against what they perceived as the narrow dogma of mainline Christianity. Both movements stressed the importance of staying true to oneself and not going along with what mainstream society expected, for its own sake or for fear of being ostracized by the community. Both viewed sexuality as healthy rather than inherently depraved when separated from procreation. The Beats pushed it all much farther into the realm of free love than the transcendentalist ever did. Finally, both movements were disillusioned with institutions, which they felt imposed upon the self-expression and integrity of the individual, particularly individuals who did not fit in with what society wanted of them.

The major differences between them are how far the Beats went in terms of experimenting with drugs and sex. While transcendentalists such as Whitman had shockingly open views about sex, free love was not celebrated among the transcendentalists like it was among the Beats. The Beats were largely reacting to the cultural shock left in the wake of World War II as well, while the transcendentalists were not reacting to a great traumatic event with their philosophy, so the Beats may have seen their work and beliefs as more of an antidote to their changing world.

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The American Transcendentalists were born out of a desire to be different from the norms that society was encouraging. They were born in the early 1900s when technological changes were threatening to adjust normal ways of life and society was attempting to force conformity on an entire generation. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Theodore Parker were key leaders of this movement. They encouraged thought experiments and individual exploration rather than conformity.

In the mid-1940s, a new generation of rebels was born: the Beats. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure were important figures in this group. Like the American Transcendentalists before them, they were not interested in conforming. They encouraged travel, physical and mental exploration to discover the individuality that people had to offer. Fundamentally, they were no different from the American Transcendentalists.

The major thing that set these two groups apart was timing. The specific world each group was rebelling against was different. Two world wars came and went between these movements and so the groups were fighting different cultural wars—albeit with the same general philosophies. Significantly, the world in which the Beats existed was influenced and changed by the American Transcendentalists. So, whether it was conscience or desired, in various ways the Beats were rebelling against the world the American Transcendentalists helped to create.

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I think the Beat poets saw themselves as a separate movement with its own identity.  When I think of the Beats, I think of individuality.  They were interested in art for art’s sake, and had a unique approach to poetry that was very personal and did not copy other styles.  You can read more about the Beat Generation here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_Generation

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The big difference has to be the drug use and experimentation with sexualization. Transcendentalists may have believed in one's ability to obtain a higher consciousness, but they also believed in something greater than themselves, whether that was God or the Universe. Transcendentalists didn't believe in self-destructive behaviors as a way to discover greatness, the Beats, at different points in their own lives, in fact, did. Eventually, the Beats leaned towards believing in the universe through Buddism or Zen or Hinduism. The Beats' exploration into the Asian cultures and religions happened after they couldn't find much through drug use. I can't imagine Whitman or Emerson smoking weed or experimenting with women or drugs. :)

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Even if the Beats might have said they did not wish to be seen as Transcendentalists, they have quite a bit in common with the older literary movement. An influence from eastern religions, specifically Hinduism, is clear in the work of Emerson, Whitman, Ginsberg and Kerouac. 

Also, Whitman's influence on the style of both Ginsberg and Kerouac is definite. The use of rhapsody and lists in the construction of the poetic and narrative voice is characteristic of all three of these writers. 

Have you read somewhere that the Beats sought to distance themselves from the Transcendentalists? I have only seen quotes that have the Beat writers praising the work of people who came before them...

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