Art Imitating Life
Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1730
The clearest dividing line between reviewers who praise the volumes of poetry, novels, stories, and essays from the Beat Movement and those who do not is the disagreement over what is real literature and what is not. Beat writers themselves did not make the decision easy, and most probably did not care at the time, nor would they care today. Indifference was “where it was at.” Yet, like it or not, the originators of the movement became famous, even sporadically wealthy, but they often had problems handling the popularity, as well as the money. To be “normal” was not an option, and their work needed to reflect that. As a result, the writing was unorthodox, controversial, outlandish, and shocking, at least for that time. But were the styles, themes, and subjects wholly premeditated and cheaply contrived or could they be helped, considering the personal lives of the authors? Probably no other so-called “movement” of writers was as directly related to life experiences as the one coined “Beat,” and a discussion of the movement is inseparable from a discussion of its authors. Few in number and relatively short in staying power, the Beat Generation produced the only kind of writing its members could have mustered.
There is little disagreement over the small number of main players who could legitimately call themselves Beats. Corso claimed the movement consisted only of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and himself, and that four people did not even make up a “generation.” In The Birth of the Beat Generation, author Steven Watson says that “By the strictest definition, the Beat Generation consists of only William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke, with the slightly later addition of Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.” Corso may not have appreciated his placement as a “slightly later addition,” but Watson’s list is still small, no matter how the names are juggled. Moreover, the people behind the names appear to have had life’s cards stacked against them from the beginning. Violent childhoods, broken families, bizarre fascinations, and no regard for personal health are the common experiences and common attitudes of the Beats, and their writing was little more than a public explosion of private fireworks. Considering that all survived their beginnings to become internationally known, the volatile foundations of these writers are worth a look.
Without doubt, Burroughs was oddest of them all. Typical, brief biographies neglect to mention that he began investigating methods of forging hard metals for weapons when he was eight years old; that he built homemade bombs as a teenager, one of which blew up in his hands, sending him to the hospital for six months, and another which he tossed through a window of his school principal’s house; that, also as a teenager, he ingested a bottle of chloral hydrate and nearly died; that he almost killed a college classmate when he aimed at the fellow’s stomach but ended up blowing a hole in his dorm room wall; that he severed the tip of his little finger with a pair of poultry sheers in protest of his first male lover’s infidelity. All this by the time he was twenty-five. Burroughs’s adulthood in New York and elsewhere is more documented than his childhood and adolescence, but it too rings of the same macabre fascinations and dangerous activities that enveloped his early years. The writing he did as both a youth and as an adult reflects his morbid obsessions and ghoulish practices, as well as his blatant disregard for laws and social mores. How aptly named is the “cut-up” technique for an author whose own mind and body consistently felt the puncturing and rending of a base, depraved, and fractured existence.
Another prominent Beat writer, Corso, also grew up with violence, although initially he was not the one asking for it, as it seems Burroughs was. After his mother abandoned him at the age of six months, Corso was placed in foster homes, living with three sets of parents in ten years. At twelve, he stole a radio from a neighbor and was sentenced to juvenile detention, the first of many run-ins with the law. In detention, the young Corso endured so many beatings that, in desperation, he rammed his hands through a window and was sent to the chil- dren’s psychiatric ward at Bellevue hospital. After another stint in a boys’ home, he wound up living on the street, where he honed his theft skills. At sixteen, he and two other street kids robbed a finance company of $7,000, and all of them went to prison. Corso was released at age twenty when he headed to New York and met the other members of the Beat Generation.
Ginsberg’s childhood was not filled with as much personal violence as was Burroughs’s and Corso’s, but it was just as torn though in a different direction. Bouts with schizophrenia landed his mother in a sanatorium when Ginsberg was only three years old, and she was in and out of institutions for the rest of her life. Being without his mother for extended periods of time was hard on the boy, but being with her proved even more challenging. When she was home, Naomi Ginsberg went on vocal tirades in support of Communism and insisted on walking around naked. She forced her son to listen to her paranoid fantasies, including her fear that Ginsberg’s father was poisoning their food, that she had to cover her ears with kitchen pots to ward off evil, and that there were insects threatening to take over their home. Ginsberg began to console himself with two primary comforts: writing and sexual fantasies. He became consumed with both and often melded the two in his secret diary. His well-publicized work as an adult is proof that he never got over it.
By comparison to his three main cohorts, Kerouac seems to have led an almost normal childhood, but normal is definitely a relative term. At age four, Kerouac endured the death of his nineyear- old brother, and he clung to his Catholic teachings with fanatical adherence, believing in visions of ghosts and statues whose heads could move on their own. A shy loner, Kerouac turned to writing and used the prose process as a means of sexual stimulation. Writing himself into a frenzy, so to speak, remained a habit, if not trademark, throughout his adult writing career. So too did the alcoholism he picked up from his father. Perhaps more so than the others, Kerouac tried to live a valid “literary” life, but there were too many obstacles in the way, many of which he created himself.
These biographical summaries obviously portray the worst of their authors’ lives and, admittedly, they lean to the darker side for a purpose. To address Beat writing is to address Beat writers, and, while there are numerous other published Beats, the four mentioned here are considered the core group. There are also numerous other writers of all genres, all decades, all centuries whose lives were surely as violent, despairing, eerie, and dreadful as those described here, so what is the difference? What makes the Beat Movement so intrinsically tied to the similar quirks and experiences of the people involved? First, size. Even if one extends the circle of Beat writers beyond the Columbia group, beyond Greenwich Village, across the country to San Francisco, the number of members is still fewer than that of other well recognized literary movements. Extending the circle, however, is generally artificial, for a discussion of the Beats always returns to the handful of original members. Second, the personalities and resulting behavior of those members play a significant role in shaping the movement, as well as in confining it to a tight space in literary history. Most important, the writers themselves incite the debate on whether the word “literary” should even apply to their works.
Those who fare best in the debate are the poets. Generally given more license to experiment with styles and to ignore rules of syntax and grammar, poets Ginsberg and Corso tended to be criticized more for their subjects than their presentations. Explicit sexual references and anti- American pronouncements overshadowed the often incoherent, rambling lines and forced imagery. The prose writers were measured—and still are— with a different yardstick. Is cutting up pages of someone else’s words and randomly splicing them together to create one’s own work really “writing?” Even when individuals slice and shuffle their own words, is that literature? Regarding spontaneous writing, does it take real talent to sit at a typewriter and tap out every thought that comes to mind without any regard for plot, cohesion, readability, or an interesting subject? In the 1950s, many people answered no to all these questions. Hindsight, however, has been kinder. Now, critics are tempted to judge the products of the Beats based on nonliterary facets such as cultural restrictions and postwar fears. The Beats, it seems, are now praised for the very practices that condemned them fifty years ago. A complacent, smug America needed a good shaking, and the Beats provided it. The question remains: did they provide it through good writing?
That question will not be answered here or anywhere else. Like any “art” debate, it comes down to personal opinion. Perhaps the more intriguing point to ponder is whether the main writers of the Beat Generation—those who gave it both voice and a name—were only imitating their broken, scattered, “beat” lives with the works they produced. And further, could they have produced anything else? The contention here is no. The Beats wrote what they wrote because they lived how they lived. Rebels produce rebellious work—the more dissenting the lifestyle, the more defiant the writing. It is hard to imagine a Burroughs or a Ginsberg writing like William Faulkner or Robert Frost, or even like Norman Mailer or Gary Snyder, for that matter. While these writers and poets and countless others could surely be called defiant or even shocking by certain audiences, the Beats wore their pain, anger, criminality, and deviance on their sleeves like well-earned badges. They displayed grim personal lives openly through their actions and even more deeply through the words they put on paper.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on the Beat Movement, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Queer Shoulders to the Wheel: Beat Movement as Men’s Movement
Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3743
On a lovely autumn day in 1987, I walked into the office of an English professor I had taken a course with the year before, one of the most influential and widely quoted literary historians in the country, the first woman to be appointed an editor for either of the major Norton anthologies, in her case The Norton Anthology of American Literature, an Americanist who, despite the title of her contentious essay “The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don’t Do Feminist Theory,” was at that point doing what she had always been doing: important feminist work. Five years later, much of that work—“The Madwoman” and thirteen of her other most important essays—would be collected and published under the title Feminism and American Literary History.
On that lovely autumn day, there in her spacious office—she was then the Director of the School of Humanities—I asked her if she would direct my dissertation. “What’s it going to be about?” she asked. “Jack Kerouac,” I ventured. She looked at me. I looked at me, too. I don’t remember much about the short conversation that ensued except that she insisted upon my dissertation not becoming, as she put it, “some big macho trip.”
Fast-forward to a less lovely March afternoon in 1994. Though I had a full-time, albeit non-tenuretrack, job at a nearby college, I was driving the same piano truck I had been driving since I had begun my Kerouac project, moving the same pianos with the same guys in the same way for the same few extra dollars. Aware that I had been recently divorced, one of those same guys, the only one not to be completing or defending a dissertation or turning one into a book and whining about each or all of those steps, asked me how things were going. I told him I was looking forward to a road trip north to deliver a paper at a conference. “What’s it about?” he asked. “It’s for AMSA, the American Men’s Studies Association, and it’s called ‘“Putting My Queer Shoulder to the Wheel’”: The Beat Reinscription of Cultural and Literary Diversity.’” “Hey,” he cautioned me, “that sounds politically incorrect on two counts.” An alumnus of the same university laboratory high school that has produced more than one Nobel Prize winner and exactly one George Will, Ken seized the opportunity. “First,” he said, “you’re not gay. And, second, that sounds like a deeply reactionary group.” He looked at me. I looked at my hands at ten and two on the wheel.
Autobiographical hors d’oeuvres like the two served above are common enough. They entertain; they instruct. They build community; they serve as confession. In the act of baring ourselves—or getting, as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg would say, “naked”—we simultaneously proclaim our differences and reveal our similarities. If Ginsberg were to walk into an AMSA conference session and repeat his celebrated gesture of disrobing in public and those of us attending the session were to follow suit by unsuiting, we would see simple theme and variation at work. If we chose instead to sit fully clothed in a circle and tell our stories, reveal ourselves for good and bad, in all our ugly beauty, we would be practicing the same “nakedness” that Ginsberg practiced and promoted.
Aside from everything else they might bare about me, the two stories that open this essay— the first about an influential mentor who happens to be a woman, the second about a concerned friend who happens to be a man—suggest an uneasiness about the way in which I position myself in relation not just to the Beat movement that Kerouac and Ginsberg served as figureheads, but also to the men’s movement. The larger story that this essay builds is a cautionary tale about the liberation of post-WWII America from the constrictions of what Paul Goodman referred to at the time as “the Organized System.” As with any American story about the human desire for self-expression in the face of conformity—or, at its most basic, life in the face of death—the identification of a primary liberator or liberating force is as historically reductive as it is culturally familiar.
Yet, if we want to write a story of cultural liberation in postwar America, culminating in the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the women’s movement, as well as the men’s movement, we would do well to begin with the Beats, who “act[ed] out a critique of the organized system that everybody in some sense agree[d] with.” The Beat critique provided, according to John Tytell “the confirmation that America was suffering a collective nervous breakdown in the fifties, and that a new nervous system was a prerequisite to perception.” The rewiring of America called for, as it usually does, a redefinition of what it means to be American. The Beats, to their credit, were active agents in that rewiring, no matter how sloppy the job in its early stages. This essay describes the job the Beat movement—arguably, postwar America’s first men’s movement—did and the bits of rewiring it left undone for later movements.
In the Beat aesthetic, the body and the word are inseparable. Among the “best minds” of Ginsberg’s generation, as he announced on that most famous of Beat nights, the October 13, 1955, Six Gallery poetry reading of “Howl,” were those “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts” (line 35). “‘Open form,’” he later said, “meant ‘open mind.’” In a short how-to called “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac argued for the same kind of openness, a nakedness he associated with birthing imagery:
[W]rite outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion. . . Never afterthink to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrungout tossed from cradle warm protective mind . . . always honest, . . . spontaneous, “confessional” interesting, because not “crafted.”
In theory, then, “afterthinking” or “crafting” is a life-denying impulse or act. In closing form, we close minds; in discouraging diversity, we encourage dishonesty; in limiting variation, we impoverish theme; in differentiating between genitals and manuscripts or the body and the word, we weaken our creative and procreative capacity. We kill, in other words, the potential in art, in life, in our individual and communal selves when we separate the body and the word or, put differently, the material and the spiritual.
Autobiography and spontaneity, body and word, genitals and manuscripts—all of these elements are central to the Beat aesthetic. One evening in 1955, as Kerouac waited for him, Ginsberg grabbed a pencil and in twenty minutes turned an experience he had shared with Kerouac earlier that day into a now often anthologized poem called “Sunflower Sutra.” If the story is true, Ginsberg composed the poem at a rate of more than one word every other second for twelve hundred seconds. Even if the story is only partly true, the final line is a powerful example of the Beat aesthetic:
We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown visions.
Spontaneously composed autobiographical art as material as it is spiritual. In short, body and word.
Perhaps the strongest, clearest expression of our individual and communal need to keep body and word linked lies in our autobiographical impulse, our drive to reinvent ourselves, our “hairy naked accomplishment-bodies,” with each story we tell. As both of the recent Jungian best sellers— Robert Bly’s (1990) Iron John: A Book about Men and Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ (1992) Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype—demonstrate, the need to tell such stories crosses gender lines. And as the Murphy Brown episode in which a group of men struggle unsuccessfully to keep Murphy from entering their circle and seizing their talking-stick reminds us, men and women will and do cross artificially imposed gender lines regardless of interference.
Twenty-three years ago, the first hardcover textbook devoted to feminist literary criticism, Susan Koppleman Cornillon’s (1972) Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, was published. A collection of essays, it included one by Florence Howe, who had just finished heading up the Modern Language Association’s 1969–1971 Commission on Women and would soon become MLA’s president. Making one of feminism’s most important arguments—that no account, critical or literary, is ever disinterested—Howe called on autobiography as a starting point: “I begin with autobiography because it is there, in our consciousness about our own lives, that the connection between feminism and literature begins.” It is also there—in autobiography—that masculinity and literature connect.
Certainly both of the two major publishing events in Beat history, Ginsberg’s (1956) Howl and Other Poems and Kerouac’s (1957) On the Road, stressed just that: that the line between life and literature is autobiography. In foregrounding “our consciousness about our own lives,” the Beats walked that line, one that led naturally to what is arguably their primary cultural contribution: their interest in and promotion of diversity. Arguably the best summation of the Beats’ cultural critique is the close of Ginsberg’s (1956) “America”:
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn
lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted
and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the
Fearing a postwar encroachment of homogeneity, these “naked angels,” as John Tytell called them, consistently celebrated heterogeneity. They sent out for instance, an early call for multiculturalism, they decried the loss of regional diversity, and they publicly approved of homosexuality long before Stonewall. Everyone’s “hairy naked accomplishment- body” needed to be blessed: everyone’s story needed to be reinscribed in the “hairy naked accomplishment-body” of America itself if America was to realize its own “golden sunflower” by living up to its promise as the great social experiment of modern times. The “queer shoulder” of Ginsberg’s challenge began autobiographically with Ginsberg himself, a homosexual, Jewish, Russian-American child of a Socialist father and a Communist mother, and if he was not really “psychopathic,” he certainly did a turn in the Columbian Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. The less literal “shoulder” Ginsberg wanted admitted to the “wheel” was the Demonized Other, the Unassimilated American. Kerouac’s primary idea of the Other was what he called the “fellaheen” (i.e., Mexicans, Native Americans, and African Americans); William Burroughs’ list began with petty thieves and drug addicts.
According to Burroughs, the third of the three major Beat figures, America was in fact ready for a sea change:
Once started, the Beat movement had a momentum of its own and a world-wide impact. . . . The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.
Artists to my mind are the real architects of change.... Art exerts a profound influence on the style of life, the mode, range and direction of perception. . . . Certainly On the Road performed that function in 1957 to an extraordinary extent. There’s no doubt that we’re living in a freer America as a result of the Beat literary movement, which is an important part of the larger picture of cultural and political change in this country during the last forty years, when a four letter word couldn’t appear on the printed page, and minority rights were ridiculous.
Women’s rights were also “ridiculous,” but they get no mention here. That should come as no surprise, considering Burroughs’ very public stance as a misogynist. In an interview published in 1974, Burroughs blames Western dualism on the creation of women: “I think they were a basic mistake and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.” If women are the result of a key creational error, they are also, as Burroughs adds, at the root of a national problem: “America is a matriarchal, white supremacist country. There seems to be a definite link between matriarchy and white supremacy.” For Burroughs, then, woman is the Ultimate Other, both Demonized and Demonizing, for she carries with her into the universe the basic concept of difference and perpetuates it in America with her role in race relations. She is, in other words, the Other who (m)others Others, a perfect queer-shoulder machine.
But what of the Beat movement in general? Were women to be included in the roll call of Others who might conceivably put their “queer” shoulders to the wheel? Were their “hairy naked accomplishment-bodies,” their stories, their body and word to be included in the rewiring of America that the Beat critique called for?
The issue of voice is a central one in Joyce Johnson’s (1983/1984) Minor Characters: The Romantic Odyssey of a Woman in the Beat Generation, winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time On the Road was published and a witness to the public clamor that resulted, Johnson closes Minor Characters with the image of herself at “twentytwo, with her hair hanging below her shoulders, all in black like Masha in The Seagull—black stockings, black skirt, black sweater.” Johnson’s happy, pleased to be seated “at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place . . . that’s alive.” Johnson sees, however, that
as a female, she is not quite part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises toward the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being wakened. Merely being here, she tells herself, is enough.
And at that time, it is.
Aware of the marginalization of women in Beat culture, literary historian Michael Davidson argues that
The Beats offered a new complex set of possible roles for males that, even if they subordinated women, at least offered an alternative to the consumerist ideology of sexuality projected by the Playboy magazine stereotype of heterosexuality and to the Saturday Evening Post version of the nuclear family.
The Beats, then, offered men a way out of the organized system, and though they were guilty of replicating “square” culture’s subordination of women, they offered women a way out, too. For many women, Beat culture was preferable to a life in the suburbs.
Even so, replication of this sort is especially disheartening when it occurs within a subculture that purports to be egalitarian and liberationist by nature. Consider, for instance, the goals of the bohemian occupants of Greenwich Village thirty to forty years earlier:
1. The idea of salvation by the child. . .
2. The idea of self-expression. . .
3. The idea of paganism. . .
4. The idea of living for the moment. . .
5. The idea of liberty. . .
6. The idea of female equality. . .
7. The idea of psychological adjustment. . .
8. The idea of changing place. . .
That the Beats adhered to all but one of these tenets bespeaks their bohemian roots and aspirations; that their “idea of liberty” did not extend equally to women points to their investment in square, or patriarchal, conventions. Looking back at Beat culture in a June 1989 Village Voice article, feminist writer and activist Alix Kates Shulman decries the conspicuous absence of the Emma Goldmans and Isadora Duncans of an earlier generation of bohemians: “[B]y the time the Beats were ascendant, the postwar renewal of mandatory domesticity, sexual repression, and gender rigidity had so routed feminism that it lapsed even in bohemia.”
During the height of public interest in Beats and beatniks, the place of women in Beat culture was publicized by detractors and exponents alike. In 1959, Life attacked Beat males on a number of grounds, one of which was their financial dependence on women. The year before, Playboy had also attacked the Beats. If Beat women did all the work at home and in the marketplace to support their men, they also, according to Playboy, did all the work in bed: “When the hipster makes it with a girl, he avoids admitting that he likes her. He keeps cool. He asks her to do the work, and his ambition is to think about nothing, zero, strictly from nadaville, while she plays bouncy-bouncy on him.” In both versions, the Beat male offends. In the Life version, the problem is work; in the Playboy, sex. In neither case, the square nor the hip, is the Beat rebel masculine enough.
Even sympathetic accounts like Lawrence Lipton’s (1959) The Holy Barbarians and Paul Goodman’s (1960) Growing Up Absurd wondered aloud why women would be interested in a lifestyle that seemed so obviously to subordinate them. Lipton asked, “What are they like, these women of the beat generation pads? Where do they come from, how do they get here? And why?” Goodman suggested that the Beats might be even more exclusionist than their “square” counterparts: “What is in it for the women who accompany the Beats? The characteristic Beat culture, unlike the American standard of living, is essentially for men, indeed for very young men who are ‘searching.’”
The typical woman in a Beat narrative, whether a memoir or a novel, lives in the margin of a margin. Consider, for instance, the following description by Joyce Johnson, a woman who, like her famous boyfriend, wanted to be a writer. She knew that margin all too well:
The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers. Their old ladies. You kept your mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.
As Beat artists, the men were marginalized figures, their shoulders “queer,” their status “other.” As “onlookers” of the overlooked, their “old ladies” were doubly marginalized. Neither ladies nor artists in their own right, they were at that point too wild for some, not wild enough for others. The rewiring of America had begun, though, and the Beat convergence of body and word around a “table in the exact center of the universe” was instrumental in bringing “the dead culture” back to life. If the Joyce Johnsons of Beat culture suffered because they were women, they chose to do so because suburbia offered the same job without the benefits.
Like the American social experiment that can boast of many successes, so can the Beat experiment. Burroughs may be right when he claims, “There’s no doubt that we’re living in a freer America as a result of the Beat literary movement.” Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac certainly redefined both the wheel and the shoulder that would make it turn. But the embodied manuscripts they imagined waving seditiously from rooftops were certainly genitally male, the pen as phallus as pen, that old inky sword ripping a highly masculine signature across the body and mind of America. At their worst as a cultural agent, they suffered a failure of the imagination, reverting to old patterns. As Catharine R. Stimpson so ably puts it: “The Beats often feminized invective to scorn the fag. Such a practice is but one mark of a cultural boundary they could rarely cross: a traditional construction of the female, and of the feminine.” The Beat movement was, in many ways, what Nina Baym, my dissertation director, did not want to have to deal with: “some big macho trip.”
At their best, the Beats forced a national dialogue about alternative discourse and community, and, in their unofficial credo that “open form” means “open mind,” they helped America realize what it already knew: that there’s room at the wheel for everyone’s word and hairy naked accomplishment- body, everyone’s story and shoulder, regardless of whether everyone’s genitals can wave like manuscripts from rooftops. Did the Beats realize that at the time? Apparently not, but the failure of feminism in Beat culture is the failure of feminism in 1950s’ America. Twentieth-century bohemian enclaves, regardless of the decade, have always depended on what Davidson calls “elaborate pecking orders and cult loyalties”, and gender has always, regardless of the enclave, produced margins into which women have had to write themselves.
In the twentieth-century narrative of bohemian involvement in women’s rights, the Beats are not well positioned historically. Without the advantage of the feminist networks and forums that had some say in European and American bohemian communities prior to World War lI, the Beat project has come to constitute, for many, a movement of men for men. Though it sought to rewire America through confrontational, confessional art and liberationist politics, its shortsightedness left key bits of the job undone.
Given historical reminders like this one, can today’s men’s movement avoid what my pianomoving buddy Ken Stratton suspects is a reactionary impulse and remember that no account, whether literary or critical, is ever disinterested is ever free of autobiography, is ever anything but the story of someone’s Other as it is simultaneously the story of everyone’s shoulder positioning itself at the wheel? The men’s movement, like the women’s movement out of which and against which it has grown, is a set of competing—and, in some cases, hostile—practices (e.g., profeminist, mythopoetic, men’s rights). Thus, it is not so much a movement as it is a narrative of competing stories, of hairy naked accomplishment-bodies born in autobiography and lived in consciousness and reinvention. The degree to which the men’s movement moves at all depends upon the wheel and how many competing “queer shoulders,” how much diversity, it permits and how much we have learned, or unlearned, from past movements.
Source: Stephen Davenport, “Queer Shoulders to the Wheel: Beat Movement as Men’s Movement,” in The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, May 1995, pp. 297–307.
On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest
Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5540
For the beat generation of the 1940s and 1950s, dissertation time is here. Magazine and newspaper critics have gotten in their jabs. Now scholars are starting to analyze the literature and legacy of the beat writers. In the last few years biographers have lined up to interpret the lives of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, and publishers have rushed into print a host of beat journals, letters, memoirs, and anthologies. The most recent Dictionary of Literary Biography devotes two large volumes to sixty-seven beat writers, including Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Peter Orlovsky, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen.
Historical writing on relatively recent subjects tends to get bogged down in issues raised by early critics, and recent scholarship on the beat generation is no exception to this rule. From the pages of Life and Partisan Review, contemporary scholars have inherited two key interpretive lines that I want to call into question here: first, the tendency to view the beat movement rather narrowly as a literary or cultural impulse; and second, the inclination to judge this impulse negatively, as a revolt against rather than a protest for something.
Although there was a smattering of early critical acclaim for the beat writers, neither their literature nor their movement fared well with the critics. One reviewer called William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch “a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader’s nose down in the mud for 250 pages.” Kerouac’s On the Road was said to distinguish itself from true literature by its “poverty of emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic resources, an ineptitude of expression, and an inability to make anything dramatically meaningful”. What bothered the critics most about the beats was their negativity. Life claimed they were at war with everything sacred in Eisenhower’s America— “Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the Savings Bank, Organized Religion, Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League Suit and Higher Education, to say nothing of the Automatic Dishwasher, the Cellophanewrapped Soda Cracker, the Split-Level House and the clean, or peace-provoking H-bomb.” The Nation dismissed the beats as “nay-sayers”; even Playboy called them “nihilists.”
This interpretation reached its rhetorical heights in a 1958 Partisan Review review of On the Road by Norman Podhoretz. While Life had compared the beats with communists and anarchists, Podhoretz grouped them with Nazis and Hell’s Angels. “The Bohemianism of the 1950s is hostile to civilization; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, ‘blood,’” he wrote. “This is a revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul.” In a follow-up note in the next issue, Podhoretz asked those who wrote in to defend the beat writers, “Where is the ‘affirmation of life’ in all this? Where is the spontaneity and vitality? It sounds more like an affirmation of death to me.”
The beats responded to this critical chorus with one voice. “Beat,” Kerouac asserted, stood not for “beat down” but for “beatific.” “I want to speak for things,” he explained. “For the crucifix I speak out, for the Star of Israel I speak out, for the divinest man who ever lived who was German (Bach) I speak out, for sweet Mohammed I speak out, for Buddha I speak out, for Lao-tse and Chuang-tse I speak out.” To those who called “Howl,” a “howl against civilization,” Ginsberg replied that his signature poem was a protest in the original sense of “pro-attestation, that is testimony in favor of Value.” He too described his protest in religious terms. “‘Howl’ is an ‘Affirmation’ by individual experience of God, sex, drugs, absurdity,” he explained. “The poems are religious and I meant them to be.”
Apologies of this sort have convinced most scholars of American literature that the beat movement amounted to something rather than nothing. Beat literature is, as a result, edging its way into the American literary canon. But exactly what (and how much) beat poems and novels amount to remains a matter of debate. Few interpreters now ignore entirely the obvious spiritual concerns of the beats’ work. But the tendency among literary scholars is to see those concerns as tangential rather than constitutive.
Surprisingly, historians of American religion have demonstrated even less interest in beat spirituality. The beats are conspicuously absent from standard surveys of the field and from recent monographs on American religion in the postwar period. Historians of American religion who have explored beat spirituality have tended to focus almost exclusively on the beats’ engagement with Zen and then to dismiss that engagement as haphazard. Thus Carl T. Jackson, echoing Alan Watts’s earlier contention that “beat Zen” is “phony zen,” contends in a recent article that the beats (with one exception) deviated from some hypostatized “authentic” Zen and therefore fail to qualify as “real” Zen Buddhists. While such judgments may do something to safeguard Zen orthodoxy (whatever that may be), they tend, perhaps unintentionally, to render beat spirituality illegitimate even while informing us about it.
Forty years ago Perry Miller contended that transcendentalism, which had previously been interpreted largely in literary terms, was essentially a “religious demonstration” and as such deserved a prominent place not only in American literature but also in American religious history. This article presents an analogous, if somewhat more modest, argument for the beat movement. My thesis is that the beats were spiritual protesters as well as literary innovators and ought, therefore, to be viewed at least as minor characters in the drama of American religion. If, as Miller argues, transcendentalism represented a religious revolt against “corpse-cold” Unitarian orthodoxy, the beat movement represented a spiritual protest against what the beats perceived as the moribund orthodoxies of 1950s America.
A “New Vision”
The beat movement began with the meeting of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg in New York in 1944, coursed its way through the San Francisco poetry renaissance of the 1950s, and spent itself sometime in the early 1960s. It was led by three main figures—a working-class French-Canadian Catholic from Lowell, Massachusetts (Kerouac), a middle-class Russian-American Jew from Paterson, New Jersey (Ginsberg), and an upper-class Anglo-American Protestant from St. Louis (Burroughs)— and included a large supporting cast of novelists, poets, and hangers-on. What united these men (and the vast majority of them were men) was a “new consciousness” or a “new vision.”
Like any spiritual innovation, this new vision included a rejection of dominant spiritual norms and established religious institutions. Neither of the two most popular spiritual options of the early postwar period—the new evangelicalism of Billy Graham and the mind cure of Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946), Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen’s Peace of Soul (1949), and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952)—seemed viable to the beats in the light of the long postwar shadow cast by the Holocaust, the bomb, and the cold war. Thus Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg joined neo-orthodox theologians H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr in rejecting any easy return to normalcy and in damning the evangelical and mind-cure revivals as vacuous at best. For this beat trio, neither positive thinking nor evangelical Christianity could make sense of God’s apparent exodus from the world. But somehow Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a book the beats studied and discussed in the late 1940s, could.
Inspired by Spengler’s apocalypticism, the beats announced the death of the tribal god of American materialism and mechanization. (“There is a God / dying in America,” Ginsberg proclaimed.) But in keeping with Spengler’s cyclical view of history, they prophesied that a new deity was arising from the wreckage. (Ginsberg called it “. . . an inner / anterior image / of divinity / beckoning me out / to pilgrimage.”)
In 1938, two years after his graduation from Harvard, William Burroughs wrote a humorous yet foreboding short story entitled “Twilight’s Last Gleamings.” Loosely based on the sinking of the Titanic, this cynical satire is a dark allegory on the fall of America and the refusal of Americans to accept the inevitability of their own deaths and the demise of their civilization. Burroughs’s characters are Neros with urban savvy: con men conning, robbers robbing, preachers preaching as the ship goes down. The moral of this story is well expressed in a later poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
The end has just begun
I want to announce it
Run don’t walk
to the nearest exit.
Along with this preoccupation with America’s eschaton, the theme of individual suffering and death looms in beat writing. Unlike Liebman, Sheen, and Peale, who resolved to will into existence a “placid decade,” the beats devoted their lives and their literature to understanding and explicating the private hells of those who remained on the margins of postwar prosperity. Burroughs’s first four books—Junkie, Queer, Naked Lunch, and Yage Letters—document in factualist style the horrors of addiction to “junk” in its many forms (drugs, sex, power). Much of Ginsberg’s work, including “Howl” and “Kaddish,” explores madness and death. Three of Kerouac’s novels—Maggie Cassady, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa—are odes to lost loves; and his Big Sur depicts his own alcohol-induced breakdown.
If the beats had stopped here, critics’ categorization of their work and thought as morbid or mad might have been accurate. But like the Lutheran preacher who hits her congregation with sin only to smother them with grace, the beats sought to move beyond predictions of social apocalypse and depictions of individual sadness to some transcendental hope. “The Beat Generation is insulted when linked to doom, thoughts of doom, fear of doom, anger of doom,” Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky protested in 1959. “It exhibits on every side, and in a bewildering number of facets,” John Clellon Holmes added, “a perfect craving to believe. . . the stirrings of a quest.” Thus the beats’ flight from the churches and synagogues of the suburbs to city streets inhabited by whores and junkies, hobos and jazzmen never ceased to be a search for something to believe in, something to go by.
From the perspective of Religionswissenschaft, the beats shared much with pilgrims coursing their way to the world’s sacred shrines. Like pilgrims to Lourdes or Mecca, the beats were liminal figures who expressed their cultural marginality by living spontaneously, dressing like bums, sharing their property, celebrating nakedness and sexuality, seeking mystical awareness through drugs and meditation, acting like “Zen lunatics” or holy fools, and perhaps above all stressing the chaotic sacrality of human interrelatedness or communitas over the pragmatic functionality of social structure. The beats, in short, lived both On the Road and on the edge. For them, as for pilgrims, transition was a semipermanent condition. What distinguished the beats from other pilgrims, however, was their lack of a “center out there.” The beats shared, in short, not an identifiable geographical goal but an undefined commitment to a spiritual search. They aimed not to arrive but to travel and, in the process, to transform into sacred space every back alley through which they ambled and every tenement in which they lived. Thus the beats appear in their lives and in their novels not only as pilgrims but also as heroes (and authors) of quest tales, wandering (and writing) bhikkhus who scour the earth in a never fully satisfied attempt to find a place to rest. This commitment to the spiritual quest is expressed by Burroughs in Naked Lunch:
Since early youth I had been searching for some secret, some key with which I could gain access to basic knowledge, answer some of the fundamental questions. Just what I was looking for, what I meant by basic knowledge or fundamental questions, I found difficult to define. I would follow a trail of clues.
On the trail that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs followed after the war, one important clue was provided by Spengler: the suggestion that the solution to their individual crises of faith (and to America’s crisis of spirit) might lie outside western culture and civilization, in the Orient and in the “fellaheen” or uprooted of the world.
A Preferential Option for the Fellaheen
Inspired by a populism akin to contemporary Latin American theologians’ preferential option for the poor, the beats looked for spiritual insight not to religious elites but to the racially marginal and the socially inferior, “fellah” groups that shared with them an aversion to social structures and established religion. Hipsters and hoboes, criminals and junkies, jazzmen and African-Americans initiated the beats into their alternative worlds, and the beats reciprocated by transforming them into the heroes of their novels and poems.
Shortly after Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs teamed up in New York in 1944, their circle of acquaintances expanded to include “teaheads from everywhere, hustlers with pimples, queens with pompadours. . . the unprotected, the unloved, the unkempt, the inept and sick” who hung out at the penny arcades, peep shows, and jazz clubs in the Bowery, Harlem, and Times Square. Kerouac described them in his first novel, The Town and the City, like this:
soldiers, sailors, the panhandlers and drifters, the zoot-suiters, the hoodlums, the young men who washed dishes in cafeterias from coast to coast, the hitch-hikers, the hustlers, the drunks, the battered lonely young Negroes, the twinkling little Chinese, the dark Puerto Ricans, and the varieties of dungareed young Americans in leather jackets who were seamen and mechanics and garagemen everywhere.. . All the cats and characters, all the spicks and spades, Harlem-drowned, street-drunk and slain, crowded together, streaming back and forth, looking for something, waiting for something, forever moving around.
Recalling Dostoevsky’s “underground men,” Ginsberg dubbed these characters “subterraneans.” Kerouac, assigning them a place a little closer to heaven, christened them “desolation angels.”
Of all these fallen angels, the beats were especially enamored of Herbert Huncke, who according to Ginsberg “was to be found in 1945 passing on subways from Harlem to Broadway scoring for drugs, music, incense, lovers, Benzedrine Inhalers, second story furniture, coffee, all night vigils in 42nd Street Horn & Hardart and Bickford Cafeterias, encountering curious & beautiful solitaries of New York dawn.” Huncke embodied for the beats both marginality and spirituality.
In his anonymity & holy Creephood in New York he was the sensitive vehicle for a veritable new consciousness which spread through him to others sensitized by their dislocations from History and thence to entire generations of a nation renewing itself for fear of Apocalyptic Judgement. So in the grand Karma of robotic Civilizations it may be that the humblest, most afflicted, most persecuted, most suffering lowly junkie hustling some change in the allnight movie is the initiate of a Glory transcending his Nation’s consciousness that will swiftly draw that Nation to its knees in tearful self-forgiveness.
Initiated by Huncke into this “holy Creephood,” Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs now identified with the beat-up and the beat-down. Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, and the same university expelled Ginsberg. Burroughs began what would turn into a life of participant-observation of the netherworlds of gangsters, addicts, and hustlers. Kerouac explored the jazz clubs and marijuana bars of Harlem. Ginsberg investigated the lives of the working class in Paterson, New Jersey. All three men attempted to transform their experiences into literature worthy of Rimbaud or Baudelaire. By venerating Huncke (who according to beat lore was the first to use the term “beat”) as a saint, the beats risked transforming their “new vision” into an amoral, nihilistic apocalypticism. What prevented this outcome, at least for Ginsberg and Kerouac, was the arrival in New York in 1947 of Neal Cassady.
The “secret hero” of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the inspiration for the ecstatic Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On the Road, Cassady was born, quite literally, on the road (in a rumble seat in Salt Lake City while his mother and father were making their way to Hollywood). His parents separated when he was six years old, so he was raised by an alcoholic father in western pool halls, freight yards, and flophouses. While a teenager, Cassady supposedly stole over five hundred cars and seduced nearly as many women. He did six stints in reformatories before landing in San Quentin in the late 1950s.
Kerouac and Ginsberg celebrated and romanticized Cassady as a “holy goof.” Kerouac, who by 1947 had grown tired of the apocalyptic intellectualism of Burroughs, greeted the lusty Cassady as a “long-lost brother.” Contrasting Cassady to Huncke, Kerouac observed that “his ‘criminality’ was not something that sulked and sneered; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides).” Ginsberg also embraced Cassady, who soon became his lover, in mythic terms—as “cocksman and Adonis of Denver.” Burroughs, however, dissented, dismissing Cassady as a con man. Thus Cassady’s arrival precipitated a split of sorts in the nascent beat movement. The pro-Huncke Burroughs persisted in a more absurdist and apocalyptic reading of the “new vision” (beat as beat down) while Ginsberg and Kerouac attempted to incorporate in their new, pro- Cassady consciousness some redemptive force or transcendental hope (beat as beatitude).
Cassady redeemed the beatific beats’ “new vision” by pointing the way to what would become two major affirmations of Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s spirituality: the sacralization of everyday life and the sacramentalization of human relationships. If Dean Moriarty preaches a gospel in On the Road, it is that every moment is sacred, especially when shared with friends. And if he incarnates an ethic, it is that since all human beings are of one piece, every person must share in every other person’s sorrow just as surely as all people will be delivered to heaven together in the end. Thus Cassady personified for Kerouac and Ginsberg the sacred connections of communitas. While Huncke symbolized the misery of lonely individuals suffering and dying in dark Times Square bars, Cassady symbolized the splendor of cosmic companions digging the open road.
Shortly after their initial encounter in 1947, Ginsberg and Cassady bowed down together at the edge of an Oklahoma highway and vowed always to care for one another. Seven years later Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky agreed to “explore each other until we reached the mystical ‘X’ together” and promised “that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the other one in.” Such covenants expressed ritualistically Ginsberg’s credo “that we are all one Self with one being, one consciousness.” They represented an attempt to routinize the group’s communitas, to incarnate Whitman’s vision of “fervent comradeship” in a spiritual brotherhood of beatific monks.
Cassady inspired in this way a shift in the beatific beats’ writing from the pessimistic, Dreiserian realism that would mark Burroughs’s work to a more optimistic, even transcendental realism: literature as “a clear statement of fact about misery. . . and splendor [my emphasis].” Like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac would continue to depict the suffering of the fellaheen, but unlike him they would insist that such suffering was both revelatory and redemptive. Thus Ginsberg transformed the profanity of working-class life in Paterson into a hierophany:
The alleys, the dye works,
Mill Street in the smoke,
melancholy of the bars,
the sadness of long highways,
negroes climbing around
the rusted iron by the river,
the bathing pool hidden
behind the silk factory
fed by its drainage pipes;
all the pictures we carry in our mind
images of the thirties
depression and class consciousness
transformed above politics
filled with fire
with the appearance of God.
And thus Kerouac insisted that while authors must “accept loss forever,” they should nonetheless “believe in the holy contour of life.”
If the beats followed Spengler’s clue in looking to fellaheen like Huncke and Cassady for spiritual insight, they also followed his lead in steering their spiritual quest toward Asia. While other Americans were forging Protestant-Catholic-Jewish alliances during Eisenhower’s presidency, the beats were moving toward a far more radical ecumenism. In addition to the Catholicism of Kerouac, the Protestantism of Burroughs, and the Judaism of Ginsberg, the beats studied gnosticism, mysticism, native American lore, Aztec and Mayan mythology, American transcendentalism, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism.
This religious eclecticism was epitomized by Jack Kerouac who, though born a Catholic, practiced Buddhist meditation and once observed the Muslim fast of Ramadan. When asked in an interview to whom he prayed, Kerouac replied, “I pray to my little brother, who died, and to my father, and to Buddha, and to Jesus Christ, and to the Virgin Mary.” His pluralism reached still farther in this creedal chorus from Mexico City Blues:
I believe in the sweetness
In St. Francis
Of First Century
India A D
Only Ginsberg, a self-styled “Buddhist Jew,” approached Kerouac’s eclecticism. In a poem entitled “Wichita Vortex Sutra” he invoked a litany of gods:
million-faced Tathagata gone past suffering
Preserver Harekrishna returning in the age of pain
Sacred Heart my Christ acceptable
Allah the Compassionate One
Jaweh Righteous One
all Knowledge-Princes of Earth-man, all
ancient Seraphim of heavenly Desire, Devas, yogis
& holyman I chant to—
Clearly the beats were not wed exclusively to any one religious tradition. One religion, however, did inspire more of them more deeply than any other, namely, Buddhism, especially the Zen and Yogacara formulations of the Mahayana school. Though Burroughs had introduced them through Spengler to Asian thought in 1945, Kerouac and Ginsberg did not begin to study Buddhism in earnest until 1953. In that year a reading of Thoreau’s Walden inspired Kerouac to learn more about Asian religious traditions. He began his investigation by reading Ashvagosa’s biography of Gautama Buddha. Struck by the Buddha’s injunction to “Repose Beyond Fate,” Kerouac sat down to meditate. He then experienced what he later described as “golden swarms of nothing.” Immediately he left to go to San Jose to enlighten Neal Cassady. But Cassady had already found his own prophet in the person of Edgar Cayce, whose strange brew of Christian metaphysics, clairvoyance, reincarnation, and karma had whetted his eclectic appetite. While in San Jose, Kerouac began to study Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, especially the Diamond Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, as they appeared in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible.
Buddhism attracted Kerouac because it seemed to make sense of the central facts of his experience (suffering, impermanence) and to affirm his intuition that life was dreamlike and illusory. Perhaps more importantly, by locating the origin of suffering in desire, the Buddhist sutras seemed to offer a way out. In the summer of 1954 Kerouac wrote to Burroughs, who was now living in Tangier, about his discovery of Buddhism and his vow to remain celibate for a year in an attempt to mitigate his desire and thus his suffering. Burroughs wrote back, urging Kerouac not to use Buddhism as “psychic junk.” “A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid suffering has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration,” he wrote. “Suffering is a chance you have to take by the fact of being alive.” Interestingly, Burroughs wrote a letter that same summer to Ginsberg, urging him to “dig” Tibetan Buddhism if he had not yet done so. Burroughs was opposed not to Buddhism itself but to its use in the West as some sort of “final fix.”
Ginsberg took Burroughs’s advice, and by mid-decade the novels and poems of Kerouac and Ginsberg were filled with references to Buddhism. In one eighteen-month period between 1954 and 1956 Kerouac meditated daily and still found the time to write five books with a decidedly Buddhist bent. Three of these works, Some of the Dharma (a thousand-page personal meditation), Buddha Tells Us (an American version of the Surangama Sutra), and Wake Up (a life of the Buddha) have never been published. A book of Buddhist poems, Mexico City Blues, and a beat sutra entitled The Scripture of the Golden Eternity appeared in 1959 and 1960 respectively.
In 1955 Ginsberg and Kerouac met Gary Snyder, a mountain poet and Zen initiate, who contributed greatly to their understanding of Buddhism and their commitment to it. Just as Neal Cassady appeared as Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road, Snyder was immortalized as Japhy Ryder, the thinly veiled protagonist of Dharma Bums. Although Kerouac was clearly intrigued by Snyder and by Zen, he devoted a good portion of Dharma Bums to arguments between Ray Smith (himself) and Ryder (Snyder) and to criticisms of Zen. Smith, who presents himself not as a Zen Buddhist but as “an old fashioned dreamy hinayana coward of later mahayanism,” clashed with Ryder and his Zen on a number of occasions. One of Smith’s arguments was that showing compassion (karuna) was more important than achieving insight (prajna). Smith was especially critical of the violence that sometimes attended uncracked Zen koans. “It’s mean,” he complained to Ryder, “All those Zen masters throwing young kids in the mud because they can’t answer their silly word question.” “Compassion,” Smith contended, “is the heart of Buddhism.” Unlike Ryder who had no use for Christianity. Smith revered not only Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, but also Jesus Christ. “After all,” he explained, “a lot of people say he is Maitreya [which] means ‘Love’ in Sanskrit and that’s all Christ talked about was love.”
Despite such disputes, Kerouac, Snyder, and Ginsberg agreed on a few crucial points that they shared with Buddhism (especially the Mahayana tradition’s Yogacara school). They believed, for example, that life is characterized by suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). Yet they also believed that this world, at least as it appears to our senses, is ephemeral and illusory. “Happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange dream,” Kerouac wrote in Lonesome Traveler. And he echoed the sentiment (albeit in decidedly biblical grammar) in Dharma Bums: “Believe that the world is an ethereal flower, and ye live.”
This shared awareness of what Ginsberg called “the phantom nature of being” was tremendously liberating for the beatific beats. It enabled them both to confront suffering and death as major obstacles in this relative world of appearances and to see their ultimate insignificance from the absolute perspective of heaven or nirvana. It empowered them, moreover, to deny the absolute reality of the material world even as they affirmed enthusiastically our spiritual experiences in it. Out of such paradoxes came the this-worldly joy of statements like “This is it!,” “We’re already there and always were.” “We’re all in Heaven now,” “The world has a beautiful soul,” “The world is drenched in spirit,” “everything’s all right.”
There is a constant tension in beat literature, therefore, between misery and splendor, between an overwhelming sadness and an overcoming joy. “The world is beautiful place / to be born into,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti observed, “if you don’t mind happiness / not always being / so very much fun / if you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then.” In the beat cosmos God is both absent and everywhere. Dualisms between sacred and profane, body and soul, matter and spirit, nirvana and samsara do not hold. Thus Ginsberg’s celebrated encounter with the poet William Blake in Harlem in 1948 incorporated both a vision of death (“like hearing the doom of the whole universe”) and a vision of heaven (“a breakthrough from ordinary habitual quotidian consciousness into consciousness that was really seeing all of heaven in a flower”). And so one of Ginsberg’s most profane poems, “Howl,” contains his boldest affirmation of the sacred camouflaged in the profane:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is Holy! The skin is
holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and
hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere
is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an
After the beat generation graduated from young adulthood to middle age in the 1960s, beat writers went in different directions. Following an extended stint at the wheel of the bus of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Cassady collapsed along a railroad track and died of exposure in Mexico in 1968. Kerouac’s seemingly endless cycles of exile and return to his mother’s home in Lowell ended in 1969 when he died an alcoholic’s death of cirrhosis of the liver. Burroughs, perhaps the least likely of beats to make it past middle age, is alive and well and enjoying the acclaim of European critics. Ginsberg too has survived even his transmigration from literary rebel to de facto poet laureate of the United States. In this way beat writers have earned a place in the history of American letters.
What I have argued here is that the beats also deserve a place in American religious history. More than literary innovators or bohemian rebels, the beats were wandering monks and mystical seers. They went On the Road—from New York to San Francisco to Mexico City to Tangier—because they could not find God in the churches and synagogues of postwar America. They venerated the poor, the racially marginal and the socially inferior because they saw no spiritual vitality in the celebrated postwar religious revival of mainstream white preachers. And they experimented with drugs, psychoanalysis, bisexuality, jazz, mantra chanting, Zen meditation, and new literary forms in an attempt to conjure the gods within.
Like the transcendentalists who inspired them, the beats were critics of “corpse-cold” orthodoxies; they were champions of spiritual experience over theological formulations who responded to the challenge of religious pluralism by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new religious vision. Like Emerson, the beats aimed to make contact with the sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling, and then to transmit at least a part of what they had experienced into words. Like Thoreau, they insisted on the sanctity of everyday life and the sainthood of the nonconformist. And like George Ripley and his associates at Brook Farm, they aimed to create a spiritual brotherhood based on shared experiences, shared property, shared literature, and an ethic of “continual conscious compassion.” With transcendentalists of all stripes, the beats gloried in blurring distinctions between matter and spirit, divinity and humanity, the sacred and the profane.
The beats diverged from their transcendentalist forebears (and toward their neo-orthodox contemporaries), however, in maintaining a more sanguine view of the problems of human existence and the possibility of social progress. In the beat cosmos, society is running toward apocalypse; individuals are doomed to suffer and die, and perhaps to endure addiction or madness along the way. But in the beatitudes according to Kerouac and Ginsberg, those who suffer are blessed, and the sacrament of friendship can redeem a portion of that suffering. In the last analysis, “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim!” and everyone—junkies and criminals, beats and squares, Catholics and Buddhists, culture-peoples and fellaheen—is raised up from the dreamworld of our quotidian existences and “buried in heaven together.”
On the question of whether this is a compelling spiritual vision, reasonable people can and will disagree. All I argue here is that the vision is in fact spiritual and, as such, warrants the scrutiny of scholars of American religion. Precisely how such scrutiny might alter our understanding of American religion and culture I cannot say. But I suspect greater attention to beat spirituality will open up at least one avenue of revision.
Traditional accounts of American religion and culture in the 1950s have tended toward consensus rather than dissension. Social critics and historians have described early postwar America as a “onedimensional” society in which “organization men” produced a mass culture consumed by “lonely crowds.” Religious historians too have depicted the decade as placid rather than contentious—an age in which a general anxiety was rather effectively relieved by a generic faith in a Judeo-Christian God and the American Way of Life. From this perspec- tive the 1960s appear as something of a historiographic non sequitur. Thus, according to religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom, the sixties represent “a radical turn” in America’s religious road, a crossroads between a more consensual Protestant (or Judeo-Christian) America and a more conflictual “Post-Protestant America.”
While this article does not directly engage this prevailing thesis, it does support recent scholarly work underscoring continuities rather than discontinuities between the 1950s and 1960s. While the ostensibly radical religious pluralism of the sixties may not seem inevitable to students of beat spirituality, it comes as far less of a surprise. A decade before the death-of-God movement in theology and the eastward turn in religion the beats were announcing the death of the gods of materialism and mechanization and looking to Buddhism for spiritual insight. And nearly two decades before the rise of black and Latin American liberation theologies the beats incorporated the socially down and the racially out in their radically inclusive litany of the saints. To study the beats alongside Graham, Peale, Liebman, and Sheen is to glimpse the existence of countercurrents of spiritual resistance coursing around (if not through) the placid religious mainstream.
Source: Stephen Prothero, “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, April 1991, pp. 205–22.