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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March 5, 2014: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: The Beats

[Much of the time when I’ve highlighted something specific in this space, it’s been because I want to emphasize something positive about it, something I enjoy or appreciate. Well, the heck with that! For this week’s series, I’ll focus instead on stuff about which I’m not as keen, and try to AmericanStudy some of the reasons why. Nobody can be positive all the time, right? Add your own non-favorites in comments to help with a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]

On why I can’t really get into the counter-culture warriors—and the larger problem they emblematize.
At this midway point of my non-favorites series, I should make sure to note a couple of important things. First, my goal in writing these posts is not to convince you that I’m right about these figures and artists, not to argue that anybody who likes my subjects is mistaken, not to start such arguments at all. Moreover, I’m not doing this for the thrill of contrarianism—something that I certainly feel on occasion (particularly when rooting against popular sports teams), but that doesn’t generally animate my AmericanStudying. Instead, my goal is to think analytically about some of the things that don’t work for me, considering what that might say about both my own perspective specifically and about AmericanStudies topics more broadly. I say those things here not only because they apply to the whole series, but also because they’re especially relevant to this post, wherein I express my lack of positivity toward a group of writers and artists of whom many of my friends and colleagues (and, I believe, my Dad) are big fans.
‘Cause the thing is, I just really don’t like the Beats. Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” (1956) and “A Supermarket in California” (1956) I find tolerable, if overrated; On the Road (1957) and the entire Jack Kerouac ouevre, on the other hand, just plain drives me away in frustration, and that response has been my more general take on most of the Beat work I’ve encountered. I certainly understand and appreciate how their counter-cultural stance pushed back on many 1950s narratives and even perhaps contributed to the next decade’s social and activist movements; but on the other hand, the Civil Rights movement was already well underway in the years the aforementioned works were published. While the contrast might be an unfair one, it’s difficult for me not to see the Beats as hugely solipsistic by comparison, advocating for their own freedom to fuck and flee and get high and get lost right at a moment when so many in their society were beginning to argue for impassioned engagement instead. That’s too simple of a dichotomy, I know, but it does express my core frustration with the Beats.
There’s an even more substantial objection to be made to the Beats, though, and it likewise contrasts them with such social and activist movements (or at least one particular movement). While the Beats were certainly sexually liberated and experimental, when it comes to issue of gender they were often, to put it bluntly, deeply troubled, if not openly sexist. Or, to be more generous and also connect them to a longstanding American narrative, they offered just another iteration in the cycle of American men fleeing both society and women—Rip and Wolf heading into the mountains, Natty and Chingachgook into the woods, Huck and Jim down the river, and so on. There are women in On the Road, but I would have to agree with the critics who have called the novel at its heart a romance between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity, two men on the run who find their shared meaning in large part in direct contrast, again, to both society and to the women who seem often to embody it. For too long, our national narratives of escape have seemed to make those gendered connections, and if noting their problematic prevalence in the Beats can help us change the conversation, I think it’s vital that we do so.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this non-favorite? Others you’d share for the weekend post?

5 comments:

  1. "At this midway point of my non-favorites series, I should make sure to note a couple of important things. First, my goal in writing these posts is not to convince you that I’m right about these figures and artists, not to argue that anybody who likes my subjects is mistaken, not to start such arguments at all. Moreover, I’m not doing this for the thrill of contrarianism—something that I certainly feel on occasion (particularly when rooting against popular sports teams), but that doesn’t generally animate my AmericanStudying. Instead, my goal is to think analytically about some of the things that don’t work for me, considering what that might say about both my own perspective specifically and about AmericanStudies topics more broadly. I say those things here not only because they apply to the whole series, but also because they’re especially relevant to this post, wherein I express my lack of positivity toward a group of writers and artists of whom many of my friends and colleagues (and, I believe, my Dad) are big fans."

    Dear Ben and fellow bloggers,

    CONTRARIANISM is actually a new term for me - or maybe I should say a new definition for something I didn't even know there was a word for. I think some contrarianism in human adults is just human nature... tracing back to early childhood; when a child first starts learning and applying the term "No!" in conversation with their parents (I'm not a parent myself, but I've read about this phenomenon, and I suspect you parents out there know exactly what I'm talking about).

    At the risk of sounding too contrary, too unpopular, or too closed-minded (which I hope is clear is not my goal) I just don't get into rooting against (or rooting for) popular sports teams.

    There are two main reasons for this conclusion of mine: #1. I think the relationships in these popular and organized games are incredibly primitive, and we all need to grow and evolve in terms of what we want to get out of observing these kinds of human interactions. #2. I think there are so many harsh and dramatic (tragic, really) things happening to real human beings all around this country and this world every day - the poor, the sick and disabled, the minorities - through no real fault of their own - I just don't have time to work against (or root against) anybody, just because they are supposedly on a different 'team' than I.

    Why can't we all be on the same worldwide team? I would naturally expect less from relationships between lesser animals like sheep, lions, etc.. what's our excuse as human beings in 2014? Too complicated? Too time-consuming? Not thrilling or exiting enough for people?

    (This is where I sit back and wait for responses... I thank you for your attention to my perspective on this subject).

    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    Sincerely,
    IDIS Major

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Roland. I think there are all sorts of reasons, both very positive/meaningful and very silly, why we root for sports teams, and that they connect in both cases to pretty deeply rooted parts of human nature as well as aspects of how we were brought up (although certainly ones that impact different people very differently in any case).

      Beyond that, though, I do agree that kinds of communal rabid fandom are very frustratingly divisive and (often) hateful, and that's what tends to turn me into the contrarian I mentioned.

      Thanks,
      Ben

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  2. Given this post, I'm curious how you feel about works like *Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* (assuming that doesn't step on a future post) and, in a different way, the Rabbit novels by Updike. Regarding the Beats, I have always considered their work (I am most familiar with Kerouac) to be a cultural "first-step" (although it was not the first step) away from a culture that celebrated a strict paternal structure.

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  3. Thanks for the comment! I think that's a valuable way to see the Beats, and yet I would say that there's some irony in that so many of them (at least the most prominent ones) seem so defined by masculine relationships and community, while pushing back on those overarching (and paternalistic to be sure) cultural norms.

    As for Thompson and Updike, both important and complex post-war American authors and voices for sure. I tend to prefer Thompson because of his satirical voice and side, and can forgive him his own masculine emphases because he's so willing to push back on American ideals and narratives and myths in every other way. Updike has always left me cold, perhaps because it feels as if he's more removed from his subjects and themes, rather than caught up in them and engaged with them in the ways that Thompson seems to be (and that the Beats certainly were too, whatever their flaws).

    I'd love to hear more of your thoughts too!
    Ben

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  4. I enjoy Thompson (especially Fear and Loathing LV), but I feel like the hero worship that has been accorded to him by people like Johnny Depp is a bit over the top. He was an original mind, no doubt, and a talented if tormented voice of his times. Updike also leaves me cold - in a way that makes me wonder if I just have a hard time connecting with the mindset of that generation of writers. I can't seem to relate to the pressing need to escape, perhaps because I did not experience the weight of social expectation that was likely a heavy burden to those writers. As an aside, Updike's piece on Teddy Ballgame was inspired, although also a bit distant if I recall correctly.

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