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,
PS. Thoughts on this non-favorite? Others you’d share for the weekend post?