In 1955 when I was graduating from high school, Allen Ginsburg, the now celebrated poet, was writing “Howl” and on his way to joining the handful of writers who would become known collectively as the “Beats” and icons of the “beat generation.” It was and still is hokum.
The lives of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and others in their circle included drug addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, and an adolescent self-involvement that translated itself into their writing and, as they burst on the cultural scene in the latter 1950s, helped to shape it, and set in motion changes in attitudes and behavior that are with us today.
At the time I regarded all the discussion of their writings as rubbish. In college I read Kerouac’s novels, “On the Road” (1957) and “The Subterraneans” (1958) and thought of them as little more than embellished diaries written by someone without enough imagination to invent characters, basing them on his fellow “beats” such as Neal Cassady and having little in the way of a plot. William Burroughs wrote about his life in “Junky” and “Naked Lunch” showcasing what he called “the most horrible things I can think of.” Ginsberg, a homosexual, poured his ramblings into “Howl”, published in 1956. It was the kind of poetry that a real poet, Robert Frost, referred to as “playing tennis without the net”; prose masquerading as poetry.
All this is captured in a new book by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, “Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives that Launched a Cultural Revolution.” ($26.00, Top Five Books). The authors spent more than eight years researching and writing the story of a group of people, most of whom would fade into anonymity, but who played roles in the fevered drug and alcohol addled minds of the now famed “beats” who were said to reflect the angst of their times and their post-war generation, as they come of age in the 1950s.
I have reviewed books since the 1960s when I was a very young journalist and, despite the passage of time and the accolades heaped on Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, et al, I thought they were a trashy, self-indulgent, and self-obsessed, often drug addled adolescent bunch who, through a variety of contacts in academia, mainly Columbia University, managed to crash through to publication with work that strove to alter the literature of their day to reflect their lives and life styles. Suffice to say, they were well outside the norms and values of their time.
This is not to say they did not secure a large readership and critical acclaim, but a lot of it was a form of literary voyeurism, a desire to safely read about drugs, booze, and homosexuality in the safety of one’s dorm room, cubicle in the Ivory Tower, or suburban home. It was different, considered obscene, and by the standards of the time, dangerous stuff.
If the “beats” represented anything, it was a generalized yearning to do and be something more than a corporate minion or the house-bound wife of one. The 1950s spawned the 1960s with its “hippie” culture of drugs and rock’n roll. The Cold War with the Soviet Union dominated the nation’s attention. Congress was looking for Communists in government. Television was coming into its own with bland, but entertaining situation comedies, variety shows, westerns and dramas.
The youth of the nation wanted something that would let them break out of society’s demand for conformity. The “beats” writings fed that longing. It also gave rise to the popularity of drugs, a loosening of sexual restraints, but the beats were not “hippies.” Kerouac was a pious Catholic and would be regarded today as politically conservative. He was also an alcoholic who died “a classic drunkard’s death” at age 47 in 1969. Burroughs would live to 83, dying in 1997. Ginsberg would live to 79, dying in 2005 from bone cancer.
The beats emphasis on personal freedom contributed to the rise to the feminist movement led by Betty Friedan and others. Concurrent was the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 60s was a decade of turmoil, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His brother Robert would be as well along with Dr. King. The Chicago Democrat Party convention in 1968 drew hundreds of youthful protesters to the Vietnam War and, in general, the “establishment.”
I doubt that more than a handful of today’s younger generation knows anything of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and others of that era which seems distant even in my own mind although I lived through all of it.
The beat’s brief era of fame is the background music to our present times in which the demands of homosexuals to marry are taken seriously, casual sex among the young is the norm, women wait longer to marry and raise families, and there are moves afoot to legalize marijuana while we fill prisons with those who sell and use drugs.
What is different is the rise of the environmental movement, the multi-million dollar organizations like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth who lay claim to “saving the Earth”, but exist mainly to thwart the lifeblood of any successful economy, energy it requires. These and countless other groups exploited the Big Lie of “global warming” on billions around the world and, as the original hoax runs out of steam, it has been transformed into “climate change”, something that always was and always will be something over which humans can do nothing, except adapt and endure.
What is different, too, is the growth of government at all levels in our lives. The federal government spews forth thousands of regulations every month. Here in the U.S. and across the pond in the European Union, those who grew up since the 1950s are demonstrating they are utterly clueless about how to manage a nation or its economy. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but socialism is now the order of the day.
We have a President who makes no excuses for his youthful drug use and blames everyone but himself for our present ills. The nation is desperate for leadership, for grown-ups to save it from insane debt, an anemic economy, and massive unemployment. There are few to be found.
Quite possibly the beats would rebel against the times in which we live. Political correctness is a cultural straight jacket. Their works were put on trial as obscene and granted the protection of the First Amendment, but today we have “hate speech” that can land you in jail. Add in the threat to Western civilization that Islam represents and much of what the beats rebelled against in the 1950s now looks rational and reasonable.
Editor’s Note: Alan Caruba is a founding member of The National Book Critics Circle. He writes a monthly book review website at www.bookviews.com.
© Alan Caruba, 2013.