Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Subterranean Rebels: The Beatnik Movement

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below is a passage on the beatniks.

Beatniks later became an icon of the 1950s, but they inspired fear and derision in their own era. Decades later, the leaders of the Beats could not agree where the label applied to their generation came from. Jack Kerouac said it came from the phrase, “beat it!” meaning “leave me alone.” Others suggested “beat” referred to the rhythms of the jazz music Beatniks admired. One Beat author, John Clelon Holmes, claimed it referred to being exposed, suffering raw nerves or being “beat,” or exhausted, in a world of nuclear threat, political crisis and painful social conformity. Whatever the origin of the term, the Beats embraced sexual rebellion, a sometimes condescending admiration of black culture, experimentation with marijuana and other drugs, and a rejection of the materialism and blandness of 1950s culture.

Four major authors defined the Beat movement: Kerouac, who authored the seminal novel "On the Road"; William S. Burroughs, writer of the disjointed and nightmarish novel "Naked Lunch"; and the openly sexual poets Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, the latter whose collection of poems "Howl" celebrated homosexuality and sparked an obscenity case. The quartet’s careers blossomed in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The four became close companions, with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs first meeting in the early 1940s and Corso joining the gang by 1950. These authors became characters in each other’s novels and poetry and critiqued each other's writings. To this quartet and the Beat writers who followed, American culture in the 1950s smothered individualism and creativity. Dim-witted TV comedies, frozen foods, maddeningly repetitive and depersonalized neighborhoods such as Levittown, and the constant hypocritical praise for the “nuclear family” represented a phony, living death for Beat novelists and poets.

The Beats wrote in a self-consciously slapdash, helter-skelter style that reflected their hatred of dehumanizing, super-efficient corporations and bureaucracy. Giant companies like the computer firm IBM or the Ford Motor Company reminded the Beats of Nazi-like totalitarianism. "A bureau takes root anywhere in the state,” William Burroughs wrote in "Naked Lunch." “Turns malignant like the Narcotics Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms . . . Bureaucracy is as wrong as a cancer . . . " Burroughs undermined linear thinking and the normal organization of a novel with a mad glee in "Naked Lunch," a book in which vignettes were randomly sorted to defy any conventional sense of narrative.

The Beat writers celebrated brutal self-honesty, merging the personal and the political even as they painfully confessed sexual anxiety and self-doubt, politically incorrect thoughts, homosexual crushes, and moments of petty violence and criminality. Their lives often proved as chaotic as their writing. Such was the case with Allen Ginsberg, a gay Jew whose mother was an institutionalized schizophrenic and who was sent to a mental institution himself, and William Burroughs, a heroin addict who accidentally killed his wife trying to shoot an apple off her head in imitation of William Tell during a drug binge in Mexico. Ginsberg only had to look to his friends for inspiration when he wrote the opening lines of “Howl,” his groundbreaking 1956 poem:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix

The erection of the interstate highway system had smoothed over regional accents and local distinctiveness even as the rise of chain stores and restaurants had homogenized the American landscape. In response, Beats wanted to rediscover the unique and the authentic. Wishing to escape the plastic bubble of urban America, Jack Kerouac exclaimed in one letter, "I want to be left alone. I want to sit in the grass. I want to ride my horse. I want to lay a woman naked in the grass on the mountainside. I want to think. I want to pray. I want to sleep. I want to look at the stars . . . I want to get and prepare my own food, with my own hands, and live that way . . . "

Beats idealized African Americans as living genuine lives as an oppressed people alienated from mainstream culture. The mostly white beatniks could be maddeningly unaware of black suffering and exoticized African Americans as noble savages close to nature. Kerouac, author of works like "The Subterraneans" and "The Dharma Bums", achieved fame with his epic novel "On the Road," which followed the aimless wanderings of Salvatore Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they drive across America, get drunk, read poems, and make love. Marked by unrealistic and condescending depictions of African Americans, On The Road in one scene features the narrator thinking as he strolls through the streets of Denver that he wishes he “could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.” Kerouac reduces African Americans to childlike noble savages and never acknowledges the violence, poverty and political marginalization experiences by such “happy Negroes.”

The pace of the book, alternating between languid and frantic, derived from the art of African American bebop musicians. Bebop artists broke the mold of the big band jazz music dominant in the early 1940s. As rebels, they earned the adoration of Beats like Kerouac. Exemplified by artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bebop focused on individual performers who rejected the limits of conventional tonality. Bebop influenced other art forms. Jackson Pollack brought a Bebop sensibility to his paintings, a series of wild color splashes that led some critics to dismiss him as “Jack the Dripper.” Comedian Lenny Bruce, whose standup routines touched on political issues such as segregation and popular culture, and who explicitly attacked the hypocrisy of American attitudes toward sex (often using four-letter words that would get him arrested for obscenity) also derived his style from Bebop musicians and became a Beat icon.

The most visible Beat leaders such as Kerouac and Burroughs came of age in the 1930s and 1940s. Primarily older men and women, some of them Korean War veterans, occupied the original Beat enclave in Venice West near Los Angeles. In later Beat communities, such as North Beach near San Francisco, and Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, the population was mostly between the ages of 18 and 28 and more closely resembled the stereotypical youthful image of finger-snapping artists hanging out at coffee houses and reading poetry presented in the mass media.

Older audiences saw the Beats as threatening, and the television comedy "The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis," marginalized the movement with the portrayal of the satirical Beatnik character Maynard G. Krebbs, who devoted his life mostly to avoiding work. Nevertheless, many new Hollywood actors in the 1950s took their cues from the Beat movement and became major youth culture idols along the way. The acting technique of stars such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Montgomery Clift derived much from the attitude of characters in novels like "On the Road." Movies such as "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1956), that starred popular singer Frank Sinatra as a jazz-playing junkie, and "All the Fine Young Cannibals" (1959), featuring Robert Wagner, aimed to capture the romance of the Beat hipster scene. Films such as "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild One" (1953) tried to capture Beat nihilism and rebelliousness. Not surprisingly, many of these films won a large audience of alienated teenagers eager to escape neighborhoods of look-alike homes and conformist values. Dean, who died in a car crash in 1955 at age 24 after starring in just three major films, and Brando both became major icons for a generation of frustrated and bored suburban kids.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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