[Marxism] Summary of Early Anti-Vietnam War Movement
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 26 05:40:53 MDT 2005
Jim Zarichny wrote:
>There was even a session on Jack Kerouacs On The Road.
As committed as I am to the legacy of the American Socialist, they really
didn't understand the importance of this book which did so much to convince
me that a middle-class life-style was not worth pursuing.
American Socialist, January 1958
[Louis Proyect: Despite the homophobic sour notes, this is a very
perceptive article about the artistic reflections of social changes in the
US that preceded the political and cultural rebellions of the 1960s.]
A Review Article: Chronicle of the Beat Generation
by George Hitchcock
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Viking Press, New York, 1957, $3.95.
HOWL AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg. City Lights Bookshop, San
AMERICANS have a peculiar affinity for marking their history off in
decades. Each decade in turn gives rise to its particular and often
exaggerated Zeitgeist, which literary and social historians promptly embody
in a generation. Thus we have had the lost generation of the twenties,
the socially conscious generation of the thirties, the war generation,
and now in the fifties we have a rising aspirant for the title in the
so-called beat generation.
How much historical validity this categorizing actually has and how much it
owes to our Madison Avenue habit of summing up every complex problem in a
slogan, must remain for the time being open questions. But here in San
Francisco, at least, we do have a very lively and vocal beat generation
and the work of Ginsberg and Kerouac is the most illuminating guidebook to
an understanding of it.
First, a little etymology. The word beat is, I take it, employed in three
different senses, although even insiders dont appear to have reached
agreement on the exact degree of its ambiguity. In addition to its obvious
sense there is the jazz connotation and, finally, a sort of shorthand where
it is assumed to stand for beatific. The meanings are interlocking and
more or lessdepending on your moodinterchangeable.
The historians and publicists of the beat generation have been the poets
Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Lipton, although it is arguable how much
direct influence they have had upon writers for the most part twenty years
younger than they and concerned primarily with the attitudes of their own
contemporaries. Rexroth is a distinguished poet and critic who for nearly
thirty years has nurtured and kept alive on California soil a sort of
transplanted Chicago anarchism. He is a caustic, opinionated man who
sometimes appears as if he were sitting for a statue of the last Wobbly,
but he is also a scholar of genuine ability and one of the few authentic
poets the Pacific Coast has yet produced. Lipton is a midwestern anarchist
who now preaches total disaffiliation from American society and urges his
fellow-poets in Southern California to adopt a voluntary vow of poverty
as a practical method of escaping from the corruption of the dollar sign.
Both are vigorous pacifists.
If Lipton and Rexroth can be called the elder prophets, Allen Ginsberg
certainly has every claim to be known as the movements Jeremiah. For as
the Lord is reputed to have revealed to Jeremiah in the wilderness: And I
brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the
goodness thereof, but when ye entered, ye defiled my land and made mine
heritage an abomination, so Ginsberg in a neon wilderness cries out
against the corruption of America, lamenting the destroyed lives and
blighted ambitions of his generation, not omitting those who were burned
alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of
leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the
nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of
sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of
THE publication here of his Howl and Other Poems created the closest
thing to a literary sensation the West Coast has known in many years. The
title poem is a protracted cry of rage, Biblical in form and surrealist in
imagery, often turgid and at times hysterical, yet never lacking in
explosive energy. It is the work of a literary dynamiter for whom anguish,
marihuana and defiant homosexuality are all avenues of protest.
Orthodox society was quick to get the point. The Collector of Internal
Revenue, a prominent Republican politician, ordered an entire edition of
Howl seized in transit from its British printers to its publisher,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco poet and book-seller. Ginsbergs
occasional use of un-bowdlerized Anglo-Saxon was given as the excuse,
although Rexroth and others charged that the hand of the archdiocese was
behind the seizures. Protests to Washington and the obvious lack of legal
grounds resulted in the release of the edition.
The San Francisco police, perhaps with prompting from the same source, then
got into the act. Officers of the Juvenile Bureau arrested Ferlinghetti and
his clerk on very much the same charge that the officials of Athens brought
against Socrates twenty-four hundred years agocorrupting the youngin
this case by offering Howl and a semi-anarchist literary magazine, The
Miscellaneous Man, for sale.
The resulting trial attracted national attention and saw a nearly unanimous
united front of the citys intellectuals in defense of Ginsberg and
Ferlinghetti. A distinguished list of authors and critics took the stand in
defense of Howls literary qualities, while the District Attorneys
office, largely staffed by Democrats, offered a somewhat shame-faced case
for the prosecution. Judge Clayton Horns ultimate decision for the defense
surprised no one in particular, but his opinion was both literate and
libertarian and should serve as a valuable precedent. In many ways it was
an advance over the historic Woolsey decision (ending in 1933 the American
ban on Joyces Ulysses) as it emphasized in particular the importance of
protecting the rights of social criticism.
Howl is at present selling merrily through another edition, Ginsberg was
last reported sunning himself in North Africa, and the censors are
presumably licking their wounds in the confines of the Olympic or Bohemian
The second salvo in the battle of the heat generation has now been fired
via the respectable Viking Press. It is On The Road, a novel by Jack
Kerouac, a 35-year-old adopted San Franciscan who once played football at
Columbia University. This last piece of information is not as meaningless
as it sounds, for he approaches writing like a half-back on an endless
touchdown run. He has already completed eleven full-length novels, of which
On The Road is only the second to reach print, and if he can maintain his
present pace is likely to set new mileage records for the medium.
He writes breathlessly in a potpourri of styles and with almost total
recall of the materials of his own wandering life. On The Road is a sort
of saga of a generation of rootless, restless lumpen-proletarian bohemians
who endlessly traverse the face of America in search of her significance.
They live in defiance of the norms of our prosperity, working at odd jobs
when they have to, but preferring, when possible, the alternatives
traditionally available to the hobo. From New York to New Orleans to Denver
to San Francisco to Mexico Citythis is the track of their ceaseless
hegira. Everywhere they seek the ultimate in ecstatic experience, whether
it be in driving a borrowed Cadillac a hundred miles an hour across Iowa,
in all-night philosophic discussions, marihuana, jazz, or copulation.
Kerouacs hero, a jail-kid from Denver, Dean Moriarty, is a sort of
intellectual Elvis Presley filled with a frantic hunger for life who leaves
a trail of burned-out automobiles and women behind him from one end of
America to the other. His characteristic manner of speech can be conveyed
only by an example:
He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, Yes! Thats
right! Wow! Man! and Phew! and wiped his face with his handkerchief.
Man, wow, theres so many things to do, so many things to write! How to
even begin to get all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up
on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears.
Moriarty and his friends live in a souped-up world of continuous
exhilaration as if the Second Coming is momentarily to be glimpsed around
the corner. His psychological state could accurately be defined as
approaching the manic. The philosophizing in which he and his friends are
eternally indulging is all rubbish-and generally self-conscious rubbish.
It is compounded of bits of Zen Buddhism, Saroyan, hop-talk, and Hemingway,
with a generous admixture of the mystical primitivism of D. H. Lawrence s
The Plumed Serpent. Nor do any of his characters ever really do anything
or communicate with each otherthey assume, instead, attitudes of angst
which Kerouac apparently feels are proof of their uniquely inspired
visions. See, we are really MAD, he seems to be telling us over and over
again. Cool, beat, and MAD. Since the characters are precisely as MAD at
the beginning as they are at the end and nothing else changes very much, we
may be excused if we have grown to feel a certain weariness toward them.
But beneath the cultish nonsense and literary borrowings there is another
aspect to On The Road, and it is this which gives the book its value. For
in his naive outpouring Kerouac gives us at least one authentic picturethe
picture of a submerged America, the America of an alienated, protesting
generation which wanders from meaningless job to meaningless job in the
depths of her psychic forests, a part of America expatriated in its own
land. And this tragedy is not merely the personal one of Dean Moriarty and
Sal Paradiseit is the tragedy of our society, glittering on its suburban
surfaces and anarchic and despairing in its true heart.
UNLIKE Ginsberg, Kerouac feels no Messianic outrage at this tragedy; it
might be argued, indeed, that he never gets the point of his own story, so
enchanted is he by an our gang is wonderful feeling. But the point is
there, and Kerouacs naive enthusiasm in the end proves an even more
effective tool for laying it bare than Ginsbergs rhetoric.
Kerouac should be distinguished from his gallery of hipsters. As a writer
he owes more to the romanticism of Thomas Wolfe than he does to the cool
cats of his own generation. He has warmth and compassion, and does not
suffer from the pessimism or explicit homosexuality which limit Ginsbergs
approach. Sensing his own expatriation within America, he ten4s to identify
himself with his fellow outcasts in our society, particularly among the
Negro and Mexican peoples.
At lilac evening, he writes, I walked with every muscle aching among the
lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a
Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough
ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough
night. . .
Romanticized as this version of Negro life is, it helps to illustrate one
of the great differences between this generation of expatriates and those
other expatriates of the so-called lost generation of the 1920s. For what
has changed is not the philosophizingall the frantic talk cant disguise
the same old contentbut the social position of these bohemians. The
expatriates of the twentiesand here I think of Tender is the Night and
The Sun Also Risesnearly all had money or at least pretended that they
did, and they rejected American materialism in favor of the more urbane
values of a decaying European upperclass civilization. But the expatriates
of Kerouacs beat generation are aliens within their own country and in
their frenzied quest for inner truth are being drawn toward the sources of
new life and hope within that country.
I hope that I have indicated that Kerouac is a remarkable writer, although
not for reasons of which he himself seems aware. But as a document of our
times his On The Road rises far above the cult which helped give it birth
and may, in time, be that movements chief justification.
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