[Marxism] Summary of Early Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 26 05:40:53 MDT 2005

Jim Zarichny wrote:
>There was even a session on Jack Kerouac’s 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 
Francisco, $.75.

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 don’t 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 less——depending on your mood—interchangeable.

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 movement’s 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 
Absolute Reality.’

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. Ginsberg’s 
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 ago—‘corrupting the young’—in 
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 city’s intellectuals in defense of Ginsberg and 
Ferlinghetti. A distinguished list of authors and critics took the stand in 
defense of ‘Howl’s literary qualities, while the District Attorney’s 
office, largely staffed by Democrats, offered a somewhat shame-faced case 
for the prosecution. Judge Clayton Horn’s 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 Joyce’s ‘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 City—this 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.

Kerouac’s 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! That’s 
right! Wow! Man!’ and ‘Phew!’ and wiped his face with his handkerchief. 
‘Man, wow, there’s 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 other—they 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 picture—the 
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 Paradise—it 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 Kerouac’s naive enthusiasm in the end proves an even more 
effective tool for laying it bare than Ginsberg’s 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 Ginsberg’s 
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 philosophizing—all the ‘frantic’ talk can’t disguise 
the same old content—but the social position of these bohemians. The 
expatriates of the twenties—and here I think of ‘‘Tender is the Night’’ and 
‘‘The Sun Also Rises’—nearly 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 upper—class civilization. But the expatriates 
of Kerouac’s ‘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 movement’s chief justification. 

More information about the Marxism mailing list