Young Socialists on Jack Kerouac
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 16, 1958, Vol. III, No. 25
The Beat Generation: A View from the Left
By James E. Breslin
[No, not that Jimmy Breslin -- Tony O.]
In a little gray loft around the corner from the Village, the Young Socialist League held a literary Sunday Meeting on Easter evening. Socialist Michael Harrington opened the services with a vigorous attack on Jack Kerouac and his ragged generation. Then inspired members of the beat audience "got the call," rose, and delivered their opinions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and hipsterism.
Mr. Harrington began by justifying himself for speaking about Kerouac. Jack, leader of the "most well-advertised Renaissance" in literary history, does have a certain "symptomatic interest," he said.
Novelist Kerouac represents the disaffiliated or marginal man: the artist retreating back from the realm of palpable reality, back into "what George Orwell has called 'the soft warm belly of the whale,'" stated Harrington.
The Young Socialist leader quoted the "palpable and errant nonsense" of beat sage Kenneth Rexroth: "destruction, revolution" is the only way for art. Certainly, sad Jack Kerouac, peering out of the softdark warmth of the holy-belly, "feels he must protest about something. But his protest lacks substance." Whitman had his America, Sandberg had his Chicago. But now, as any Young Socialist knows, "there is no more America."
Kerouac, he continued, is "the most American writer in a long time." He is part of a "tradition of mindlessness...utter Americans who have motion without motive." Indeed, he is "the absolute end of Walt Whitman." Kerouac's revolt, unlike the Socialists', is a "protest without program."
Yet, his novels "have a vitality." They send a breath of fresh air into the stagnancy of the ever-competent but rarely inspired works of the academicians.
The floor was open. An elderly gentleman who identified himself as a "poet" vociferously declared that the artist need not write a political manifesto, but "merely present the picture." Dave Amram, French-horn man of the beat-poetry rituals, asserted that Kerouac "is an artist, not a hipster." One spectator called Kerouac "neurotic" and his work "just pornography." This remark drew menacing murmurs from the crowd, and the grinding of many beat teeth.
Mr. Harrington then summarized. Kerouac has yet to create a "complex felt reality," and, as someone in the audience suggested, "it's not that he hasn't provided any answers--he hasn't even asked the questions."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.