Kingsley Amis and Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

November 19, 1958, Vol. IV, No. 4

The Beat Debated

By Marc D. Schleifer

“Let the cats in,” someone shouted, while an overflow crowd of hundreds pushed against doors barred by anxious college girls. The place was Hunter College Playhouse on November 6, where there was a debate scheduled on the theme “Is There a Beat Generation?”

Sponsor of the affair was Brandeis University, whose dean, Joseph Kauffman, peered at the audience and looked uncomfortable, glanced at guests Kingsley Amis, Ashley Montagu, James Wechsler, and then looked more uncomfortable. When the evening’s festivities of hoots, cheers, insults, and poetry were over, Dean Kauffman’s discomfort was so great that I feared for his supper…

Thoughts, somewhat excerpted, in order of their appearance:

KEROUAC (dashing off-stage a dozen times, clowning with a hat to the final stumble and wild dragging of poet Allen Ginsberg on stage toward the end of the “debate”): “Live your lives out, they say; nah, love your lives out, so when they come around and stone you, you won’t be living in any glass house—only a glassy flesh. What is called the ‘beat generation’ is really a revolution in manners…being a swinging group of new American boys intent on life. James Dean was not the first to express this. Before him there was Bogart and the private eyes. Now college kids have started to use the words ‘hung up’…I’m hung up, you know–words I first heard on Times Square in the 40’s. Being beat goes back to my ancestors, to the rebellious, the hungry, the weird, and the mad. To Laurel and Hardy, to Popeye, to Wimpy looking wild-eyed over hamburgers, the size of which they make no more; to Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, with his mad heh-heh-heh knowing laugh. And now there are two types of beat hipsters–the Cool: bearded, sitting without moving in cafes, with their unfriendly girls dressed in black, who say nothing; and the Hot: Crazy, talkative, mad shining eyes, running from bar to bar only to be ignored by the cool subterraneans. I guess I’m still with the hot ones. When I walk into a club playing jazz, I still want to shout: ‘Blow, Man, Blow.'”

KINGSLEY AMIS (author of “Lucky Jim,” wearing a conservative light-brown suit, perplexed by the mad audience, but in a friendly way trying to understand the madness): “There is a general impression that the beat generation has opened a branch in England, or at least made an alliance with a group called ‘The Angry Young Men.’ Thus a Detroit critic says: ‘America’s angry young men are called the beat generation.’ Is there a group of young English writers united and unique in protesting about creative stagnation in contemporary life? No, emphatically, no. ‘The Angry Young Men’ is an invention of literary middlemen, desperate journalists who thrive on classifications and clichés, who put writers in pigeonholes and save people the trouble of reading. This nonsense can also be traced to the Anglo-American cult of youth…There is no Angry Young Men movement. There may be a beat generation, but I doubt it.”

JAMES WECHSLER (editor of the New York Post and author of “Revolt on the Campus,” looking angry if not young, vigorously chewing his gum with open-mouthed liberal sincerity, staring at Kerouac with incomprehension whenever Jack mentioned God, Poetry, or the Cross): “I am one of the few unreconstructed radicals of my generation. Much of what has happened in the past 20 or so years has challenged my basic beliefs, but I still adhere to them. (Turning to Kerouac): Life is complicated enough without having to make it into a poem. I am convinced that ethical values will re-emerge. What gives meaning to life is the survival of these values. It is a sad thing for America that this beat generation is supposed to represent rebellion and unorthodoxy. After listening to Kerouac I understand less about what they stand for than before. I see no virtue in organized confusion. The beat generation as a symbol is sort of a joke. The issue is not whether there is a beat generation, but whether civilization will survive. There is no valor in their (the beats’) kind of flight and irresponsibility.”

ASHLEY MONTAGU (Princeton anthropologist, author of “Immortality” and “Man: the First Million Years,” white-haired, calm slightly amused, and slightly sleepy-looking just the way the Ladies League thinks a professor should look): “James Dean symbolized the beat generation. His death was consistent with the BG philosophy–life is like Russian Roulette. Their only conformity is non-conformity. The beats give personal testimony to the break-down of Western values. These are the children who were failed by their parents. Compassion, not condemnation, is called for. The BG is the ultimate expression of a civilization whose moral values have broken down. While not everybody born in the past 30 years is beat, and while there were beat people born more than 30 years ago, the beat writers are describing this generation.”

[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.]