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December 15, 1960, Vol. VI, No. 7
Beyond the Beat Generation
By John Fles
Any writer who hasn’t been profoundly affected by the literary revolution of the past four years is either blind, impotent, or both. The rebellion of Allen Ginsberg in poetry and Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in prose is the only genuine excitement we’ve had on the American literary scene since the publication of “The Bridge” in 1930, since the “exiles” of the ’20s, since Pound and Eliot blew up the accepted literary standards 50 years ago. But they, then had to immigrate to save what they had – Eliot to England; Pound, eventually, to Italy; the rest mainly, to Paris – whereas we today have a dynamic group of writers who are willing, even find it necessary, to stay in, and write about, this country.
But the revolution which started with “Howl” in 1956 and “On the Road” in 1957 is ending. Ginsberg and Kerouac and, now, Burroughs are accepted literary figures (albeit “controversial,” whatever the hell that means). Ginsberg’s reputation, just for one: scan the latest month or two of the New York Times Book Review. The facts to keep in mind are: Allen Ginsberg, 34; Jack Kerouac, 38; Bill Burroughs, 46. Writers my age (early 20’s) can’t really remember the war (Kerouac was 20 in 1942); our experiences with American Marxism were peripheral; most of us were barely out of high school when Ginsberg and Kerouac were doing their major writing.
Certainly it’s absurd to view literary history solely as a series of “movements.” And certainly there are a number of writers my age who are seriously committed to Allen Ginsberg and all he’s done. But to too many others he merely represents a vague sort of glamor (like Jimmy Dean). And in many respects, too, that’s the “public image” he chooses to project. So, in general, there seems to be a need to clear some space – to clear it either for those who, like myself, have no use for the puerile and impotent maneuvers of the academy, or who are incapable of or feel no need to indulge in the magnificent romanticisms of an Allen Ginsberg, a Carl Solomon, a Bill Burroughs.
And one has to admit that turning up “on the granite steps of the madhouse” and “demanding instantaneous lobotomy,” dedicating one’s life to junk, or Zen, being spokesman for a kind of literary homosexuality, etc., etc. (read “Howl”) are all symptoms of a profound and informed romanticism. It was necessary to break through. And they – Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, to name just the reigning triumvirate – did. That we don’t need to any more is the burden of this polemic.
…Up to now, any negative criticism of the Beat Generation as a literary movement would have been philistine. (And these comments, naturally, will be used by the philistines for their own seedy and reactionary purposes.) But, with Mailer’s business with his wife, with Burroughs’ great book – “Naked Lunch” – about to be published (Grove Press in the spring), with so many things ending in the lives of all of us, perhaps we’d better begin to take stock. It is not that I am suggesting a new set of “values”; it is rather that I am hinting that the old set is fast becoming obsolete…
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