The Beat Generation in the Social Context of America of the 1950s
Essay title: The Beat Generation in the Social Context of America of the 1950s
THE BEAT GENERATION IN THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF AMERICA OF THE 1950s
“Being against what the Beat Generation stands for has to do with denying that incoherence is superior to precision; that ignorance is superior to knowledge; that the exercise of mind and discrimination is a form of death…”
(N.Podhoretz “The Know-Nothing Bohemians”)
Like the „Lost Generation” of the 1920s, the American „Beat Generation names both literary current and a broader cultural phenomenon or mood. Rejecting the conformism and stress on “normality” of the Truman and Eisenhover years, the Beats emphasised an openness to varieties of experience beyond the limits of middle-class society. In this post-war era where the dominant culture was desperate for reassuring planned order, The Beats were a manifestation of a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontanuity, an end for psychological repression, a romantic desire for a more chaotic, Dionysian existence. Today we perceive the Beat Movement as one of the most significant, and certainly the best-known, social and cultural movement of the 1950s, with its essential character: a passive resistance to “square society”, an attraction to “far-out experiences” (sex, drugs, jazz) as more authentic than conventional forms of experience, a predilection for eccentric forms of expression, the absolute belief in “the creative power of the individual soul” and a more general insistence upon the self-determined and significant attribute of anatomy of the individual. There is also, however, another way of looking at the representatives of the Beat Movement. Although they found many followers among young people (which was later reflected by the emergance of the “Hippies” in 1960s), for the major part of American society the Beats constituted merely a “community of outlaws” united by their members’ taste for unorthodox and illegal sexuality and drug use. What I would like to focus on in this paper is this ’other’ way of perceiving the Beats Movement’s representatives. Following the subsequent assumptions of this sub-culture. I will try to look at them through the eyes of the ‘proper’ American citizens of the 1950s.
To begin with, the Beats were strongly in favour of spiritual liberation and sexual “revolution” or “liberation”, i.e. gay liberation and somewhat women’s liberation. We may say that it was not until 1960s when a real upheaval in social conventions came into life and even then it was not easily accepted by an enormous part of the American society. Therefore the strong urge of the Beatnics towards all possible kinds of sexual experiences, their homosexual or at least bisexual relationships (like the one of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac) could not go uncensored in a culture with such great an emphasis on normality and conformity. It was Ginsber’s “Howl” that made homosexuality the hallmark of the Beat Generation. “Howl’s” descriprion of “gay male sexuality as joyous, delightful, and indeed even holy turned contemporary stereotypes of homosexuality upside down” (John D’Emilio, “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities”) and, what is more, made this sexual preference acceptable in the community of a literary avant-garde.The Beats’ picture as social outcasts was also reaffirmed by numerous biographical threads in their writings as well as in some works concerning them, like the one by Steven Watson “Birth of the Beat Generation”, where we can find passages as the following: “Cassady was sexually initiated at the age of nine. He accompanied his father to the home of a drinking buddy, whose oldest son led his brother and Neal in sexual intercourse with as many sisters as they could hold down. All boundaries of sexual decorum evaporated. Neal “sneak shared” women with his father, he slept with grandmothers and prepubescent girls in abandoned buildings, barns, and public toilets.” As a result, it seems to be obvious that in a period of relative affluence and conformity in the United States, when the only proper model of living was embodied by a family consisting of parents, two children, a car in the garage and a full fridge, could not be perceived
Another postulate (I am using this term only for purpose of this paper as the Beatniks did not really have any postulates or program as such) of The Beat Movement concerned the demystification and/ or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana and other drugs. I think it will not be an exaggeration to state that the Beat phenomenon (transforming later into “beatnik” and “hippie”) had some serious influence on the spread in the usage of drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. Apart from marijuana, the members of the Beat Generation group were interested in benzedrine, opiates (such