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Imagine you’re in a reasonably comfortable college classroom in Boulder, Colorado. The instructor is a small bespectacled man with an infectious and impish smile. He’s talking about some of his friends who also happen to be some of the most important writers in twentieth century United States. The instructor runs his fingers through his somewhat scraggly beard. He’s telling a story about a guy who used to live down the road in Denver before the interstate was built. The guy he’s talking about was a street urchin. His father was a skid row habitué who lived in the most fleabag of all the fleabag hotels when he lived inside. The son hit the road earlier, working on the railroad and meeting women. In the estimation of the instructor in this classroom, that son of a bum represents the essence of the postwar literary movement known as the Beats, despite the fact that virtually none of his writing was published while that man—Neal Cassady—was alive. Your classroom is a far cry from the environs he grew up in.
That classroom scenario actually happened, not once but for a few years. After Chögyam Trungpa began the Naropa University in Boulder, he asked Allen Ginsberg, by then a recognized man of American letters, to establish the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. One of the first courses taught there was on the literary history of the Beats. It was taught by none other than Ginsberg himself. This course was a study of the literary foundations and meanings of the Beat bookshelf as perceived primarily by Ginsberg. In 2017, Grove Press published Ginsberg’s notes of the course in a book titled The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats. In case the reader doesn’t recognize the title, it is from the opening line to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” which begins “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix….” Edited by Beat historian and biographer Bill Morgan, this text is as close as anyone alive will ever get to those days in Ginsberg’s classroom.
Ginsberg’s premise in this course is that Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were the foundation of everything else now considered Beat. It was Cassady’s approach to life and the rhythm of his living that informed and inspired Kerouac’s writing. Furthermore, states Ginsberg, it was that rhythm—usually hyperactive and often multilayered—that provides the rhythm to Kerouac’s writing. If one reads any prose by Kerouac after his debut novel Town and the City (wherein he attempted a more classic approach to prose writing), it is as if they are in the back of a pickup giving his characters a ride through the western plains or stumbling drunkenly down a San Francisco street wine bottle in hand. In other words, the writing is of the life described; it feels as real as the actual events. Of the several books Kerouac wrote, Ginsberg considers two to be the essential examples of this thesis: On the Road and Visions of Cody. Neither book follows a traditional literary approach. Indeed, On the Road was dismissed by Truman Capote with the phrase, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”
After establishing Kerouac and Cassady’s foundational and essential role in the creation of what became Beat literature, Ginsberg moves on to William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and eventually himself. Each chapter/lecture provides some basic biographical material spiced up with Ginsberg’s personal memories and comments. There is nothing salacious here, but he does provide some insight into why certain events occurred. Still, most of the lectures are about the literature, its relationship to US culture in the era after World War Two, and its meaning in the grander scope of western literature.
In today’s world, the Beats would be criticized for their sexism and perhaps some other aspects of their basis in the cultural world that was 1940s and 1950s United States. Despite these criticisms, which are certainly valid, their influence on the following decades is impossible to measure. Indeed, there have been innumerable attempts in print and elsewhere to do so. One could argue that Ginsberg’s class at Naropa University was one such attempt. A more recent one is an all-too-brief book written by a young Englishman named Michael Harper. Titled Off the Road and Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A Literary History of the American Counterculture, Harper’s essay is a critical survey of the period from the publication of On the Road to the early 1970s. In discussing the period he refers to three primary texts (all road stories): On the Road, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Test, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In his discussion, Harper refers to other texts of the culture, such as Bob Dylan’s songs, various jazz performances (and sets by the Grateful Dead), the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and even advertisements for Coca-Cola.
While citing these various works, Harper formulates a thesis that suggests the subculture of the Beats, with its rejection of the post-World War Two middle class conformity and worship of money, created the basis for the considerably more universal rejection of that culture by the 1960s psychedelic counterculture. That subculture was in turn replaced by the cynical and considerably more escapist subculture represented in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Simultaneously, the ability of the capitalist economy in the United States to co-opt and mutate any oppositional culture is represented by the transition Harper traces and considers. Part of what makes Harper’s presentation of this thesis unique is his perspective as an Englishman. Another element is that he is from a generation at least five decades removed from the heyday of the Beats.
The Beats and their literature remain a quiet yet important influence on modern US culture. The hippie/freak counterculture of the 1960s was a less quiet and considerably more commercialized influence. However, I would argue it is the cynicism that Harper claims defines Hunter S. Thompson’s work that has perhaps become the lasting aspect of any of the writing discussed in both these texts. I would also argue that a fairly direct line can be drawn from Thompson’s work back to the nightmarish fantasies of William S. Burroughs and the cynicism of Gregory Corso’s poetry, especially “Bomb.” The fictive worlds defined by the pursuit of freedom and hope that Kerouac and Kesey wrote about seem to have become the horrific visions of Burroughs’ desperate futures and Thompson’s gonzo journeys.