The pleasures and complexities of the literature of the Beats
Written by: Steven Belletto
Some sixty years after the appearance of their most famous books, the Beat Generation writers are certainly not hurting for fans or publicity. In 2001, the literary world was rocked by the sale of the original “scroll” manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the one he had written in three weeks on a 120-foot roll of paper) for $2,400,000, then the highest price ever paid for a literary manuscript—for comparison, Shakespeare’s first folios sold in 2016 for £2,479,000. City Lights Books, an early publisher and champion of Beat work, is still an institution in San Francisco, and in 2003, the Beat Museum opened around the corner, a space that freely mixes commerce and curatorial information, displaying artifacts belonging to these writers as if they were holy relics.
Generations of readers have been fascinated by the mainstays of Beat literature, not only On the Road, but also Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl” and William S. Burroughs’ genre-bending novel Naked Lunch, works which brashly announced a new consciousness and a new language for expressing it. For many readers, these texts are impossible to disentangle from the lives of their authors, so as you light out on the road with Kerouac, you can’t help but wonder if he had really done all the things his narrator Sal Paradise describes, or if the novel’s hero, Dean Moriarity, accurately captures his real-life model, Neal Cassady. Had Ginsberg really known those abject souls he called “the best minds” of his generation, did he actually experience hallucinatory visions of William Blake? And what is the deal with Burroughs, whose life had long been shrouded in intrigue, haunted by his accidental killing of his wife in a failed William Tell routine, and colored by his experiences as a “master addict” who had gone deep in the drug-related underworld?
While such biographical questions have long motivated readers to explore Beat literature, this approach has had the effect of seeing the writers as important mainly because they led interesting lives. In other words, it is possible to account for the Beats sociologically but not literarily, as avatars of dissent against 1950s conformity noteworthy because they portended the wider cracks in American culture in the 1960s. In this view, the literature is best understood as a window on to countercultural lives. For years, the standard critical line on the Beats assumed this premise, dismissing Kerouac as an unreflective transcriber of road “kicks,” or Ginsberg and Burroughs as amoral characters with few aspirations beyond shocking the middle class. Such an assessment has since been challenged many times over by scholars invested not only in understanding Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs as significant aesthetic innovators as well as social critics, but also in widening the discussion out from this group of friends to the more diffuse, loosely-affiliated Beat literary movement.
It is in this spirit that The Cambridge Companion to the Beats brings together some of the most influential Beat scholars writing today, offering analyses of texts rather than lives. Both reflecting and refining the broad critical interests of Beat studies, the Companion tackles large topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and transnational circulation, and asks questions such as whether there is an identifiable Beat aesthetic or what makes a novel or poem Beat. Deliberately working with a more capacious sense of the Beat phenomenon, the Companion’s Chronology lists hundreds of primary texts and notable examples of secondary criticism, and chapters offer varied methodologies and critical frameworks for understanding a range of such work.
I hope that the Cambridge Companion to the Beats will be of interest to both relative newcomers and avid Beat fans, either introducing or reinforcing the pleasures and complexities of the literature, and perhaps offering new ways of seeing those writers who still manage to grab headlines even today.