Charles Molesworth

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:

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The “Beats” formed a literary movement with a strong social and cultural vision, but, equally important, they embodied a unique sensibility. They resembled other historical literary movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance or Regionalism, in that they possessed a fluid membership with developing aims. Though their stances were not as disputatious as other movements, the Beats did hold various positions on a variety of issues. But what united them can be established clearly—a strong commitment to literary experimentalism; a rejection of settled middle-class values; an attraction to Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism; and a generally pacifist stance in the face of political forces and institutions. The mix of values and the tensions of the times—that is, from the early 1950s through the following three decades—resulted in contradictions. The Beats generally were willing to argue forcefully for their radical beliefs, but occasionally they succumbed to passivity and self-imposed marginalization. They voiced exalted spiritual desires while drawn to popular arts. They objected to bourgeois sentiments that fostered stability and acceptance of settled traditions, while advocating for the use of drugs that freed the imagination yet brought about addiction and quietism. Though at first their firm rejection by the average public equaled their disdain for middle-class respectability, the movement attracted widespread attention and soon enjoyed favor with a younger audience. Serious students of historic figures of the past, ranging from Shelley and Blake to Rimbaud and Hart Crane, the Beats were eventually recognized for their literary sophistication. Academic acceptance was secured in part as their younger readers went to college in increasing numbers in the 1960s. The loosening of cultural and social taboos during this period also encouraged the movement, expanding its influence into areas once considered sacrosanct. Rock and roll, opposition to the Vietnam War, a return to rural styles of life (such as communes), and a freer attitude toward sexual indulgence: all these phenomena formed the Beat sensibility. Eventually, the terminology shifted. Beat became Beatnik, some referred to the San Francisco Renaissance, others spoke of a “New American Poetry,” and the mass media were happy to employ the term “hippie.” Throughout it all, the major figures—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and William Burroughs—were joined by a host of others who continued to use experimental literature to express their beliefs and their fiercely embraced values. Less well-known writers among the Beats concentrated on poetry, though some contributed letters and diaries and occasional prose. Chief among these were Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (also important as the founder and editor of City Lights Books), Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch.

Article.  7006 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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