The beat generation : a rhetoric of negation Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/8336h629d

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  • The Beat Generation was an American counter-culture movement in the 1950's. Comprised of nomadic writers, poets, actors, musicians, and artists, the Beat movement represented no systematic philosophy and its most distinguishing characteristic was its apolitical disengagement from society. The Beats offered no substantive alternatives to the existing social order, but they sustained themselves as a collective literary body for nearly fifteen years by a shared opposition to society. Quintessentially an anti-movement, the Beat Generation held a fragile power. By dropping out of society and saying "No" to the social hierarchy, the Beats raised important questions about the relation of the individual to society. At the leading edge of the Beat Generation were the writers who voiced and penned the movement's refusal to participate in what was perceived as a hypocritical social facade. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs formed the nucleus of a "charmed circle" of literary friends who formulated a rhetoric which negated America's preoccupation with materialism, conformity, and security in the "apathetic fifties." The Beat writers attempted to undermine the credibility of the social structure by using America in the fifties as an "anti-model." Without recommending any kind of definitive behavior, they gave a license to virtually any behavior which opposed society. The movement was an atypical one. From its inception in the early 1940's it never made clear its purpose and the Beats had no self-definition other than what they were not. The Beat credo, reduced to its simplest expression, was "Don't be square" and the Beats depended on the sharp line drawn between themselves and society's "squares" as an implied index to their own values. With the publication of Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1956) and Kerouac's novel On The Road (1957), the Beats re-entered the society from which they had disengaged themselves and the critical line between the Beats and the squares grew hazy. As the decade of the fifties drew to a close, the voice of the movement was muted. A counter-rhetoric defending the social structure and striking back at the Beats exposed their lack of any tangible purpose. Moreover, the popularity of the Beat writings took on fadlike dimensions and the potency of the movement's opposition was diluted. Finally, the times were changing and as the nation inched its way toward a new liberalism in the 1960's, the movement was absorbed by the culture it had opposed. The Beats lost their precarious identity as social "nay-sayers." The effect of the Beat movement, perhaps incidental rather than consciously planned, has won it an important place in contemporary American history. The Beats took on a dialectical burden by challenging the complacency of America and by inducing the country to re-examine values which the Beats saw as eluding modern society: individualism, integrity, and personal freedom. A chorus of social misfits, the Beats served as an angry voice of the sleeping American conscience.
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