Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is the Beat Generation A Literary Movement?

"It wasn't a sans serif age" an audience member said, commenting on the book jacket's title font. Why not use typewriter letters? The chapters are in typewriter script, Bill Morgan explained during the Q&A following his Harvard Coop talk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an author has no control over book or book jacket design. He certainly did not, he noted.

In fact, he'd actually wanted to call the book Kindred Spirits but his publisher (Free Press) had declined. They'd wanted something a little more Beat-resonant, something catchier, less sentimental. Editors or perhaps sub-editors had then plumbed Ginsberg's poems for a title-esque phrase and come up with the winner in "Footnote to Howl."

More interesting than the design of the book was Morgan's assertion that the Beat Generation is a social group rather than a literary movement. "Social group" is certainly vague but his point is that what is considered the 'Beat Generation' actually lacks a common literary style. As such, it can't be considered a "movement" in the way that for example Cubism could. Early works by Braque or Picasso are virtually indistinguishable, he suggested, implying a coherent style, the 'Cubist' style. Not so the Beats. Burroughs' work was utterly different than Kerouac's, Ginsberg's was its very own thing. So construing them and by extension their peripheral wives, friends, and girlfriends (think Edie Parker Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke) as a Literary Movement doesn't, in Morgan's view, cut it.

But they were bonded together however, their actual 'movement' being the orbiting of Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was the sun around which all the planets moiled and by which the Beat Universe was sustained. Ginsberg was the single thing that everyone even remotely considered a 'member' of the 'Beat Generation' had in common.

But what about that title anyway? The Complete, Uncensored History History of the Beat Generation? He chuckled at the irony, as if a 'complete history' of something so nebulous, so prone to individual definition, could possibly be written. But it is what it is, a non-scholarly text that examines the principle figures of the Beat Generations in relation to one another and within the literary and cultural context of the times.

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