I’ve been rediscovering the Beats recently. It has been, after all, 15 years this month since Allen Ginsberg died.
My second going with the Beats (my first when I was in college) has not been as fulfilling. Suddenly, Ginsberg seems more self-absorbed than self-aware.
That feeling hasn’t been as intense with Jack Kerouac, but reading “The Dharma Bums” has been disappointing. Kerouac isn’t that good a writer. There are moments – no doubt – of intense beauty, especially when he’s writing about nature. But most of Kerouac’s dialogue falls flat and his characters are one-dimensional.
And worse, he can be boring.
But there are gems and there’s little doubt that Kerouac captured a movement in America – chronicling the discontent of America in the late 1950s and setting the foundation for the revolution and upheaval of the 1960s – when convention fell apart and American innocence (if there was ever really such a thing) fell apart.
This passage from “The Dharma Bums” captures that spirit:
“Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!” Japhy leaping up. “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everyone and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbrook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”
That’s one hell of long sentence.
It’s everything that’s right and wrong about Kerouac – and the Beats for that matter. The passage starts out stealing, but sails into an intense philosophy that strikes a nerve and then peters out in a vague and disappointing manner.
But the bright and original parts of the passage – about the coming revolution and our consumer society – click. And you can see how the thinking was adopted by future writers from Don Delillo to Douglas Copeland (but not so much the writing itself).
Kerouac had influence on a movement – a way of thinking and approaching life – but he really wasn’t a literary influence.
What do you think of the Beats? Have you read them? Do you think they are still relevant today?