Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ko-Opting Kerouac

A funny quote is found in the fantastically ridiculous new book, Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland.

"The writer and critic David Gates, describing his ambivalent love affair with the Beats, noted recently that their influence can be found almost everywhere today except in contemporary literature. 'Among novelists,' Gates wrote, 'Kerouac and Burroughs may be honored as role models of American cussedness, as familiar spirits, as Promethean innovators, as visionaries who lived on enviably intimate terms with their imaginations. But relatively few people actually want to write like either of them, and few of those few will have their words taken seriously by whatever's left of the literary establishment. A 21-year-old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft.'"

Wow. No wonder I've never fit in with today's approved lit scene. O. Henry and Kerouac were among my strongest influences. I also read much Lovecraft.

David Gates is a bonded member of today's literary establishment, so when he expresses its closed-shop ideology, he knows what he's talking about.
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John Leland is a self-designated authority on "hip." His thesis is that because of Kerouac, the Organization Man can imagine himself as outsider rebel (read: John Leland), while remaining an Organization Man. Leland equates Kerouac's work ethic as a writer with working as a dehumanized cog in a gigantic conglomerate, not seeing the crucial difference. The debate isn't work versus no-work, but the different paths of a DIY self-starter working creatively for himself, or a tied-down obedient robot. Leland argues for the literary stamping plant sustained by conformity with society through family. What the attractions of this "family," this conformity with the rat-race machine, IS Leland never says.

It's presented as joyless safety. He's prodding the reader to join the herd; like the steady prodding of pod people in the better versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." With the plodding of his shallowly reasoned and unexceptionally written book, John Leland resembles one of those pod persons.

Leland's book reaches a culmination of duplicity when he discusses Allen Ginsberg's victory in the famous obscenity trial. Leland sees this as the victory of the individualistic Beat ethos; a victory against conformity.

Yet the Gates quote illustrates that it was no victory at all. The world is more conformist than it ever was. The literary establishment declares the battle won-- and since it's won, there's no need to fight it; no need for underground writers now. Kerouac and his friends were enough, thank you. By declaring the fight over, the John Lelands of today's media scene can impose total conformity on today's literary culture-- albeit conformity with a hip goattee on its chin and trendy boozhie tattoo on its arm.
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POSTSCRIPT
Ignored by the expropriators of culture is the key truth that the American Machine didn't change as a result of the Beats. In fact, if anything, in following years the Machine changed for the worse, becoming larger, more intrusive, more monolithic. The black underclass today is in much worse condition than it was fifty years ago. The white working class is in much worse shape. The top levels of society, on the other hand, are vastly more affluent, more protected, more out-of-touch with American realities than ever before. They've truly become aristocrats.

John Leland and other mandarin commentators like Ann Douglas-- certified as authorities on underground culture by establishment institutions but not by the underground itself-- HAVE to ignore American reality lest they discredit the storyline of their books: that the various segments of American society have merged; there are no differences, no divisions; no chasms; we're all one big happy lobotomized family. How untrue! One need only walk through North Philly, and step into its schools, then tour the U of Penn "Green Zone" two miles away, to see how little the classes today have in common.

Ann Douglas, incidentally, who was on stage with the Overdogs at Columbia's Miller Hall during our 2006 Howl Protest, has written with "Terrible Honesty" about the "truth instinct" in writers. She's spoken about writers driven to expose corrupting forces.

Yet Ann Douglas shows no Terrible Honesty about literature today; does not apply the truth instinct to writers now-- nor applaud those who use it. She shows no concern about sharing a stage with corrupt writers, and has no curiosity about the current literary underground, of how it's different from, or similar to, the Beat movement. She and her privileged colleagues would rather see cultural genocide-- all trace of literary dissent and difference in THIS era wiped out. After all, they have the Beats. They wear the historical icons like the skins of slaughtered animals: once glorious to look at but now safely dead.

6 comments:

JeffOYB said...
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JeffOYB said...

[I typo'ed my first post.]

So, aren't academic/establishment folks always looking for journal and thesis topics?

King, the ideas in your post suggest a term paper: "Compare and contrast today's literary underground with scenes from prior decades."

Ha, why stop at the Kerouac influence---it dares to say there have been quite a few scenes and that there's even a scene TODAY that could be examined. Both sides of such a proposition are denied by most literati. Whew, suggesting it for a project could maybe get you expelled, huh?

Literati might admit the 60's counterculture but do they accept it as literary? I've only seen it pigeonholed as "radical."

OK, Dr. Fright got his English PhD in zeens, so there's been some progress, but there's a lot of dots the literary historians still need to connect.

It sounds like Leland says the Beats were enough. What a crazy notion. This kind of thing relates to the "end of history" fad, it seems. Heck, the Beats came from somewhere and their spirit has persisted. A ULA theorem might be that the underground has always fueled any vital literary movement, that lifesprings well up from beneath til they break out. How does Leland explain the zeensters? Maybe he thinks they don't count.

Paul said...
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Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Amen dude . . . . I don't get these ass-kissing reviews on WHY KEROUAC MATTERS . . . it is also a factual nightmare.

Paul Maher Jr., author of JACK KEROUAC'S AMERICAN JOURNEY.

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