Women of the Beat Generation

Women of the Beat Generation - 5/7/07 The United States...

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5/7/07 The United States Since Reconstruction Anonymous Passengers: The First Women of the Beat Generation Much is known about the tightly knit, self-proclaimed “Beat Generation” of writers that originated in Manhattan as a countercurrent to the complacency of the 1950s. The names Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, and Neal Cassidy have been discussed and dissected throughout the last few decades by enthusiasts pleased at the perfect puzzle fit of beat memoirs; however, throughout these various autobiographies there has been a noticeable lack in documentation of women. John Clellon Holmes was a confidant of Kerouac and “sometime member” beat who believed that “the social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” His friend Ginsburg agreed with this sentiment, and distinguished “society’s perfum’d marriage,” as the state least conducive to art. As these opinions were expressed by the most influential writers of the time, they delivered wide implications for the domestic ideal of the nuclear family, as well as for the basic nature of relationships between men and women. This attitude struck closest to home amongst the women who endeavored to become linked to the beats; whether seeking companionship or romance, they were in constant turbulence about their suitable identities and their purposes as women. One symptom of this identity sickness was the desire to be considered an intellectual equal. But, it would prove to be an aspiration frustrated by beat and non-beat alike. A poignant recount in Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters explains the attitude that she received (here, from “Professor X”) as an undergraduate at Barnard 1
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College; after mockingly asking his class of creative writing majors if all of them want to be writers, he shoots them all down by stating: “Well, I’m sorry to see this. ..very sorry. Because first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You wouldn’t even be enrolled in this school. You’d be hopping freight trains, riding through America.” This “received wisdom of 1953” made it clear to “the young would-be writers. ..that there [was] no hope.” Discouraged by higher education, Johnson turned to the beat approach for guidance and encouragement, only to find an equally dejecting, more convoluted reaction – as exhibited by their letters, the beats never respected females as intellectual equals, yet managed to delude their women into sticking around. Oftentimes preserving relationships with beats meant adopting similar interests, engaging in the same pastimes, and largely conforming to beat lifestyles. This self-effacing tendency of women manifests itself in legend, in the surviving letters exchanged, and even implicitly in the title of Johnson’s Minor Characters . Johnson, a younger girl romantically involved with Kerouac for only a little over
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This note was uploaded on 04/21/2008 for the course HIS 142 taught by Professor Levering during the Spring '07 term at Davidson.

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Women of the Beat Generation - 5/7/07 The United States...

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