BOOK REVIEW: The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in the VSI (Very Short Introductions) series, and I read a lot of these books as a means to mainline the gist of various academic subjects. I should point out that the subject matter is more colorful than the average scholarly topic. The Beats were a 1950’s American countercultural literary movement that some may confuse with the hippies of the 60’s, but which was different in many ways. As is emphasized in the book, the Beats were more about revolutions from within than they were about upending society. In that sense, they might have more in common with the Transcendentalists (i.e. Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) than the hippies. That said, some Beats did flow pretty smoothly from one movement to the next, and were both interested in revolution from within and without – most notably, Allen Ginsberg.
The first thing that one finds compelling is the biographical sketches of key Beat figures (i.e. chapters 3 and 4 on Beat novelists and poets, respectively.) A disturbing number of Beats lived tragically short lives, owing to drugs, alcohol (e.g. Kerouac,) and sometimes just being around a violent contrarian. Even the Beats who lived long lives had their share of outlandishness, such as William Burroughs killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in an ill-fate William Tell imitation. (Those who know Burroughs from later in his career may wonder why he even had a wife, being gay and all. That’s just one of the ways that hidden, latent, and repressed homosexuality plays out as tragedy in the Beat story of the socially conservative 1950’s.)
The second thing I found absorbing was the discussion of how these writers and poets made art. Like the aforementioned Transcendentalists, the Beats drew heavily on Eastern philosophies and psychologies – most notably Buddhism, and Zen, in particular. Beat authors not only looked to the East for subject matter and aesthetics, but also to help them achieve the spontaneity and nowness associated with Zen. However, this wasn’t wholesale conversion to Buddhism, it remained a uniquely American strain, and also sought to draw inspiration from that most American of arts, Jazz.
If you’re interested in the Beats or their approach to writing, I’d highly recommend reading this book.
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