The Beat Generation

I don't know why I didn't discover Jack Kerouac sooner. It wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I ran across a paperback copy of On the Road, at Powell's Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. You know, that gigantic bookstore on West Burnside, across the street from what was then the Blitz-Weinhard brewery?

I read the book, and I loved it. "Yes, yes, we know time!" Then it gathered dust on my shelf until I was in my mid 30's. This was when I began to collect and read everything I could find, by or about Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, and the entire Beat Generation.

I've never been able to figure quite what it is about the Beats that so grips me. Part of it is Kerouac's luminescent noneuclidean jazz-inspired prose. But I think part of it has to do with mixed feelings I've always had about the Sixties.

It was during the cultural plate-tectonic shift known as the Sixties-- really, the late 60's on into the early 70's-- that I came of age as an individual. Hey, beard, blue jeans, Beatles music, it shows? Without the experience of growing up in the Sixties, I can't imagine who I would be today.

The culture got some of the starch knocked out of it, and that was a good thing. Conformity slipped on a banana peel, and that was a good thing too. There was a genuine sense of spiritual questing. And on some deep level, something happened to the cultural sensorium. Any style or motif current in 1920 or 1950 was still available, in some key, in 1968 or 1998. Art deco? Formica tabletops? Egyptian hieroglyphics? No problem! While much of what flashed across the screen, post-Sixties, would have been unintelligible half a century earlier. Five surreal images per second? Fifty years ago, many TV commercials from the late 1990's would not even have been not understood-- they would simply have frozen the brain in sensory gridlock. On a cultural level, on the simple level of images that flit through the mind's eye, the 60's did indeed open wide the doors of perception.

But the Sixties also gave rise to a festering sense of anger, self-righteousness, carefully nursed grievance, which was far from healthy. Rancor in the name of peace, vindictive intolerance in the name of tolerance-- a bumper sticker I once saw sums it up: "Support mental health, or I'll kill you!" The nonconformity of the Sixties often struck me as a "nonconformity for the millions," mass produced, everybody different exactly alike, and woe betide the true individualist who differed not only from the conformists, but also from the nonconformists.

I think this is part of what I like about the Beat Generation. They really were different-- not just from the mass culture, but from one another as well. They really were blazing their own trail-- not just buying into some prefabricated and prepackaged "nonconformity" which was the same in New York and LA, in Pittsburgh and in Denver and in Urbana-Champaign.

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