Anti-Consumerism in the Works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Roth
After World War II, Americans became very concerned with "keeping up with the Joneses." Everyday people were not only interested in fulfilling the American Dream because of the optimistic post-war environment, but also because of the economic emphasis on advertising that found a new outlet daily in highway billboards, radio programs, and that popular new device, the television. With television advertising becoming the new way to show Americans what they did not (and should) have came a wide-eyed and fascinated interest in owning all kinds of things, products, and devices suddenly necessary in every home. One could not only hear about new necessary items, but see them as well. Meanwhile, marketplaces and small shops were being dismantled to create the supermarket, a temple of consumerism where any passerby may walk in and purchase almost anything he or she desires without a thought of their neighbor, who runs the suffering little fruit stand around the corner. The literary rebellion of the 1960's was concerned, in part, with the desire to break down this growing consumer culture.
Not everyone was so easily lulled by the singsong mottoes and jingles of television advertising and the call of the national supermarket. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac began struggling, in writing, against the oppression of having. As Buddhists, these writers saw the growing desire to fill whims and wants with items easily purchased as harmful to the ability to transcend suffering (instead of eliminating it). Combining the strategies of Asian Buddhist monks with American transcendentalist theory provided by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emer...
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...e when the rest of the nation was blindly enjoying their television programs and the convenience of the supermarket, these writers made strong statements warning against the love of things. During the 50's and 60's, many middle- and upper-class Americans had worked hard to afford conveniences, but Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Roth would say that it is not enough to "deserve" your participation in the consumerist culture. Rather, they would say the consumerist culture, by nature, is mentally and culturally enslaving and to be avoided when possible for the sake of the integrity of the individual spirit.
Allen, Donald (ed.). The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Berkeley, CA: U. of California P. 1960.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books. 1958.
Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. New York: Modern Library. 1959.
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The Greek value of hospitality is exhibited in The Odyssey by Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus and his hungry men entered an unfamiliar cave, which was home to the Cyclops. Once the Cyclops saw the men he asked why they are there, and in Odysseus's explanation he mentions “It was our luck to come here; here we stand beholden for your help, or any gifts you give-as custom is it to honor strangers” (line 194). Odysseus is tried to convince the cyclops to let him and his men live by using the Greek value of hospitality. He wants the Cyclops to view him as a guest, not food. To Odysseus it was second nature to help out a guest or person in need. While Penelope was speaking to the suitors she noted “Here is a poor man come, a wanderer, driven by want to beg his bread, and everyone in hall gave bits, to cram his bag” (line 1116). She shamed Antinous for not helping the man, because in Ithaca its is accustomed to provide the hungry and poor with food. The fact that Antinous “threw a stool” at Odysseus, and “banged his shoulder” appalled Penelope. The thought of doing such a thing was unheard of to Penelope since hospitality is a part of her way of life along with all other Greeks. The people of Ithaca from The Odyssey a...
Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Berkely, CA.: U. of California P., 1999.
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Richard Louv attempts to question the modern consumer culture of the United States by juxtaposing the complexity of purchasing a modern “Mercedes SUV” with the simplicity of staring out the window of a car. Louv uses a multitude of images to remind his audience ¬¬ who are likely the same age as he is ¬¬ of their childhood experiences. Louv also uses personal anecdotes to promote the drastic differences between simple wholesome actions and the modern consumer culture. His use of rhetorical questions also helps the reader in his/her attempt to understand that, “people no longer consider the physical world worth watching.” Louv’s use of technically specific words like, “municipalities” helps him to qualify his statements. The use of rhetorical
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Sigmund Freud was the initiator of psychoanalysis. He altered the insight into the human mind and how it works. It spurred him into defining the unconscious and what was for him the powerhouse of personality – irrational motivation. The series examines profound queries surrounding the origins and techniques of contemporary consumerism, commodification, typical democracy and its consequences. It furthermore looks at the current manner we perceive ourselves, the outlooks to fashion and superficiality. Freud's findings in connection with the mind were methodically applied by corporate America and the U.S. government to raise their capital and authority. This technique also provided the impre...
Calder’s Thesis for this book follows the development of American consumer culture from its unorganized infancy around the 1890’s to about the 1940’s. There are several references to credit and debt outside this range as a reference to where we started and w...
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In the essay The Chosen People, Stewart Ewen, discusses his perspective of middle class America. Specifically, he explores the idea that the middle class is suffering from an identity crisis. According to Ewen’s theory, “the notion of personal distinction [in America] is leading to an identity crisis” of the non-upper class. (185) The source of this identity crisis is mass consumerism. As a result of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, products became cheaper and therefore more available to the non-elite classes. “Mass production was investing individuals with tools of identity, marks of personhood.” (Ewen 187) Through advertising, junk mail and style industries, the middle class is always striving for “a stylistic affinity to wealth,” finding “delight in the unreal,” and obsessed with “cheap luxury items.” (Ewen 185-6) In other words, instead of defining themselves based on who they are on the inside, the people of middle class America define themselves in terms of external image and material possessions.
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James, Fredric. 1988. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 192-205.