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Brothers of the San Francisco Beat scene, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg lived in the midst of a consumer cultural revolution, patriots of a forgotten mindset. While the regional characters of the nation were quickly being homogenized by television, Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote poetry and prose that both captured and contemplated the moment. They were contemporaries, sharing the same circle of friends and drawing from the same influences but produced works seeking divergent means to the same conceptual end. Kerouac wrote with an enlightened nostalgia, fascinated with preserving a form of the pioneer spirit of individuals and tall tales in the midst of cultural change, while Ginsberg's poetry directly criticized the shortcomings and decay of society; neither author completing the picture or the message, leaving something for the other.
American culture of the mid nineteen fifties and early sixties is described with disgust and rejection in both Kerouac's and Ginsberg's works. They bore witness to and documented a rich, variant culture homogenized and sterilized by Dial television ads and The Saturday Evening Post. Beat calls to rebellion and cancerous grey images show America on the decline and readying for revolution. In Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, Japhy's ideal revolutionary rejects the new developments of American culture, " refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production, and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume..."(97). Their America was a land of mass-marketed uselessness. At a time when stores across the nation carried identical products, and everybody saw the same three channels of television, the sparkle of regional character started to evaporate. Kerouac paints his Dharma Bums as the heirs of Whitman, poetic thoughtful wanderers. Ginsberg also used Whitman to link the past to the present in the poem "A Supermarket in California", asking the bard "Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely. / Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
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The sunflower lived once, and both Kerouac and Ginsberg wanted to see it live again. Their writings, Kerouac's more than Ginsberg's, contain examples and allusions to the glory that once was. Ginsberg writes "Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!" (180). Rugged individualism became a virtue forgotten by society, but remembered and cherished by the writers on its fringe. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac demonstrated this virtue to a truck driver from Ohio by cooking him an extraordinary steak on open flame, alongside the highway. The trucker joyfully remarked about Kerouac's survival skills "'There's sumpthin so darned sensible about 'em .... I make more money than you ever had in your life as a hobo, but you're the one who enjoys life and not only that but you do it without workin or a whole lot of money'" (129). Working on two levels, Kerouac presents himself a self-reliant frontiersman/hobo who is skilled, independent, and having a great time, while he captures and preserves the dialect and wondering character of the truck driver. The effects of television and radio, dulling accents and marginalizing people to Hollywood standard pronunciation were just beginning to be seen. The beat writers worked to set what dialogue was left to paper. Alan Ginsberg presented his nostalgia for the past through a frame of embittered reality. In the poem "Sunflower Sutra", he lackadaisically describes the environment in stark contrast to the way he remembers, the way it should be. "The oily water on the river mirrored by the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily" (179). Gone are the clean streams filled to the brim with fish. Gone are the thoughtful hermits. Gone is the frontier culture of dissent and opportunity. The people are left tired and weary, with the drink that drowns problems losing hold. The spin of Ginsberg's nostalgia demands a change: to be more than just nostalgia wasting away in memory, but a fire, an act to improve.
Questions, criticisms, thought and contemplation are all fuel added to the burning fire of change. Ginsberg, walking from "A Supermarket in California" asks "Where are we going, Walt Whitman. The doors close in an hour" (182). While asking his fellow poet where they were headed next in this dreamy walk, Ginsberg poses the question: where America is going? Are the supermarkets, the Store 24s, the future of the nation? Is everything to be lumped in one bland, emotionlessly organized, store? Is culture going to exist only in the production of Andy Warholesque pop art, without realizing the irony? No. Ginsberg's bitter "Kaddish" sarcastically comforts ailing America: "There rest. No more suffering for you. I know where you've gone, its good. / No more flowers in the summer fields of New York, no joy now..."(196). Joyous America cannot be allowed to die, and it won't won't, Kerouac would argue, "'There's going to be a rucksack revolution'...not realizing how serious the situation was." ( The Dharma Bums, 110) Kerouac was very accepting, almost daoist. He didn't force change, and only documented friends calling for it. If there was a revolution, there was a revolution. To the Buddhist it was all nothing, anyway. Preaching wasn't for Kerouac: writing was carrying tape-recorder, transcribing conversations and writing thoughtful streams of memory. Ginsberg, on the other hand used his poetry to the fullest: "We're not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed by our own seed & gold hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of ... tin can evening sitdown vision" (181). Television is the corrosive, the mad darkness that can taint Ginsberg's beautiful sunflower vision, and so he cries against it.
Images and sounds, visions and memories, are tools used by Kerouac and Ginsberg to pen works which lay on the edge of an era. Kerouac looks back nostalgically at where America has been, conscious of the coming revolution but too passive to call for it. Ginsberg remembers the past as well, but bitterly recalls what it once was as he sees it polluted and ruined before him. His cynicism calls for change, while Kerouac asks for appreciation of what was and quiet meditative contemplation. As the situation worsened, and youths wanted less and less of the past, Kerouac's nostalgia for an older, more noble America lost favor and found itself almost a footnote as Ginsberg's energetic works rode the influential edge of American literature into the nineteen sixties.
Allen, Donald ed. The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Berkeley: U of CA, 1999.
Ginsberg, Allen. "Kaddish". Allen, pp. 194-201
Ginsberg, Allen. "Sunflower Sutra". Allen, pp. 179-180.
Ginsberg, Allen. "A Supermarket in California". Allen pp. 181-182.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 1986.