Clip from the 1958 teen B movie High School Confidential.
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INTERVIEWERWho would you say are your literary forebears—those you have learned the most from?HEMINGWAYMark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora—it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.
A new Beat industry emerged in the 1990s through the re-marketing of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg as American cultural icons: an industry which cemented the notion of the Beat Generation as authentically American and coherent. Ginsberg and Kerouac were featured in quintessentially American advertising campaigns – for GAP clothing – and Burroughs appeared in Nike shoe commercials. In a ‘high-cultural’ context, the legitimisation of the generation was re-enforced by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition in 1996, Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965, where the Beat Generation was presented as a broad and influential cultural movement. However, according to some critics the Beat Generation that gave birth to Beat literature did not really exist. Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee argued in the prologue to their biography of Kerouac that he ‘is remembered as the exemplar of “The Beat Generation.” But the generation was no generation at all. The label was invented as an essay in self-explanation when journalists asked questions, but it was accepted at face value’ (Preface np).
Kerouac seemed to endorse this view in an interview with Mike Wallace in 1958. Asked about the Beat Generation Kerouac said ‘Well, actually it’s just an old phrase. I knocked it off one day and they made a big fuss about it. It’s not really a generation at all’. Kerouac had defined the term Beat and explained the phenomenon of the Beat Generation to the media, who ‘made a big fuss about it’ interminably, and by the time of the Wallace interview – a mere year after the publication of On the Road – he was exhausted and disenchanted by the incessant demands on his time. Kerouac’s disavowal of the ‘generation’ idea may well have been prompted equally by his exasperation with ‘square’ commentators and younger fashionable fans who were drawn to the ‘on the road’ mystique by media exposure. At the same time, Kerouac could anomalously assert that jazz was important because it was ‘the music of the Beat Generation’ (qtd. in Hayes 4).
Perhaps Kerouac was right: it was not a generation at all. The Beat Generation was a handful of writers and like-minded individuals who came together first in New York and then in San Francisco, influencing each other and writing texts that embodied their shared experiences and attitudes to the Cold-War world. But as Ann Charters argued in The Penguin Book of the Beats, citing F. Scott Fitzgerald, an American literary generation is characterised by a ‘reaction against the fathers which seems to occur about three times in a century. It is distinguished by a set of ideas inherited in modified form from the madmen and outlaws of the generation before; if it is a real generation it has its own leaders and spokesmen, and it draws into its orbit those born just before it and just after, whose ideas are less clear-cut and defiant’ (xvi).