Jack Kerouac famously suggested the Beat Generation is "a swinging group…of new American men intent on joy." Scholars and writers join Kerouac in this 1959 discussion at the Brandeis University Club of New York for a rollicking, witty debate.
What is the Beat Generation? is the question posed. Joseph Kaufman, Dean of Students at Brandeis University, serves as the moderator of this panel consisting of authors Jack Kerouac and Kingsley Amis, New York Post editor James Wexler, and anthropologist Dr. Ashley Montagu.
Opening to nervous, then genuine laughter, Jack Kerouac reads a written statement. Fresh from publishing Dharma Bums, he proclaims that the question of whether there is a Beat Generation "very silly because we should be wondering tonight, is there a world?" For Kerouac, the answer to the panel question is a resounding "Yes," yet he admits that he is "only the originator of the term and around the term the generation has taken shape."
To answer the panel's question, Kerouac launches into a grand monologue that emphasizes a feeling of "walking talking poetry in the streets" and it is clear that he is speaking from the "solitude of the oneness of the essence of everything," whatever that means. He punctuates his long, confusing sentences with audible commas that elicit more laughter from the audience. Kerouac speaks of wild parties and nights at bars in San Francisco and "crazy days before World War II when teenagers drank beer and our fathers wore straw hats like W.C. Fields" with exuberant vocal animation, he also touches on the nostalgic shadows that haunt the supposed Beat Generation and invokes the need for compassion in the face of cruelty. His ambition is nothing short of enlightenment and his words are a poem addressed to human suffering and human salvation. Undercutting any coherence that may have peeked out of his speech, Kerouac ends saying, "anyway, you're all out of your minds! And I'm out of my mind, doesn't that make it equal, like, void?"
Undeterred by having to follow such a speech, Kingsley Amis takes the stage. Amis is the renowned British author of the novel Lucky Jim and the considered spokesman for England’s Angry Young Men – a group of authors disdainful of the traditional standards and habits of English society. To Amis, "Angry Young Men" are those writers who are "protesting about the stagnation of contemporary English life" which leads to "the abandonment of all moral effort." Amis himself does not give credence to the idea that there is such a group and views it as a literary marketing term, drawing obvious parallels to the American Beat Generation, questioning if the latter is a "literary movement, social phenomenon, emergent group, [or] psychological novelty." Amis adds the Beat Generation was invented by "literary middlemen" who use a "journalistic approach [to literature] to put people in pigeonholes and save the reader trouble and exertion." He concludes, "There may conceivably be a Beat Generation, but I very much doubt it."
The third speaker is James Wexler, editor of the New York Post and former editor of The Nation. Wexler calls Kerouac's treatise on the Beat Generation only so much "organized confusion" and adds, "life is complicated enough without trying to make it a poem," soliciting big applause from the audience. Wexler asserts that the most pressing issues of the day for this younger generation are the advent of the hydrogen bomb and the quest for human equality. But he cannot reconcile the Beat Generation to these issues, seeing its members as frivolous, irresponsible and selfish. Interestingly, however, Kerouac’s remark that "the question is very silly because we should be wondering tonight, is there a world?" is evoked by Wexler’s conclusion that, "The issue is not whether there is a Beat Generation but whether there is a civilization that will survive the next decade."
The fourth and final speaker brings some academic reason to the conversation. The English-born Dr. Ashley Montagu, Chairman of the Anthropology department at Rutgers University, warns that freedom should not be confused with libertinism and offers his assent to James Wexler’s remarks about responsibility. His comments that the Beat Generation emphasizes “too great concern with oneself” resonate with Wexler’s, yet he differs from Wexler as he presents a belief that the Beat Generation does indeed exist and that “Beat writers belong to the Beat Generation, but they are only the most articulate part of it.” Montagu defines the Beat Generation as “a segment of a generation most of whose members were born in the last 30 years.” He lists fatalism, cultural rootlessness, detachment from traditional values, alienation from themselves, and extreme individualism as some of the defining characteristics of the Beat Generation.
Wexler and Montagu’s complaints about Beatniks being too self-involved reverberate and echo throughout descriptions of generations in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and even today’s “Me Generation.” But in a violently restrictive world when nothing makes sense outwardly, artists often turn inwards -- the Beat Generation was among the first to take such a turn.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.