The Beat Generation Writers: My Spirit Guides
It’s good to be back with you again. A couple of years ago I was here to offer a sermon on a book I’d done on some of the religious and spiritual currents in the life of Woody Guthrie—we had a good time that Sunday as I recall.
It was actually a few years prior to writing my Woody Guthrie book that I got one out titled The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides. What I’ll be sharing this morning is mostly drawn from the book’s opening chapter. And now for a moment of shameless self-promotion, I have copies available during coffee hour.
First off: Who were those guys? And for the most part they were guys. When they first surfaced into view in the late 1950s the pop-culture label that got attached to them was “beatnik.” But that was not a label they chose for themselves. The late Herb Caen, a very popular and witty columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, came up with that word; and he largely intended it as a put-down of what passed for an American counter-culture in the 50s. Beatniks, as the media caricature had it, were shiftless ne’er-do-wells who sported scrawny goatees, wrote bad poetry, lived in unkempt “pads” with their “chicks,” pounded on bongo drums, and had an aversion to work. Their popular prototype was the character of Maynard G. Krebs, as played by the late Bob Denver, on the television show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Maynard, however, was a benign, made-for-TV beatnik who was suitable for family viewing. In my early teens—which came in the late 1950s—I recall a run of years when dressing up as a beatnik was a popular Halloween costume.
But these “beatniks” were also had something of a sinister aura about them. In the mainstream American mind they posed a vague and largely undefined threat to all that was right and good about the country. Part of that perceived threat was rooted in the anxiety each adult generation has of its coming-of-age younger generation, but with the Beats it ran deeper than that. Indeed, in a speech given before the 1960 Republican National Convention, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sounded the alarm when he stated that the three major enemies of America were “Communists, eggheads, and beatniks.” Who were those guys? How did they manage to evoke both the ridicule of the self-appointed keepers of the culture of their day, as well as the enmity of America’s chief law enforcement officer?
The term “Beat Generation” itself was coined some 12 years before Mr. Hoover’s warning. The story is that there were two young, aspiring, and still un-published writers, who had a conversation in a New York City apartment in the summer of 1948. They were trying to come up with a name or phrase that would capture the mood and characterize the spiritual challenge of their generation—the generation coming of age either during or immediately after the Second World War. The term Lost Generation, used to describe the mood of cynicism and disillusionment of the post-World War I generation, no longer fit. As they rolled the issue around one of them said, “I guess we’re a beat generation.” It clicked. The two decided they’d hit the right note.
The two young men were Jack—originally named Jean Louis—Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes. Kerouac came to New York in 1940 from the French-Canadian Catholic working class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts on the strength of a football scholarship to Columbia University. By 1948 he’d long dropped out of Columbia and had made two seagoing runs as a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.
Holmes was from a WASP family in Old Saybrook, Connecticut and had served in the Hospital Corps of the United States Navy before following his literary dreams to New York. Both of these gentlemen knew that they were not cut out for the emerging corporate culture of post-World War II America, and they were each trying to find their respective poetic and literary voices.
Four years prior to this conversation, Kerouac had met up with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in and around the environs of Columbia University. The three of them, along with various others, formed a literary camaraderie within which they shared their fledgling writing endeavors. And it was Ginsberg who provided the link between the East and West Coast Beats when he spent some time out here in the mid-1950s and linked up with folks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, ruth weiss, and the like. Ginsberg wrote his signature work, his poem Howl while living in San Francisco in the summer of 1955.
In time, both Holmes and Kerouac would publish their signature novels—Go for Holmes in 1950, and On the Road for Kerouac in 1957. Each book fleshed out the mood the two writers were struggling to identify in their 1948 conversation. As the term Beat gained currency, and then later become debased as beatnik, these two continued to insist that they and their fellow Beats were pilgrims on a religious and spiritual quest in the new and uncertain land that America had become following the most devastating war in human history.
In the eyes and minds larger society, however, the persons identifying themselves as part of the Beat Generation appeared to be the very antithesis of the religious and spiritual ethos of the immediate post World War II years. To think of religion and spirituality in the America of the 1950s is to think of Billy Graham crusades or the early television broadcasts of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. It is to recall the construction boom of mainline Protestant churches in America’s newly emerging suburbs. To disavow or ignore traditional religion was to place oneself under suspicion of not quite being a real American. In 1954, when the United States Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance it was reflecting and validating this cultural ethos. In taking this action, the 1954 Congress was also, in effect, equating atheism with anti-Americanism.
There was precious little that passed for a counter-culture in the America of the 1950s. The Beats probably came the closest. But Hettie (Cohen) Jones, the one-time wife of the recently deceased Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones), probably wasn’t too far off the mark when she wryly observed that the entire Beat Generation population could have fit into the living room of her and LeRoi’s small New York City apartment in the early 1950s. And if religion, in the popular mind of that day, was associated with such traits as order, piety, conformity, and obedience to authority, then the Beats were truly an affront to any and all things religious and spiritual.
But, as just noted, the two individuals who are generally credited with coining the name “Beat Generation” spoke of it in clearly religious terms. What Kerouac and Holmes had both recognized as they were having that Beat Generation conversation, was a kind of uneasiness and furtiveness among the persons of their age. These people still had most of their lives in front of them, and were wondering and asking “What’s next?” following a horribly deadly war.
To be Beat, as Holmes and Kerouac saw it, was to be reduced to one’s essentials. It was to have all pretexts, poses, and pretensions stripped away; and find oneself facing such bare-naked questions as, “Who am I?” and “How do I make some sense of my life as well as Life Itself?” These questions had taken on a new kind of relevancy after a war in which the expendability, and disposability, of human life had been demonstrated in ways never seen before.
These are ongoing and universal questions, however. They pose themselves to practically any person who has any kind of capacity for self-reflection. Sometimes when I’m walking alone on a city street with no appointment to keep or task to accomplish, I will get a light and lost sensation that “it’s just me out here.” I call these my Beat Moments. Such moments bring to mind the words of a familiar African-American spiritual: “It’s not my brother or my sister but it’s me O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.” I don’t address prayers to a listening Deity, but I am nonetheless aware in moments like these that I am reaching beyond myself for some kind of meaning and some kind of blessing without specifically knowing what, or who, it is I’m reaching for. It is at times like these that I feel a spiritual connection to many of the Beats, who were also reaching beyond themselves without knowing what their hands would touch.
Another of the understandings of the term Beat, was that it meant being beaten down or beaten out to the fringes of the mainstream culture. To be Beat was to know that you were a mis-fit in the most literal sense of the word. It was to have the soul-level knowledge that you didn’t quite fit in. This was how many of the Beats felt when it came to the direction America in the 1950s was taking as it craved normalcy once again after a terrible war that had been preceded by a crippling economic Depression.
Four years after his conversation with Kerouac, John Holmes wrote an article for the November 16, 1952 issue of The New York Times Magazine titled This is the Beat Generation. In it he wrote, “Unlike the Lost Generation, which was more occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it.” Following the publication of his signature novel, On the Road, Jack Kerouac would insist that “The Beat Generation is a religious generation.”
Shortly after the Holmes article appeared, Kerouac linked the term Beat with Beatitude, saying that to be Beat was to show simple kindness, compassion, and sympathy in a culture that demonstrated very little sympathy for those who were not attuned to its general ethos and values.
Jack, who was raised in a strong Catholic household in Lowell, Massachusetts, drew on the beatitudes, as put forth by Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount, for this explanation of what it meant to be Beat. For Kerouac, Beat also implied a kind of sadness, a sense of the life’s tragic dimension, and of the need to find joy in the face of sadness and tragedy. And it was Kerouac, in his signature novel On the Road who proclaimed that “All of life is holy, and every moment is precious.” For all of their often crazy ways, this is what the Beats were really searching for—Life’s essential holiness in the face of all that would deny that holiness.
So how do we go about understanding the Beat Generation as a religious movement? We can start with my late friend and colleague in the UU ministry, Rev. Forrest Church, who defined religion as, “Our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing that we will die.” To truly be on a religious path, then, is to be discovering how to respond to life, how to choose life, how to say yes to life even as we know our earthly lives are not ours forever. How to truly embrace life in the face one’s mortality is the ongoing spiritual challenge of any generation as it comes of age.
As already noted, the original Beats wrote against the backdrop of a world that had witnessed death on a scale never before seen. There were battlefield deaths, the deaths of civilian populations across Europe, the systematized and assembly-line deaths of the Holocaust, and the mega-death and destruction brought on by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This horror was all shortly followed by the revelations of the death industry of Joseph Stalin’s pre- and post-War Soviet Union. With this kind of death laden back-drop, the real religious and spiritual challenge of the 1950s was how meaningfully live after a time in which life had been made to look very cheap.
But the mainstream American response to this challenge, by and large, was to place a veneer of normality and conformity over the fears, disruptions, and hunger for meaning that the Second World War generated. The cultural imperative was to get back to normal.
This was actually quite understandable since the country had endured some 15 years of disruption and uncertainty brought on first by the Depression and then World War II. Following all that, the cultural mood and longing were for a time in which “everything is alright now.” It was time to settle down, find one’s niche, and fly right.
Keeping with this cultural mood, William Levitt started building the first suburbs in the potato fields of New York’s Long Island. The GI Bill, one of the more remarkable and far reaching pieces of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress, sent thousands of returning GIs to the campuses of America’s colleges and universities. According these highly deserving war veterans the benefits of a college education was clearly laudable. One by-product of the GI bill, for better or for worse though, was that many of its recipients were groomed and trained for the roles they would play in the emerging collective corporate culture of post-War America—the men in the gray flannel suits. And hovering over all of this was the religious revival of the 1950s, placing a kind of Divine sanction over this emerging “American way of life.”
But everything wasn’t alright. The grade school classes I attended in the early 50s were occasionally interrupted by Duck and Cover air raid drills. We little kids had to go out into the hallway, get down on our knees, and curl into little balls against the wall, thereby learning how to protect ourselves just in case the Russians would drop something called the atomic bomb on us. There were also these evil entities—it wasn’t altogether clear in my young mind if they were even people—called Communists, who vaguely had something to do with these bombs that might get dropped on us. We were always supposed to be keeping an eye out for these Communists, even if we didn’t know what they looked like. Among the first radio broadcasts I can remember listening to were the Joseph McCarthy hearings, and I found it very scary indeed to hear that these Communists were actually right here in my very own America.
What we had then was a cultural overlay of “everything is alright if we’ll just fly right” serving as a veneer for an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty. In my case the veneer worked pretty well. In grade school I learned to protect myself from Russian bombs; but at the end of the week I could still go to Sunday School and be reassured that “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” While it was never stated in so many words I nonetheless had the sense that Jesus was somehow an American—or at least he clearly would have been had my country been around in his day.
Be all that as it may, beneath that veneer of normalcy and conformity was a restlessness and an edginess and a largely undefined thirst for life that would not settle down, much less fly right. This spiritual restlessness gave birth to the Beats. In his book Go, the original Beat novel published in 1950, John Holmes captures this post World War II mood as he writes of a fictitious—but still very real—New York City jazz club called The Go Hole:
These restless youngsters (were) finding a passion in this music [jazz] that belonged defiantly to them…The Go Hole was where all the high school bands, the swing bands, and the roadhouses of their lives had led these young people; and above it all was their vision of a wartime America as a monstrous dance land…In this modern jazz they heard something rebel and nameless and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life…and these introverted kids (emotional outcasts of a war they had been too young to join, or in which they had lost their innocence), who had never belonged anywhere before, now felt somewhere at last.
“Their lives knew a gospel for the first time…” That was an interesting choice of words on Holmes part. His restless kids are looking for a gospel. When Holmes wrote of how the Beat Generation was occupied with a “need for faith” he meant they were looking for something to believe in at a time when faith options seemed slim. And if the jazz musicians provided the music of this gospel, then the Beats were the gospel writers. If the role of 1950’s mainstream religion with its traditional gospel was to maintain the veneer of normalcy, it was the Beats who were pushing and probing beneath the veneer. While Hettie Jones was probably right when she said that the writers, artists, and poets whose work and creativity were coming out of a Beat consciousness would have fit in her living room, there was a much larger consciousness they tapped into that was largely hidden in bedrooms and basements across America, and that is experiencing a major revival today.
I’ll conclude by reading from the closing paragraphs of one of the chapters in the book called “Jack Kerouac and the Face of God.” The phrase comes from a remark Kerouac made when he was on a New York radio program in the wake of the publication of On the Road. He was asked what it was he really wanted, and Kerouac replied, “I want God to show me His face.” I’m not altogether sure what he meant by that, but this is how I played off Jack’s remark:
“‘In the faces of my questioners was the hopeless question: But why?’ wrote Jack Kerouac in the wild aftermath of the publication of On the Road. But the question is never fully answered, just as the face of God is never to be fully revealed. The important thing, however, is that Jack Kerouac made the effort. And the more important thing, as I’m sure he would tell us himself if he could, is that we make the effort as well.
“I turn to Kerouac when I need some encouragement in making the effort myself. Whether it is a visit to his grave–which is about a half-hour’s drive from my home–or simply reflecting upon his joyful and tragic, ebullient and troubled, divine and demonic life, I need to say ‘thank you’ to him now and again.
“I thank him for pointing out a precious kind of beauty in the tired and forlorn face of a diner waitress. I thank him for seeing a strange kind of saintliness in the wild and crazy ways of his companion of the road, Neal Cassady. I thank him for allowing me to see a land I can still love, even with all its politicians have done to it, through the window of a Greyhound bus. I thank him for noticing the spurting froth on the rocks of the Merrimack River as it flowed through his hometown of Lowell. I thank him for having the courage to recount his own dark nights of the soul on Washington State’s Desolation Peak and at California’s Big Sur. For in each of these revelations Kerouac offers at least a fleeting glimpse of that elusive face of God, and a passing intimation of the Divine that resides in the ordinary.
“Jack Kerouac died a lonely death, and one that gave the appearance of a defeated man. But his life and legacy have proved to be far more lasting in the years following his death than in those preceding it. While he died in isolation, his spirit now reaches the lives of countless individuals.
“My most lasting memory of a trip to his grave came on one of my March 12 birthday treks following an especially severe New England winter. The snow was so deep and wet that I did not want to make the walk from the roadway that passes near his grave to the marker itself. I stood in the roadway and offered a silent prayer in the direction of Kerouac’s grave.
“About five or six young people, probably in their teens and twenties, approached. None of them were wearing boots. Without breaking stride they walked through the knee deep snow and formed a circle around the marker. From their pockets each of them took out a poem he or she had written and read it as they stood in their circle. Then they trooped back through the snow and went on their way.
“God, Jack, if only you could have seen it. Maybe you did.”
The Beats were actually doing what the avatars and prophets of each generation do—trying to expand the thinking, the consciousness…widening the view, and shedding greater light of the culture within which they lived.
That’s the theme of our closing hymn: “With Joy We Claim the Growing Light.”
Rev. Steve Edington
July 16, 2017
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California