by Trinidad Kechkian, Op-Ed Contributor
The personality of the United States of America as a nation is one deeply rooted in the principle of individualism. Its very foundations are democracy and the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—establishments with the sole purpose of promoting the power of the people. However, the way in which we, as historians, have come to understand American history is warped in that, more often than not, what we consider makes a historical movement is a leader and his followers, but the Beat Generation challenges that. The Beats were 1950s writers, thinkers who disdained the increasingly homogenous American society from its middle-class materialism to its meaningless routine. They were romantics, druggies on cross-country hikes, experimenting, experiencing in search of themselves. They were not a group, but individuals that questioned everything, including the popular definition of a historical movement.
The era of the Beat Generation carried many particularities that alienated it both from the rest of society and from what had previously been considered a movement in American history. Many Beat writers captured these idiosyncrasies in their poems, their stories, their travel journals, but perhaps most famously, Jack Kerouac did so in his scroll On the Road. At the time, World War II had ended, the cold war was well begun, and “in the age that invented the idea of classified information, Kerouac’s effort was to declassify the secrets of the human body and soul” (Vlagopoulos 63). Whilst the United States fought for its national ideals and against communism in a war “ominous in its implicit disavowal of the actual costs of conflict,” Beat writers fought, each a war of his own, to determine whom he was, where the drugs and his spirit converged, how a man and a woman were alike (62). In a country that was then fueled by a desperate and corrupting fear of communism both within and without its borders, the Beats struggled to explain to themselves among all the political, societal confusion what values their country held.
Nearly every aspect of American life during the cold war “endorsed a mythology of national unity” that permeated through every characteristic of American society, manifesting itself in both popular and consumer cultures, and even establishing gender roles and heteronormative conventions (54). Thus, the 1950s was a decade of thorough homogenization for the United States—American society became more and more uniform in that many aimed to reach a certain standard of living, each with the same image in mind of what it meant to be an American. Suddenly, there was a prevalent transition from urban to suburban living throughout the nation, especially in the Sun Belt states of southern and southwestern America. Many middle-class, white families moved into the suburbs, leaving behind a high concentration of minorities in the cities that would soon be characterized by high rents, low wages, and inadequate living conditions. The wage gap between whites and minorities, however, was not the only factor encouraging this shift in lifestyles; combined with a strong desire for racial segregation, the government itself promoted suburbanization in various ways. With the passing of the GI Bill, with the construction of a nationally integrated highway system, and with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), veterans now received loans, city workers now had a means of transportation, and many more families could now enter the home mortgage market. However, these opportunities were only available to white veterans, white city workers, and white families. Even banks excluded African American homebuyers from the all-white suburbs by refusing them loans—a tactic known as “redlining.” Furthermore, white homeowners used police harassment, bombings, and mob violence against blacks to keep them from living in their neighborhoods. In every corner of America, the government, the federal and state banks, and the majority of whites were perpetuating a very specific “American” way of life—one that did not include diversity of any kind and one that was constantly advertised in popular culture. Most television shows of the time, such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, enforced one thing: the perfect, white, middle-class, nuclear families in which the father worked and the mother stayed at home, ingraining certain socioeconomic standards, stereotypical gender roles, and an unhealthily exclusive definition of the “American ideal” into society.
Amid the sameness that America had become, however, the Beats stood out. They recognized the monotonous American culture that had developed in the post-World War II years and were motivated by it to transcend the boundaries of what was socially acceptable, even it if meant their community would ostracize them for being both nonconformist and for acknowledging their individualism. In every aspect of their being, Beats did not fit into the institutionalized societal norms of his country, as they were more often than not unemployed, sexually confused, and drug-using. To further their sense of solitude, the American popular culture alienated them as socioeconomically and spiritually different from others. There was a glaring dichotomy between the widespread willingness to blend into the established “American” model and the Beats’ own struggles refusing to sacrifice their singularity. They were utterly isolated from the rest of society in that they were not attracted by the trends and social standards of their country. They even differed in their very purpose in life; they sought to find themselves in the nooks and crannies of their community, in every unexplored region of the body and soul, and on the transcontinental highways of America, despite any opposition they might have received.
In his experimentations, author Kerouac practiced close introspective observation both of the country in which he lived and of himself. Like many Beats, his realizations became clear to him after a careful examination of his community, and only by conducting these inspections of his surroundings and acknowledging the growing homogenization of America was he able to establish his place in society as an individual—different not only in his status, not only in his dual nationality, not only in his rejection of labels, but also in the way he perceived the state of the nation. And while he wrote in order to share with others his feelings about society and his experiences on his search for himself, the genuineness of the Beat Generation called for some personal connection with the issues of the overwhelming sameness. It compelled each misfit like Kerouac to explore what it meant to him to be alive, not what it meant to anyone else.
The Beat Generation was truly a movement, just not a traditional one. It did not follow the typical “movement complex” of a leader and his followers, like what comes to mind when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the well-known instigator of change. Instead, the Beat Generation rose from people’s recognition of themselves as individuals, and it is this acceptance of one’s own singularity that differentiates this movement from others. While various strategies used in the Civil Rights Movement relied on convening with other activists to provoke sit-ins, freedom rides, bus boycotts, and marches, the longevity of the Beat Generation as a movement depended solely on each Beat’s inclination to explore and question the world around him. Thus, the movement of the Beat Generation as a whole was itself an outlier among those seen previously throughout American history, as it spawned in and thrived with the dedication of individual persons, not groups of people.
Henretta, James A., et al. America: A Concise History. Sixth ed. Vols. Combined Edition. Boston:
Bedford-St. Martin's, 2015. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. Ed. Howard Cunnell. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
On the Road. Dir. Walter Salles. 2012. Film.
Vlagopoulos, Penny. “Rewriting America: Kerouac’s Nation of ‘Underground Monsters.’” Introduction.
On the Road: The Original Scroll. By Jack Kerouac. Ed. Howard Cunnell. New York: Penguin, 2008. 53-68. Print.