Review: Ambiguous Borderlands

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In his new book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture, Dr. Erik Mortenson looks at the “paradox” of mid-twentieth century life in the United States, where there were unprecedented levels of comfort for many citizens, and yet the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. While people became wealthier than ever before, there came also a crushing pressure to conform or fit in with mainstream society. Mortenson argues,

The shadow was one site where these issues were negotiated, where they were allowed to surface in cultural forms… The use of shadows cast doubt on the seemingly bright future that Americans were promised. Instead, they offered an alternative space where social assumptions could be reconsidered, questioned, and even challenged.

He goes on to explain the power of shadows as imagery in American art and literature in the second half of the twentieth century, saying “ambiguity made it a poor tool for direct political action but a remarkable one for planting the seed of doubt that flowered into a challenge to Cold War rhetoric.”

It is not hard, then, to see how this imagery was wielded by the writers and artists of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was famously enamored by a radio and comic book character from the thirties and forties called the Shadow. Kerouac fans will be familiar with the Shadow, who greatly influenced the 1959 novel, Dr Sax. Mortenson contends that Kerouac and Amiri Baraka both utilized the character to symbolize the loss of childhood innocence. “For these artists, meaning was found in the shadows because life is never simply black and white.”

There are two chapters in this book which deal with the Beat Generation. Chapter two looks at the aforementioned use of the Shadow, brought back from the thirties and forties at the height of the Cold War, in 1959, for a number of purposes, by Kerouac, Baraka, and Sylvia Plath. Mortenson argues that all three writers were attracted to the inherent ambiguities of the Shadow’s character – the combination of the childish concept of heroism mixed with the brutal reality of adult life. For Kerouac, in Dr Sax, the Shadow then acts as a representation of his protagonist’s adolescence as he leaves childhood and enters the disturbing world of adulthood. The author suggests that this transition from childhood to adulthood itself is a comment on America’s development, losing “political innocence” and descending into an era of “paranoia and fear.” Later, on the topic of politics again, Mortenson correctly notes that Kerouac’s own political leanings were more complicated than most commenters give credit, and that, “What he really fought against were such easy binaries as left or right.” After examining Dr Sax in detail, Mortenson looks at Baraka’s “In Memory of Radio,” where the use of the Shadow is somewhat less clear.

Chapter three looks at the confessional style of writing advocated by Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and how the image of the shadow functions in exploring one’s own unconscious. He examines references to the Shrouded Stranger in some of Ginsberg’s poems, and how it related to his life. “Ginsberg was struggling to find his own voice in this period, exploring various stylistic as well as thematic possibilities, and the figure of the Shrouded Stranger was important to this development.” Mortenson uses Ginsberg’s poetry to show how shadow was used to represent the poet’s lack of confidence and uncertainty in his poetic voice. “The Shrouded Stranger often appeared in Ginsberg’s notes as he struggled to develop aesthetic and thematic approaches to his work,” the author says. He notes Ginsberg’s desire to move away from vague ideas and into the realm of “things” in his poetry, citing subtle references in letters and notes during times of important development in the poet’s life. At the end of a fascinating section, Mortenson concludes:

The Shrouded Stranger gave Ginsberg an image ambiguous enough to work through some of the important life decisions he was addressing at this stage, such as his relationship to homosexuality and feelings of being outside mainstream society. Just as important, it forced Ginsberg to find novel ways of expressing these unconscious fears and concerns.

Finally, in the second half of the third chapter we return to Kerouac, for whom the specter of a shadowy stranger in dreams is much darker. Although the shadows pushed Kerouac towards great literature, he was not able to resolve them as Ginsberg did. Mortenson shows the recurrent shadowy figure appearing through Kerouac’s life and letters and literature, even pervading On the Road.

Ambiguous Borderlands offers a scholarly and yet utterly readable window on a heretofore under explored area of Beat studies, and in chapters not covered above, goes well beyond the Beats. For those interested in Kerouac and Ginsberg, but for whom Beat studies seem stale and/or repetitive, this fresh perspective will prove thrilling. Do  yourself a favour and explore the shadows of the Beat Generation.

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David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult.He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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