Reviews

The Beats: A Teaching Companion

Clemson University and the Beat Studies Association have been working together on a series of books about the Beat Generation, the latest of which is Nancy Grace’s The Beats: A Teaching Companion. As its title suggests, this is a collection of essays on the Beats, which relate to educational issues in different ways. It is divided into sections composed of essays that tie various Beat issues to aspects of education, giving recommendations for the effective teaching of different parts of Beat studies. Those sections are:

  1. Foundational Issues
  2. Beat Genres
  3. Beat Literary Topics
  4. Beat Lineages and Legacies

It is an interesting collection of work that offers a quite wide range of subject matter. There are, of course, more resources on the “big three” Beat writers but many others are included, with a particular focus on women writers and issues of race.

The book opens with Grace’s introduction, “Back to the Future,” which explores the history of Beat scholarship, going back to John Tytell’s early work and summarises the various efforts and problems encountered over the decades that have since elapsed. She covers, as so many similar books do, the origins of the term “Beat” and attempts to some extent to cover what is and isn’t Beat. As she notes, this is no easy task and any effort to delineate Beat from non-Beat is fraught with troubles. An interesting argument in this essay is her quite astute observation of the foolishness of scholars and students today who immediately dismiss the Beats, thereby cutting themselves off from an important section of the history of social justice – an ideology these people claim to embrace. She discusses the absurdities of the modern interest in censoring the Beats because they were primarily white males and used language that is now offensive. It is terribly ironic, given the Beat authors’ battles against conservative censorship in the last century. But such is the swing of history: those who benefited from the strides made by the Beats are in a position to enact their own restrictions and, so many years later, Beat literature is still controversial.

The first collected essay is one by Matt Theado on the topic of censorship. It is fitting given the issues mentioned in Grace’s introduction and the challenges that works of historic importance now face. Theado opens by explaining that high school and college students typically enjoy discussions on censorship. It is an interesting piece of writing that looks back over the history of censorship in the US, noting that governmental censorship differs from that found in educational institutions. Just because “Howl” and other Beat works became legal to disseminate, they were not necessarily free from censorship. Pressure from conservatives in the 1980s meant a crackdown on swear words and other controversial elements, whilst parents and school boards today are not much more tolerant. Theado looks at the censorship levelled at Howl and Other Poems, Naked Lunch, The Beard, and The Love Book, with suggestions for classroom discussion on issues such as whether cursing is artistically relevant or gratuitous. He notes, correctly, that teaching works such as The Love Book will require “the support of a sympathetic administration” but that they offer the possibility of “paradigm-shifting experiences.”

Next, A. Robert Lee addressed the issue of multiculturalism and the Beat Generation. He explores the Jewish experience in Ginsberg’s poetry, multiculturalism in Kerouac’s novels (especially The Subterraneans), and Burroughs as “impeccably Anglo.” Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans, and Amiri Baraka are discussed in terms of being African American, whilst Italianness is briefly mentioned by way of Corso, Ferlinghetti, and di Prima. The Asian American experience can be viewed through Shigeyoshi Murao and Albert Saijo, whilst women and LGBTQ+ people are put together in respect to their approaches to multiculturalism. Finally, a few places of Beat significance are mentioned as worthy of attention and also the contributions of non-American Beats, including Michael Horowitz. Oddly, Oscar Zeta Acosta appears to fall into the Beat category in Lee’s opinion…

A very important essay comes from Steven Belletto, who has put out several great books on the Beats through Cambridge University Press. Here, he covers “little magazines” – by which he means those often mimeographed publications so popular in the 1960s (but not limited to mimeographing or that single decade) which were of great importance to disseminating Beat literature. Those familiar with Burroughs’ work, for example, will know just how significant these little magazines were in printing his incendiary prose. He points to some important magazines (or issues of magazines) and mentions some key stories or poems that were printed there, which might be interest to Beats designing Beat studies curricula. Yugen, Fuck You, and Floating Bear are all discussed here.

Later on, Rob Johnson and Robert Casas discuss teaching the Beats as a means of “retaking the universe” (a reference to Burroughs). By this, they mean using Beat literature to inspire students to engage in creative writing. This was a particularly interesting essay for me, not just because I edited and published one of Johnson’s books, but because this essay dealt with English Language Learning (ELL), which I taught for more than a decade. Their essay is based upon research they conducted using On the Road to inspire in their students an interest in spontaneous composition. Their students were asked to write about a childhood room for a period of thirty minutes after learning about Kerouac’s writing methods. “Most students find the exercise exhilarating,” they report, noting that they “are amazed […] at how much they remember about their childhood.” The second half of this essay looks at ELL and Beat literature, explaining that English was Kerouac’s second language. In an experiment, ELL students were given instruction in spontaneous prose and then asked to write. They generally wrote more freely than peers who had not had this, indicating that spontaneous prose has some merit as a teaching tool for English learners. The theory behind it is that the process of translating from L1 to L2 is stressful and difficult and time-consuming, but that this method can more or less smooth out the transition.

Ronna C. Johnson then discusses the teaching of On the Road, beginning with a horrifying anecdote:

As one student memorably accused, Jack Kerouac, his celebrated novel, its protagonists Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, and the road tale as a genre are all misogynist white-male apologists for white masculine entitlements.

This is hardly surprising, but one had hoped that universities still held enough students free from woke brainwashing to populate a literature classroom. How long will it be before Kerouac and co are cleansed from the curricula of Western universities? It is, Johnson says, all part of a “post-millennial American moment of regressive tribal politics.” Indeed, this is hardly the only anecdote in this book that attests to the grossly intolerant and irrational atmosphere within universities these days. What follows is a long discussion on gender and race in regards the novel, showing how it could be discussed without devolving into the knee-jerk idiocy of writing it off purely because its author had the audacity of being born a white male. Let’s hope common sense prevails and that we do not soon witness the cancelling of the Beats…

The following section of the book discuss the teaching of open form poetics (through both the Beats and the Black Mountain poets) and also expansive poetics (focusing on ruth weiss). Mary Paniccia Carden looks at Joanne Kyger and Joyce Johnson in terms of what she calls “women’s creative nonfiction” by focusing on Japan and India Journals and Minor Characters. Here, she offers some interesting pointers on the use of journals as a form of literature, something with which students may not be familiar. A very important essay comes from Tony Trigilio, who talks about Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and its composition on audio tapes. He begins with a fascinating activity he calls “pre-reading” Ginsberg’s poem that he has invented due to “the difficulty [of] teaching poems from Ginsberg’s mid- to late career.” This is both the best written and most useful essay in the book, in my humble opinion. It is interesting, engaging, and – for this teacher at least – genuinely filled with good classroom advice. Darin Pradittatsanee then discusses methods for teaching The Dharma Bums in partnership with a core Buddhist text, the Diamond Sutra.

Part three features a wonderful discussion of the Beats and drugs by Erik Mortenson, who begins “In an era of trigger warnings and highly polarized positions, it might seem best to avoid discussing an activity that can be dangerous, addictive, and illegal.” He goes on to argue the case for taking the drug use in Beat literature seriously. There are various reasons, from its importance in a stylistic or even spiritual context, to the fact that Beat presentation of drugs showed a greater reality to the highly stylised/glamourised depictions in modern movies and TV. He compares Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction with Joan Vollmer’s in On the Road. This is a wide-ranging essay that covers a lot of ground, including a look at gender, which indeed is significant as so much of drug literature is written by and about men. This section of the book is then rounded out with a guide to teaching Naked Lunch and an investigation of Kerouac’s bilingualism, the latter by Hassan Melehy, author of Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory.

Part four is more concerned with the influence of the Beats or latter-day Beats, as it were. It covers the second-wave Beats like Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder, and Bob Kaufman, looks at Kerouac’s influence on the “road novel” genre, and even examines the satirical humour shown by Beat poets like Ginsberg and Kyger with “offbeat comedy” like Monty Python. There is another sad acknowledgement of woke idiocy in an essay about the trials of teaching Beat literature in a modern university environment, where Conrad’s anti-racist novels are cancelled due to their alleged racism.

Altogether, this is a valuable text and refreshing by comparison with books that tread similar ground but in a very different way. With its focus on teaching, though, it perhaps will have a limited audience – something that is evident from the various references to the absurd challenges of teaching literature in an era where academia and culture are being torn apart by the woefully ill-informed. Still, books this are important for they give educators important advice on how to tread carefully through the minefield and – beyond that – how to deal with the Beats, a notoriously difficult literary movement to cover in any educational environment. Whilst there is now a great deal of material covering the work of the core Beats, actually bringing this into the classroom is no easy feat and so the suggestions here are valuable. Included in the appendix are even suggested assignments. Let’s hope this all encourages the continuation of Beat Studies and new generations of students interested in exploring this most important of literary movements.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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