Between Memory and History: The Beats in Popular Culture and Pedagogy

Last week, I discussed the issues of dealing with collective and cultural memory in historical pedagogy and was left wondering how memory and historical research can function together in the classroom and beyond. This time around, I thought I’d begin to address the interactivity between the two, pulling from my own area of expertise: the Beat Generation.

For almost a decade now, I have devoted myself to studying and analyzing the works and lives of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and more, who wrote and worked during the mid-20th century on pieces deemed obscene, subversive, and anti-American to mainstream audiences and political actors. What I find so fascinating about the Beats has been their cultural longevity and their prolonged position in American culture and literature. One need only look at the current films about the Beats that have, and continue to, come out—like Howl (2010), On the Road (2012), and Kill Your Darlings (2013) to name a few—to understand their lasting appeal and the desire to mythologize and project them in new mediums.

In studying the Beats, it’s impossible to disregard their popular cultural appeal and the positive and negative aspects of that attraction and attention. One of the ways in which their value as artists was denigrated publicly was Herb Caen’s coining of the word “beatnik” in a 1957 San Francisco Chronicle article after the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road and the launch of Sputnik that same year. The term was at once a playful jab at the Beat authors’ works and image, but also culminated in a mock representation of what it meant to be Beat. The beatnik became a stereotype, a caricature of a bongo-playing, beret-wearing, and arty party-goer with no ambition and no sense of responsibilities. It was a fad that cashed in on the cultural capital of primarily Kerouac and Ginsberg’s appeal to a popular audience, producing characters like Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) and more in B-movies and television programs.

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

Allen Ginsberg as Uncle Sam
Allen Ginsberg as Uncle Sam

Clearly, the Beats outlasted this lambasting and of-the-moment mystique, but that image remains and continues to plague what I believe are their important points, motifs, and themes on the state of American culture, politics, and “othering” along racial, gendered, and class lines. The Beats were not saints, and often were hypocritical in their own lives and works—read the Terry and Mexico sections of On the Road, or study the stories of Neal Cassady’s treatment and discussion of women for obvious examples—but I will vouch for their crucial role and participation in discussions on failings of political institutions, continued denigration or disregard for art and literature, and the power of voices from the margins and alternative perspectives.

As a Beat scholar, it is my duty to wrestle with not only the literature and artistry of the Beats, but also wrestle with their cultural images and depictions in other areas. I’m an American Studies scholar, as well, so I operate from a more interdisciplinary framework, pulling in my passion for literary analysis and cultural history to provide the best understanding and discussions of these artists as I can for students and readers alike. This is why I am inclined to incorporate “cultural memory” into the history classroom when discussing the Beats because of their long-standing position in popular culture and the role that their widely-distributed stories and lives have to play in how we perceive and discuss them historically.

The challenge lies in not only presenting the Beats in a historical framework, but also drawing upon their artistry to emphasize why they were so panned and marginalized and why their ideas and voices still resonate today in a new century. To demonstrate the importance of the Beat writers and their processes requires a more creative approach than can usually be afforded in a general seminar or lecture format. This is why I’d like to imagine my ideal classroom as a space for not only teaching important skills like close analysis, working with primary sources, research, and reading alternative sources and narratives, but to also have students inhabit the role of the writer, poet, artist, filmmaker, etc. to think and work creatively. Gee, as we’ve discussed early in the blog, discusses the power of having an avatar in video games, a character or role that we as players can control or inhabit to work through objectives and accomplish quests. I believe that adopting a similar idea when working with such a unique writing group like the Beats might allow for a more dynamic and, dare I say it, fun approach to engaging with the past.

As I move along this semester, I want to look into ways that the Beats can and have been taught so far. Personally, I’ve taken a course on the Beats, as well as experienced some of their works briefly in different classes, but I’d also like to look into ways other universities and professors have gone about dealing with them, historically and beyond. A good source to look at will be William Lawlor’s The Beat Generation: A Bibliographical Teaching Guide (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1998), which provides a great list of resources to explore and possible avenues of teaching the literature and history of the Beats. Also, PBS’s American Masters series has a section on Allen Ginsberg and provides helpful study guide and teaching resources on their website. Ultimately, I am thinking more about how to incorporate my American Studies background into a History classroom, maintaining those ties to literature and popular culture that I believe strengthen, rather than degrade, studies of the past.

REFERENCES

William Lawlor, The Beat Generation: A Bibliographical Teaching Guide (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1998).

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