In her Foreword to this volume, Ann Charters, the dean of Beat scholars, notes that we have now been exploring the Beats for more than 50 years, and she suggests as well that this exploration has been growing significantly in recent decades. Prediction is a risky business, but this growing momentum means, I believe, that we will be exploring the Beats—reading, teaching, analyzing, arguing—for at least another 50 years. I think that it is no accident that the early Beat writers were fascinated with the writers of the so-called American Renaissance. We now recognize the achievement of Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, but in the 1850s their explorations of the American scene (its possibilities and its hypocrisies), American consciousness, and the American language were regarded as threats to the cultural and social norms of the day (as was the case with Emerson and Whitman), or they were largely ignored (as were Melville and Thoreau), or they were (as in Dickinson’s case) all but invisible. It took nearly 100 years for the cultural centrality and the achievement of these writers to be fully recognized. The early Beats came of age as the writers of the American Renaissance were being canonized and learned from their example both the cost of writing against the grain of what was officially condoned and the power that could be found in such imaginative self-reliance. The growing recognition of the importance of the Beat Generation and its growing influence suggests that we will eventually recognize the 1950s as another American cultural renaissance with the Beats near its center rather than at its periphery. In the later 1950s and the early 1960s, discussions of the Beat Generation and Beat writers, whether positive or negative, tended to emphasize the extent to which the Beats stood in opposition to the cultural mainstream. In their own lives (and in the lives of the characters in their texts), they violated social norms. In their art they jettisoned the emphasis on control, precision, and ironic distance that had been explored by the high moderns in the decades before the Second World War (and which the academy of the early 1950s tried to demand) to explore the possibilities of improvisation. Instead of craft and control, they emphasized sincerity and immediacy. For the Beats, the modernism of the 1920s (especially as viewed retrospectively through the lens of the horrific destructiveness of the Second World War and the threat of nuclear holocaust) was not the redemption of the “tradition” as T. S. Eliot imagined that term in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but it was instead a last ditch and futile attempt to evade the terms of modern society in which all cultural production and the circulation of all cultural products were increasingly intertwined with the mass media. The earliest critics of the Beats, those who embraced their work and those who denounced it, recognized that the Beats were rejecting the norms of literature. Fifty years later, we can see, I believe, that they were also rejecting literature itself (understood as the crafting of elite aesthetic objects) to reinvent it as writing (a process that cast the reader not as a viewer as in modernism but as listener who could be a “you” in response to the writer’s “I” rather than an “it”). The Beats understood that the first half of the 20th century marked the end of literature as a separate category and privileged domain, and they understood that the condition of mass mediation and popular culture had become a given that had to be engaged in some manner (whether ironically and caustically, as Burroughs did, or with ambivalent generosity, as Ginsberg did, or even with a certain enthusiasm for its possibilities, as Kerouac did) if writing was to be authentic and to reclaim some of the aesthetic power and centrality that literature had once had.
   Much of our discussion of the Beats—at least that which gets beyond our fascination with the biographies of these iconic figures—still focuses on their various roles in the cultural and social changes that they helped incubate from below the seemingly placid surface of the conformity of cold-war America. The Beats were not the “man in the gray flannel suit,” and even if the frontier had been closed for 50 years (as Frederick Jackson Turner declared), they showed that there were still roads that led out from the suburbs as well as inward to the wilds of Times Square and North Beach. These are significant matters. They help us see the cultural centrality of the Beats, not just their marginality. They help us see that the so-called “containment culture” of the 1950s was less a period of cultural consensus and stability than a period of cultural negotiation that paved the way for what become, in the later 1960s, a cultural fragmentation. But these approaches are not sufficient. What the Beats did, their representations of what they did, and how these have been received and “read” as cultural texts have tended to eclipse “how” they meant; that is, our focus on the activities of being Beat have tended to divert our attention from why the experience of reading them was so disruptive in the first place and why this disruptiveness has been—as the range of figures and texts covered in this encyclopedia demonstrates-so broadly influential. What’s missing, still, is a sustained examination of how the Beats actually wrote and how their experimental practices have been a part of their cultural impact and cultural significance. This I think will become the agenda of the next 50 years of Beat research and criticism.
   Tim Hunt

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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