The Beat Generation’s currency—testified to by several recent major motion pictures—is not only a result of their contribution to the literary canon, but even more so of the successful integration of their bohemian lifestyles into the cultural imaginary. However, even if their dissent is relevant until today as a sign system for expressing generational conflict, it has to be understood as a phenomenon integral to the 1950s.
The Beat Generation’s best known publications, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch have largely been interpreted as authentic testimonies of their author’s deviant lifestyles. Seeking a community alternative to that of suburban picket fences, they found it, at least in their imagination, with Bebop Jazz musicians. The similarity was that both Beats and Beboppers had stylized themselves as outsiders; the difference that the musicians were forced to live on the other side of a segregated society. However, this alignment with what popular media had imagined as the black criminal underworld proved the most radical break with white middle class aspirations possible and already paved the way for a larger countercultural support of the Civil Rights Movement.
The motivation for this break, I would argue, lies in the Beat authors’ search for alternative forms of performance of the self. Both the Beats’ texts and their reception cannot be understood without a focus on a historical development of new emotional styles of selfhood which privileged personality as well as new forms of community based on common identities. It is my conviction that the Beat Generation authors’ allegorization of social outsiders, of which their enthusiasm for Jazz musicians is but one example, their drug intake, mysticism, and their self-referentiality to the point of narcissism all served as departure from accepted emotional styles of masculinity. My project concerns itself with an analysis of the aforementioned literary texts and their performance of self. It further complicates these readings with their reception’s historical situatedness.