Friday, May 28, 2010

Early Research Breakdown

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Kerouac and Ginsberg because they are striving to understand how to know themselves, their personal relationships, and the society they operate within, or against. A large part of this struggle is the quest to master the idea of being and being seen within this nation. Like the New Critics, they are striving for truth, and Kerouac seems to believe he can gain a sense of himself and the world through a physical and spiritual exploration of America. American literature is marked by an urge to pioneer, to discover and determine and Kerouac joins a long tradition of looking to the west with hope.
He explores the wilderness of the unknown to reinvent himself. I see a thread of fashioned selves in American literature, and a communal aspiration to become what one is not yet, to imagine an identity and then assume it. The immigrant status of almost all members of the nation freed us to create in this way, and the physicality of the land helped. I believe the giant expanse of unseen America is a huge part of the literary tradition. The size of the nation is a part of the
national identity and the unknowability of so many parts plays a key role in American-ness. Each American writer is aware that they live within a community that must be alien to others within the country. How does this affect their sense of self? I won’t necessarily focus exclusively on the concept of the nation, but the idea of America will at least influence my research. I want to dig into the way the Beats’ visions of themselves can relate to more recent literary works.

I started off my research during the end of the Spring Semester at which point I had an inkling that I’d like to write something about someone in the Beat Generation. I loved Howl when I read Ginsberg in college and was otherwise completely new to all literary and historical aspects to the period. My first two sources were overviews. First, A Cultural Chronology of Early Beat Generation Literature 1944-1960 on the blog The Beat Page, which was a timeline of key political, international, literary, musical and pop culture events that occurred each year from 1945 until 1960. My second was a copy of The Americans, Robert Frank’s book of photography with a forward by Kerouac. I read through the listing of historical happenings and started to get excited as I started to get an idea of everything happening in America when these ambitious-for-life boys were writing: Mccarthyism, steel protests and national strikes, Cold War Fear, racial tensions and the civil rights movement… I looked through Frank’s photographs and felt like I was catching glimpses of vibrantly alive moments in the dusty bop-ridden canvas of America in 1955 and 56. After a bit more reading and now in between the piles of library books on my desk, I’ve got a long list of possibilities.

You can’t read about the Beat Generation without quickly encountering a note that the label was created by Jack Kerouac, and that it is not exactly accurate, since the ‘generation’ consists of a small social group, not a whole generation of people. Kerouac’s early proclamation of his generation was met with a huge amount of hype and many voices of dissent, which scoffed at the central figures and the writing and coined the term beatnik. I am interested in this preemptive labeling and the idea that Kerouac was knowingly creating a self-enforcing trend, with the insight that the label would help create what it described. This posturing is connected to a lot of what goes on in Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The group’s interest in Herbert Huncke fascinates me, he is a member of the underclass and he seems like a character to him, the kind of person who Neal Cassidy can really dig. He seems to have an advantage in ‘real’ experience over the others because he is a drug dealer and a member of the underclass. They see experience as the supreme meaning; it is almost Godly. There are Marxist implications to their choice to leave the middle class comfort for the experience of hobos and drifters and the unprivileged. Kerouac scrounges for money and work and goes hungry for days, but when his sense of adventure is gone he writes his mother to get her to wire him $50. Their destitute is play poverty. I thought I’d focus on the idea of hypervisibility and appearance and its relation to the spiritual. This might particularly be relevant what I read Desolation Angels, a book written about the fame that Kerouac experienced after On The Road was published, within which I may observe the implications of being seen.

I have another idea that I wanted to propose, though I don’t know if it has any merit. I thought I might compare Zuckerman Bound by Philip Roth to Desolation Angels by Kerouac. But... I’d hate to waste my project drawing an obvious connection or one that is completely off base. Perhaps I might try and compare the Zuckerman Unbound trilogy to Kerouac’s road novels: On The Road, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody. That’s my new idea for the topic, my original was to focus on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and to try to find a more recent text for me to compare it with.

This is the second big idea I have, which is centered on Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg from that period. The change in structure, meter, and the phonic attributes of Howl are intriguing to me. I know the poem’s formal composition is considered rebellious like its content, and the form has been said to form the true voice of the time, unencumbered by what the Beats saw as outdated forms and meaningless grammatical rules. I might look at the differences between his free and explicit style and the materialist and media-saturated world that Ginsberg lived in; in which advertising, television, news, and impersonal urban society stood in for human intimacy and appearances subsumed usurp the place of the real. Again I wanted to explore these issues of the ‘real’ versus the fake and postmodern ideas of questionable meaning, simulacrum, and meta-literature. I would find a novel or poem or maybe even a historical moment to look at in comparison to Howl.

I’m eager to get going, get more specific, get comfortable with something being my one and only topic for the summer. At the least I have a huge number of books to get through so if there isn’t much here I might stumble across it in the days to come.

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