Thursday, May 2, 2013

How the Beats Beat the Man by Joseph Lagalante, Jr.

            The post WWII American landscape was certainly an interesting one.  Having persevered both world wars and the Great Depression, America began to jockey for position as supreme world superpower with the Soviet Union.  Being as “American” as possible became important during this time as the country soon became consumed with paranoia due to the “red scare.”  Hollywood quickly became a point of interest in weeding out potential leftist-radicals: Congress had feared the Communists had infiltrated the American film industry, causing Congress to identify these bad red seeds among prominent Hollywood directors, actors and writers.
            Considering the late 1940s and early 1950s proved to be incredibly trying times for celebrities in the United States it is interesting to note the rise of a contesting counter-culture.  Although they knew they would be met with great opposition, a group of young writers emerged during the late 1940s as anti-conformists who refused to bend to the whims of the American government; who discussed through their literature and art items deemed “obscene” and “unmentionable” in the American mainstream media.  Motifs such as sexuality, homosexuality, drug use and biting political commentary involving the Vietnam War, all served as focal points for the Beat Generation writers; these themes were utilized to attack the attempt to stifle creativity in the American media, and the Government’s attempts to reconstruct the First Amendment of the Constitution.
            Allen Ginsberg served as one of the founding and perhaps most influential members of the Beat Generation writers.  Along with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others, the Beat writers handled the topics no one at this time would dare approach.  In his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg juxtaposes explicit homoeroticism with religious diction and imagery.
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword… (Ginsberg lines 35-39).
It was this type of overtly sexual and borderline blasphemous poetics that landed Allen Ginsberg in front of a Congressional hearing committee and was tried in an attempt to censor his “obscene” publication.
            Ginsberg, however, was able to evade prosecution which served as a major victory for the Beat Generation, the First Amendment and America at large.  Although many people would quickly assess the Beat Generation as “un-American,” due to their counterculture nature and their unwillingness to conform to the contemporary “American ideals,” I would argue these brave men were perhaps even more American than those portraying the contemporary American ideals.  By directly opposing the American government and combating censorship in the 1950s, these Beat writers embodied the ideals our founding fathers revolted to secure.  As Americans we should find the Bill of Rights entirely non-negotiable.  These are the rights our founding fathers dictated should never be denied to this country’s citizens.  By attempting to censor creative artistic projects, the American government in the 1950s almost successfully denied the first right promised to us.  We have seen this right try to be redefined, or reconstructed several times throughout the past hundred years; but I maintain as Americans this should be what we hold and cherish most.  When the government tries to take away any of these ten rights, but perhaps most importantly the one which promises us the ability to speak, worship, assemble or protest freely, it is detrimental for us as a society to reaffirm that we are unwilling to forego this promise our country has made to us.  I only hope men as strong as Ginsberg and Burroughs will continue to persist throughout time, and this country’s history.

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