Sunday, August 24, 2014

Welcome to Countercultural Literature

(from top): Joyce Johnson and Jack Kerouac;
Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William S.
Burroughs; LeRoi and Hettie Jones.
We'll narrow our focus this semester to a short (but tremendously important) period in postwar American history where a burgeoning countercultural movement — know as The Beat Generation — radically changed the course of the 20th century, openly defying the conventions of society's aesthetics, morality and politics, and in the process, breathed joy and life into a stoic nation.

The Beat Generation first entered the public sphere with the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956 (a book which would be tried for obscenity and ultimately vindicated). Other germinal books followed, including Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) by which point this core group of New York City writers had expanded, finding comrades among the literary and cultural scenes in San Francisco and Chicago before traveling more widely (through Mexico, South America, Europe, Northern Africa, and India). We'll take a "less is more" approach this term, focusing on the four main New York Beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Gregory Corso — along with LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), a young African-American poet with close ties to the movement. We'll also reflect on the vital role of woman within this largely male movement via two latter-day memoirs by partners of Beat figures: Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters and Hettie Jones' How I Became Hettie Jones.

While the Beats' heyday was relatively brief, their influence long outlived their era (and in some cases, the writers themselves), directly inspiring bohemian subcultures worldwide (including hippies, Yippies, punks and much more) and opening up the possibilities of American literature to allow for more creative and frank expression. The Free Speech, Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Queer Rights, Anti-war and Environmental movements can all trace their origins (in some part) to advances made within the literary sphere by the authors we'll be studying this quarter, and undoubtedly, we live in an era shaped by their ideas.

Also, if it's not been made immediately clear by the brief description above, the work we'll be exploring this term is going to be somewhat more explicit than your standard English class fare. There'll be plenty of drinking and drugs, fast cars and loud music, sex of all sorts (gay, straight, alien), spiritual exploration, world travel, socialism, pacifism, mental illness and death to go around, so if any of these topics offend you, you might wish to consider a different class. If, on the other hand, you find these things appealing, then 1) you're a sick individual, and 2) you're in the right place.

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