HEFFERNAN: What we forget about the Beat generation

The newest movie about the Beat generation takes its name from a famous quote often attributed to William Faulkner. “Kill your darlings” the writer said advising writers to cut out (or down) the language, subjects and literary tricks they love to become better, more truthful writers.
The movie uses the phrase to clever effect, both recalling the famous advice and hinting at the story of a murder involving the biggest figures of the movement: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. But with this release marking just one of four movies on the Beats in the three years, isn’t it high time to kill the incredibly hyped darling the Beats themselves have become?
Now don’t get me wrong, I have been affected by meaningful passages in the movement’s seminal works including Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Selected Poems” and, the most enduringly popular of them all, Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
The Beats contribution to literature and poetry is clear, with those works becoming some of the most influential and widely read of the mid to late 20th century and standing for values that predicated the 1960s social movement and waves of countercultural moments that followed.
There is lasting pull to the Beats hip New York scene— the air of rebellion, the sexual freedom in acts and orientation,  the smoke-filled jazz clubs, wild nights of drug experimentation. Hell there’s even a certain romance about their glasses, the way they rolled their pants and all those cigarettes smoked hunched over a typewriter.
So to some, my raising objections will seem like graffiti-ing hallowed halls, but I think if the Beats spirit really lives on at all, they would appreciate a certain spirit of vandalism, even with their own legacy.
I hoped that the recent crop of studio films could shed a more critical light onto the lives of the Beats to avoid those romantic visions they tend to capture in the popular imagination.
The resurgence in film began in 2010 with “Howl,” starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in the famous censorship trial over his most popular poem of the same name. Then came “On the Road” in 2012 with a star-studded cast including Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart adapting Kerouac’s 1957 road novel.
Now there are two new films, “Kill Your Darlings”, which I saw in theaters last week, and “Big Sur,” which came out on limited release earlier this month (and may not come to Milwaukee at all) and follows another autobiographical work of Kerouac.
A young Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs
A young Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs
The main thing the movies, and in turn the popular vision of the Beats, get wrong is the extremity of the moral, physical and cultural statement the Beats made. In many ways, the depictions excuse the real challenges made by the authors by both watering them down and romanticizing their flaws.
The first mistake I think people make about the Beats is their perpetual youth. Though Ginsberg was in his mid-thirties in the censorship trial depicted in of “Howl,” James Franco is youthful and handsome. Similarly, “Kill Your Darlings” decides to focus on the college versions of the writers, before any work was really completed by the artists. A.O. Scott from the New York Times went so far as to describe them as a sort of Beat generation “muppet babies.”
The argument made in a wonderful article in the Atlantic by Jordan Larson made the point that this focus on youth cuts what the Beats stood for into their old age, making them into simply a young persons’ idol.
Similarly, “On the Road” is seen as a sort of wanderlust story for the early twenty-somethings, unattached and searching for self. But in the autobiographical account Kerouac already left his wife before going on the trip, dropped out of college and was far from the unformed youth making mistakes for the first time that the popular conception, and the 2010 film adaptation, makes it seem.
More than making the Beats forever young, the biographies and adaptations do everything in their power to frame the artists as role models for cities, hip professions and Urban Outfitters stores of today.
But some of the attitudes of the Beats really shouldn’t be emulated. The characters in “On the Road” are misogynistic, passing women back in forth like a beach ball and treating them as objects and idiots. Sal, the story’s narrator, worships his companion Dean Moriarty, despite (and in fact because) he is an outlaw who steals, abandons his wife and child, cheats on his partners without apology, takes him to a brothel in Mexico and is only redeemed by a sort of Western charm and masculinity.
Sal is a young man who left his wife, is partially funded by relatives and finds sexual exploits and quirky stories of Americans parties, jazz clubs and drunken adventures across the country. There are undeniably beautiful passages in the mix and a profound feeling of freedom and youth in writing that crackles and burns on the page, but when you romanticize the journey and make Kerouac some sort of hero and avatar for what your personal image, you go too far.
Kerouac died at 47 after years of alcoholism. William S. Burroughs was found his artistic self after killing his own wife in a shooting game. Ginsberg was forced to spend time in a mental hospital for his art.
Looking at the realities so often ignored in the lives of these men doesn’t have to end your admiration, but it should give us all a more nuanced, complex understanding of what they wrote and what they meant. You may realize that they aren’t the perfect models for your teenage rebellion, but are rather men who had to face consequences for living lives that never failed to “burn, burn, burn.”
Erin Heffernan is a senior studying English and political science at Marquette. Email her with comments or suggestions at erin.heffernan@marquette.edu.