The Transnational Beat Generation. Review by Erik Mortenson

The Transnational Beat Generation, eds. Nancy M. Grace and Jennie Skerl. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).  ISBN: 978-0-230-10840-0.

While the Beats were deeply indebted to the American culture they both celebrated and castigated, from the very beginning Beat writers and their works were a global phenomenon.  The Beats and their texts journeyed throughout the world, and even while at home Beat writers looked beyond U.S. borders for inspiration. In recent years, with the rise of the internet and the expansion of American media, the Beats and their works have only gained more international exposure.  Nancy M. Grace and Jennie Skerl’s edited collection The Transnational Beat Generation offers an insightful examination of this international aspect of the Beats.  In a series of well-written articles, this volume both widens our understanding of Beat texts and provides some new filters through which to view their lives and works.

The introduction provides a good scholarly review of works devoted to the transnational theme and a useful overview of the essays.  The editors rightly claim that transnationalism is a difficult topic, and provide two paragraphs of possible definitions for the term and another two examining its literary aspects.  In the end, however, the editors eschew more theoretical formulations to argue for the idea of “‘the American Century’” (3) as a uniting concept for Beat transnationalism.  While the Beats are certainly important players in the global postwar counterculture, such a focus not only runs the risk of a return to an American exceptionalism that the idea of transnationalism has tried to eradicate, but also serves to limit the scope of what could have been a more interesting discussion of the possible payoffs of looking at the Beats, their texts, and their reception across national borders and beyond the early postwar period.  Transnationalism is more than just a question of influence—it also raises interesting questions concerning how texts are used, disseminated, and appropriated across space and time.  Many of the contributors in the third section of the volume pick up on this very theme, and a more extended discussion of transnationalism as a concept in the introduction would have been helpful.  Nevertheless, the introduction provides much food for thought as well as context for the articles that follow.

Part one of the volume “collects essays on American Beat writers that examine the transnational currents in their writing and their responses to globalizing forces, colonialism, U.S. neo-imperialism, and postwar conformist repression” (7).  Allen Hibbard begins the section by taking a look at Burroughs’s nearly three decades spent abroad.  Tracing Burroughs’s path from Mexico, through Tangier, Paris, and London, and then back home again, Hibbard demonstrates the ambiguities and tensions in Burroughs’s increasing understanding of his role in American imperialism and how he might critique it.  Burroughs could be both critical of imperial practices while at the same time tacitly condoning or even benefiting from them, and Hibbard does an excellent job navigating the reader through these ambivalent waters, leaving them with a broader understanding of the positions Burroughs took towards his travels and the possibilities and problems these positions offered.

If Hibbard examines Burroughs’s world-wide travels, Hassan Melehy discusses a neglected but no less fascinating aspect of another peripatetic Beat—Jack Kerouac’s more interior journey from his French-Canadian upbringing to his embrace of a heterogeneous American-ness celebrated in his writings.  Bringing together a historical consideration of the French-Canadian Diaspora, Kerouac’s correspondence with the eminent French Canadian journalist Yvonne Le Maȋtre, and a series of readings of both Kerouac’s archived French works and his more famous English ones (especially On the Road), Melehy explores the lingering presence of Kerouac’s French and French-Canadian heritage and what they mean for our understanding of his life and works.  Melehy’s insightful account examines the tension between Kerouac’s writing of his past and his embrace for a “wandering” future, and argues for a reconsideration of the vexed question of race in On the Road.

One of the major payoffs of the volume is its close attention to issues of race and gender as they intersect with transnational concerns.  Ronna C. Johnson’s contribution examines the latter in Brenda Frazer’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs, convincingly showing how the novel deconstructs the traditional Beat road tale by employing a woman (and mother) as traveler.  As Johnson herself claims, “Troia’s female hipster, whose sexuality and maternality tangle with and tangle up in the road’s border-crossing myths and juridical procedures, makes conspicuous the unrecognized gendered premises of Beat transnationalism” (52).  The result is an interesting reconsideration of the figure of the road so celebrated in the Beat canon.

Jimmy Fazzino continues this trend with a look into the connection between surrealism, the avant-garde manifesto, and African American Beat writers’ attempts to define themselves and their movement in internationalist terms.  Paying particular attention to the work of Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman, Fazzino argues that these writers shared a “commitment to traditions of radical and avant-garde poetics and politics” (72) that drew on both Europe and Africa for inspiration.  Fazzino’s account extends our understanding not only of Baraka, Joans, and Kaufman, but the extent to which a global surrealist influence helped shaped Beat racial concerns.

Nancy M. Grace’s article combines the genre of the fairy tale with the concept of the spectacle as theorized by Guy Debord in order to discuss Diane di Prima’s Dinners and Nightmares and William S. Burroughs’s The Black Rider, a “comic opera that he composed with singer-songwriter Tom Waits and playwright Robert Wilson” (93).  While the section on di Prima offers little in the way of a transnational discussion, Grace does provide an interesting background to Burroughs’s under-discussed text.  Grace remains doubtful, however, about the efficacy of the fairy tale, concluding that “all we can know is that Beat appropriations of the fairy tale paradoxically enable the analysis and reproduction of the transnational autonomous movement of the nonliving” (98).  While the connection between these two works and Debord’s concept remains under discussed, Grace’s work does a good job of reminding us of the international influences on Beat writing.

Jane Falk employs the concept of hybridity to show how both Joanne Kyger and Philip Whalen drew on Japanese cultural practices to transform their lives, thoughts, and writings.  Falk provides a historically rich account of this important time in both poets’ development, arguing that Japanese culture acted as “a site of resistance and contested identity” (101) for Kyger and Whalen.  Along the way, Falk offers readings of The Japan and India Journals and Scenes of Life at the Capital in light of Kyger’s and Whalen’s Japanese experiences, including tantalizing speculations such as whether Kyger read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book or the possible influence of ukiyo-e artists on Whalen’s long poem.  As compared to Gary Snyder, who seemed to more fully embrace his Japanese Zen experience, Falk argues that Kyger’s and Whalen’s inability or disinterest in fitting into Japanese society was itself the catalyst for their works.

In the last contribution to the section, Michele Hardesty explores the connection between literature and national politics through an examination of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s visits to Nicaragua in the 1980s.  Hardesty argues that while both voiced their solidarity in the Sandinistas’ attempt to employ literature in their building of a new nation, “their travel-related writings expressed the conviction that state power and poetry remained incompatible” (117).  Hardesty offers a well-researched account of Nicaragua’s long-suffered attempt to deploy the literary in the service of revolutionary political struggle.  Hardesty explores how this connection shapes and gives vent to each poet’s conception of poetry’s role in fomenting dissent.  Ferlinghetti, we discover, sees poetry in service of maintaining a “revolutionary euphoria” (126) rather than simply building a state, while Ginsberg takes a more critical tack, challenging this naïve view by asserting that poets, too, are never neutral.  While the idea of poets banding together for freedom and understanding is laudable, the reality, as Hardesty reminds us, is “much messier” (127).

The second part of the volume presents an interview with poet Anne Waldman conducted by the editors in 2011.  Waldman discusses the transnational dimension of her own work, and speculates on the growing importance of the global for both the literary scene in the United States as well as for concerns such as ecology, spiritualism, arts production, international protest movements, women’s issues, and the economy.  The interview is a revealing glimpse into the thinking of one of the foremost Beat poets writing today on a number of issues of fundamental importance.

The final section, “Global Circulation,” examines the influence of the Beats on artists and communities outside the borders of the United States.  R.J. Ellis leads off the section with an excellent study of the reception of the American Beats in British poetry circles.  Drawing on a sampling of almost forty British poets, Ellis finds that the Beats’ reception among British poets was a difficult one.  Most reject the Beat label for themselves, and have little positive to say about their colleagues across the Atlantic.  Despite this rejection, Ellis finds that the Beats “were certainly catalysts” (147), and goes on to chronicle this influence, including the colorful anecdote of the Beetles renaming themselves the Beatles after “a 1960 encounter between John Lennon and a Beat poet, Royston Ellis” (145).  This appropriation of the Beats allowed British poets to challenge an entrenched literary, academic, and cultural establishment, redefining what it meant to be a poet and pushing many to experiment with performing their poetry.

Jaap van der Bent, a scholar whose work was transnational before the term came into vogue, examines the connection between the Beat Generation and the Austrian writers of the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group).  Van der Bent finds that “shared social and cultural conditions are likely to lead to literary developments that to a large extent are also similar” (165), a fact which is true of the Vienna Group and the Beats.  Although spirituality and transcendence are important co-concerns, the Vienna Group’s interest in the liberation of language and its ability to determine reality drew them towards the work of Burroughs, though no direct contact between them was established.  Van der Bent, in a series of historically-aware readings, draws out interesting cross-resonances in ways that not only elucidate the Vienna Group’s concerns, but allow for a new insight into particularly Burroughsian concepts like language as control, the cut-up method, the Orgone Accumulator, L. Ron Hubbard’s E-meter, and Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine.

Josef Rauvolf continues this discussion of the international reception of the Beats through a look at Beat writers’ (particularly Ginsberg’s) influence on both Czech writing and youth culture.  Examining the group of Czech authors called the Midnight Edition, Rauvolf concludes that despite geographic distance and restricted access to Beat texts, these writers were “full-fledged philosophical companions of the Beats” (184).  In terms of youth, Rauvolf traces the emergence of the Czech Beat reception to Igor Hájek’s November 1959 article “American Bohemia.” This article introduced the Beats to a Czech audience and launched not only an interest in hitchhiking but, more importantly perhaps, inaugurated public poetry readings done in the Beat spirit.  Rauvolf also provides invaluable background to Ginsberg’s 1965 trip to Prague by drawing on Ginsberg’s own writing, government documents, and Czech newspaper reports.

Fiona Paton’s well-researched article leads the reader through the life of Scottish writer, iconoclast, and provocateur Alexander Trocchi and the impact he had on the Beat writers he came into contact with during his travels. Paton claims that what united Trocchi with other Beat writers across the Atlantic is an “interstitial sensibility” (203) that challenges fixed borders, boundaries, and standard notions of speech and behavior.  Though Trocchi has typically been marginalized, Paton makes a convincing case for his contributions.  She offers an insightful reading of Trocchi’s use of the Biblical Cain and Abel story as a means of understanding his novel of addiction Cain’s Book, as well as a discussion of his “project sigma” that advocated a worldwide cultural revolution through “homo ludens, or man at play” (213).

Christopher Gair and Konstantina Georganta extend this discussion of the global currents of Beat literary exchange into the Greek context.  Focusing on the work of Lefteris Poulios and his poem “An American Bar in Athens” in particular, the authors draw extensively on Michael Davidson’s important study The San Francisco Renaissance to discuss the ways in which Poulios translates the oppositional strategies of the Beats into terms relevant for Greece in the 1960s and 70s.  Gair and Georganta demonstrate how Poulios draws on Beat style and tropes (especially Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”) while revising them for a contemporary Greek political and social situation.  What emerges is not only a better understanding of Poulios and his work, but a clearer picture of how the Beats are redeployed in a host culture without looking on that appropriation as derivate or inferior.

Last, but certainly not least, A. Robert Lee discusses the life, writing, and Beat connections of the Japanese poet, activist, and Beat traveler, Nanao Sakaki.  In his characteristic prose style, Lee offers a series of insightful readings of Sakaki’s work drawn mainly from Break the Mirror and Let’s Eat Stars that reveal how the poet combines “directly experienced life encounter” with “Zen-Beat expansiveness” (240).  Lee skillfully outlines Sakaki’s numerous connections to Beat writers and the ecological concerns that drove his life and writing.  In sum, Lee provides a fascinating account of an important, but mainly neglected, figure in the global Beat network.

The articles collected in The Transnational Beat Generation provide the starting point for a much-needed discussing concerning the Beats’ global importance.  While past scholarship has tended to focus on the Beats’ relationship to strictly American concerns, this volume does an excellent job reminding us that the Beat phenomenon was never contained within U.S. borders.  Given the impact of the Beats today, the need for thinking beyond national borders when addressing their work is as important as ever, and studies such as Polina Mackay and Chad Weidner’s special issue in Comparative American Studies “The Beat Generation and Europe” have added to this growing concern in the field.  Thus, it appears as though the transnational will continue to gain importance as Beat studies broadens its concern with the contexts that informed the Beats and their writing.

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