Sun 5 Feb 2006
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In Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas,” he opens up saying “…the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom (Democratic Vistas, 929)…” This idea, in many ways, relates directly to the many thoughts of the beat generation writers – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and others. In writing, the “Beats” expressed variety and freedom, the East-coast prose writers and the West-coast poets alike. Whitman also spoke of John Stuart Mill’s essay on Liberty in the future. He said that it was necessary for “a large variety of character” and “a full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions (DV, 929).” The beats, as described in The Portable Beat Reader, shared their “own sense of life, something that might be defined as an intricate web of perceptions, judgments, feelings, and aspirations (The Portable Beat Reader, xvi). This said “web of perceptions” is strikingly similar to Mill’s “numberless and even conflicting directions.”
Another notable feature of the beats was that they worked in groups. This allowed them to have, as Nathanian Hawthorne said of his group of writers, “…the stimulus of suggestions, comparison, emulation (PBR, xv).” Not surprisingly this Hawthorne quote ties directly to Mill’s essay in that he speaks of “a large variety of character” as a necessity. This “intricate web” of literature seems to have “numberless and conflicting directions.” One could look at simply the beats and find conflicts in style and writing. However, the literature ties together further than that.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” was released in 1835 (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/hawthorn.htm). John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” was released in 1859 (http://www.serendipity.li/jsmill/jsmill.htm). Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” was released in 1870. All of these authors have influenced the beats to create “a set of ideas inherited in modified form from the madmen and the outlaws of the generation before (PBR, xvi).” These writers from the 1800’s, though many decades before the beat writers of the 1950’s, have influenced them through the “web” of literature. It is true that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway influenced the beats, but the less likely are those writers from a previous century. It is, through the works and quotes of Hawthorne and Whitman that one can see the direct tie of literature. These writers set out to accomplish similar things, discovering and experimenting in ways that their predecessors had not. Though the beats are said to have other influences like bop musicians, French poets, and California anarchists, the no-so-obvious group of influences would be from generations before.
In the 1950’s, the beats were caught – square in the middle – of the literature web, one with endless influences. There were influences not even directly related to writing and literature themselves. This “cool” or “beat” lifestyle changed writing forever when, in 1957, both Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road were released. The comparisons to writers of the early 1900’s were made, but one needs to look further at the works of writers like Whitman and Hawthorne to really see fully how the beats created their works. Most literature can essentially be tied together if a close enough analysis or enough research is given.