- The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac’s Appropriations of Modern Literature, from Rimbaud to Michaux by Véronique Lane
American literary criticism has often approached its nation’s writers in a vacuum, as if what makes their writings uniquely ‘American’ can be clarified only against the backdrop of the American canon. Despite Marjorie Perloff’s incisive reevaluation of the roots of the twentieth-century American avant-garde in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1999), a wide array of American writers and artists have remained at the margins of trans-Atlantic literary genealogies. Such a lacuna is perhaps nowhere more glaring than in contemporary scholarship on the Beat Generation.
Véronique Lane’s The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation stands as the first and most thorough book-length attempt to rectify this disciplinary blind-spot by uncovering the major Beat Generation writers’ multi-faceted appropriations of French literary antecedents. From a Francophone perspective, but with a comparativist’s sensibility for nuanced readings of translingual and cross-cultural literary appropriation, Lane’s essays tackle both the infamous and the forgotten works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. These writers’ diverging methods and aesthetics come into relief through their appropriations of styles, perspectives, and ideas from such French writers as Rimbaud, Proust, Gide, Apollinaire, St.-John Perse, Artaud, Céline, Cocteau, Genet, and Michaux. In these anti-establishment writers of French modernism, the Beat Generation found an escape from and an alternative to mid-century American stasis and alienation. As Lane astutely observes, “French literature played the same role and impacted the works of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac in the same way as their own literature impacted the American literary canon: as the alien within” (217).
Weaving together dizzying dimensions of self-referential citations, literary allusions, provocative quotations, formal appropriations, and methodological adaptations, Lane’s inquiry considers not only such radical material practices as Burroughs’ cut-up project, but also more sensitive engagements with multi-media forms, such as Kerouac’s literary adaptation of French cinematic poetic realism. Through her genealogical, archaeological, and inter-textual approach, Lane’s startling, at times haunting, juxtapositions reveal the vibrant and diverse evolution of transatlantic cultural networks across a constellation of slippery texts and subversive artworks. In the process, Lane also carefully recuperates the Beat Generation’s theoretical and political import within an underappreciated “post-humanist” tradition. [End Page 170]
Rather than resort to postmodern “relativism,” the Beats found in this counter-lineage of “poètes maudits” the inspiration for their multi-faceted critique of Cold War America. If the Beats had a common denominator, it was this queer quest to call into question the American Century’s “common sense,” to reveal what we take as natural to be a social construct, and to reconceive human potential in a rapidly changing technological and social environment. According to Rosi Braidotti’s framework in The Posthuman (2013), the Beats diverging strands of posthumanism can be sketched roughly in three stages: Kerouac’s representation of the posthuman (beyond the self), Ginsberg’s post-anthropocentric perspective (life beyond the species), and Burroughs’ evocations of the inhuman (life beyond death). Lane’s posthumanist interpretations liberate the Beats from traditional Romanticist readings, recontextualizing how their unsettling writings stand apart from mainstream Surrealist work. By challenging their time’s paradigms of “human nature,” the Beats not only achieved a wide-ranging influence on post-WWII counter-culture; they also arguably ensured their eventual assimilation into our era’s transformed version of the canon.
Lane’s literary history has the refreshing feel of teaching us something we already knew, but never took seriously. How couldn’t we discuss the Beats in relation to French literature, when they not only modeled their personas and writings on French literature, but frequently wrote in French, while living in France, and corresponding and collaborating with French writers? Her work attests to generative explorations we can expect from future scholarship tracing the transnational influences on such...