- Way Beyond Berets
280 Pages; Print, $39.95
The last decade or so has seen a Renaissance of Beat Generation scholarship, appropriately taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite persistent caricatures among journalists and professors alike of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and a host of others as scribblers peddling literary stunts to a wide-eyed following, critics have explored the capacious reading and often elaborate techniques that were integral to these writers' practice. This recent critical focus has illuminated a dimension of beat writing patent to anyone who pays attention to the density of allusion in, say, Kerouac's and Ginsberg's work: the conception of literature as a transnational and even global phenomenon. Increasingly, scholars recognize the Beat Generation as far more than a midcentury countercultural movement, presenting them as readers of and contributors to literature that extends across national borders. Seen in this light, they become major figures in the global literary currents of the twentieth century.
Véronique Lane's The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation is a welcome addition to this reassessment. Although its title modestly suggests a catalogue of sources, Lane's book is much more; by examining Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac's wide-ranging interest in modern French literature, she not only documents its mark on their work but arrives at a perspective on modernist and postmodernist literature that underscores its complicated international itinerary. In her introduction, "Beyond 'Rimbaud in a Raincoat'" (the quoted phrase is from Kenneth Alsop's 1960 description of Burroughs), she begins with the fact of these writers' "intense" Francophilia. Although their early habit of writing to each other using French phrases could be explained away as college pretentiousness bolstered by Kerouac's bilingual heritage, over the next few pages she details the ways that they self-consciously gravitated toward French literature, philosophy, and cinema as aesthetic and critical sources. From Sartrean existentialism to authors who, more than most, define modern avant-garde and experimental literature—Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Cocteau, St.-John Perse, Guillaume Apollinaire, and many others—Lane considers not just the obsession of the Beat Generation "big three" with such sources but also the social, historical, and cultural reasons for it.
Their specific interest in French material, Lane explains, stems from an identification with the outsider status of all the authors on their list. Hence, the three are "worthy successors" to Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, and Henri Michaux, who addressed their work to "misfits," "illiterates," "human trash." This strain of French literature offered Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac a means of articulating their own sense of disaffection. Moreover, it suggested a way out of the constriction of national borders, "an identification with those who resisted, even betrayed national identity through writing." Lane shows that viewing the Beat Generation as a transnational phenomenon doesn't merely supplement the contexts in which their work has already been viewed; rather, these authors' transnationalism is a basic characteristic of their writing, their mark of distinction in twentieth-century American letters.
In this respect, Lane's is a breakthrough book in beat criticism: in addition to demonstrating, against lingering commonplace, that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were sophisticated, fully schooled writers, The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation shows the shortcomings of viewing them primarily as heirs of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and William Faulkner. In fact, continuing to bind them to this lineage, at the expense of a global perspective on literature, thins them out to the point where they're barely distinguishable from the juvenile hacks that many still take them for. In concert with critical efforts to see Burroughs's exile in Mexico and Morocco and Kerouac's recourse to his native French not only as parts of their biographical background but as essential to their work, Lane demonstrates the paramount importance of transnationalism in beat writing. In contrast to a source...