Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

The Beats: A Very Short Introduction/The Beat Generation: A Beginner's Guide

Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

The Beats: A Very Short Introduction/The Beat Generation: A Beginner's Guide

Article excerpt

The Beats: A Very Short Introduction

by David Sterritt

The Beat Generation: A Beginner's Guide

by Christopher Gair

Short cut guides clamor for our attention: "10 Easy Ways To Lose Weight," "Five Investments the 1RS Doesn't Want You To Know," "Lower Your Credit Scores With This One Weird Trick." Problems arise when we over-rely on quick hits for academic purposes. Teachers complain that students depend on Wikipedia for research rather than on vetted academic sources, but students vow that for quick, basic information, Wikipedia can be, in the words of its founder Jimmy Wales, "good enough information." In addition, the information appears in seconds on their smart phones. Several months ago, I learned all that I needed to know about AC power plugs and sockets from Wikipedia's entry on the topic. But that does not qualify me to do electrical work, and likewise these brief guides to financial gain or weight loss do not qualify us to invest our money wisely or give dietary counseling, either. David Sterritt and Christopher Gair have written academic, reliable, limited guides that draw from their academic backgrounds. Just as a ten-step guide to AC power plugs and sockets will not qualify someone to, say, wire my neighbor's house, neither will these books set someone up to be an authority on the Beat Generation-and that is not their aim.

David Sterritt's The Beats: A Very Short Introduction is referred to by Regina Weinreich as a "primer," and with dimensions of about seven inches by four and-a-half inches, and but a half-inch thick, it is praised by Lisa Jardine for its "snappy, small format." Its subtitle announces the book's value as well as its limitations. The Very Short Introductions series, according to Oxford University Press's webpage, provides "the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about," and there are literally hundreds of titles in the series, from Advertising, Ancient Warfare, and Continental Philosophy to Folk Music, Quantum Theory, and Viruses. A first impression can lead one to imagine certain people reading these guides by the dozens and growing insufferable at dinner parties. Only closer analysis reveals the value of specific guides. Sterritt, for example, is a Beat scholar and film critic: his Beat-related studies include Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the '50s, and Film (1998) and Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility (2004). His introduction to the Beats is compellingly well written, culturally comprehensive, and generally free of both the patronizing putdowns and the glazed idolatry of many introductory items written about the Beats.

When introducing a topic such as the Beats with its nebulous origins and serpentine ongoing influences, one might consider literature, biography, politics, cultural issues, commercialization, and religion among the topics to be sorted through, a task that seems beyond the range of a "very short introduction." Sterritt plots a sensible course that allows him to touch on these while foregrounding the Beat Generation as an artistic movement that responded to the pressing cultural issues of its time, concluding with a treatment of the Beats' legacy. Sterritt presents the Lost Generation for contrast before providing readers a condensed version of the "less-than-fabulous" 1950s, succinctly describing the pervasiveness of the six Cs-Conformity, Conservatism, Consumerism, Consensus, Common Sense, and Cold-War Paranoia-deftly working in references to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, "planned obsolescence," and "Leave It to Beaver." He also leaves the specific and frequently problematic definition of the Beat Generation to sufficiently vague generalities: "The Beats were an informal group, to the extent that they were a group at all" (35). As for the literary impact of the entire "Beatnik" movement, Sterritt points out that "fewer than ten percent of them (one-hundred and fifty or so) ever published any writing at all" (92). …

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