Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture

Article excerpt

Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture Erik Mortenson Southern Illinois University Press, 2016

A paradox of Beat Studies is that labeling something "Beat literature" at once ascribes its significance as Beat while simultaneously cordoning it offfrom other kinds of literary or cultural phenomena, thereby restricting its significance to Beat. Such labeling can be positive when it means we direct attention to work that would probably not otherwise be studied or even remembered. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that City Lights Books would have recently issued 65-year-old poems by John Hoffman were he not a romantic figure in Beat lore, having disappeared in Mexico in the early 1950s, a proper vagabond end supposedly inspiring lines in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." This collection, Journey to the End, was jointly printed with Philip Lamantia's Tau, previously-unpublished work by a better-known poet who has been canonized as Beat because of his participation in the famed 6 Gallery reading, where Lamantia read Hoffman's work rather than his own, clinching his dead friend's place in the pantheon of tragic voices of the new poetry. At the same time, "Beat" can be an epithet, not because it evokes the old specter of the beatnik, but because it isolates the text or figure so labeled from other literary or cultural currents, making it difficult to see the work as, say, recognizably postmodern, or as sharing sensibilities with those ostensibly-discrete "schools" such as New York or Black Mountain or San Francisco Renaissance.1 Given this situation, it is possible to distinguish two broad approaches to Beat Studies: the first announces itself as such and focuses on those figures or texts associated with the Beat generation or the more widely conceived Beat movement; the second is organized principally around conceptual or theoretical frameworks, and discusses so-called Beat writers alongside other writers and artists, a move that acknowledges Beatness, but does not see it as something axiomatically distinctive, arguing instead for congruities across ranges of texts.

Each approach has its advantages and limitations, and with his second book, Erik Mortenson moves from an exclusive emphasis on Beat-associated writers that marked his first book to an exploration of early Cold War culture that reads these writers in the context of larger cultural preoccupations. In that book, Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (2010), Mortenson focused on Beat writers as a group, and even as he argued for the virtues of "opening the Beat canon to women writers . . . [and] to African American authors" (2-3), he suggested that one can identify Beatness by looking at particular figurations of "presence," as detailed in the case studies he presents. In his new book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (2016), Mortenson devotes considerable attention to two canonical Beat writers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg-and, to a lesser extent, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka-but is not necessarily interested in claiming them as Beat but rather in understanding how they might be emblematic of larger cultural concerns.

Although critics and readers have tended to frame the Beats as working in opposition to mainstream culture-hence the commonplace notion that they are "countercultural" or "antiestablishment"-Ambiguous Borderlands demonstrates how one might as easily read them as embodying more widespread anxieties and trends common in early Cold War American culture. As its subtitle announces, the book focuses in on a seemingly narrow image or trope-the shadow-to show that in fact the shadow turns up in a startling number of places in the early Cold War cultural imaginary, functioning often as a way to confound the binary logic of a zero-sum conflict, or as a way to process the possibility of inconceivable destruction occasioned by atomic weapons. One influential strand of Cold War cultural and literary studies argues that during this period, certain "large cultural narratives" were privileged at the expense of others. …

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