William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

16
The Broken Circuit

John Tytell

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Self-Reliance"

J ack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and a group of other writers, artists, and mavericks of inspiration like Neal Cassady, formed a "movement" which began near the end of the Second World War, found its voice during the fifties, and became especially influential in the sixties. Though the movement lacked any shared platform such as the Imagist or Surrealist manifestoes, it cohered as a literary group. While the work of one informed the approach and style of another--in the way that Kerouac's prose line and aesthetic of spontaneity affected Ginsberg's poetic--the mutuality among these men developed more as a result of a mythic outlook on their own lives and interactions.

In 1952, Jack Kerouac listed the chief members of the movement in a letter to Ginsberg, explaining that the crucial motivation for their union was the ability to honestly confess each other their deepest feelings. Such open revelation of private matters contradicted the spirit of the age, but led to aesthetic and intellectual discoveries. The Beat movement was a crystallization of a sweeping discontent with American "virtues" of progress and power. What began with an exploration of the bowels and entrails of the city--criminality, drugs, mental hospitals--evolved into an expression of the visionary sensibility. The romantic militancy of the Beats found its roots in American transcendentalism. Their spiritual ancestors were men like Thoreau with his aggressive idealism, his essentially conservative distrust of machines and industry, his desire to return to the origins of man's relations to the land; or Melville, with his adventurous tolerance of different tribal codes; or Whitman, optimistically proclaiming with egalitarian gusto the raw newness and velocity of

____________________

John Tytell, "The Broken Circuit," Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation ( New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976): 3-15. Copyright © 1976 by John Tytell. Reprinted by permission of the author and by permission of Grove Press, a division of Wheatland Corporation, and by permission of Berenice Hoffman Literary Agency.

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