The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Yesterday I read, “The Cult Books That Have Lost Their Cool” by Hephzibah Anderson at the BBC online. Anderson snidely dismisses several novels that were considered classics by my generation. Of course, when I was young I was just as quick to dismiss the works my parents loved. History has shown us that revolutionaries tend to eliminate people and art that don’t meet the standards of the new zeal. As an old person, and evidently part of an old guard, I’m seeing more of my history dismissed, causing artists and artists to disappear from pop-culture consciousness. It feels like agism censorship.

I can accept that the young have judged us harshly and found us morally wanting. What annoys me is they don’t have any sympathy for human frailty, and quite often I feel their social media kangaroo courts are conducted without examining the actual evidence. Take for example Anderson’s assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

Based on a road trip from New York to Mexico with Beat muse Neal Cassady, Kerouac wrote what would become the Beatnik’s bible in just three weeks. It took six years to get published and more than half a century later, it exudes tiresome stoner machismo. Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, and isn’t much better where women and black people are concerned. A few years back, a spate of books and films inspired only a flicker of revived interest in his legacy. Boorish egotist or inspired prophet? The jury isn’t just out, it left the building long ago, dancing after the hippies who supplanted the Beats.

I can’t believe Anderson has even read the book. She says Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, but of the three main characters, Kerouac is straight, Ginsberg is gay, and Cassady is happy to have sex with almost anyone. And these men practically worship black jazz musicians. Kerouac hardly takes a machismo stance. He portrays himself with endless faults and emotional weaknesses. Kerouac was like Proust, he struggled to make sense of his life by fictionalizing it. The term beat deals with Kerouac’s existential angst over living in the 1940s and early 1950s. On the Road is about seeking freedom from an oppressive materialistic society. Anderson assumes it is some kind of bro road epic. If anything, Kerouac portrays the beats as Quixotic figures tilting at windmills. It’s a realistic portrait of the times, of men, women, gays, minorities, Mexicans, ethnic groups, and so on. It’s a sad, beat story about looking for kicks and being kicked down. It’s not pretty, but it is honest. Anderson has no sympathy for Kerouac’s suffering and struggle.

Nor is Anderson sympathetic to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:

Poor Holden Caulfield. Mired in a funk for more than half a century, the angst-ridden ‘everyteen’ is now regarded by the cool kids as being a bit – well, self-indulgent. His ennui is, if not exclusively a rich-white-boy problem, then certainly nothing compared with looming climate collapse and other woes weighing on the minds of his 21st-Century peers. Plus, in the era of helicopter parenting and geo-tagging, not to mention hyper-vigilant mental-health awareness, the idea that a depressed teen could simply go Awol in New York City for a couple of days is increasingly hard to indulge.

Just because Kerouac and Holden Caulfield don’t meet modern moral standards of 21st-century young people they are shunned and ridiculed. But here’s the thing, every generation is different. Should we erase the past because it’s different? Sure these people are morally and ethically wanting by today’s higher consciousness, but they are still human beings trying to make sense of life by what they knew at the time. The point of reading old books is to understand the past, to see it for what it was, not what we want it to be.

Dismissing Kerouac or Sallinger is cold and callous. Dismissing these writers is a kind of censoring the past. You can’t perfect the present by erasing the past. The ironic thing is Kerouac and Sallinger were revolutionaries like Anderson, wanting young readers to know that the times were changing. Of course, they did their own rejecting of the past too. That’s how it goes. But it’s better to see the bigger picture.

I wonder how Anderson will feel when she’s my age and someone her age now dismisses the cherished art and artists that shaped her generation?

I don’t really expect things to change. I always felt sorry for Kerouac. Kerouac and my father lived about the same years and died young from alcoholism. I wrote an essay years ago called “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Louisa May Alcott, and Philip K. Dick. These writers had painful lives, but they were outstanding in their soulful writing trying to make sense of those lives. It pisses me off that someone would blithely dismiss them for being uncool. I’m also sensitive about forgotten authors – see my page for Lady Dorothy Mills who has practically disappeared. It just seems hurtful to me that any writer would encourage readers to stop reading any author.

To be honest, I was like Anderson when I first read Kerouac when I was young. I thought it was a novel about thrills. But with every decade of life On the Road changes. I’ve been on the road for more years than Kerouac ever got to live. It takes a long time to really understand what beat means. Hephzibah, don’t be so quick to dismiss On the Road. Read it again when you’re older.



13 thoughts on “The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past”

  1. I agree – Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. A period piece now, to some – but then, aren’t all great novels, sooner or later? To me, it captured a human essence that remains timeless, wrapped in the world of the beat generation. Wonderful stuff.

  2. After my wife and I saw the wonderful documentary, LINDA RONSTADT: SOUND OF MY VOICE, we stopped at a store to use a coupon that was expiring. The young checkout clerk asked us how the day was going as she rang us out. “We just the Linda Ronstadt documentary,” I said. “Who is that?” she asked. “Linda Ronstadt was the Beyonce of her day,” I replied.

    1. Except that Linda Ronstadt has more talent in her little finger than Beyonce has in her whole body and I kinda like a lot of Beonce’s stuff.

  3. I really enjoyed this post and I thought you make good points. I do wonder, though, how representative these neo-Barbarian groups of people in Twitter are. Social media allows the ones who shout loudest to dominate the discussion.

    1. I’d say they were fairly common among the younger readers and writers. On the Road has been under attack ever since it was published in 1957. There have been fans who want to make it part of the 20th-century literary canon, and others who consider it trash. Catcher in the Rye was an immediate classic, and it’s huge success with one generation which might explain the resentment in other later generations. There’s a hilarious book called King Dork by Frank Portman where the protagonist constantly rebels against Catcher in the Rye because every one of his teachers wants him to read it.

      I don’t expect everyone to read these books. I don’t even think they should be taught in schools. I just resent they are being dismissed so cruelly. Anderson feels they are on the Cool shelf and should be tossed off. They never claimed to be cool. For a while, they were in books to read. Now they are historical records of the late 1940s. Anderson seems to be making fun of them, but isn’t that making fun of people who are suffering? Both books are about pain and the cruelty of society, which is also what modern books get praised for.

  4. Yar, dat. Stupid is as stupid does. Ignorance is Strength, as long as one is on the right side of Ignorance. One of the things I figured out as a yute is that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Life and it’s peccadillos slap you upside the head, and if you learn you move on a bit wiser.
    Having never read the novels in this discussion, I cannot confirm or deny what they contain, or what they have meant to readers then, and now.

    So what? They meant a lot to those who read them (and I admit I did a lot of the things that seemed to end up in them). Life is what you make of it…Or what it makes of you.

    Anyone who sets out to dismiss the art/books/stories/movies of another era is just a book-burner at heart. If one cannot learn from the experiences and stories of those who’ve gone before (even if you repeat them), then you are just another scrabbling climber wishing to stand upon the edifice built before you.
    And yell at the world, “See! See what I’ve done that is so much better than you!”

  5. So true. Writers with much to offer getting dismissed by smug and superficial readers of today (not that all readers today are such). It’s like Bill Maher said, “You’re not morally superior to your grandparents; you were just born later. So can we just grandfather in all the shit you would have done yourself if you were alive then and get on with it.”

    1. PJ, it’s interesting you recommended Small’s essay. I’m reading Plato at the Googleplex and getting into Plato. I’m also reading The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer about acquiring a classical education for the self-taught. I recommend both.

      1. Dunno. I did read “Republic” back in college days and thought Plato an authoritarian stinker. And I’m more a dilettante by nature, more eclectic than integrated. That is to say, I’m lazy.

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