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.

JWH