Beat Culture through Kerouac and Salinger

          In the aftermath of World War II, the United States was beginning a new psychological war with Russia, known as the Cold War. This was a time of paranoia, and its effect on the American culture brought on constant fear of Communism and nuclear warfare. Out of this era brought the Beat culture as well as an environmental awareness. Jack Kerouac, known as “the unwitting Daddy of the Beatniks,” provides an insight to the Beat culture that arose after the war in his novel On the Road, spreading light on the effects of the war on the youth of society and their longing for an escape (Theado 747). Another Post World War II novel, Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger, concerns the journey of a troubled adolescent youth, Holden Caulfield as he roams the streets of New York looking for a purpose to his life. Though not technically considered a piece of Beat literature, it contains similar themes as well as an insight into the life of a teenager after the war. Both of these novels reflect an age of American history where cultural changes were beginning to take place in a post-war society.

Beat culture refers to the time period after the war in the 1950’s in which the youth was beginning to rebel, breaking away from the conformity expected of them by previous generations. It has been described as a spiritual journey, in which they long to find meaning to their lives and are “looking to see God’s face” (Holmes 1811). They long for adventure as well as a meaningful life and are constantly in search for it, constantly traveling to find what they are looking for in life. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, gives an inside look into the mind of a member of the Beat society and his struggle to find his place in the universe by traveling and examining his relationships to other people.

The protagonist of the novel, Sal Paradise, is based on Jack Kerouac himself and his experiences and relationships to those around him, which are all based on his real life. The story begins with Sal Paradise, an aspiring writer, meeting Dean Moriarty, a free spirited, adventurous newlywed and they quickly befriend each other based on Sal’s fascination with Dean and his wife, Marylou. Sal longs for the open road and travels to San Francisco, stopping at Denver along the way and attending parties. Upon arriving at his final destination, he is offered a job as a night watchman for a boarding camp. However, he decides to move again, this time traveling with a girl he met on the bus back to her hometown where he attempts a job working in the fields. Realizing he wants more than this sort of lifestyle, he travels, yet again, to New York.

The next year, Dean and Sal meet again and decide to travel west together, first landing in New Orleans, where they partake in the nightlife, such as jazz nightclubs, however, Sal is overwhelmed by the frantic nature of this lifestyle and returns to New York. A few months later, Sal decides to travel to San Francisco again to visit Dean and his new wife, but after a fight with her, they both return back to New York, yet they begin to grow apart on the journey back. Upon arriving at Sal’s home in New York, they begin to party again, ending with Dean impregnating another woman.

The next year, Sal begins to want to travel again, this time descending into Mexico City with Dean. After their last wild party and Sal becoming ill, Dean abandons Sal in Mexico City like he had with his three previous wives. After recovering, Sal returns to New York and meets Laura and they decide to move together to San Francisco and Dean agrees to take them there. However, Dean arrives too early and Sal does not have the money to go with him and Dean must return alone. Sal later reminisces about the open road and his friendship with Dean and imagines the ongoing path that the road led him down.

The characters of On the Road are constantly in travel, journey across the country to see where life takes them. They are always searching for a higher purpose in life, wanting more than a steady job and home life. This is typical of people of the Beat culture who lived life from party to party, simply looking to find their way. Sal Paradise gives us an inside look into the journey to discover himself as well as the people who accompany him. Throughout the novel, Sal is traveling the country, looking for parties, friends, music, and anything that will give him a purpose in life. He has no sense of identity and longs for a sense of community through other cultures. He is described wandering the streets and “wishing I were a Negro,” though he has an idealistic understanding of the African American culture and just longs to be a part of the jazz nightlife (Kerouac 1807).

At first, he longs to be like Dean, who is adventurous and free-spirited, but as the novel progresses, he realizes that Dean is unreliable and does not long to wander around the way Dean has for as long as he has known him. Over the course of the novel, Dean has a total of three wives, Marylou, Camille, and Inez, and has multiple children between them, sometimes impregnating another wife while another was already pregnant. He cannot stay faithful to any of them, constantly leaving them only to return later on in the novel. He is unable to take responsibility for any of his actions, under the cover of the Beat culture. Sal even describes Dean as a “HOLY GOOF,” or a womanizer (Kerouac 1809). Sal understands and accepts Dean for his roaming ways, but it isn’t until Dean abandons Sal, just like his wives, that he realizes he isn’t immune to Dean’s abandonment and the romance of the open road and life of travel dwindles.

A friend of Kerouac’s, John Clellon Holmes, wrote about the rising popularity of the Beat culture in his essay, “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,” in which he includes an interview with Kerouac to get a better understanding of the beliefs and practices of the Beats. He describes the Beat generation as being “a religious generation,” in which they claim to be searching for God, but themselves through travel, parties, and jazz music (Holmes 1812). He also talks about the Beat generation rising from the war and how they have grown accustomed to the horrors of human cruelty in the face of war and they are the first who must live with the fear of a nuclear attack wiping out humanity. Out of this fear rose the Beat generation, looking for peace, yet living by extremes and fueled by curiosity while recovering from the horrors of war.

On the Road provides a look into the life of a younger adult that has been affected by the war and is now recovering through partying and attempting to live a nomadic lifestyle, searching for a meaning to his life and exploring the relationships with those around him. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is a novel that concerns an adolescent boy that embarks on a similar symbolic journey of finding himself. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is unable to connect with any characters in the book, other than his little sister, but is still longing for a human connection deep down.

The Catcher in the Rye was a novel published in 1951 with World War II still fresh on the nation’s mind. Though the novel was not originally intended for an adolescent audience, teenagers have since adopted the book into a classic piece of adolescent literature due to the relatability of Holden’s struggles to their own lives. Holden was seen as such a relatable character to adolescents at the time and is still viewed that way in modern society today and would be categorized in the Young Adult genre (Chambers 270). Though it is not considered a piece of Beat literature, it does contain similar themes seen in Kerouac’s novel and Holden and Sal hold several of the same ideals and belief systems.

Holden’s story is told from the perspective of a journal he has written after the events of the book have occurred and is now in a hospital to cure his tuberculosis. He begins his account at his boarding school and the reader sees his warped relationships with the other boys in the school. He believes them to be “phonies,” and makes this excuse not to connect with anyone, even later on in the novel around strangers. He is failing school, due to his apathy in classes, and will be expelled, but he does not want to stay at the school waiting for it to officially happen, nor return home just yet with the news so he decides to leave and be on his own for the weekend, living in a hotel.

He travels to New York, checks into a cheap hotel, then spends the night dancing with three tourist women, though he does not actually find them attractive and is annoyed that they are not capable of real conversation. Later that night, Holden agrees to take a prostitute back to his room for five dollars, yet decides he only wants to talk and still pays her for her time. However, she returns with her pimp who demands more money and beats up Holden when he refuses. The next day, he takes a girl, Sally, on a date and impulsively asks him to run away with her. She runs away, leaving Holden alone to see a movie and get drunk alone.

That night, Holden decides to see his sister, Phoebe, the only person that Holden actually is capable of some emotional connection with, yet takes measures to avoid seeing his parents. Holden also has an older brother, who served in the war and now lives out west, as well as a younger brother, who died, leaving Holden with unresolved abandonment issues and longing for human connection. After visiting his sister in the night, he decides to spend the night at a professor’s house, yet feels uncomfortable there as he believes that his teacher is making sexual advances at him and he leaves, later questioning if he was correct in his interpretation of his teacher’s motives.

Holden then makes the decision to move west where his brother is and asks Phoebe to meet him at the Museum of Natural History, and he is surprised when she arrives with a suitcase, ready to go with him, but he refuses to let her join him. She becomes hurt and upset, so Holden takes her to the zoo to cheer her up where he decides not to go and will attempt to do better at a new school. The novel ends with Holden watching his sister ride the carousel in the rain and finally feeling happiness and a hope for his future.

Holden spends the majority of the novel traveling the streets of New York, searching for human contact and a way to escape his feelings. However, he never truly finds it due to his need to alienate himself for self protection and so no one can leave or hurt him like his dead brother. He makes excuses, calling people “phonies” as a way to persuade himself not to make close contact with anyone. As a result, Holden is lonely in the world, without anyone he can truly connect to other than his sister, who understands Holden’s fear of abandonment as she also faced her brother’s death with Holden. He also fears the adult world, meaning that he dreads growing up into a superficial adult, yet Holden still attempts to fit in using the same stereotypes he judges people for.

The title, Catcher in the Rye, is based on a song by Robert Burns titled, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” which is a sexually themed song that asks the question if it is ok for two people to meet out in the rye fields to have sex, even if there is no intention of a commitment between them. In the novel, Holden relates the idea of a “catcher in the rye” to children playing out in a field and imagines catching them before they fall from innocence. These two ideas are brought together to compare Holden’s longing for childhood innocence to his current state of wandering around, looking for human connections and the sexual themes that occur throughout the novel, though Holden admits to being a virgin and waiting for a special night with the right person.

Holden finds it very important that he standout amongst the crowd, and his own personal way of doing so is by wearing a red hunter hat that he wears throughout the novel. The brightly colored hat stands for Holden’s longing to stand out and a way for him to express his individuality while surrounded by “phonies.” However, Holden only wears the hat around crowds and people he does not know. If he is meeting someone, he will put it away, suddenly becoming self conscious about it. The hat then represents his desire for isolation interfering with his need for companionship, which Holden faces throughout the entirety of the novel, until he gives the hat to Phoebe, finally beginning to open himself up to the people around him.

Holden is a character that has been directly affected by the war as his older brother was a soldier and faced the horrors of World War II in person. This did not do well to facilitate Holden’s fear of abandonment, and since the war, Holden has distanced himself from his brother both physically and emotionally. The only member of his family, or anyone, is his younger sister, who is the only person in the novel to truly show a softer side to Holden.

Catcher in the Rye, at the time of its publication, was viewed as highly controversial due to its sexual and adult content and language, although today, it is considered an American classic. In her book, In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character, Pamela Hunt Steinle discusses the war’s influence on the novel as well as the reasons for its controversial reception. She states that it is rooted in the American people’s “confusion as to what adolescents should be taught, the absence of a shared moral standard” (Steinle 143). In a time of fear due to the creation of the nuclear bomb, society in America became overwrought with paranoia as well as guilt from the previous war, leaving adolescents to be filled with the angst and rage that no generation prior to them had to deal with.

Both On the Road and Catcher in the Rye deal with characters that are on a journey of self discovery, wandering through life looking for companionship and a greater purpose for living. Andrew J. Dunar compares the two novels in America in the Fifties, relating how both novels used characters that rejected social norms as a function to criticize American culture and challenge society’s norms, which is what the Beat culture set out to achieve. He writes, “Like Catcher in the Rye, On the Road appealed to readers because of its unwillingness to accept ordinary life on society’s terms” (Dunar 265). The sudden need to not conform to society was brought on as a result of the war, breaking free from the ideals that had confined the nation as well as dealing with the horrors the generation witnessed using drugs, parties, and sex to stifle the guilt and pain World War II and now the Cold War were inflicting on the nation.

The idea of travel is a key element to both novels and represents the growth the protagonist in each novel must go through. For Sal, travel is a means of self discovery, wandering the interstates of America searching for a place to belong and exploring the relationships of those who accompany him. For Holden, travel is a means of escape from reality and an attempt to find some sort of human connection as he wanders the streets of New York, getting drunk and calling everyone “phonies.” After the war, the fear and paranoia of the American society had driven its youth to break free from the constraints of social norms and created a new generation of self discovery and the search for enlightenment.

Works Cited

Chambers, Aiden. “Finding the Form: Toward a Poetics of Youth Literature.” The Lion and The Unicorn.” 30.2 (2010). 268-283

Dunar, Andrew J. America in the Fifties. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Holmes, John Clellon. “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation.” The American Traditional in Literature. Ed. Barbara Perkins and George Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1811-1813.

Kerouac, John. “On the Road.” The American Traditional in Literature. Ed. Barbara Perkins and George Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1807-1810.

Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Steinle, Pamela Hunt. In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2000.

Theado, Matt. “Beat Generation Literary Criticism.” Contemporary Literature. 45.4 (2004): 747-761.

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