Looking at the Contemporary Generation Essay
Looking at the Contemporary Generation
The literary historian Malcolm Cowley described the years between the two world wars as a second flowering of American writing. Certainly American literature attained a new maturity and a rich diversity in the 1920s and ’30s, and significant works by several major figures from those decades were published after 1945. Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Katherine Anne Porter wrote memorable fictions. In the post-war period, many Americans felt fractured from reality and found themselves struggling to piece together their identities.
The proposed national identity was that of prosperity, hope and success but in the years following the war and in the wake of losing so many citizens, many Americans did not see themselves in the same line. Instead they were experiencing hardship, hopelessness and constant struggle to rebuild their lives in a war torn nation. This attitude is what prevailed in much of the post-war literature along with the various ways in which people sought to recompose themselves. The disillusioned mass found their voice in the page of Hemingway and Kerouac. As it is said that literature speaks for the contemporary society, and as long before P.
B. Shelley had once said that Poets are the unacknowledged legislatures of the world, hence it was the serious effort of Hemingway and Kerouac that made the contemporary society to rebuild their world in a new way. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Kerouac’s On the Road; are the two catalogue of contemporary society which makes the world understand the prevailing circumstances of that time. The post World War-II era of the American society witnessed many changes. There was certain change in the socio-cultural outlook of the society. The ideology of Beat Generation emerged during this point of time.
Central elements of Beat culture include a rejection of mainstream values, experimentation with drugs and alternate forms of sexuality, and an interest in Eastern religion. The literary movement of the Beat Generation exploded into American consciousness with two books in the late 1950s. The first one was Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, published in 1956. The book achieved notoriety when poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti went to trial for selling it in San Francisco. The second book had an even more profound cultural effect when it was published.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, published in 1957, was viewed as nothing less than a manifesto for the Beat Generation. However the Beat literary movement was short-lived. Most of the work Kerouac published in the 1960s had been written during his creative peak in the 1950s. Beat literature retains its popularity decades later because the writers of the Beat Generation must ultimately be judged by their work, not by any real or imagined influence on popular culture. Allen Ginsberg’s poetry is still revered. The nightmarish visions of William Burroughs continue to influence post-Modern writers.
Finally Kerouac’s On the Road is still a campus favorite, and continues to draw scholarly criticism. Jack Kerouac had a major influence on an entire generation of Americans following the publication of On the Road, his semi-autobiographical novel that became the bible of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Kerouac’s impact continued into the next decade as the hippie movement developed during the 1960s and writers such as Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and songwriter Bob Dylan produced works influenced by Kerouac’s spontaneous, confessional, free-thinking style.
On the Road is, the story of two young men, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who travel frantically back and forth across the American continent seeking thrills. The novel is actually a thinly veiled account of Kerouac’s own life in the late 1940s, when he fell under the spell of a charismatic drifter named Neal Cassady (represented by Moriarty in the novel). Every episode in the novel was inspired by real-life events. The book shocked readers in 1957 with its depiction of drug use and promiscuous sex. Many critics attacked the work as evidence of the increasing immorality of American youth.
Other critics saw it as a groundbreaking work of originality. American readers, fascinated with the bohemian lifestyle of the characters, turned the novel into a bestseller. This novel is about Sal Paradise, a writer and college student, lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his aunt. He spends much of his time with his eccentric and artistic friends in New York City. One of his friends, Chad King, introduces him to Dean Moriarty, a young man recently released from a reformatory in New Mexico. Dean spends the winter in New York and then he moves back west to Denver in the spring. A few months later, Sal follows him to Colorado.
Sal move toward west, learning more about him and the many intriguing people he meets along the way. He arrives in Denver and connects with a group of his New York friends. He moves into an apartment with his friend Roland Major, but Sal is anxious to see Dean who is on a tight schedule, hustling back and forth between his wife, Marylou, and his girlfriend, Camille. Sal roars around Denver with Dean and other friends and goes to a party in Central City. After a few weeks, he leaves on a bus for San Francisco. In San Francisco, Sal moves in with his friend, Remi Boncoeur, and Remi’s girlfriend, Lee Ann.
Remi gets Sal a job as a special policeman at a barracks for overseas workers. Sal hates working with the other cops there who are miserable and narrow-minded. After a few months, Sal leaves San Francisco and travels to Los Angeles. On the bus he meets Terry, a young Mexican-American woman, and they fall in love. Sal goes with Terry to Sabinal, her hometown near Bakersfield. He meets her family, moves into a tent with her and her young son, Johnny, and gets a job picking cotton. But he soon realizes that he can’t make enough money to support Terry and her son.
He persuades Terry to move back with her family and he returns to his life in New York. Sal’s and Dean’s friendship throughout the novel reflects the buddy themes found in much classic and pop culture. They are two men sharing travel experiences. Their relationship is a part of the male bonding stereotype. Yet, what they have transcends a typical friendship. Through their adventures and travels, they become comrades and brothers. Dean’s madness envelops Sal; Dean can make the mundane extraordinary for Sal. Their deeds and misdeeds bond them together in a way that ordinary friendship rarely does.
Friendship also plays a role in the Beat culture that Kerouac describes. It is only when Sal’s group of friends was together that he can truly experience the kind of life they want to live. In On the Road, however, friendship is also a power that can destroy. Sal eventually sees his relationship with Dean as destructive. During their final journey he laments Dean’s coming to take him to Mexico. Dean, and the subculture represented by Sal’s Beat friends, come to represent the destruction of the traditional values of American society like family and relationship.
This kind of individualist subversion is one of the themes of the novel, and Sal can sense that something is being lost by this destruction. During the final journey, Sal realizes that the destructive nature of this kind of friendship can have severe consequences for the people surrounding him and Dean. On the Road deals also with the sense of adventure and exploration in two main ways. First, there is the story of exploration. For Sal, the country and towns that lie before him represent new adventures.
Through his first journey, Sal understands himself to be one in the long line of explorers and settlers who went west to find a new life. Sal mythologizes much of the American West during his trip. He sees the possibilities of time and existence in the Mississippi River, echoing other great American writers such as Mark Twain. In the Denver mining town he finds a sense of the Old West, a time of cowboys and dangerous frontiers. As he picks cotton with other migrant farm workers, he imagines himself to be a part of that culture and those who farmed and worked civilization into being in the American West.
Yet, the second sense in which On the Road deals with the American West takes a much sadder tone. In this way, the novel comments on and criticizes its times. Just a year before the book was published, in 1956, President Eisenhower had signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which formally began the construction of the Interstate Highway System. A plan for the system had been in the works since 1921, and this was just one of many signs that America was taming its West.
Sal realizes through the novel that though modernity and technology are bringing greater access to transportation and to places in the West, there are fewer and fewer places to be discovered. Sal confronts this reality as he visits the Wild West Festival in Cheyenne, a tourist attraction that can only simulate the real Wild West. The mining town outside of Denver has also ceased to be a true part of the West, being now a part of tourist culture. Sal and Dean also feel sadness for the Indian cultures of the mountains of Mexico; for they realize that the coming of a highway means the destruction of their culture.
By the end of the novel, the reader begins to understand that any road that leads to the American West brings with it the potential destruction of culture even as it gives freedom to the traveler or tourist. The aspect of On the Road that has been most criticized in the decades following the novel’s release has been Kerouac’s portrayal of the relationships between men and women. While Kerouac himself was roundly criticizing the social structures of family and work that kept men from finding a truer way of life, his novel failed to record the plight of the women being subjected to the same pressures and conventions of society.
More to the point, the characters seem unsympathetic to the toll that the women have to pay in meeting the appetites and helping with the travels of the men. In the story the life that Sal and Dean want to live is one that rejects all notions of authority and rule. Dean has little regard for the law and conventions of society. Authority is seen in the novel through the pleadings of the maternal characters for Dean and Sal to settle down and fulfill their responsibilities, and it is most clearly understood in the various run-ins that the group of Beats has with law enforcement.
Anarchy in the individual eventually confronts the authority of society. Kerouac used mobility, alongside other themes, to express resistance to established norms in the culture of the United States during the nineteen fifties. The use of mobility in both the content and the structure of the novel and relate it to expectations of family, progress and attached sexuality. This resistance is ambiguous in that it rebels against ideals of family and home at the same time as it reproduces the established American mythology of mobile, male outlaws.
This interpretation is placed in the context of the counter-culture of the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties in the United States which was a period when many young people were striking out against the presuppositions of rootedness, family values and the ‘-American Dream. Using the insights of new cultural geography and cultural studies and the use of mobility in this story; is a key text in the counter-culture, which represents a contestation of a central theme in American culture. Mobility is clearly an important part of North American mythology and as such it is open to change and challenge from resistant sub-cultures.
Apart from Kerouac, it was Hemingway who contributed a lot in the making of emotions of the people in the post World War era. Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, remains as a romance and a guidebook. It also became a modern-day courtesy book on how to behave in the waste land Europe had become after the Great War. The Sun Also Rises successfully portrays its characters as survivors of a lost generation. In addition, the novel was the most modern an American author had yet produced, and the ease with which it could be read endeared it to many.
But for all its apparent simplicity, the novel’s innovation lay in its ironic style that interjected complex themes without being didactic. Generally this novel is considered to be Hemingway’s most satisfying work. The material for the novel resulted from a journey Hemingway made with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and several friends to Pamplona, Spain, in 1925. Among them was Lady Duff Twysden, a beautiful socialite with whom Hemingway was in love (the inspiration for the novel’s Lady Brett Ashley).
There was also a Jewish novelist and boxer named Harold Loeb (source of Robert Cohn) whom Hemingway threatened after learning that he and Lady Duff had had an affair. Lady Duff’s companion was a bankrupt Briton (like Mike Campbell). The trip ended poorly when Lady Duff and her companion left their bills unpaid. The ending of the novel is only slightly more tragic, yet it recovers those precious values which make life livable in a war-wearied world: friendship, stoicism, and natural grace.
The Sun Also Rises is as much an extended character study as it is a novel where the story being told is no more important than the characters being examined. The five central characters are expatriates living in Paris and are members of the lost generation, “You are all a lost generation” [Hemingway, Epigraph] caught up in the sense of despair and disenchantment which followed the First World War. There is no real hero amongst those five; each possesses a flaw which prevents this status being reached. The Sun Also Rises concerns a group of Americans living in Europe during the 1920s.
The narrator and principal character is Jake Barnes, a newspaper correspondent. The leading female character is Lady Brett Ashley. In the course of the novel, we learn that her husband, a British officer, was killed in World War I and that she was a nurse in the hospital where Jake Barnes was sent after he suffered a disabling injury in combat. Serving as the narrative voice throughout, Jake begins the story by talking about his past and current relationship to another character, Robert Cohn, who will subsequently figure in the plot but who is not the novel’s protagonist.
Jake tells us that Cohn comes from a wealthy Jewish family and that he attended college at Princeton where he distinguished himself on the boxing team. When Cohn’s first wife left him, he took up with a young woman named Frances Clyne, and she went with him to Paris where he wrote his first novel. Although Jake speaks of Cohn as a friend, there is a certain antagonism beneath the surface. Jake characterizes Cohn’s book as poor and admits that he lied to his friend to get out of a proposed trip to South America. It is in the book’s second chapter that Jake fills us in on himself.
It is there that we learn the narrator is currently a foreign correspondent working in Paris for an American newspaper. Jake also tells us that he was wounded in World War I and that his injury has left him in the supremely frustrating condition of being impotent without diminishing his sexual desire. Jake brings the tale into the present night at the Cafe Napolitan, a popular haunt of the lost generation and the avant garde in the Left Bank district of Paris. He meets and buys a drink for a local prostitute, Georgette, and when they go to another trendy spot, the Cafe Select, they encounter Robert Cohn and his fiancee, Frances.
The high point of the scene comes with the arrival of Lady Brett Ashley accompanied by a group of extraordinarily handsome (and possibly gay) young men. Brett exudes sexuality and sophistication. Cohn is enthralled by her, but she refuses his request to dance and leaves the night club with Jake. The first-person narration of Jake Barnes is sometimes referred to as a roman a clef. A roman a clef is a story understandable only to those who have a key for deciphering the real persons and places behind the story. The story of Jake Barnes resembles the real events of the summer of 1925 in the life of Hemingway and his friends.
Still there is enough difference that no key is needed for understanding. The novel stands on its own whether or not the reader knows on whom the character Lady Brett Ashley is based. The Sun Also Rises is an impressive document of the people who came to be known, in as the “Lost Generation”. The young generation had their dreams and innocence smashed by World War I, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters” [Hemingway, 10] emerged from the war bitter and aimless, and spent much of the prosperous 1920s drinking and partying away their frustrations.
Jake epitomizes the Lost Generation; physically and emotionally wounded from the war, he is disillusioned, cares little about conventional sources of hope such as family, friends, religion, and work and apathetically drinks his way through his expatriate life. One of the key changes Hemingway observes in the Lost Generation is that of the new male psyche, battered by the war and newly domesticated. Jake embodies this new emasculation; most likely physically impotent, he cannot have sex and, therefore, can never have the insatiable Brett. Instead, he is dominated by her, as also Cohn who is also abused by the other women in his life.
Jake is even threatened by the homosexual men who dance with Brett in Paris; while not sexually interested in her, they have more manhood than Jake, physically speaking. Hemingway’s spare, laconic prose was influenced by his early work as a journalist, and he has probably had the greatest stylistic influence over 20th-century American writers of anyone. The key to Hemingway’s style is omission; we usually learn less about Jake through his direct interior narration, but more through what he leaves out and how he reacts to others. For instance, we understand him much better through his thoughts on Cohn, who shares many of Jake’s traits.
As an example of how much Hemingway omits, Jake never even fully describes his war injury, leaving it somewhat open to interpretation. There are two primary questions which Hemmingway asks readers to contemplate in The Sun Also Rises. The first is whether or not unconditional love is a sign of weakness or strength. The second is whether or not the sexual triumphs of a man are indicative of his level of manhood. Both of these questions define the theme of this masterful literary achievement, which centers on the balance of power between the strengths and weaknesses which are battled within us and within our relationships.
Both the World Wars resulted in a vigorous change in the society, in term of socio-economic and socio-cultural attitude. It was natural for the generation of that contemporary time to be under immense confusion and disillusionment. However it was the literary genius of both Hemingway and Kerouac to evaluate the current impulse of the generations and they were triumphant in their attempts, which is proved in the success of their concept in both the novel The Sun Also Rises and On The Road, as both these story depicts the real sentiments of the contemporary generations.
References: 1. Hemingway Earnest. , 1995, The Sun Also Rises, Scribner, New York: USA 2. Cresswell Tim. , 1993, Mobility as Resistance: A Geographical Reading of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford: UK 3. Kerouac Jack. , 2007, On The Road, Viking Penguin, USA 4. Elliott Ira. , 1995, Performance Art: Jake Barnes and “Masculine” Signification in The Sun Also Rises, Duke University Press, USA
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 September 2016
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