Tag Archives: Cold War

That’s Cute that You Think You’re Subversive: How the CIA Promoted the Radical Arts During the Cold War

29 Jul

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During a recent writing workshop that I’m part of with two female writers, our conversation rambled along to the topic of how the CIA had advanced abstract expressionism. That weekend one of the writers asked if I’d pass along the article I had referred to. I did a quick search for it online, and realized I’d actually read several articles about how the CIA had been involved in promoting artistic and intellectual communities that many people tend to think of as nonconformist, liberal, and subversive.

Here’s a quick roundup of articles about the CIA promoting nonconformist art and literature:

  • The article I was thinking of was The Independent‘s “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’” about how the CIA used art to show how free-thinking the US was in comparison to Russia during the Cold War
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education published “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which shows the CIA’s involvement with the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop
  • Work in Progress’George the Gentlemanly Ghost,” references the CIA being involved in The Paris Review.  It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac’s first clip from On the Road was published in The Paris Review. (You can read more about that in my book Burning Furiously Beautiful.)
  • Encounter Magazine, the UK lit mag founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol in 1953, was funded by the CIA

I’m sure there are more, some we know of and some we don’t. Please add your stories and links in the comments section.

There’s a lot to be said here, but it raised a few questions for me:

  • Without the CIA’s help in funding and promoting modern arts, would these works have remained obscure?
  • Is modern art a scam, and traditionalists correct that it’s not real art?
  • Is the art and literature of the 1950s and ’60s a reaction to or a product of its times?
  • Can something be subversive even if it’s a political ploy?

Whole books could be written in answer to these questions. They’re important topics to consider and discuss, but I want to take a far less Big Brother approach and ask:

  • What are you trying to accomplish by being subversive?
  • Why do you want to be different?
  • Where do you get your information and how do you evaluate it?
  • Who is challenging you to think outside of your own box?

I’m all for dancing to the beat of your own drum. But is that what you’re really doing?

 

Kerouac Searched for the Authentic America

17 Jul

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Jack Kerouac has sometimes been accused of being anti-American or of destroying American values, and yet On the Road depicts a young man reveling in America. On the Road is, in many ways, a love letter to the true America. His honest search has inspired countless readers to pack their bags and hit the road, to discover America for themselves instead of relying on what the history books and network news report and the images coming out of Hollywood and glossy magazines.

Burning Furiously Beautiful details Kerouac’s research into American history and what he saw as he traveled throughout this amazing country.

“Devouring history books and Westerns alike, Kerouac lit out after the authentic America, an America that wasn’t mass produced or steeped in fear of atom bombs and Communism but blazed intrepidly, recklessly onward into the horizon, asking:

‘Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?'”

~ Burning Furiously Beautiful

Want to know which books Kerouac read and what sort of authentic people he met while on the road? Buy the book from Lulu or Amazon.

The British Are Coming!: The Beat Generation’s Influence on The British Invasion

11 Nov

In her fascinating article “Won over by the West: The irresistible allure of Americana for post-war Britons” for the November 2013 issue of British GQ, Olivia Cole posits that imported media of post-World War II America attracted the British to the United States—and specifically points to influence of the Beat Generation.

This week I’ll be talking about Cole’s thesis in greater depth, but I think it’s important to kick this off with the relevant background information. My reasoning for this isn’t just that a lot of people may not be familiar with pop culture history but rather that by stressing the history we may actually come to a stronger argument in support of her thesis.

First things first, a mini timeline:

  • 1922: Jack Kerouac was born
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1947-1991: The Cold War
  • 1955: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl published
  • 1957: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road published
  • 1964: The British Invasion

World War II and the Beat Generation

Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac was college-aged during World War II. As Paul Maher Jr., my coauthor for the book Burning Furiously Beautiful, writes:

Jack Kerouac set sail for Greenland on July 18, 1942 aboard the S. S. Dorchester. He had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and, if we take the romantic view of things,  was looking for intense experiences that could possibly stimulate him as an emerging writer.

Kerouac served in the Merchant Marines and in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged. England and the US were allies. I specifically wanted to reference Greenland, though, because it reminds me of the famous Beatles quip when a reporter asked the Beatles how they’re enjoying their 1964 tour of the United States:

Reporter: How do you find America?

Ringo Starr: Turn left at Greenland.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kerouac’s novel was indeed an overnight success and influenced the culture of the time period. However, many derided the Beat Generation as tearing at American values. In 1958, the derogatory term “beatnik” was coined by journalist Herb Caen. It was an amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik.” Sputnik was a Russian satellite. Remember: this was during the Cold War, and Russia was not our ally. I’m belaboring this point for a reason:

The United States was invaded—culturally—by its ally. We had a British Invasion—on our music.  We did not experience a feared political Russian invasion.

While Beatles record burnings would occur in the years to come, the Beatles—the forerunners of the British Invasion—arrived in the United States, wearing dapper suits and singing about wanting to hold hands. Our allied invaders appeared (though anyone who actually knows their Liverpool and Hamburg start will laugh at this) much more squeaky clean than our own author, Jack Kerouac, who was writing about drugs and s-e-x.

After all the patriotism surrounding World War II and the “beatnik” fad had played out by the sixties, America was primed to look elsewhere—as long as elsewhere was still “safe.”

The British Invasion

The British Invasion occurred less than a decade after Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road was published, but it was not an immediate reaction to the Beat Generation.

The year 1964 is the year The Beatles landed in America. This set off the British Invasion. The British Invasion refers to British bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks (who were formed in 1964) but also The Rolling Stones (who were formed in 1962) and The Who (who were formed in 1964), not to mention bands who may be less familiar today but still influential such as The Animals, Peter and Gordan, and Herman’s Hermits, who dominated the music scene and wildly impacted the culture of the United States in the mid-60s.

Cole’s article begins with The Kinks’ Ray Davies’ new memoir, mentions the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ memoir, and concludes with Iain Sinclair’s new memoir. A little background information to tie them together: Richards and Sinclair were born in 1943, Davies was born in 1944. Davies and Richards were born in the greater London area, and Sinclair in Wales. In other words, all were born in the UK within a year of each other. While Sinclair is writer and filmmaker and not technically part of the British Invasion, and while Cole herself does not use the phrase, it is central to her themes. Let me state the obvious: These Britons were not peers of Kerouac’s. In fact, they were about twelve or thirteen when On the Road came out.

It’s reasonable to conjecture that it takes a generation for ideas to create momentum and impact culture. Beatnik shtick around the height of the Beat Generation—itself a marketing tool—was gimmick.

The ideas presented by the so-called Beat Generation took hold perhaps in a more powerful way as it basted in young, impressionable minds, who were more willing to see things from a fresh vantage point and implement change. The new generation of creatives could actually impact culture in a much more meaningful way. This is how we see that the bands that rose to prominence during the sixties were more directly impacted by the Beat Generation than perhaps the Beat Generation’s own peers. This is evident in American music of the time as well: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, born in 1931, was influenced by Kerouac, and Bob Dylan, born in 1941, was encouraged by the Beats.

Now, whether they all truly understood the message behind the different Beat writers works is a different story—as is that hopefully not-too-subtle remark I just made that the writers associated with the Beat Generation can’t all be lumped into one category with one thought. They were individuals and did not always agree with one another’s politics.

The British may have been inspired by the Beat Generation and their work may have resonated with the American audience in the mid-1960s, but Jack Kerouac wanted no credit for the hippie movement that followed. He felt that they distorted his views. If You Walk in Your Sleep…’s “Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies” speaks to this.

The British are coming! The British are coming! Tune in tomorrow when I talk about the relationship between The Beatles and The Beat Generation.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Are the Beatniks Anti-American?

27 May

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmerican flag outside Kerouac’s birth home

I came to read Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with little to no preconceived ideas about the Beat Generation. I had heard of Gilligan but never Maynard G. Krebs. I associated goatees with Ethan Hawke and turtlenecks with Sharon Stone. I liked the poetry bit in So I Married an Axe-Murderer but associated it with the spoken word poets of 1990s coffeehouses. So when I picked up The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, I had no presupposed knowledge of the writers in it or the culture they apparently inspired, apart from having discovered the book in a photo spread of a teen girl’s magazine. The kids in the spread looked like how I looked–or, rather, the cooler version of how I wished myself to look. That seemed as good a reason as any to beg my mom to buy the book for me.

I discovered humor and beauty and sensitivity in the words of the poets and novelists associated with the Beat Generation. When I read Kerouac explain the definition of “beat” as being both beat down and beatific, I understood and believed his words. It enlightened the way I read On the Road, and yet I read it sympathetically in the first place. I was a lot like Sal Paradise, hanging out with a friend who was wilder than I was. I longing to hit the road, to escape the humdrum of the suburbs and walk the city sidewalks of New York.

It was only later that I discovered that many others viewed the Beats and their work quite differently. It was only through reading biographies and nonfiction books on the Beats that I came to see that these writers were referred to as “beatniks,” and that that had a negative connotation. The term was a derogatory amalgamation of “Beat” and “sputnik,” and not being up on my history in my teen years, I understood it simply to mean they were “far out,” like a satellite in the space race. I had certainly heard of the Cold War, but it took me longer to understand that “beatnik” suggested the writers were somehow anti-American.

The idea of the Beats as anti-American took a long time for me to wrap my head around. Kerouac had written such a beautiful novel about America. He seemed so in love with the country and even made me fall in love with it in a new way. Before then, as the daughter of an immigrant, I had considered travel as something to do outside of America. I’d been to Europe but never the West Coast. Reading the Beats, I wanted to know more about this splendid vision of America they described. Sure, Ginsberg challenged America, but growing up decades later than him I was encouraged in school to think independently as he did. One could speak up in love. One must speak up in love.

As I continued to study Kerouac in particular, I learned about how he had been in the Merchant Marine during World War II. So much of what I read emphasized that he’d gotten discharged from the US Navy after being diagnosed with “schizoid personality.” It took more digging to hear a story like this one of how much Kerouac respected even the American flag:

At a party with Kesey’s Merry Pranksters Kesey came up and wrapped an American flag around me. So I took it (Kerouac demonstrates how he took it, and the movements are tender) and I folded it up the way you’re supposed to, and put it on the back of the sofa. The flag is not a rag.

The Beats were far from squeaky clean, but anti-American? I don’t see it. Perhaps the Beats didn’t jive with sock hops and malt shops, but maybe that’s a good thing because those 1950s stereotypes whitewashed the truth and left out large segments of the population. Some of us had fathers who spoke with an accent the way Ricky Ricardo did. Some of were intelligent but didn’t like stuffiness. Some of us liked to play our music LOUD. Some of us were friends with the outcasts. Some of us were misfits ourselves.

This Memorial Day, remember that many who died fighting for our country were just kids looking for a chance to escape from home or hoping for a chance to make something of their lives or desiring to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And think about today’s generation of Americans, those who may be a little rough around the edges or a little outspoken but who are so full of life, liberty, and justice.

You may also be interested in Memorial Day: Kerouac in the Merchant Marines.

On the Bro’d: A Parody of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road​​

15 Apr

 

The only bros for me are the mad awesome ones, the ones who are mad to chug, mad to party, mad to bone, mad to get hammered, desirous of all the chicks at Buffalo Wild Wings, the ones who never turn down a Natty Light, but chug, chug, chug like f*cking awesome players exploding like spiders across an Ed Hardy shirt and in the middle you see the silver skull pop and everybody goes, “Awww, sh*t!”

So goes On the Bro’d: A Parody of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, by Mike Lacher, published today.  The book reimagines Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as if it were told by someone like How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney–a bro.

Contrary to the popular myth of the scroll, Kerouac spent years trying to get the voice right for On the Road.  Yes, he did pound the keys of the typewriter and turn out the novel in a matter of days, but that was only after he had spent years on the road and wrote and rewrote the novel multiple times, with different characters and different narration.  Neal Cassady’s famous letters spurred Kerouac on to write in a more confessional and conversational approach.  He worked hard to capture the feeling of a real talk, using words like “beat” and “hipster.”  However, Kerouac was well educated.  He did go to Columbia, after all, and while it may have been on a football scholarship that might make him seem a bit more like a bro, even as a child he used to ditch school so he could go read in the library.  While his work may appeal to a guy’s guy because he’s often with his “bro” Neal, recklessly driving, picking up chicks, and smoking pot, the diction and syntax in On the Road reveal that underneath it all he was a sensitive poet who saw the beauty in the color of grapes. After all, this is how the famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road paraphrased above actually read:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

On the Bro’d is just a parody. It says so right in the subtitle.  It’s not meant to be taken seriously, and the idea is actually clever.  Still, it points toward a common misconception people have of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, whom critics pejoratively referred to as “beatniks,” meaning the Beats were as “far out” as Sputnik.  Keep in mind, Sputnik was launched by the Soviets during the Cold War.  Beatnik was not a compliment. Even today, many scholars don’t take Kerouac’s writing seriously because it is so accessible.  But his prose is poignant, his message spiritual.  He was not saying, the only people for him were the ones who wanted to get drunk.  He was saying the only people for him were the ones who want to truly live life to the fullest.  He didn’t like the type of brain-zapped people who said commonplace things and wore Ed Hardy t-shirts.  He said, “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”

I’m curious if you think On the Bro’d is a successful parody?  It seems like something that would sell well at Urban Outfitters, yes?