A fragile frame?: The Beat Generation and the development of postwar culture in America, 1945--1965
Marshall, Gordon J.
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This dissertation examines the development of a distinct postwar culture in the United States after 1945. At the end of the war and after almost a decade of economic depression, the old social narrative of American life no longer fit the modern realities of the second half of the twentieth-century. This new culture was neither predetermined nor all-encompassing, but rather developed slowly and haphazardly over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most Americans regarded this new culture with a mix of anxiety and dissent over the form it would take. I argue that the writers and their associates who would become the Beat Generation were a part of this postwar discourse of questioning. As social critics, the Beats not only carved out space for their culture but also offered solutions as well as analysis. That these solutions took the form of actions that most Americans could not or would not enact is not the focus of this work. Radicalized not only by the postwar mass media and literary critics but also by historians of their culture, the Beats were excluded from the larger normative discourse on postwar culture. The purpose of repositioning the Beats within the postwar discourse is twofold: first, to show that the Beat cultural discourse is representative of the critical discourse of the day and not a radical or separate culture and, second, to illustrate that the Beats were not as limited regarding issues of race, gender or sexuality, as has previously been argued, by returning African-Americans and women to the center of Beat culture. The first chapter examines the importance of space, both physical and discursive, to the development of a unique Beat culture in the larger urban centers of America. This space represented both a space of dissent from the norm and was a physical manifestation the difficulty of American culture's postwar reconstruction. The second chapter is a study of the social and cultural space of the hipster and its relationship to Beat culture. I argue that the hipster represents a social position with which white Beats engaged in order to counter a white cultural identity that was in flux after the Second World War. The third chapter is an analysis of postwar white male identity and examines both the Beats' resistance to the culture of the "white collar man" and repositions Beat writing on masculinity as part of a larger critique occurring in the 1950s. The fourth is a study of female Beat writers and their place in the larger culture of the Beat Generation. I argue that female Beat writers were full members of the Beat literary and cultural community despite the limitations on female gender roles in the period in question. In the fifth chapter, I argue that the African-American Beat writers problematize the dominant academic position that the Beats marginalized African-Americans as the other rather than as literary equals. Further, I assert that African-American Beats were central to the creation of a Beat culture and that the desire to see these writers as temporary members of the Beats or "fellow travelers" rests on an overemphasis on their activities or actions later in their lives rather than in the decade or so after the Second World War. This study concludes with an epilogue on the Beats after 1963. I argue that for almost two decades Beat writers and their work were a valuable part of the postwar cultural discourse but by the early 1960s the answers provided by the Beats were no longer the solutions sought by those dissenting from the norm.