Literature/The Beat Generation
Hi Garrett, I was wondering if you could give me an answer about writers of The Beat Generation. Slaughterhouse 5 by Vonnegut was included on a top 10 best beat generation list and I was wondering whether it is actually considered as a beat generation novel, due to the fact that it was published in 1969 and the beat generation supposedly ended in the 60's.
Well, this is somewhat of a complicated question because it depends on how you define what a "beat" is. If you define it by the Wikipedia article as.... "The Beat Generation was a group of authors whose literature explored and influenced American culture in the post-World War II era...throughout the 1950s. Central elements of Beat culture are rejection of standard narrative values, the spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration,"...then you are right. It ended in the early 1960s. But the writing style aspect is tricky.
Many people, such as myself, would mainly consider the movement to be geographically and artistically centered around particular places and people. These movements included the work of Ginesburg, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, Kerouac, Hunke, Carr, Cassidy, Snyder, McClure, Corso, di Prima, and others, and they were all hanging around San Francisco and many knew and spent time with one another. Of course, it doesn't take a lot of research to recognize the broader impact of this work well into the 1960s in film and television - the beat poet and smoky coffee bars are cliche at this point even though it completely lampooned the true nature and value of the movement. In this case, as well, we see that Slaughterhouse Five doesn't fit, though. Vonnegut had been spending quite a bit of time in Massachusetts, and then when he wrote S5 had been writing and teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop (where he won a grant to go research in Germany for the book). One may observe that professionally, geographically, and chronologically, he wasn't really a part of the movement at this point.
Then there is the culture of the movement itself. Now here is where it gets confusing... Vonnegut was very wary of the system, had an incredibly unique approach to writing that rejected the standard narrative form, and in many ways was postmodern in his themes, narrative, format, layout... Heck, everything. He was Kurt Vonnegut, and I have never read anything like it myself. He was critical of government, systems, society, and was very much aligned with everything the beats stood for. Does that make him a beat writer?
Personally, I don't believe so. In my *opinion* he was very much on the tail end of the beat generation as an artist (even though as an American man in this era, and an artist, he was very much of this generation). I would more classify him as one of the fathers of contemporary 20th-century postmodernism, though. If I were to put him in line with some other authors of the time, I would compare him to Ken Kesey (of One Flew, 1962) who was friends with Kerouac (but I am not sure was a beat writer), and Joseph Heller (of Catch 22, 1961) who I am also not sure was a beat writer. These men wrote novels that were unique not only in the time they were writing them but unique for all time in the scope of how their novels were written. The beats were unique as well, but their movement moved into the 1960s as more of a metamorphosis into hippie culture and remained heavily reliant on poetry rather than prose. The performance aspect of the beats was unmistakably important, while Heller, Vonnegut, and Kesey were more passive novelists and stayed the same for the rest of their career.
I hope this is helpful. The short answer is, I can see how some might put Vonnegut in the beat generation
but I certainly don't consider him a beat writer
. In my opinion, he is much more easily classified as a postmodernist writer.