Review – The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt

The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt / Oxford University Press / 978-0-19-979677-9 / 126 pages

The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David SterrittDavid Sterritt’s work might be familiar to Beat or film aficionados through his previous books, which include Mad to be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s, and Film, and Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility among others.

In The Beats: A Very Short Introduction, Sterritt offers a starting place for those wishing to learn about the Beats, through an exploration of their lives, work, talents, and impact.

The work and lives of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S.Burroughs are topics covered in some depth; the author devotes multiple pages each to Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Clellon Holmes, Gary Snyder, and Kenneth Rexroth. The lion’s share of the book is given over to the founding members of the group, the “East Coast Beats,” versus the “West Coast Beats.”

Sterritt begins with a lengthy discussion of the Beat movement’s origins, offering thoughtful insight into their context, explaining how the American post-war cultural climate fed their discontent with the status quo, desire for individualism and freedom of expression.

There’s a brief discussion of the San Francisco Renaissance, a literary flowering which began in the 1950s and included many of the West Coast Beats, among other San Francisco literary figures.

Sterritt also shines light on the literary (e.g., Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams), the religious (Buddhism, Catholicism), and musical (jazz improvisation, blues) influences on the Beats’ work, as well their politics and impact on the various facets of popular culture. Some of their dark sides – drug and alcohol abuse, and personal demons – are also brought to light.

At only 126 pages – including the notes, index and bibliography, this is indeed “a very short introduction.” And a lot has been left out. For example, four paragraphs are devoted to Diane di Prima while Kenneth Rexroth (a generation earlier than the Beats, though with connections to them) inspired a page and a half.

The almost total lack of attention to Michael McClure is puzzling; he’s very briefly mentioned several times in the chapter dealing with the important Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, but only comes up – in passing – in a few more instances. One of the most experimental of the Beats, an important figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and beyond, there’s no mention of the scope or significance of his work (which includes poetry, fiction, essays and award-winning plays as well as musical collaborations), or his explorations of the nature of human consciousness.

Sterritt points out that while most of the Beats were white males, there were exceptions. Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka are given some attention as examples of African-American Beats, but, oddly, there’s no mention at all of Ted Joans. Of the women, only Diane di Prima (who rates one page) and Anne Waldman (not a Beat, but long associated with them) are included. Notable female Beat writers such as Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones and Lenore Kandel – among many others – are completely and inexplicably ignored here, and Carolyn Cassady’s name appears only twice.

While the abbreviated nature of this book obviously necessitated some omissions, it’s unfortunate that a little more space wasn’t devoted to some of these very deserving – and influential – writers.

Despite some omissions, The Beats: A Very Short Introduction is a useful primer on many of the major players, themes and history of the Beat Generation.

For those whose appetites for the Beats have been whetted by this slender volume, the bibliography and lists of recommended books for future reading will provide a good menu for future courses.

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