Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies

May 4, 2008

Jack Kerouac was a staunch conservative, religiously and politically; this is not the memory of him idolizing teenagers prefer to dwell on. I was hesitant to post this clip of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” because Kerouac is clearly drunk, but I believe it speaks to the issue of cultural memory. Kerouac, and the Beatnik revolution he helped to craft, is often lumped into the prevailing narrative of the 1960s: idealistic youths taking back control of their country through a combination of antagonistic lifestyle choices that ran the gamut of politics, music, drugs, sensuality, literature, etc. Although Kerouac and his Beatnik contemporaries brought the importance of fundamental freedoms to make many of these choices to the forefront of popular discourse, Kerouac himself was a devout (if forever lapsing) Catholic and much of his work focused on understanding his roots and what had compelled him to stray so far from them; it was an intensely narcissistic journey that was concomitantly fueled by a desire to intimately understand the American landscape at large and his canuck lineage.

As the video clip makes clear, even during the 1960s Kerouac seems to be referenced as some sort of cultural authority on the counterculture despite the fact that he obviously detests Ed Saunders, the token politically engaged hippie. Ed Saunders himself is interesting here; I’m particularly drawn to in his reaction to Kerouac offering to lick strawberry preserves off him, which had a slight homophobic tinge to it (he made sure everyone knew he was married). Here is another example of the pitfalls of collective memory; how can a left wing protester be macho? Also of particular interest to me is Kerouac’s opinion of the conflict in Vietnam, which is chalked up to a Vietnamese desire to import jeeps. For what is more American than a jeep and who wouldn’t want to start a war solely to receive mass importations of classically American goods. And then there’s Ginsberg, the ever loyal defender of Kerouac’s public persona, which should have its limits because that is also one of the reason collective memory surrounding Kerouac has been largely mislabeled: the myths that were created by the creators of myths whom he called friends.  

So how does this relate to collective cultural memory? I believe people who are acculturated to the present form of liberals make the mistake of categorizing whole movements according to individual examples of leftist ideologies. Assumptions fill in gaps with which memory is riddled; we base assumptions on what we deduce from tangibles, things we can examine in our grasp. Add a tendency to romanticize the past and what is created is a generalized account of a post World War II counterculture that lumps two parties who had vastly different motivations into the same cultural movement (and onto the same stage). Anti-war protesters came in many washes and sizes replete with their own discriminating natures, as were the Beatniks; it is dangerous to forget that crucial factor.

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One Response to “Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies”

  1. […] by the time his novel On the Road helped inspire the Beat Generation (don’t worry, America- he hated beatniks and hippies as much as any properly blooded American).  Because that’s just easier for us, and we didn’t […]

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