The Politics of Authenticity: Outlaws Looking In

24 Mar

This post contains part IV of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Kerouac and GinsbergImage from flapjackstate.com

Kerouac and Ginsberg
Image from flapjackstate.com


The idea of authenticity, particularly in relation to the production and appreciation of art, reflects the fundamental desire of bohemian subcultures to establish themselves in opposition to what they perceive to be an “inauthentic” society, which often meant an embrace of rebellious—even criminal—behavior. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac (as Sal) laments, “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing” (68). This is Sal’s response to the seeming inanity of security guards enforcing a quiet ordinance, but the statement encapsulates the contemptuous attitude the Beats had for those who simply acted out society’s norms without questioning them. “Law and order’s got to be kept,” the guard says, but all Sal wants to do is “sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere” (67).

To rebel against the perceived conformity epidemic of the 1950s, Beats like Kerouac embraced and celebrated the lifestyle of society’s ultimate nonconformist: the outlaw. The outlaw, who works against established norms, is a consistent fixture in American folklore, often depicted as a hero (Konas 184). [5] Kerouac holds Dean up as a new embodiment of the outlaw/hero archetype, even describing him as a “new kind of American saint” (Kerouac 38). Consequently, Dean’s outlaw behavior is both romanticized and justified, as is his chosen lifestyle of being “on the run.” “Con-man Dean” flitters about the country “gigg[ling] maniacally” and “antagonizing people away from him by degrees” (155). Sal follows Dean devotedly because his divisive acts of rebellion unequivocally distinguish him and those around him from the monotony of 1950s America.[6] Yet the social fallout of Dean’s self-alienating behavior is evident throughout the novel, foreshadowing the conflicts that later arise within the Beat movement—a direct consequence of idealizing the outlaw brand of authenticity.

The Beat focus on authenticity created a community in constant flux, one constantly struggling to fit shifting definitions of what it meant to be “authentic.” Sociologist Andrew Ross notes that Beats embraced a “hipster pseudo-scholar sensibility” with its “codes of aristocratic self-extinction” and an “aesthetic of transcendence projected on to the lower class,” which helps explain Kerouac’s romanticization of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities (Primeau 50). Being thought of as successful, even in academia, potentially precludes one from being seen as an “authentic” member of the antiauthoritarian bohemian society.[7] And yet a problem arises when trying to determine the so-called “politics of authenticity” (Elteren 86). What is “the distinction between authenticity and naturalness [and] phoniness and artifice” and who gets to define it?  Cultural sociologist Richard Peterson uses the phrase “fabricating authenticity” to convey that social groups themselves label an object or event to be authentic only after it has been created (87).

Unfortunately, there is rarely widespread agreement about what is truly authentic. Ginsberg himself has asserted that “authenticity is implicitly a polemical concept,” and true to this claim, the Beat movement began to fragment as it gained media exposure throughout the fifties, with different Beat factions each staking their claim as the “true” Beat society (86). Beat communities existed in a state of flux wherein the members were constantly sniffing out the “unauthentic pretenders or ‘phonies’” as well as the “outright conventional ‘tourists’ or ‘squares’” (86). The exclusivity of the Beat culture along with “the persistence with which squares and phonies invade[d] their territories” meant that the Beat bohemian subculture was unsustainable and doomed to collapse—the flaw was inherent in its construct (86). In their attempts to separate themselves from an “inauthentic” society, the Beats trapped themselves in a shifting definition of authenticity that no one could ever fully live up to. It was this obsession with the “politics of authenticity” that ultimately fractured the movement so that by the start of the 1960s, there existed only tenuous boundaries between the Beat scene and the “outside world” (86).

Despite the fracturing of the original Beat communities in Greenwich Village and San Francisco by the late 1950s, Beat ideals were gaining popularity within American culture. The Beat subculture tapped into an undercurrent of dissatisfaction within post-WWII America,[8] which was widely perceived as manufactured and sterilized.[9] Despite the veritable “moral panic” that ensued after On the Road’s popularization of the Beat lifestyle, counterculture beliefs that were challenging to American society had begun to work themselves into the mainstream, perhaps because the Beats “were not political in a conventional sense” (Elteren 74). Sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich claims that while political liberals could be easily dismissed by American society, “the Beats spoke from an underclass of unassimilated people to an unassimilated corner of the middle-class psyche; and this, as much as the wanton beat of rock and roll, was dangerous” (74).[10] Epitomized in On the Road, Beat ideals resonated with the disquiet and agitation brewing within American society—a feeling Betty Friedan described as “the problem with no name.”[11] With the mass dissemination of Keruoac’s words, the Beat ideal blossomed from a Bohemian subculture into a mass countercultural movement, carrying along its flawed ideals of authenticity and idealization of the outlaw trope.


[5] Outlaws, like African Americans, were idealized by the Beats for their perceived place outside of mainstream culture, though clearly outlaws chose to exist outside of this mainstream and African Americans did not.

[6] The sense of stagnation and boredom the Beats saw in America is expressed eloquently through Sal’s interaction with a young woman on a bus: “‘What is [your brother] aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want?’ She didn’t know. She yawned” (244). Dean at least embodies some kind of driving force, even if it is a destructive one.

[7] Kerouac himself expressed a great desire to be taken seriously as a writer, though On the Road’s material success was both a blessing and a curse. Established writers like Truman Capote sneered at Kerouac’s prose style: “That isn’t writing; it’s typing.” As critic Ann Charters put it: “[Kerouac] spent the first part of his career trying to write the book and get it published, and the rest of his life trying to live it down” (Charters viii-ix).

[8] Sal describes an America in which most people feel aimless, “with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to believe in” (Kerouac 245).

[9] Conservative writer Roger Kimball feels that it is a misperception to view 1950s America as “a sterile, soulless society, obsessed with money,” and that the Beats and other counterculturalists helped perpetuate “the image of America as a materialist wasteland” in order to enact a movement of “rancid ‘idealism’ [sic] whose primary effect has been to debase the intellectual and moral currency of contemporary culture” (Kimball 4-5). Many critics feel that the “radical, emancipationalist” demands of the 1960’s counterculture movements continue to hijack American culture (particularly through the university system) to perpetuate a liberal view of American history after WWII.

[10] The middle-class foundation of the growing counterculture was deeply disturbing to authorities within the government who knew that “privileged people can also be progressive actors” (Suri 51).

[11] Suri notes that this attitude describes a countercultural sentiment felt by both men and women (46).


Next Post: Life as a Novel: New Journalism and an Emerging Mass Counterculture

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