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Getting Out On The Road: A Brief Guide

20 Mar

This post contains part II 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.


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It will be worthwhile to give a brief overview of the books I will be analyzing: On the Road is a fictionalized narrative account of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country adventures with such notable literary figures as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the years following WWII. The book features the frantic wanderings of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his newfound handsome outlaw friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they “dig” America in search of “kicks” and the ineffable concept of “IT,” recklessly roaming its newly-created highway system at top speed. On the Road, heralded as the ultimate expression of Beat literature, catapulted Kerouac and the Beat movement to instant popularity (Sax).[2]

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ infamous 1964 drug-fueled, cross-country road trip in a psychedelic school bus named “Furthur” embodied Kerouac’s search for “IT” as well as the Beat energy and zest for life. With Neal Cassady at the wheel again and an epic meeting between Kesey and Kerouac in New York, many saw the Pranksters’ bus trip as a “passing of the torch” from the Beats to a new psychedelic generation (P. Perry 84).[3] Tom Wolfe gave voice to Kesey’s free-spirited philosophies as he cataloged the Pranksters and the formation of the acid culture throughout the sixties in his hugely popular book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe’s wildly subjective writing technique came to be known as New Journalism, a style further popularized by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson’s own unique version of New Journalism, called Gonzo journalism, was epitomized in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Fear and Loathing depicts the travels of Thompson (as his alter ego Raoul Duke) and his “Samoan” attorney (pseudonym Dr. Gonzo)—based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta—as they explore the city of Las Vegas in a three-day drug binge/crime spree. Thompson’s hyperbolic, savage tone and over-the-top criminal antics propelled him to counterculture stardom and gave voice to a growing sense of despair and disgust many Americans felt after the fractured idealism of the sixties. These three books represent a progression of popular literary styles and provide critical snapshots of the counterculture’s rise and fall in America. They also depict the idealization of the outlaw trope and illustrate how flaws inherent in the movement inadvertently fueled the corruption of the counterculture’s own ideals. Continue reading


Life on the Edge: An Introduction to the Counterculture

20 Mar

This post contains part I 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.

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National ConventionPhoto Via Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Photo from Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Was the phenomenon in fact so extraordinary as contemporaries supposed? Was it as unprecedented, as profoundly subversive and world-changing as they thought? What was its true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create?
–Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien Regime, as quoted by Roger Kimball in “Virtue Gone Mad”

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In 1968, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory—one colored by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, massive public demonstrations on the streets of Paris, and violent riots in America and Western Europe—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency submitted a classified report to President Johnson. Entitled “Restless Youth,” the report catalogued the activities of various counterculture movements across the globe. It warned:

A real cultural revolution working through a new dynamic educational system led by “critical universities” in ferment, a freed television, new experiments in other communications media, including literature and the theater, could lead to a rapid evolution in mass consciousness of the social situation, to the point where the gap between the “real” country and the “governmental” country becomes too wide, the lack of representivity of present structures and leaders too patent, new solutions and new leaders appear on the left, and the explosion, either peaceful or violent, follows. (United States 2)

This “real cultural revolution,” enacted through anti-authoritarian mass counterculture movements,[1] wasn’t confined to the United States. This was in fact a “world wide phenomenon” that was distressing established governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain (Suri 47). While 1968 marked a critical point in this cultural shift, factors leading up to such widespread civil unrest had been fomenting in the U.S. for years.

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