How is it possible that two great movements of literary expression, occurring almost exactly one hundred years apart, could be nearly identical? How can it be that the philosophies of Walt Whitman, as expressed through his writing, could be paralleled a century later in the philosophies of the Beat generation of poets, writers, and bohemians? The great Beat writers, namely Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, are the successors of the movement begun by Walt Whitman upon his publishing of Leaves of Grass, and most notably his seminal work from that collection, “Song of Myself”. The reasons for this stem from a common reaction against commercialism, consumerism, economic expansion and financial prosperity in the United States. In the 1840s and 50s it was due to intense expansion (the annexation of Texas and Florida) and the rapid growth of new industrialization. Oddly enough, Jack Kerouac, Beat premier, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, birthplace of the factory system in America, which set off that industrial revolution in the first place. However, by the 1940s and 50s, Lowell was a struggling town and industrialization had given way to conglomerization and the birth of corporations. Therefore, in the twentieth century this economic prosperity and new commercialism were largely due to World War II, which ate the entire surplus that had been bogging down the American economy up to that point.
Whitman wrote and published Leaves of Grass around a time of war as well. In 1855, the country was already on the verge of a great catastrophe. Whitman composed “Song of Myself” during the first hints that there was a Civil War looming which could tear America apart. The Beats wrote after the dropping of a bomb that all too clearly could tear the entire world apart. And so, in the midst of these questions about prosperity and warfare, it becomes almost necessary to ask those questions which have been pored over by great thinkers for ages: What is important? What is truth? What is real? In answering these questions for themselves, Whitman and the Beats came to nearly identical answers. Searching for truth in societies that seemed to teeter on the edge of a total lack of it, both found meaning in the world around them and in themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, both Whitman and the Beat writers focused on spirituality, which in their times of economic prosperity seemed unnecessary. After all, for the most part people only pray to God when they want something. However, Whitman was displeased with this dependence on the tangible. He expressed this in “Song of Myself”:
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied….not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
Here Whitman is writing about the obsession with prosperity and materialism and the religious ignorance that alarmed him in America. The “mania of owning things” he refers to as a form of dementia, as if it is a sickness. This is interesting in that it means he did not consider it innate to mankind, but something which had overtaken them and from which they could be cured. This follows Whitman’s overall sense of hope for the people and overall feeling that the human being was to be celebrated, not condemned. Notice also that he looked down upon mankind “[weeping] for their sins.” Although in these lines Whitman is referring to animals as those whom he admires for not falling prey to this trap, he could have as accurately been admiring the Beat generation. They too can be described by the same aversion to “[weeping] for their sins,” and they were not at all demented by the “mania of owning things.” In fact, very few of the Beat writers found substantial success, either financially or personally, during their lifetimes, much like Whitman himself. Whitman’s sentiment about those who are guilty for their actions and “lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,” is shared by those who lived during the Beat generation, as can be seen from this excerpt from the article that first coined the term “Beat Generation.”
That clean young face has been making the newspapers steadily since the war. Standing before a judge in a Bronx courthouse, being arraigned for stealing a car, it looked up into the camera with curious laughter and no guilt.
(“This is the Beat Generation” by John Clellon Holmes, The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952)
With the established truths of morality and prosperity denied, where did Whitman and the Beats find truth? The answer lies in mysticism. Both found God, but they found God in less conventional terms. When Whitman spoke of God, he expressed his thoughts as such, “I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least.” (“Song of Myself”; line 1274) To some this would seem absurd. However, to the Beats it was pure gospel. To let oneself find holiness in every moment of life was true religion. Whitman’s line can be compared to the writing of Kerouac about another Beat, Neal Cassady:
And he stood swaying in the middle of the room, eating his cake and looking at everyone with awe. He turned and looked around behind him. Everything amazed him, everything he saw….he wanted to see from all possible levels and angles…He was finally an Angel, as I always knew he would become…
(On the Road; p. 263)
Kerouac’s use of the word “Angel” is the real key to this passage. He uses this motif of attaining spirituality and nirvana, of becoming an “Angel,” throughout the book. This displays his belief in attaining the sublime through the ordinary, through the everyday occurrence. In everything, there can be the potential for enlightenment. This was the foundation of this particular method of personal mysticism that Whitman began and the Beats continued. More on this can be found in Kerouac’s poetry:
And when you showed me Brooklyn Bridge
in the morning,
And the people slipping on the ice in the street,
…That’s when you taught me tears, Ah
God, in the morning.
(“HYMN”; ll. 1-5, ll. 15-16)
Whitman set this sort of precedent with his exhortations on the question of “what is grass?” in “Song of Myself”. While some would have overlooked the young boy’s question as simply youthful curiosity, Whitman realized divine potential which it contained. He wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars.” (“Song of Myself”; line 662) All this in grass, which can be found everywhere! In fact, he even went so far along these lines as to say, “And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.” (“Song of Myself”; line 669) He worships everything, in his own way. Whitman’s writings on this subject culminated in total mystic ecstasy over the overlooked towards the end of “Song of Myself”:
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name,
(“Song of Myself”; ll. 1276-1279)
The emphasis on intense joy and pain in every experience, making the whole world seem overwhelmingly spiritual, is inherent in nearly all the writing of Whitman and the Beats. Whitman worships a blade of grass and a tea-kettle. Kerouac calls out to God over what most would call the minutiae of everyday life. Both feel that, “All truths wait in all things.” (“Song of Myself”; l. 646) This was the sort of faith both Whitman and Kerouac felt was missing in the American culture of the time. This fascination, adoration, and devotion to the parts of life, the spiritual moments, that are most overlooked is what sets both Whitman and the Beats apart.
Whitman has often been called the democratic poet, in that he speaks for all people, not just the intellectual elite. Whitman is the writer of the downtrodden, the democratic, the “beat.” This too is comparative to the writers of the Beat generation. Even though highly intellectual themselves, they did not limit their society to the university-bred of the time. Similar to Whitman, they accepted what was taboo to accept. Whitman sought out all humanity:
This is the meal pleasantly set….this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous….I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited….the heavy-lipped slave is invited….the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
(“Song of Myself”; ll. 372-376)
And the Beats were friends with junkies and deviants:
“…he fell in with a crowd of wild souls there, including fellow students Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac and non-student friends William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. These delinquent young philosophers were equally obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature….He began consorting with Times Square junkies and thieves (mostly friends of Burroughs), experimenting with Benzedrine and marijuana, and cruising gay bars in Greenwich Village, all the time believing himself and his friends to be working towards some kind of uncertain great poetic vision, which he and Kerouac called the New Vision.”
(from “Allen Ginsberg” by Levi Asher)
This brings to light another point. Obviously Kerouac was not the only major figure in the Beat literary movement. Allen Ginsberg, now a celebrated poet, had his beginnings in this circle as well. And if Whitman the mystic was reinvented in Kerouac, Whitman the homosexual was reinvented in Ginsberg. Both expressed themselves through not only their poetry, but through their bodies as well. They freed themselves of the restraints of society by expressing their sexuality. In his poetry, Whitman proclaims, “I am for those who believe in loose delights, I share the midnight orgies of young men,” (Children of Adam; from “Native Moments,” l. 5) and at points describes his experiences with other men as, “We two boys together clinging,/ One the other never leaving.” (Calamus, from “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” ll. 1-2). This was put somewhat more explicitly by Ginsberg, “Neal Cassady was my animal; he brought me to my knees/ and taught me the love of his cock and the secrets of his mind.” (Many Loves; ll. 1-2) However, one cannot define their sexuality merely as “homosexuality.” Both Whitman and Ginsberg celebrated the body in all respects. Just as spirituality could be found in everyday moments, so could it be found in human flesh:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
(Footnote to “Howl”; ll. 1-3)
This love of the body was first expressed in Whitman, however:
Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
(“Song of Myself”; ll. 526-528)
Both Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s poetry considered the human body and human physicality to be something divine. Interestingly enough, both Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s poetry was considered obscene at the time it was written. One can even find more parallels between the two in their writing styles, both of which take on epic proportions through long, powerful, free verse that attains a rhythmic and chant-like quality. Although Ginsberg is more similar to Whitman on the subject of the body, other Beat writers found great interest in it as well. Kerouac writes of how Neal Cassady “…took the wheel and flew the rest of the way across the state of Texas…not stopping except once when he took all his clothes off…and ran yipping and leaping naked in the sage.” (On the Road; p. 161) This can be compared to Whitman’s excitement to “…go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,/ I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” (“Song of Myself”; ll. 11-12) The fascination and celebration of the naked body as seen here is another idea that is found in both Whitman’s poetry and the writings of the Beats.
All the reconfigurations about the meaning of spirituality and physicality can be best summed up by Whitman, who simply explained, “I am the poet of the body,/ And I am the poet of the soul.” (Song of Myself; ll. 422-423) Taken all together, the final assertion is that both Walt Whitman and the Beat writers were writing from the same state of mind, from the same point of view. Both had felt it was necessary to reassess what was important in a country inundated by commercialism, threatened by war, and at a loss for truth. Kerouac wrote On the Road but first Whitman wrote “afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” (“Song of the Open Road”; l. 1) In truth, Whitman could be called the first Beat, and the Beat writers may indeed be called the second-coming of American Transcendentalism, the second great American literary movement.