Outsiders Atomised: Beat, the Subversion from Within

Harma, Tanguy. 2019. 'Outsiders Atomised: Beat, the Subversion from Within'. In: GLITS Annual Interdisciplinary Conference 2019. Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom 5 June 2019. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Praised more often for its countercultural forays than for its literary achievements, the Beat generation was preceded by its reputation. While the general public saw the Beats as a group of dilettantes ranging from the ‘coolest cats in town’ to pot-smoking lunatics, their works remained vastly misconceived; to such a point that the contemporary reader may question their status as literary rebels and anti-heroes of the post-war era.

Several critics, such a Robert Hipkiss and Benedict Giamo, have argued that Beat experimentalism relied on a romanticising of the adventures of contemporaneous bohemia. Nevertheless, how did the Beats negotiate their literary aspirations in the hostile environment of the American status quo? Was the Beat generation ever subversive – and, if so, on what level? This presentation will seek to answer these questions by looking at the Beat generation as a collective movement and by focusing on the work of Jack Kerouac, one of its most influential members.

While the dissatisfaction with modern America was deeply felt and widely shared among the Beats, I will show that their literary response to the normative discourse of mainstream culture in the 1950s varied greatly from one writer to another. I will pinpoint the plurality of literary projects and the diversity of aesthetic strategies in the works – a heterogeneity both in contents and in form that undermines the conception of a Beat movement as a unified, monolithic entity, and that will enable us to redefine the notion of an ‘outsider’ literature in a post-war American context.

I will focus closely on Jack Kerouac, whose distinction as a cultural icon originated, by his own telling, from being misconstrued. From On the Road to Big Sur, Kerouac’s body of works – The Duluoz Legend – typifies a dizzying downfall that parallels his gradual descent into the self, in the name of an uncompromising search for transcendence. I will demonstrate that this trajectory – anticipated by Kenneth Rexroth in his essay ‘Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation’ (1957), elicits a detachment from the Beat ethos and prompts a withdrawing from his contemporaries; generating a pervasive sense of alienation that provides Kerouac with the ability to reinvent a writing of the ‘outsider’ from his own territory of exile.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Beat, counterculture, post-war era, literary reception, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, aesthetic strategies, disengagement

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


5 June 2019Completed

Event Location:

Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom

Date range:

5 June 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

26 Jun 2019 10:01

Last Modified:

10 Jun 2021 08:59



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