Rummaging through the Bone-Heap: Beat Writing and Reactionary Modernist Aesthetics

Stevenson, Guy. 2017. 'Rummaging through the Bone-Heap: Beat Writing and Reactionary Modernist Aesthetics'. In: European Beat Studies Network Annual Conference (Paris Interzone). University of Chicago Center, Paris, France 20 -22 September 2017. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

In his 1940 essay ‘Inside the Whale’ George Orwell praised the expatriate American author Henry Miller as ‘a Whitman among the corpses’. Miller, he said, had applied the nineteenth century American Transcendentalist ideal of ‘total acceptance’ not only to ‘the ancient bone-heap of Europe’, but in an ‘epoch of fear, tyranny and regimentation’. Agreeing with Orwell, I argue that Miller’s transplantation of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideology and aesthetic from 1830s America to Paris during the two world wars fore-ran the stylistic revolution represented by the Beat Generation after 1945. Work by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs is steeped in a tension between transcendentalist optimism and fatalistic anti-humanism that can, I contend, be traced back to their obsessions with the ancient bone-heap of Europe Orwell describes. Treating Henry Miller as an intermediary figure, this paper will briefly outline important connections between the Beats and some of their less likely early modernist predecessors – from the 1910s apocalyptic meta-historian Oswald Spengler to wartime fascist collaborators Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Ezra Pound. While by no means an attempt to test their progressive worth, it aims at a better understanding of the complicated reactionary overtones that abound in Beat writing by putting their transcendentalist visions in the context of an early twentieth century modernist aesthetic.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


The Beat Generation, Henry Miller, George Orwell, Modernism, 1960s Counterculture

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


January 2017Accepted

Event Location:

University of Chicago Center, Paris, France

Date range:

20 -22 September 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

14 Jun 2024 10:52

Last Modified:

14 Jun 2024 15:28


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