"The Age of Unthink"

Note: This chapter from James Wechsler's "Reflections of an Angry Middle-Aged Editor" records Wechler's frustrating confrontation with Jack Kerouac in 1958. Other chapters of the book) are entitled, "Is Everybody Happy?", "The Liberal Retreat," and "Life Of a Salesman."

TWO SEPARATE episodes inspired the reflections that led to the writing of this book, and perhaps it is appropriate to begin by recalling them.

On the evening of November 6, 1958, I took part in a symposium on the Beat Generation at Hunter College. The event, if it may be so described, was sponsored by Brandeis University; the other participants were Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and self-proclaimed voice of the Beat Generation; Kingsley Amis, the talented, witty British writer who admits to being neither young nor angry but has been so labeled on two continents; and Professor Ashley Montagu, the noted anthropologist.

I almost missed the meeting, proving that books, like other productions, are prey to the accident of history. It occurred just two days after the state elections of that year; I was still tired, if not beat, and the prospect of a long evening of recitation and listening seemed less congenial than, say, watching a basketball game at Madison Square Garden.

But I had a certain curiosity about Kerouac, whom I had never seen, and about the subject, which I had heard discussed with increasing frequency and earnestness by my son (then sixteen) and some of his friends. In fact I had begun to feel out of touch. So, though ill-prepared to deliver a speech (and even less prepared for what happened), I reached the auditorium a few moments after Kerouac had begun what turned out to be a forty-minute rendition, and there was more than one reprise.

My first astonishment was the size of the audience. As one apparently addicted to public speech since an early age, I have grown accustomed to addressing empty seats as well as uplifted drowsy countenances. I had steeled myself for the sight of unoccupied leather. Instead, on arrival at the entrance, I discovered that this was what is known in the trade as an SRO affair, with scores of young people milling around outside the auditorium in the vain hope that the capacity of the hall would be expanded by the rhetoric inside.

Having forgotten there was a stage entrance, I proceeded at once to the main door where a strong-minded young woman effectively barred the way. The meeting had begun and I tried perhaps impatiently to tell her I was one of the scheduled performers; at first this evoked almost no reaction except massive resistance. I could not tell whether she thought I was an impostor or whether she had been intimidated by the Fire Department; anyway, after producing my press card and adopting a tone of entreaty rattier than insistence, I was finally admitted.

As I walked a trifle uncomfortably down the center aisle to the stage, I got my first view of the leader of the Beat Generation. He was attired in a lumberjack shirt unadorned by tie, but there was nothing especially ostentatious about his lack of dress. A little more flabbergasting was the discovery that he was holding what proved to be a glass of brandy, and throughout the evening lie made several trips to the wings for a refill. Kerouac acknowledged my arrival by observing, "You ruined my sentence," and then resumed a discourse which I am obliged to describe as a stream of semiconsciousness.

The audience was predominantly, if not exclusively, young -ranging from high-school students to college seniors, and with a sprinkling of the middle-aged and the old. With due reverence for Messrs. Amis, Montagu and myself, a large proportion of those present had obviously come to see and hear Kerouac, which, after all, explained my own belated presence too. There was plainly a bloc of the committed beat reveling in each of his mischievous irrelevancies and with whom he used a kind of sign language mystifying to outsiders; there were also what might be called the fellow travelers of the beat, some of whom manifested bewilderment and even impatience with the Leader by the time the evening had ended. There were, also, no doubt some who had just come for the show.

I cannot recall as large an assemblage of young people except for the captive audiences of school assemblies-since the radical heyday of the thirties. The beat, of course, do not carry membership cards and one has no way of knowing how many true disciples were recruited or disaffected by Kerouac's chaotic exhibition. But the size of the turnout was extraordinary.

Having listened to a recording of the evening's proceedings and pondered a transcript, I still find myself largely out of Kerouac's reach. I am, admittedly, eight years older than he-forty-three to his thirty-five the night of the symposium at Hunter-but such a gap is not normally considered prohibitive among adults. I was on speaking terms with a lot of men some years younger than Kerouac. Moreover I brought no instinctive hostility to the occasion (toward the end, in one of his most coherent thrusts, lie cried, "You came here prepared to attack me," but in fact I had come, as previously indicated, utterly unprepared, period).

There were times when he sounded like a jaded traveling salesman telling obscene bedtime stories to the young; there were others when the melancholy of his cadences achieved a mildly hypnotic effect, so that one listened to it as if hearing an obscure but appealing fragment of music. There were also many intervals that can only be described as gibberish. Thus at one point he was chanting (and I quote from the transcript):

In fact here is a poem I've written about Harpo Marx:

        Harpo, I'll always love you.
	Oh Harpo, when did you seem like an angel the last and played the
		gray harp of gold?
	When did you steal the silverware and buckspray the guests?
	When did your brother find rain in your sunny courtyard?
	When did you chase your last blond across a millionaire's lawn
		with a bait hook on a line protruding from your bicycle?
	Oh, when last you powderpuffed your white flower face with a fish
		barrel cover?
	Harpo, who is that lion I saw you with? ... 

Without questioning the place of Harpo Marxism in history, I find little rhyme or reason in these observations, and the Leader drooped to the dimensions of ham. The totality of his performance, brightened as it was by flashes of imagery, was a union of madness and sadness; by the end the occasional vivid or moving phrase seemed like an isolated line of poetry surrounded by vulgar ramblings on a latrine wall.

Kerouac is dark-haired and sturdily built (he played football for a year for Lou Little at Columbia and, when lie quit, the coach said prophetically that the "boy was tired"). He has rather graceful gestures; he alternates murmurs of flirtive sexuality with intimations of high piety. He deftly evokes the emotional loyalty of those who feel that they too are beat. It is no irreverence, I trust, to say that at moments lie might have been called the Billy Gloomy-Sunday of our time.

Did we ever establish any communication? I think we did; at least there is no other way I can explain the furious feeling he exhibited in the exchange that took place after the allegedly prepared recitals had occurred.

KEROUAC:...James Wechsler...Who's James Wechsler? Right over there. James Wechsler, you believe in the destruction of America, don't you?

WECHSLER: No. (The transcript added "laughter.")

KEROUAC: What do you believe in, come here, come here and tell me what you believe in ...You told me what you don't believe in. I want to know what you do believe in. (Cries from the audience: "That's right.") This is a university, we've got to learn . . . I believe in love, I vote for love (applause).

It was rather difficult to avoid a pretentious reply:

WECHSLER: I believe in the capacity of the human intelligence to create a world in which there is love, compassion, justice and freedom. I believe in fighting for that kind of world. I think what you are doing is to try to destroy anybody's instinct to care about this world.

KEROUAC: I believe, I believe in the dove of peace.


KEROUAC: No you don't. You're fighting with me for the dove of peace. You came here prepared to attack me.

It went on for a little while longer and then the chairman mercifully explained that it was very late, and in truth it was a few minutes after ten.

There is no point in indefinitely prolonging the reportorial agony. This was hardly a debate in which anyone could have scored the points; I was grappling with a man in outer space, and it was only for the briefest of intervals that we even seemed to occupy the same mat. I shall never quite understand why he assumed I had come there with a plot, or even why he responded so angrily to a minor quip I made at President Eisenhower's expense, this being a time when even Republican newspapers were ceasing to regard Eisenhower as above criticism.

Kerouac had observed, if that is the proper term:

Well, Mr. Wechsler, I was sitting under a tangerine tree in Florida one afternoon and I was trying to translate the Diamond Sutra from Sanskrit to English and I said shall I call it a personal god or an impersonal god, and at that moment a little tangerine dropped out of the tree and they only drop out of a tree about once every six weeks and landed right square in the middle of my head. Right, boing; I said, okay, personal god.

Somewhat testily I interjected:

I just want to say, Mr. Kerouac, that as an editor I have to write about Dwight D. Eisenhower's press conference every week--

KEROUAC (interrupting): He's very witty--

WECHSLER:--and it's possible to reduce life to an area of so little sense that there would hardly be any reason for all these people to have come here tonight, or for us to be here. I don't think we render any service by doing that--

KEROUAC: Education is education.

WECHSLER: Well, as Eisenhower would say government is government.

KEROUAC: And as Dulles would say, statesmanship is statesmanship.

For that small moment we seemed like two quarreling editorial writers occupying the same planet.

Dr. Joseph Kauffman, the soft-voiced moderator, gently interpolated that "the point which Mr. Wechsler makes is one which is fairly commonly held among people who are considered activists in the sense of social and political action."

In what I must characterize as a growl Kerouac responded: "Don't give me that stuff. I'm going out of this atmosphere."

In a sense, that is the last I saw of him.

What I had tried to say was embodied in an earlier statement that evening; since it is rather awkwardly relevant to the conception of this book, perhaps some words of it should be published here:

"It is a strange thing to participate in this symposium because I guess that I am one of the few unreconstructed radicals of my generation, and much of what has happened in the last twenty and twenty-five years has challenged many of the things that I believe- in deeply. Yet my basic sense about what I care about in the world, what I fight for, what I believe in is remarkably unaltered.

"I have to say to you that, with due respect to Mr. Kerouac, I see no really major point in this kind of organized confusionism . . . To me the astonishing thing, after all these years of our time and our century which have been brutal, cruel and difficult years, is that we can still find, if I may say so, a Boris Pasternak, and he is only a name and a symbol; but that all over the world there does seem to be a sense of the survival of human values and decency which seem to me to be the only things that give meaning to life ...

"The impressive fact is that there survives and that there recurs and is renewed among young kids all over the world the sense that there are values of decency worth fighting for and even giving one's life for.

"There was a man named Felix Cohen who died when he was forty-six. He was the son of Morris Raphael Cohen and he wrote a great essay which has meant a great deal to me in my life in which he argued that the astonishing thing about our world is that, given all the travail and the turmoil and the sadness, it does seem to be true that certain ethical values do re-emerge and that children grow up sensing them and understanding them.

"I do not happen to be a religious man in any conventional sense but I do have the sense that what gives meaning to life is the survival of these values. And so it is that there are people all the time all over the world who, when they see cruelty and injustice and intolerance and bigotry often risk many things to fight against these incredible conditions. Now I know there is a view that this is probably because they were dropped on their heads when they were small children. But I thought Arthur Koestler answered that point rather well when he said that, if we really believed that the only people who have any decent instincts in the world are those who were dropped on their heads when they were babies, it's very hard to make any sense out of life ...

"I think there are values that have transcended these difficult and complicated conditions of human existence. It is a sad thing about America now that what is regarded as the great revolt and the great representation of dissent and unorthodoxy is what is called the beat generation. Because I guess it has very little meaning to me and, after listening to its spokesman tonight, I must say that I find myself groping in the darkest confusion as to what the hell this is about (from audience: "Shame on you"). (Laughter and applause.) There is the right, thank God, for all of us to scream and shout and do anything we damn please in public. There is also, I think, the responsibility for us to try to give to the people in our society some sense of what matters and what is important and what we care about.

"People say so often that there are no issues any longer, that everything was settled by the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and that there really aren't any great differences in political life. To some extent that's true. Yet we live in a time when there are two things that seem to me to be worthy of everything within us.

"One is the fact that there is something called the hydrogen bomb which can make a mockery of anything we call civilization. The other is the quest for human equality which has become the dominant and decisive issue of our lifetime in America. So it never has seemed to me really that there is nothing left to fight for, or that there is nothing worth arguing about in our society."

There were far better words spoken that evening by both Dr. Amis and Professor Montagu than any recited by Kerouac or myself.

Dr. Amis suggested amiably but pointedly that there was no genuine union between the so-called angry young men of Great Britain, who had at least voiced a certain definable- and not monolithic-protest against the grayness of life, and the rambling wrecks from American Tech -.who had ostentatiously proclaimed themselves the beat generation.

Professor Montagu, perhaps because he had not been accused of being angry, perhaps because an anthropologist acquires a certain occupational patience with the eccentricities of man, spoke with the greatest compassion: "What I am trying to say is that it is not condemnation or contempt that is called for but compassion and understanding, that the beat generation is not something either to bemoan or disown but a suffering confusion of human beings crying out for sympathetic understanding. The beat generation represents the ultimate expression of a civilization whose moral values have broken down and in many ways, what is even worse, a civilization with little faith or conviction in the values it professes to believe. (From audience: "Right!")

"Its ideal values are one thing. But its real values-the values by which it lives-are quite another. Our ideal and our real values are in conflict. The Sermon on the Mount and the principle of competition are simply not compatible with one another. And this fact gives rise to the great hypocrisy of a society that preaches the one and lives by the other, and it gives rise, among other things, to a demoralization of the sort which results in beatniks.

"Human beings living in a society in which such mutually irreconcilable, such conflicting and false values are dominant are likely to be confused and confusing. Those who subscribe to such values damage not only themselves but wreak havoc upon their children, many of whom constitute members of the beat generation.

"The beatniks know that there is too much that is wrong with the non-beatniks, but they are thoroughly confused as to why it is that what is wrong is wrong. Their cult of unthink is of no help, nor is resort to esoteric cults and Eastern religion.

"Whatever it is they're in revolt against we must take care that the anarchy that is so apparent in the beat generation is not mistaken for anything oilier than it is, namely a signal of distress, a cry for love, a refusal to accept defeat at the hands of the unloving lovers who made them what they are.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to the beat writers for so forcefully articulating what the less vocal members of this generation feel and think."

In the anarchy of the evening these were the most generous and thoughtful phrases, and they were plainly addressed to an audience beyond the gathering of the moment. They created a stillness and reserve that had been lacking throughout the previous recitations, as if even the most frenetic Kerouacians had been persuaded for the instant to think of themselves in a larger context. But I suppose there were also those who whispered to themselves and their neighbors that Professor Montagu was an amiable square who just wasn't getting enough kicks.

At the end there was the usual flurry around the platform and I did not get a chance to talk to Kerouac again. We probably would not have had much to say to each other. I felt both very young and very old: young, in the sense that it seemed to me I found life less overwhelming than Kerouac did, and old because I knew I could not offer any simplicities comparable to his platform of raucous hedonism.

At the start I noted there were two incidents which quite coincidentally provoked this book. One was the Kerouac affair; the other was a small gathering in a suite at the Hotel Commodore in New York just a few weeks later.

This was an informal session arranged by Joseph L. Rauh Jr., who had for some eleven years been the solid pillar of an organization known as Americans for Democratic Action, an enterprise perhaps more celebrated for the attacks leveled against it in the conservative press than for any political revolutions it has truly engineered. Rauh was what Heywood Broun must have had in mind when he referred to the species "congenital liberal"; a large, warm, forceful and resourceful man who was probably more responsible than any other individual for the sustained existence of those formidable initials ADA, not to be confused with the American Dental Association.

The subject of the gathering might have been summed up quite simply as: where do we go from here, or, what are we up to, anyway? After more than a decade of life ADA was accepted in right-wing political circles as a major menace and regarded with almost equal anxiety by many liberal politicians who feared someone would remember they had once been associated with it. Certain views as to the circumstances which produced this unhappy state of the organization will be examined later, as well as some of the self-appraisals advanced at this assemblage.

In the aftermath of the Kerouac episode what struck me most as we met was that tile youngest man in this room was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had just passed his fortieth birthday.

The roll call of those present is less important than the knowledge that there was not among us a single person representing the generation born between 1925 and 1935. Possibly this discovery was especially poignant for those of us who had once been identified as leaders of "the youth movement." Yet perhaps it also underlined an even more striking American occurrence, which is that those of us who had the good or bad fortune to become twenty in the 1930's have been granted a certain immortality by the nonemergence of younger voices. In an essay in The New Leader's symposium on the Young Generation [later included in The End of Ideology], Dan Bell put the matter quite entertainingly.

Having joined the Young People's socialist League in 1932 at the advanced age of thirteen, he noted, and graduated from CCNY in 1938, he found himself being described nearly twenty years later as a "young sociologist." Pitilessly documenting the point that we were in that strange condition where life seemed to begin at forty, he added:

Some years ago Harvey Swados, then about 38, published an exciting first novel and was called a promising "young" writer; Richard Hofstadter who, at the age of 42, has published four or five first-rate historical interpretations, is called a young American scholar; James Wechsler, over 40, a young editor; Saul Bellow, over 40, a young American novelist; Alfred Kazin, 41, a young American critic, etc.

All that was published in April, 1957, and we youths are now that much older. We have even been called "grouchy middle-aged men," but by and large we retain a kind of immunity from underage attack if only because we manage to make more tumultuous sounds than those born ten or twenty years later.

Time plays harsh tricks. Even as I write this I am conscious that some who will read it do not know what it meant to be on this earth during the Spanish Civil War, when at last there was an international brigade composed of men prepared to risk their lives for the salvation of mankind, and for no private or provincial cause. A young man of twenty-five was four when all that occur-red, as I was four when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

To establish any continuity is hard enough. Yet I venture to say that as a youth of twenty I felt no large gap between myself and those who--when I was twelve--had been engaged in the effort to save the lives of two unheralded human beings named Sacco and Vanzetti. As I grew up their lost cause had become mine, and I felt no difficulty about comprehending the depth of feeling my elders associated with it.

The beatnik proclaims his alienation and his irresponsibility, and his contempt for those who have the effrontery to seek to influence the affairs of men or establish order in the gone universe. But no single voice really speaks for him. Kerouac at Hunter was a caricature of the breed; on another evening in a different setting at Columbia, Allen Ginsberg (whom Kerouac had dragged onto the stage like a circus donkey the night of our meeting) recited poetry in a fashion that Diana Trilling found extraordinarily moving and intelligible, and led her to feel pity rattier than disdain for him and his cohorts. She added: "Whatever one's view of the poetry, the manners, the compulsive disreputableness and the sometimes ostentatious homosexuality of those who term themselves beat, it is perhaps most noteworthy that their form of protest is almost wholly nonpolitical, and at moments a rebellion against politics itself."

The ranks of the beat are limited and scattered. It is hardly likely that what they are up to would evoke so much notice if most of their contemporaries were engaged in great exercises; what gives them part of their prominence-as it did "the lost" of the 1920's and the radicals of the 1930's--is that they almost alone seem to care very deeply, even if it is about the cult of not caring. If their escapades are tinged with exhibitionism and even vulgarity, they create a certain fascination because they at least seem to be crazily alive while so many others are just going through the motions. Their commitment to disaffection is intense.

Perhaps they interest us, too, because politics seems to have become less and less relevant to many of the young people growing up in the land, and among the beat the estrangement is most fully burlesqued.

We have never had political youth movements comparable to those of Europe and Latin America. Some three decades ago Harold Laski was asking "Why Don't Your Young Men Care?" and even in the turbulent 1930's the number of activists in Communist and Socialist enterprises, not to speak of the major parties, was far smaller than it has often appeared in retrospect (although their experiences touched a wider fragment of their generation than may have been realized at the time). In any case what we are now encountering is large-scale disassociation. Many young men and women who enter politics do so with a view to their own political careers, rather than out of any tenacious conviction; the local reform movements of today too frequently become the entrenched bureaucracies of tomorrow.

This book does not presume to offer any definitive judgment about the beat. Rather, as indicated at the start, they are the catalyst for some random discussion of the state of "beatness" amid which most of the politics of the day is conducted, of the failures of political leaders to impart any quality of excitement and e1an to their endeavors; and for an affirmation and elaboration of certain positions which, I trust, form some basis for a political revival.

It is not the kids with beards and blue jeans, "many of them publicly homosexual, talking about or taking drugs, assuring us they are out of their minds, not responsible," in Mrs. Trilling's words, about whom this is primarily written. Rattier it is about the young fogies, the minor Machiavellis, the gray-flanneled status seekers, the modern Republicans and the "realistic" Democrats, the tired liberals and ex-Communists turned raucous patrioteers, and the "men of moderation" in whose hands great issues have become great bores. Possibly this look at things will parenthetically explain what the rest of us look like to the beat and why it is they seem so self-righteously convinced that it is their elders who are the sad specimens.

  • Excerpt from On the Road.
  • Search for all instances of "Kerouac" in modern American poetry web site


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