Countering the Counterculture Reviews

Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Beats: new directions in Beat studies.(Reconstructing the Beats)(Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomas Rivera)(Book Review)


College Literature; 3/22/2005; Bennett, Robert

Skerl, Jennie, ed. 2004. Reconstructing the Beats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. $75.00 hc $24.95 sc. 244 pp.


Martinez, Manuel Luis. 2003. Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomas Rivera. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. $24.95 sc. 360 pp.


While the Beats' contemporaries generally dismissed them as "know-nothing" bohemians and "bewildered internal cosmonauts," scholarly interest in the Beat Generation has increased dramatically over the past two decades (Podhoretz 1958, 307, Fiedler 1971, 399). The principal Beat writers--Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs--are now widely recognized countercultural heroes whose works are routinely discussed in university classrooms and academic journals. Jennie Skerl's anthology, Reconstructing the Beats, and Manuel Luis Martinez's Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomas Rivera both contribute to this Beat revival by attempting to map "new directions for criticism and teaching at the beginning of the twenty-first century" (Skerl 2004, 2). But what new directions should Beat scholarship pursue, and what is at stake in these attempts to reconstruct new paradigms for Beat studies?

In the broadest sense, Skerl and Martinez's works share several common theoretical assumptions that have guided recent Beat scholarship. Skerl argues that her anthology pursues two primary goals: it attempts to "re-historicize, re-contextualize, and reinterpret" the principal Beat writers--Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs--from new theoretical perspectives; and it also seeks to "recover marginalized figures" and expand the "restricted (white male) canon" beyond "a few legendary figures" (2004, 2). On the surface, Martinez's Countering the Counterculture seems to pursue a similar critical agenda with its first half analyzing how the major Beat writers responded to the "advent of conformist and corporate culture in the United States," while its second half explores how Chicano and Mexican American migrant writers "participate[d] equally and fully in the production" of post World War II American culture (2003, 14-15, 18).

The conclusions that Martinez draws, however, differ dramatically from the positions advanced in Skerl's anthology. While Reconstructing the Beats does "revise, broaden, and complicate" our understanding of the Beat Generation, it ultimately advances a rather traditional sense of the Beats as countercultural rebels (2004, 2-3). For example, Clinton R. Starr's essay expands the Beat Generation beyond a "small group of literary celebrities" to include a broader group of "beatniks and 'week-end Bohemians' who frequented coffeehouses and jazz clubs," but Starr still defines the Beat Generation as a "vibrant counterculture that facilitated individual resistance and collective political activism" (44, 41, 53). Similarly, Daniel Belgrad explores interesting new relationships between Beat literature and Mexican Magical Realism, but he ultimately concludes that both movements shared a "common cultural agenda" of opposing the "hemispheric dominance of corporate liberalism after 1940" (40). While both critics reconstruct the Beat Generation in new ways, they remain relatively faithful to a traditional sense of the Beats as "nonconformists" who "critique[d] ... mainstream values and social structures" by promoting "spiritual alternative[s] to the relentless materialist drive of industrial capitalism" (2).

Martinez's Countering the Counterculture, however, radically challenges this traditional interpretation of the Beat Generation as an unproblematic counter-hegemonic movement. Deconstructing "simplistic" views of post World War II American culture which posit a "binary opposition between the establishment culture and a dissenting counterculture," Martinez argues instead that a more complex relationship existed between the "square" mainstream culture and the Beat counterculture (2003, 7). Demonstrating that the "primary Beats" embraced many of the "reactionary, nativist, racist ideologies to which they have conventionally been contrasted," Martinez suggests that it is "possible that the Beats were not so much pitting their worldview against a vacuous, rigid, bourgeois conformity, but echoing, albeit dissonantly, the same tune as the chorus of reactionary elements of America in the 1950s" (25). Ultimately, Martinez redefines Beat culture altogether, arguing that it was "not at all 'countercultural'" but rather a mere "rehashing of an American 'rugged individualism' that was ultimately hostile to a Rousseauean commitment to civic participation and radical egalitarian democracy" (16). For Martinez, the Beats might have masqueraded as countercultural revolutionaries, but underneath their hip masks they embraced patriarchal, racist, and colonialist values that were essentially square. On this point, Martinez could not be more forceful. While several critics have argued that the Beats inadvertently endorsed reactionary values that compromised their progressive agenda, Martinez argues that these flaws must be seen as integral, rather than as incidental, aspects of the Beat project. According to Martinez, Beat culture actively embraced and promoted "reactionary paranoia," "cynical, neo-imperialistic fantasies," and "reconstitut[ed] male power in the face of domineering feminine suburban creep" (27, 43, 85). Adopting a Kerouac-like tone himself, Martinez bluntly concludes that "there's nothing countercultural about that" (117).

While Martinez's re-interpretation of Beat culture is certainly unorthodox--at least among Beat scholars--he does support his position with ample textual details and sophisticated critical theories. Going far beyond the obvious examples of misogyny and ethnic stereotyping in Kerouac's On the Road, Martinez reveals consistent patterns of cultural paranoia and colonial fantasizing that recur throughout the Yage Letters, Naked Lunch, "Siesta in Xbalba," Big Sur, and the Beats' private letters and journals. While some Beat scholars may ultimately find Martinez's critique unconvincing--too extreme, too one-dimensional, too cynical--it is hard to dismiss his argument altogether. As future critics reinterpret the Beats with new postcolonial, minority, and feminist critical theories, it seems inevitable that the kinds of arguments that Martinez advances will recur with greater, not less, frequency.

In fact, a careful reading of Skerl's anthology demonstrates that this critical realignment is already underway. Throughout Skerl's anthology, there are few references to traditional New Critical critiques of the Beats' amorphic aesthetics and countercultural politics, but several essays struggle to defend the Beats against accusations of sexism, racism, and colonialism. For example, Richard Quinn praises Kerouac's creative adaptation of Charlie Parker's improvisational jazz, but he does so by dancing around Jon Panish's alternative interpretation, which harshly criticizes Kerouac's racist and reductive understanding of jazz. Similarly, Nancy Grace, Ronna C. Johnson, and Amy L. Freidman show how female Beats criticized the sexist attitudes of male Beat writers in order to clear a space for their own artistic practices, while Daniel Belgrad's interpretation of the Beats' travels to Mexico is an explicit refutation of Martinez's position. All of these critics, however, spend less time defending the Beats against charges of being too radical and instead focus on defending the Beats against charges that they were not radical enough. Whatever one thinks of Martinez's argument, his book advances the kinds of theoretical positions that Beat scholars are increasingly being forced either to make or to refute.

But why does Martinez attack the Beats so aggressively? What are his specific criticisms, and how valid are they? The first, and most obvious, criticism that Martinez makes against both Beat literature and Beat scholarship is that they rely on "inadequate readings of postwar protest and dissent" (2003, 5). To correct this theoretical flaw, Martinez draws on the work of critical theorists such as Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, Stanley Aronowitz, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Christopher Newfield. Describing how these theorists largely reject the possibility that there can be "such a thing as a true 'counterculture,'" Martinez uses their theories to criticize both the Beat Generation's countercultural posturing and Beat scholars' theoretical naivete (25). While I would not want to deny the possibility of countercultural dissent altogether, Martinez does present significant evidence that, at least in this specific case, the Beat Generation's attempt to develop a counter-hegemonic position was fraught with difficulties. The simplistic, binary division between the dominant square culture of the 1950s and the Beat counterculture was never as clear-cut as both the Beats and the squares thought it was, and it doesn't take graduate training in post-structuralism to recognize that the Beats' revolutionary posturing amalgamated a complex range of reactive, regressive, and genuinely countercultural maneuverings.

While I am generally impressed with the range of theoretical perspectives explored in Skerl's anthology, its one critical Achilles heel seems to be its tendency to rely on a relatively un-theorized, and somewhat naive, sense of countercultural dissent. On this point, Skerl's anthology rarely even raises, let alone answers, the kinds of issues that Martinez explores in great detail. The few critics who do confront the issue of dissent head on--most notably Belgrad and Quinn--tend to simultaneously concede and dismiss their opponents' arguments, acknowledging the irrefutable examples of Beat colonialism and racism pointed out by critics like Martinez and Panish only to assert that Beat literature still promotes a countercultural ethos that somehow overrides its other flaws. Both critics are aware of competing theories of Beat culture, but instead of carefully clarifying and resolving the tension between these opposing viewpoints, they tend simply to assert that Beat culture is genuinely, and relatively unproblematically, countercultural.

An excellent example of the tension between these competing interpretations of Beat culture can be found in Robert Holton's essay, "The Sordid Hipsters of America." In this essay, Holton argues that the Beats attempted to "explore, adapt, and establish collective heterogeneous spaces based on the examples of marginalized groups whose exclusion seemed to guarantee their immunity from the privileges and perils of mainstream modernity" (Skerl 2004, 11-12). In and of itself, this is a perfectly reasonable and well-phrased description of what the Beats at least thought they were doing. I find it odd, however, that Holton would assert this argument so unproblematically when he has published another essay that explores the various problems that Beat writers faced as they attempted to appropriate other cultures. As Holton himself argues in "Kerouac Among the Fellahin," Kerouac's "naive vision" of identifying with heterogeneous marginalized cultures relied on an "impossibility based on a misconception; a doubly obstructed road to heterogeneity" that might "ultimately do far more to confuse the issues than to clarify them, more to augment that destabilize the reified racial and gender categories of social identity" (269). On the one hand, "The Sordid Hipsters of America" develops a reconstructive position that resonates with the rest of Skerl's anthology, while "Kerouac Among the Fellahin" advances an argument much closer to Martinez's deconstructive position. Both interpretations have some merit, as Holton himself admits both within and between the two essays, but like Belgrad and Quinn, Holton seems more adept at recognizing each position independently than he is at synthesizing them into a new critical paradigm.

To be fair, a similar criticism can also be made against Martinez's Foucauldian cynicism. While Martinez does an excellent job of deconstructing the Beats' countercultural posturing, his own counter-narrative remains largely incapable of explaining the revolutionary energy that Beat culture did unleash, and it seems rather uncontroversial to assert that the Beats were more countercultural than Martinez admits. Jack Kerouac may not have been Cesar Chavez, but wasn't he more complicated than what Michael Moore would call a "stupid white man"? If Skerl's Reconstructing the Beats relies too heavily on a naive faith in countercultural rebellion, then Martinez's Countering the Counterculture advocates an overtheorized critical cynicism. While neither work provides a definitive or complete explanation of the complexities of Beat culture, future Beat scholars will have to engage more directly the kinds of theoretical issues that Martinez raises about the complexity and viability of countercultural dissent. While critics are certainly free to disagree with Martinez, they ought to consider his critique more seriously and explain more carefully--rather than simply assume--their defense of the Beat counterculture. Taken collectively, the opposing theories of countercultural dissent advanced in Skerl and Martinez's works illustrate one of the principal theoretical issues confronting contemporary Beat studies: how are critics to reassess a Beat counterculture that was less revolutionary than it thought but more powerful than its harshest critics contend?

Martinez's second criticism of Beat scholarship is that it is too parochial--too focused on a narrow canon of a few white, male writers--and on this point Skerl and Martinez generally agree. Nevertheless, even though Martinez and Skerl concur that women and minority writers deserve more serious critical attention, they have somewhat different opinions about how critics should go about reconfiguring the Beat canon. The primary goal advocated by Skerl's anthology is to expand the Beat canon to include a wider range of women and minority writers. For example, A. Robert Lee adds Ted Joans to the Beat canon because his poetry invokes a sense of "the hip, the cool, [and] the countercultural," while Nancy M. Grace argues that "few poets--male of female--can be said to embody Beat to the extent of the San Francisco jazz performance poet Ruth Weiss" (2004, 117, 57). More importantly, this work of reclaiming previously marginalized Beat writers also helps complicate our understanding of the Beat Generation. In particular, it illustrates how Beat culture explored diverse aesthetic, political, and cultural perspectives, including a self-critical awareness of its own limitations and shortcomings. As Amy L. Friedman explains, Joanne Kryger and other Beat women "moved beyond existing as a subset within Beat Generation studies" by actively "rewriting the rules of literary bohemian life" to affirm "female artistic power and perspective," while Amor Kohli argues that Bob Kaufman used jazz self-reflexively "to critique both mainstream America and the Beat subculture to which he belonged for their unwillingness to acknowledge their cultural debt to blackness" (87, 75, 81, 105). Taken collectively, these essays show how minority and women writers reconfigured Beat culture in ways that were more self-reflective, more multicultural, and less sexist, thereby answering some of the criticisms that Martinez makes against the Beats. In a paradoxical inversion of the center and the margins, these essays provocatively suggest that some minority and women writers might have been more Beat than the principal Beat writers themselves: Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman had a more sophisticated understanding of jazz, Lenore Kandel embraced sexual experimentation with less hang-ups than Kerouac, and Ruth Weiss developed a sense of linguistic play that is as performative and postmodern as Kerouac's and Ginsberg's.

Martinez also attempts to recover previously marginalized Chicano and Mexican American migrant writers, but instead of simply incorporating their work into the Beat canon, Martinez emphasizes these writers' differences from the Beats. Arguing that writers like Oscar Zeta Acosta and Corky Gonzales ultimately rejected--and inverted--Beat narcissism, he shows how these writers moved toward the more collectivist countercultural ideology of Chicano nationalism. On this point, one must at least credit Martinez with theoretical consistency since he is as critical of Chicano writers' collectivist rejection of individuality as he is of Beat writers' individualist rejection of collectivity. As Martinez explains, movimiento writers like Raul Salinas, Jose Montoya, and Luis Valdez advocate an "isolationism as paralyzing as [the Beats'] neo-individualistic atomism" (2003, 17). At this point, one might be tempted to dismiss Martinez as a theoretical Scrooge haunted by Foucauldian ghosts, but ultimately Martinez's larger objective is more comparativist than cynical. Arguing that post World War II America "presents a unique historical matrix that allows for a rich analysis of class, race, gender, and the cultural and political interstices through which they interact," Martinez believes that this historical "period saw the creation of a variety of social strategies" (5, 7). Instead of isolating and privileging the Beat counterculture as exceptional, Martinez relocates it within a larger cultural context that includes "the emergence of the civil rights movement, a broadening participation of women in the workforce, encroaching suburbanization, and a significant influx of Mexican workers" (24-25). If Martinez criticizes both the Beat and the Chicano countercultures, it is not simply to disparage them but rather to open up a broader dialogue between them by destabilizing the countercultural certainties that each takes for granted in its own way. The term the Martinez ascribes to such an open-ended dialogue is "Americano" Studies, and he hopes that such a "truly inclusive" comparativist project might live up to "the potential of cultural, social, and political dissent," but only after it becomes self-critical enough to recognize the limitations of any one group's attempt to speak unproblematically for others (19). Martinez's ultimate objective, therefore, is less to expand the Beat canon to include new marginal voices than it is to promote greater dialogue between a range of Beat, Chicano, and Mexican American migrant voices in hopes that they will learn how to speak and listen to each other in interesting new ways.

However one ultimately assesses the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two works, both should be required reading for scholars interested in the Beat Generation's contributions to post World War II American culture. While neither work, taken individually, covers the full range of debates going on in Beat studies today, each work clearly articulates a specific position within these debates. Taken together, however, these two works collectively raise many of the fundamental issues that contemporary Beat scholars are now debating. What are the principal strengths and weaknesses of the Beat counterculture, and how did it negotiate its precarious location on the liminal edge between the "square" culture that it rejected and the alternative Beat counterculture that it tried to create? What new theoretical, interdisciplinary, and comparativist perspectives will best illuminate the complexity of Beat culture? How can the Beat canon be expanded to include a wider range of voices and texts, and how will this canonical reconstruction alter our understanding of the Beat Generation? As the titles of these two works suggest, Skerl and Martinez approach these issues quite differently, with Skerl attempting to reconstruct Beat culture, while Martinez's tries to counter it. Upon closer inspection, however, both projects may end up being more interrelated than they might first appear, but I will leave it to my readers to explore more carefully what those subterranean relationships might be.

Works Cited

Fiedler, Leslie. 1971. The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. Vol. 2. New York: Stein and Day.

Holton, Robert. 1995. "Kerouac Among the Fellahin: On The Road to the Postmodern." Modern Fiction Studies 41.2:265-83.

Podhoretz, Norman. 1958. "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." Partisan Review 25.2:305-18.

Robert Bennett is assistant professor of English at Montana State University. His most recent publication is Deconstructing Post-WWII New York City: The Literature, Art, Jazz, and Architecture of an Emerging Global Capital.

COPYRIGHT 2005 West Chester University





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Copyright © 2004 Academy of American Franciscan History. All rights reserved.


The Americas 61.1 (2004) 124-125

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Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomás Rivera. By Manuel Luis Martinez. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 353. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $29.95 paper.



Martinez's book makes a compelling case for an unlikely pair. Under the rubric of "movement discourse," he couples an analysis of the American Beats with Chicano authors and activists. What the two have in common is that each cohort figures personal mobility as a form of resistance to the standardization and consumerist mentality of the dominant culture. While both groups conceive of themselves in oppositional terms, Martinez contends that they are less radical than they might seem. Genuinely countercultural expressions, he claims, would also lay the groundwork for the formation of viable alternative communities. This perspective is best expressed by the "Americano" strategies of migrant writers and activists. Martinez argues that because Mexican American migrants have been the victims of forced movement, they are ideally poised to critique the dominant culture's linkage between mobility and success and to advocate for a radically democratic agenda that would lead to meaningful political inclusion. This political agenda is the framework for the literary analysis that is the subject of individual chapters.


The first section of the book is a reading of countercultural authors William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson. In their quest to escape the constraints of the dominant culture, the Beats went on the road. However radical they believed themselves to be, Martinez shows that the Beats' endorsement of personal mobility relies on a conventional affirmation of American individualism. Despite their expressed opposition to the cultural mainstream, the Beats lose the potential to enact more widespread systemic change by articulating a longstanding American tradition that values personal sovereignty over communal obligation. This explains their attraction to marginal identities, which they freely appropriated as signs of their own transgressiveness while declining to participate in actual minorities' struggles for political recognition. Martinez is not the first to accuse the Beats of an underlying political conservatism. While there is truth to this charge, the singular political narrative that governs his analysis leads him to dismiss the radicalism of their formal innovations (he rather reductively labels Burroughs' cut-ups "a form of literary colonialism"[p. 57]), and to downplay significant political differences between authors such as Ginsberg and Thompson or Kerouac.


If Martinez's approach to the Beats is at times strained, the payoff comes in his powerful analysis of postwar Mexican "Americano" narratives. He focuses on Oscar Zeta Acosta, Raulsalinas, Jose Montoya, and Luis Valdez, authors who are well aware of the economic and political obstacles that confront Mexican Americans. Their work exemplifies both the powerful potential and ultimate failures of the Chicano movement. Like other social movements of the 1960s, Chicanismo was torn between communitas (the endorsement of an individualist agenda or single issue) and civitas (a more inclusive and participatory model, with an emphasis on creating an egalitarian civic sphere within the nation state). Confronted with ongoing opposition, the Chicano movement would ultimately sacrifice its demands for [End Page 124] inclusion to a separatist agenda. Unable to articulate the grounds for civic incorporation that would not simply look like another version of assimilation, the movement thus retreated into a purely oppositional stance that has led to a disempowering self-marginalization.


The final chapter of the book is both a reading of the migrant intellectuals Tomás Rivera and Ernesto Galarza and an impassioned polemic for rethinking the separatist politics that have divided the current generation of Mexican Americans. In the work of migrant writers and activists, Martinez finds a strong tradition of egalitarian, participatory dissent. In place of the mobility so valued by the dominant culture, the migrant longs for stability, inclusion, and community, values that Martinez sees as the basis for a genuinely inclusive democracy. These authors provide the ground for imagining a mode of civic incorporation that would not simply mean assimilation into the dominant culture.


Secondary to the book's political agenda is a disciplinary intervention into the fields of Chicano and American Studies. Martinez argues that the two fields have failed to sufficiently acknowledge one another, leading to the impoverishment of both. Instead, he proposes an "Americano Studies" that would emerge from mutually beneficial dialogue between the two fields. While this is an attractive concept, Martinez does not give enough credit to the many ways in which American Studies has already embraced Americano Studies. His description of an American Studies that "continues to marginalize minority narratives, histories, literatures, and is especially ignorant of the Mexican American subject's role in the making of national culture and politics" (p. 5) would not be recognizable to those who have attended recent meetings of the American Studies Association, where Chicano scholars and research on Chicano, Mexican, and Mexican American subjects is prominently featured. Indeed, if there is a problem here it might be that powerful concepts that emerged from Chicano Studies, such as the borderlands, have so permeated the discourse of American Studies that they may have lost their initial resonance.


Martinez' critique of the fields he straddles is a relatively minor aspect of his overall project and should not diminish the very real accomplishment of this book. Impassioned and inventive in its unexpected pairing of beats and Chicanos, Martinez gives us fresh perspective on both groups, as well as the American political culture that produced them.


Rachel Adams

Columbia University New York, New York




Electronic Book Review, 9/20/2006

A REVIEW OF:

Michael Soto, The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth Century American Literature
Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2004.

Manuel Martinez, Countering the Counterculture
Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003.


Michael Soto's The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance and American Literature (2004) and Manuel Martinez's Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomás Rivera (2003) are interrogations of modernism, the construction of American identity, and the production of American literary history. Both critics scrutinize American modernism in the interest of examining the complex influence that racial and ethnic identities have on the construction of American literary movements and literary history. Modernist Nation constructs a history of modernist literary movements and their labels as a way of detailing the improvisational qualities of American identity. Countering the Counterculture deconstructs modernism and the Beat Generation in order to describe alternate narratives of countercultural dissent and American identity through Mexican American literature. Soto and Martinez's works are important contributions to American literary studies because they illustrate how racial and ethnic experiences make claims on the shape of our cultural traditions and critical practices; as such, both books add to the on-going conversations in American Studies and American literary studies. Along with recent scholarship such as Brent Hayes Edwards' Practicing Diaspora, Penny Von Eschen's Satchmo Blows Up the World, and Scott Saul's Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't, Soto and Martinez's books confront the centrality of ethnic and racial experiences to the narratives that make up American identity. Rather than erasing those experiences, they examine the crucial role that race and ethnicity play in our understanding of the Lost and Beat generations and thus the role that both play in our cultural identities.


The arguments that Soto and Martinez put forward about the nature of American cultural history counter those made by Walter Benn Michaels' in Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995).
1
Michaels contends that critics should rid themselves of the modernist conception of cultural identity because its definition relies insidiously on essentialist racial identities. He suggests that cultural identity and cultural pluralism are markers for "understanding identity as the privileged object of social contest" (139). But that contest ultimately reveals identity and culture as interchangeable equivalents. This equivalency is dubious, Michaels explains, because the modernist idea of cultural pluralism is an oxymoron; "its commitment to culture is contradicted by its commitment to pluralism. For on the one hand, the pluralist claim that our practices are justified only because they are better for us requires us to be able to say who we are independent of those practices and so requires us to produce our racial identity" (Michaels 139). Ultimately, what's wrong with cultural identity is "not that it developed out of racial identity" but that, "without recourse to the racial identity that (in its current manifestations) it repudiates, it makes no sense" (Michaels 142). However, Michaels' reading does not provide a way to account for identity once we are free of cultural identity or essentialist racial identities. How do we negotiate or grapple with our racial history or our miscegenated culture without discussing racial or ethnic experiences? How do we discuss the complex task of constructing identities in our historically (and sometimes violently) racist society? Though Michaels' argument shows us the racial problem at cultural identity's core, he does not present a serious philosophical stance or theoretical concept to replace cultural identity.


In answer to the foregoing questions and as a proposed replacement for cultural identity as we know it, one might turn to Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark, a philosophical theorization of black political solidarity. Shelby's argument maintains a "thin" socio-political sense of African American identity while holding a healthy suspicion of any kind of cultural or racial essentialisms.
2
Similarly, Soto's analysis of literary modernism illustrates an interplay between political conceptions of identity and suspicions of essentialism.The Modernist Nation examines the relationships among the social, political, and economic shifts that gave birth to American modernism, the construction of literary movement labels, and the theories of racial/ethnic identity can be encoded within these labels. Soto's claim that the use of terms like "generation" or "renaissance" as descriptive metaphors for literary groupings "endow the literary artifacts falling within their rubrics with a socially significant aura; they teach us not just what to read, what counts as literature, but also how to read, why literature counts as literature" (7). The point is that the rhetoric of self-creation and rebirth are quintessential elements of the American ethos because we desire such sensibilities. Soto explains that this desire springs from the rhetoric of generation and renaissance that emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century along with Ralph Waldo Emerson's attempts to define the American ethos. Soto finds that Emerson's famous meditation "The American Scholar" is the progenitor of generational rhetoric. Emerson's motivation in the essay is to describe American culture as a specific tradition on equal footing with European or Classical cultures. His claim initiated an effort that has dominated the attention of American writers for the last two centuries. But this Emersonian charge to identify a "desire for an American not yet arrived" is also what he identifies in his journals as the hope for an American Renaissance (Soto 60).


Emerson's claim of American tradition required the language of birth and rebirth. Soto argues that the products of this claim do not arrive until the twentieth century when American writers were separating themselves from the Victorian artists of the late nineteenth century. On this point The Modernist Nation is a corollary to Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty (1995). Douglas describes this Emersonian rhetoric as a dramatic psychological battle, making U. S. modernism a scuffle between two cultural desires that emerge from ideas of generation and renaissance: the American effort to assert cultural emancipation from feminine, sentimental Victorian England and the effort to celebrate America's bi-racial heritage (Douglas 6).
3
The key to this process, Douglas explains, was that Americans willfully constructed a collective orphan ethos. "Orphans," writes Douglas, "by definition originate their own genealogy; they are disinherited, perhaps, but free" (Douglas 27). Following Douglas' insights, Soto argues that American literary modernism provides a frame that first generates narratives of birth or rebirth - orphan status - in order to create space for the creation of improvised American identities. Soto presents several examples of these generative movements, the two most significant being the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance.


The manufactured Lost Generation was a combination of "young" literary artists of a particular location and biology, and vocal critics who helped to diagnose the cultural condition. Soto rallies a series of critics - Octavio Paz, Karl Mannheim, Van Wyck Brooks, and Henry Seidel Canby - in order to describe a theory of generation. The key to this theory is that "members belong to a generation by being 'similarly located' in terms of chronology and sociohistorical space (which for Mannheim, as for Paz, means nation-space); in other words, they experience the same sociohistorical phenomena in similar fashion, with the same vocabulary, so to speak. But this describes only the inherent potential of a generation" (24). A generation, then, meets its actuality in the small groups that form within it. These "generational units" present on the symbolic level the ideological differences that exist among the members of a specific generation. Quoting Mannheim, Soto explains that "youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation; while those groups within the same actual generation which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways, constitute separate generation units" (Soto 24). But the artists who constitute this younger generation make up an identity that is arbitrary and protean. While literary critics of the 1920s were willing to use the term 'Lost Generation' to define the younger generation of writers, the definitions were multiple. As Soto puts it, this grouping is "an ill-defined accident of literary history" (Soto 43).


While the Lost Generation may be wayward and accidental, Soto explains that Alain Locke's introduction to The New Negro (1925), like Emerson on American literature and W. B. Yeats on the Irish Renaissance, imagined a Negro literature "in the future tense." Consider reading the Harlem Renaissance as both an imprint of the Irish Renaissance and as an attempt by political and cultural orphans to recreate themselves as a whole, unified, future-oriented Negro tradition. Even before it had begun, the Negro Renaissance was identified - it had to be named before it could be. In this way, Harlem Renaissance rhetoric followed a clear agenda unlike other American renaissances or generations. Writers like Locke, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson were, in various ways, working "to re-create the past and to imagine the future of African American literature" (Soto 79). While the life span of the Harlem Rennaissance rhetoric was short - from the turn of the century until 1930 - Soto believes that "with greater clarity than any of its American Renaissance counterparts, it envisioned an African American literary emergence predicated on the familiar ideals of art, youth, and provincialism" (Soto 79). However, it is clear now that just as Yeats' romance of Irish ethnicity was inconsistent, so was the romance of Negro-ness. Ultimately, renaissance rhetoric, like generational rhetoric, leads to reductive critical positions because it calls for essentialist thinking about the group (Soto 90).


Soto's evaluations are valuable because he sees the traps of essentialist thought in movement labels. But unlike Michaels' desire for a race-free critical palette, the writers, readers, and critics mutually indebted to the ideologies of self-creation and rebirth color Soto's critical vision. Soto suggests that the key component to the assertion of orphan or youth status is to see that much of American modernism celebrates bohemian culture. The bohemian narrative became important to American writers and critics because it served dual purposes: on one hand, bohemian culture helped create space between the early American modernists and Victorian England; on the other hand, the image of the bohemian drew the American character closer to the "Old World" bohemia - the bohemian helped make American literature transnational. "The range of linguistic associations attached to the word 'bohemian,'" writes Soto, "reveals how the concepts of artistic iconoclasm and cultural independence mingle and even overlap with their 'antagonistic complimentaries,' respectable imitation and artistic conformism" (Soto 99). Even as the literati work to create a new generation out of its orphan status, the group also measures itself in terms of the tried and true notions of artistic freedom. Thus, spaces such as Greenwich Village, Harlem, and North Beach (San Francisco) became equivalents for the Parisian left bank.


Soto sees these bohemian dreams best realized in the language of jazz, although he is not interested in reaffirming any notions of the "Jazz Age." He is more concerned with what learned writers garnered from jazz improvisation. Soto examines how jazz becomes the language of modernism. While jazz as a metaphor for identity emerges from African American bohemia, it still becomes the language for the American desire to improvise the self in relation to the past and future.


Soto's lineage of literary jazz modernists extends from Walt Whitman to Toni Morrison and incorporates writers as different from each other as Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay. What draws them together is an ability to give language to and dramatize the process of becoming "othered," to crossing racial, gender, and ethnic boundaries to become American. In this sense Americanness is not a contest to expurgate difference. Rather, racial, gender, and ethnic differences cooperate antagonistically. Interestingly, when we consider Stein and McKay, for instance, both affirm the emerging, future status of American sensibilities while working and living in Paris and Marseilles - thus also becoming part of the bohemian/improvisational sensibility. Their characters, like McKay's bohemian writer "Ray" in Home to Harlem and Banjo, help us determine the shape and look of the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance without having to set them on U.S. soil. The bohemian village spaces are not only physical localities; they are also abstract spaces that can be filled by writers who are linked by socio-historical proximity rather than geographic "neighborhoods."


II

This abstract sense of generational and geographical continuity, as well as concerns for jazz improvisation, are equally important concepts to come to terms with in discussions of the Beat Generation. Martinez's instructive Countering the Counterculture illustrates, in ways that Soto does not, the dangers of using ethnic or racial cultural traditions to name a generation broadly. Though Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg craved spontaneous movement and individuality, their twin portals to new American-ness, the Beats weren't keen on the ethnic margin's call to claim the same release from the stranglehold of white American sensibilities. Driven by the wish to escape the doldrums of white masculinity, Kerouac, for instance, searched the ethnic margins of the mainstream to find the avant garde ignition he needed to charge his new individuality. In our usual dealings with Kerouac and the Beats, the margin was Negro and improvisation was the key trope. Although Soto's analyses anticipate the jazz literature of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones, his reading does not acknowledge the problems that arise from under-theorized conceptions of improvisation.


Understanding the Beat conception of improvisation is helpful in comprehending Martinez's case against the standard narrative of the counterculture. For the Beats, improvisation is another word for re-generative border-crossing. They believed (erroneously) that jazz improvisation provided access to an empowering marginality, that the black and brown bodies of the jazz world were embodiments of a powerful hypersexual, hyper-masculine order. Norman Mailer's infamous analysis of hipster and Beat ideologies in "The White Negro" (1957) theorizes that the hipster pose or style is an attempt to embody "the Negro" ethos. Mailer suggests that the Negro's social and political marginality forces him to negotiate the American scene with an innate ability for grace under pressure. By his logic, life in the Negro margin is a daily trial of violence and oppression best negotiated by a mythical black masculine power. The white American mainstream once owned this power but it is now lost or, at least, repressed. Mailer opines that the social marginality of the black male body provides powerful license for irresponsible sexual consumption of other bodies; the goal is to achieve one "apocalyptic" orgasm after another.
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The Beats are attracted to the Negro, particularly the Negro jazz musician, because he has constructed the marginal, revolutionary, and radical cultural position that the Beats covet. "So it is no accident," writes Mailer, "that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knifelike entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation."
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In order for the Beats to see that jazz had the potential to aid their constructions of a strident, new white American masculinity, they had to first imagine that cultural/political margins existed for their intrusion and then they had to racially essentialize the inhabitants of these margins, whether they were African American or, in the case of Martinez's study, Mexican American.


Burroughs was the first of the Beats to seek the ethnic margin in order to find resuscitation from the airlessness of mid-century corporate American life. Burroughs traveled to the western United States, Mexico, South America, and Africa to find escape from effete, modern, Western commercial life and to return to a guttural, earthy masculine pre-modern culture. Following his lead, Kerouac and Ginsberg individually ventured into the West in search of an organic masculine sensibility and American-ness. However, these trips across the American border into Mexico, for instance, were not attempts to retrieve older Mexican cultural forms, pushing them across the border in order make American culture anew. The Beats wanted to save themselves by escaping the boring American moment and merging into the compliant brownness of marginality. Martinez explains this move to the margin as part of a pose of American superiority; "it was a carefully thought-out historical telos" (Martinez 59). The sojourns into bohemian zones like colonial Tangiers were driven by imperialist attitudes. That is, the brown skinned people of Tangiers and Mexico were living in "Fellaheen" worlds removed from the expectations of History or the West and primed for "imperialist" intellectual invasion.


These ventures into the margin strike me as generation making gone amuck. Clearly, the movements into Fellaheen worlds were determined efforts to articulate not only orphan desires for generation or rebirth but also masculine American attitudes of consumption. While we often think of the Beats as rolling across the expanse of the nation in search of themselves, Martinez also shows us that these road trips were reconnaissance missions to find the most fertile lands for poaching, generating newness at the expense of the Fellaheen space. What is surprising about Martinez's evaluations is that he shows us that the Beats never really moved from what was "boring" and dominant about the American masculine and political sensibilities - they repackaged American-ness by encroaching upon the margin.


Analyzing Burroughs' libertine individualism, for instance, Martinez describes his literary and geographic journey as a search for transformative power to renew, to escape boredom, to find the means to transmute the power of death into the power of life. Thus [Burroughs's] exploration with drugs itself becomes an attempt somehow to transcend the self while remaining the self . . . . But in his attempt to change and expand, he conflates the growth of the self and the growth of nation, the uses of personal movement with the imperative to expand the market, all fueled by the fear of invading foreign subjects. The liminal imperative becomes the imperial liminality. (Martinez 61)


Imposing the new American self across borders expands market economic sensibility and stems the flow of brown migrants into white America. Kerouac moves similarly into the margin to produce an uncontained individual self, in turn, as Martinez explains, creating a strange liminality. In On The Road (1957), for instance, Kerouac puts his protagonist Sal Paradise in a spot where he can simultaneously enact a conquest of a Mexican girl "using her as a sexual conduit into vicarious ethnicity" and exercise "a form of domination over the feminine" (Martinez 88). This symbolic ambivalence is also at work in Kerouac's persona: regularly represented as a paragon postwar liberal idealism, Martinez reads him as a dubious avatar of the rise of conservatism in the 1960s. The rhetoric of the Beat Generation masks this ambivalence by claiming allegiance with the colored Other while producing a neo-individualism. Kerouac performs a striking example of this masking in On The Road when Paradise wanders through Denver on the edge of night imagining a new identity for himself:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a "white man" disillusioned. All my life I'd had white ambitions; that was why I'd abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs. I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America. (qtd in Martinez 91)


James Baldwin calls this moment thin and diluted because "it does not refer to reality, but to a dream" (Baldwin 278). What is unreal and thin about Kerouac's vision is that colored experience has no reality except as a vessel providing choices for the individual white consumer. Kerouac involved in a benign consumerist game: as if strolling through an open-air market, Kerouac is "trying on different ethnic garb" (Martinez 91). Though the ethnic margin is available to Paradise for consumption and appropriation - he tries on three ethnicities - the exchange is never equal; the Negro, Mexican, or Japanese person can never exchange places with the white patron. Ultimately, this lack of reciprocity results in two divergent readings of difference: for the ethnic inhabitants of the colored margin, difference is a rigid hierarchy of power and agency; "for the white subject, difference is an exercise of choice for those lucky enough to have the power of agency" (Martinez 91).


Once Martinez articulates this divergence, the second part of Countering the Counterculture is devoted to his mapping of post war Mexican American cultural and political movements. As he points out, race introduces a whole set of phenomena into the socio-historical space that manages to make the actual racial differences glaring. Like Soto, Martinez's approach to discussing cultural identity acknowledges the material realities of American racial experiences. While Mexican American people were deterred by the postwar neoindividuality and racism that permeated American society, they also maintained an oppositional commitment to practicing democracy, to creating an ideal of "communitas" based on the constitutional ideals of American citizenship. This commitment signals an ideal American sensibility; and although this is a commitment usually attributed to white American writers, Martinez urges us to question these assumptions. In fact, while the Beats were attempting to regenerate themselves across the border, Martinez, paraphrasing Tomás Rivera, explains that Mexicans "'wanted to arrive,' in its sense, in America" (187). This rhetoric of arrival was part of the generational discourse that energized the Mexican American Movement.


The Mexican American Movement was a dramatic response to the Beat ethos because it had both abstract and physical components. The Mexican "arrival" in American was about crossing land borders and crossing metaphysical lines in order to give birth to a new postwar Mexican American cultural sensibility. Reading the migrant worker as metaphor, Martinez examines how the concept of el movimiento redeems movement, once forced on the worker, by "reinscribing it with a communal ethic, one that enables rather than inhibits political, communal, and ethical progress within an Americano landscape so long divided by spaces unbreached by its constantly perambulating, yet frozen subjects" (Martinez 315). But Martinez wisely guides us to see that Mexican Americans of the postwar stand as a generation distinct from the Chicano generation that emerged in the middle of the 1960s. The differences between the two emerge from the Chicano nationalism that "exhorted Mexican Americans to seek their past and future in Mexico and Mexican cultural and political tradition," to refute American democracy as a racist Anglo institution, to believe that they had no place within "American" culture (Martinez 191). The Chicano generation insisted that, "the character of the U.S. citizen-subject, both culturally and socially, was fundamentally anticommunal" (Martinez 195). Even in the middle of the twentieth century Americans were contesting the ways to arrive at American identity.


Generational labels, to echo Soto, mask the problems that romantic notions of self-naming actually create. Martinez suggests throughout the second half of Countering that understanding how race works is crucial to understanding the formation of American identity. Soto and Martinez show us what is encoded in the labels we use to name ourselves. Rather than call for the end of these labels, however, they revel in the complexities that literary movements smooth-over with rhetoric. While Michaels wants to escape cultural identity or racial identity, Soto and Martinez show us that race and culture have much yet to explain about Americanness and the politics of American identity. Our desire to identify culturally or racially is, in fact, what "generation" and "renaissance" help us explain. Both authors are smart to retrieve cultural themes such as el movimiento and jazz improvisation, for improvisation and movement show us how concepts that begin in ethnically or racially circumscribed spaces actually help us to overcome romantic notions of identity. Looking long and closely at the labels we use to name our cultural movements, at how Lost-ness or Negro rebirth, Beat individuality or the Mexican American movement is formed, can helps us to generate American identities that fulfill Americano dreams in the language of jazz.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995.

Mailer, Norman. "The White Negro." The Time of Our Time. New York: Random House, 1998.

Martinez, Manuel. Countering the Counterculture. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003.

Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Shelby, Tommie.We Who Are Dark. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.

Soto, Michael. The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth Century American Literature. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2004.


Prof. Walton Muyumba

University of North Texas