“A word on Academies”: the Beat Generation writers on higher education

The Beats and the Academy: A Renegotiation – an essay collection newly published from Clemson University Press –  explores the tensions between Beat writers and the academic institutions in which they studied and taught. In this blog post the volume’s editors Erik Mortenson and Tony Trigilio probe our understanding of the historical tensions between these groups.

In today’s “culture wars” the debate over the function of academia is very much in the public mind.  In order to understand the purpose and direction of higher education, it makes sense to address the entire range of thinking on the university.  We have heard from politicians eager to score points with their constituencies, from parents justifiably concerned with rising prices, from professors lamenting the loss of academic freedom, and from students who both embrace and critique their school’s culture and curriculum.  In our new edited volume, The Beats and the Academy: A Renegotiation, we get to hear from the Beat Generation writers.

This post-war group of poets and novelists were known for their rebellious tendencies, both in their lives as well as in their writing.  The Beats were very much interested in higher education, as the place where both ideas and the forms that convey them receive their widest possible expression.  Exploring how the Beats negotiated with a mutually distrustful academy in their own day, as well as how they are (and are not) amenable to the vagaries of contemporary higher education, can yield important insight into how the university has changed over time and where it might be headed in the future.

The Beat writers’ suspicion of established institutions contributed significantly to their countercultural allure in the 1950s and 1960s. Academia was a favourite target.  As Allen Ginsberg (in)famously declared, “A word on Academies: poetry has been attacked by an ignorant & frightened bunch of bores who don’t understand how it’s made, & the trouble with these creeps is that they wouldn’t know Poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight.”[i]  Their anti-establishment aesthetic and countercultural stance led Beat writers to be critical of the post-war academy.  The academy, in its turn, often responded with derision, labelling the Beats (when they dealt with them at all) as a passing social phenomenon. Even today, Beat writing still meets resistance in an academy that questions the relevance of their writing and ideas.

But this picture, like any generalization, is far too easy. The Beat relationship to the academy is one of negotiation, rather than negation. A large number of Beat writers were in fact educated in the academy, with many earning advanced degrees.  Beat writers strove for academic recognition, and quite a few received it. Despite hostility to their work, Beat texts have made it into syllabi, conference presentations, journal articles, and monographs, and many Beat writers have been feted by the academy, both in the US and abroad. And Beat writers like Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, and Diane di Prima, among many others, went on to develop successful teaching careers.  The Beats and the Academy attempts to deepen our understanding of this relationship by emphasizing how institutional friction between the Beats and the academy has shaped our understanding of Beat Generation literature and culture, and what that might say about the academy’s future.

The Beats’ entry into academia was perhaps inevitable given that they always considered themselves teachers in the broadest sense of the term.  The Beat message of expanded consciousness through a multitude of means, and their desire for social change that would free up possibilities for personal exploration and growth, made their liberatory poetics inherently “teachable.”  Readers are invited to see Beat works not just as literary documents, but as blueprints for action on both the individual and social levels.  It comes as little surprise, then, that many Beats found themselves in classrooms and behind lecterns.  Yet, as the contributors to this volume demonstrate, there is no one Beat pedagogy, and each Beat writer had their own reasons for entering the classroom, from the strictly pecuniary to the wildly utopian, and each had their own style of teaching.  Pedagogical practices were as varied as the Beats themselves.    

Ultimately, the Beats provide a type of stress test on the academy, constantly probing, challenging, and playing devil’s advocate in ways that help demonstrate the limits of the university and what an education really means.  The Beats provided a direct challenge to institutional practices that can still be seen today.  Beat iconoclasm demanded that the classroom experience be opened up to any and all possibilities in a bid to challenge students to rethink their experiences, knowledge, and beliefs.  The result was an all-out assault on received wisdom, and the concomitant idea that every topic, no matter how disturbing or disrupting, was open to debate.  Yet in today’s culture of trigger warnings, the idea that students should be exposed to disquieting ideas in a bid for personal growth and transcendence has itself come under attack.  Of course, the Beats themselves, with their often misogynist and racist beliefs, along with their “big personalities” fond of provocation and instigation, are in many ways partly to blame.  Yet the Beats still have the power to provoke and shock in ways that are teachable, as reports of instructors fired over teaching Ginsberg’s poetry make clear.  Their continued presence in academia allows us to think about institutional parameters and possibilities even today, though care must be taken to nuance and contextualize their critique.  We have conceded that the poetic can be political in part thanks to the Beats, but though their political-poetic challenge could seem confined historically to a postwar framework, it is actually applicable to today’s issues and questions, and thus deserves closer examination of what can and cannot be said in institutional settings. Thus, the Beat desire to challenge is surprisingly still relevant more than a half century later in today’s academy. 

Renegotiating the connection between the Beats and the academy allows for a deeper understanding of this important but unexplored relationship; it also enables us to think about the current state of higher education today, as well as the Beat legacy going forward. It might seem counter-intuitive to align the Beats with institutions of higher education, given the general, shared tendency of Beat writing to subvert existing patterns of institutional thought—especially in academic institutions—that instrumentalize individuals to adapt, rather than re-envision, the systems that undergird contemporary life.  But the Beats raise questions vital to understanding the role of the academy as a preserver of intellectual investigation.  The Beats seek to hold the academy to its own origins as Plato’s gymnasium, a grove of trees outside the city walls dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  But what exactly does this grove look like going forward?  What exactly do we want to happen in our educational systems, and how best can we accomplish these goals?  Is there a certain type of knowledge not accessible through the academy that the Beats make available?  Investigating the Beat relationship to the academy, and the places where this relationship breaks down, can help us to better understand not only how we approach the Beats and their texts, but also the possibilities and pitfalls for the academy itself as we move forward.     

[i]               Allen Ginsberg, “Notes for Howl and Other Poems,” The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 415.

Erik Mortenson is a literary scholar, translator, writer, and English Faculty member at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Michigan. After earning a PhD from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mortenson spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in Germany before journeying to Koç University in Istanbul to help found the English and Comparative Literature Department. Mortenson has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, as well as three books, including Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (2011), Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (2016), and Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey (2018). Mortenson is also an avid translator whose work has appeared in journals such as Asymptote, Talisman, and Two Lines, and he is currently translating the work of Necmi Zekâ for a book-length project. Mortenson’s co-written memoir of his time in Detroit, Kick Out the Bottom, will appear from Cornerstone Press.

Tony Trigilio is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author and editor of fifteen books, including, most recently, Craft: A Memoir (2023) and Proof Something Happened (2021), selected by Susan Howe as the winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. His selected poems, Fuera del Taller del Cosmos, was published in Guatemala in 2018 (translated by Bony Hernández). He is the author of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics (2007) and “Strange Prophecies Anew”: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg (2000). He is editor of Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (2014), and co-editor of Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (2008). He is a founding member of the Beat Studies Association.

The Beats and the Academy is available to order on our website.


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