The Beats, Morality and Literary Merit

With the surging influences of media and communication technology, the exposed personal life of an artist can often affect the reception and fate of his/her work itself. Sexual allegations against Kevin Spacey prompted Netflix to shut down his show ‘House of Cards’. Similar accusations against political writer Mark Halperin also caused Penguin Press to scrap his and John Heilenmann’s book on the 2016 presidential election. And on the flip side, a positive image of the artist can also become a major factor in their success.

This raises again the age old question. How do we define the relationship between a writer’s personal life, morality, image and his/her actual work? Should the literary merit of an author’s work be affected by the same? In an era where the line between writers and their works has become blurred, it has become necessary to attempt to clearly define the boundaries in this relationship.

The Beat Generation

In the 1950’s, a new collective consciousness was forming in America, particularly among its youth. Students began questioning the materialism of their society and re evaluating the structures on which it was forming. Around that time, a cultural and literary movement- The Beat Generation, was founded by a small group of friends. It was the product of the post war society wishing to rebel against the absurdness in the seemingly meaningless world.

The core writers of the group were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, their most famous works being On The Road, Howl and Other Poems and Naked Lunch respectively. As if reflecting their lifestyles, their writing portrayed an immense amount of sex, drugs and reflected hedonistic lifestyles. They also challenged sexual repression and homophobic sentiments. Evidently, there is a knot that ties their lives to their literature.


 Literature and Morality

When the personal lives of the writers takes on as crucial a role as this, the question of their morality seems to become an important one to assess. Their behavior would reflect upon their values, and personal values can have a way of trickling down into a person’s writing. Literature is often considered a mirror that reflect human values. It has the power to affect and alter people’s perceptions and thinking. Some go as far as to suggest that it should, or at least often does, become a guidance of sorts for human living. And as such, the morality of a certain piece of literature is brought into question far too often. The principle of censorship is based on this fundamental view.

The Beat Generation scorned the concept of morality in both their lives and works. According to the ‘New Vision‘ proposed by Lucien Carr- a member of the Beat Generation, art eludes conventional morality. Here we tie back to the questions questions proposed in the beginning: Does the morality of the author affect the literary merit of their work? Can we credit literature that either portrays or takes on the form of violation of some moral rule?

Morality is a vast and highly subjective spectrum, comprising a range of matters such as adultery or theft. To explore the issue, I will focus on an extreme position in the spectrum. Some matters are universally and unequivocally severe and unacceptable, for example- murder. The act of murder interferes with the fundamental principle of humanity.

In 1961, William S. Burroughs got drunk and shot his wife. Later in his life, he said that the event had elevated his creativity, overcome as he was by his unbearable guilt. This can be seen in his novel Naked Lunch: there are many parallels between the plot and the murder case in his real life.

Naked Lunch has been credited for its break-through in structure. The novel does not follow a precise sequence. In other words, the flow of the story is not arranged chapter by chapter. However, giving applause to his work could possibly feel immoral as it would imply a sense of approval towards a murderer.

Literary Merit vs Writer’s Morality

In my opinion, literature should be separate from its writer. In deeming a work’s literary merit, we must merely analyze its aesthetic values. Other than the author’s background, which might contribute to the plot, it is an entity that needs to be perceived differently from its creator. Crediting the value of the work does not represent the crediting of the author. Let me put this way: the value of literature solely lies in the literature itself.

Being a good writer does not mean having a kind and selfless soul. There is no connection between the two. The ability to create art is not depended on or tied in any way to the writer’s morals. Good literature is shaped by factors like writing style, innovative ideas and structure. Moreover, the concept of morality is complex as well. In many cases, it is not black and white. One could steal a couple of apples while donating oranges to the poor.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Naked Lunch both faced obscenity trials when they were first published. The court ruled in their favor in both cases. If any redeeming merit, whether social or artistic is found in the text, it cannot be banned. To this day, however, there is still resistance to a lot of Beat literature. Differing moral sensibilities react differently to it. But who decides what is or is not moral enough? The very fact that this ‘obscene and immoral’ literature is what paved the way for freedom of expression in America shows that the value of literature lies in itself and shouldn’t be dependent on any other factors. Questions of the writer’s morality should thus be kept separate while determining a work’s literary value.

By Koo Hui Ru


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Everything You Need to Know About The Beat Generation