After World War II, Americans became very concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses.” Everyday people were not only interested in fulfilling the American Dream because of the optimistic post-war environment, but also because of the economic emphasis on advertising that found a new outlet daily in highway billboards, radio programs, and that popular new device, the television. With television advertising becoming the new way to show Americans what they did not (and should) have came a wide-eyed and fascinated interest in owning all kinds of things, products, and devices suddenly necessary in every home. One could not only hear about new necessary items, but see them as well. Meanwhile, marketplaces and small shops were being dismantled to create the supermarket, a temple of consumerism where any passerby may walk in and purchase almost anything he or she desires without a thought of their neighbor, who runs the suffering little fruit stand around the corner. The literary rebellion of the 1960’s was concerned, in part, with the desire to break down this growing consumer culture.
Not everyone was so easily lulled by the singsong mottoes and jingles of television advertising and the call of the national supermarket. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac began struggling, in writing, against the oppression of having. As Buddhists, these writers saw the growing desire to fill whims and wants with items easily purchased as harmful to the ability to transcend suffering (instead of eliminating it). Combining the strategies of Asian Buddhist monks with American transcendentalist theory provided by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emer…
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…e when the rest of the nation was blindly enjoying their television programs and the convenience of the supermarket, these writers made strong statements warning against the love of things. During the 50’s and 60’s, many middle- and upper-class Americans had worked hard to afford conveniences, but Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Roth would say that it is not enough to “deserve” your participation in the consumerist culture. Rather, they would say the consumerist culture, by nature, is mentally and culturally enslaving and to be avoided when possible for the sake of the integrity of the individual spirit.
Allen, Donald (ed.). The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Berkeley, CA: U. of California P. 1960.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books. 1958.
Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. New York: Modern Library. 1959.
Kesey and Plath: A New American Myth
Kesey and Plath: A New American Myth
A mutual friend sets up Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath on a blind date. They meet in a Boston restaurant and discover they’re both writers. Describe the ensuing conversation.
Sept. 3, 1955 (from Sylvia’s diary)
It must have been some terrible mistake. Mother set me up with a certain Ken Kesey, a friend of a friend of the family. Terrible! We met at a restaurant on Harvard Square and it went downhill from there. I came home alright, but barely. I guess I can start from the beginning… Ken is large and very open with his body and gestures. He’s from California, which could explain that. He dressed very casually and he had a crazy look in his eyes when he saw me. I don’t know if he was happy to be there either. Apparently he goes to Stanford and is studying creative writing. I asked him about his writing and he started a whole speech on psychiatric wards and medications. I didn’t want to hear a word about psychiatric wards, but he certainly got my interest.
He volunteers to do experiments for money. I can’t imagine going through what I went through voluntarily… I did venture to ask him why he was writing about hospitals and he looked very closely at me and said, “You’ve been there. I know.” And he did. He was seeing inside me, all the way inside, and it was the most uncomfortable silence I’ve ever had. I mumbled an accusation and as soon as it came out, I knew my mother hadn’t told him about all that. Dinner went alright, barring the conversation about hospitals. We walked around the square and by the river for awhile and then he invited me to his hotel room and I said no, but I really wanted to leave with him. I’ve been so bottled up for days… I wanted to do something different. We sat down facing Cambridge and he looked at me again, intently and laughed…
“It’s all black, isn’t it? Then everything shuts down.” Ken looked off toward the river. He started to laugh again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sylvia put her knees closer together. Uncomfortable.
“When they throw the switch. When it all shakes and then you black out. Then you can’t think for days.