Teaching beat literature

Teaching Beat Literature

We were lucky to have both Ginsberg and Snyder read here in the past few years. Ginsberg’s reading drew over 1,000 people, and Snyder offered unasked to sit in on my honors course on the Beats, where stunned students found themselves face to face with one of the writers they were reading.
-Steve Wilson, Southwest Texas State University

My interest in Beat Generation courses goes back to when I was an English major, wondering why my university did not teach about what I felt was a valid literary movement whose own auspicious roots, such as Whitman and Blake, were readily covered in literature courses. I felt at the time, as now, that perhaps the Beats were considered too avant-garde to be included in academic study. However, Beat writings such as those by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg have evolved through almost half a century of controversy and growing acceptance to become widely read. These Beats’ cultural and literary icon-hood has been settled. Probably the most-read Beat book, On the Road, by Kerouac, made two 100-top-books lists last year, along with other literary classics. And, forget the pop culture, or mainstream acceptance: the Beat Generation made a deep impression on literature and culture, and has influenced everything from punk rock to later “movements.” The Beats were gems set in the bracelet of other jewels, before and after them. So, why didn’t the academic world teach about these authors, too?

Years after college, having become familiar with today’s Beat thoughts in a few online forums, such as the Subterraneans mailing list and the alt.books.beatgeneration newsgroup–as well as through personal correspondence with friends across the country–I kept seeing the question arise, “I’m going to teach a course about the Beats; how do I organize it?” This brought me back to those college days when I craved taking a good Beat class, and had scoured through reading materials, recordings, and films to come up with a syllabus that I thought would be ideal. And suddenly, it pleased me to no end that the Beats were actually being taught.

With the “how to organize a Beat class” question still in mind, years after my college days, I wrote to English departments around the country, asking whether or not they offered a Beat course, and if so, would they be willing to share their experiences and outlines. What I found was a diverse approach when teaching about the Beats. As with any subject, there is no “right” way to pass on something historical. A creative angle from someone who is well-read and knowledgeable about the subject is necessary, though–as is an interest from students.

Beat Classes

Steve Wilson (who has an article on Kerouac in the Spring 99 issue of Midwest Quarterly), from Southwest Texas State University, hinted of a growing interest in Beat classes. He said that his university first offered a Beat class five years ago. Later they added a summer course, and then an honors seminar. Wilson is now proposing that they also offer a class focusing on Kerouac, available to high-achieving English majors only. He said that the Kerouac class should be added within a year.

Universities that do offer Beat courses acknowledge that organizing such a class depends on the following:

  • Type of course, such as a seminar, credit course, or independent study.
  • Focus of the course, such as on the Beat Generation, only Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and the Beats, etc.
  • Whether the course is introductory or advanced.
  • The instructor’s personal knowledge and approach.
  • The university’s agenda and department’s objectives.
  • Student interests.

Brooke Horvath, from Kent University, explained:

Perhaps the most successful part of the class (a junior-level course) was the push away from critical essays. Assignments included sketching the beginnings of a screenplay for Naked Lunch (no one had seen the movie or Burroughs’ videos: we watched part of the former and a couple of the latter), making collage posters to illustrate visually the world/work of Bob Kaufman, having each student perform for the class (with whatever props and performance style each thought appropriate) poems by various minor beats, and making the final project a “creative” one, something that reflected what they understood to be a beat aesthetic/sensibility: Someone turned in a CD of original songs recorded with her band; someone illustrated Howl in the manner of Blake’s illustrated poems; several turned in poetry or fiction chapbooks, or wrote memoirs of hitchhiking or whatever.

Others relied more heavily on texts, reading, and essays. Rob Latham, of the University of Iowa, was also interested in doing a survey class. He said:

I offered an independent study class on the Beats. It was not a regularly scheduled course: I offered it because a handful of students I knew fairly well said they wanted it. I do plan to teach a regular survey class on the Beats sometime in the next couple of years. Our reading list was geared towards the students’ particular interests, so it is not exactly a survey of the subject.

With so many resources to chose from when coming up with a class agenda, it might be hard to select the “best” materials. Sometimes, it’s a trial-and-error process. Brooke Horvath used lots of handouts and said:

[I] Also used several films and videos (McClure live, Shadows, Pull My Daisy, etc) and sound recordings (Dylan, Lenny Bruce, etc), books on the visual arts (Beat Culture and the New America, for instance), etc. Too much stuff; would drop Di Prima in favor of Cassady memoir (had wanted Joyce Johnson’s, but it came up out of print), and would drop the anthology next time.

Almost always, the Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, is used as introductory material–as well as for the many excerpts, which provide the scholar with an understanding of the Beats and their writings. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, is another favorite class text, since it is one of Kerouac’s most popular works, as well as gives an “overview” of memoirs while Kerouac was on the road with other Beats such as Ginsberg, Cassady, and Burroughs.

Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “America,” and “Kaddish,” are often read, as are Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Junky. Poetry by Ferlinghetti, McClure, Snyder, Corso, Whalen, and others can be offered via handouts and/or the Portable Beat Reader. John Clellon Holmes’s Go and “This is the Beat Generation” are also great for discussion.

Along with these texts, many also focus part of the course on Beat women, being sure to cover Hettie Jones, Diane Di Prima, Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, and many others. While a “Beat Women” section is often separated as a focus, it should be integrated in with the rest of the outline as well.

The Beat environment should be covered as well: most notably the socio-economic, post-war setting; the literary roots that inspired the Beats; the jazz/bebop ties; the Buddhist and other philosophical realms surrounding the Beats; the milestones of published works and poetry readings and other renaissance developments; and what evolved after the fifties, such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the new Beats, and the continuing lives (or impacts of deaths) of the “original” Beats.

From there, many more texts and films and sound recordings should be used. Mike Racine, from the alt.books.beatgeneration newsgroup, suggested some interesting branches, including:

Try to hit on Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. You will find a lot of poetry on the environment. McClure feels in many ways that the Beats started the current environmental movement.

There are so many avenues to take. Regardless of the outline or approach, instructors remarked overwhelmingly that they, and their students, came away with a renewed appreciation of the Beats.

The Students

Those teaching Beat courses want their students to be seriously interested in the subject, not just there for an easy A. For that reason, the subject is offered, at times, as a seminar or an independent study, such as with Latham’s handful of interested students. When offered as a credit course in an English Department, there are guidelines and sometimes prerequisites for taking the class.

James Tanner and James Baird, of the University of North Texas, add an extra incentive in their course objective:
The ultimate goal, then, as it ought to be for every academic encounter, is personal insight and self-discovery. The course should enrich the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives of students and teachers.

Michael Skau, University of Nebraska at Omaha, gave a rather detailed synopsis of his experience with students–and his expectations:

I have set it up so that the course does not satisfy any of the requirements for the English major: this demands that any English majors in the course are there because they really want to study this material, and it also ensures that the course is not dominated by English majors who might intimidate other majors. As a result, my class is filled with students from almost every imaginable major. In fact, my best students have frequently been philosophy and art majors.

The set-up of the course has not eliminated all problems, however. Students sometimes tend to assume that a course titled “Beats and Hippies” will be a “puff” course, and they are disconcerted to discover that I have rigid expectations for the course and high standards for their performance. The course has gained a kind of underground (if possible for a course taught at a university) notoriety, and those who learn of the course by word-of-mouth are usually aware that it is demanding. This helps to weed out slackers.”

Bob Fox, of Southern Illinois University, added that:

Most of the students did quite well and a majority of them rated the course as “excellent” in their evaluations. I was particularly pleased with their essays and even their final exam. A number of them wrote movingly about how they were moved by the material; some even did creative work clearly inspired by the writers we read. All in all, my appreciation for these writers deepens as a result of teaching them, although we do try to subject them to a rigorous (but loving) criticism. At least they took risks with their work–which of course means risking failure, or risking being misunderstood.

Rigid expectations or not, what results from teaching such a course is often a pure delight. Gary Eddy, of Winona State University said:

The student response was extraordinary. Class discussions were a joy. One of the students, a non-trad a few years older than myself, told stories of hitchhiking across the country with five bucks in his pocket, NY to SF, and arriving with 37 bucks that drivers had given him along the way! The response from younger students was also exciting: many of them interviewed their parents on their own responses to Kerouac and their youthful adventures. Big fun. The connection these students found to Kerouac was very instructive and encouraging. The Beat spirit lives on. Even in Minnesota.

The Beat Spirit Does Live On

It’s ironic that universities stick to traditional courses in liberal arts, but are dynamic when educating us in technological fields, such as the sciences. While there’s no harm in still teaching Shakespeare or Chaucer, however, it helps also to recognize recent literary history, its movements, and its impact.

The Beat “movement” was defiant in the least, and some evaluated it as mutinous. While the Beats were not exactly loose cannons, they do retain a reputation of being somewhat seditious. How can one pass on this phenomenon in an academic setting (students might justify skipping class)–and won’t the administration be skeptical about this teaching material?

Steve Wilson tackles the first part of this question, with this statement in his course objectives:

It goes without saying that a course on the Beats–anti-establishment to the core–must challenge our sense of “academics,” but this doesn’t mean we have to rely on shoddy thinking as we confront the issues the Beats present. I still expect scholarly, logical thought–even on the most illogical philosophies. I expect creativity, but with sound foundations. Remember that the Beats, far from being uneducated fools, were some of the most well-read writers and thinkers of their time.

As for opposition to teaching this subject, Elden Kurt Phaneuf, Jr., from SUNY Oswego, noted that there was some initial resistance to a course at his university. Past that stumbling block, his class is popular and doing well these days.
Many professors and instructors are true innovators. Rob Latham is one such person. He excels in the field of postmodern literature and culture. See his Web site at http://www.uiowa.edu/~c008171/robspage/roblath.html. You’ll find such course descriptions as “Seminar in Cultural Studies: Cyborg Culture” and “Narrative and the Cinema: The Road in Postwar Culture.” The inclusion of these types of classes today gives a certain hope. Academic study that reflects recent literary culture, no matter how “underground,” offers an important view about what has shaped us individually and socially.

Beat popularity isn’t just a United States phenomenon. Steve Wilson added in his testimonial that he taught a course on the Beats while he was a Fulbright scholar in Romania. He said that this class was the first of its kind to be offered there, and added:

Reactions to Beat ideas from those who had never even heard of them was wonderful. I particularly remember the Romanian students not understanding all that interest in cars in On the Road!

An article by the New York Times, written in 1997 by Dorren Carjaval, describes how Beat popularity is growing. Publishers note the highest Beat-related sales ever, and new editions of Beat books are constantly being slated. The article states: Kerouac thought it would take about 25 years to regain his popularity, said Amburn, who despaired himself when the writer’s books slowed in sales during the 1960s. “He knew he had a message of enlightenment and freedom for people. Kerouac believed that people needed to be liberated from their anxieties and worries and connect with what he saw as the universal mind.

There’s a reward here, when teaching about the Beats. As Elden Kurt Phaneuf put it:

I’d long dreamed of the chance to teach Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, Bukowski, Baraka, and many of my other literary “idols” in a fecund, energizing setting, and found the culmination of that dream to be extremely satisfying…Arguably the finest moment during the Beat class: a spontaneous group reading of Ginsberg’s “Howl” (I had the good sense to throw John Coltrane’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” disc in the player to provide appropriate musical accompaniment.) To say the moment was liberatory and sublime is a gross understatement.

Yes, it appears that nearly 50 years after the literary explosion of the Beats, they live on.

Syllabus/Resource Links

What follows are links to actual syllabi and outlines being used. This is only a small sampling to provide ideas and direction for those interested in teaching Beat courses. [Note, I was only able to salvage some of these, not all.]

Independent Study Reading List: Beat Literature and Culture. Instructor: Rob Latham, University of Iowa.
Beat Generation course book list. Instructor: Brooke Horvath, Kent State University.
Writers of the Beat Generation. Instructors: Elden Kurt Phaneuf, Jr., and Don Masterson. SUNY Oswego.
The Beat Generation; Mythology: The Beats & Origins of American Myth (two courses–two outlines). Instructor: Steve Wilson. Southwest Texas State University.
Walt Whitman and the Beat Generation: Instructors James Tanner and James Baird, University of Northern Texas.
Figures in Literature: Jack Kerouac. Instructor: Gary Eddy, Winona State University.
Beats and Hippies: Instructor: Michael Skau, University of Nebraska at Omaha (four outlines).
Southern Illinois University: Instructor: Bob Fox.
William Burroughs and The Beat Generation: Instructor: James Liddy, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.


CFP: The Beat Movement and Mexico (6/1/01; PCA, 10/18-21/01)

The Fifth Congress of the Americas is being held at University of the Americas-in Puebla, Mexico, on October 18-20, 2001. The program and panels are both multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary.

This area will explore the Beat Movement and Mexico. Topics might include presentations on particular Beat writers and their works, for example Kerouac or Burroughs with emphasis on cross-cultural analysis; the Beat Movement as represented in media; the drug culture of the Beats; jazz and the Beats, and other Dionysian strains of the movement. The Beats were attracted to Mexico as an alternative culture where Cold War repression was lacking–where drugs were plentiful, and the booze was cheap. In many cases the hallucinogenic elements of Beat Art were identified with the Mexican and Latin cultures.

See the web page at www.udlap.mx/congress for additional information about the congress, the charming city of Puebla, and registration. You may register online. The deadline for submissions is June 1, 2001. Please submit a 150-200 word abstract via email to Deborah Carmichael.

College Literature’s Teaching Beat Literature is out now (Special Issue 27.1 Winter 2000). The book’s numerous essays contemplate the beat aesthetic, academic study of the cultural movement by the Beats, and the idea of teaching the Beats in literature. Each essay is a well-written and fairly in-depth discussion of some aspect of the Beats, including the following: Kerouac’s Poetics of Intimacy, by Ann Douglas; Jack Keruac and the Postmodern Emergence, by Ronna C. Johnson; A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa, by Nancy McCampbell Grace; Undermining Language and Film in the Works of Williiam S. Burroughs, by Douglas G. Baldwin; Intersection Points: Teaching William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, by Timothy S. Murphy; Allen Ginsberg’s Urban Pastoral, by Terence Diggory; Gary Snyder and the Nature of the Nature of Nature, by Robert Kern; Triangulated Desires and Tactical Silences in the Beat Hipscape: Bob Kaufman and Others, by Maria Damon; Chicanismo’s Beat Outrider? The Texts and Contexts of Oscar Zeta Acosta, by A. Robert Lee; Brinkmann, Fauser, Wondratschek and the Beats, by Anthony Waine and Jonathan Wooley; Allen Ginsberg, Simon Vinkenoog, and the Dutch Beat Connection, by Jaap van der Bent; Beating the Academy, by Oliver Harris; and A Compact Guide to Sources for Teaching the Beats, by William Lawlor. Also are two review essays: The Women Who Stayed Home from the Orgy, by Cornel Bonca and The Beat Generation is Now About Everything, by Regina Weinreich. For more information, write to collit@wcupa.edu.

American Authors Seminar: Whitman and Ginsberg. Professor: Tony Trigilio, Columbia College, Chicago. Spring semester syllabus.

Horst F. Spandler’s Beat Literature Site. Horst taught beat literature at the University of Augsburg (in southern Germany) in 1994. Currently he teaches in a school similar to our high school, and read On the Road with his students. Click here for more on Horst’s teaching agenda and materials used.

Because the beat classes article went over well, and people have written in wanting more resources about teaching the beats, I added this link, which will grow in time, to guide you to online resources that you might find helpful when teaching about the beats–as well as literature in general.

Beat writings are not just rebellious statements about the times; beat fiction and poetry also reflect academic learning and ideas on prosody, technique, and style. The beats’ style was labeled a “new vision” as the beats were trying to define their non-mainstream authorship in the 40s and 50s. The beats eventually became a major movement in our literary history. Steve Wilson said that his graduate course on the beats (for Spring/2000), at Southwest Texas State University, filled up within 45 minutes of registration!

Credits and Acknowledgments

  • James Baird and James Tanner at the University of Northern Texas
  • Daniel Barth, writer and beat scholar
  • Gary Eddy at Winona State University
  • Bob Fox at Southern Illinois University
  • Brooke Horvath at Kent State University
  • Rob Latham at the University of Iowa
  • James Liddy (also Michael Noonan and Laura Chambers) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Elden Kurt Phaneuf, Jr., and Don Masterson at SUNY Oswego
  • Mike Racine, Naropa Institute student and jazz festival producer
  • Michael Skau at the University of Nebraska-Omaha
  • Phil Wedge at the University of Kansas
  • Steve Wilson at Southwest Texas State University

These professors and instructors have generously offered their course outlines and syllabi as well as their experiences when teaching Beat courses. I thank you all for contributing to this article. I am sure that I’m not alone in applauding your teaching efforts of a subject that has proven to be a great movement in our literary culture. Thanks also to the students who helped steer me in the right direction.

4 thoughts on “Teaching beat literature

  1. Would like to be posted on tips for teaching the Beats in the 21st Century. This inccludes course syllabi, tests, bibliographies: the works!

  2. Interested in examining published literature on Beat Generation from a Criminal Justice Perspective.

  3. I am teaching an 8-week high school senior elective course on the Beat Generation and would appreciate any materials pertinent to the study of On the Road and poetry found in the Portable Beat Reader, particularly lesson materials, reading quizzes,discussion and essay questions on OTR,course outline, etc. Really, any ideas and materials would be welcome.

    Thank you!

  4. Hi Robyn,

    The article above was written about a decade ago but probably contains relevant tips on teaching such a course. Unfortunately, we do not have any lesson materials on this site.

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