Beats Then and Now: The Reception of Beat Generation Literature
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The Cold War 1950s America experienced a radical shift of gears after the WWII of the 1940s and the economic crisis of the 1930s; the sudden boom of prosperity began the long-sought call towards normalcy. However, not everyone was content with the current state of affairs and out of this discontent came the group of authors that became known as the Beat Generation. Their work was lauded by some for its new aesthetics and its defiance of taboos such as drug use and homosexuality, yet it was criticized for the same reasons by even more people. While many commentators considered the Beat Generation to be a short-lived fad, the opposite is true: new editions of their texts are being constantly released, university courses on the Beats are being offered; in short, the Beats have made their way into the canon that they once so opposed. This thesis documents the reception of the Beat Generation literature in two different time periods, 1950s/1960s and 1990s/2000s, respectively. Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” and Stuart Hall’s reception theory are employed in order to examine the different views of the Beat generation within and between the two chosen time periods. The research concludes that the majority of the responses to the Beats—both popular and academic—are extremely politicized in the first examined period. These criticisms focus on the political and social undertones of the texts, often reflecting the reviewer’s stance toward what is deemed appropriate and what is not. Critiquing the Beats for their moral failures is for many a valid way of responding to the text. This approach was further emphasized by the overblown image of the Beats that was spread by the popular media and the concern of some of the critics about the contemporary youth; campaigning against the Beats then became a struggle to save the “American way.” On the contrary, the vast majority of current reviews laud the Beats as important writers of the twentieth century and as the necessary precursors to the civil rights movements of the sixties.
William S. Burroughs
Zita, Antonin (2014). Beats Then and Now: The Reception of Beat Generation Literature. Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from