A Critique of a Critique? (On Morris Dickstein’s “Beyond Beat”, 1998 )

Cover of Amburn's biography (Source: amazon.com)

Cover of Amburn’s biography
(Source: amazon.com)

In 1998, Ellis Amburn published a biographical work on Jack Kerouac–Subterranean Kerouac– which incorporated many of the interviews and exchanges that they had. Shortly after its publication, Morris Dickstein of The New York Times Book Review published a fairly charged review of the text.  While I did not read the biography, I did read the subsequent response. Critics’ reactions and reception of texts say as much about the critic as they do about the book. What interested me about Dickstein’s review was his criticism of Amburn’s “over-emphasis” of Kerouac’s biases and prejudices. Not much weight is attributed to the beats’ racism and misogyny; we tend to separate these things from their literary accomplishments (often when we find ourselves unable to separate them from their characters.)

Academia acknowledges that we don’t read texts in vacuum; an understanding which has certainly been emphasized in my own academic environment. One of the reasons we continue to read literature from centuries past is the relevancy that those same works bear today. Our understanding of the world has developed extensively since the publication of many revered literary works–The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, Othello, Death of A Salesman, ect–and scholars have credibly analyzed these “old-world” works from a contemporary standpoint. We are encouraged to do so; driven to find new insight in that which has had its syntax gutted for the sake of psychology countless time. And yet, according to Dickstein, Amburn’s representation of Kerouac’s racism, sexual confusion, and misogyny is written “…with the privilege of hindsight, constantly lecturing him from the high ground of a tolerant morality the Beats helped create.”

This followed Dickstein’s assertion that Amburn’s “two-minds” about Kerouac suggest poor scholarship; that Amburn’s depictions of Kerouac’s genius literary innovation and the beats’ liberation

A young Jack Kerouac (Source: theglobeandmail.com)

A young Jack Kerouac
(Source: theglobeandmail.com)

from structuralism should circumscribe him from presenting valid views on Kerouac’s vices and prejudices, as if praise and criticism cannot coexist due to their inconsistency of perspective. In present context, it would be a stretch of the imagination to say that the beats founded a “tolerant morality” (we know that white  people using other people’s cultures in order to piss off other white people isn’t really basis for “morality”…) but what is also particularly troublesome about Dickstein’s criticism is his need to only be of one-mind. From an academic perspective, this is regressive because it limits us to only addressing one side of something, when we develop scholarship by expanding our knowledge of things; by picking underrepresented aspects which have existed in tandem with those that have been thoroughly studied, and bringing them to attention in order to encourage more complete understanding.

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