The hipster wisdom about America in the 1950s held that the entire war-weary nation was at political and spiritual rest, straitjacketed by conformity and loath to utter a peep of protest -- not even when Joe McCarthy went hunting for communists from the bowels of Hollywood to the feed stores of Iowa. The only voices in the wilderness worth heeding, this worldview holds, belonged to Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. In this scheme of things, On the Road outranks The Adventures of Augie March or the poems of Robert Lowell, and Howl makes more revolutionary music than Elvis Presley or Charlie Parker. Unappreciated in the slumbering America of their prime, the story goes, the Beats were long overdue for the romantic revival and the major martyrdom they're currently enjoying.
In his valentine to Kerouac and company, The Source, documentarian Chuck Workman pursues this line of mythomania with uncommon fervor. He's a bit misleading. It's certainly appropriate to give the incendiary Naked Lunch or the free-spirited, uncommonly witty poems of Gregory Corso their due, but the wave of nostalgia sweeping over the Beat Generation in the 1990s has all but inundated the facts. If Kerouac and his pals were the original American dissenters, as Workman and others seem to claim, where does that leave George Washington and his pals, Emerson and Thoreau, or the leftists of the 1930s? If, as The Source claims, hippies, '60s war protesters, and new-agers sprang directly from the Beats ("They looked on us as elders of the tribe," poet Philip Whalen avers), what about their influences? Allen Ginsberg didn't invent Buddhism, and when Burroughs started talking about automatic writing or "the systematic derangement of the senses" through drug use, he was borrowing from both Rimbaud and the Surrealists. Jack Kerouac may have hit the road with liberation on his mind and rebellion in his heart, but he wasn't the first young man to go west fueled by individualist dreaming.
As for Saint Jack's actual writing, is it really better (or more outspoken) than that of such notably non-Beat '50s practitioners as Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, or Tennessee Williams? Who will endure -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Arthur Miller?
Aesthetic considerations aside, it doesn't hurt to ask what effects the Beats will continue to have if the romantic mythology espoused by The Source and other books and movies about them is even partly true. In Workman's parade of talking heads, you find Kerouac telling TV host Steve Allen how he wrote On the Road in three weeks, and you can't help speculating on the number of young authors who will now set out to write their masterpieces in three weeks. You see Norman Mailer, who shares with the Beats a penchant for self-dramatization, weighing in on the early impact of Ginsberg's Howl, and you can't help wondering about the demise of Norman Mailer. In support of his fathers-of-us-all thesis, Workman disinters proto-hippie Ed Sanders, late of the Fugs; Merry Prankster Ken Kesey; and a dozen lesser lights of the Beat movement. He also splices in the godfather of LSD, the late Timothy Leary, who lets fly with a belief that no self-respecting poet, good or bad, would be likely to embrace: "In the future," Leary tells us, "it will not be what book you read but what chemical you take, to open your mind." Just don't let your publisher know.
The Source gives us old footage of Ginsberg (thumbing through a scrapbook, declaiming, wandering Times Square), Burroughs ("My whole life has been resistance to the ugly spirit," he tells us), and Kerouac (playing hipster, making funny faces), but all three are now dead, and Workman sees fit to dramatize them anew: That's John Turturro yelling, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in a dark schoolyard. Underneath the hat, that's Johnny Depp as Kerouac, and the desiccated, furrowed-brow guy is Dennis Hopper as Burroughs, talking about how he tried to William Tell the apple off his wife's head that time, but wound up shooting a little low. Thus does Hollywood once more intrude on cinema verité.
As for Neal Cassady, the patron saint of the Beats, and his fictional counterpart, Dean Moriarty, The Source dusts off their bios, too, en route to insisting, more or less, that, if Kerouac had never devoted a month to Dharma Bums or drunk red wine straight out of the jug in San Francisco, then the civil rights movement, the granola boom in rural Vermont, and the gold records of Bob Dylan would never have come to pass. That's an enormous conceit, blind to history.