Gene Feldman & Max Gartenberg, editors,
The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men
(Stark House, 2015)

In 1959, the Beat Generation was still primarily a literary movement, but it was poised to leap into the full culture. Publication of On the Road, Howl (with its obscenity trial), John Clellon Holmes' novel Go and William Burroughs' pseudononymous Junkie all drew media attention, and before the year was out the beats would become media sensations whose notoriety could lead to the hippies of the '60s and the final collapse of the conformity and lock-step marching to suburbia of the Eisenhower years.

England had its corresponding movement, the Angry Young Men, which mostly fought the restrictions of the British class system and produced quite a diverse and strong body of literature itself.

Educational filmmaker Gene Feldman and literary agent Max Gartenberg saw a need for a book documenting these related movements and put together The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men, which was originally published by Citadel Press in 1959 and has been finally, after a long time out of print, been brought back by Stark House.

I read the book in 1959 and can't tell you what power it had, how hard it hit a directionless kid trapped in the deep South who had never been anywhere and had nowhere to go. Reading it was one of those freeing moments when you can finally say, "I'm not alone. There are other people like me in the world, people who are trying to find a reason, to figure out the reasons, if there are any, and fighting not to be overwhelmed by the vast emptiness that is American life at this moment."

It was truly a book that changed a life. I had been looking at the life that this small Georgia town had laid out for all of us: a job in the paper plant, a meaningless marriage that would take place too early, and the acquisition of things, things that would take my mind off of how miserable I was. The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men showed me that it didn't have to be that way, that even though custom and tradition demanded it, there was no reason why I had to spend my life in that place, doing those things. It told me I could search and laid out a template for that search.

It also showed me life could be fun -- free and wild and exciting.

Now, having read the book again, I see that it holds up; the original excitement and power and insights are all still there and it serves as a vivid reminder that there was a hell of a lot more to the beat generation than Life Magazine ever showed us.

What's in the book? Well, the requisite chapter from On the Road is there, but so is a long chapter from the never anthologized The Town & the City, Kerouac's largely ignored first novel. The complete Howl is there, and a chapter from John Clellon Holmes major work, Go, widely viewed as the first beat novel, since it is about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the rest of them. Burroughs makes the scene with a section from Junkie, which was published under the byline William Lee.

All of these are standard works, and if no other titles but those represented Americans, then we'd have a much more standard anthology. The editors, though, also give us short stories from such underrepresented writers as Anatole Broyard, R.V. Cassill and Chandler Brossard.

The British section offers a lot of fine work but with a slightly different emphasis. While the American beats have dropped out of the larger society, seeing nothing of value in it, the British have never been welcomed into it, given that they are working-class victims of the snobbery of the British class system; these are men fighting their way in, lamenting that they have been frozen out.

We have sections from John Braine's Room at the Top, about a working-class man trying to rise in business and life by using the underhanded methods that are the only ones open to him, and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, about a university professor who fights back against the establishment by adopting eccentricities.

Just as the American section has essays exploring the ideas that characterize the beat movement, the British features nonfiction also, notably Kingsley Amis again on socialism and the opening chapter of Colin Wilson's paradigm-changing work, The Outsider.

This book was my introduction to The Outsider, a book I have returned to for most of my adult life.

As I said, The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men is a book that will change lives. You might think that a book about the beats has got to be a nostalgia trip but a reading of this one will change your mind. The ideas these people struggled with still strangle up our minds today and here you'll find a good discussion of the ideas, in narrative and exposition. The essays will clarify, the stories will dramatize and you'll be a different person after the experience.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

16 January 2016

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