Sunday, March 20, 2005

Memoirs, Myth, and Homosexuality

Yesterday, I attended a conference at the Radcliffe Institute called Feminism on the Record: ReViewing the 1960s and 1970s. The conference was held to celebrate recent records made accessible at the Schlesinger Library with NEH funds, including those of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. I really enjoyed the keynote lecture by Winifred (Wini) Breines of Northeastern University, so what a surprise it was to return to my project tonight and find that she is the author of a relevant essay: “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls.” That one’s in an anthology called Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, which I now have on hold at the Simmons library.

Brienes noted at the conference that there is a stark contrast between the heroic memoirs that have come out of such groups as SDS and the Weather Underground and those by individual women who were involved in the women’s liberation/feminist movement of the 1960s that are riddled with “blame and disappointment.” Her comment segues nicely with things I have been thinking about the bibliographic history of Beat men versus Beat women. On the one hand, we have the thinly veiled memoir of Jack Kerouac in On the Road with its trumped up version of masculinity and, on the other, we have these women’s memoirs that attempt to deconstruct and de-mythologize the Beat era. There is nothing heroic about being a “minor character.” I’ve come to the realization that one really can’t study the femininity and domesticity of the Beat women without studying the masculinity of the Beat men. The major thing missing from the literature by and about Beat women – in at least what I’ve read so far – is a discussion of the homosexuality of many of the Beat men (William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg). I mean, what were all these men running from, after all? It wasn’t just the confines of postwar American culture. For this reason, I now have sitting on my bedside table Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men : American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, which includes a chapter entitled “The Beat Rebellion: Beyond Work and Marriage.” I’m holding out hope that Ehrenreich will answer some of my questions about the conflict many Beat men experienced between their real and fictional selves, and how this played out in their treatment of women.

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