“Butler has no balls,” scrawled a young Allen Ginsberg in the dust of his Hartley dorm room. He wasn’t referring to Butler Library, but instead to then-University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler indeed had no balls, or perhaps oversized ones: He silenced opponents of World War II—among them renowned scholars John Dewey and Charles Beard, who went on to found the New School in protest—, established Casa Italiana out of his adoration for Il Duce and fascism, and founded the Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn in an attempt to channel Jews away from Columbia. Maybe it is fitting that Columbia’s hub of misery and despair is named after him, after all.
Ginsberg’s grime-scratched slight at authority was his first brush with censorship. The incident led to his suspension and ultimate departure from Columbia and it certainly demonstrated the deep-seated roots of his irreverence. Most people here may only think about Allen Ginsberg now in the context of Daniel Radcliffe shooting a movie on College Walk, but he represented one of the most interesting phases of Columbian and American history: the Beat Generation.
The Beat movement was born out of the ashes of conformity, and it was born at Columbia. In an absurdly impressive collection of intellect, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti all enrolled at Columbia at the same time during the mid-1940s. Ginsberg and Kerouac were friends with William Burroughs, who also lived in Morningside Heights.
In Riverside Park, right at 115th Street, their friend Lucien Carr killed his stalker David Kammerer before throwing his weighted body into the Hudson River and asking Kerouac for advice. Both were later arrested. At West End, now criminally usurped by Havana Central, they would all sit, drink, and smoke, wishing they were at a bar in Greenwich Village instead. In 305 Hamilton Hall, Ginsberg would seek the advice of Lionel Trilling. He would later dedicate his poetry reading to Trilling in Miller Theatre, then known as McMillan Theater, during his triumphant 1959 return as a celebrated writer. After that reading, Trilling’s wife Diana wrote a book review for the Partisan Review that promoted their image as unholy barbarians.
They were normal college kids, just like us. We now elevate them to literary icon status, but they were no different than any student who has walked through Columbia’s gates. They just achieved different ends. Within a few years of leaving Columbia, each ascended to celebrity and acclaim: Kerouac met Neal Cassady and went on the road, Burroughs thought he was William Tell and then wrote “Naked Lunch,” Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s “Howl.” They became the voices of their generation, lifting a strangled collective rebellious consciousness out of the conformity of post-WWII America. They challenged censorship, anti-drug culture, ennui, and literature itself.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Ginsberg challenged his generation because he saw a stagnant, unrealized herd of sheep. He wrote “Howl” about those who broke free from convention. What would Ginsberg say about our generation? Have the youth progressed since Ginsberg wrote about them, or have they regressed? He wrote at a time when his more straight-laced peers were seeking jobs on Madison Avenue with Don Draper. Today they are flocking to Wall Street or Midtown with John Thain. Every generation will have those who choose conformity, who seek to earn money rather than challenge the existing norms of society. The United States in which the Beats came of age was shackled by the cookie-cutter uniformity of the ’50s, and the Beats challenged this through writing, music, poetry, and drugs. The United States that we live in is shackled by a Huxley-esque docility caused by mass-produced media, social networking, and hedonism. How do we challenge this?
Our America is an oversaturated one where words hold less meaning and protest is diluted by every other Kony status update on our news feed. Everybody has something to say, and everybody has an audience through Twitter and Tumblr. We no longer put any effort into challenging the norms as every youth generation did before us, but only seem to do so in a cursory, 140-character, emoticon-filled fashion. Everybody sees print journalism as a dying art, and our attention spans are too short to concentrate on books anymore. Those who would otherwise be throwing down the gauntlet are instead trapped on Reddit, furiously typing their manifestos in comment boards under anonymous usernames like VladimirPoutine. We have been too numbed by passivity and cynicism from the immense amount of information available to us, too often filtered to only include the mindless. We have no Ginsberg nor Kerouac, no Hunter S. Thompson nor Kurt Vonnegut nor Norman Mailer nor Tom Wolfe. David Foster Wallace is dead. We have no great social critics, satirists, or polemicists, save for maybe Jon Stewart. We have no voice.
Outside of our comfortable little bubble in Morningside Heights, intellectualism, free thought, and rationality are spurned in this country. I see none of my peers eager to stand up to this truth. The best minds of our generation are not destroyed by madness. They are destroyed by McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and apathy. We settle more and more for the conventional track, for the safe track, without really challenging why. If ever a generation needed a Ginsberg or a Kerouac, it’s ours.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in political science and Latin American studies. He sits on Spectator’s editorial board. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Mondays.