Sunday, September 30, 2018


Sheila Murnaghan, Ralph Mark Rosen (ed.), Hip Sublime: Beat Writers and the Classical Tradition. Classical memories/modern identities. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 292. ISBN 9780814213551. $79.95.

Reviewed by Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Trinity University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Sheila Murnaghan and Ralph M. Rosen have assembled a fascinating volume. In this review I hope not to repeat the volume's own very useful introduction (by Murnaghan and Rosen alongside noted Shakespearean Stephen Dickey), nor its thought-provoking afterword (from leading Beat scholars Nancy M. Grace and Jennie Skerl), but to suggest something of how the volume succeeds in drawing attention to a previously unstudied and profoundly influential area in classical receptions. As those co-authorships may suggest, a central part of the volume's strength lies in its conscientious incorporation of diverse approaches, echoing what the chapters show is the Beats' own conscious—and widely varied—use of classical materials and ancient themes. Generally avoiding one of the potential pitfalls of classical-reception studies, overall the chapters do not limit themselves to formal or thematic comparisons, instead incorporating discussion of documentary and paratextual materials. The result is a terrific set of studies that I believe should be of interest to readers across disciplinary boundaries, including 'general readers' for whom the Beats are beloved figures.

In the context of an American public culture that pays little attention to poetry, the Beats stand out, simultaneously recognizable or even mythic and, as the editors point out and aim to help correct, at risk of misunderstanding due to mythologization, starting with prominent Beats' knowing fictionalizations of their lives. Taken as representatives of counterculture, they have been the subject of cultural mythologies indeed, in some cases the sources of alternatives to mainstream institutions (e.g., schools, publishing houses), more generally the centers of cults of personality, and even the objects of what could be called hero-worship.1 Thus, for example, films and television shows can deploy 'love of Beat poetry'—e.g., a character reading Charles Bukowski for the first time and declaring him "a god" (in the film Beautiful Creatures)—as a sort of shorthand to emphasize a character's own countercultural status, rebellious nature, or even simply adolescence.

Perhaps surprisingly, that appearance of Beat icons in popular culture may be paralleled by a similar appearance of classical materials as symbols in another field. When the volume's introduction refers to a certain Beat author as "start[ing] to treat the classical past as something more than a repository of fragmentary allusion" (4), I hear an echo of Brett M. Rogers' and my suggestion about how ancient classics may function in a contemporaneous area, science fiction—namely, as "reliably esoteric, public-domain material for popular cultural ironization".2 So there is a possible parallel in the mode of classical reception, and a similar need for correcting popular as well as scholarly misunderstanding of the subject-matter. Thus a principle aim of Murnaghan's and Rosen's volume is to help "counter prevailing misconceptions about the Beats through a fuller and more nuanced account of the movement" (2). This includes emphasizing the fact that the various authors considered 'Beats' "hardly constitute a group with a monolithic aesthetic or literary agenda" (1) but have been the subjects of a "literary-historical narrative constructed around the most widely recognized" authors that "has been … misleadingly one-dimensional, and often more concerned with the glamorously self-destructive features of their lives than with analysis of their work" (2).

In general, then, the volume adds to ongoing reappraisal of the Beats "as practitioners of a disciplined craft in dialogue with past traditions" (3). Their classical receptions cover a wide range, from overt dismissal (e.g., Abbie Hoffman's "sweeping denunciation of canonical figures" including "ancient tragedians", 3) through arguable thematic echoes (e.g., stories of journeys, like Jack Kerouac's On the Road, that may be "reminiscent of Greek and Roman epics", 42) to explicit invocation including sustained engagement over whole bodies of work (e.g., Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Sailing thru the straits of Demos" is a seemingly isolated reference, while Gregory Corso is described as "probably the most frequent and explicit of all the Beats in his references to classical lore", 4 [somewhat oddly, then, Corso is not the subject of a chapter]). As such examples show and as the volume's chapters emphasize, the Beats' classical receptions are frequently conscious. Thus most of the volume's readings go beyond formal or thematic comparison, incorporating historical evidence to "make clear how thoroughly the Beats absorbed the Classics" (7) with an awareness of how "a usable classical past" can "only be grasped through a series of precedent acts of allusion and response that chart a course back through other vernacular transformations" (9).

In other words, the volume overall stands as an excellent example of rigor and adventure in classical-reception studies, opening up a previously unexplored area of clear importance and suggesting some of the ways in which it might be studied further. One starting point, well emphasized in the volume, is the Beats' own awareness of 'mythic' precedent and model: "the ability of Western poets to recognize 'a precision of lineage'" (Grace and Skerl, 271, after Diane di Prima) including "the persistent relevance of the Greco- Roman legacies" (274). Particularly interesting is inspiration drawn from Dorothy Van Ghent's influential 1959 suggestion, contemporaneous with the first appearance and self-definition of the Beats, that the Beats "have a myth" that "follows authentic archaic lines," focused on a "hero" in the form of an "angelheaded hipster" who undergoes "heroic 'ordeals' of myth" (quoted by Dickey, 15-16; cf. 10). By seeking to understand such mythmaking in context of classical receptions, the essays do what Grace and Skerl suggest, collectively taking "a crucial first step toward situating Beat artists and aesthetics within a rich literary tradition" (276).

The result is a volume that should be of interest to readers across disciplinary boundaries, including not only Classicists interested in reception studies as well as scholars of the Beats, but also more general readers for whom the Beats are beloved figures. The essays cover many of the most prominent modern figures and works as well as some lesser-known authors and materials; likewise, the range of classical texts and themes involved is wide. In what follows, I note only some of the volume's interesting subjects and outstanding examples, in the hope that this helps invite readers to consider the essays for themselves.

Several chapters focus on versions of classical 'heroic journeys' as per Van Ghent's identification of the Beats' self-definition in ancient mythic terms. Thus, e.g., Dickey considers how works like Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "A Supermarket in California", and Kerouac's Orpheus Emerged and The Subterraneans, rewrite classical underworld journeys or katabaseis; that they do so consciously is evident, e.g., in the way "Howl" structures its image of America on Dantean lines, or "Supermarket" engages with Walt Whitman's own conscious rewriting of tradition. In a similar way, Christopher Gair argues that another of Kerouac's works, Doctor Sax, is able to evoke Xenophon's famous "Thalatta, Thalatta!", "the sea, the sea!", via a prior classical reception, Joyce's Ulysses. Gair is then able to trace a development in Kerouac's sea-imagery over time in a way that intriguingly parallels the much larger historical transition from classical to modernist and beyond.

Other chapters usefully emphasize how Western-classical themes like the 'hero's journey' are, for many Beats, only one strand in a complex tapestry of cultural traditions. One example is Diane di Prima's Loba, which like some other Beat works seeks to combine classical, Greco-Roman material with materials from a wide range of cultural traditions. As Nancy Grace and Tony Trigilio argue, in di Prima's case this results in an epic story rewritten so as to "restage female identity as subject rather than object through an emphasis on the female body thriving in its outsider relationship to masculinized religious cultures" (229). Although di Prima is the only modern female author the volume treats at length, a connection between female authorship and multicultural traditions is found elsewhere. Thus, e.g., Skerl argues that in Ed Sanders's Tales of Beatnik Glory, Sappho is "a supernatural being … constructed from several spiritual traditions": if this is "consistent with the eclectic spirituality of the Lower East Side" at the time, it has classical- traditional roots as well, with Sappho playing Virgil to a character's Dante and also serving as his Muse (149).

Of course other Beat authors, too—perhaps 'the Beats' in general—are interested in using classical figures, among others, to help frame their own performance of 'outsider' status in American culture. Thus, e.g., three chapters examine how Catullus, a self- consciously rebellious poet in his own time, figures in certain Beats' formulations of countercultural modes: Marguerite Johnson offers a vivid analysis of how Bukowski casts Catullus as "the object of ridicule and attack but also affection and admiration" (98), so as to perform a kind of "protest masculinity" in which "his machismo ironically demonstrates a lack of power" (111); Nick Selby suggests that Robert Creeley's use of Catullus helps connect Creeley's "poetics of adultery" to "a broader … negotiation with Beat aesthetics" (117), a negotiation whose status as 'poethical wager' (132, after Joan Retallack) recalls how some of Catullus's own most aggressively interpersonal poems also make metapoetic points; and Matthew Pfaff argues compellingly for Catullan aspects to what he calls Ginsberg's "philology of the margins," in which Ginsberg "detaches the idea of the classical from Greek and Latin material texts, and transposes it onto alternative texts and social identities" (77).

Similarly conscious engagement with canons—formation, transformation, and contestation—may be found throughout; e.g., in Jane Falk's chapter on Philip Whalen, paying attention to his involvement in Great Books curricula including the Humanities sequence at Reed College. As a final example, Gideon Nisbet's outstanding chapter on Kenneth Rexroth situates that poet's 1962 version of the Greek Anthology in "a long tradition of egregious and feckless garbling of the Anthology under the pretext of accommodating its authors to contemporary sensibility" (192). Noting that Rexroth himself disliked being identified with the Beats—"an entomologist is not a bug," he said (quoted 184)—Nisbet shows how Rexroth's version and indeed his practice of translation "as an act of imaginative recreation" (187) echo Beat poetics by hearkening back to Pound's description of H.D.'s version of material from the Anthology as 'imagism.' Nisbet's chapter could thus serve as a masterclass in the volume's overall very positive method of approaching classical-reception studies in ways that are adventurous in interpretation because they are philologically rigorous.

Particular subject-matter—and the culturally mythic status of the Beats—aside, then, a great value of the volume lies in how many of the chapters offer instructive demonstrations of method, paying detailed attention to the complex processes of transmission by which classical materials reached the Beats, and to the manifold ways individual Beat authors used them in turn. Not all of the chapters are as focused on processes of transmission; some indeed offer readings that are more purely comparative of form, mood, or theme, eschewing discussion of the given modern author's attested knowledge of ancient texts. I personally find such arguments less persuasive than those that adduce historical foundations including documentary evidence and other paratextual materials.

All told, however, Hip Sublime is a fascinating contribution to classical-reception studies. It has inspired me to think further about methods in the field, including the high value of crossover with other fields, and to reread well-known modern writing with new eyes; almost certainly I will assign chapters in future courses (e.g., Dickey's chapter in a course on underworlds, Johnson's and Pfaff's in a course on ancient lyric). For those reasons and as per discussion above, the volume is highly recommended.


1.   Readers may enjoy a small coincidence: I received the invitation to write this review while in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, a city that figures in Beat history (e.g., in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, a university founded in a contemplative Buddhist tradition), in particular while at Innisfree, one of the country's very few bookstores dedicated to poetry.
2.   Rogers, Brett M. and Benjamin Eldon Stevens. 2015. "Introduction: The Past is an Undiscovered Country." in Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 10.

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