The ALA's "Banned Books Week" (from 9/29 to 10/6 this year) has a great purpose:
BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.
Bypassing the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, 1990-2000," I decided instead to spend some time with the three primary works of the Beat generation: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (poem and retrospective), Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. These works were all "unorthodox and unpopular" in their time, but are now regarded as classics of the mid-twentieth century.
The soft bigotry of low comprehension that leads churches, school boards, and parent groups across the country to protest art that they do not understand often hardens into charges of obscenity and cries for censorship; these three works have had their share of troubles with the law, but all were eventually exonerated. My first Quote of the Day comes from a book about Burroughs, and sums up the Beat attitude toward life and the arts:
"The touchstone of Beat was a defiant naïveté - a stubborn refusal to allow their songs of innocence to be stifled by their experience of corporate America. Against a world of bovine maturity and faceless conformity they sought to unleash the potential of the moment, finding it in the orgasm, in jazz and in their communal solipsism."
(Graham Caveney, Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, pp. 89-90)
During the half-century since the Beat revolution, the gay influence on our cultural life is more pronounced than ever. From Bernstein to Broadway to Brokeback Mountain, from Queen to "Queer Eye," Fran Lebowitz's observation from two decades ago still rings true:
"If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with Let's Make a Deal."
("The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community," New York Times, 13 September 1987, H22)
Whether one loves or loathes their sexuality, raw language, and drug use, the Beats helped to bring the reactionary 1950s to a close; I shudder to imagine how sterile American culture would be like without their influence. Banning the Beats' books only served to make heroes of them, turning reviled outcasts into revered outlaws and enticing more people to pick up their works. One hopes that Banned Books Week have the same effect, albeit in a non-totalitarian manner.