New York In The 1950s, Dan Wakefield, Gay and Nan Talese, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and many other authors who came of age in the 1950s, 1999
I have prattled on endlessly about the role of the beat writers and poets and their hangers-on, led by the trio of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, in leading the breakout from mainstream American society, literary society at least, in forming my own cultural tastes and that of many of my generation, the Generation of ’68. That "beat" cultural movement, in my mind rightly or wrongly, is forever associated with New York City, and particularly Greenwich Village. And that is where the question of taste comes in for, except for short periods, the beat movement was as much a part of the San Francisco scene of the 1950s as that of New York. Moreover, there is another group of writers, as portrayed in this interesting, short film documentary that can claim, and do claim, for themselves the role of avant guarde anti-establishment New York writers. The names James Baldwin, Dan Wakefield, Norman Mailer, come quickly to mind, as do the “Village Voice” and Irving Howe's social democratic journal “Dissent”.
I have detailed elsewhere my own feeling of suffocation with the cultural morass of the 1950’s, although I was too young to articulate that angst even in a caricature James Dean-like “Rebel Without A Cause” way. That period was exemplified by the stolidity of the Eisenhower administration. Nevertheless other little clots of people, who had come of age in the 1940s and who were molded by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of World War II, were interested in breaking out of the cultural straight jacket but also interested in making a name for themselves in the serious literary world. Those who succeeded are the writers who for the most part make up this film, led by those named authors above. I might add as this is a somewhat older film that since its production a number of those writers, and they were mainly writers here, the poets tended to go with the beats, have passed on, including recently, J.D Salinger, who I was surprised to note influenced and was a model for many of those who spoke in the film.
I mentioned the “Village Voice” and “Dissent” above, and it was those small relatively small publications that sustained these writers who came from all over America, even from the wilds of Indiana (Wakefield), to make their mark in the American cultural capital. Their reasons were as varied as any other group but to parody an answer that bank robber, Willie Sutton, gave when asked why he did robberies- that’s where the publishing houses are (or were). Surprisingly many of these writers, unlike the beats, went to work writing copy, or what not, in the medium somewhere in order to make the connections. So that is one thing that separates this group from the beats.
More than one writer interviewed here did, as Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne did, make there mark in New York and then moved on. For, as all interviewees seemingly agreed upon, the cultural oasis of New York of the 1950’s had a defining, and finite, moment. Later other cultural movements, movements that I am more familiar with, and not necessarily driven by writers took center stage. Still this film, and the archival footage that made up most of the backdrop, did its job in evoking a certain ‘feel’ for the period. Moreover, some of the negative issues involved with a movement based in the “corrupt” city in the 1950s: the excessive alcohol consumption and partying that formed part of the writerly ethos; the definite second- class citizenship of women; and the high burn-out rate, are addressed here. All in all this is a good presentation centered on the writers themselves. Still, I always think of that famous photograph of a cigarette-smoking Jack Kerouac, a heaven-bent, dream-like Allen Ginsberg and a blasé-posing William Burroughs when I think of New York. The “beat” habit is hard to break.
Note: Much of this film is driven by the anecdotes and storytelling of author Dan Wakefield, who is the central speaker here, and who helps to fill in the “back office” details of this period. I never would have known about his personal and professional (as a writer) connection to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, a movement in my own youth that kick-started my own social and political concerns in the early 1960s, as one that formed the backdrop for one of his early book without his mentioning it as well as a host of other little arcane facts like that. Good job.