The Transcendentalists of the 1960’s

by ninaarowaan

Author of the popular Beat novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac was perceived as a revolutionary pioneer for the anti-conformist generation of the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s. I first came across this author when reading On the Road for an English research paper and I quickly fell in love with his style of writing and the beliefs he portrayed; it turns out, I was falling in love with Transcendentalism! Tanja Batista writes, “Jack Kerouac’s personal diaries reflect his fierce determination to become a great writer in the classic American tradition of Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Jack London, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and the Transcendentalists. However revolutionary his work may seem at first glance, he inherited a tradition that is distinctly American.”

The Beat Generation first emerged in American culture in the 1940’s as a group of post-World War II writers, artists, and intellectuals. They heavily rejected conformity and materialism in favor for enlightenment and experience-based knowledge. Because of the extreme pressure to conform in the 1950’s, the 1960’s was a period of rebellion and anti-conformity in America. This led to the growth of the Beat movement because the youth of the time commonly rejected the traditional “American dream” and pursued their own lifestyles instead. Everything the Beats did, they did as a statement. The Beats ultimately inspired the Hippies of the 1970’s, but the Transcendentalists inspired the Beats.

Both the Beats and the Transcendentalists believed in anti-conformism, but the Transcendentalists were the first to propose the idea that society is the source of corruption. Both movements strongly valued free thought and free will. Both movements often urged the public to reconsider traditional values. The Beats based their entire lives upon these Transcendental beliefs and the idea of society corrupting you was the backbone to both movements.

The novel On the Road was transparently based off of Kerouac’s own life. The main characters,  Sal and Dean, represented Kerouac and his close companion Neal Cassady. Together, Sal and Dean traveled across the continental United States and, once they got bored, even ventured into Mexico. Throughout this time,  they relied entirely upon chance and fate to aid their survival. The two men would acquire odd jobs here and there, but they ultimately relied on the kindness of both close friends and strangers to provide them with shelter, food, transportation, and drugs. This directly relates to the popular Transcendental belief that materialism is bad. Sal and Dean didn’t venture across the United States to find riches, they did so in order to find “it.” In the novel, “it” was loosely defined as whatever it is that makes life worth living. As long as they were pursuing “it,” being flat broke and entirely on their own didn’t hinder their quest.

Sal and Dean left their homes with almost no money in their pockets just so they could learn. They yearned to learn about other people and other lifestyles. To them, all people were valuable. They wanted to see first-hand how other people lived. To Sal and Dean and the Beat Generation in general, it didn’t matter if you were homeless, addicted to drugs, gay, wealthy, or Black; they wanted to know your story and learn from what you had to say. The Transcendental value that knowledge comes from experience is another one of the main tenets of the Beat way of life. Both movements recognized that knowledge is not acquired from books or classes or schools, but instead, that knowledge comes from living.

Both the Beats and the Transcendentalists believed in the appreciation of nature. The Transcendentalists would spend time at the beach or in a meadow to reach a more spiritual level of thought. The Beats would spend time traveling across America on the open road to attain an expansion of the mind.

The Beats were essentially the Transcendentalists of the 1960’s because they shared almost every single Transcendental belief . One of the only differences between the Beats and the Transcendentalists is the century they lived in.