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December 13, 2007

on a roll with the beats

on the road.jpg Scholars matter, right? I remember Thomas Pynchon commenting in, I think, the Preface to Slow Learner, his ruefully-titled collection of short stories, that one of the key books for the underground in the 1950s had been Helen Waddell's study The Wandering Scholars.

Originally published in 1927, Waddell's book offered a vision of 12th and 13th century Goliardic poets as scruffy but learned, itinerant figures who lived attractively outside the walls of the 3Cs: cities, conventions and culture, much as many writers of the 20th century aspired to do. In a sniffy review of the book in Modern Philology in 1928, the literary historian Howard Mumford Jones remarked tartly that "Miss Waddell.... is so insistent that we shall see medieval scholars as men, she forgets that they were both scholars and medieval. [So a "scholar" is not a "man"?] Not only does she incessantly dramatize her facts, but she is perpetually pointing a modern instance." Mumford Jones wanted to pin The Wandering Scholars down; Waddell wanted to emancipate them, to buy their poetry a ticket.

At the moment, literary critics might be called a generation of "pinners". That is why there is a special interest in an emancipatory exhibition which Molly Schwartzburg, the literary scholar and the Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is curating next year. Called "On the Road with the Beats", it will feature, amongst much else, the partially unrolled manuscript of Kerouac's On the Road, cut-up Burroughs typescripts, artworks, and a plethora of recordings (poetry, jazz, interviews).

In her exhibition guide, Dr. Schwartzburg writes that: "The Beats were a generation in motion. Pilgrims in search of a destination, they crisscrossed the globe, from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Mexico City, Tangier to Paris, Calcutta to London. While many literary circles are synonymous with a particular city, the Beats are unique in their association with locales around the world." In the re-thinking of the map of mid-century culture which is ongoing as this timely exhibition occurs, the Beats' anti-parochialism and anti-nationalism, deeply occluded in so many of the triumphal, formalist metanarratives of American culture throwing off the shackles of European conformity but highlighted here, will need re-inclusion and re-assessment.

"On the Road with the Beats" will run at the Ransom Center Galleries from 5 Feb. to 3 Aug. 2008. It promises to be a landmark, freewheeling, emancipatory show.

Posted by njenkins at December 13, 2007 03:44 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins