World War II and the Wounding of the Beat Generation
World War II was the deadliest, most devastating conflict in human history, directly involving well over a hundred million people, and secondarily affecting untold millions more, changing the course of human history in ways that will be the subject of scholarship well into the future.
For some who came of age during the war, their experiences, whether in military or other roles, would become defining moments in their lives. But no matter where or how one spent the war, it nonetheless touched everyone. Much has been written about the Beat Generation and WWII; in particular, how this subculture of writers and other artists contrasted in their experience of the war with those of the generation to which they belonged. Many of the Beats did not serve in combat, but in ancillary roles, and some not at all. Moreover, for a generation so universally affected by the war, the degree to which the Beats themselves confront the subject in their writing is minimal, especially when compared with other writers of their time. One explanation is that the Beat writers were not particularly interested in documenting or fictionalizing their wartime experiences, and besides, the fighting man’s memoir was becoming quite a popular, mainstream literary genre. The Beats, their appetites whetted on works like Yeats’ A Vision… and Spengler’s Decline of the West, seemed less interested in writing about the past than determining what was to come; that even while American GIs lucky enough to survive the war returned home to a country fully intact, compared with the bombed-out cities of Europe, there was no returning to the world they knew, as that world had irrevocably changed, and was more subtly accompanied by a deeper and perhaps to some degree impalpable sense of loss.
Jack Kerouac’s first experience of wartime loss came with the sinking of the SS Dorchester, the troop transport ship aboard which he had previously served. While underway in the Labrador Sea, Dorchester was hit by a German torpedo and sunk. Of the 904 people aboard, 675 died—the single greatest loss of life for an American convoy in all of WWII. Kerouac had worked as a scullion during his term of service from July through October of 1942, and befriended many of these men, a few of whom appear as characters in his first novel The Sea is My Brother, most notably the African-American cook known as “Old Glory.”
It was by chance that Kerouac himself wasn’t aboard the Dorchester when it was sunk. Lou Little, his football coach at Columbia, had asked him via telegram to return. After having broken his leg playing just a couple weeks into his first football season in 1940, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, but had returned in 1942 as a varsity reserve. That telegram very likely saved his life. As he later recalled, “as we binged and banged in dusty bloody fields, we didn’t even dream we’d end up in World War II, some of us killed, some of us wounded, the rest of us eviscerated of 1930’s innocent ambition.”
It struck again in March of 1944, when Sammy Sampas (Sebastian G. Sampatacacus), one of his closest friends, was wounded at Anzio, Italy, during the Allied campaign to invade the “soft underbelly” of Europe, and died in hospital a short time later. Jack and Sammy had grown up together in Lowell, shared many of the same passions, and were all but brothers.
By 1944, when Jack met Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, et al, the young men who would form the core of the Beat circle, the war had claimed all but a few of his childhood friends. One might posit that what he describes as “the feeling that everything was dead,” spurring his wanderings and mad search for “kicks” that followed the end of the war, and inspired some of his greatest work, was borne of a kind of protracted grieving that followed such an momentous loss; and in the same sense that Kerouac so succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist of the postwar period, its restlessness and energy, he likewise captured his generation’s struggle to find its place in an America that despite being spared the physical devastation of warfare, nonetheless bore a deep woundedness.
“We were the Silent Generation, but would have greatly preferred being the Lost one,” Joyce Johnson writes of her generation’s collective nostalgia, its yearning to have been born earlier, into the prosperity and decadence of the 1920s. Then, World War I had ended, and the Jazz Age was in full swing. The “Silent” part evidently comes from the expectation that in the postwar era, one ought not be too loud. “Eisenhower’s intention was that we should try to settle down do some nice quiet American pursuits and not rock the boat,” observed Walter Cronkite.
World War II was “the Good War”—the cause was righteous, the objective clear, and the victory decisive. It seemed then as it’s reflected upon now—a just battle between good and evil, wherein good triumphed, and the world was saved. But despite the enduring images of ticker tape parades and the emergence of a shiny new era of productivity and suburban prosperity that followed the war’s end, it came at a heavy cost.
Even the men who survived WWII, and returned home to a hero’s welcome, were still haunted by the horrors of what they saw and did. Others survived, but were badly wounded, missing limbs and permanently disabled, but they aren’t the ones seen at the front of victory parades.
Though veterans hospitals had been established for some time, many were overwhelmed by the number of wounded, and as for psychological trauma, little was understood about mental health in general at the time, and terms like “post-traumatic stress” didn’t yet exist. Nor was society at large particularly interested in tending to the wounded, psychological or otherwise. The postwar, peacetime narrative was fraught with what provincialism reliably values: positivity, prosperity, and conformity. Any other narrative was to be brushed aside, and out of view.
As much as the Beat Generation championed rebellion from such provincialism and conformity, and crafted a philosophy from the ecstasy of seeking new experiences and pushing boundaries, these writers also gave America the vocabulary to describe itself in honest, forthcoming terms; to illuminate the uncomfortable parts of the human experience. “We are not our skin of grime,” proclaims Allen Ginsberg in “The Sunflower Sutra,” early in what would become a lifetime of bringing together all kinds of elements in American life considered unworthy of inclusion in the story of who we are.