The Philosophy of the Beats edited by Sharin N Elkholy is part of the Philosophy of Popular Culture series published by University Press of Kentucky. An ambitious collection of essays by different authors who look at the work of the several of the Beats through the filter of philosophy in that, anyone familiar with the Beats will agree, no one school of philosophy could embrace the entirety of any of the beat artists, let alone the entire beat generation.
Elkholy succeeds, which is laudable, although I did not like all of the essays. I was particularly disappointed in A. Robert Lee’s “Tongues Untied: Beat Ethnicities, Beat Multiculture” which read more like a laundry list or a catalog of evidence, as if the reader would not be aware of the fact that the Beats were not all white and/or male. But if I was disappointed, it may be more evidentiary of my own knowledge than what would be considered common knowledge. I will say that I hope Lee is planning to write a book that will allow him to go into the subject with more depth. This disappointing essay could be the starting point for so much more.
There are other essays that didn’t exactly inspire or delight me but there were some that I wanted to reread almost as soon as I had finished them. Roseanne Giannini Quinn’s essay on Diane di Prima was a joy to read, as much because so few books about the Beats bother to consider the contribution of the women Beats as for how the author connects Hélène Cixous, Simone de Beauvoir, and the early ripples of the women’s movement. When reading the writings of di Prima and the other Beat women, it’s easy to forget that the women’s movement was not yet in full swing and women were still very much anchored to the home.
I also enjoyed “Being-at-Home” by Josh Michael Haynes looks at Gary Snyder’s eco-political and Buddhist philosophy as manifested in his writings and even his life choices, a theme that is similarly explored in Messersmith-Glavin’s “Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology.” A collection like this is at its best when it allows two scholars to explore the same source—whether it is a writer, a movement, an idea. The two essays do not contradict one another but they offer clearly distinct perspectives of Snyder’s voice, inviting someone unfamiliar with Snyder to approach his works from more than one angle.
Naturally, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as do Burroughs and dominate but they do not overshadow. However, there are some surprises as well, including an essay on Peter Whitehead’s short film Wholly Communion which can be found online. In fact, many of the poems, even audio recordings of the poems, can be found online, which allows the reader to explore the texts referenced and better appreciate some of the allusions made in the essays themselves even more. You don't have to be familiar with the works of the beats to enjoy this book. In fact, the essays that explored the works of the writers with whom I was least familiar are the ones I enjoyed almost as much as the ones I liked most. If you like philosophy and have not yet approached the Beats themselves, you could do worse than reading this book by way of an introduction. You could do a lot worse because this book is great.