Liminality and «Communitas» in the Beat Generation

by Aaron Christopher Mitchell (Author)
©2017 Thesis 316 Pages


The Beat Generation questioned mid-twentieth century America and sought the margins of society. This book analyzes the literature and lifestyles of the Beat authors Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg in regard to Victor Turner’s anthropological studies. The Beats separated from society by willingly entering the rites of passage. Liminal symbolism is apparent in their literature such as in movement, time, space, pilgrimages, and monstrosities. In their liminal stage, they established «communitas» and developed anti-structure. They questioned society and made proposals to change it in their liminoid literature. The Beats shared similarities with previous countercultures, and they influenced the following Hippie Generation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Discovering the Liminal Beat Generation and its Communitas
  • 1.1 A Generation on the Margins
  • 1.2 Research Methodology
  • Chapter 2. Anthropology and the Beat Generation
  • 2.1 Anthropology and Literature
  • 2.2 Victor Turner and Anthropology in Literature
  • 2.3 Victor Turner, the Beat Generation, and the 1960s Counterculture
  • Chapter 3. Liminality and the Beat Generation
  • 3.1 Jack Kerouac’s Journeys and the Rites of Passage
  • 3.2 Jack Kerouac’s Liminal Movement and Time
  • 3.3 Ghosts and Death: The Haunting Liminality of Jack Kerouac
  • 3.4 From Crime to Monstrosity with William S. Burroughs
  • 3.5 William S. Burroughs’ Liminal Space
  • 3.6 Elders in Beat Literature
  • Chapter 4. Communitas and the Beat Generation
  • 4.1 Beat Communitas and Anti-Structure
  • 4.2 The Beat Generation as Liminoid Literature
  • 4.3 Establishing Beat Communitas through Poverty
  • 4.4 Deepening Beat Communitas through Relationships
  • 4.5 Jack Kerouac’s Dichotomy of Structure and Anti-Structure
  • 4.6 Allen Ginsberg: A Beat Poet’s ‘Howl’ for Communitas
  • Chapter 5. Liminality and Communitas in Jack Kerouac’s Pilgrimages
  • Chapter 6. Countercultures and the Beat Generation
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

← 6 | 7 →


Abstract: The dissertation shows how Victor Turner’s anthropological studies on liminality and communitas apply to the Beat Generation by reviewing works by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

The social anthropologist, Victor Turner, mentions in brief passages of his studies that the Beat Generation as well as the Hippie counterculture of the 1960s exemplify his theories of liminality and communitas. The objective of this dissertation is to determine whether Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas apply to the Beat Generation by seeking to find where, how, and to what extent his theories can be implemented while considering their movement and interpreting their literary works. The research is based on Turner’s theories which he proposes in his studies such as The Forest of Symbols (1967), The Ritual Process (1969), and Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974).

First, a research methodology is established based on Turner’s theories to provide for a solid framework for analysis. Second, Turner’s theories of liminality and communitas in regard to literature and more specifically the Beat Generation are briefly presented in order to provide a further foundation for this study. Third, the major focus of this research will apply the methodology to Beat literature and lifestyles to investigate the relevance of Turner’s concepts within them. Fourth, when applicable, the works of the following generation which spawned from the Beats, the Hippie counterculture, will be discussed to use as a comparison since Victor Turner notes that his theories apply to the 1960s counterculture as well. Finally, the Beats will be discussed in regard to their placement among countercultural movements in literature. This final chapter seeks to place the Beats within a greater context of the literary world with the intention of provoking more research in this area.

It has proven necessary to reduce the Beat writers considered in this work. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs are the authors which receive the most attention here. By excluding some of the Beats, this study is able to establish a more precise investigation. Some other Beat authors are included where helpful to the research and, of course, included when they appear in the literature of the three Beats mentioned above. It is desired, however, that by analyzing these three authors and their canons, further research in this area be considered for other members of the Beat Generation.1 ← 7 | 8 →

Liminality has become a widely accepted research area which is efficiently applicable in the humanities. Individual articles and entire books have been published and conferences have been dedicated to the topic. The following review of several cases is simply a brief selection of current research being done on liminality.

Jochen Achilles, Roland Borgards, and Brigitte Burrichter edited essays from a conference in Würzburg published as Liminale Anthropologien which focuses on liminal thresholds and covers several centuries of literature.2 More recently, Jochen Achilles along with Ina Bergmann edited a collection of essays entitled Liminality and the Short Story which also originated from a conference in Würzburg.3 The editors stress the “liminality of […] and […] in the short story”4 and divide the essays by the two respective categories. They see the short story as susceptible to liminality such as due to its in-between literary form.5 Further, this genre proves to be suitable for the liminal with “transitional situations and fleeting moments of crisis or decision” (Achilles, Bergmann 22).

David E. Wellbery applies the rites of passage to Prinzessin Brambilla by the Romantic German author E. T. A. Hoffmann.6 He sees the beginning and end of the text as equivalent to the beginning and end of the rites of passage for Giglio and the intermediate stories as liminal.7 According to Wellbery, various liminal symbols can be found in the text,8 in which even an elder for the rites of passage can be found, Celionati,9 and Hoffmann turns the reader into the “Initiand” (Wellbery 143). ← 8 | 9 →

Fred Solinger investigates liminality in the Heart of Darkness for the author, Joseph Conrad, and Marlow as a narrator.10 Solinger compares Conrad to Marlow finding Marlow to be an extension of the author who critiques imperialism in the novel.11 The story that Marlow tells creates a transition which can be seen in his change of character.12 Marlow’s method of narrating his story further enhances the novel’s liminality.13

In her book, Andrew Marvell’s Liminal Lyrics, Joan Faust investigates liminality not only in Marvell’s poetry, but also in his life. She explains that his poetry proves difficult to label in both literary period and genre since he purposely desired to abide in innovative liminality, which also proves true for his biography.14 Further, his poetry contains liminal attributes such as can be seen in her investigation of his poem ‘Upon Appleton House’15 which Marvell also wrote during a liminal period.16

While applying structuralism to understanding the story of Samson from the Old Testament in the first chapter of his study, Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East, Gregory Mobley first considers Lévi-Strauss and then applies Arnold van Gennep’s and Victor Turner’s liminality.17 Mobley finds that Samson’s liminality can be considered a “permanent condition” (Mobley 28). There are liminal characteristics seen in the dichotomies arising from his journeys.18 Further, Mobley considers the genre of the text to be liminal and discusses it from the perspective of a “‘border narrative’” (Mobley 30) which reinforces Samson’s liminality.19 Acknowledging Mobley’s study, Stephen M. Wilson also looks at the story of Samson and argues that Samson is unable to transition from a child to a man in his article ‘Samson the Man-Child: Failing to Come of Age in ← 9 | 10 → the Deuteronomistic History.’20 For instance, he discusses Samson’s long hair as a symbol of fertile manhood in contrast to his lack of children, thus granting him liminal status.21 Wilson also analyzes why societies have stories which include a lack of transition from boy to adult male.22

In her article ‘Liminality in Balinese Dance,’ Marcia B. Siegel describes how the dancers enter liminal space between the spiritual and material realms during the performance.23 She argues that the liminality found in the choreography makes the dances ritualistic even when not specifically intended for ritual purpose.24

Tony Ullyatt investigates liminality in regard to labyrinths.25 He identifies how labyrinths carry symbolism related to their location as well as the people going through them.26 For instance, they may be considered “sacred space” (Ullyatt 114) due to being demarcated from the surrounding area.27 Referring to other scholars, Ullyatt discusses how the rites of passage can be applied to labyrinths since the participant may go through three stages during which a transition can occur.28

In the collaboration of essays, Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal, contributors discuss the aspects of Intermedia – a program created by Hans Breder at the University of Iowa in the late 1960s – which combines various forms of art media as well as different subjects from the Humanities.29 Breder sees Intermedia ← 10 | 11 → as “liminal space” (Breder 206) since it allows for new occurrences where more than one form of medium is used.30 Interpreting Hans Breder’s ‘Mass in A-Minor for Suitcases,’ David E. Klemm shows how the use of various media such as music, images, and text among others make it a work of Intermedia, how Breder’s ‘Liminal Icons’ require viewers to implement various academic fields of study for understanding the work,31 and further explains that his work puts its audience “into the liminal state” (Klemm 77). Similarly, Klaus-Peter Busse mentions in his introduction to the essays that liminality is Breder’s “unifying thread”32 in his work.

In his introduction to a collection of essays on Victor Turner’s concepts in various areas like dance movements, theater, pilgrimage, education, and sports, Graham St. John discusses how Turner’s research has contributed to a great number of academic fields33 such as his studies on ritual and their application in literature as well as drama leading to “performance studies.”34 In this collection of essays, Gerard Boland explains in his article how new theater students at university level benefit from experiencing a rite of passage initiated by staff and students further along in their studies who also profit from the process.35 The goal that Boland sees in this project is “a rite of passage that demonstrates to everyone involved that we must claim artistic agency as theater-makers who can ← 11 | 12 → collaborate with others to create original entertainments and meaningful cultural performance events” (Boland 204). Some of the articles not only consider the efficiency of Turner’s theories in application to the variety of areas discussed but also their limitations and how they can be accurately altered or amended to produce efficient analyses. In his article in the collection, for instance, J. Lowell Lewis revisits Turner’s anthropological theories of “structure and antistructure, […] social drama, ritual (and play) theory, […] liminal vs. liminoid frameworks, [and] communitas”36 and, rather than abandoning them when he sees where they are not adequately sufficient, he amends them.37

The current standing of research which has been done on the Beat Generation highlights the ties of their lives and works which proves necessary considering how the roman à clef abounds in the authors’ novels which most often entail autobiographical and historical information; this ultimately proves true for their poetry as well. Of course, the term autobiographical here needs to be taken with a grain of ‘artistic’ salt since the authors sometimes exaggerated or altered information to fit their writings more appropriately or to try and avoid libel law suits.

Numerous biographies and articles about Beats can be found on the current market, many of which were written by those who were directly involved with them either by being part of the movement itself, such as Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady; people who worked directly for the Beats like Bill Morgan alongside Ginsberg and James Grauerholz alongside William S. Burroughs; as well as other academics like Ann Charters alongside Jack Kerouac as only a few examples. The Beats themselves wrote extensively about their own lives and works and what it means to be Beat. Their numerous letters and interviews additionally attest to much of the history, works, and lives of the Beat Generation. The literary critiques about the works of the Beats following their publication further prove helpful not only in interpreting the texts, but also analyzing the acceptance as well as disregard for the Beat Generation.

Although it seems that the majority of early research concentrates on the major canons of the Beats, like Kerouac’s On the Road, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Ginsberg’s most popular poem ‘Howl,’ the current status of research covers ← 12 | 13 → a broader spectrum of the Beats showing ample insight into the movement. This is understandable since the Beats are a relatively young movement of the past century which had trouble being accepted and recognized by academics resulting in a lack of research. Since the turn of the 21st century, further investigations have been made covering a broader spectrum of their artistic output. Thus far, limited research has dared attempt to investigate Turner’s anthropological theories of liminality and communitas in the Beat Generation. As mentioned above, Turner himself refers briefly to the Beats in his studies concerning these two theories. Omar Swartz adds a few pages to his conclusion of The View from On the Road – The Rhetorical Vision of Jack Kerouac which touch upon the subject of the important role liminality plays in Kerouac’s On the Road.38 Florian Zappe not only investigates William Burroughs’ routines as a literary device, but also in regard to their liminality including reference to Burroughs’ own biography.39 Although the concepts of marginality, liminality, and communitas have started to gain recognition in literary research, they have yet to be thoroughly discussed in the works of the Beat Generation. By discovering the application of these theories in a movement like the Beats, which is the major focus of this dissertation, and finding the relationship of the Beats to other countercultural movements in literature, which will be touched upon at the end of this study, a starting point will be created for applying Turner’s theories to other countercultural generations in further research. ← 13 | 14 →

1 In order to avoid constant interruption of the quoted material provided in this work, the use of [sic] will not appear for the various grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes found in the works and letters of the Beat Generation which are taken as found in the original sources. It will, however, be used for other references when needed.

2 Cf. Achilles, Jochen, Roland Borgards, and Brigitte Burrichter, eds. Liminale Anthropologien. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2012. Print. Here “Vorwort.” pp. 7–8. All further references to this edition.

3 Cf. Achilles, Jochen and Ina Bergmann, eds. Liminality and the Short Story: Boundary Crossings in American, Canadian, and British Writing. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2015. Print. Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature 34. Here p. 4. All further references to this edition.

4 Achilles, Bergmann, Here n. pag., see also pp. 6, 23.

5 Cf. Achilles, Bergmann 4.

6 Cf. Wellbery, David E. “Rites of Passage: Zur Struktur des Erzählprozesses in E. T. A. Hoffmanns Prinzessin Brambilla.” Wellbery. David E. Seiltänzer des Paradoxalen. München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2006. 118–145. Print. All further references to this edition.

7 Cf. Ibid. 129.

8 Cf. Ibid. 131.

9 Cf. Ibid. 133.

10 Cf. Solinger, Fred. “‘Absurd be-exploded!’: Re-membering Experience through Liminality in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana 40.1 (2008): 61–70. Web. Here p. 61. All further references to this edition.

11 Cf. Ibid. 61–63.

12 Cf. Ibid. 62–63.

13 Cf. Ibid. 61, 65–67.

14 Cf. Faust, Joan. Andrew Marvell’s Liminal Lyrics. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014. Print. Here pp. 2–4, 25–29. All further references to this edition.

15 Cf. Ibid. Chapter 3.

16 Cf. Ibid. 38–39.

17 Cf. Mobley, Gregory. Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East. New York: T&T Clark, 2006. Print. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 453. Here pp. 25–33. All further references to this edition.

18 Cf. Ibid. 28, 30.

19 Cf. Ibid. 31.

20 Cf. Wilson, Stephen M. “Samson the Man-Child: Failing to Come of Age in the Deuteronomistic History.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133.1 (2014): 43–60. Web. Here pp. 43–45. All further references to this edition.

21 Cf. Ibid. 45–46.

22 Cf. Ibid. 53.

23 Cf. Siegel, Marcia B. “Liminality in Balinese Dance.” The Drama Review 35.4 (1991): 84–91. Web. Here p. 85. All further references to this edition.

24 Cf. Ibid. 85.

25 Cf. Ullyatt, Tony. “‘Gestures of approach’: aspects of liminality and labyrinths.” Literator 32.2 (2011): 103–134. Web. All further references to this edition.

26 Cf. Ibid. 112–113.

27 Cf. Ibid. 114.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (December)
Jack Kerouac William Burroughs Allen Ginsberg Victor Turner Counterculture Hippie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 316 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Aaron Christopher Mitchell (Author)

Aaron Christopher Mitchell teaches English language and American cultural studies courses at the University of Vechta. His interests lie in German and American literature and culture.


Title: Liminality and «Communitas» in the Beat Generation
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319 pages