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Liminality and «Communitas» in the Beat Generation

Aaron Christopher Mitchell

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.

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Chapter 3. Liminality and the Beat Generation


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Chapter 3. Liminality and the Beat Generation

Abstract: Kerouac’s journeys show how he continuously moves through the rites of passage returning to the liminal state, highlighted by nature, movement, time, ghosts, and death. Burroughs’ novels also have liminal symbolism. The Beats have liminal instead of traditional elders.

3.1  Jack Kerouac’s Journeys and the Rites of Passage

When people think of Jack Kerouac, they most often think of him hitching a ride somewhere out on the open road. They think of the freedom the extensive American continent gave him while hitching rides and hopping trains from coast to coast. Less often do people recognize that his wayfaring portray more than this. Traveling can be seen as a three stage process with an embarkation, a journey, and a return. It can be compared to the rites of passage where the journey represents the liminal phase and is the most provocative and affective stage for a traveler such as Kerouac. His experiences during these cross-country trips and his sojourns in nature reflect his liminal stage which can be seen in Kerouac’s travel novels: On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur. First, Kerouac’s trips from coast to coast show that he moves through a transitional stage. He breaks from pre-liminal society and experiences transition, but is unable to progress into a post-liminal stage and, therefore, remains liminal. Second, his excursions in nature which ultimately lead to seclusion further highlight his liminality. Third,...

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