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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 5. Liminality and Communitas in Jack Kerouac’s Pilgrimages


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Chapter 5. Liminality and Communitas in Jack Kerouac’s Pilgrimages

Abstract: Victor Turner found that pilgrimages have liminality and communitas and exactly this proves true for Kerouac’s journeys. They go beyond traveling; they are religious pilgrimages.

When pilgrims are on the road, they experience a transitional phase no matter their motivation for taking on their quest. Victor Turner includes pilgrimages in his studies and notes that they are ritualistic and anti-structural802 showing characteristics of liminality and communitas.803 As Victor and Edith Turner mention: “there is undoubtedly an initiatory quality in pilgrimage. A pilgrim is an initiand, entering into a new, deeper level of existence than he has known in his accustomed milieu” (Victor and Edith Turner 8). In consideration of the Beats, Jack Kerouac and characters in his novels can be seen as liminal pilgrims wandering the holy sites of his beloved America who establish communitas with fellow pilgrims.

In Kerouac’s travel novels, one sees how his journeys can be compared to pilgrimages. Many of the land marks that Kerouac sees along his way resemble holy shrines and relics. He writes of people, towns, cities, and landscapes as if they were holy in their own right and worth a journey to visit them. In On the Road, for instance, the narrator, Jack Kerouac, and his traveling companion, Neal Cassady, seek to find America and search for Cassady’s father. These are the sacred symbols which they are searching for: America and fatherhood....

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