Mass Society in The Dharma Bums and The New American Poetry
One of the best ways to fully understand an era is to study its literature. The printed word has the incredible capacity to both reflect and shape the hopes, fears, and ideologies of the time. This is very evident when reading literature from 1960's America, a turbulent period in the history of our country. While the authors' styles are very different, there are definite thematic patterns and characteristics evident in many of their works. For one, there is a prevalent concept of the unenlightened masses. This concept serves as a foil for the enlightened few often represented as the main characters and more specifically as the authors themselves. There also seems to be a general questioning of the "American Dream" as well as a clear conflict between nature and technology. By looking at these common thematic elements, not only can we better understand the literature of the time, but we can also get a fuller picture of the era itself.
One of the most interesting concepts in 60's literature is that of mass society. And while this notion is evident in many of the writings, the treatment of it is different from author to author. Richard Brautigan chooses to show the poor masses in his piece "Trout Fishing in America". He writes, "...people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry.//It's sandwich time for the poor."(280,Streets) Donald Berthelme in his work "The Glass Mountain" calls the masses, "acquaintances"(284, Streets). He shows them to be a drunk and unruly lot who shout profanities at him as he tries to climb the building. Lawrence Ferlinghetti mentions an "unlonely crowd"(130,Poetry) in his poem "23". He also treats the masses as an "audience"(133, Poetry) in his poem "15". Philip Lamantia writes about, "THE CROWDS MENACING." He describes the, "waywardlooking scorching haggard/ grim/ perilous witchlike criminal/ SUBLIME/ drunken wintered/ GRAZING/ FACES,"(154-155, Poetry). Lamantia also has a poem entitled "Man Is In Pain"(155, Poetry). Allen Ginsberg in his poem "Sunflower Sutra" portrays the masses as sunflowers in a dirty railroad yard. And finally, Jack Kerouac in his book The Dharma Bums portrays the masses as "sedentary bums"(86) and as "millions of the One Eye"(104).
All of these images of mass society have a tone of despair and depression. People are shown to be weary and confused, having lost the passion for life. Brautigan and Barthelme seem most concerned with the concept of a class struggle; their masses are poor and bitter. Kerouac is more concerned with the lazy masses that are brainwashed by television and suburbia. The only hopeful view of the masses comes from Ginsberg who sees a beauty in people that he feels is often covered and masked by the ugliness of society.
Going along with the concept of mass society is that of an "American Dream". The masses are...