Whatever happened to the literary rebel? Once upon a time the writer could soar to rock star status, could be a subversive outsider, could change the world. Questions about the place of the writer in today’s society seem particularly apt as cinema celebrates one of the great literary outsiders, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, in the recently released Howl. Part documentary, part dramatisation, the film tells the story behind the poem of the title and its subsequent obscenity trial, starring James Franco as Ginsberg. With another Beat-related film in the works – an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s great Beat Generation manifesto On the Road – there seems to be a marked revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century writers who held up two fingers to society.
Literature protesting against the establishment and offering an alternative world vision goes back far beyond the Beats. Writers such as Ginsberg and Kerouac took inspiration from the giants of the Romantic age, men and women who broke away from the established literary and social conventions at the turn of the nineteenth century. While the dominant literature of the eighteenth century was based on a tradition of emulation and allusion, the Romantic ideology espoused originality and imagination, coupled with a deep appreciation of nature. Many of the Romantic poets were also rebels in a political as well as a literary sense; Wordsworth was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution in his early career, while Shelley had a distinctly political poetic output. Neither were the Romantics the first or only literary rebels before the Beats, with a long succession of writers breaking away from the establishment and creating controversial work.
The ultimate literary rebel was Byron, possibly the most outrageous of the Romantics and remembered now more for his hedonistic lifestyle than his poetry. Famed among other things for his sexual exploits and for keeping a tame bear while at Cambridge, Byron was one of the first truly international celebrities, travelling extensively across Europe during his life and dying young while championing the cause of Greek independence. The spirit of Byron, the literary rock star, could be seen rekindled in the wild, alcohol and drug fuelled antics of the Beats, whose initially apolitical philosophy would later evolve into the hippie movement that protested against the Vietnam War.
Today, however, popular protest literature is dying out and the literary rogue seems to be a thing of the past. The closest we can claim to Byron in the current generation of writers is Martin Amis, the media’s bad boy of literature, but his exploits hardly live up to those of the Romantics or the Beats. This is not to suggest that writers no longer attempt to make controversial or political points in their work, which is far from true, but no current literary figure or movement has created the same waves as the Beats or the Romantics. This may have something to do with how literature is viewed in our society, somehow enveloped within the establishment and incapable of being considered subversive in the same way as more modern art forms such as popular music or film. The political statements of our age will be made on big screens or blaring out from loudspeakers.
But perhaps we need dissenting literary voices now more than ever. As we face the harshest economic conditions for decades and political discontent spreads throughout the country, this disillusionment needs an outlet and literature can be a far more eloquent platform for such protest than other more popular mediums. Perhaps the new literary generation, in the same way that the Beats before them were inspired by the Romantics, might receive impetus from Howl and identify with the radical project of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. While it may be a bit much to hope that a writer could single-handedly change the world, there are times when literature, and society, just need a rebel.