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The Dream and the Dystopia

Bathetic Humor, the Beats, and Walt Whitman’s Idealism

Andrew Vogel


Pages 389 - 407

open-access



Among the many influences on the Beats, none looms larger than Walt Whitman from whom they adopted an idealistic vision of democratic equality, potent artistic honesty, and forthright sexual expression. In the greedy, conformist, paranoid America of the 1950s, however, the actualization of such a vision seemed terrifically farfetched. The distance between Whitman’s vision of America and the dystopia described in “Howl,” for instance, animated the Beats’ literary project, but it also propagated an abiding sense of ideological doubt. This is one of the primary bases of the Beat ethos. Crucially, when the Beats invoke the distance between Whitman’s idealistic dream of democratic vistas and the dystopia of 1950s America, they frequently do so in ways that are comical or that depict characters laughing. Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, for example, all wrestled with doubts as to the idealism they inherited from Whitman, and they all associated this struggle with laughter. The distance between Whitman’s dream and the Beats’ dystopia is hardly a laughing matter, however, making such humor bathetic. Bathos can be defined as the laughable result of straining for a sublime ideal but tripping over hard reality into the absurd. Despite their range of forms and styles, Ginsberg, Holmes, Kerouac, and Snyder all reflect the bathetic impulse emerging from America’s failure to manifest anything resembling Whitman’s dream.

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