From Ann Charters’ introduction to The Portable Beat Reader:
Earlier in the history of American literature, the novelist Henry James acknowledged in his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne that “the best things come, as a general thing, from the talents that are members of a group; every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation.” As a facet of our country’s cultural history, clusters have been an outstanding feature of our literature. They can be a group of writers joined by a common geographical location who share philosophical sympathies, such as the cluster of transcendentalist writers in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. More often, given the sheer physical size of the United States, the writers share a temporal rather than a spatial proximity along with their lieratary aesthetic, for example the local-color realists Sarah Orne Jewett, Lafcadio Hearn, and Kate Chopin, all born between 1849 and 1851, or the experimental modernist poets born in the decade between 1879 and 1888 — William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Hilda Dolittle, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens.
I have often found myself in groups like those described above, usually geographical rather than temporal. Which leads me to wonder: of those writers that are of my generation — the lost years between Baby Boom and Generation X, those who arrived in this incarnation between, say, 1962 and 1968 (with myself smack in the middle at 1965), of those who potentially would have gone to high school together, what are the commonalities? the aesthetics? the influences and, since it is almost forty years since that time, the descendants, if any? In looking across the Internet, which some could say serves as an artificial sense of connectivity, since the barrier of geography has been eliminated, and the notion of “age” is muddled and clouded, particularly given the large degree of anonymity and lack of personal information about those who come in contact with each other, but to me serves as both a surrogate “coffeehouse” and pipeline for correspondence, the writers of my generation who have achieved any sense of notoriety (as determined by whether I am familiar with their work, at best an extremely subjective criterion) seem to be:
Quentin Tarantino (1963), JK Rowling (1965), Poppy Z. Brite (1967)
Whereas the writers who DIED within that time seem to be of a much greater number (and societal impact, I think):
William Faulker, e.e. cummings, Herman Hesse (1962), Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Jean Cocteau, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley (1963), Flannery O’Connor, TH White, Ian Fleming (1964), W. Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot (1965), Andre Breton (1966), Langston Hughes, Carl Sanburg (1967), John Steinbeck, Neal Cassady (1968)
Of course, I’m sure there are countless others … Henry Rollins (although maybe born 1961, I can’t remember), for one. Chuck Palahniuk (1961, too, and perhaps in many ways the reincarnation of Hemingway, who died that year), for another. But unless I’m missing something, it looks like American literature died while we were being born, and not too many of us picked up the torch. Of course, that could be due to the fact that less than 10% of the current population of the United States reads books on a daily basis. But I think it’s something more — like the progression of population magazines mirrors our evolution from the fifties – Look (1950s) to Life (1960s) to People (1970s) to Us (1980s) to Self (1990s), I feel that there is a sense of disenfranchisement from ourselves, from our own. So many of my peers, agewise, seem to be caught up either in decades we barely experienced (the 60s), struggled through as children (the 70s), barely survived (the 80s), and would like to forget (the 90s). And where does that leave us now? We are not Boomers, so the likelihood of our relating to the power-struggles there is small. And we are not Xers – so there is something missing there for us, too. Our angst is primarily self-directed, self-aggrandizing, and self-generated. We are the ones who can remember Nixon lied to America, and the ones who are still young enough to do something about it.
So my question is this: where are my peers, where is the “cluster” to which I belong? I know I have been searching for it my whole life, and for the most part, have been sadly disappointed.
If you’re out there — speak to me. We surely have something to say to each other.