John Mason Brown – Groton, Mass., 1958

“I am sick and tired of the snivelers, the defeated and the whiners.”


Editor’s note: For all that you are about to read… one could change a dozen words or so – and maybe a few names to update the topic of the discussion… but tell me – what would be different in comparison to this day and time? The terms, “snivelers” or “whiners” would translate into the “snowflakes” of today. ~ Ed.

John Mason Brown, noted critic and lecturer, consigned to a deserved ignominy the prophets of the “beat generation” in a talk to one of his favorite audiences, the “sixth form” and graduating class of the Groton School for Boys. He delivered the “Prize Day Address.”

The subject is a favorite with Mr. Brown, and in language understandable to youth he paid his critical respects to two of the most pessimistic of the self-appointed “interpreters” of depressed youth – Jack Kerouac and John Osborne.

I Must confess that I am deeply curious about the name with which your generation will be branded a decade hence. I claim no singularity in this. The qualities and the attitude towards life which that name reveals will be the nation’s concern – and the world’s. I make no pretense of being a prophet. I can speak only from my hopes. And my hopes for the name which your generation will merit are based upon my strong reactions to the various names currently applied to the generation ten years older than yours. You must know these names. In England, “The Angry Young Men”; in America, “The Beat Generation.” I do not question the accuracy of these names, when it comes to revealing the attitudes and feelings of the authors associated with them or the small groups who are their devotees. But I am certain that these labels are no more than “coterie” tags which, since they speak only for a sector of a sector, are downright libelous when applied to a whole generation.

Your absorption with Caesar, Cicero or Catullus may have kept you strangers to the writings of Jack Kerouac. If so, do not count yourselves denied. And in your preoccupation with Milton – the Academy no less than the poet – and St. Mark as well as St. Mark’s, you nay not have seen John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger. I single out these alleged spokesmen for their generation – the first in America, the second and more gifted writer in England – because they seem to me typically unrepresentative. The two men are brothers only in despair. Mr. Kerouac does not believe in reality; Mr. Osborne finds it unbearable. Mr. Kerouac has insisted that people are not people at all. “We are empty phantoms,” he has said (and this may be superbly accurate as autobiography), “sitting here thinking we are human beings and worrying about civilization. We are just phantoms.” Mr. Osborne is even more depressed by the mere thought of living. He has described his Look Back in Anger as a play about “two people who couldn’t bear the pain of being human beings.” Mr. Kerouac in his novel On the Road was the one to call his generation “beat.” He does not mean that his characters, who are the Joads of delinquency, are bludgeoned, weary, or defeated. That would be too easy. By “beat” he means “beatific.” As he soils the word, “beatific” stands not for blessedness but for happiness achieved through car-stealing, hot-rodding, dope-taking, industrious drinking, exchanging girls (“fetching hunks,” he calls them), and the effortful avoidance of all kinds of gainful employment. Mr. Osborne’s Britishers, though equally young, are more old-fashioned. They are just plain “beat.” If I may say so, they are more “beat” by Mr. Osborne than by life. Mr. Osborne, supposedly the angry young man, is the victim of a sorry confusion. He is not really angry at all. He mistakes petulance for anger. I for one resent this bitterly. To me anger is a great and proud word, like wrath in the Bible. A tantrum is not anger. Anger, in the best sense, is a flexing of an aroused conscience. It is a big emotion which, I hope, the immorality of indifference will never keep you from summoning. I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of the snivlers, the defeated, and the whiners. I am sick and tired of being expected to believe that ugliness is beauty, that melancholy is man’s sole pleasure, that delinquency is delight, that disease is health, that laughter is something to be ashamed of, and that any denial is better than any affirmation.

Do not misunderstand me. When I attack negation, I do not want to sound like someone whose mother was frightened by a bluebird. I have lived long enough to be battered by the realities of life and too long to be downed by them. Many of us, if we have happy childhoods, are tempted when young to believe that life is a pony, beribboned and curried, which has been given to us a present. With the passing years we, sooner or later, come to learn that, instead of being that pony, life is a mule which unfortunately has more than four legs. To the best of my knowledge, no one who lives long enough fails to be kicked, usually again and again, by that mule. Why this should surprise us or unnerve us, I as an older person have long since ceased to understand. This testing has been the eternal challenge. To live, men have had to live with this challenge through the ages but undaunted by it, even as they have had to live with the knowledge that death is the ultimate challenge of life….

A generation is bound, in its major emphasis, to be a reflection of two things – the world it faces, and its response to that world. To say that the world at present stinks is to understate its fragrance. To say that it must stink forever is a lie, at least as I see it, and trust you see it too. To subscribe to that lie would be to invite the worst and to deserve it. You do not have to be told about the terrible threats of the present which could lead to mass annihilation and the savage end of civilization. But you, better than most, have been equipped to live not only with but above the appalling possibilities of our times. The world’s new perils that you will face cannot change the enduring values and challenges of your individual living. As all aspiring men have done before you, you will have to fight a hard battle within yourselves. I have in mind the age-old conflict between the specialist, as we know him today, and that ideal of the whole man as it was realized by Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin after the Revolution. To succeed, you will now more than ever have to put on the blinders of the specialist. Even so, I trust that your specialization will not keep you from knowing the joy of hobbies and the enrichment that comes only from the fullest possible immersion in all the concerns and interests of life. I beg of you to live as participants rather than as spectators, unafraid of work and unafraid of play….

John Mason Brown
GROTON, Mass., 1958

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.