Intoxicated pilgrims in America's early atomic age literature

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University of Alabama Libraries

This dissertation has three primary concerns. 1.) How did the military-industrial complex affect an alienation of religious or spiritual feeling in the United States during the early- to mid-Cold War? 2.) How did countercultural authors of this period seek to ameliorate this alienation through both metaphysical and narcotic pursuit? 3.) How do they represent their experiences and beliefs as an interaction with various literary traditions? I argue that in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American cultural production experienced something like a spiritual malaise, and that some American writers responded to this ethos by pursuing religious experience through travel and chemical intoxication. In turn, they represent these visionary and ecstatic experiences through textual experimentation, including mythmaking, nonlinear sequencing, and incorporation of word-image. Looking primarily at the works of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), and Ram Dass (1931-2019), I argue that these writers represent an archetype I call the intoxicated pilgrim. While the archetype appears perennially across literatures, it experienced something like a renaissance in the early Cold War years, as new narcotics became more widely available, intra- and intercontinental travel more efficient, and social tastes more middlebrow. These writers worked to reshape religious experience and American identity, offering readers new avenues for spiritual meaning-making.

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American literature, Literature