Yowl – Letters from a Yuppie

Written by  //  October 25, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  5 Comments

In my last note on the Beat Generation of writers (http://www.criticaltwenties.in/mediapopularculture/the-beat-generation-parents-of-the-flower-child) I had touched upon Alan Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” – one of the most prominent works of the cabal of writers which included Burroughs, Kerouac among others.

Allow me to fast forward 30 years from then – and it is now 1986 and Reagonomics has gripped the USA and is bending and twisting the American Dream in its image. (Ronald Reagan, American President from 1981 – 1989 and his far-right economic policies of lower state spending and lower income and capital gains taxes ushered in a decade of high profit and stock market bull runs with lower social protection for the poor and marginalised)

In this decade of decadence, the dollar is all important, all encompassing and there is now almost a grassroot infrastructure to its theocracy. Money is sold as the only parameter for success. The magazines are glossy and all the names are French or Italian and every advertisement just feeds the hunger for more. Gordon Gecko says “Greed is good.” and they all believe him (Ironic as the film “Wall Street” is a cautionary tale about the struggle between an older value system and its newer hungrier progeny).

This is the birth of the Yuppie.

As per wikipedia the word Yuppie is short for “young upwardly-mobile professional” marked by conspicuous personal consumption.

There was a lot of literature arising in this generation of Yuppies and their lifestyle choices – foremost amongst these writers were Jay McInerney with “Bright Lights, Big City”, Tom Wolfe with “Bonfire of the Vanities”  and Bret Easton Ellis with “American Psycho”. Other mentions include “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis. None of these are very flattering – emphasising the lifestyle’s glamorous though ultimately unfulfilling nature.

What is interesting is that over time these stories have been co-opted by the Yuppies and are now simply tools of indoctrination into this “money culture”. Wall Street and Liar’s Poker are part of the unofficial course material at MBA schools. The satire is played straight. The moral of the story is lost somewhere and everyone wants to be the Big Bad Wolf.

In 1986 journalists Paul Slansky and Christopher Buckley wrote in magazine ‘The New Republic‘ a re-working of Howl called Yowl to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original. (The poem in its entirety can be read at: http://www.litkicks.com/Texts/Yowl.html . It is quite short and makes for funny and interesting reading) Yowl is a well written critique of the prevalent yuppie social milieu and is easy to dismiss as a simple parody – however in choosing Howl as the source the writers are (perhaps unintentionally) making a very bold statement. In this new era the best minds are no longer pioneers but simply the best conformists and are very accepting of dreams picked up during prime time television.

Yowl is dedicated to Jay McInerney and opens with:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by stress frazzled overtired burnt-out

jogging through suburban streets at dawn…”

The above quotation describes  a lot of people I know.

I had read Yowl years ago – and on re-reading it recently I was surprised by its relevance to a lot that we are seeing in India today. We are the post tech-boom generation of workers in India – the children of liberalisation. The Indian yuppies are finally here and loving it.

I am not attempting a moral stance here – simply stating that a part of our society is following a pattern set some time ago.The famed Indian consumption pyramid has given way to a consumption diamond – with fortunes being made in the luxury segment, whether it is mass purchases of BMWs or yachts dotting the bay outside Gateway of India. (As an aside, the uniquely Indian, and the Indian abroad, yuppie experience is finding a voice – the books can be found in the Crossword / Landmark near you, with surely more to come.)

The Yuppies of the Reagan era are fading now – no doubt having made and lost multiple fortunes in the 25 years since. However if the mainstream press dedicated to the second coming of the character Gordon Gecko is any indication, their ghosts are still with us. It would be convenient to blame them and the culture they espoused for global financial crisis of 2008. But this view is a little too convenient – after all, all the bankers and traders have seen Wall Street. They just took away the wrong lessons.

It is not often that you read about a society geographically and chronologically removed and feel as if you are looking in a mirror. Just for this there has been no better time to re-visit some of these great American authors and see what they have to say about a society not so different from our own.

5 Comments on "Yowl – Letters from a Yuppie"

  1. Arghya October 25, 2010 at 5:36 pm ·

    Lovely post Shreyas and most insightful!

  2. Ruchira October 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm ·

    Great post Sreyas. Thank you, especially for the cultural insights. And I loved Yowl.

  3. Ruchira October 27, 2010 at 4:59 pm ·

    “I’m with you on the Upper East Side
    looking for myself in People magazine”

    Oh just superb!!!!

  4. Shreyas October 27, 2010 at 8:29 pm ·

    Glad you liked Yowl… It beats the original in sheer quotability!

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