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Bless the Beasts and Children

Glendon Swarthout

Context

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Plot Overview

Although Bless the Beasts and Children, published in 1970, touches upon many themes that transcend time and place, it also speaks to many particular elements of American society in the late 1960s. A time of great social upheaval, the 1960s provided a transitional period in American history. Author Glendon Swarthout draws a parallel between the country's period of transition and the Bedwetters' own personal transformations from boys to men, and their negotiation of new challenges and questions. Written in the midst of the Vietnam War, the aftermath of several political assassinations, and in an environment in which youth culture fundamentally challenged societal assumptions, this novel speaks to the ideological movements of the period as well as to the popular culture that reflected these societal struggles. Despite the idealistic nature of the Bedwetters' mission, the tone of cynicism that runs throughout the novel echoes the larger society's disillusionment during a time of a disheartening war and domestic conflict—racial, generational, and sexual.

Elements of popular culture appear throughout the novel. The radios that accompany the Bedwetters during their mission constantly blare the latest hits in Motown and rock music. Westerns, with their cowboy heroics, in part provide the appeal of the adventure for the boys. On one night in particular, the Bedwetters escape to the local drive-in to see The Professionals. Swarthout does not select this film by accident; it has relevance to the boys' struggles, as it recounts the story of four misfit cowboys crossing the desert on a doomed mission to free a kidnapped woman. Allusions to television programs and to hippies also reflect the boys' awareness of the surrounding culture.

In addition, Swarthout speaks to the growing influence of environmentalism and animal rights during this time in the United States. The buffalo killings Swarthout depicts in this novel truly happened. The publication of this novel resulted in an outcry of public support to end the shootings, and the press responded with several articles. The government altered its methods slightly, but did not terminate the killing. Swarthout also demonstrates his appreciation for the natural world through his descriptions of the Arizona landscape. Environmentalism became a very powerful movement in the late 1960s, with the cultural trend to "get back to the land" and to embrace the natural world.

Glendon Swarthout's own son attended Hidden Valley Ranch for Boys, a camp for affluent boys that provided the basis for the author's depiction of the Box Canyon Boys Camp. Both a camper and a counselor at Hidden Valley Ranch, Miles Swarthout recounted his experiences to his father. Recognizing the power of his experiences and their adaptability to a literary context, Swarthout began to reconstruct and elaborate upon what his son had told him. He even dedicated the novel to his son, writing, "For Miles, who was there, and told me." Swarthout also completed lengthy research on the psychological problems of adolescent boys to create the main characters, each of whom has a distinct psychological problem. Swarthout pays particular attention to these problems in his italicized passages that elaborate on the characters' backgrounds.

William Golding's Lord of the Flies, written in 1954, provides the most apparent literary comparison to Bless the Beasts and Children. However, it differs from it in essential ways, and provides more of a response than an agreement with Golding's conceptions of man and beast. Swarthout himself asserted, "This book has the idea that people are not bestial in nature. It is just the opposite of Lord of the Flies. The idea is, if you isolate boys with the right combination of circumstances, they will do great things. So much is now anti-hero. This is a 'yes' book."

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