The birth of the beatnik
By James Campbell
Q: What do you think of being King of the Beatniks?
A: Well, you know I never was a beatnik, doncha?
Q: How did the word evolve?
A: Well, first it was Beat Generation... then Sputnik went up, remember? Then they called it beatnik.
Sputnik 1 went into orbit on October 4, 1957, the day after "Howl"was cleared by Judge Horn in San Francisco, and one month after the publication of On the Road. A week or two later, a columnist on the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, wrote that the mad young bohemians skulking round North Beach and hanging out in its proliferating espresso bars were as "far out" as Sputnik. Their window display was "beat", but Caen redesigned them: from now on they were "beatniks".
The suffix waved an unwashed hand in the direction of beardedness, idleness, hoboism, non-patriotism, and, the ultimate, communism. So began, ironically, the commercialization of, and capitalization on, the rebellious image. Beatnik turned "beat" into kitsch.
The Beats disliked the appropriation of "beat", and its melding into "beatnik". "The foul word is used several times", wrote Ginsberg in a letter to the New York Times Book Review (respecting the notion of taboo utterance, for once), in response to an uncomplimentary article about Kerouac;
But the "beatnik" of mad critics is a piece of their own ignoble poetry. And if "beatniks", and not illuminated Beat poets, overrun this country they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash Man...
He signed off, "Prophetically, Allen Ginsberg". "Beat" was a state of being, said the prophet; "beatnik" was fancy dress. Beat was identity; beatnik was image.
It had been on its way for some time, and others less eager than Ginsberg to believe in a wholesale revolution in "mind" ("illuminated Beat poets" overrunning the country, etc) had seen it coming. One evening in Tangiers, Kerouac had been summoned to a party by Ginsberg, who was entertaining a "big bunch of hipsters and chicks" whom he had met in the medina. As Kerouac sat and listened to their "awful 'likes' and 'like you know' and 'wow crazy' and 'a wig man, a real gas'", he was gripped by an overpowering nausea at the false consciousness of hip, which he himself had helped to create. "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" he asked on the long-ago holiday with Überbeatmensch, super-man double-man. Dean-Neal. Here? To be crowded out by a bunch of weekend beatniks? This dispiriting insight occurred in the spring of 1957, the very moment at which On the Road was at last being set in type, and there was he, "already sick of the whole subject".
By the middle of 1959, it seemed as though you could hardly open a magazine without encountering a photograph or a caricature - in the fashion department as much as in the feature pages - of the typical beatnik: loose-fitting hooped T-shirt, beret, goatee beard, sunglasses, poetry book in hand; for chicks, subtract the beard and add deep fringe and heavy eye make-up. Playboy ran a version of an address Kerouac had given to students at Brandeis College late in 1958, "Origins of the Beat Generation". Much though he disliked its current manifestation, Kerouac still laid claim to being the founder of the Beat Generation. He explained to his audience that, yes, "beat" had originally meant low, down on your luck, but then he had had a revelation one afternoon in a church in his hometown, Lowell: suddenly, with tears in his eyes, he had "a vision of what I must have really meant with 'Beat'.... as being to mean 'beatific'".
Playboy had no interest in beatific, but went all out for beatnik. The December issue contained "Before the Road: The earlier adventures of Dean Moriarty", an account of Neal's poolroom days in Denver during the Second World War. The editorial column, "Playbill", introduced Kerouac and three other writers featured in the magazine:
a foursome of fiction by the ever-beat Jack Kerouac, the sometimes beat Alberto Moravia, the rarely beat Max Shulman, and the never-beat Roald Dahl.
There was a "Beat Playmate", Yvette, "a beatnik found in a coffee-house". She was blonde, crop-haired, and anything but down on her luck: "She's interested in serious acting, ballet, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, classical music ('Prokoviev drives me out of my skull!')." Yvette was also "restless and uninhibited enough to drive a Jag in the desert for kicks".
Life took the anti-Americanism encrypted in the Soviet-sounding suffix more to heart than most other magazines. In September 1959, Life ran a feature entitled "Squaresville USA vs Beatsville". It was prompted by the news that three teenage girls in the Midwestern town of Hutchinson, Kansas, had sent an invitation to Lawrence Lipton, author of the recently published Holy Barbarians, an account of beatnik life in Venice, California. When word went round Hutchinson that the place was on the brink of invasion by beatniks, a parents' revolt took place, and they called in the law. A spokesman for the police department told Life that a beatnik was someone who "doesn't like work, any man who doesn't like work is a vagrant, and a vagrant goes to jail around here". Lipton was hastily uninvited, and the trio of girls who had innocently contacted him had their Americanness - and what Ginsberg might have called their "psychic virginity" - protected by being "whisked away to seclusion by their distressed parents". Before they disappeared, the journalist from Life elicited a quote from one of them, Luetta Peters: "We know beatniks aren't good", she said, "but we thought they just dressed sloppy and talked funny. Now we know that they get married without licenses and things like that."
Things like that? Even if they had not read the uncensored version of what still appeared on the printed page as "who were... in the... by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy", their intuition - or their parents', or the local policeman's intuition - read the dotted runes and understood the threat to the Hutchinsonian way of life. "Now we know...": that Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky all sleep in the same bed; that Ginsberg and Orlovsky share both boyfriends and girlfriends; that they performed oral sex on each other in the grounds of a church in Assisi; that they wrote separate accounts of their "experiments" (Peter fellating Allen while Allen writes a poem); that they inject heroin; that Ginsberg had left the Cassady household because Mrs Cassady had surprised him with Mr Cassady's penis in his mouth; that Mr Cassady - the same Cassady who was the hero of the current beatnik novel - was in the habit of sleeping with several women in the same day (though not now, because he was in prison), and much more. The long hair, the loose clothes, the beards, contained the answers if you asked questions of them that were tough enough. Luetta Peters and her friends were probably also unable to admit that part of the beatniks' original appeal for them had been their own literally unspeakable (in the town of Hutchinson) interest in the subject of sex.
Life printed a picture of a "happy home in Kansas" - a living-room where the four-square family congregated for a "TV session", or gathered round the photograph album ("unfailing fun"). This was contrasted with a "hip family's cool pad" in Venice, CA, where the "emphasis is all on 'creativity' with no interest in physical surroundings". The occupants were shown sprawled on mattresses on the floor, with empty beercans lying around.
Soon there was Rent-a-Beatnik, The Beat Generation Cookbook, and a MAD magazine special, featuring mock advertisements for "Paint Smears - all colors, paste on easily" and "Oversize Sweaters for Beatnik chicks - one size only (too big)". There was a glossary of "Square Terms" ("Daddy - the tag a square pegs his old man with") and a gallery of "Hipsters", complete with their philosophies. One was Wanda Kuhl, who used to "sit around at home nights with nothing to do", until she became a beatnik. "Now every night I go to some coffee house and sit around and listen to jazz records. I'm leading a real wild life now."
The Beat Generation Cookbook offered recipes for "Ginsburgers" (half-cup chopped Pickled Beats, 1 cup cooked Square potatoes"), "Subterranean Spudniks" ("This bit was supplied by a young Beat doll who is also the mother of three Beatlets"), and "Haiku Hash" ("The only one that is anywhere near as popular as the Pablo Picasserole").
Rent-a-Beatnik was the brainchild of Fred McDarragh, a photographer who was making a speciality of beat (and beatnik) scenes. McDarragh placed an ad in the Village Voice:
RENT genuine BEATNIKS
Badly groomed but brilliant
(male and female)
The rental price was $40 nightly. (MAD countered with "Rent a SQUARE for your next Beatnik Party"). Props, such as bongo drums and guitars, were extra.
One of McDarragh's rentable beatniks was the poet Jack Micheline, "an intense, beardless New Yorker of 29", according to the New York Herald Tribune, which ran a story about these glimmers of the spirit of free enterprise among the indolent hip. "It's sad", Micheline told the Herald Tribune's reporter, "that a poet of my reputation has to do a whole lot of gigs just to make a buck."
Another rentable beatnik was Ted Joans, "an ebullient Negro bard and painter who came to New York from Indiana". Joans was rented out to a party in the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale, to read his poetry. When it came time for the recital, however, the guests were too drunk to want to listen. "But he was there", the host, Lawrence Barken, told the Trib, "resplendent in his beret and his slightly torn black sweater. It worked out wonderfully. People in Westchester are still talking about it." The Hipikat had come a long way.
Early in 1959, Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky set up a travelling circus. Ostensibly to raise money for the first issue of Big Table, it was also the opportunity to proselytize on behalf of beat poetry and beatitude, to tarnish the gold standard of American moneymaking values, to wake up the "fabled damned" for a moment. If the discussion appeared to be reverting to normality, just throw in a "Death to Van Gogh's Ear" or "Poetry is a wose". Ginsberg and Corso made an effective double-act, with Orlovsky in the middle as Harpo Marx. On his radio programme on WFMT in Chicago, Studs Terkel, introducing them as "two certainly very alive young poets", had to be interrupted and alerted to the fact that Orlovsky was there at all. "We've brought an angel along!" cried Ginsberg into the mike. Then, while Terkel and Ginsberg were carrying on a conversation about the "philosophy of beat" - it's only a label, Ginsberg explained, but "actually quite a beautiful label... it's poetically interesting... everybody's so worn down to a point where they'd be able to receive God..." - Corso struggled free of his leash. Suddenly he said that he didn't like "all these people". Which people? asked Terkel. Corso turned coy and wouldn't say, though the conversation had been about beatniks. "I hate them", Corso repeated. Then, under prompting from Terkel, he admitted that he loved them. "I can't make up my mind. You're making me paranoid."
Orlovsky broke in to add, in a frail voice, that "beat" came from Fra Angelico, "who used to cry a lot. He would cry for four hours at a time before he painted Christ." Orlovsky sounded close to tears himself. "Before he painted the Virgin", corrected Ginsberg. Corso butted in again to say that he had just written a poem about his hair. Could he read it?
It was lovely hair once
Hours before shop-windows gum-machine mirrors with great combs
Washed hair I hated
With dirt the waves came easier and stayed...
Still in Chicago, the trio gave a reading in the home of a local banker. Representatives of the press were invited. Time devoted most of a page to the event.
At length Poet Ginsberg arrived, wearing blue jeans and a checked black-and-red lumber shirt with black patches. With him were two other shabbily dressed Beatniks. One was Ginsberg's intimate friend, a mental-hospital attendant named Peter Orlovsky, 25, who writes poetry (I talk to the fire hydrant, asking: "Do you have bigger tears than I do?"); the other was Gregory Corso, 28, a shaggy, dark little man who boasts that he has never combed his hair - and never gets an argument...
As the formalities began, somebody shoved a microphone in view.
"I'm Peter Orlovsky", said Peter Orlovsky. "I'm very fine and happy and crazy as a wild flower."
"I'm Allen Ginsberg", said Allen Ginsberg, "and I'm crazy like a daisy."
"I'm Gregory Corso", said Gregory Corso, "and I'm not crazy at all."
Would they like to make any comment? "Yes," said Corso. "Fried shoes."
Emerging from the timid, nervy, repressed Ginsberg of a decade earlier was a bright, haloed creature. Ginsberg was saved through faith - faith in his own visions. "Not for nothing did I hear Blake's voice ten years ago", he told a literary editor Max Gartenberg, "his actual voice I mean". Get this straight: Blake talks to me, not you. Nine months later, Ginsberg repeated to the same correspondent that there was no doubt that the voice he heard was Blake's voice, "I mean heard, aurally, literally". Spun through successive retellings, his Harlem experience had become the ceremony of his election to the circle of prophetic poets. He belonged, he told Gartenberg, "to the Church of Poetry".
He had no hesitation about telling audiences the same thing. At a reading at City Lights in 1959, Ginsberg prepared the crowd for what they were about to hear by saying that, when he wrote, he got a rhythm going and then improvised with the help of what sometimes "appears to be Divine Inspiration". When so possessed, he arrived at the feeling that "the world can be entered and Prophesied by a Single Soul". At another reading the same year, at New York University, he announced that he was writing for "God's ear".
It was also within the realm of the Prophet to spit fire and brimstone, and Ginsberg's assaults on what he called "standard American values" and all those that had been corrupted by them, became more vitriolic as they became more public. He had always linked the personal and the political. For Burroughs and Kerouac, "beat" was body politics: freedom from police interference, from moral interference (whose morals anyway?), freedom to move to different latitudes and freedom to mutilate oneself, or mutilate one's text; for Ginsberg, it became, as he became more famous, a spiritual pressure group. From having been content to work on changing the shape of his own psyche, he all of a sudden wanted to change the world.
The letter to the NYTBR (a response to a review of The Subterraneans), in which he berated "mad critics" and "industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man", was followed by an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle, which began from the premiss that "America is having a nervous breakdown". Ginsberg prophesied a police state, the apparatus of which was already in place. Although San Francisco was a city where a few poets "have had the luck and courage and fate to glimpse .... the nature of God", nevertheless "the police and newspapers have moved in, mad movie manufacturers from Hollywood are at this moment preparing bestial stereotypes of the scene". Those who chose to use heroin, like Ginsberg himself, found themselves "threatened with permanent jail and death". Worse than that, he shrieked, sense finally strangled by rhetoric, to be a junkie in America "is like having been a Jew in Nazi Germany".
In the author's note to his forthcoming book of poems, Kaddish, Ginsberg declared that "the established literary quarterlies of my day are bankrupt poetically thru their own hatred, dull ambition or loudmouthed obtuseness". A letter to the anthologist Gartenberg, who was compiling a collection of writing by both the Beats and the Angry Young Men, issued a warning to mind what he said in public about the Beat Generation. It was ornamented by a half-page illustration of a skull and crossbones.
Another skull and crossbones for another era. One of the most successful campaigns of 1959 was fought at Columbia University, where, fifteen years before, a different Ginsberg had etched a skull and crossbones on a dormitory window, and found himself suspended from the college, beginning the painful process which led eventually to the Psychiatric Institute.
In February, together with Corso and Orlovsky, Ginsberg read at the McMillin Theater on campus, at the invitation of a student club. Members of the English department, including Trilling, declined to sponsor the occasion in any way, and made public their rejection of it. When Ginsberg and co stepped on to the podium before a large collection of students, there were only a few "faculty wives" present from within the university to witness the triumphant return.
One of the faculty wives was Diana Trilling, who intended to write about it for Partisan Review. Like her husband, their friend and colleague Auden boycotted the meeting ("I'm ashamed of you", he gently chided Diana); her editor William Phillips also stayed away, though he welcomed her thoughts on the event. She was curious to know what had become of Ginsberg, with his annoying "sensation-seeking", his "lurid boasts" about being the confidante of Blake, his poems which were "never quite good enough", who had, at one stage, been painfully involved with her family. She was proud that it was not just anyone to whom Ginsberg had gone in his trouble; "it was Lionel". She and her husband, she wrote, were forced to regard Ginsberg as "a case" - a gifted and sad case, a nuisance case, even a guilt-provoking case, but above all a "case".
On the platform at McMillin, before a large audience of newly long-haired, bearded, unnecktied students, Ginsberg read part of "Kaddish", and as he read "he choked and cried". He read another poem, also bound for his new collection, "The Lion for Real" - "I came home and found a lion in my living room" - which Mrs Trilling understood as a tribute to her husband. She heard it as "a passionate love poem", and when she got home to the Trillings' apartment on Riverside Drive, where a meeting was in progress among her husband and his colleagues, she announced, in the presence of the assembled company, "Allen Ginsberg read a love-poem to you, Lionel". She felt sure that the wild poet's tame old teacher would understand why.
Except that she was wrong. She had misheard. "The Lion for Real" is about Ginsberg's Blake experience; the "Lion" in the living room is not "Lionel" but a force, an emissary from God. The spiritual dynamic of the poem propels it in exactly the opposite direction to the one recommended to Ginsberg by Trilling. If Ginsberg dedicated it to his former teacher on the night, it could only have been as an ironic riposte to the sensible but (Ginsberg now firmly believed) wasteful advice encapsulated in the word adjust.
The article, "The Other Night at Columbia", came out in the Spring issue of Partisan Review. Ginsberg's brother Eugene Brooks wrote to him to say that he had read it, and that he found it "sensitive and modest". Not, as Ginsberg did "self-smug or bitchy". Allen pointed to the misunderstanding of "The Lion for Real", and threatened to write to the magazine with another assault on the "mad critics" of "ignoble poetry" who couldn't even listen straight. His brother gently suggested that Mrs Trilling be allowed to put that interpretation on it if she wished.
At the same time that he was fuming to Eugene, Ginsberg heard from Kerouac's ex-girlfriend, Joyce Glassman, who was working as a secretary at Partisan Review (in succession to LeRoi Jones's wife). She said that the editor was hoping Ginsberg would reply to the article in a letter. "Various wrathful ones have already come in", she added.
The wrath was doubtless stirred by Mrs Trilling's sympathetic attitude towards the beat prophet (which Eugene could see but Allen could not). When, during the question-and-answer session, someone in the audience had asked Ginsberg to state his philosophy, Mrs Trilling had thought: "Here we go, he'll tell us how he's crazy like a daisy", or else utter one of the other beat wisecracks she had read in Time. But, instead of saying he was crazy-daisy, Ginsberg replied that he had no philosophy; "he spoke of inspiration, or... ecstatic illumination, as the source of his poetry", which surprised and pleased Mrs Trilling.
Ginsberg decided to take up Partisan's offer to respond to the article. His letter appeared in the summer issue. There were no "wrathful" letters, only his: "The universe is a new flower. Allen Ginsberg."
The first issue of Big Table came off the press, at last, in March, sporting the Stars and Stripes on the cover. "Will you guys promise to visit me if I go to jail for printing this mag?" Irving Rosenthal worried in a letter to Ginsberg and Kerouac. Big Table had become a cause. Its defiance of the academic establishment, which had attempted to wish away the contents of the Chicago Review, placed it instantly in the best tradition of twentieth-century little-magazine publishing. Rosenthal and Carroll could proclaim themselves the heirs of Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, whose Little Review had carried portions of an earlier banned book, Ulysses, and as a result had been burnt on four separate occasions. Warned by Ezra Pound (who sent them the manuscript) that to print Joyce's work was certain to land them in a censorship struggle, Miss Anderson replied, "This is the most beautiful thing we'll ever have... We'll print it if it's the last effort of our lives." Rosenthal and Carroll felt the same way. Who would give two cents now for Isaac Rosenfeld's lament for the avant-garde?
Four hundred copies which had been deposited in the mail for subscribers were promptly impounded by the Post Office. They neglected to tell the publishers, however, and Rosenthal and Carroll only discovered that Big Table 1 had been deemed "unfit to go through the mail" when subscribers wrote in to complain that their copies had failed to arrive.
The Post Office beheld indecency not only in the latest helpings of Naked Lunch - the largest and strongest yet - but in the long prose piece, divided into fifty sections, by Kerouac. Its original title was "Lucien Midnight", and it was meant as a tribute to the mercurial nature of the founding member of the libertine circle; but, after seeing galley proofs, Carr requested that the title be changed - his disguise was still self-effacement - and Kerouac renamed it "Old Angel Midnight".
The Post Office's concern was with obscenity. The Chancellor of the University and others interested in the fate of the Chicago Review objected on aesthetic grounds. They claimed that the writing selected by the editorial team of Rosenthal and Carroll was "half-literate". This was becoming a common criticism of the work of Kerouac and Co, and it was reiterated in unexpected places. William Carlos Williams, who had endorsed Ginsberg's book (though in obtuse terms, remembering Ginsberg as someone he had known after the First World War), wrote to Joseph Renard in 1958 asking if he was familiar with the work of the "San Francisco gang". Renard's own poems, Williams wished to stress, "are not an offshoot from that impetus - which is really illiterate, though I should be strung up [if] it were known...".
In his most recent prose experiment, Kerouac granted himself the right to say "anything I want, absolutely anything". And he stuck to that right:
2. Flaki - amete - interrupted chain saw sting eucalyptus words inside the outside void that good God we cant believe anything is arsaphallawy any the pranaraja of madore with his bloody arse kegs, shit - go to three.
"Old Angel Midnight" begins on the path of spontaneous composition and ends in the Tower of Babel. The cause of comprehensibility was finally dropped. Here was the verbal jazz master willing to forget everything he had ever learned - including the relationship between words and things, words and actions - and to leave it all in the hands of his genius. Close your eyes and just hit the keys. Kerouac's current favourite pianist, Cecil Taylor, was doing something similar in music - he would become known for clambering on top of the piano and playing upside down, and for climbing inside and plucking the wires. And now here was Kerouac, plucking the wires of verbal facility, writing upside down. Not forgetting to stir in a little chopped-up Buddhism:
Pirilee, pirilee, tzwé tzwi tzwa - tack tick - birds & firewood. The dream is already ended and we're already awake in the golden eternity.
Since the early 1950s, following the composition of The Town and the City. and the first version of On the Road, Kerouac had moved his method of composition ever closer to the area of music. He "blew" on his typewriter as a jazz musician blew on his instrument. It wasn't cool jazz, it was bebop, hard and fast, the faster the better, until the melody was lost in a blur of notes. Kerouac could type faster than anyone else, according to Philip Whalen:
The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again, and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! And he'd laugh and say, "Look at this!" And he'd type, and he'd laugh. Then he'd make a mistake, and this would lead him off into a possible part of a new paragraph, into a funny riff of some kind...
His old friend from Horace Mann Prep School, Jerry Newman, had progressed from his days as an amateur collector of live recordings in the 52nd Street clubs to become a professional recording engineer. One day, Newman set up a session with the pianist Ralph Burns, to be produced by Leonard Feather. Knowing of Kerouac's excitement at being close to jazz musicians, Newman invited him to attend. But Kerouac brought along a bottle, and proceeded to get plastered. As the session got underway, he kept on telling Newman that the only pianist worth listening to in New York was Cecil Taylor. Newman had worked with Taylor in the past, and admired him, but his mind was on the present session with Burns. While Newman was setting up the microphones, however,
Jack got on the phone and invited, at his own initiative, Cecil Taylor to come over and play... The trouble I had shooing Jack away from the piano (by this time he was himself playing on the Steinway) ruined the rest of the session, and I finally flipped...
At this point he called me a "dirty Jew bastard".
"My contract includes a Hollywood clause - what? Lana Turner and me?" That was to a friend ten years before, in the first flush of excitement at having sold The Town and the City to Harcourt Brace for $1,000. Ever since, Kerouac had nursed hopes of seeing something of his in the movies, and of seeing some movie money. Through the late 1940s and into the 50s, Kerouac's fantasies of buying a ranch, growing alfalfa, raising a small herd, cosying down with Neal (and Carolyn, if necessary), had lacked financial back-up. The sale of a book to Hollywood was the answer.
There had been cause for optimism following the publication of On the Road. An offer of $100,000 was reportedly placed on the table by Warner Bros ... Paramount entered the bidding ... Brando was still interested ... Kerouac's agent was holding out for $150,000...
It was pie in the sky, and the rights to the book remained unsold.
The only one of his novels to be made into a film was The Subterraneans, which Grove Press had published in February 1958. The sum paid for the rights was one-tenth of what he had hoped to receive for On the Road, and the film version turned out to be a parody of the original book. An interracial love affair on the screen posed moral and commercial questions which MGM was unwilling, or simply unable, to consider; and so Mardou Fox, the "brown mistress", the "child of Bop", was played by the ultra-fair Leslie Caron. The underground spirit of the book was swept out and a topical weird-beatnik phantom inserted in its place. The Kerouac character, Leo Percepied, was portrayed as a vicious roughneck by George Peppard, and the script has great fun with this tough guy's dependence on his mother.
The opening scene involves a conversation among four characters, the Corso figure Yuri, Arial Lavalina (whose role was upgraded for the screen, possibly because the scriptwriter had heard that he was based on Gore Vidal), Adam (Ginsberg), and the far-out beat-chick Roxanne. They talk nonsense. It is parody Beat nonsense. And yet, as it goes on, it becomes apparent that it is not, really, that far removed from "Fried shoes" and "Crazy as a daisy".
Yuri (to Arial): If I were you, man, I'd go to the moon - I mean it's like conk-coo-coo-cool up there, but private man,like now anyway. Later on it'll be the new Miami Beach but now it's still away, and if I were you I'd go to the moon...
Adam (to Roxanne): If I were you... and I am... why then we'd be each other. And if I knew what that meant I'd know everything. I'd know you.
Roxanne rises, and begins a strange dance routine, chanting her own accompaniment all the while, her voice rising to a crescendo: "There's a tiger in my bones! I'm filled up with him! he's coming out! Tiger, tiger, burning bright!" In a token acknowledgement of the Harlem vision, Adam, pipes up: "In the forest of the night."
The film's single consolation was a soundtrack by Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McCrae and Shelly Manne, among others. Kerouac was angry and embarrassed at seeing his work travestied. He could only protest that he had not even been paid a decent price for selling out.
A desperately ironic reversal of the original ethos of beat took place around the alternative title for On the Road, "Beat Generation". Over the course of a weekend in 1957, Kerouac had written a three-act play, for which he had used his own old favourite title - since his novel was finally settled, he decided to call the play "The Beat Generation". The substance of it was drawn from an evening at the Cassadys' home in Los Gatos in 1955, when a visit of the local bishop and his elderly mother and aunt coincided with the unexpected arrival of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky. The visit turned into a nightmare for Carolyn. After tea had been served, Ginsberg sat between the two elderly women and asked brightly, "Now, what about sex?" Caressing a bottle of wine, Kerouac slouched down on the floor by the bishop's legs and fell into a drunken sleep. As Carolyn endeavoured to carry on a normal conversation with her guests, Kerouac would wake up now and then, look at the bishop and say, "I love you", then go back to sleep. When Neal arrived home from work, he took the part of his wild-man buddies over that of his wife and her clergyman.
In 1959, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and some Greenwich Village friends hatched a plan to make a short film, using the third act of Kerouac's play, which dramatized the bishop's visit, as the central event. They wanted to call it "The Beat Generation". However, it was discovered that MGM had copyrighted the title, and were about to give it to a B-movie featuring a rapist on the run from the police. When not terrorizing women, the villainous hero of the film The Beat Generation hangs out in espresso bars and at beatnik parties, where strange dances are performed by men with goatee beards and dyed-blonde beat-chicks to the rhythm of the bongo drums.
The alternative film went ahead. It was called Pull My Daisy, a title borrowed from the early poem by Ginsberg which had appeared in the magazine Neurotica. The director was the Swiss photographer Robert Frank. Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Corso were given parts, the former pair to play themselves, and Corso to move between himself and Kerouac, who did not wish to appear. They used a loft at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 12th Street as the set; there was one camera, one spotlight, one professional performer - a French actress called Delphine Seyrig, who took the role of that other outsider, Carolyn Cassady - and an impromptu voice-over by Kerouac. The composer David Amram, well-known around the Village, was enlisted to write some music, but the technique and spirit of the film were improvisatory; it was a jazz movie, a boy-gang reunion, a homage to the still imprisoned Neal Cassady, and a jeer at his wife.
Pull My Daisy begins with the Carolyn-figure (unnamed) letting in the dawn. Kerouac's narration (which was recorded in one sitting, after he had watched the film twice) is warm and plangent:
Early morning in the universe. The wife is getting up, opening the windows, in this loft that's in the bowery in the lower east side, New York. She's a painter and her husband's a railroad brakeman, and he's coming home in a couple hours, about five hours, from the local. 'Course the room's in a mess. That's her husband's coat on a chair - been there for three days - neckties and his tortured socks.
Before her husband, Milo, returns from work, the poets bounce into the room, "laying their beercans out on the table... bursting with poetry". Milo gets home shortly before the arrival of the bishop and his womenfolk. After the disastrous encounter has taken place, Milo is nagged by his wife, who had so badly wanted the visit to be a success, and, now that the guests have gone, feels humiliated and let down by Milo and all his friends. Tired of her bleating complaints, the boys get up to leave. Milo remonstrates:
Ah, shut up, I didn't do nothing, you know I didn't do nothing and it's not bad. These are nice fellas. They're just sitting - now they're getting up and they're leaving. I don't blame them for leaving.
You don't understand....
Come on there, Peter, Gregory, Allen, come, let's go. Come on down these steps. Let's go. We'll go somewhere; we'll find something. Maybe we'll play by fires in the Bowery.
While Milo prepares to leave with the boys and the camera lingers on a lonely woman in an empty room, the narrator adds blithely, "She'll get over it."
They bound down the stairs towards the front door and the open streets, the Territory, away from churchly decorum, wifely rectitude, domestic drear. "Here comes sweet Milo, beautiful Milo. Hello gang. Da da da da da." The boys start a rap: "Let's go! 'sgo! 'sgo! Off - they - go."
All the essential elements of the boy-gang are there: anti-authoritarianism, jazz, bop-prose narration, girls-in-dresses-better-left-at-home spilling into misogyny, boys' adventure spilling into homosexuality. It is the emblematic Beat Generation film. At the close, Kerouac even had them going on the road again. But that was only wishful thinking.
By this time, Kerouac felt confident about applying his technique of verbal spontaneity to practically any genre: novel, poem, drama, filmscript. Spontaneity, after all, had scriptural backing. When Gary Snyder suggested that he try his hand at writing sutra - the classical form, purporting to convey the thoughts of the Buddha himself - it seemed like a logical extension, and Kerouac didn't hestitate. He produced The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, sixty-six sections of spiritual bromide.
When you've understood this scripture, throw it away. If you can't understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.
While Ginsberg and Burroughs continued to overreach themselves to catch the fleeting vision, Kerouac's natural skills turned inwards, regarded no other, and wasted. By the middle of 1959, he was being seen by a fascinated public as an ex-hobo, a bohemian institution, or as just the latest gimmick. To himself, he was a genius. His declarations about his own stature and ability became more and more uncoordinated and wayward. On a radio programme broadcast from Lowell, Kerouac rambled, giggled, and burst into tears by turns, while a befuddled host attempted to keep up the theme of local boy made good. He was questioned about his by-now famous refusal to revise his prose. "Once God moves the hand", intoned Kerouac solemnly, "to go back and revise is a sin!" Uh-huh, said the interviewer, "that's great, Jack". Asked if he felt he had accomplished what he set out to do in writing, the audibly drunk writer shot back: "I accomplish anything." Proust and Joyce were the two greatest writers of the century so far. As to the third...
I read all of The Rememberance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, and I decided to do just like he did - but fast... James Joyce was going to sit by the sea and write the sounds of the sea, but he died and he didn't do it, so I did it for him.
Writing to LeRoi Jones on a piece of toilet paper from Paris, Ginsberg had complained that he was "tired of being Allen Ginsberg", and that people approached him in cafés and on the street "with all these strange ideas about who I am". Compared to Kerouac's fame, however, Ginsberg's was still of the local variety. He had yet to publish a second collection, though by now most of what would be Kaddish and other poems was ready to be handed over to Ferlinghetti. Much of the work intended for the book was drug-infused - as the titles indicate: "Mescaline", "Lysergic Acid", "Laughing Gas" - and while they do not live up to the title poem, they gesture towards Ginsberg's intention to make his poems include everything contained in the vertical figure, "I".
On a different continent, in a different genre, one he invented as he went along, Burroughs was engaged in a comparable project, with this paradox: that his inclusiveness had the aim of invisibility. As he was always attempting to kick narcotics, so he was always in the process of trying to kick his own fleshless features, and move beyond "the so-called reality" by disappearing through a hole in the texture of a painting by Brion Gysin, or a painting by Gysin's disciple - himself.
The expansionist project was not joined by Kerouac. His drug was drink. People who saw him at social gatherings were spellbound by his party-trick of falling flat on his face, like a felled tree, in the middle of a sentence.
Increasingly disaffected from his earlier role as "father of the Beats", Kenneth Rexroth responded to "Fried shoes", "Poetry is a wose", Ginsberg's habit of taking off his clothes while reciting his poems, Corso's uncombed hair, Kerouac's ever more uncombed mind, by doing what radicals of his generation always did when they wanted to make a protest: he wrote an article. In "The Commercialization of the Image of Revolt", Rexroth expressed the view that the most deplorable thing about the rise of the beatnik was that it eclipsed a dissident movement which had the potential to create actual change.
He began by paying homage to the "great aliénés" of the past. There had been writers in every period who were dissidents. Baudelaire synthesized the various types of nonconformity into one person: "There's hardly... a fad taken up every five years by a new bohemian generation which Baudelaire didn't push to its limits. He would have been perfectly at home in Greenwich Village." Rexroth meant the Greenwich Village of the 1920s, or even of the early 50s; but as for the present, "what has happened in the past four or five years is that dissent has become a hot commodity".
The word "commodity" was a signal for radical disgust. The capitalist system - incorporating the "industries of mass communication" against which Ginsberg had fulminated in his letter to the New York Times - was going through its customary motions of assimilating its critics, turning them into cute dolls with berets and T-shirts, and selling them through the mass-market magazines as court jesters to the bourgeoisie. Dissent, a university professor told Rexroth, "is the hottest thing around". The anarchist essence of beat was being siphoned off and used to fuel the same old superstructure. Beat? Sure, we can sell it. Subversive? They'll be queueing round the block. The final result of the anarchist-based San Francisco Renaissance was "Rent-a-Beatnik" in a posh New York suburb. Baudelaire's injunction to artists to "épater les bourgeois" had become amuser les bourgeois. When the beatnik turns up at a party in Scarsdale with his bearded vocabulary and his bereted verse, they are tickled to be épaté; they have a ball, he takes their money, everyone goes home happy. Remark the difference: in 1957, Allen Ginsberg's poem was under investigation as a criminal act, while in 1959, Jack Kerouac was publishing his latest discourse on hip to Playboy, or some other girlie magazine. "Well", sighed the old anarchist Rexroth, "it sells books".
Kerouac, in particular, becaame the target of Rexroth's disgust. When On the Road was unpublished and an underground cult, Rexroth compared its author to Céline and Beckett, the two great aliénés of post-war literature; now that Kerouac's books were coming out one after another, in a fog of obfuscating publicity, Rexroth changed his mind and took every opportunity to say how bad he thought they were. Suddenly, the cult writer was a self-styled bop poetaster who knew nothing about jazz (he had the "time sense of May flies", Rexroth said); the same went for his "sophomoric Buddhism".
Rexroth's assault began with an unfavourable review of On the Road in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was followed by a second piece in the same paper, six months later, when The Subterraneans appeared, headlined: "The Voice of the Beat Generation has some Square Delusions". The Subterraneans, Rexroth concluded, was a story about "jazz and Negroes ... two things Jack Kerouac knows nothing about". He could think of no better put-down than to say that the King of the Beats was "a furious square".
Still, Rexroth felt that one good poem was worth a great many berets and beards, and when Ginsberg applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant in October 1959, Rexroth agreed to sponsor him. "Of course I will be happy to recommend you for a Guggenheim", Rexroth replied to Ginsberg's request, "you deserve it, you are a good poet." But, he added, in a reference back to dissent as a commodity,
don't expect me to approve of all your activities and friends, nor your and their childish boasting about narcotics and... evil parody of the sane and uncompromising way of life some of us have worked out here in San Francisco. Nor can I accept their habit of identifying themselves to the gutter press on Madison Avenue, Fleet Street or Paris.
At a soirée at Rexroth's house a year or so earlier, Kerouac had got noisily drunk and started jabbing, "I'm a better poet than you are, Rexroth", every time his host began to speak. Rexroth responded by calling him a "punk". On another occasion, Ginsberg had taken off his clothes and leapt on Rexroth, kissing him all over and squealing, "I love you!"
The activities of the Beats and their friends could be more seriously disruptive than that. Robert Creeley, the editor of the Black Mountain Review and a close friend of Ginsberg, also attended Rexroth's literary evenings, and soon began an affair with Rexroth's wife, which effectively ended the marriage. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac attempted to take revenge for Rexroth's attack on him by giving the older writer the name "Rheinhold Cacoethes", disinterring Carr's favourite word - a desire for something harmful - from the Columbia days. Cacoethes - who acted as MC at the Six Gallery reading in Kerouac's novel, as Rexroth did in life - was "a bow-tied old anarchist fud".
But no matter, Ginsberg was still a good poet, and Rexroth told him: "I hope you get the Guggenheim."
If it occurred to him that Ginsberg's cap-in-hand request for Guggenheim money conflicted with his increasingly shrill anti-establishment public stance, that it might be another example of the system gobbling up its critics, Rexroth refrained from saying so. However, another poet whom Ginsberg approached, Richard Eberhart, was quick to make the point. "How can you do it?" he wrote back. "The idea is that America is against you, offering only the gutter and madness." Eberhart still backed the application, but the administrators of the Guggenheim fellowships may have shared his doubts, for Ginsberg's request for an award was turned down.
In Chicago, the Post Office arranged a hearing to discuss the seizure of Big Table 1. The magazine was invited to defend its alleged seriousness of purpose. Several literary figures approached by Rosenthal and Carroll agreed to speak or submit written depositions, including some who had refused any close association with the Beat Generation, such as John Ciardi, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and the much put-upon Lionel Trilling. They defended the right to publish descriptions of the alarming medical techniques of Burroughs's Dr Benway, who performs open-heart surgery with a lavatory suction-pump (sterilized by swishing it around the toilet bowl), and Kerouac's experimental and occasionally expletive-loaded "babbling world tongues" in "Old Angel Midnight".
The Post Office's position, as stated by their attorney, was that
this magazine, Big Table 1, is obscene and filthy. And it has no redeeming value. It is conceivable that certain literary critics would state that certain essays and poems contained in this magazine have some literary merit. Such people, however, are not able to speak for the average member of the community. It is inconceivable that [they] would find in this magazine anything but filth, and it is the effect this magazine has on the average member of the community that the Law is concerned with.
At the hearing, Paul Carroll tried to read from Naked Lunch, but the examiner, William A. Duvall, put a stop to it. The validity of the seizure was upheld, and Big Table 1 was declared unfit to go through the mail. The 400 impounded copies were staying put, in the Chicago post office in which they had been deposited for mailing some months earlier. In theory, the decision meant that, as publishers of the magazine, Rosenthal and Carroll could be tried and sent to prison; however, they went on the counterattack and filed suit in the District Court of Chicago, with the help of the ACLU, on the basis that the ban was unconstitutional and that the magazine represented a "legitimate literary effort".
Ciardi extended his defence of Big Table to the pages of the Saturday Review. He was much impressed by what he read of Naked Lunch, which he described as "not only a masterpiece in its own genre, but... a monumentally moral descent into the hell of narcotic addiction". This comment, appearing in the June 27, 1959 issue of the Saturday Review, was the first independent critical reaction to any of Burroughs's work anywhere. To "Old Angel Midnight", however, Ciardi had a different response: he thought it unlikely that the judges in the forthcoming court hearing would pronounce it obscene: "It is impossible to conceive how any average man can go on reading the stuff, let alone be corrupted by it."
Ciardi's article, "The Book Burners and Sweet Sixteen", was severely critical of Chancellor Kimpton's instruction to Rosenthal to make the contents of the Chicago Review "inoccuous and uncontroversial", and to ensure that they contained "nothing that would offend a sixteen-year-old girl". When, asked Ciardi sardonically, "has the true role of the American university been more profoundly enunciated?" He predicted that Big Table 1, already a cause célèbre, would be released sooner rather than later. But, then, what assurances did the editors have that the harrassment would not begin all over again with Big Table 2? Ciardi pointed out that this act of literary suppression involved an unseen tool: the financial pinch. "Who pays for the trip to Washington and for the counsel?" asked Ciardi.
Is this the true intent of the Post Office : to force a safe and sane sixteen-year-old sweetheart conformity upon all writing, by making it financially disastrous to venture beyond the literary standards of a postal inspector who yet seems to enjoy peeking into other people's more promising mail?
The article drew forth a spate of letters, including one from Chancellor Kimpton, who insisted he had never told Rosenthal to make the magazine "innocuous", and another from Richard Stern, a writer and professor who was part of the Advisory Board to the Chicago Review, denying that the University's action amounted to censorship. Stern claimed, rather, that the Board merely disapproved of the editors' choice of material, as it was entitled to do, and had wanted the Chicago Review to contain more student writing. In its fixation on a particular literary movement, which had nothing to do with the University or with Chicago, he argued, the Chicago Review under Rosenthal and Carroll was neglecting its recognized function.
In September, almost a year on from the original brouhaha, started by Jack Mabley's column in the Daily News, Judge Julius Hoffman concluded that Big Table 1 was "not obscene". Commenting on the articles by Burroughs and Kerouac to which the Post Office had objected, Judge Hoffman ruled that both were in the "broad field" of serious literature. Concerning the selections from Naked Lunch, he said he realized that they were intended to "shock the contemporary society", but this was, perhaps, "to better point out its flaws and weaknesses". In other words, he appreciated the satirical nature of the work. Burroughs had now received a second critical notice - from a judge - and, like the first, it was favourable. As for the alleged obscenity, Judge Hoffman understood that many readers would seek out Naked Lunch for the thrill of seeing taboo words in print, but he stated that "clinical appeal is not akin to lustful thoughts". There were no grounds for assuming that it was the author's intention to corrupt. Judge Hoffman could likewise find no reason for sustaining the objection to "Old Angel Midnight", and he recommended the ban be "vacated and set aside". For the second time in two years, the law had come to the rescue of the Beat Generation.
Beatniks and other rough beasts from beyond the domestic frontier continued to slouch through the American living room, courtesy of the press. Ginsberg told a reporter from the New York Post that "the whole Beat Generation thing, if it's anything, is prophets howling in the wilderness against a crazy civilization". The journalists, in turn, obliged this creation, depicting him as a new sub-species: the voluntary drop-out, hidden by hair, babble-tongued, "howling" at the gate, though less as a prophet than a barbarian.
The Post published a twelve-part series about the Beat Generation, on consecutive days in March 1959. It was more thorough and sympathetic than any other report to date, but as a popular daily, the Post could not help being trite:
Those who were drinking did so from quart bottles of beer, assorted mugs and cups, and two jugs of yellow wine that stood on the corner of a table along with a bowlful of salted peanuts and two equally seasoned cockroaches.
"Who invited THEM?" asked a guest.
"Man, they LIVE here", replied another.
And it offered sensationalism that was not really sensationalism, but a simple recording of the facts:
The poet lays aside his manuscripts, unzips his pants and takes off, amid some screams and a few gasps, all his clothes. Then he retrieves his manuscripts and resumes reading.
The journalist, Alfred G. Aronowitz, quoted definitions of beatness, mission statements, aesthetic creeds, which, novelties to the general public only months earlier, already sounded worn out by dint of repetition. "The point of beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness", said Ginsberg, for the ninety-ninth time. Kerouac also did his act: "Neal is more like Dostoevski than anybody I know", he said, adding, "Neal Cassady and I love each other greatly."
(A sidelight on Ginsberg's growing confidence in himself and in the revolution he co-led is provided by a letter written by Aronowitz nine months after the series had appeared in the Post. Aspiring to write poetry and a play - about the Beat Generation - Aronowitz appealed to Ginsberg for encouragement. He received a scolding letter in reply (Ginsberg was getting better at the scold). "naturally your letter depressed me", Aronowitz wrote back, probably hoping that his refusal of conventional upper-case would further his cause, "it got to the heart of things. the only way i know how to express myself is through contemporary journalism (i could be a very happy man within this framework if i hadn't met you)".)
Time magazine continued to print reports on beat, or beatnik, life, always with chirpy titles: "Bam; Roll On with Bam!" went one; "Bang Bong Bing" said another; and, sprightliest of all, "BONGO, BONGO, BONGO, bingo". Life followed up its earlier pieces on the "Howl" trial and on "Square vs Hip" with "The Only Rebellion Around", a long, hostile article by a staff writer called Paul O'Neil. "They are loafers", wrote O'Neil of the Beats and the beatniks,
passive little con men, lonely eccentrics, mom-haters, cop-haters, exhibitionists with abused smiles and second mortgages on a bongo drum - writers who cannot write, painters who cannot paint, dancers with unfortunate malfunctions of the fetlocks.
Having thoroughly dusted up his subjects for starters, O'Neil followed through with the lethal thrust: "People very like them distributed pamphlets for the Communists in the 1930s."
Whatever the flavour of his judgments (listening to Ginsberg talk was "an experience very much like sharing a room with a wind machine"), O'Neil had done his homework. He profiled all the leading figures in New York, travelled to San Francisco to talk to Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia ("a delightful conversationalist, but his poetry is close to gibberish"), and despatched a researcher to Paris to report on the daily life of the scion of the famous adding-machine inventor. Based on reports sent back, O'Neil described the horror of Burroughs's existence on rue Gît-le-Coeur: "now 45, a pale, cadaverous and bespectacled being who has devoted most of his life to a lonely pursuit of drugs and debauchery". This evocation was illustrated by a picture of Burroughs sitting on a brass bed under a dim light at the Beat Hotel, contemplating his appalling life.
The photographer was Loomis Dean, who, together with the researcher David Snell, had visited Burroughs at the hotel on O'Neil's behalf. They made a good impression right away, by greeting the author with a line adapted from the double-act detectives, Hauser and O'Brien, in Naked Lunch: "Have an Old Gold, Mr Burroughs." ("Hauser had a way of hitting you before he said anything just to break the ice. Then O'Brien gives you an Old Gold.")
Snell and Dean wined and dined Burroughs, stoked him up not with Old Golds but with the finest Havana cigars ("from Mr Luce's private stock", they enjoyed telling him, and he enjoyed telling others), and he took a liking to them: "Very amusing and knowledgeable characters", he called them in a letter to Ginsberg. He admired Dean's assiduous photographic method: five rolls of film were devoted to the subject in his room ("lighted by a single forty-watt bulb, maximum allowed by the management"), at the downstairs bistro having coffee, in Brion Gysin's room looking at Gysin's paintings through strange magnifying spectacles, the better "to see depth and detail". They spent two days interviewing him in cafés and restaurants.
It was scarcely Snell and Dean's fault if Paul O'Neil, bent on ridiculing and damning everything beat, devoted two short paragraphs to Naked Lunch, described Burroughs as debauched, and, from Dean's five rolls of film, selected a picture that made him resemble a sat-up corpse.
At the very hour at which Burroughs was being entertained by the double act of Snell and Dean in a Left Bank bistro, Brion Gysin was back at the Beat Hotel preparing a mount for one of his drawings. His Stanley knife slipped and sliced through a pile of old newspapers. Gysin playfully pieced together the strips to form a mosaic of Herald Tribune, London Observer, Continental Daily Mail, and (of all things) Life. It was amusing. It yielded strange meanings, with the hint, even (remembering Tristan Tzara pulling pieces of paper out of a hat forty years before), of surrealism.
When Burroughs returned to the hotel from his expenses-paid junket, Gysin showed off his latest trick:
To protect this art the right way, clout first Woman and believers in their look of things. Fourteen-year-old boy has many of her belongings.
Swiss boys were absolutely free from producers of outboard spiritual homes.
I, Sekuin, perfected this art "along the Tang dynasty". Might be just what I am look.
Burroughs immediately saw in Gysin's serendipitous discovery the chance to unlock his own strange meaning, by cutting through the language horde - "someone else's rusty load of continuity". It offered the possibility, for a writer who understood that he was controlled by words, more than he controlled them, of slicing through the reality narrative, while continuing to construct artefacts out of words. He adopted the cut-up as the next logical step in his continuing quest for the secret of telepathic communication - "If you cut into the present, the future leaks out" - and he saw that the little accident also had the potential to project him beyond whatever ugly words were printed about him in magazines such as Life. "I pass along one of my specialized bits of wisdom", he had once written to Ginsberg. "Always use poultry shears to cut off fingers." The cut-up allowed him to feel (momentarily) as the protagonist in his story "The Finger" had felt many years before, that "a lifetime of defensive hostility had fallen from him". And it placed him beyond the antics of vacation beatniks who had infested his old haunts, from Tangiers to St Louis. "Rent-a-cut-up"? It just wouldn't swing.
The birth of the beatnik appears in James Campbell's survey of the Beats, This is the Beat Generation.
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This is the Beat Generation by James Campbell, Secker & Warburg, London 1999, 320pp, £16.99 ISBN: 0436204983
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