School of Beat

“I saw the best minds of my generation….” Allen Ginsberg

According to Beat archivist Bill Morgan, the poet Gregory Corso — or maybe it was poet Gary Snyder as claimed by Beat chronicler Ann Charters — once said that three people (three or four, in Snyder’s quote) do not make a generation. For that matter, neither do 30. Writer Hettie Jones noted back in 1959 that the Beat Generation was “really a misnomer because at one point everyone identified with it could fit into my living room, and I didn’t think that a whole generation could fit into my living room.”

Despite the consideration both writers level towards “generation,” the word appears in the subtitles to both their Beat accounts; Charters’ Beat Down To Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? and Morgan’s recentThe Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.  What we’re really talking about when referencing the Beats is a gathering of writers like the Bloomsbury Group, or  school of writers like the Transcendentalists, small elite circles that through their interrelationships distinguish themselves by influence and shared direction. There may have been a generation’s worth of Beatniks, the commercially co-opted crowd that claimed, like the Beats, to reject the post-War civility of America. But looking for artistic accomplishment among that group of pretenders is like looking for work experience on the resume of Maynard G. Krebs.

Whatever you call them — “The Beats,” a term of their own making, seems best to this bunny — a few of the few dozen writers that orbited around Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were exceptional in their lifestyles and literary achievement. Their rebellion against the social norms of the 1950s (and beyond) and its capture in their writing still influence and inspire those who resist conformity and embrace all-American  alienation. The picture one derives from Morgan’s book is not so much the effects of alienation but the effect of brotherhood.

Morgan, author of I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and archivist for a comprehensive list of Beat Writers– Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Snyder and Corso included — places Ginsberg at the center of the Beat circle and builds a narrative account of the movement’s history around him. Most Beat accounts are centered around Kerouac, if only because he’s the most widely read and romanticized of the group. Morgan justifies his focus on Ginsberg with a comparison to the Transcendentalists. “The history of the Transcendentalists seems to be a spaghetti bowl of personalities, each strand nearly equal in importance to the finished dish. In contrast, I would compare the story of the Beats to a freight train, with Allen Ginsberg as the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars.”

Ginsberg is portrayed as the motivational force behind much of what the Beats accomplished, urging its members to write and write more, encouraging their attempts to establish voice and the most expert among them at promotion, either self or on behalf of others. “Allen would be the adhesive that held it all together, for he became proselytizer, the networker, the agitator, and the driving force who brought the group to the public’s attention more than a decade later,” writes Morgan.

Morgan’s Ginsberg-centric account, more time line than narrative, is still a spaghetti bowl of a story. If you want to know where in the world Corso was shooting heroin while Ginsberg was first experimenting with LSD, this is your book. We learn how Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes and Carl Solomon (to whom Howl is dedicated) worked for market-research fims while Kerouac was writing the manuscript to On the Road. These kinds of details promise more than they deliver. Morgan himself suggests he writes his book for “readers who have little or no idea about who the Beat writers were or why their books remain important to us today.”

It’s on this second goal that Morgan falls short. While he makes general statements about a writer’s craft or achievement, he seldom draws worthwhile conclusions about their literary quality. Kerouac’s great discovery, we’re told, is to write as people spoke. Ginsberg is impressed with poet William Carlos Williams “down-to-earth, gutsy language.”  Morgan tells us that Kerouac’s “scroll” method had a major influence on Ginsberg who wanted his own work to be as freely formed.  Allen “treasured” Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and looked for ways to apply it to his own poetry. But how this all manifested in his work is left as mystery. Freedom, rebellion, spiritual aspirations and selfishness (coupled with self-destruction)  may have defined their lifestyles but not necessarily their literature.

While there are worthy considerations available of  the literary merits of individual Beat members (see John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters or Charters and Ginsberg’s biography of Kerouac), this Beat-loving bunny has yet to find a history that makes the work of its various members as important as their lives. Maybe that’s because there’s little common ground between writers as diverse as Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso and the others, despite their shared experience and motivations.

What’s valuable  — and remarkable — about Morgan’s book is its detail and honesty. While there are other Beat histories that provide a simpler introduction to the lives of its members, Morgan doesn’t shy from the criticism gleaned by the movement or what generated it. He acknowledges the criticism of Norman Podhoretz, Robert Brustein and others even as he condemns it in his introduction. But he doesn’t hide the events that prompted Robert Kimball to write, “They were drug-abusing sexual predators and infantilized narcissists…”, nor does he readily excuse these actions as easily as other biographers.  Morgan seems to challenge us to address the question of how we separate art from the indulged, compromised artist (think Picasso or Mile Davis) and to acknowledge the fact that its difficult to pull them apart. We’re told how Burrough’s drunken, accidental killing of his wife “‘motivated and formulated’ his writing.” Neal Cassady has part of his thumb amputated after he uses it to strike his wife on the head.  Morgan outlines the irony of gay men exploiting prejudice against homosexuals in defending Lucien Carr’s murder of David Kammerer, the act that first cemented the relationship between Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

These men — generation or not — were no angels, despite what Kerouac and Ginsberg claimed. Their stories are less about attainment than struggle. But they were visionaries of a sort, who knew hell as well as heaven.   Morgan, without much nod to the result, thoroughly charts their journeys through both.–Cabbage Rabbit

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