The Best Mind of His Generation

The Rabbit is anxious to see Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Allen Ginsberg film, Howl, which opens today in New York and San Francisco (over a thousand miles from either, I’ll no doubt have to wait for the Netflix release).  Not meaning to sound like Popeye here, but animation fan that I am I’ll be especially anxious to see the animated sequences of the film which seem to have garnered high praise and some not so high. The film, starring James Franco as Ginsberg, centers on the obscenity trial that followed the City Lights’ publication of Howl and Other Poems in 1956. As a rabbit who thinks poetry is often lost in the personal and academic (reminder: “Howl” begins with the word “I”) and needs to address more social and political issues, I welcome any attention brought to a poet that revolutionized both.

Ginsberg’s stock, always high, has increased of late with the release of archivist Bill Morgan’s beat history The Typewriter Is Holy and a deluxe edition of  Jerry Aronson’s 1994 documentary with several hours of added interviews. The recently closed exhibition of Ginsberg’s photos at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. brought out another facet of Ginsberg’s career: chronicler of the Beat movement. Ginsberg annotated many of his photographs. Like his poems, the annotations are revelatory.

But sometimes a photo is worth more than a thousand words.  Ginsberg’s well-known photo of Jack Kerouac taken in 1964 is a lesson in the wages of freedom and a reminder that Kerouac, failed Buddhist, failed Transcendentalist and much-revered American novelist, lived a life that, at times, could be envied, but ended way too soon from the wages of alcoholism. Compare it to earlier photos from a decade before; the beautiful young man exhibiting joy and wonder or famously striking a romantic pose. How short was his life. How short, as Ginsberg pointed out in “Kaddish,” is ours.–Cabbage Rabbit

UPDATE: The mixed reviews of the movie seemed unanimous in their praise of James Franco. Then comes this….

UPDATE II: Stanley Fish explains why the movie is getting such mixed reviews. It’s celluloid literary criticism! No wonder movie critics find it boring. Fish himself seems to like it, for the very reason.

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and Me

“I am the man who has best charted his inmost self.” Antonin Artaud quoted by Helen Weaver

Helen Weaver’s account of  her early days in Greenwich Village is misleadingly titled. Weaver, a new age author and translator nominated for a National Book Award in 1977 for her reading of Antonin Artaud, was a member of New York’s hip set in the 1950s and ’60s. She had affairs with Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg and worked in the heart of the publishing scene for Harold Vursell and Roger W. Straus Jr. at Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, later Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So who’s the awakener in all this?

Well, it’s the guy whose name will sell the most books, thus the subtitle A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.  But a large part of  the book deals in Weaver’s life without Kerouac. Equally interesting sections, some maybe more so,  deal in her relationship with Bruce and her own life in Greenwich Village, smoking pot, getting into jazz and generally pursuing a life of her own. If you’re thinking the book is strictly about Kerouac, you’ll be disappointed. Women also named Helen as well as guys named Tommy and Monty all help shake Weaver into consciousness.

But this is not  a disappointing book. Weaver’s story is a late coming-of-age tale in an era (and among a generation) that treated women with (mostly) quaint attitudes  (“Jack wouldn’t let me smoke dope; that was for the boys.”). She breaks away from a “middle-class” upbringing in Scarsdale, Pennsylvania and a dull first marriage. Weaver avidly pursues life, embracing hetro and homosexual relationships, indulging in drugs and following psychoanalysis. By the time you finish, you’ll think  Weaver awakened herself.

Weaver’s sexual awakening after undergraduate studies and while she was married has more affect on her development than the undependable, often drunk, brilliant writer who gave us On the Road.  “If women had suddenly been transformed from rivals to the objects of my desire,” she writes, ” then all my previous conditioning went out the window.”

This is also a story of privilege. Despite her claim to the middle-class, Weaver attended Oberlin, her father paid for her first Village apartment and much of her psychoanalysis and her career in publishing came from her connections.  She could afford to be different. When things don’t go well, the family is there to bail her out. Not every struggling artist or bohemian has that advantage.

Still, Weaver’s honesty about it all makes the book sincere and rewarding. She’s refreshingly disarming about her mistakes with men and women and her own youthful preoccupations, especially when viewed from her later years. And she’s particularly descriptive when it comes to her beloved Greenwich Village. Here are the clubs and coffee shops, the quaint streets and magical social scene that made the Village of the late ’50s and early ’60s a sort of Never Land for those avoiding the conformity of that era.

Weaver ends the book with Kerouac considerations, some pulled from reading, some from observation, some from astrology. These short chapters are the ones Kerouac devotees will be most interested in. Even when seeing “Pisces-Virgo contradictions” in the writer’s life, she’ll make insightful revelations: “Kerouac’s struggle with opposites was a rich source of creativity, the shifting ground on which he was able to arrive at symmetry or balance in his art.”   These same sort of contraditions, though less dramatic, make Weaver’s book  fascinating.–Cabbage Rabbit

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

Beat Goes On

The Beats of America’s 1950s stood far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man times. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. The poetry, novels and art of the true counter-culture known as Beat is an honest reflection of American spirit and independence, commercial culture be damned.

During times of conformity, it’s the non-conformist who draw all the attention. The Beats of America’s 1950s stood so far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man times that they soon became the freak-show focus of films, big-circulation magazines and television shows. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. Like the hippies that followed, they were stereotyped and scorned for a supposed anti-work ethic. Never mind that they created some of the greatest literary works of their generation.

That’s why we’ve always thought that “Beat” and “Beatnik” were two different schools. Beatniks were the posers, the wannabes that modeled their cool afterwhat they saw in Look magazine and on The Steve Allen Show. Beatniks spewed “daddy-o” while living off their daddies. Those that represented a true counter culture were Beat. Their resistance to the status quo and the pursuit of their own lives outside accepted social definitions made them truly radical and innovative. The Beats were largely a literary movement. Beatniks were a cultural and commercial fad.

This hair-splitting is important to understanding writer Harvey Pekar, illustrator Ed Piskor and others’ collection The Beats: A Graphic History. Many of their subjects don’t seem to be beatniks, but something else entirely. The comics celebrate the individuals that made up the anti-establishment of the times and whose art and social action outlives them. The stories are drawn by an eclectic mix of cartoonists and told by characters—including Pekar–every bit as individualistic as their subjects.

The book’s first hundred pages focuses on the generation’s three central players: Jack Kerouac (who gets the largest section), Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs. Pekar gives us just the bare bones of their stories, emphasizing the formative moments and underscoring how they influenced each others’ work. It’s this no-man-is-an-island connection between them that made Beat literature a true movement. In different panels we see the often drunk and shiftless Kerouac urge Burroughs to write a novel, and Ginsberg, finding Burrough’s pages strewn around his Mexico City apartment, assembling and editing what was to become Naked Lunch.

It’s Ginsberg who emerges as the movement’s saint aiding his fellow writers, challenging the system and remaining true to his principles. All three men are shown to be flawed, addictive and with, the possible exception of Ginsberg who seems something of a pure sexual being, abusive to women and sexually confused.

Beat lovers will be disappointed the simplistic, boilerplate hash of these lives, especially readers who’ve delved into the excellent (and not so) biographies of these three central figures. Paul Buhle, the book’s editor, and Pekar acknowledge as much in the book’s intro:

“The book before you is a comic art production with no pretension to the depth of coverage and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in many languages, a literature also constantly growing. It has a different virtue, curiously in line, somehow, with the original vernacular popularization of the Beats.”

That virtue, they neatly explain, is its fresh, visual approach and appeal to narrative rhythm. And it’s true for much of the book. Some eleven illustrators contribute and their panels, ranging from symbolic realism to the surreal bring the movement to life. We’re shown the crash-pad hovels, the anger, frustration and depravity, the exotic locations and the confusion of the squares in comic detail. Pekar and five other writers supply the words, often restating the obvious when a quote or illustration would do.

This isn’t the first time comics have been used to convey Beat life. Rick Bleier’s heavily cross-hatched “Visions of Paradise: Kerouac in N.Y.C.” which appears in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats is a visually fascinating if glamorized, short account of the movement’s beginnings that surpasses in language and visual appeal most of what’s in Pekar’s book. Where Pekar et al succeed is in their addressing the lesser but still important figures of the Beat movement.

The Beats’ second hundred pages– “The Beats: Perspectives”– is its best. It emphasizes the era’s poets and the important role of women to both its creative achievement and social consciousness. Poets Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and others, not all of them necessarily pegged as Beats, are given brief, respectful treatment. Joyce Brabner’s “Beatnik Chicks” is an eyes-open view to the contributions and hardships, not to mention stereotyping, faced by women of the movement. Brabner defines the “Beat-chick” model as well as the their lack of acceptance by many males in the movement. She gives a shout-out to Carolyn, Cassady, Hettie Jones, Joynce Johnson and others, but no more than a shout out. (readers should dig up Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution for considerations and examples of these women’s work). Pekar and Mary Fleener’s chapter on poet Diane di Prima, first seen in Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri’s spring 2008 edition of Mineshaft (a great publication true to the underground comics and literary spirit…find it here) is a mix of cold reality and spiritualistic surrealism that symbolizes the entire movement.

It’s good to see Pekar involving himself in this kind of counter-culture history. The last run, back in 2008, of Pekar’s American Splendor, the comics that with help from Robert Crumb established him as a storyteller and inspired the 2003 movie starring Paul Giamatti, was something of a disappointment. It was as if Pekar had exhausted ways to make his everyman stories relevant. The Beats gives him worthy material. While not as engaging as his graphic history Students For a Democratic Society (also edited by Buhle), The Beats serves to introduce an American cultural phenomenon to a new audience while giving some of its less well-known players fresh exposure.–Cabbage Rabbit