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As with many movements, the BEAT GENERATION began with a few like-minded friends, in this case writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. Although they were sometimes referred to as The New York Beats, only Corso was actually from New York, and by the mid-1950s all but Burroughs had moved to San Francisco. The term Beat was introduced by Kerouac in 1948 (he claimed from the word ‘beatific’), beat being slang word for downtrodden and from the world of hustlers, addicts and thieves, from which area the group drew its inspiration; the first record of the term Beatnik was in 1958 by journalist Herbert Caen. It grew to include many authors on the same wavelength, although the boundaries were so vague that some people later were unsure they had been part of it, and many established, older writers denied to have been part of it. There were also some who did not contribute to the writing side, but who were subjects for the authors to use: drug addict Herbert Huncke or drifter Neal Cassady, who became the central character in Kerouac’s On the Road.
As Bohemian hedonists they aimed to abolish censorship and liberate sexuality of all types, legalise drugs and encourage spontaneity instead of state regimentation. They exhibited much spiritual yearning, particularly for Buddhism. By the 1960s the Beat culture had transformed into the hippie movement – which was politically minded, more outgoing and adorned in psychedelia. Much 1960s culture was greatly influenced by the Beats, including The Beatles and Dylan.
JACK KEROUAC (1922-69) was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac to French-Canadian parents. Kerouac was inclined to romanticise his origins and surname. The family’s work was potato farming. At home they spoke Joual, a Quebec French dialect in which he later wrote, and he never learned English until he was six (he started to write On the Road in French). He was greatly affected by the death from rheumatic fever of his elder brother, Gerard.
Kerouac was a talented athlete and his ability as an American footballer drew scholarship offers, and he spent a not very successful time at Columbia University: a broken leg during his first season and arguments with his coach kept him from the sports field, and he dropped out. After a spell in New York City with his girlfriend, Edie Parker, during which time he met many of his future friends, he joined the Navy only to be honourably dis-charged after ten days because of an “indifferent disposition”, euphemism for a schizoid personality.
In 1944 Kerouac was arrested as an accessory to murder, having helped his friend Lucien Carr dispose of evidence. Edie provided bail in exchange for marriage (annulled after a year). Temporary jobs followed, and all the while he was writing, published first in 1950. In 1951 he wrote On the Road on a scroll in only three weeks, without pausing to edit and with no paragraphs and no chapters. It was not published until 1957, to instant acclaim, when revised extensively and with much of the sexually explicit material removed.
His style of ‘Spontaneous Prose’ was based on his Buddhist studies and jazz improvisation, especially the acrobatic flow of ideas inspired by bebop: his purportedly unedited prose delivered in a loose style of punctuation is often said to be the literary equivalent of Charlie Parker’s ‘jazz licks’.
“That’s not writing, that’s typing.” – Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac
Kerouac found any form of public attention unwelcome and his drinking had spiralled out of control. He retreated to his mother’s house in New York in early 1958, and married his third wife Stella. He died in 1969 of cirrhosis.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-97) was born in Newark, New Jersey into a Jewish family. His father was a poet and teacher, and his paranoid mother an active communist: Ginsberg often had to accompany her to her therapist and he found these visits distressing (his iconic poem Howl was an emotional response to her schizophrenia).
In 1949 he attended Columbia University, where he became president of the debating society and contributed to the Columbia Review. It was here that Ginsberg met Lucien Carr and was introduced to future Beat writers. He met the poet Gregory Corso in New York in the early 1950s, and the two men developed a lifelong friendship. About this time he also had an affair with Elise Cowen, and although it waned as soon as Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky (with whom Ginsberg had a lifelong homosexual partnership), they retained affection until she committed suicide in 1962. Most of his poems deal in some way with his own life and complicated relationships.
In 1955 he organised the now famous poetry reading, Six Poets at the Six Gallery. In a drunken and passionate state Ginsberg revealed his poem Howl, which earned the attention of the outside world. It was banned because of its obscenity – it depicted both heterosexual and homosexual sex – but was overturned by a judge because of its “redeeming social importance.” After visiting Morocco in 1957, he and Orlovsky joined Corso in a Paris lodging house until 1963, to be known as the Beat Hotel when joined by Burroughs and others: this was a fruitful period in his literary career.
He was controversial all his life, was deported from Cuba and Czechoslovakia (an “immoral menace”), and campaigned against the Vietnam War and for the demystification of drugs and gay rights.
WILLIAM BURROUGHS (1914-97) was grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Co, but found it impossible to live up to any lofty expectation and was psychologically ‘delicate’. He was expelled from boarding school and graduated from Harvard having picked up much about under-ground and homosexual culture during his frequent visits to New York City.
His parents allowed him $200 a month, giving him the freedom to do as he wished, and he travelled to Europe and studied in Venice for a year, moved to Austria where he married, and joined the army in 1942. Rejection as an officer plunged him into depression and his mother obtained a discharge as unfit for service on the ground of instability. If proof were needed, when his relationship with hustler Jack Anderson had gone awry in 1939, he amputated his own little finger.
He followed Lucien Carr to New York, moved into Kerouac’s flat with his mistress Joan Vollmer and became a member of the Beat Group. Addicted to morphine, Burroughs was returned to the care of his parents after his arrest for forging a drug prescription.
When he returned to New York, where Vollmer became pregnant, his many addictions led to arrest. They fled to Mexico where in 1951 a drunken game and Burroughs’ bad aim with a gun resulted in Vollmer’s death. Again Burroughs fled, and a nomadic life ensued. Naked Lunch was published in 1959, was feted worldwide, and he was prosecuted in America under its obscenity laws. He returned to New York in 1974 where he was to find recognition at last.
His writing style is individual. Naked Lunch is written in vignettes, using a cut and paste technique which can make for erratic and difficult reading; Burroughs himself stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order. His work of the 1950s, such as Junkie, are straightforward narratives.
CHARLES BUKOWSKI (1920-94) was born in Germany and moved to America when three. His father was unemployed often and abusive, and life seems not to have been happy at home or school. Mocked for his German accent and odd clothing, his teens were made worse by shyness and acne. A friend introduced him to drinking: a lasting love affair with alcohol began. He studied art, literature and journalism at Los Angeles City College where, he claims from boredom, he became fixated for a while with the Nazis.
In 1944 he was arrested for draft evasion, and after medical and psychological tests was judged unfit for military service. In the same year his first short story was published. Disillusioned and in need of an income, for ten years he wrote nothing. He continued living in Los Angeles and held down a postman’s job for almost three years, but also spent some time travelling and working odd jobs – a time he referred to as his “ten-year-drunk”; a bleeding ulcer in 1955 was almost fatal.
“Sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” – Charles Bukowski
In 1960 he returned to the Los Angeles Post Office for most of the next decade, but started writing poetry in 1962 on the death of his first love, Jane Cooney Baker, producing a series of emotional works. The Outsider literary magazine started to publish his work in 1963, and from 1967 he wrote the column Notes of a Dirty Old Man for a Los Angeles underground newspaper. He gave up his job in 1969 and accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press to support him, and within a month they published his first novel Post Office, which was based on his own experiences, and from then on most of his work was published by Black Sparrow Press. During this period he had abundant affairs and one-night stands, but in 1976 he met Linda Beighle, a health food restaurant owner, and they married in 1985 after a stuttering relationship.
Bukowski wrote countless poems, many short stories and six novels. Los Angeles is their setting, its ordinary citizens and their loves his subjects – and, of course, alcohol. He is often termed the ‘Poet Laureate of Skid Row’, although his link with the other beat poets is somewhat tenuous, other than in lifestyle and spirit. He acknowledged his influences, from Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence and many others. After completion of his last novel, Pulp, Bukowski died of leukaemia.
OTHER BEAT WRITERS include Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, Kenneth Rexroth and other writers linked to the San Franscisco Renaissance – Lawrence Ferlinghetti (co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore) and Gary Snyder. Others grouped with the Beats are the New York School of Poets (including Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch), Diane DiPrima, LeRoi Jones and others, and also Hubert Selby, Richard Brautigan, Charles Olson, Bob Kaufman and Robert Duncan.