Archives For March 2013

Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler’s L.A.


by Chris Dickerson


Certain cities belong to a few writers. They may not own the towns exclusively, but they’ve put their stamp on them so indelibly in their books and stories that anybody who writes about the places after them can’t help but live in their shadow. Dashiell Hammett long ago claimed San Francisco. Those chilly, fog-wreathed sidewalks where Sam Spade pursues the elusive Maltese Falcon reek of Prohibition Era corruption and Barbary Coast intrigue. You can still hear the echo of the pistol shot in the back alley where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was gunned down.

New York belongs to Pete Hamill. Not only in his three Sam Briscoe private eye novels, but in anything Hamill writes; be it journalism or fiction, the soggy heat of a summer’s day lingers over Times Square and Forty-Second Street, clogs the subways, and mingles with the fumes of trucks and taxis while the Christmas snows turn the metropolis into a hushed, glimmering wonderland.

Robert B. Parker staked out Boston for private detective Spenser, just as surely as London – where it’s always 1895 – belongs to the bustling Victorian jungle of Sherlock Holmes, and the narrow, winding streets of Paris, with its cozy cafes and the sluggish Seine, are home to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Many writers have tackled the sprawling crazy-quilt that is Los Angeles; John Fante springs to mind, Michael Connelly, and certainly Charles Bukowski, but nobody captured the town better, in seven novels and numerous short stories written between 1933 and 1958, than Raymond Chandler. L.A., pure and simple, is “Chandlertown.” When Chandler writes about Los Angeles, you can smell the orange trees, the jasmine, and the eucalyptus on the night wind, feel the breeze sliding across the mountainous landscape from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and see the moon shining down like a hallowed street lamp above the ghostly black palm trees.

What’s most remarkable is, in the decades since Chandler was sending his private investigator Philip Marlowe, out on his adventures from an office on Hollywood Boulevard, the place hasn’t changed all that much – not the architecture, the people, or the sins committed in the City of Angels.

Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, but after his parents split up when he was a boy of seven, his mother, who was Anglo-Irish, took him back to her home in England.  He was educated there, returning to America in 1907. Then Chandler drifted. He worked a variety of menial jobs, signed on with a Canadian unit in World War I (when his outfit was shelled by the Germans, he was the only survivor), eventually winding up as the bookkeeper for an oil company in Southern California.

The Depression put an end to that. Chandler’s habitual boozing and chasing secretaries might have had something to do with it too, but either way in 1932 he was out of a job, past forty, with a wife eighteen years his senior, and a bleak future.

He decided to become a writer. He’d played around with writing as a young man, scribbling poetry and minor literary reviews. Now – with few other prospects – he went at it with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a dogged (and probably desperate) detective. He read pulp magazines. There were a few hundred of them on the newsstands every week, offering up adventure tales, sci-fi, westerns, horror, sex, and detective stories;  plenty of detective stories.

Chandler soon saw that the best of the “hard-boiled” writers was Dashiell Hammett, but Hammett didn’t invent the American private eye any more than Chandler did. That distinction probably belongs to a genial hack named Carroll John Daly, whose private detective, Race Williams, burst on the pages of Black Mask magazine in 1920 with both .45 pistols blazing, while a breathless flapper cowered behind him. Daly and the rest of his ilk, pounding out stories for the various magazines, showed Chandler the basic formula for keeping a story fast-paced, action-packed. “When in doubt,” Chandler noted, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

Hammett, though, was doing more than just that. Chandler, too saw the potential for character development, crackling dialogue, social commentary, and a centeredness of time and place in the gaudy, rip-roaring world of the pulps.

Chandler’s first sale to Black Mask was 1933’s “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”; he was paid a whopping $180, a penny a word. His detective isn’t called Marlowe, but otherwise, everything else – especially the Los Angeles setting – is in place. Chandler would labor in the pulp salt mines for the next few years, honing his craft, painstakingly writing and rewriting his stories, chipping out a living (he said that at one point, he had nothing to eat for five straight days but soup). By 1939 he was ready for the big jump, and published his first novel: The Big Sleep. Its hero is a tall, good looking, well-dressed man, with a sense of integrity, a sharp eye, and a guarded nature, private eye Philip Marlowe. The landscape he moves across is the city of L.A.

“Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” “A man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero; he is everything… The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Marlowe established his office on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar Avenue, on the sixth floor of the Cahuenga Building. But Chandler was sometimes cagey with his locations (like when he changed the name of Santa Monica, where a great deal of action takes place in his books, to “Bay City”). The Cahuenga Building is actually a block west from Hollywood and Ivar, on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Built in 1921, it still stands today, opposite a sign on the corner denoting Raymond Chandler Square, and another sign nearby with a photo of Bogart and Bacall from the film version of The Big Sleep, indicating the location as a “Historic Hollywood Site.”

Marlowe kept the same office for years, a dusty little two-room suite down at the end of a corridor, with a pebbled glass door on which was stencilled, Philip Marlowe – Investigations. From here, he could look out over the city and gauge its mood:


– There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

(Red Wind 1938)


But if Marlowe was reluctant to change offices, he changed his place of residence frequently. The Big Sleep finds him living in a small apartment with a Murphy bed coming down out of the wall. He lives in the Hobart Arms, “a huge white stucco affair.” He lives in an apartment in the “Berglund Arms”; and at one point, he has a place on Vine, a few blocks from his office. By the time of The Long Goodbye, he’s taken a rented house up a long flight of redwood stairs on Yucca Avenue. Marlowe’s frequent moves may reflect Chandler’s own. He seemed to be a restless man, and he and his wife moved often, finally settling in La Jolla, many miles down the coast from L.A.

Marlowe stayed in Los Angeles, and Chandler sent him roaming widely. His investigations take him from the quiet suburbs of Pasadena to the opulent estates of Beverly Hills (“the best policed four square miles in California”) and Brentwood; from the art deco high-rises of downtown L.A. to the shadowy streets of Bunker Hill; from the gated mansions along Los Feliz Boulevard. out to the ocean and “Bay City.”

What’s perhaps most interesting is the places Marlowe doesn’t go. Chandler never sends him into the picturesque and bustling streets of Chinatown, or over into the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, or into the African-American section of Watts, though the opening chapter of Farewell, My Lovely, does find Marlowe in an African-American bar downtown, dragged there by the hulking Moose Malloy, in an area that “wasn’t all Negro yet.” Those locations would seem the ideal geography for an L.A.-based private eye, but Marlowe never goes near them.

It could be because Chandler wasn’t a journalist; he wasn’t interested in exploring areas he didn’t know well. Hollywood and its environs, Chandler knew. But even so, another aspect not explored in detail in the books is the movie industry. Chandler makes some swipes at it in The Little Sister – the primary female character is aspiring movie star Mavis Weld – but he never gives “the industry” the beating that, say, Nathaniel West does in Day Of The Locust. He certainly could have.

No matter. What Chandler gets, he gets right. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a city of corrupt cops and politicians (like Police Chief “Two Gun” Bill Davis and Mayor Frank Shaw and his brother Joe “The Enforcer” – those aren’t Chandler characters, they were real enough in the 1930s), and mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, running the gambling, drugs, and prostitution rackets, and the small-time grifters, the shop girls, and pretty boys who come from all over the country to be famous, to be in the movies, to capture the American Dream.

Little has changed. Davis and Shaw are gone – the city even has a Latino mayor finally – but the cocaine is still in abundance in the Sunset Strip clubs, and the prostitutes stroll nightly on Santa Monica Boulevard. The LAPD may not be as corrupt, but a recent federal bust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found wide-spread abuse of prisoners and rampant drug-dealing in Men’s Central Jail downtown – all of it being done by the sheriffs.

Bugsy Siegel – who said about gangland murders, “We only kill each other” – and Mickey Cohen are history, but now Russian gangs battle it out, and kill each other regularly over in East Hollywood, while the Bloods and Crips have been fighting their turf wars in South L.A. for decades.

And every day the prettiest girls from Pittsburgh, or Portland, or Peoria, get off the bus, or the plane, or the train to become movie stars, or TV stars, while the boys coax their battered over-packed cars up the ramps from the Hollywood Freeway, coming from Denver or Dallas or Duluth, to make it as rock stars, or stand-up comics, or on the next big reality show. They just want to become rich and famous. And the grifters and hustlers and con artists are waiting for them.


When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Blvd., and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

(The Long Goodbye 1954)






Thorpe, Edward, Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, hard cover, 1983)

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (New York: The Overlook Press, 1987)

Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

Competition Time

To celebrate crossing a small milestone (900 followers) we are giving away copies of our two most recent publications: Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry and David S. Wills’ Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.

To be entered for a chance to win, please go to the Beatdom Facebook page, and like our most recent status update. After 48 hrs, a random winner will be chosen.

Good luck!

Edit: Time’s up. Competition is over.

Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation

John Holmes at Kerouac's Funeral

We recently passed a watershed moment in modern American literature, as November, 2012, marked sixty years since John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine.

To many, this is the sum of all Holmes is known for.

His seminal Beat novel Go, also published sixty years ago (five years ahead of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road), still remains in the shadow of Kerouac’s first book about those times. As evidenced by one of the most popular social networking websites, the cult of celebrity embraces Kerouac. The various tribute pages devoted to Kerouac see traffic from over a quarter of a million people, while the single page dedicated to Holmes draws slightly more than three hundred followers.

Even people who knew him personally seem oblivious to the facts of his life.

In our last issue, Al Hinkle – who is portrayed as a character in both books – noted that Holmes’ version of the period “is probably the more accurate.” However, Hinkle goes on to speak of Holmes’ first wife, “Marian was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.” The fact is that after divorcing Marian, Holmes married Shirley Radulovich in September, 1953, and the couple remained together until 1988, dying within weeks of each other. Both were victims of cancers attributed to their heavy use of tobacco. These facts are found in the richly informative book Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Brother-Souls gives us a painstakingly accurate account of the intertwined lives of the two men. In so doing, it also unveils a myriad of previously-unknown facts about peripheral personalities like Hinkle, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, and many others.

If not for the frequently-noted dates and fastidious footnotes, this work of non-fiction would read like a novel – a novel deserving space on the same shelf between Go and On the Road. While On the Road has its hero in the central figure of Cassady as Dean Moriarty, Go looks at the same period with its focus on Ginsberg as David Stofsky. It is at Ginsberg’s party at his apartment in Spanish Harlem where he, Holmes, and Kerouac initially met in July 1948.

Also in our last issue, Ann Charters mentioned that she and husband Samuel worked on Brother-Souls to “redress that wrong” done to Holmes by Kerouac, when he portrayed the former as “a wimpy rival.” She told us that “It was a difficult book to write but one of its pleasures was the opportunity to give back Holmes his voice as a writer who was an enormous influence on Kerouac.”

It can be argued that the first piece of what would become known as Beat Literature appeared in early 1948 when Holmes published his jazz/slang-infused short story, “Tea for Two,” in Jay Landesman’s magazine, Neurotica. The little magazine founded by St. Louis, Missouri, native Landesman, Neurotica became, in style and spirit, the first Beat-themed literary journal even before the term “Beat” was coined.

A few months earlier, at age twenty-two, he broke into the publishing world with a book review printed in the March, 1948, issue of Poetry magazine. The following year, he sent the first chapters of his novel to Landesman. about the colorful characters in burgeoning Bohemian scene, which flourished around him in New York’s Greenwich Village.

At roughly the same time, he heard stories about another young writer he referred to as “Karawak” in his journal, who had written a novel, The Town and The City. As yet unpublished, the only copy was the fat manuscript typed by Kerouac, which was being passed around and talked about in the literary circles of New York City’s young intellectuals, to which Holmes was privy. Both men met at the party and, after sizing each other up in their perspective journals, soon became fast friends and confidants.

Before reaching this point in the book, the Charters’ not only detail the childhoods of both men but trace their family trees, as well – on one side back to the 1736 death of Maurice-Louis Alexandre Le Bris de Kerouack, and on the other back to 1594, when George Holmes was born in England. Interestingly, Holmes’ family tree included not only one-time presidential candidate John McClellan Holmes, Sr., the celebrated Union general of the Civil War, and the renowned essayist and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a male ancestor who married a woman from the family in which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born.

Ironies and similarities such as their same birthdate of March 12, (Kerouac was five years older) are recounted, as are vivid shared memories of the Flood of 1936, which Kerouac witnessed from the banks of the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. Eighty miles upstream, Holmes watched from the side of the Pemagawassett River, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, as it rose and flowed into the Merrimack, carrying the same waters and debris which neither of them would ever forget.

One early question left open is why they both decided to become writers. The closest thing to an answer may be the “On Spontaneous Prose” section of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters and published by Viking Penguin in 1995. Significantly, in that volume, she conceived the idea of tracing Kerouac’s life through a collection of his writings. When she mentioned the project to Holmes, he told her that he had the same idea in 1965. Not long before his death, Holmes suggested that he and Charters collaborate on it but as his health deteriorated, he passed it back to her with his blessings and an offer of help if she needed it.

In Brother-Souls, we have two scribes writing about two other writers. This unique circumstance makes for more than just a diligent study of two convergent writers; it gives insight into their individual writing processes and an insider’s look at the business of writing and publishing in America at that time.

Aside from the usual suspects, we meet Landesman and Gershon Legman. Legman would become editor of Neurotica and his influence on Holmes is noted. Ginsberg had his first “professional” poem published in the sixth issue of Neurotica in 1950. A collaboration written with Kerouac, who took no credit, “Song: Fie My Fum” was met with derision by Legman, who voiced his first impression of the poem by asking, “Did it take two of them to write that piece of shit?” Ginsberg rankled at the fact that Landesman required him to get down on his knees before accepting one of his poems. The poem was four stanzas culled from the poem “Pull My Daisy,” to which some accounts credit shared authorship to Cassady, as well.

Carl Solomon, recently released from New York State Psychiatric Institute where he met Ginsberg, had rented an apartment, and as suggested by former institute-roomie Ginsberg, threw a New Year’s party to usher in 1950. Landesman showed up with Holmes and was initially attracted by Solomon’s “certifiable” state of insanity and his experience with electroshock treatments but, when approached, Solomon steered him towards Ginsberg and Kerouac as being better choices for writers. Just before this scene, we are treated to a look at the meeting of Ginsberg and Solomon, for whom “Howl” was dedicated.

The Charters’ follow Ginsberg to his meeting with William Carlos Williams who advises him to, drop rhyming metric poetry, in favor of the “variable breath-stop length for metric measurement” as well as looking to his own experiences for the subject matter in his poems.

We see Holmes quickly establish himself as an “accepted” poet by 1950, with submissions published in Partisan Review and Harper’s magazines. However, in order to satisfy himself as being a real writer, he felt the novel was the form that he needed to master. To this end, he kept copious journals of the events of his life and of those around him. These were the source material for the chapters of Go which he sent to Landesman in 1949. Always generous with his friends, Holmes tried to help Ginsberg by sending his poems to his editor at Partisan Review. He also spent his time offering encouragement to Kerouac, who was also trying to find his voice in his “road novel” while trying to find a publisher for The Town and the City. During 1950-51, while Holmes wrote Go, Kerouac visited his apartment daily, to drink, talk, and – most importantly – read the novel page by page as it issued from Holmes’ typewriter. It is very likely, On the Road, given these circumstances, may never have found a form were it not for the encouragement and example given by the younger Holmes.

While this review/essay is not written to “kneecap” Kerouac, we have to wonder if (after all the ballyhoo, Gap adverts, Facebook pages, and movie treatments) the progression and continued adulation of the Beat Generation as we know it would even have been possible without Holmes. While Ginsberg is typically seen as the gadfly of the collected group of writers, throwing parties and initiating meetings, it was Holmes who opened the doors to Neurotica for them. Any writer knows the magnitude of the importance of publishing their first piece of work outside of school, and in a professional publication. Few things are more encouraging than seeing your own name in print for the first time.

To a group of writers who unashamedly pushed the limits of sanity, to whom mental instability actually became a badge of honor, the steep precipice of self-doubt reached by the constant rejection of one’s work could be the hardest hurdle to clear. By coincidentally meeting Landesman, Legman, Kerouac, and Ginsberg all in that same July weekend, could Holmes have been the spark that was necessary to set off the Beat firecracker? Perhaps the truest irony of his depiction as “wimpy” is that he is the most obvious catalyst which brought them all exposure.

Neal Cassady is most often seen as the touchstone at the center of the group, although it has been said that they all would have followed Burroughs anywhere he went. The more we unravel Cassady, the less grand of a person he becomes. Holmes mentions the black and blue marks left by Cassady, on LuAnne Henderson. His capacity for mental cruelty and abandoning wives and friends at crucial times most likely stems from his own abandonment by his father in Denver, Colorado. Holmes stayed steady in his support of Kerouac’s work, even as the latter heralded Cassady as the superior writer in the group and referred to him in a letter as his “only true friend.” Cassady responded in kind, in his usual manner, by abandoning him in Mexico City, sick with fever and dysentery.

In his moodiness, Kerouac’s misanthropy also got the best of him. Shouting matches between he and Holmes kept to an intellectual level. In barrooms, he was severely beaten more than once, thanks to his mouth and temper but especially as his alcoholic deterioration worsened. Holmes became hesitant to tell him about advances he got from publishers, for fear of setting him off. One point that Kerouac dwelt on during his struggles with On the Road was that Holmes “had no right to write a book about everyone’s private lives.” Both men were doing the same thing, writing about the same people and situations from different angles. Reading Go as it was written page by page kept him from duplicating scenes already covered by Holmes – but working around another serious writer could be enervating for anyone.

In all fairness to Kerouac, artists who show genius, often do so to express what they cannot in normal life and interpersonal relationships. As artists, writers may plumb themselves to reach those recesses and depths of feeling which are too painful or impossible to relate in any other way. In his essay “Are Writers Born or Made?” he distinguished between talent and genius, observing that many may show “talent” but genius is the rarity. “Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber,” he noted, “but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through – originality.”

While we appreciate the work they leave behind, the inner torment they endure is not a pretty thing – consider Van Gogh disfiguring himself, Rimbaud cultivating head lice “to throw on passing clergymen,” or Artaud’s claim to having been “suicided by society.” Holmes may have sealed his own fate by being too well-mannered. After all, we learn that Holmes was the only one of Kerouac’s friends that his mother Memère did not dislike.

Nonetheless, about three weeks after Holmes finished the last pages of Go, Kerouac became inspired by a letter from Cassady which turned into a rabid series of letters between them. The excitement of these exchanges prompted him to pull all of his notes together and unleash the torrent within upon the now-famous scroll he fed through his typewriter. It seems safe to say that while Cassady sparked him to action, Holmes laid the foundation during those daily visits. The resulting three-week period of speed, coffee, and typing which resulted in On the Road has since snowballed into an oft-told tale, but Brother-Souls reminds the reader that this was not all spontaneous prose. Kerouac’s fastidious habit of keeping notebooks provided for a vast amount of his material.

Between the five years, from the writing to its publication in 1957, the details and struggles of both men’s lives and work come to life in print. Meanwhile, other key events fall into place: Ginsberg meets his life-long companion, Peter Orlovsky; there is the first reading of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl for Carl Solomon” at 6 Gallery; Kerouac writes and details the remaining six books of the “Legend of Duluoz” along with three other volumes; the first complete reading of “Howl” takes place (and is attended by Samuel Charters); and the Beat Movement goes mainstream. While most of the key players became victims of the fame, Ginsberg used it to his advantage.

When City Lights got charged with obscenity for distributing Howl and Other Poems, more fuel was added to the fire – especially when presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled it to be not obscene. Curiously, Ginsberg slighted Holmes with the omission of his name from the dedication page. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady got a nod from the poet, placing them forever in the highest order of Beats. Holmes had gone out of his way to get Ginsberg published, sending his work to New Directions after his editor at Partisan Review  passed on it, as well as paying the grand compliment of making him the central character in Go. The depiction of Ginsberg in the book posits a good theory as to why he was snubbed. Kerouac had called Holmes “savage” in his treatment of the people he wrote about. Ginsberg for his part, had been disappointed in the account of his Blakean vision but, at the same time admitted to the veracity of the portrayal of himself.

“You really haven’t caught the way it felt,” he told Holmes, “but you’ve caught something else. You’ve caught the solemn funny little kid I guess I must have been in those days.” It seems that no amount of speculation will ever get to the heart of it but the glaring fact of Holmes’ exclusion from the dedication and the hurtfulness of the action cannot be overlooked. The Charters’ attribute some of it to Holmes distancing himself by leaving New York to live in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, but Cassady and Burroughs were both much further removed geographically.

Six months after the appearance of On the Road, Kerouac published The Subterraneans (to be followed in another six months by The Dharma Bums), heightening his fame but not his luck. With money in his pocket for a change, he traveled out of the United States. As usual, he quickly returned to New York to stay close to his mother. One night, while trying to reach the proper degree of stupor in a local bar, he sustained a broken nose and arm from a beating by a homosexual professional boxer, who claimed he had slurred an insult at him. Later, the depiction of Cassady as pothead led to his arrest and imprisonment.

The whole Beat scene, which thrived in the underground, exploded across the media in 1958, meeting curiosity, admiration, and derision. The term “Beatnik” popped up – a poke in the eye, as it was spawned from the name “Sputnik,” the space craft launched by Russia. Nothing linked to Russia could be good in those days. To word irked both men, as they saw it as a symbol of the manipulation, commercialization, and degradation of their once-pure vision. Every critic, pundit, journalist, and magazine writer had something to say about the phenomenon, ranging from suspicions of dangerous revolutions and proliferation of juvenile delinquents to dismissals of idle young hipsters with nothing important to do in life. Holmes had left the United States with Shirley on December 12, 1957, to realize his dream of traveling in Europe for two months, funded by an advance he received for his “jazz” book, The Horn.

While working on Perfect Fools, his follow-up novel to Go, he published a short story which would become The Horn‘s first chapter in the August, 1953, issue of Discovery magazine. The second chapter appeared in Nugget, in October 1956. With the rejection Perfect Fools by Scribners’, his spirits sank. He put his energy into writing the “jazz novel,” writing the remainder between spring, 1956, and fall of 1957. Although relations between he and Kerouac were deteriorating, Kerouac kept a promise and wrote a letter praising the novel to Hiram Hayden at Random House two months after the release of On the Road.John Holmes 1947

Accepted immediately and published in July 1958, it sported a recommendation from Kerouac on the cover. Despite the ongoing “Beat frenzy,” sales were moderate, likely due to July traditionally being a slow month for sales or perhaps getting lost among the wave of second-rate, imitation Beat-themed books which flooded the market – potboilers written to cash in on the trend. Selling well enough to require a second printing, mainstream reviews failed to reach the depth of it but it was warmly embraced by the cognoscente, including Studs Terkel and Ralph Gleason. Landesman read it on radio in St. Louis for half an hour, showing how taken he was with it.

Perhaps the most ambitious and meticulously-constructed of all the Beat novels, The Horn fascinates, not just by intricacy, but in the marvel of a writer dreaming up such a concept. As for structure, it is the only “true novel” that either he or Kerouac ever produced, not being based on their real-life experiences. In fact, it cannot really be classified as “Beat.” As Holmes wrote, regarding the reviews, “The Beat Generation tag has been either ignored (it having nothing to do with the book), or mentioned only in passing, for which I am grateful.” Even attempting to describe it presents a daunting task, so here we rely on excerpts from Brother-Souls, first with this section from Holmes’ journals…


The real origin of the book…lay in my feeling that the jazz artist was the quintessential American artist – that is, that his work hang-ups, his personal neglect by his country, his continual struggle for money, the debasement of his vision by the mean streets, his oft times descent into drugs, liquor, and self-destructiveness – all this seemed to me to typify the experience of our great 19th Century American writers: Poe’s loneliness, drunkenness and obscurity; Melville’s half-of-life anonymity; Hawthorne’s hermit years; Emily Dickinson’s spinster-bedroom full of immortal poems; Mark Twain’s wastage of so much of his talent on get-rich-quick schemes; Whitman’s decision to stay with the trolley drivers and whores and good old boys from whom his work took so much sustenance. The novel as it evolved, then, was to be about the American-as-artist.


A month earlier, he explained in a letter:


“I was working on three levels at the same time. I wanted each of these characters to represent an American writer, which is the only reason why I put those two little epigraphs in front of each chapter. But I also wanted him to represent a particular kind of jazz musician, and I had to create a fictional character doing these things, so that Edgar Pool, for instance, is Edgar Allen Poe.”


Now we give part of the synopsis by Charters/Charters – but note that these are just mere snatches taken from the in-depth explanation they provide, much of what was missed by many initial reviews.


Holmes structured it:

As a kind of dual narrative, each of the narrative streams illustrating and complementing the other. Each of the major characters was introduced in chapters titled “Chorus,” and the choruses alternated with chapters titled “Riff,” which told the novel’s story…Holmes preceded each Chorus with a quotation from one of the nineteenth-century American writers who had given him the novel’s theme. With the quotations he was suggesting an identification in each chapter between the jazz musician and the individual writer, and he tied the substance of the quotation as closely as he could to the chapter itself…

The quotation for the first Chorus is from Thoreau, and the name of the musician is Walden Blue. “Walden” is an obvious allusion to Thoreau’s Walden and “Blue” as clearly identifies him as a musician…

The second Chorus introduces an alto saxophonist named Eddie Wingfield“Wings” Redburn. The quotation is taken from Melville, whose fourth novel was titled Redburn

A quotation from Hawthorne introduces the Chorus representing the pianist Junious Priest…the musician who was the model for Junius was the avant-garde jazz pianist Thelonious Monk…

The central woman figure…is a singer named “Geordie Dickson,” who is locked in a despairing, unending relationship with the novel’s main protagonist, the tenor saxophonist Edgar Pool…a combination of singer Billie Holiday and Emily Dickinson…

The name of the trumpeter Curny Finnley is derived from the archetypal figure “Huckelberry Finn,” and the Chorus introducing him opens with a quotation from Finn’s creator, Mark Twain…Curny Finnley…was in part modeled on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie…

The Chorus introducing the tenor saxophonist Metro Myland opens with a quotation from Walt Whitman…”Myland” is an allusion to Whitman’s personal sense of his Americanism, of the nation as “My land”…Metro, for Holmes, was “just any great big yawping tenor sax player, but he’s also Walt Whitman”…

The final two Choruses portray Pool’s last hours…from the doomed, desperate Edgar Allen Poe. Holmes’ comment on the character of Pool was that his novelistic character was, of course, Lester Young, but also Poe…

As an aid to himself in clarifying the book’s structure, Holmes wrote the Choruses first, which described his principal figures. He then wrote the Riffs sections, creating the narrative around his fictitious characters…


Here, it is significant to note that tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Lester Young inspired Ginsberg’s creation of “Howl” when the poet wrote several verses in a vocal imitation of Young’s chorus-on-chorus jazz progression, the succession of verses building upon each other and raising the rhythmic energy to an ecstatic level. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg refers to one of the jazz man’s signature songs, “Lester Young was what I was thinking about… ‘Howl’ is all ‘Lester Leaps In.’”

The “jazz book” idea provided fodder for many of the vociferous conversations between Holmes and Kerouac. The recognition of its brilliance only grows with time, as will the brilliance of Brother-Souls.

In 1958, while Kerouac felt his first anxiety over waiting for royalties from the movie version of On the Road (a state of anxiety similarly affected Kerouac fans that waited impatiently until 2012 for its release), Holmes grew increasingly frustrated with the media attention and his realization that the movement they had created ultimately distanced the once close-knit pair. He also bristled at being used as a substitute spokesman for the Beat Generation and the perception of himself as a replacement for Kerouac when the latter could not be found. In spite of this they still kept in touch via letters, proving the true durability of their friendship.

Holmes The HornHolmes would face his own problems later that year, in the bleak state of his finances and the emotional turmoil that engulfed him when his father suffered a heart attack in October, forcing an end to years of estrangement. At their home in Old Saybrook, he and Shirley were just about to run out of firewood as the toughest part of the cruel New England winter fell upon them. Luckily, relief came when friends going on vacation asked them to sit their house.

In early February, Landesman sent a hundred dollars in a letter after hearing about their difficulties. These acts of kindness helped them through the winter, and in May, they were able to return to visit New York when Landesman staged the first and only Beat musical, The Nervous Set, and all performances sold-out. Kerouac showed up at the theater drunk and promptly fell asleep in his seat, vanishing during the intermission. The trip gave them some respite but in July a rush-hour accident on the New Jersey Turnpike put his father back in the hospital in Camden and one of his hands had to be amputated as a result. In the days that followed, a stroke paralyzed half of his father’s body.

Weeks spent keeping vigil at the bedside, trying to help nurse his father back to health led to exhaustion and near the end of August, John McClellan Holmes Sr., after weeks of suffering and staring at the stump of his hand, lost the will to live and passed away.

Although their relationship was frequently antagonistic, the event haunted the junior Holmes (who had taken “Clellon” as a pen-name to allay confusion with the well-known poet, John Holmes) for years. He wrote about the experience in the poem “Too-Late Words for My Father,” which he completed years later, in 1973. Old friend Alan Harrington, novelist and On the Road character, helped him with the hospital expenses. The chronic emotional devastation left him unable to write much outside of his journals and he slipped into one of the most unproductive periods of his life. Days spent drinking and arguing with Shirley exacerbated the situation. An unpaid electric bill for eight dollars forced him to hide upstairs when the electric company worker came to shut off his power in September of 1961 and the following month he was arrested for shoplifting a few dollars worth of groceries at a local market. The local press used the story to lampoon him with an embarrassing, supposedly-funny headline.

At this point something snapped inside him. A lesser man may have acted out against himself but in Holmes’ case, the situation forced him to pull himself together, deal with his creative block and begin writing again. As is often the case, a great man finds his true measure at the worst of times, not the best. It is also worth noting that through it all, Shirley stayed with him, working where she could to support them both. Holmes appears to have been one of the few of his peers to maintain a traditional “’til death do we part” relationship.

His turn back to the positive side spurred an equally positive reaction from magazines he submitted his work to, after braving it through a short period of rejected stories. Around the time he came to terms with the fact that his novels would never bring him as much fame as his poetry and non-fiction, he won Playboy magazine’s Best Non-Fiction award for 1964, with the essay, “Revolution Below the Belt.” This shows how deeply Legman had influenced him with his fixation on all things sexual years earlier.

His sister Liz, also a writer, made the acquaintance of Nelson Algren, author of the groundbreaking novels, A Walk on the Wild Side and The Man with the Golden Arm. During this period of regeneration, she introduced the pair. Once again, he enjoyed the luxury of intellectual stimulation that is peculiar to like-minded writers. For his part, Algren equally valued conversation with a mind sharp enough to write a book like The Horn.

Although he appeared the stronger of the two “brothers,” Kerouac never found his feet once he started balancing them on bottles. The sad facts of his self-immolation fill pages and support a variation on one of Legman’s favorite themes – that violence in modern society results directly from the repression of our sexuality. In his case, the violence turned inward and bespeaks the result of not being able to fully love a woman in a true manner. Sex is more than just a function of the genitalia. It is an outward expression of love and tenderness. He loved his mother, there is no doubting that, but his inability to correlate love and sex (the Cassadian logic of all people being apples and we just need to pick them and eat them as we will) may have been his undoing. This is not something Ann and Samuel Charters broach in the book but this writer’s attempt at explaining his trip from top of the heap to bottom of the glass.

Although we suggest that Holmes sparked the kindling that ignited the Beat fire, it is commonly accepted that Kerouac is responsible for the Beat Movement gaining the momentum to be a worldwide cultural revolution, these sixty years later. He is the primary visual symbol. He is the face of it today, not the angelic hipster Cassady, whose death from exposure in the Mexican night froze “blood on the tracks” after he bridged the generation gap between Beat and Hippie; not even Ginsberg who may have been the most prolific producer of the lot. His radicalism and homosexuality may have been off-putting to a straight society.

Kerouac – the older brother who died as the younger, the televised, the Adonis – he is the symbol who put a face on the new culture at the piano with Steve Allen speaking cool and hip and mellifluous.

The triumph of Holmes’ later years overshadows the misery of those when he was beaten-down Beat, in the truest sense of the word. The world of academia sought him out and he accepted residencies at several fine schools. Never giving up on the novel, he produced two more, Get Home Free in 1964 and Nothing More to Declare in 1967. More books appeared posthumously. He enjoyed the company of his old cronies when Ginsberg brought them together at Naropa Institute, for a celebration of Kerouac’s work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication, of On the Road in 1982. His dedication to his craft supplied him with purpose and a way to communicate while fighting a recurrent cancer when it robbed his frantic gift of speech.

He survived nineteen years after Kerouac and twenty after Cassady. In March, 1988, he died at age sixty-two, his beloved wife Shirley with him as ever. In death, as in life, she followed him just two weeks later, a common fate of couples who share a true love. Earlier in the year, he learned that three of his novels would soon be reprinted on Thunder Mouth Press. So with his once-greatest fear of vanishing “without leaving some trace,” this surely gave him strength even as mortality fleeted.

To paraphrase Kerouac’s paraphrasing in “Are Writers Born or Made?” – It ain’t whatcha live, it’s the way atcha live it.

This reviewer hopes the reader bears in mind that this piece may seem full of facts but it is only a fraction, less than even a fiftieth, of pages presented in Brother-Souls. In the entire canon of Beat books, it is arguably the single, most comprehensive view of the scene as it unfolded – and absolutely the most authoritative work on Holmes and Kerouac. It is the only book which comes to mind where the footnote pages themselves are a treat to read.

We come away from reading it with the feeling of just completing a course in history, absorbing enough to get an A+ on the subject. If some obvious facts are missing here, it is simply because we chose to focus primarily on Holmes, then Kerouac and the others.

We first became aware of Ann Charters in 1973, when her biography on Kerouac (with Samuel Charters) became widely celebrated and instantly considered as the definitive book on him. While relishing the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins since the 1970s and growing up with the music of Country Joe and the Fish even earlier on life’s soundtrack, we only recently discovered our ignorance of the fact that Samuel Charters had a hand in delivering these important sounds. A Grammy award winner, he produced five of the six Country Joe LPs. In 1959, with Ann in tow, he found Hopkins in Houston, Texas, and did field recordings of him. These were released on the Folkways label and led to a rediscovery by an appreciative new audience

At last count, eighteen books credit him as author. This is aside from collaborations listed in the thirty-book bibliography of Ann Charters, printed in our last issue. The count does not include Portents, the self-published small-press they ran in the 1960s. In literature and music the couple are a national treasure, both gifted individually and as a team. She is also an accomplished, recorded ragtime pianist. A recently-posted Youtube video (you can find it on shows them working together, reading poetry at a Beat event in England earlier this year.

Ann Charters and Samuel Charters did more than write a large part of Brother-Souls, they lived it and witnessed it first-hand.

Buy it!


This review/essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. Find it on Amazon.



Weehawkenist Spring Ling


Spring I hope for Giggling Ling[1]

a bright and green young strident thing

Ling and I shall ping pong ping

bebop Rhythm-a-ning bing

and dream eternal heavenly spring

ding, ding…ding a ling… swing dissonance ping wing[2]

Trinkle Tinkle, tinkle trinkle, winkin’, blinkin’, periwinkleCat Pad, Weehawken

Do you know the Weehawkenist story of Nica

butterfly jazz baronessa

and Monk Sphere Thelonioso?

‘Round Midnight, round, spin-a-round

cats, cats, cats, cat pad Hudson blue

trinkle tinkle ‘Round Midnight sprinkle

truth stranger than fiction

read in Epistrophy

to lay down one’s life for friends

…but to find those friends

there’s the rub-a-dub-dub…

shuffle back to Hackensack


[1] June 10, 1949, Jack Kerouac wrote a letter to Allen Ginsberg and sent what he called a “crazy” poem using the words “Giggling Ling.” Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters edited by Bill Morgan and David Sanford.


[2] January 22, 1958, Ping Wing is the name of a dishwasher mentioned in a newspaper clipping Joyce Glassman sent to Jack Kerouac. Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson.



Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ Out Now

David S. Wills’ ground-breaking text, Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ is now available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle ebook. It will soon be available through the Beatdom Books website.


While you’re waiting for your copy to arrive, take a look at some of the essays David has written on the topic of Burroughs and his Scientology infatuation:

The Weird Cult: How Scientology Shaped the Writing of William S. Burroughs – from Beatdom #10

William S. Burroughs on Scientology – from Reality Studio

William S. Burroughs: Scientologist – from The Nervous Breakdown

An excerpt also appeared in Matthew Levi Stevens’ Final Academy publication.

The Voice is All: Joyce Johnson Talks about Her Latest Book

The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.

But Johnson’s contribution to Beat studies have been tremendously important, and Minor Characters has become a classic. In her subsequent works, Doors Wide Open and Missing Men, Johnson continued to add to our understanding of the Beats and their literature through a decidedly personal approach, offering a rare insider’s guide to the Beat Generation and the life of Kerouac, whom she dated between 1957-58.

Thus there was the expectation that in her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, we would once again be treated to a subjective and personal account of the author, most likely focusing on the two years during which time they were romantically involved. But that was not the case. Johnson has taken advantage of the recent opening of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection in order to research a period of his life that ended six years prior to their meeting. She has chosen to study only a short period, and to examine it from an entirely different angle than that attempted by any of the countless previous biographers and critics.


Why focus on the period up until 1951?

I intended from the start to make the development of Jack’s writing – from his acquisition of English, which was a second language for him, through the discoveries that led him to his becoming exactly the writer he wanted to be – the central focus of my book. By the time I began writing about 1951, I felt that by following Jack through the series of breakthroughs after On the Road that resulted five months later in the writing of Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, I had told not only a complete story, but the most important story about Jack, in a way that cast light upon the future years I did not cover.


What inspired you to examine the importance of his cultural and linguistic background, and to what extent did that inform his style of writing?

Curiously, although it is a well known fact that Jack was Franco-American, the implications of his cultural heritage were not explored in previous biographies. I first became aware of how important it might be in early 1980’s when I read Kerouac: A Chicken Essay by the French-Canadian poet, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu. That book captured something about Jack that I had felt intuitively when I knew him. When I decided to write the biography, this was another theme I wanted to explore, and I found a lot that related to it in Jack’s papers, since it was a constant preoccupation of his. There’s an extraordinary entry in a 1945 journal, for example, where he writes that although he can understand and appreciate “American richness,” it will never be his because he is only “half-American.” During the years when he was growing up, Franco-Americans were a despised minority (in New England they were called “white niggers”); in On the Road and in his journals, Jack refers to his “white ambitions” – language only someone who did not feel “white” would use.Joyce Johnson

Jack’s family spoke the French-Canadian dialect known as joual, and he did not learn his first words of English until he was six. Although he succeeded in mastering English, and in the process forgot some of his French, the joual seems to have been his interior language, and writing evidently involved a kind of process of translation. That process gave him an exceptional sensitivity to sound. After years of keeping the French out of his American voice, in 1951 he began to let it back in – first in On the Road, which was preceded in March of 1951 by a novella written in French, where I believe Jack found the voice he would use only a few weeks later for the narrator of the novel he had been unsuccessfully struggling to write for the past four years…It’s those French overtones that give Sal Paradise’s voice its special sound.


You’ve said you were less than satisfied with previous biographies of Jack. How does yours ‘set the record straight’?

It is only in the last few years that scholars have had access to the Kerouac Archive, which contains such a remarkable record of Jack’s life and creative development in journals, letters and manuscript. This is essential material for biography. Without it, past biographers had to rely largely on oral history, which was valuable but not necessarily reliable, and on what Jack wrote about his life in his novels, which could often be misleading, since his books are indeed works of fiction. Based largely on anecdotal material gathered from interviews, the books presented a picture of Kerouac in which the emphasis seemed to be upon his dysfunctionality and the extraordinarily dedicated artist that he actually was often got buried in a mass of sensational details.


The book is touted as a bit of an “insider’s guide” due to your relationship with Kerouac, but you first met him six years after the period your book examines.  How did you go about researching the book? 

My book is the product of fifty years of reflection on Jack, during which my understanding grew with everything new that I learned. Although the relationship I had with Jack when I was in my early twenties lasted less than a couple of years, it happens to be one of his longest relationships with a woman. During that period I saw him at his best and at his worst, and got to know the quiet, tender, extremely vulnerable person Jack was when he was sober; when I showed him portions of my first novel, I experienced personally his unfailing generosity to other writers. At seventy-seven, I am hardly sentimental about Jack, but I still feel deep sad affection for him, and my intimate knowledge of him definitely shaped my point of view when it came to writing The Voice Is All. But every biography is inescapably shaped by the writer’s point of view, which is why each biography of the same person will tell a different story. 

I began working on The Voice Is All early in 2008 and for the next three years spent two days a week taking notes at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where I kept running into other Kerouac scholars…I went through Jack’s papers chronologically while my writing kept pace with my research, and became rather fanatical about establishing an exact chronology for the events in his life, which I felt was very badly needed…I read up on Franco-American life in the United States, and also read some of the writers who were most important to Jack – especially Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis Ferdinand Céline.


Was it tough with the restrictions imposed by the Sampas family?

The restrictions upon how much I could quote seemed a challenge at first, but I have ended up feeling the book is all the better for them. I had to choose each quote very carefully and concentrate upon its meaning, which I think has given my book a certain clarity. The narrative, unbroken by long quotes, also has a unity of tone that I think is all to the good. I was very pleased when one reviewer compared my book to “a big Russian novel,” because that’s how it felt to me while I was living inside it and writing it.



This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12:

The Great Breakthrough

At Home
“He made an effort to hold down a regular job, but he was a terrible employee and didn’t seem to be suited for anything practical…”
I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg by Bill Morgan

I once had an extraordinary job, extraordinary in that little to nothing was expected of me and the job stayed that way for five years. Later it changed slightly, and then continued for another three years. I was the receptionist—for a family-owned company that employed about three hundred people in various locations nationwide—with no one to receive. Once in a while the phone rang, but most calls went through an automated system. Once in a while a salesperson or visitor came to the door, but little happened.
I sat in a hole in the corner on the cold ground floor. Most of the action took place on the second. I had minimal interaction with the other employees and for those first five years, I probably went upstairs about five times. It was bliss.
So little happened at this dreary job that I was able to research and write a book, and it was done openly—no one paid attention to me or what I did—and I blessed them for it. I was paid so little attention to that one Christmas Eve the entire company went home and I was the only one left there. Mine was the sole car in the parking lot. All the other employees fled hours before. I didn’t mind because I always had plenty of work to do—my own work of writing. When I tired of writing, I had stacks of books to read, and it was as quiet in my own little corner as a library.
I liked my coworkers. They were people raising families and paying mortgages. Their children were their top priority, naturally, and because I had no children, there was no competition between us, but also little common interest, as my interests lay in other things.
Managers ran in and out of the building—not past my desk in the hole, but from a staircase on the side. Some left for the day no later than 2:30, yes, 2:30 in the afternoon.
The CEO showed up less than five times a year. Some employees didn’t even know what the CEO looked like.
After the five years something happened, no one bothered to explain and it didn’t matter to me, but the old CEO was replaced by a new CEO, his cousin. The former CEO appeared to be a mild-mannered, low-keyed type. The new CEO was a small man with a large Napoleonic complex: foul-mouthed, dirty-minded, rude, loud, and obnoxious. He brought with him his spoiled little dog.
If the dog rolled over to have his tummy scratched, the almost entire female staff obliged him.
“Whoa! Do me, baby! I wanna be on my back with women scratching my belly!” Nappy the new CEO said whatever he felt like saying. He was the biggest shareholder with no opposition and people were intimidated by him.
His voice bellowed across the office, “Bea,” he yelled to a long term, hard-working, middle-aged manager, “Get over here and let’s get it on!” What could she do but slap on a tight grin? She couldn’t go to HR and complain, that was another of Nappy’s cousins. Soon, Bea, the
most trusted of managers was promoted to VP, and then she lost her job. Why? Things like that were neither commented on nor explained. However, the heads began to roll.
Nappy smoked cigars and set up a bar and drank in his office, or wherever he felt like drinking, smoking, swearing. On his office wall hung a phallic-like dog toy with an obscene slogan taped below it so no one could mistake what the thing was.
The writing was on the wall in many ways and all was changed now that Nappy was at the helm, and I knew I wouldn’t survive. But again I lucked out for a few more years and remained mostly secluded and undisturbed. He wasn’t there most of the time, but then the changes grew bigger and bigger, and the office was completely gutted and renovated. I was moved out of the hole to the glass fish bowl, front and center, an enormous custom-made desk that cost $25,000 and looked like a silver-and-black flying saucer. I was now the office centerpiece.
I showed a photo of that desk to a columnist at a national magazine and he said, “Not since I worked at the White House have I seen such an elaborate reception area.” Overkill, as nothing about Nappy or his ways were subtle.
The company manufactured for more than a century a certain highly specialized, shall we say, women’s athletic wear. I don’t know how they stayed in business for so long but after the mild-mannered CEO left, an article in The Wall Street Journal called the company “long-ailing.” Apparently, it had been doing poorly for years.
A former brother-in-law of Nappy explained him to me this way: Years ago and long before he was CEO, the company sold leftover stock at their quiet suburban location once a year at very discounted prices. Well-mannered suburban mothers and little girls flocked to buy the
leftovers. For this event Nappy always packed his biggest firearm in the waistband in the back of his pants. Overkill, of course, the only surprise being he didn’t pack the gun in the front of his pants.
After eight years of having the family tell me how much they loved me and that I was the best receptionist the company ever had, having never once been reprimanded for anything, and surviving morning hugs and kisses on the cheek from Nappy, one Friday at 3:00 I got sacked with “your position has been eliminated.” I was intended to be escorted out the door by one of the 2:30 managers. Three years before, I packed my essentials in a quick getaway bag in my desk —and the other personal junk I had I threw in the garbage—so I was pretty much ready to go. I gave the manager a bit of lip and walked out the door alone. I didn’t mind losing my mindless job—seeing the heads roll caused tension in this game of office Russian roulette and the atmosphere was no longer pleasant—however, I was insulted by the callous way they did it. I walked past Nappy who stood in a side door outside with another cousin consigliere, dull, fat, and cowardly, and two vapid girlfriends. I didn’t look at them or say anything. They had been drinking sangria all afternoon.
I’ll never get another job like that again. Who ever heard of such a gig? But the position seemed predestined: a time to sit down and write. And there is The Great Breakthrough, as Ginsberg discussed with his therapist Dr. Philip Hacks, “I really would like to stop working forever—and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the days outdoors…” The doctor’s reply, “Well, why don’t you?”
Ginsberg sometimes took office jobs so he could use the office machines, which is completely understandable. I miss the copier.

Meeting of the Dharma Bums at Piper’s Bar

Jack came back at Piper’s Bar

He was doing snuff with Chuck

And laughing at me

“I’m always here, man.

I’m the other half of your heartbeat.

I need you to keep me alive.”

I cursed and I swore

That I thought that I didn’t need Jack no more

But he came down from Oregon

To put me back upon my rails

“You know how old I was when I died?” He asked

Placing a hand upon my shoulder

I nodded, “Two years older than I am now.”


Jack smiled that beatific smile and told me

That I was the Golden Eternity

I reminded him that he was only pulling Snyder’s leg

And that the Scripture was a conceit

Jack looked at Chuck and asked him if HE was the Golden Eternity

Chuck smiled through a ‘stache that is whiter

Than the winter snow in Lowell

Knowing that he was the Golden Eternity

I didn’t know then what I knew now

And that WE are all the Golden Eternity

Existing in nothing

Because we are beyond it all


Jack straddles two worlds

It would be unfair to say that he walks among

The living and the dead

Because they are just precepts

That the weak and infirm cling to

Like marigolds and candied skulls on the Dia de los Muertos


No matter how often I remind Jack

That he isn’t here

He dismisses me

And points vaguely

At something out there

What was out there in the Mexican night

Was of no worry to me

I pointed to my chest

And told Jack, “It’s in here.”

Chuck looked at us both and pointed to his head

Before downing a teqtonic


I snapped off 47 pics of Jack and his aura

His voice too fragile to be read

“Yeah, okay.” I conceded

As I put his words down on paper for him

He grinned that Kerouac grin

And slapped me on the back


Jack came back at Piper’s Bar

He was doing snuff with Chuck

And laughing at me

“I’m always here, man.

I’m the other half of your heartbeat.

I need you to keep me alive.”

I cursed and I swore

That I thought that I didn’t need Jack no more

Jack Kerouac’s Poetry—Where is the Gold, if There’s Gold?

Jack Kerouac

This paper is a short inquiry into the quality of Jack Kerouac’s poetry. Kerouac is an American writer who has maintained an enduring hold on succeeding generations of readers through his long prose works, such as On the Road and The Dharma Bums.  He wrote numerous books of poetry, approaching the art seriously and passionately. Many of his poetry manuscripts, unable to find a home while he was alive, have been published since his death in 1969.

    These books include The Book of Sketches, The Book of Haikus, the multi-book volume, Book of Blues, Pomes All Sizes, and Scattered Poems; as well as the contemporaneous volumes, Heaven and Other Poems, and Mexico City Blues. Some prose works also contain Kerouac poems.

     Allen Ginsberg said, “Alas a poet not yet appreciated by the Academy as represented by major college Anthologies used in the quarter century or so since Kerouac’s death in 1969” (Pomes All Sizes vi).

    Is such neglect justified? We know that if a writer produces both poetry and prose, often the poetry will be overlooked – especially if the writer’s novels have done well. Few know that Sandra Cisneros began her career as a poet and has published excellent verse volumes with Knopf. Few are familiar with the poetry of the novelist Erica Jong. Master of Fine Arts programs force creative writers to specialize, thus widening the gulf between genres as well as implying that writers can be good only if they are “one note Johnnys.”

I have set up a few criteria to my beginning inquiry into the quality of Kerouac’s verse:

(1) Willingness to cross taboos to explore dangerous subjects – one form of bravery

(2) Intelligence or awareness

(3) The appearance of vulnerability and honesty – another form of bravery

(4) Original Contributions to the craft

(5) A few magnificent poems

I realize my list is limited and biased, and would be glad to entertain suggestions to improve and enlarge my standards of evaluation if I decide to expand this paper into a book. I will not attempt the impossible: to limit my standards to the purely aesthetic, literary, or technical.


Willingness to Cross Taboos and Explore New Subject Matter:

One function of literature is to bring into the light what festers in darkness. Taboos often get crossed in art. Ginsberg played a role in America’s painfully slow but gradual acceptance of homosexuality. Kerouac was confused and ashamed of his gay side. I quote this passage from the 1950s to show Kerouac brave enough to undertake a taboo subject few writers today will explore, childhood sexuality – and perhaps understandably so, with our concern for child abuse. This passage may make you uncomfortable, and we must note that Kerouac may not have seen or recorded all that is happening:


The tall sexual Negro

boy on the junkyard

street near the Gas

  Tank Jamaica, about 7

or 8 yrs old, he was

running his palm along

 his fly in some Sexual

story to the other little

boy Negro who had his

arm around him as they

came up the street in

the gray rain of Satur-

day afternoon – smoke

 emanating from junk fires,

  smell of burnt rubber, piles

   of tires, junk shops

     with old white stoves

on the blackmud sidewalk…

(Book of Sketches, 384)


Intelligence and Awareness:

With such a large body of poetic work, I could quote many passages to suggest the intelligence or awareness of this writer. Mexico City Blues can be enjoyed for its shrewdness. Kerouac is not afraid to write abstractly in his poetic work, although he does not do so often. In the passage I am about to quote, abstraction would be hard to avoid:


Light is Late




it happens after you realize it

        You don’t see light

        Until sensation of seeing light

Is registered in perception… (107)


Vulnerability and Honesty:

The Beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg were the first confessional poets, before Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell acknowledged his debt to Ginsberg. Here is Kerouac moving from intelligent thought, to immediate observation, to vulnerable self-confession, all in one poem. Poets talk about movement in a poem. This one has it:


That which has not

 long to live, frets—

 That which lives


 Is full of peace

And there is no man who’ll live forever

Here it is California,

little young girls going to

school in the fresh &

dewy sidewalks of sleepy

San Luis….


My life so lonely &

        empty without someone

        to love & lay, & without

        a work to surpass

        myself with, that I

        have nothing nothing

        to write about even

        in the first clear joy

of morning— (Book of Sketches)


Original Contributions to the Craft:

Kerouac was inspired by California architect and historic preservationist Ed Divine White, “to sketch in the streets like a painter but with words.” Kerouac’s sketching technique reminds one of Zola walking through the tenements of Paris with a notebook, or of Van Gogh getting out of his studio to paint in the fields and streets.

In The Book of Sketches, Kerouac with pen and notebook, writes about ships and ship’s harbors; people on the streets; rail yards and trains; friends, hitchhiking, and nature. This method creates an immediacy and precision of detail nearly impossible to achieve when in the study, “reflecting in tranquility” – to alter slightly Wordsworth’s phrase. At times the details are so overwhelming – or data heavy – that the writing begins to bog down and bore, but at other times sketching is highly effective. Here is one short example, from “Sketch of a Beggar.” Recall that this was written in the early 1950s; traditional rhyme and meter were still dominant but have been abandoned by Kerouac:


The strange Allen Ansen-looking

but fat chubby Mexican beggar standing

in front of Woolworth’s on Coahuila

behaving spastically, with short haircut

  • of bangs, brown suitcoat, white shirt,

big pot belly, rocking back and forth

jiggling his hand…He cant conceive that

someone (as I) can be watching from

across the street 2nd story window

(Book of Sketches 411)


The sketch technique that Kerouac initiated in poetry was acknowledged and borrowed by Allen Ginsberg in such poems as “The Bricklayers’ Lunch Hour,” and “Iron Horse.” Ginsberg carried it forward by using a tape recorder. Kerouac of course knew what he was doing and to ward off criticism wrote the following, short explanation under the title of the book, “Proving that Sketches ain’t verse/ But Only What Is.”

The sketch is a recording of what is observed, by the senses, in word form, and can make a claim to the truth that verse written from memory may lack, since memory usually is less reliable than perception. I want to quickly mention that Kerouac was also one of the first to experiment with different shapes for poems beyond the traditional acrostics and shape poems. He made list poems, poems with numbered lines, poems with illustrations, and he often moved his lines and stanzas around on a page to give the reader visual variety or to signal pauses.

The second major contribution to the craft of poetry is Kerouac’s jazz poetry. He wrote: “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday…my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway through the next” (Mexico City Blues). The notion that a theme or idea in a poem does not end with the poem but may play into another poem halfway is unique, as is the emphasis on the oral that most of his “Blues” jazz poetry books maintain.  Kerouac’s “form” in Mexico City Blues was to compose each poem on a small notebook he carried in his pocket.

Such an approach is a new conception of form for literature. Traditionally, form in poetry was determined by metrics, line length syllable counts, or by rhyme scheme. AR Ammons much later modified Kerouac’s technique to write a book length poem called

“Tape for the Turn of the Year”, typing the long skinny poem on a roll of adding machine tape.  Ammons’ method also relates to The Dharma Bums and On the Road where Kerouac used taped sheets so he would not have to pause to insert paper in his typewriter and lose the flow of thought and emotion.

Kerouac also adds, “As in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of time,” (Heaven and other Poems 56). Kerouac is arguing for an oral-based free verse where the poems develop shape determined by the emotions of moments in time, much like a jazz improviser playing with a tune on stage. This was a time when Columbia University’s English department generally disapproved of Whitman. Later, in a letter to Don Allen, Kerouac would observe, “Funny how they look so old fashioned now, they were written in ’54 but now everyone writes like that…” (Heaven and Other Poems 58).

My son is a jazz musician, and we sat down one afternoon with Kerouac’s ‘blues books’ and could not find any definite 1950’s jazz beats in the lines of those poems. If they follow a beat at all, it is the “beat of time” – the grand time of the universe – not the beat of jazz music performed.


A Few Magnificent Poems:

Innovation in technique distinguished Walt Whitman’s verse, but by using that technique Whitman created magnificent poems. A poet only needs a few magnificent poems to make it permanently into the anthologies, and to be more than “a poet’s poet,” but who can “survive” being compared to Whitman?

Although I believe Kerouac wrote excellent poems using new techniques, he did not succeed magnificently as Whitman does so often, from “Song of Myself” to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Many consider Mexico City Blues to be his best poetic work. I do not agree. Such opinion derives from a time when little of Kerouac’s verse was available. The choruses of Mexico City Blues remind me of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in their lack of concern for the reader and in the pretentious overuse of names of friends and of Buddhist phrases. They seem closer to the work of John Ashbery than to the work of Beat writers, who wrote about and hoped to be read by the ordinary and even the downtrodden “fellaheen.” Still, Kerouac does get off many excellent blues riff poems. I quote from the 242nd chorus:

Charley Parker, forgive me—

Forgive me for not answering your eyes—

For not having made any indication

Of that which you can devise—

Charley Parker, pray for me—

Pray for everybody and me

In the Nirvanas of your brain

Where you hide, indulgent and huge,

No longer Charley Parker

But the secret unswayable name


Where Pound called his individual poems “Cantos,” Kerouac calls his “Choruses.” The parallel is clear, and like Pound, Kerouac aims to produce an important book length poem sequence. Mexico City Blues has long been in print and until a few years ago was a common sight on the poetry shelves of most bookstores. Unlike Pound, Kerouac is able to complete his work and manages to come to a final synthesis and resolution, relating Buddhism to the artist’s search for the ultimate, but ultimately choosing the path of art over the path of Buddhism (Memory Babe, Nicosia 488). The choruses are avant-garde in style yet in part religious poems – unusual in our secular era – and that’s why Kerouac relates them to jazz on a “Sunday afternoon.”

“Touchstones” were the method the Victorian poet and critic Mathew Arnold used to make critical evaluations. Using touchstones means to use other writers as a means of comparison and a way to set up standards. I have used both Whitman and Pound as touchstones to help place Kerouac’s achievement as a poet. Comparing Kerouac to Whitman is a bit unfair. Few poets the world over can compete on such a level. Plenty of poets fill the of college anthologies who are far from being equals to Whitman.

Does Kerouac deserve to be in the college poetry anthologies as Ginsberg thinks? I firmly believe that Kerouac does, on the strength of poems contained in the recently published Book of Sketches. “First Book” has musical lines such as these:


August senses September

In the deeper light of

Its afternoons—senses

Autumn in the brown

burn of the corn, the

stripped tobacco—

the faint singe appearing

  • on the incomprehensible

horizons… (23)


This sixty-two page, three sectioned poem, achieves not only fine lyric moments, a memorable narrative line, and interesting characters, but it also has the immediacy and vivid accuracy of imagery only possible with the sketch technique.


…in the corner where

the light falls flush,

bright creampink

  that shows a tiny

  waving threat of

  spiderweb overlooked


by the greedy house-



The poem explores the hard life of Kerouac’s sister and brother-in-law, living with their child in the South, with compassion and dignity. Here Kerouac does follow Whitman’s example to write about the common people in language most can understand. The fact the poem requires little work by scholars or critics will not, I hope, interfere with the poem’s future reputation or appreciation.

Kerouac’s long poem does not have the dramatic urgency of Ginsberg’s great Kaddish, but is a fine poem nevertheless with its slower pacing and rhythms. Here the poet speaks with dignity and reserve. There is no sense of the artist’s heavy pain or near crackup. Fine moments exist in all of Kerouac’s poetic work. His book of haikus is humorous, readable, and full of wonderful surprise turns of phrase. In his haikus, Kerouac is one of the first to break with the five, seven, five Japanese syllabic pattern imposed on English. The sustained poetic achievements that Kerouac will be remembered for, I believe, are best found in the recently published Book of Sketches and The Book of Haikus.





This essay was originally published in Beatdom #12


Beatdom #13: Open for Submissions

It’s that time again. Time to get back to work on another issue of Beatdom. As usual, we have a theme, and this time it’s DRINKING. How did it take so long to get to here, you might well ask. Well, we’ve had a lot of fun exploring other topics, like music, drugs, and religion.

But now here we are, preparing for the DRINKING issue. We are therefore looking for essays, interviews, poems, short stories, and artwork that takes into consideration the relationship between the artist and the bottle. We have no agenda. We don’t want to imply that alcohol makes writers great, or that it necessary cripples them. We just want to explore the topic, as usual.

As always we give preference to essays and interviews. Topics make include (just for example): the role of booze in Kerouac’s fiction and poetry, or his life, or both; bars as a venue for literary discussion; the boozy surroundings when Burroughs shot his wife; and many, many others.

The deadline for submissions is May 1st. Please e-mail documents to editor [at] beatdom (dot) com.

For more information, please visit our submissions guidelines.