Archives For 2014

Reconsidering the Importance of the Joan Anderson Letter

It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history.

Last month, however, came the biggest event of them all. It was a shockwave that passed quickly through not only the Beat studies community, but the literary world as a whole. The fabled Joan Anderson Letter – thought to be the origin of Jack Kerouac’s bop spontaneous prose style, and until now considered lost at sea – was found and quickly put up for auction. The buzz spread far beyond the various online Kerouac communities to newspapers around the globe, and for seemingly good reason. It seemed hard to understate the importance of this letter in Beat history, but also, by proxy, its significance upon Western culture. It was considered the missing link, or even the Holy Grail, of Beat studies.

The Past

The story goes that the letter was a breakthrough for Jack Kerouac, who, when it was composed, was struggling with the genesis of what would become his most famous work, and one of the most important novels in American history, On the Road. On December 17th, 1950, Neal Cassady wrote Kerouac a letter that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would later refer to as “the Joan Anderson letter” due to a passage within that referred to a woman Cassady had slept with. The confessional style of Cassady’s writing was influential over the recipient, who would put down the “original scroll” version of On the Road only a few months later, in April, 1951. When, in 1965, he was asked about the origins of the book’s style, Kerouac explained, “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names.”

Kerouac, ever interested in mythologizing, and in creating and maintaining the image of Cassady as some immaculate saint, went on to call it “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”[1] Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.”[2] Ginsberg was equally enthusiastic, writing to Cassady in March, 1951: “I am impressed and astonished at the magnitude of the work that you have done in the Joan Story, which seems to me an almost pure masterpiece.”[3]

It would seem that On the Road couldn’t have been written without the Joan Anderson letter. Without On the Road, the face of Western culture – or at least counterculture – over the next half century would be staggeringly different. It changed everything, giving rise to the hitch-hiking, hedonistic youth of the sixties, and by consequence influencing so much of our literature, music, and film thereafter. And, according to Kerouac’s own claims, all that seemed to have stemmed from Cassady’s letter.

Although part of the letter was transcribed – possibly by Kerouac or Ginsberg – and published posthumously in Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third, the entire letter went missing and was presumed lost. Naturally, this added to its mystique. The sacred text that Kerouac claimed to have been the greatest thing ever written, and the central piece in the creation of one of the most important novels in recent history, was apparently – and befitting such an epic tale – lost at sea. The story goes that Kerouac leant the letter to Ginsberg, who gave it to the literary agent, Gerd Stern (who helped publish William S. Burroughs’ Junky) in 1955. Later they claimed that Stern had been reading it on a houseboat when it had gone overboard and into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, lost forever. The greatest words ever assembled on paper were washed away, never to be read by another soul. Kerouac chastised Ginsberg, and Ginsberg blamed Stern, and Stern insisted that he’d returned it to Ginsberg. According to Jerry Cimino, curator of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, Stern was pleading his innocence for decades, and claimed that Ginsberg admitted fault later in life.

The Present

However, as Stern always maintained, he had returned the letter to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg had sent it elsewhere. In fact, he had sent it to Richard Emerson at Golden Goose Press. The letter remained unread and, shortly after, Emerson closed the press and sent his archives to a friend. About two years ago, Jean Spinosa – the daughter of Emerson’s associate – found the letter in her father’s Oakland home, and last month she announced that it would go to auction through the Profiles in History auction house. The Holy Goof’s Holy Grail had been discovered.

Immediately there was a tremendous amount of speculation regarding its fate. The scroll version of On the Road was purchased by Jim Irsay in 2001 for $2.43 million, and so, given the perceived importance of the Joan Anderson Letter, it would surely fetch a sizeable sum. However, for most Beat fans, the greatest question lay in whether or not they would eventually get to read what Kerouac had claimed to be the best writing in American history – the magical 16,000 words that inspired On the Road. Cimino quickly started a crowdfunding venture in an attempt to secure its purchase for the Beat Museum. This move proved popular among online Beat communities, quickly raising more than $7,000 towards its $500,000 target, as it would place the artifact in trustworthy hands and ensure it was published rather than kept in a private collection.

Alas, perhaps predictably, both the Cassady and Kerouac estates entered into the fray and had the auction indefinitely postponed. The Kerouac estate claims ownership over the physical letter while the Cassady estate merely contends that they own the copyright to the words, while they would be content to allow Spinosa to continue with the auction. In any case, with such a large sum of money and such an important piece of literary history hanging in the balance, it is unclear what will happen. The legal situation is somewhat difficult to determine, too. Who exactly owns the letter? Cassady wrote it, but wrote it for Kerouac. It was sent to Kerouac, but Kerouac gave it away to Ginsberg. Ginsberg sent it to Golden Goose Press, and from there is ended up with Jean Spinosa… Surely, then even the Allen Ginsberg Estate has a claim for ownership of the letter!

In any case, the letter is now stuck in legal limbo until the lawyers have had their say, and we can all just hope that it is resolved amicably and with due consideration to its value as an historical document deserving of public display.

The Future

Regardless of the present situation, it would seem that the letter is invaluable, as a part of Beat history almost as important as the scroll itself. Yet Beat fans and scholars are often guilty of perpetuating myths, and in order to take the movement seriously, one needs to be critical and ask questions that are often unpleasant and now it is time that we ask whether the letter was as important as Kerouac claimed. We need to acknowledge that Kerouac’s obsession with Cassady often blinded him to his friend’s flaws, and that Cassady was far from a saint.  Indeed, it hard to imagine the contents of the letter – once published – living up to the hype. After so many years and after such a staggering twist in the tale, it truly would need to be, as Kerouac claimed, one of the best pieces of writing in American history. Yet while Kerouac touted it as of unimaginable importance, he was unable to recall even its length – placing it at 40,000 words, rather than 16,000. This is indicative of his propensity to exaggeration, and we should not so readily fall into the trap of believe his every word. Too much of Beat biography already comes from Beat fiction.

Furthermore, as Ann Charters explained, firstly in Brother-Souls and later to the New York Times, Cassady had received a letter from John Clellon Holmes only ten days prior to writing the Joan Anderson Letter. This was known as the Fay Kenney Letter, and it elicited much the same response from Cassady as Kerouac displayed to Neal’s. “Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-EEEE, a real whiz of a letter!” Cassady replied to Holmes, before penning his own imitation.  Indeed, Cassady’s was not only similar in terms of content, but also in regards its style. That would then take some of the burden of responsibility off Cassady and place it on another of Kerouac’s friend, Holmes, whose own novel on the Beat Generation, Go, was published in 1953. John Tytell, in The Beat Interviews, noted that Holmes had viewed the On the Road scroll in 1951 and more or less copied the content, minus the style, for his own book. It is bizarre to think, then, that Kerouac may have inadvertently copied Holmes’ style himself, before Holmes took Kerouac’s book and dropped the style that he created… In any case, in addition to the conflated lineage of style Holmes may also be partly responsible for Kerouac’s gushing praise over the letter, as Charters suggests that Holmes’ lack of enthusiasm for Cassady’s  letter may have contributed to a childish defensiveness that pushed Kerouac further into his Cassasdy myth-making.

Joyce Johnson believes that there is altogether far too much importance placed upon the influence of Neal Cassady in Kerouac’s work – even if that largely stemmed from Kerouac’s own words. In her latest book, The Voice is All, and in an e-mail to Beatdom, she stated that Kerouac’s opus was the result of countless years of hard work, rather than simply an epiphany after reading Cassady’s letter. Such a view, she believes, is typical of a tendency to downplay Kerouac’s intelligence and ability, and she places the blame firmly at the feet of the Sampas family, whose reluctance to grant access to the archives for so many years resulted in sub-par scholarship based upon assumption and myth. She argues that Kerouac’s original versions of On the Road featured Cassady-like characters before he’d even met Cassady, and that these originated with his reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night in 1945. “While the Neal Cassady legend, along with the notion that Jack dashed off  OTR in only three weeks, has always fascinated Jack’s fans, it has contributed to the lack of respect for Jack’s contribution to American literature,” she points out.

Regarding the letter, Johnson explains:

Unfortunately, what gets lost in all the discussion about the importance of the letter is the real story of the many years of grueling work and abandoned trial efforts that led the way to the writing of On the Road. While Cassady definitely deserves some credit, he is given far too much, and Kerouac, as usual, is given far too little for his artistry, imagination and dedication.

Until the spring of 1951, Jack resisted writing in the first-person. All the discarded versions of OTR had omniscient third–person narrators. When he received the Joan Anderson letter in December 1950, Jack immediately felt inspired to write Neal a series of memoir-like letters about the death of his brother Gerard. But the powerful voice he unleashed in those letters had appeared before in passages in his journals–Jack had been capable for years of writing that way but had held back in his fiction. This may have had a good deal to do with his ambivalent feelings about his Franco-American identity, his determination to master his second language, which was English, and to suppress the French in which he thought. Between the summer of 1950 and the spring of 1951, one abortive version of OTR  followed another, and out of desperation Jack even attempted to write one in French. But then, in March 1951, he put OTR aside and wrote the novella La Nuit Est Ma Femme about an unsuccessful Franco-American writer named Michele Bretagne, who was never able to hold a job because of his need to write. Writing in French, in the first-person, Jack gave Bretagne a direct, conversational voice that was strikingly similar to the one he would give Sal Paradise. Having found the voice he was looking for, Jack was finally able to write OTR–a book that would incorporate some episodes and passages from discarded manuscripts.

Looking beyond its influence over Kerouac and to its importance as a piece of literature, we must also avoid being carried away by Kerouac’s enthusiasm, or Ginsberg’s, for that matter. While it was Ginsberg who leant the letter to Stern, and Ginsberg who sent it to Golden Goose, and who even called it a “masterpiece,” the poet was also of the opinion that it could not be published in its original state. It was, he believed, unfinished. He also had criticism about its use of language and sound, which he seemed to consider easily fixed. In any case, while the Beat Generation has long been associated with the notion of “first thought, best thought,” and their work characterized as hastily composed and unedited in its published form, this has been proven false, and had Ginsberg succeeded in finding a publisher for the letter, it surely would’ve been finished and fixed before going to print.

The Joan Anderson Letter is then hard to separate from the myth that has long-surrounded it. In books about the Beat Generation it is simply referred to as the letter that made everything fall into place for Kerouac, yet the scholars cannot place its word count, page count, or exact content – despite often writing as though they had studied the letter in detail. Even now that it has risen from its watery grave, it is in some ways a productive of the myth-making Beat Generation, and we need to examine it fairly and reasonably in order to give it any genuine sense of importance. From the stories Kerouac and Ginsberg spun about their friends and the hopeless praise they bestowed upon one another, to the persona Burroughs created for himself, it was a movement based upon legends which are freely parroted by biographers and journalists, and it has continued to hold sway over its readers largely for the same reason. Now that the story about its disappearance has been proven as a fiction, we must look carefully at the letter itself. Kerouac may be known as the great rememberer, but he was also rather loose with the truth, and it would be sensible to avoid further perpetuating myth by taking his words for granted. None of this means we should ignore the letter by any means, but rather that we should be skeptical and not be carried away by the excitement of its discovery.


[1] Over the years, Kerouac would compared Cassady’s writing, and in particular this letter, to Proust, Twain, Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Celine, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, and Dreiser.

[2] Carolyn Cassady, in a phrase that foreshadows the false story about the letter’s disappearance, observed that Kerouac had gone “overboard” in his praise for Cassady’s writing, and astutely observed that Kerouac simply could not see the flaws in his friend’s writing.

[3] It should be noted here, if not elsewhere, that both Kerouac and Ginsberg were tireless in heaping praise upon the work of their close friends, and terribly liberal in their use of grand comparisons to history’s finest writers.

Borne out of War: The British Beats

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.

For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.

It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.

Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.

The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.

Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.

Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.

It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.

The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.

Jean-Louis Wept

“I cried in the Cathedral of the Savior to hear the choir boys sing a gorgeous old thing, while angels seemed to be hovering around—”

Jack Kerouac, “Big Trip to Europe”

Jean-Louis wept
Affects and effects
Choir boys sang
Sending a pang
In lonesome heart
Romanesque art
Lonesome travels
One unravels
Cezanne’s greens
Baptistery scenes
Smokyblue hills
Rust reds fulfill
Road visions
Vermouth rhythms
Lucid liquid diamond
Infants understanding silence
Angels sing
Angels sing
Lonesome travels
Weeping unravels
Kerouac, Jack. Road Novels 1957-1960. (New York: Penguin, 2007). pp. 749-750.

Lonesome Thanksgiving

Our Year in Downtown Red

Yesterday’s sunshine and spectacular seventy degrees are replaced by rapidly plummeting temperatures and the forecast for Thanksgiving: a nor’easter that may include inches of snow. I hope that storm goes way out to sea, so travelers and families and friends can celebrate a happy holiday without worry about the weather and driving. Robert and I look forward to his lovely sister’s traditional Mayflower New England American hospitality in her warm and inviting home: a huge roast turkey with stuffing and gravy and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and dozens of side dishes and appetizers and a big dessert table with, of course, pumpkin pie and apple pie all served with love and cheer and thanksgiving. I’m about ready to burst into tears thinking about it, and what if the weather keeps me here alone in Active Town with our boxes of oatmeal and pasta and no family cheer and not much else, and that is a sad and terrible thought. Thanksgiving is the homiest holiday of the year, and I’m grateful that I’ve been welcome into the family fold since Robert and I met.
However, now after what seems only a foolish and expensive and unnecessary move, maybe they won’t like me anymore for disturbing the peace. This move bore fruit, thus far, of a few forced and bitter tears, days and nights of separation and loneliness and rejection, and a sour taste, but time will probably reveal something that I haven’t yet fully seen, perhaps, courage and conversion and a more grateful heart, a more loving human and humble heart, a heart that has become more discerning to the ways of the world. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I’ll find a job here; I believe I have given up the search. We’ll see what unfolds. Robert and I plan on visiting the condo in Boring Town, and that boring town is beginning to seem more and more pleasant with its quiet town ways, away from the bustle and hustle of Active Town.
Now, with the update forecast, maybe it won’t be wise for Robert to travel home. Maybe it’ll be a tedious and hours long dangerous drive. Maybe he should stay up north, because there will be no place for him to park here—no room in the underground garage with Vincenzo’s three big outrageously expensive Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin . . . and maybe the ridiculous Hummer and The Boss’s Range Rover, and a “please don’t park here” for us.
The thought occurs to me that I am getting used to being alone. I’m getting used to years of unemployment, and I will survive, and I’ll survive the year without a Thanksgiving. Maybe I could show up at the community kitchen, yes, I might learn something there. I won’t go as a volunteer, I’ll go as a friendless and hungry and thirsty stranger, alone in America on the day Americans give thanks. I’ll go as one of the country’s unemployed citizens—one poor in spirit who has lost hope of ever getting a full-time job with benefits ever again. I’ll go naked, naked in aloneness, naked in crying for mercy, naked in mourning, naked in humility, naked in old age, naked into the great big homelessness of the unwanted manuscript—right into the slush pile of rejection. And when that’s all over, I’ll climb into my silver cloud and drive into my warm parking space in the heated underground garage . . . and call the wrap place across the street for a delivery of some turkey fire fingers, like I’m some big rock star. Then I’ll race down the street, spring into the bakery, jump over the counter, grab a big hunk of apple strudel, and distribute it to all the other friendless and hungry strangers.

Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter” Finally Found

“It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”

– Jack Kerouac

In 1950, Jack Kerouac read a 16,000 word letter written by his friend and muse, Neal Cassady, that was so revolutionary it caused him to abandon previous attempts at the project that would eventually become On the Road. His new style – later to be dubbed “bop spontaneous prose” – would radically alter literature and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Kerouac’s innovation – directly taken from Cassady’s letter – would make his novel, On the Road, one of the most important pieces of literature of the century, going on to influence writers, artists, film-makers, and musicians for decades.

According to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – to whom Kerouac loaned the letter – lent it to a friend, Gerd Stern, who dropped it in the ocean and it was lost forever. “It was my property, a letter to me, so Allen shouldn’t have been so careless with it, nor the guy [who dropped it],” a typically belligerent late-60s Kerouac told the Paris Review. Kerouac reportedly wanted the letter to published so that his friend would gain even more counterculture fame than he already had.

However, the disappearance of the letter would appear to have been Ginsberg’s attempt to publish it, rather than a careless mishandling by the sea. It was sent to the offices of Golden Goose Press, who also published Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeley, but this publishing company soon shut its doors and the contents of the business were boxed and forgotten. While the intention was to throw everything in the trash, many files were rescued by the operator of a music label who shared the building, and – according to his daughter, who found the letter – couldn’t fathom throwing away someone’s words.

It was a performance artist called Jean Spinosa who found the letter two years ago. It will go on sale December 17th, with most Beat fans hoping that the buyer will make it available to the public. It has become legend in the annals of Beat history and this event is for all Beat enthusiasts truly monumental.

For a great write-up, please visit The Beat Museum website.

Blood and Black Power on the Streets of Chicago

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.

By Pat Thomas


 “Black Power: Find out what they want and give it to them. All the signs that mean anything indicate that the blacks were the original inhabitants of this planet. So who has a better right to it?”    William S. Burroughs


August 26 -29, 1968 – Turmoil is brewing throughout the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. Tired of defending a war he couldn’t win, but one that pride wouldn’t let him withdraw from; incumbent President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968 that he would not seek re-election. Senator Eugene McCarthy had thrown his hat into the ring the previous November as the antiwar candidate, with the support of many college kids. With Johnson out, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the de facto choice of old-school Democrats, and could secure delegates without campaigning in the primaries.

When Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, he became a spoiler for McCarthy, who had been unchallenged as the youth’s candidate of choice. After winning Indiana and Nebraska (although he lost the Oregon primary), Kennedy won California and looked like a sure bet to beat Humphrey when an assassin took him down. With Kennedy dead, Johnson refused to attend the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party was unclear on how to tackle the Vietnam issue, and was disintegrating from the inside out. Democrats would not put another President in the White House until Jimmy Carter prevailed in January 1977.

Meanwhile, the real shit storm was happening outside the Convention. Several miles away in Lincoln Park, mass demonstrations had been organized by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippies, the Students For A Democratic Society (the SDS were an activist group comprised mainly of white college students in support of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War), and MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), a short-lived coalition.

In the months leading up to the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Yippies, SDS, and MOBE had invited thousands of leftwing college students, hippies and outspoken radicals like poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Norman Mailer. Politically savvy musicians such as the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish were slated to play, but dropped out as rumors of impending violence began to spread. In the end, the only musicians brave enough to weather the storm were those madmen from Michigan, the MC5 (managed by John Sinclair of the White Panther Party) and folksinger Phil Ochs, who was more committed to the revolution than he was to his music career.

John Sinclair & Wayne Kramer of the MC5 still enjoy a friendship with Black Panther David Hilliard to this day. The White Panther Party, despite its naïve hippie drug-infused antics, was truly in awe of the Black Panther’s skills and philosophy. Musically, this was reflected in an eighteen-minute discourse entitled “I’m Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver” – which the MC5 performed at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom during 1968. The opening lines are, “I’m mad out on the street; I’m frothing at the mouth, pissed.” As the song builds, Tyner screams “I’m mad, I’m mad, like Eldridge Cleaver is mad!” It’s the sound of white hippies channeling the urban black man’s angst against the authoritarian system. While whites can never know the black man’s burden, the MC5 tried to empathize.

Since many books have documented the daily drama of the (mostly white middle class) protesters and their nightly skull bashing by the Chicago Police. I’ll focus instead on the handful of notable, overlooked blacks who participated in the proceedings.

Julian Bond was a co-founder of SNCC, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and became their communications director, overseeing the editing of its newsletter as well as working on voter registration drives throughout the rural Southeast. In 1965, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Other House members voted not to seat him because of his stance against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the Supreme Court declared the Georgia House had violated Bond’s rights by refusing him a seat and he was allowed to join the legislature.

Bond was a co-chairman of the Georgia Loyal National Delegation to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The Loyalists were an insurgent group that successfully unseated the regular handpicked delegates. During the Democratic Convention, Bond was nominated for Vice President (as an alternative to Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, chosen by Hubert Humphrey), becoming the first African American to be chosen by a major political party for that office. However, he had to withdraw, because at age 28, he was too young to serve under the constitutional minimum, 35 years of age.

Bond also made his presence known outside the Convention, when on Tuesday August 27, he spoke in Grant Park (near the Hilton Hotel where most of the delegates were staying) to 4,000 peaceful demonstrators who’d gathered to listen to him, along with MOBE’s Rennie Davis and SDS founding member Tom Hayden.

Comedian Dick Gregory paved the way for Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. And like Pryor and Rock, being a black comic brings the role of social commentator with monologues about race relations, use of the word “nigger” and the plight of Black America. Gregory’s 1964 autobiography Nigger sold one million copies.

Gregory (born in 1932) was a strong-minded activist, and throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s he not only used topical events and politicians for satire, but also for social commentary disguised as comedy. Gregory spent the early ‘60’s marching for civil rights and spent as much time in jail cells as he did onstage. As Black Power made its ascension, Gregory joined in with his routines, delivering anti-establishment messages as poignant as those being made by the radical political leaders. Besides attacking Richard Nixon, Gregory also did bits praising Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, ghetto life, and the movement. Two of Gregory’s more sublime moments can be found on the album Frankenstein recorded live at Bronx Community College on March 20, 1970. During the piece called “Black Power,” Gregory says:


White folks in this country dirtied up the word black, not us…white folks in America corrupted power, not us…then one day we come through with two innocent words, “Black Power,” and everybody go crazy…but if we had said “Brown Strength”…everybody would have accepted that…hell, we wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without white folks greeting us, “Brown Strength, my brother, Brown Strength”…black folks took two innocent words “Black Power” and everybody went crazy…we did not dirty up the world “Black”…angels food cake is white, devils food cake is dark…understand it good now, a little bitty lie, is a white lie…

Gregory and Chicago have enjoyed a mutual admiration since 1961, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club gave Gregory one of his first major breaks by booking him into their primarily white establishment. According to the account given in Tom Brokaw’s book Boom! Voices Of The Sixties, the evening proceeded as follows:

The manager was nervous because the club had been reserved for a private party that included a lot of white Southern men. Gregory insisted on going onstage, and almost immediately, one of the white patrons stood up and called him a “nigger.” Gregory smiled and responded, “Hey I get fifty dollars here every time someone says that, so would you all stand up and call me ‘nigger?’

During the 1968 Democratic Convention, Dick Gregory was living in Chicago. He was on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket as their Presidential Candidate, and fronting marches by young white liberals who were attempting to take over Chicago’s streets and parks. On August 27th Gregory joined noted writers; Terry Southern, Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in giving speeches to 2,000 protesters at the Chicago Coliseum. The following day, Gregory spoke to 10,000 people gathered in Grant Park for an antiwar rally organized by MOBE. Writer and liberal icon Norman Mailer joined the fray, as did Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden. Also on the 27th, Bobby Seale, who’d flown into Chicago as a guest speaker, addressed a crowd in Lincoln Park. He suggested people defend themselves by any means necessary if attacked by the police. Seale left Chicago soon after his speech, but his brief visit would become more relevant later on.Esquire cover chicago democratic convention

Gregory’s finest moment that week is captured in Howard Alk’s 1969 documentary American Revolution 2. On the evening of August 29th, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Gregory addressed 5,000 people in Grant Park, including some of the delegates who’d strayed from the Convention hall to view the happenings in the outside world. The film crew followed Gregory, some 2,000 protesters, and the stray delegates, as they attempted to make their way back to the Convention being held at the International Amphitheater. When the National Guard stopped them, Gregory announced that he was merely leading everyone to his own home (which happened to be in the direction of the Amphitheater) and that he had invited all these people to his house for a private gathering. The National Guard didn’t buy it, arrested Gregory, and kept the marchers from reaching the convention site.

While Gregory’s actions had been captured on film for later viewing, the events of the previous evening, August 28th, had been captured by television cameras for the entire country to witness firsthand as it occurred. It remains not only the most tragic moment of that explosive week in Chicago, but also a monumental image of America’s turmoil during the 1960’s in general.

After the rally that Gregory and Norman Mailer had spoken at on the 28th, thousands moved towards the Hilton Hotel which the Democrats were using as its headquarters. Many delegates were staying there, and most importantly, several of the television crews were using it as home base.

The ultimate destination of the protesters was the Convention itself, and as the crowd began moving towards the Amphitheater, they encountered and began to follow the mule train of Ralph Abernathy’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had a permit to go the Convention. Ralph Abernathy had been MLK’s right hand as part of King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organization, and he had been in Memphis at the moment of King’s death, and in the week following, Abernathy assumed the leadership of SCLC.

As the mule train headed towards the Amphitheater, the marchers were halted from proceeding and gathered around the Hilton Hotel. For seventeen minutes, captured live on TV and rebroadcast many times since, the Chicago Police brutally beat, clubbed, maced and forcibly arrested hundreds of demonstrators (most of them white middle class college kids) and handfuls of bystanders.

As the demonstrators begin to fight back, the police violence escalated, with billy clubs cracking open the skulls of young students. Across America, their families and friends watched the bloodshed on TV as it was happening. In the midst of the chaos, the demonstrators being aware of the television crews broadcasting their beatings begin chanting, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” Finally, white Americans were witnessing what black Americans had experienced firsthand for years, police brutality in their own homes.

The demonstrations that week led to an infamous trial that began on September 24, 1969, and continued for the next five months. Originally it was called “The Chicago 8 Trial” after the eight defendants that were charged for conspiracy to start riots: Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The U.S government had hand-picked these defendants as a cross-representation of the subversive counterculture; the Yippies, SDS and MOBE leaders, antiwar activists, and a token representative of the Black Power movement.

Having Bobby Seale called as a defendant was beyond bullshit, as he was the one person out of the eight who didn’t personally know the others (Seale had met Tom Hayden earlier, but not in relation to the Chicago Convention), nor had he or any other Black Panthers been involved in any of the meetings planning the activist assault on Chicago. Not to mention that Seale’s time in Chicago had been brief. He’d arrived on Tuesday August 27th, given one speech in Lincoln Park around 7 pm, and left town later that evening. Hence, the Black Panthers weren’t part of any conspiracy. It’s been suggested that Seale wasn’t originally invited to speak, that Eldridge Cleaver had been asked first, but Eldridge had fled the country by August because of an April shootout with the Oakland Police.

It was apparent that Seale had only been brought up on charges because he was a prominent member of the Black Panthers, which the Nixon administration had declared Public Enemy #1. During the first week of the trial, Seale had asked the Chicago court that the trial be postponed, as Seale wanted to use for his defense San Francisco based Charles Garry, the Panthers’ lawyer of choice for all their high profile cases.

Charles Garry had represented Huey Newton during the “Free Huey” trial. As the Chicago trial began, Garry was in a hospital recovering from surgery. When Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) denied the postponement, Seale declared his constitutional right to act as his own defense. This request was also denied, and Judge Hoffman insisted that Seale use the other seven defendants’ lawyers Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler as his own. Seale refused.

Ultimately, Seale was accused of a conspiracy of which he was unaware, deprived of the counsel of his choice, deprived of the right to represent himself, deprived of the right to speak for himself, which led to his being publically humiliated in the courtroom; bound, gagged and chained to his chair as witnessed and reported by the national media.

As Dick Gregory perceptively pointed out on his Frankenstein album as part of a monologue titled “Chicago Trial”:


Bobby Seale walked into that courtroom in Chicago as meek and humble as a man can walk and said “Judge, your honor, my lawyer is out in San Francisco being operated on, would you postpone my trial?”…And the whole world knew his lawyer was being operated on. Everybody in the world had read that Attorney [Charles] Garry had been operated on. Judge said, “no boy, you go to trial today.” “Ok, your honor would it be ok if I acted as my own lawyer?” The Judge said, “no, you use their lawyer.” The trick behind that was Bobby Seale was indicted with seven other folks, five of whom he never met and didn’t know. Why would he use the lawyers of strangers? That’s why he was raising so much hell. You dig it?…Bobby Seale trying to defend himself, ended up shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped. In a courtroom where the worldwide press is watching. You dig?…If a man trying to defend himself in a courtroom where the world wide press is watching ends up getting shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped, what do you think is happening in these courtrooms in America where there ain’t nobody looking?

But on November 5th, a mistrial was declared for just Seale, and a new trial was proposed. The Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7. Seale was then sentenced to four years for contempt of court, a sentence that was eventually overturned, and he was never convicted of any conspiracy charges.

In terms of media coverage and notoriety, the Chicago 8 Trial had the profile and controversy of the 1992 trial of Rodney King. King’s trial charged four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force in the beating of an African American man, who they had pulled over for a traffic violation. All four were acquitted, despite clear video footage of the white officers beating the shit out of an unarmed black man. While the two trials were different in purpose and scope, the comparison rests in the national media coverage and mockery of justice in both cases.

The Chicago 8 Trial hasn’t been forgotten, as witnessed by the 2008 docudrama, Chicago 10. The name “Chicago 10” refers to the eight defendants plus their two defense attorneys, Weinglass and Kunstler, who were also unlawfully charged with contempt of court and later acquitted along with their clients. Hollywood gossip suggests that Steven Spielberg wants to direct his own docudrama about the trial, drafting in box office star Will Smith, playing the part of Bobby Seale.

San Juan de la Cruz


. . .  “who studied . . . St. John of the Cross . . . ” [i]



His aloneness in a dungeon

Imprisoned in cruel Spanish cell

Con-tem-pla-tive and silent hell

Meditative knees he fell

Light and dark thus intertwined

Lead to poetry sublime

Ecstasy and agony

Suffered his cross

In crucified reality

Found the light

In deepest darkest night

The obscure night of the soul

Forever in eternity be told

Mystic poet, mystic saint

Love never stained or taint

Patron saint of mystics

San Juan de la Cruz

Sacrifice and detachment

Sanctity and holiness

Embraced Christo Rey




who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Crosswho studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross

[i] Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.”

Hubert Selby Jr’s American Dream

The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it.

Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. was born in the dilapidated Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York in 1928.  He spent his formative years surrounded by petty thieves and delinquents, frequenting the local pool halls. After finishing ninth grade, Selby became a Merchant Marine and traveled the world, eventually being exposed to bad meat while at sea and contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis.

Selby returned to the United States to be hospitalized. The doctors told him that he had less than a year to live and he subsequently spent four years in and out of hospitals.  He was the only survivor in his tuberculosis ward, most likely because his mom bought him an experimental drug treatment from the black market. Selby endured excruciating surgeries; at one point ten ribs were removed from his back to get to his collapsed lung and he developed chronic pulmonary problems.

During Selby’s many surgeries, he was given morphine to curb his pain. He fell in love with the opiate rush, which mutated into a nasty five year spell of heroin and alcohol dependencies. It was in the hospital that Hubert Selby Jr. had a spiritual awakening and epiphany, realizing that he didn’t want to die as a man without accomplishments. His life-long dream was to become a composer but he lacked the resources to attain a formal education in composing so he decided to become a writer because he “knew the alphabet.”

Selby developed an avant-garde style that ignored the conventions of traditional prose. He showed irreverence towards punctuation and grammar and often replaced apostrophes with slashes. He relied upon hard-hitting dialogue and a stream-of-consciousness style that was already being employed in Beat literature by Jack Kerouac.

TralalaHubert Selby Jr. got two of his short stories published in the early sixties: “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” which were about drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and part of the seedy underbelly that Selby had been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. “Tralala” was the story of a young prostitute that ended with a brutal gang rape. It was celebrated for its rawness and its unorthodox stylistic choices. However, many critics attacked the story for its brutality and the journal’s editor was arrested for selling pornographic material to a minor.

Selby assembled six of his stories and submitted them as a novel to Jack Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord.  In 1964 Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was released by the infamous Grove Press, the same publishing house that had published William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1959. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Last Exit to Brooklyn should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.

Last Exit to Brooklyn explored the great failure of the American Dream as it shriveled in the shadows of post-war Brooklyn.  Like Selby’s first two stories, which were included in the novel, it dealt with subjects that were taboo in the American psyche of that time: rape, prostitution, homosexuality, violence, and sexual anguish. The stories were told with an objective and voyeuristic eye. Selby showed deplorable characters and examined their failures with compassion, whether the failures were monetary or emotional.  He chose empathy as the device to fix where the American Dream had gone awry, suggesting that love could help us prevail no matter how cold or empty we had become.

Last Exit to Brooklyn became an international best seller and catapulted Hubert Selby Jr. to literary fame. He was still helplessly addicted to heroin so he decided to escape from the New York drug scene by moving to Los Angeles. He fell into his old habits out west and was quickly impoverished by his addiction, blowing all of his royalty earnings on drugs.

In 1967 Selby was busted for a possession of heroin in Los Angeles. He spent two months in the Los Angeles County Jail and ended up getting clean for good, eventually refusing morphine on his death bed despite his pain. It was during this time that Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Great Britain and banned in Italy, creating more notoriety for the book and helping to bump sales to over seven million.

Selby’s second novel, The Room, was published in 1971. The novel chronicled an insane man trapped in a prison cell as he fantasized about the revenge he would seek on the people that put him there. The Room examined the depths of the psyche and was Selby’s boldest statement on the human condition.  The book received positive reviews and was commercially successful . Selby once stated that he could not read it for decades after writing it and that it was, “the most disturbing book ever written.”

The seventies were Selby’s most prolific writing period. In 1976 he published The Demon which examined the rise and fall of Harry White, a young and successful business man who had compulsive urges to sleep with married women.  As his womanizing becomes blasé, Harry begins to delve into criminality and eventually murder to satisfy his relentless compulsion. This was yet another novel that explored the dark depths of the human psyche, while also latching onto themes of greed and obsession.  The Demon received tepid success nationally earning greater appreciation abroad.Demon

Requiem for a Dream was published in 1978 and is Selby’s most profound exemplification of the failure of the American Dream.  Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it is the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb and her heroin addicted son Harry, as they enter ill-fated quests for better lives. Sarah is a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose weight so she can appear on a television game show.  Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to circumvent responsibilities and achieve their dreams by selling drugs.  Shortcuts in life soon become the antagonist, as Sarah becomes emaciated and delusional from amphetamine-laced diet pills and Harry suffers his own unspeakable horrors of addiction.

Requiem tells the universal story of seeking improvement in an upgraded and techno-colored life. It is about what happens when we choose to take more than we give: the failure of the American Dream. The consequences lie in the destructiveness of the soul, something that can happen to a group of friends planning to get an ounce of pure heroin or to a blameless old woman, nestled alone in her apartment, obsessing about her chance to get on television.

Selby succeeds in showing the downward trajectory of these four central characters by writing with an unwavering sense of compassion. Although they fail in achieving what they believe to be their tickets to better futures, he teaches us that love and empathy are the only way to save their souls, that there is a discernable difference between selfish materialism and the American Dream.

In 1986 Selby published a collection of short stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow. The collection included fifteen stories and covered over two decades of writing. The stories were crafted with typical Selby compassion, exploring the mundane failures of American culture.

Selby spent the next decade in literary silence. In 1989 a film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was made by German film maker Uli Edel. Selby made a cameo as a taxi driver in the film which stared Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was successful both critically and commercially and once again boosted Hubert Selby’s popularity as a transgressive writer, finding him a new and younger audience. It was during this time that the punk rock-luminary Henry Rollins linked up with Selby and expanded his readership by setting up recording sessions and booking readings and appearances all around the world.

In 1998 Selby came out with his acclaimed comeback novel, The Willow Tree.  The Willow Tree is considered the gentlest work in Selby’s catalog, a story that is filled with hope and forgiveness.  It is the unlikely tale of a bond between a vengeful African-American teen and an older Jewish man, who becomes his pathway toward redemption. The novel was attacked by critics for being too derivative and lacking the rawness of his previous works. Fans celebrated The Willow Tree for Selby’s willingness to give light to his idiosyncratic dark style.

Requiem for a Dream was adapted to a film in 2000 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The film stared Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, and Ellen Burstyn. Hubert Selby Jr. again had a cameo as a trash talking prison guard and Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was during this time that Selby taught creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Waiting Period was Selby’s final  novel and was published in 2002.  It tells the story of a disgruntled war veteran who attempts to purchase a hand gun to commit suicide but is stopped due to a five day waiting period. In the time that it takes to get the gun he decides to go on a mass murder spree and kill people that finds despicable. The novel is laced with ambiguous voices that the protagonist hears that could be perceived as either God or the devil. Waiting Period was unsuccessful commercially and was brutally attacked by critics for lacking Selby’s signature naturalism.

Hubert Selby Jr. died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on April 26, 2004. The American Dream was a major fixture in all of Selby’s books.  He wrote about the loss of opportunity and the failures committed by disdainful characters. This was all written with a great sense of love and empathy, no matter how low a person was in his stories, there was always a sense of hope because he sketched them with compassion. This was his antidote for the failure of the American Dream:  that we must transcend failure by loving those around us. The American Dream failed in his stories because of greed, lack of love, selfishness, and materialism.  Selby’s greatest gift was teaching us that if we just follow our hearts, if we stop taking shortcuts, It/ll be better tomorrow.

Francis Thompson

“Francis Thompson (!)” i

“My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.”
“The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson

Soul chaste
First chastised by a chase
Through London laudanum haze and haste
Up and down and down and out
Stop to have another taste
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide ii
On this side of the great divide
The hound and words chasing fast
Will this misery ever pass?
Affliction, affliction, affliction
In desolate dereliction
Tortured life
Poverty stricken
Money not for pen or paper
Hopes dashed and end in vapor
Beating feet and voices beat
Futile to try and retreat
Heart beating in the heat
Stop those endless running feet
Angels, visions, lighted tapers
Heaven chased hare through all capers
Hound that hound chased him down
Naked, stripped, youth took flight
Majestic poem he did write
Finally stopped he sought the light


i  Kerouac, Jack and Ginsberg, Allen: The Letters. Ed. Bill Morgan and David Stanford. (New York: Viking) 2010.
ii “Nowhere to Run,” Songwriters: Holland, Edward, Jr., Dozier, James, Herbert Lamont, Holland, Brian, EMI Music

War Upon War: The Second-Generation Beats and Postmemory

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.


by Katie Stewart



Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life.

The second-generation of Beats,[1] born in the 1930s, occupy a peculiar position in relation to the first-generation Beats – the celebrated male writers who met around the Columbia University campus in the early 1940s and would catalyze each other to literary breakthroughs. The second-generation, male and female authors alike, rejected or accepted the label “Beat” to differing degrees. The women stood on the edge of the Beat party, so to speak, due to the workings of socialised gender expectations of the time. The women who were of age with the Columbia group did not harbor literary ambitions – Carolyn Cassady identified as a painter rather than a writer at the time – or if they did show literary inclination it did not manifest into output; we can think of Joan Vollmer Burroughs’ self-destructive impulses.[2] In contrast, the second-generation created substantial bodies of work based on sustained imaginative investment in their inner lives – other names to note are Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel, Hettie Jones and Bonnie Bremser – with many beginning to write in the 1950s. Some of these writers later turned to autobiographic prose works which appeared in a flurry in and around the 1990s, and resonated with feminist studies’ critical excavations of women’s memoir writing as a whole; arguably with these Beat women empowering it by their maverick lifestyles.

This generation also occupied a particular position in relation to the Second World War. They were too young to understand what was occurring, and safe from blitzing and racial persecution.

In Diane de Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), a vast work of meditative autobiographical prose which portrays her early life growing up in Brooklyn, to her move to Manhattan where she lived as a poet and encountered the Beats, first through a correspondence with Ginsberg after Howl and Other Poems was brought to her attention. It then charts the trajectory of her writing, her work in publishing, which included The Floating Bear newsletter that was co-edited with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), the birth of her children, and her move to the west coast, with di Prima weaving personal, creative, political, and spiritual modalities seamlessly. Early in the text she describes a constant state of war, not only the “vast global entity” of the war in Europe, but the stultifying atmosphere in the home of her parents, who were both American-born children of Italian immigrants:


For me [the war] is everywhere: the War between my parents, the War between myself and the entity they are, the War between all the family and what I have gathered is a hostile world. My father goes out into it and returns discouraged. There is War upon war in my world, and they are all muted, hushed-my parents never argue.


One of her earliest memories was hearing her parents discussing the war in hushed tones while she sat unobserved in a corner of the kitchen in their Brooklyn brownstone. They speak in Italian, the language reserved for their private conversations. But the child understands, sensing the fear in her father’s voice as he states “We can’t get out of it now,” and in her mother’s “whimper of agreement.” This is after the United States entered the war, causing division in the Italian-American family, and threatening “the homeland” which eventuates in her paternal grandfather’s brother making the decision to “go home” to Sicily with his family, thus creating a “splitting of the tribe.” It speaks of both the fracturing war brings, and the split identity of Italian-Americans at the time, with di Prima describing further division for those of Sicilian origin, as a “Mediterranean, or North African ritual”: “Cousins wept, and wondered if they would next see each other across battle lines.”

The theoretical concept of “postmemory” from the cultural critic Marianne Hirsch helps elucidate the nature of the trauma the second-generation Beats inherited from both the parental generation and the European-born grandparental generation. Postmemory is “distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection,” and its “connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.” Such investment in imagination suits the poetic, reflective mode of these collective works in which there is a disconnection between family history and the secrets hidden there. Hirsch bases her work in the context of children of survivors of the Holocaust, but allows for other trauma such as migration to create postmemories across the generations. “Loss of family, home, of a sense of belonging and safety ‘bleed’ from one generation to the next,” she writes. Persecution, poverty, and geo-political shifts had been among the motivations for the waves of European emigration to America, and the Second World War came as a reminder and magnification of such old wounds, which did not end in 1945 as instead global hostility and threat switched gears into a Cold War context.

In another example from Recollections, di Prima presents the memory she inherited from her beloved grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi. He is presented as an idealized father figure, in contrast to her physically abusive father. Domenico was an atheist and anarchist who had known Carlo Tresca, the supporter of Italian radicals Sacco and Vanzetti, during their trial for murder. She would sit in his lap listening to stories, “sometimes facing the wall together as if to shut out distractions.” He would teach her the forbidden Italian, and conjure images of the old world, describing olive groves until the child “saw them blowing silver-green in the wind.” Although he promised to take her there after the war, he would die before the war ended; leaving di Prima with an embodied connection – postmemory – of a land she had never seen.

As well as providing a sense of Italian heritage, and a passion for knowledge and poetry, Domenico is valued for showing her a political consciousness grounded in love. In the poem “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” which serves as a preface for di Prima’s Vietnam War era collection, Revolutionary Letters, she aligns the memory of watching her grandfather address the crowd at a political rally prior to the outbreak of war with the current situation:


I embrace

strangers on the street, filled with their love and

mine, the love you told us had to come or we

die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in

spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars, so glorious

to me your white hair, your height your fierce

blue eyes, rare among italians


There is the sense that Mallozzi foresaw the defeat of his political ideals as war ensued, and anarchist love was replaced by mass slaughter and then amnesia in the postwar atomic age. It was also a love that di Prima did not experience from her parents, which she would search for through establishing a community of like-minded souls in the Beat era and thereafter.

Through the evocation of lost radical politics there is a connection to Allen Ginsberg’s depiction of his mother Naomi in his long narrative poem “Kaddish.” Ginsberg has a bridge status between the generations of Beats, and also in his reaching out to later generations of hippies and punks. Provoked by Naomi’s death in 1956, “Kaddish,” which stands as an imaginative offering of the traditional Kaddish prayer, was not read at her funeral because a “minyan” or quorum of ten Jewish men was not present. Ginsberg was on the west coast at the time of her death, and thus themes of guilt, grief, and remembrance inform the poem. It describes Naomi’s history of shifting mental states over the years, which included repeated breakdowns and paranoia concerning persecution from Hitler or her family members acting on his behalf. Naomi had moved to the United States as a child with her family in 1905 from the Vitebsk region in Russia’s Jewish Pale, now modern day Belarus. The first pogroms had begun in the territory that year, and later when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Vitebsk ghetto was created with its inhabitants liquidated. This sense of various trajectories of anti-Semitic persecution gives a context to “Kaddish,” along with Naomi’s incongruity as a Communist Party member in the new world. In Part IV of the poem the sense of breakdown and dislocation is staged on the mother’s body, with successive images building up with the cumulative effect of a litany:



with your sagging belly

with your fear of Hitler

with your mouth of bad short stories

with your fingers of rotten mandolins

with your arms of fat Paterson porches

with your belly of strikes and smokestacks

with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War

with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers

with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the

pickles of Newark

with your eyes

with your eyes of Russia


Ginsberg presents the body of the immigrant woman as metaphorically representative of the political and geographic dislocation of the twentieth century: the “vast global entity” is played out on her body, which is literally dissected in the lines breaking across the page. The poem bears witness to his mother’s life, acknowledging his European lineage and placing himself therein, with its legacy of trauma, failed hope, yet commitment to idealism, beauty, and humanity. Tenderly and brutally, he re-enacts the pain and shame in what amounts to a drag process as he speaks for Naomi, imaginatively investing in his postmemory.

The Jewish context connects the experiences of various Beat writers. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson is a memoir not only of her love affair with Kerouac, but of her bohemian youth, and the road away from home life with her assimilated parents. When she finds an apartment in the East Village, in the “sweet slums of Bohemia and beatnikdom,” she notes her mother’s incomprehension of her daughter’s move to slums her grandparents had struggled to avoid. She remembers journeys out on Jewish holidays from their comfortable Upper West Side home to visit cousins in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who were less assimilated, rougher in manner, and accumulated fat to crowd out the “specter of leaner days.” Johnson, née Glassman, chronicles a turbulent relationship with her mother, a common thematic strand of the women writers of the Beat generation. If Ginsberg’s ultimate horror is fucking his mother, as “Howl”’s expletives and “Kaddish”’s more graphic depictions suggest, the horror for the women writers is becoming their mothers.

A second memoir, Missing Men, follows Johnson’s discovery of the painful details of her Jewish heritage. After her grandmother had died and “the wall around the past briefly became permeable,” an aunt showed her a photograph of her grandfather, Samuel Rosenberg, a “poet and scholar, the descendant of a long line of eminent rabbis in Warsaw” who had sailed to America with his wife and youngest children in the 1890s. Up until that point, the sixteen-year old Johnson had been told that her grandfather had died when he was thirty-seven years old of some unmentioned illness. But her aunt reveals the truth, that after injuring his hands in a factory and having been unemployed for a while, he committed suicide. The skills for which Rosenberg had been regarded as a “promising young man in Warsaw had no negotiable value” in New York, “a world in which he could not find his bearings.” Johnson includes family photographs throughout Missing Men – recovered photographs of Rosenberg, her parents, aunts, and as the text develops into the next two sections, photographs of both of Johnson’s husbands. For Hirsch, photographs are the “medium connecting first- and second-generation remembrance, memory and postmemory”; they are “leftovers, the fragmentary sources and building blocks, shot through with holes […] affirm[ing] the past’s existence and, in their flat two-dimensionality, they signal its unbridgeable distance.” Johnson describes her own efforts at “resurrecting” the cultured man she never knew, searching for him in
“exiles, in artists who could not find acceptance, in the rage and sadness of these men that would make me fall in love with them and ultimately leave me alone again with my freedom.”

Di Prima’s Recollections gives a parallel account of a maddened American-born mother, Emma di Prima, who literally tries to scrub clean the past and assimilate into the American ideal she perceives. Long sections of the text are dedicated by the writer to cathartically encountering Emma’s ritualistic cleansing and dressing routines: recounting being scrubbed in the bath until her skin was raw; wearing dresses so stiffened with starch that they rubbed holes into her neck and waist; underwear elastic and patent leather shoes that dug into her flesh; heavy combs “with ‘unbreakable’ stamped across the top” which her mother would boast of breaking on her daughter’s thick, curly hair. Young di Prima’s skin was the “interface” between herself and her mother and it was “always red – from scrubbing, from battering, from starch, from shame.” Like Naomi’s, the body of the immigrant daughter is a contested site. The mother’s scrubbing of her child’s skin can be read as an extreme displacement of the immigrant’s desire to scrub clean the signs of racial difference, and its attendant traces of impoverished, troubled histories – a “whitening” of sorts.

Expanding on this theme, the critic Wini Breines has interpreted the “racial meanings” behind the “adult culture’s dualism of light and dark.” Whiteness was coded as the norm and ideal across American society, evident in pastel-colored clothing, light-colored, tidy hair, accompanied by good, clean personal hygiene. This all-American ideal dominated the cultural spectrum not only in “beauty standards” but in “mainstream movies, television, magazines, and advertising.” In contrast, darkness was coded as negative and seen in the black leather of real life “hoods” and on-screen delinquents, the dark clothes of black-clad beatniks with their unruly, long hair, and poor personal hygiene, with their alleged filthiness being another shading of darkness. Such delinquents sometimes “were dark” due to immigrant backgrounds. This resonates with the Italian and Jewish lineages discussed so far, and other Beats like Kerouac with his French-Canadian and Iroquois blood.[3] Breines explains that: “Difference was supposed to be invisible in postwar America. In this version, America was a welcoming melting pot into which everyone could and would be incorporated. Erasing one’s difference, assimilating, was a sign of Americanness. And assimilation meant passing for white.” (400)

She points to the invisibility of African-Americans in the mass media, quoting the writer Michelle Wallace, who “grew up watching a television on which I rarely saw a black face, reading Archie and Veronica comics, Oz and Nancy Drew stories and Seventeen magazine, in which ‘race’ was unmentionable.” In her analysis of the clothing choices of white American youths, the beat(nik)s included, Breines observes that wearing black conveyed “being unable to attain, or rejecting, prevailing values and standards of attractiveness, being an outsider.”

Alongside the erasure of the ethnic other in society’s images of itself, there often lurked shame in uneasily assimilated families, for example, di Prima’s father’s shame at his dark Sicilian lineage. She recalls the suspicion shared by her mother and aunts that his “genes [were] not okay,” and who by contrast, were proud of their blue-eyed “northern” father Domenico Mallozzi. Such racism in American immigrant communities can be seen as an extension of the eugenic concerns of the day, which simultaneously were being taken to genocidal extremes by Doctor Mengele and his Nazi cohorts across the Atlantic.

Unlike those who wished to scrub themselves clean in America in their pursuit of the American dream, the Beats mined the horror, eviscerated the broken hearts of the family tree, and portrayed their postmemory in autobiographic writing. They proclaimed themselves orphans, dirty and lost like their immigrant ancestors in a new world grown rich and fat on industry spawned from war technology and efficiency – high on Moloch, but low on soul. They sought out the slums of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and the Mexican borderlands. Secret heroes were not only the jazz musicians and hobos, but migrant family members like Naomi Ginsberg, Domenico Mallozzi, and Samuel Rosenberg. We can also think of Jack Kerouac’s French-Canadian grandfather Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, who he summons up in “The Origins of the Beat Generation.” He “used to go out on the porch in big thunderstorms and swing his kerosene lamp at the lightning and yell ‘Go ahead, go, if you’re more powerful than I am strike me and put the light out.’” For Kerouac this man was an antecedent of an America “invested with wild self-believing individuality” which “had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead.”

The second-generation Beats mine the inheritance of the daughter and son, revealing the complex layering of “war upon war” across the generations. A lasting image is of the young Diane di Prima eyeing a burning effigy of Hirohito as she questions an uneasy peace after V-J day: “It turned out to be as warlike as the rest. On Brooklyn sidewalks, kids ran by with dolls’ heads on broomsticks. Beheaded dolls with slanted eyes painted on. Norwegian kids, Italian kids, ran screaming. Japanese heads on sticks, or hung on the fences. I stood quiet inside our wrought iron gate and watched. Afraid to step into it. “



Works Cited:


Breines, Wini, ‘The “Other” Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls.’ Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple U P, 1994)p. 382-408.

Charters, Ann, The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1994)

Di Prima, Diane, Revolutionary Letters Etc. (San Francisco: City Lights , 1971).

Di Prima, Diane, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (New York: Viking, 2001).

Ginsberg, Allen, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960 (San Francisco: City Lights , 1961). Rpt. 2010.

Hirsch, Marianne, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MT: Harvard U P, 1997).

Hirsch, Marianne, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia U P, 2012).

Johnson, Joyce, Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983) Rpt. 1994. London: Virago.

Johnson, Joyce, Missing Men: A Memoir (New York: Penguin, 2004) Rpt. 2005.

Johnson, Joyce, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (New York: Viking, 2012).

Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy M. Grace, Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation (New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 2002).

Kerouac, Jack, ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’ Playboy (June, 1959). Rpt. 1998. Good Blonde and Others (San Francisco: Grey Fox) p. 55-65.

Knight, Brenda, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley: Conari, 1996).

Miles, Barry, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin, 2002).



[1] In her Portable Beat Reader, Ann Charters posited two generations of Beat writers: firstly, those associated with the East Coast Beats, and secondly those “fellow travelers” who were influenced by the breakthroughs of the first generation. Joyce Johnson and Nancy Grace, however, suggest a three generational model to accommodate the range of women Beat writers they discuss in Girls Who Wore Black.

[2] Edie Kerouac-Parker’s You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007) can be placed alongside Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg (London: Black Spring, 1990) as narratives with a speaker who exists, first and foremost, “in relation to” the famous Beat figures, and written in conventional mimetic styles.

[3] Johnson notes that the minority populations of French-Canadians in New England were referred to as “white niggers.”