One famous and pivotal moment in Beat history was the killing David Kammerer by Lucian Carr. It was the end of some things, the start of others, and above all a landmark piece of history that involved some of the most famous writers of the twentieth century.
On 13th August, 1944, Lucian Carr was drinking with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, his two Columbia University buddies, when David Kammerer appeared and joined the group. Kammerer was thirty-three, much older than the young future Beats. Carr was only nineteen years old, but Kammerer had been sexually obsessed with him for at least five years, since first guiding Carr’s Boy Scout group on nature walks.
When Kammerer and Carr left the bar at three in the morning, to walk and talk by the Hudson River, it was the last time anyone would see Kammerer alive. According to Carr, Kammerer tried to sexually assault the younger man, and Carr defended himself by stabbing his attacker twice in the chest with a small Boy Scout knife. In a panic, Carr filled Kammerer’s pockets with stones and throw his body into the Hudson River.
But that was where the story ended between the two parties, as Carr went to seek refuge with Burroughs. Burroughs, a good friend of Kammerer, simply told Carr to get a good lawyer and turn himself in. Indeed, Burroughs’ use of his family’s wealth to hire good lawyers kept him from a life in jail.
Next, Carr went to visit Kerouac, who responded differently, helping Carr to dispose of the murder weapon, and then taking him on a tour of the city to talk about what happened. They went to a museum and watched a movie, The Four Feathers.
But two days later, Carr broke under the strain of guilt and turned himself in to the police. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested. Burroughs used his family’s money to pay the bail, but Kerouac couldn’t, and was bizarrely forced to marry Edie Parker in order for her family to pay his own bail.
Carr was sentenced to a maximum of ten years in jail, a light sentenced based on the defence argument that because Kammerer was homosexual, the murder was an ‘honour killing’ that protected Carr from being raped.
Nonetheless, it changed much. Kerouac was now married, Carr was gone from the circle, and all of the writing of the time centred on the infamous event. Ginsberg wrote The Bloodsong, but was warned by the assistant Dean that Columbia didn’t need any more bad publicity. Kerouac and Burroughs, however, wrote a novel called, strangely, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks.
The novel would prove to be a thorn in the side of Carr, who emerged from prison a reformed man with little interest in his Beatnik past, and instead had the desire to go straight, without anything to remind him or embarrass him for a horrible incident. But now, after Carr’s death, the long awaited literary even has come – the release of the lost Beat Generation novel that predates all others by many years.
In between, there was a description, by Kerouac, in Vanity of Duluoz, but the truth was heavily distorted. Kerouac talked about it with Ann Charters, for his biography. And two years later, excerpts of Hippos appeared in a magazine and Burroughs had to sue to protect Carr, who was trying to work a stable life as a journalist. A short excerpt, too, came in Word Virus, but still there was no great effort made to bring about this near mythical text.
For many years, Burroughs maintained that the title of the novel came from his memory of a radio report about a fire at the St. Louis Zoo, when the announcer burst into fits of laughter when attempting to read the line.
And for years the novel didn’t surface, in spite of attempts by both Kerouac and Burroughs. Burroughs has mentioned that the novel was ‘not a very distinguished work’, but nevertheless it attracted an agent who was willing to push it around and tolerate many, many rejections.
Most of the rejections came, presumably, because of the totally inappropriate subject matter. This was before Kerouac and Burroughs were famous, able to say what they wished, but they still had elements of their future selves hidden in the text. Taking it turn about, chapter-by-chapter, the two friends each wrote from the point of view of a different protagonist. Kerouac’s chapters contained the original elements of Kerouacian prose, and Burroughs had some of the hallmarks of Junky or Queer, but neither author exposed his true brilliance of his truth style.
It seems they limited one another, although not necessarily in a bad way. They could only write what they knew, after all, and they both new different things, both in terms of facts and of style. One can tell when reading portions of the book where something was written by Kerouac or Burroughs. Burroughs’ sections contain strong and mystical descriptions of drug use, gay sex, and hallucinatory violence. Kerouac’s sections ramble on. But neither author goes to the extremes reached in his own books.
The result, we now see, is perhaps not a classic work of literature, but certainly an interesting one, and not the epic failure that Burroughs tried to have us all believe with his dismissive comments in the eighties. Instead, there is now something else for Beat fans to read, to learn a little more about Beat history, now that all the players in the scenario are safely entombed beyond the grave. There are no more hurt feelings, no more treading carefully.
Perhaps Burroughs said it best in a milder moment:
“It wasn’t sensational enough to make it from that point of view, nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it from a purely literary point of view. It sort of fell in-between. It was very much in the Existentialist genre, the prevailing mode of the period, but that hadn’t hit America yet. It just wasn’t a commercially viable property.”
Indeed, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks has reached a time when it will be loved, and that raises real questions over its literary merit. But then again, who really cares, so long as it’s a fun read? The key is in both authors calling it ‘hard-boiled’. When was hard-boiled ever really out and out literary?