Archives For Beatdom #15

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.

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.

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.”

The Beat Generation at War


From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:

Full page macroThe Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius.

The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.

To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:


All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.

The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.


The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”

Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.

So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.



Jack Kerouac

Wars don’t advance mankind except materially


In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:


For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . .  I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.


However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.

Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.

The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.

His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.

After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”

But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:


I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.


Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.


In Vanity he described the experience:


Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.Jack Kerouac Merchant Marine Photo


On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.

During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.

Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.

During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:

“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:

“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”

Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”

Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.



“At Hiroshima all was lost.”


William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.

In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.

In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”

When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy.  He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.

In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:

the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.

However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:


In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.


The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.


Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.


Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.

In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.

Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”

War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:

This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.



Allen Ginsberg

“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”


When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.

Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.

He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.

In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:

I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.

Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”

After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.


There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.


It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.

Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.

Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”

For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.

For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.

As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.

In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.

In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.

But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.

From Albion to Shangri-La

From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction.Peter Doherty Waterstones Signing 2

So, here is a brief download of life-behind-the-scenes with the selective concentration and short attention span of a pipe-fuelled fly-on-the-wall, flicker-finger on the fast forward of a secret video diary – cut-up surveillance footage to try and keep tabs on what the kaleidoscope of chemically accelerated and trance-translated selves have been up to. The dramatis personae included at the beginning tips the wink to the fact that this is the most fictional of literary creations of them all: True Life Confessional, the reportage of simple facts about a far from simple life – it’s all there, folks – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent needing no such cover. (As Doherty sings on the latest album’s Fall From Grace : “If I had to tell the truth, I would be lying.”)

The tour diaries themselves are a confusion of times and places (“I think we are in Leeds”), blurred half-memories of shows well played, shows that deteriorate into random violence, and seemingly never-ending encounters with the young who are the loyal subjects of this uncrowned prince of all the rebels-without-a-clue, timely reminders of just what he means to them:

A 17 year old girl on the crush barrier, saw her briefly afterwards. She works in a jam factory. Left school at 14. Lives for music – says that Babyshambles, Libertines, me, lyrics, helped her through depression, boredom, through life. Her father died from a heroin overdose when she was born. Her mum hadn’t let him see the newborn baby. He went home. Banged up. Checked out . . .

It is because Doherty appears to speak to them, and for them, appears to be one of them – if only writ tabloid large, like them, only moreso – that “the kids” (of all ages) keep the faith. They feel that his successes are their successes, his failures are their failures, and that if he can come from little-or-nothing and succeed, and fail, and still survive and show the hope of succeeding again (even if only to fail again, then try again – try again), then maybe they can, too. It may not be Samuel Beckett, but it’s something. And something has got to be better than nothing. (“Nothing Comes To Nothing” the most recent single declares.)

From Albion to Shangri-La can proudly and rightfully take its place among all the other great works that fill that most singular of literary categories, the drug confessions of sensitive poet souls, along with William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Jean Cocteau, Richard Hell and Alex Trocchi (to name just a few I can see on the shelf with a half-turn in my chair.) Not forgetting, of course, the grandaddy of them all, Thomas De Quincey: his Confessions of An English Opium Eater sets the basic blueprint, after all, and he and Mr. Doherty would find common-ground, agree over much familiar territory – although De Quincey might just wonder at all the references to Galton & Simpson, Edward G. Robinson and Colombo, or blowjobs from très chic French schoolgirl nymphets! All the reasons, justifications and excuses, the pleasures and pains, the inner-directed flight that almost inevitably ends with inertia – but also the jewels among the darkness, the moving heart-warming beautiful flashes of insight that illuminate this human condition we all share. “Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience” – which is really just a more palatable, New Age way of re-stating that age-old Gnostic dilemma: we are beautiful, pure spirits, mired in a fallen world of suffering, pain, and frightened, nagging flesh . . .

Speaking of which, one of the more striking – at times unsettling – aspects of such memoirs is the notion they project of Self-as-Object, the almost scientific detachment from the body shared by the religious ascetic and the hardcore drug-abuser. I’ll spare you the details, delicate reader, of the autopsy-in-progress, but I’m sure you can guess . . .

Nina Antonia and Peter DohertyIndifference to discomfort and squalor. Intravenous self-mortification. Stigmata of the syringe. The body re-sculpted into a psychic launchpad, more fitting vehicle for the exploration of the endless interior. Outside is hostile, and to be defended against or escaped from. So much a cosmonaut of inner space that even their own bodies – never mind their actions, failings, feelings, or possible consequences – become distanced from them, a distance ever harder to bridge. Epiphanies of a Midnight Sun, too much in the moment, yet too much outside of time . . . The unthinkable becomes the everyday, and the everyday becomes unthinkable . . . Like a former prize-fighter or grizzled warrior, proud of their scars – each one read as a badge of honour, the sign of a scrape emerged from (just!) – the subliminal tattoos in which a whole hidden history can be read.

Here’s the rub: if Doherty turned up on time, clean and sober and freshly washed, didn’t misbehave, played well and spoke articulately, there wouldn’t be much of a scoop and one wonders how much interest there would still be? The sensation-hungry media, all surface and scandal, has no real interest in taking time over story or substance, especially where an all-too-predictable (they think) commodity like “Potty Pete” Doherty is concerned. The irony is, of course, he might just turn out to be an intelligent and sensitive poet, with something to say about the human condition worth hearing, over a well-crafted twin-guitar-based catchy song. But at the rate things have been going . . .

Irvine Welsh, himself no stranger to chemically-inspired creativity and attendant controversy, once dismissed fellow countryman, the infamous Beat junkie writer Alex Trocchi, as “The George Best of Scottish literature.” It’s a comparison that might Peter Doherty might appreciate, constellating as it does precocious talent, literary notoriety, junk and even football – but the greater concern at stake here, surely, is that he doesn’t follow the likes of Trocchi (or Best, for that matter) into a self-thwarting internal exile, or worse. Mercifully, however, Doherty has survived long enough to disperse the grinning vultures, those who just could not wait for him to join Brian, Janis, Jimi and Jim, Kurt and even his talented but tragic friend, Amy, in the infamous “27 Club” – without doubt the one Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Fame nobody in their right mind should aspire to.Nina Antonia and MLS

(An all-too-grim reminder that this is a game played for keeps is to read the line written into Doherty’s open diary by one of his friends – “I solemnly swear I am not going to die” – and then do a double-take at the signature: Peaches Geldof.)

One can only hope that having survived this long, his obvious love of music, poetry, and love and life itself that have got him this far – with their combined powers to excite, inspire, intoxicate, soothe and sustain beyond anything that can be found in the chemist’s, or at the darker end of the street – will continue to matter enough. As Nina Antonia observes in her Introduction:

When I asked Peter why it was so hard to rest, he replied like a child on Christmas Eve . . . ‘Because there’s too much going on.’ The substance of the giddy tornado of his mind now romps across the pages that follow.

As a veteran of life with Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, and enigmatic narco-reclusive Peter Perrett of The Only Ones (whose Another Girl, Another Planet surely stands as one of the all-time invocations of the exhilarating confusion of the rush of love and love of the rush) – all of whom she has known intimately, and written about candidly and insightfully – as well as her near-decade of working in the field of substance misuse, Nina Antonia must know better than most that, in the end, there really is nothing much to be said and done.

In the interview with Antonia that closes the book, Doherty reflects:

Talking to kids now they just don’t feel confident taking off to a new city, getting a job behind a bar. Now it’s so much more difficult to get a cash-in-hand job, find a flat, find a squat, the world is so much more sterile.

This is precisely the reason why we need poets, songsmiths and writers like him, as an antidote to the bland conformity and soul-sucking sterility that is on the rise all around us. In May this year, interviewed by Barcelona TV for a launch of his paintings, Flags of the Old Regime, Doherty was asked what his art meant in his life, and he replied, characteristically playfully but also tellingly:

It is my life in the same way that, y’know, a baker smells of flour. It’s my life, I live inside songs and with crayons and y’know – I like the sea, and love – but, y’know . . . I spend my time . . . here [taps forehead] trying to devise a way out of reality, and . . . sooner or later, if you spend enough time inventing a world, you can convince yourself it exists.

Let’s hope that Peter Doherty never gives up on his dream of inventing a world that he can call home, and carries on inspiring others in the process. God Bless the Good Ship Albion in her continuing voyages in search of Arcady and Shangri-La!

(Photos courtesy of Nina Antonia)


Some videos from a recent book signing: 


From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available on Kindle and in paperback from July 1st. Buy it here with a 30% special web discount. 

Facebook page.