Archives For Essays

Essays from the magazine.

What the Beats can teach us about writing

The Beat Generation was not just important as a countercultural movement. We don’t just remember Jack Kerouac for sending kids on the road and accidentally birthing the hippies, or Allen Ginsberg for his peace & love messages. We remember them as literary innovators, and as such they have a lot to teach us about writing. Literature changed with the Beat Generation and it has never been the same since. Yet as time goes by, it is easy to forget what exactly they gave us. Let’s take the chance to look over some of the writing lessons handed down by the Beat writers. Continue Reading…

The Best Beat Generation Letter Collections

The writers of the Beat Generation were not just great at composing poems or producing genre-smashing novels. They were also voluminous letter-writers, corresponding over vast distances by mail. They shared ideas, gave details of their lives and thoughts, and even experimented with writing styles through the act of writing these letters. Some, like the Joan Anderson Letter, were of incalculable significance. Thankfully, they were often careful enough to save their letters, knowing that some day in the future these might be of importance. Eventually, as telephone calls became cheaper, the letters dried up. However, during the heyday of the Beat Generation, they correspondence was frequent and often stretched into thousands of magnificent words.  Continue Reading…

The Beat Generation and Mental Hospitals

The 1940s and 50s were difficult years to be non-conformist, and that was doubly true if you were a woman. The writers of the Beat Generation, as well as their friends and families, who lived bohemian lifestyles in a buttoned-up era, found that their very existence could be dangerous in those days. Whether they were driven to genuine mental illness by the shackles of a repressive society or deemed unfit for society because of their individualist life choices, many of those who fell under the Beat label ended up in the “nuthouse.” For some of them it was just a temporary stay that gave them inspiration for their art, but for others it was a deeply traumatic experience that irrevocably damaged their life. Continue Reading…

The Beats in Greece

As the birthplace of Western democracy, literature, and philosophy, it is hardly surprising that Greece was of such interest to the Beats. Nearly three thousand years after Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, Ancient Greek civilization provided an irresistible allure for some of the poets and writers of the Beat Generation. Continue Reading…

Feeling the Power: The Everlasting Impact of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit of Brooklyn

 

“…You men writers always put your balls in the way of the story…get your ego out of the way and just tell the story…!”

Hubert Selby Jr. to Henry Rollins, Los Angeles, 1986

 

When Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was published in 1964, it left a serious wake in the social and literary world of the time that is still felt today. Controversial and even banned upon publication for its graphic language and depictions, the book showcased subject matter and a writing style that has not been rivaled since. Continue Reading…

Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson: From Loathing and Fear to Fear and Loathing

What do Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson have in common? Both were great writers, of course. Both had a fondness for hallucinogens and wrote important books about mind-bending drugs. Both were astute social commentators. However, beyond that there’s not a great deal to link these men, who were very different characters.

But here’s an odd connection between them: Continue Reading…

Allegories from the Cave: Burroughs and Trocchi – a Platonic Love

‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.

Or did he?’

Voltaire

The drug experience has often been perceived as a public and social issue. Yet, drug use and experience are unquestionably a matter of personal choice, as indeed are the consequences. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tension between the public and the private surrounding drug use. The criminalisation and condemnation of drug use in the mid-twentieth century developed entirely within the public sphere. The drug user essentially had no voice and their dependence subjected them to a criminality and demonization. Indeed, the reality of drug use was, and remains, often distorted and misrepresented to the public by politicians and policy makers. A particular case in point being the wide-spread, and persistent view that one drug, like marijuana, if it does not in itself destroy the user’s life, will eventually lead to harder drugs like heroin addiction and criminal activity. But while the public had its spokespersons and rhetoric, like Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to denounce them, drug users and addicts were subjected to an imbalanced power dynamic with no one to speak for them. What we find in The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are efforts to publicly privatise the drug experience. Or to put the matter another way: these works attempt to make the public aware of the user’s private experience. The aesthetic form of these books reflects the public performance of private life. Moreover, what these authors accomplish has unique parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in which an anonymous hero reveals ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to his community. Continue Reading…

Gary Snyder: Heart-Beat – A Diptych

“From a certain point onward there is no turning back.  This is the point that must be reached.”

Kafka

 

 

The Six Gallery Reading

 

They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive.  From Lower Burnside.  Cross-country.  Cross-town.  There was talk of a renaissance.

On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east.  It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless.  The sun means nothing in San Francisco.  It’s all about the wind.  It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool.  It would be very cool. Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg’s First Trip to Africa

On 12th September, 1947, Allen Ginsberg shipped out as a utility man on a collier, the S.S. John Blair, for the Ponchelet Marine Corporation. He departed from Freeport, seventy-five miles south of Houston, going through Galveston, passing near Cuba and Haiti, whose mountains Allen watched pass by, and headed for Dakar, capital of the federation of French West Africa, in what is now known as Senegal. Dakar, on the western coast of Africa, had a long colonial history, although like most European colonial possessions, in 1947 this one was nearing the end of its subjugation. Once a major trading port for African slaves, Dakar had a strategic location that ensured its privileged position within the French Empire. The French West African territories were placed under the control of a single governor, who was located in Dakar, and so it had become a seat of power in the region. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, it had become a major city in the empire. As rights were slowly and inconsistently handed out to “French subjects” – ie the Africans whose homelands had been annexed by the French – the people born in Dakar were first to be given the right to vote, and it was from here that the first ever black African elected to the French government was born, Blaise Diagne. A year before Allen’s visit, the French Empire had rebranded itself the French Union to give the appearance of equality, and more limited rights were being rolled out; however, more substantial change was in the horizon, with independence just over a decade away. Continue Reading…

Gonzo Personas: Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy

 

This article first appeared in Beatdom #17.

A little over 10 years ago—February 20, 2005—“gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, stuck the barrel of a Smith & Wesson in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Eight months later—October 1, 2005—Hunter’s long-time friend and lawyer, John G. Clancy, died in a rollover on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico.

***

In the summer of 2013, the written and recorded correspondence between Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy was released to the public by Clancy’s widow. Some of these materials provide documentation for several interesting story lines, including evidence that Thompson’s relationship with Clancy may have influenced the development of Hunter’s own “gonzo” persona. Continue Reading…