Archives For Beatdom #4

Stuff from issue four.

The Sea is my Brother

Since the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Kerouac has been somewhat revitalized. Despite being dead for forty years, Beat enthusiasts are still getting to read fresh material, as publishers trawl through his estate for unpublished material.

First there was the Original Scroll version of On the Road, which cast off the restraints necessary for the first fifty years of publication, and included the real names of characters as Kerouac famously wrote them in his legendary writing fit that produced a 120-foot long scroll manuscript. Next came Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, which has been less successful, but still of great interest to Kerouac fans. It is a retelling of the life of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, who led perhaps the first Beat life. After that there was And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which Kerouac co-wrote with William Burroughs after the murder of David Kammerer, in 1944.

Now there is The Sea is my Brother, Kerouac’s first novel, but one which has been lost in time. It was never published during his tragic life, but Kerouac wrote the book during his time at sea. It is the story of Wesley Martin, a man who ‘loved the sea with a strange, lonely love.’

The Sea is my Brother appears to share the spirit of On the Road and Kerouac’s early Beat philosophy. It is about loneliness and a search for love in an unpleasant world. According to Kerouac’s notes on the book, it is about ‘the vanishing American… the American Indian, the last of the pioneers, the last of the hoboes.’

Another note states that the book tells the story of a ‘man’s simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies.’ That sounds promising, indeed. Hopefully this will mirror Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘lost’ Rum Diary, which found legitimate success when released in 1998. It will certainly be interesting to see a new emergence from the period that spawned Kerouac’s greatest works.

Strangely, early references to the novel on the internet seem convinced that it will usher in a ‘new Beat Generation’, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hopefully, Kerouac will continue to find fans for years to come, but I highly doubt this will have the same effect on society as On the Road.

The Sea is my Brother has been purchased by Harper in the US, and will hopefully emerge within the next year. It will apparently be packaged with correspondence from the author around the time of writing the book.

The Breton Traveller

THE BRETON TRAVELLER — Jack Kerouac’s Search for his Roots

by Dave Moore

Much has been written about Kerouac’s apparent rootlessness being the driving force behind his travels and his writing. His search for his true roots was endless. In the final decade of his life it became desperate. Jack had learned, from his father and uncles, that their ancestor came from France to Canada in the 1700s. But Kerouac’s quest was confused. In his 1952 novel, Doctor Sax, Jack named his ancestor as ‘the honorable soldier, Baron Louis Alexandre Lebris de Duluoz [Kerouac],’ and this became Alexandre Louis Lebris de Kerouac in 1960, in the introduction to Lonesome Traveller. By 1968, writing to genealogist Howard Valyear, Jack gave the different name of Francois-Edouard Lebrix de Kerouac’h, but a month later changed the first names to Francois Alexandre. His ancestor, he maintained, was a soldier in Montcalm’s army who was also known as ‘The Little Prince’, since he was allegedly the son of the titular king of the Cornouialles district of Brittany, an area populated by Celtish people driven out of Cornwall, England, by Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century. A romantic myth, but, we now know, far from the truth.

The only evidence for the name of the ancestor was on his marriage certificate of 1732, where he signed it Maurice-Louis Le Bris de Kerouac. This implies a family name of Le Bris, originally from a place named Kerouac. But searches in France for such a family proved fruitless. When Kerouac was there in 1965 he learned that vital records held in Paris had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. As Jack described in Satori In Paris, he travelled on to Brittany and met a Pierre Lebris (called ‘Ulysse’ in the book) but discovered that he was part of another branch of a very large family, with no connection to Kerouac. Jack’s quest for his roots had led him up a blind alley where he would remain until his death four years later.

The Kerouac families of Canada and the USA, now numbering some three thousand members, continued the search for their ancestor. Investigations by genealogists in the village of Kerouac, some 15 miles east of Quimper, in southern Brittany, curiously found no evidence of a Le Bris family coming from that area. In fact, there was no trace at all of the name Le Bris de Kerouac in France. It apparently did not exist. Then, in 1999, a breakthrough. Patricia Dagier, a French genealogist employed by the Kerouac families of North America, discovered records of an old family called Le Bihan de Kervoac. Kervoac being the Breton spelling of Kerouac, this caused some excitement. The hamlets of Kervoac are near the northern coast of Brittany, close to the port of Morlaix. In fact, there is a cluster of three hamlets, situated on the south-eastern outskirts of the town of Lanmeur: Kervoac Huella, Kervoac Izella, and Kervoac Creiz (or, translating from the Breton: Upper, Lower, and Central Kerouac. Kervoac itself means ‘wet place’ in Breton).

The research by Patricia Dagier revealed that a Henry Le Bihan, a notary, was living in Lanmeur in 1609, when he married. His son, a merchant in Morlaix, followed the Breton custom of attaching the place of the family’s origins to his name, to become Auffroy Le Bihan de Kervoac, and his son, Laurens, maintained the tradition. Laurens Le Bihan de Kervoac moved some twenty miles south to become a procurator in the town of Huelgoat, marrying there in the 1660s and producing a son Francois-Joachim who became a rich notary in Huelgoat. This notary was the father of the Kerouac ancestor, Urbain-Francois Le Bihan de Kervoac, born in Huelgoat around the year of 1702.

In September 1720, Urbain, who was being trained to follow in his father’s professional footsteps, suddenly found his world turned upside down. Attending the wedding party of a friend, he was accused of attempting to seduce and then of stealing money from one of the female guests. Whether the claims were true or false, Urbain, as the son of a famous notary, not wishing to bring disgrace upon his family, fled Brittany and sailed for La Nouvelle France — Canada. On arrival, in an attempt to conceal his true identity, Urbain changed his name and became known as Alexandre. In Canada he travelled up and down the St. Lawrence river, making his living as a hunter and fur-trader. He seems to have adapted well to this new, hard life-style and to have had an aptitude for the exploration of his new country, acquiring the nickname ‘Le Voyageur’ (‘The Traveller’) at this time. His first appearance in official records was his signature as a witness to the wedding of a friend in 1727. This he signed as Hyacinthe Louis Alexandre Le Bihan de Kervoac, disguising his real first names, but preserving his original family name, presumably out of respect for his old friend. He also gave false names for his father and mother, in an apparent attempt to throw the curious off the true scent.

But Alexandre’s free and easy existence was to change in 1732. Arriving back in the village of Cap St-Ignace, some 40 miles east of Quebec, he was approached by members of the family of an unmarried twenty-year-old woman, Louise Bernier, who had given birth to a son, Simon-Alexandre, eight months earlier. The baby, she insisted, was Alexandre’s and so, a few days later, on October 22, 1732, he found himself being married to Louise. The records show that, presumably to save his family from further embarrassment, this time he signed his name as Maurice-Louis Le Bris de Kerouac. The name Le Bihan had vanished, never again to appear in  Canadian records. But why did he become Le Bris? One theory is that this was the name of one of his mother’s cousins, and a close friend of the family. Whatever, this change of surname was responsible for the total genealogical confusion which masked the true origins of the Kerouac ancestor for nearly 300 years.

The couple settled into the home of Louise’s parents, but his newly-found domesticity evidently did not agree with the flamboyant Alexandre, since he was missing, probably away on further travels, when his second son, Jacques was born in 1733. Shortly after the birth of his third son, Louis, in 1735, the couple left the Bernier home and settled in Kamouraska, a small village on the St. Lawrence river, a further forty-five miles east of Quebec. But Alexandre de Kerouac, as he was now known, was not to live there for long. He died in his mid-thirties on March 6, 1736. His wife Louise survived to the grand age of 91, and their eldest son, Simon-Alexandre, went on to father thirteen children of his own, becoming the main branch in the Kerouac family tree.

Some coincidences: one of Alexandre’s acquaintances in Canada was Joseph Martin, the very same name that Kerouac unwittingly gave to the character based on his great-grandfather, Edouard Kerouac, in his 1950 novel The Town and the City. And, ironically, in Chapter 32 of Satori in Paris, the book based upon his 1965 journey to France, Jack reads the name ‘Behan’ in the genealogy of Ulysse Lebris, without realizing its connection to the ancestor he was so desperately seeking. The final irony is that Jack had to cancel another planned trip to Brittany in 1967 with his Breton friend Youenn Gwernig because of his publisher’s demands that he completed work on Vanity of Duluoz. Their intended destination? — Huelgoat, the birthplace of Jack’s North American ancestor.

Jack Kerouac died in ignorance of his true French ancestry, but would no doubt have been fascinated to know the correct story of his Breton forebears, from whom he seems to have inherited many characteristics, including the travelling gene, even if the true facts differ considerably from the long-standing myths.

[ Copyright Dave Moore ]

Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard

By Kristin McLaughlin

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? – Jack Kerouac[1]

Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine (Jack was four at the time) of rheumatic fever.  As the cornerstone of the Dulouz legend, Visions of Gerard, along with Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, deals with Kerouac’s early life in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Most biographers agree that though Kerouac left Lowell after high school, he never left it emotionally.  That was where his heart remained.  In 1963, six years before his death, he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to return to every known and fabled corner.  A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.”[2]

Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, one of Lowell’s neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River.  Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th/early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills.  By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining as the mills began to close.

He was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher”[3] and Gabrielle, known to everyone as Mémêre, conducted the household in a Quebecois patois known as joual.  For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school.

Kerouac’s mother played an important – perhaps unhealthily important – role in his life.  He told biographer Anne Charters that his mother was the only woman he ever loved.  She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip.  After Gerard’s death, she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known), and that continued throughout his life.  While his father seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in the Kerouac children a religious sensibility that is apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings.  Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working-class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview.  Though he did a lot of things that could be viewed as the antithesis of those influences, it’s clear in his writing that those influences were always there.

In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac seamlessly blends dream and reality to create a “book of sorrows.”[4] Though evidence suggests that most of the scenes in Visions of Gerard do not stem from Kerouac’s real memories, he manages to meld his few recollections, his dreams and visions, his mother’s romanticized anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother.  To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap that was still alive.  Horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures, he brought the mouse home, bandaged it up and took care of it.  Before long the cat found the mouse and ate it, leaving only the tail behind.  Gerard scolded the cat, but not in the mean way you would expect from a child.  Instead, Gerard gives the feline a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others.  Leo tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat things that are smaller than us.  But Gerard wants none of it.  “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! – without thinking, without knowing.”[5]

As stated earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disorder affecting the heart, joints, skin, and nervous system that can develop after a Group A streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever.  Though he was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life, Kerouac does not put the boy’s suffering in the forefront.  Gerard, in his saintliness, suffers quietly, without complaint.  Despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed.  “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”[6]

Gerard oversees Jack, wanting him to be good.  Kerouac writes of when he stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper.  Gerard scolds him, like he scolded the cat, and together they patched the newspaper back together, so the picture was as good as new.  Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is competition.  Little Jack wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”[7]

The Gerard that Jack knows is otherworldly.  He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs.  He tells his little brother about the color of God.  He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy whom he pushed when the child accidently knocked over something he was making.  The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.”[8] Near his death Gerard tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven – those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven – See?”[9] When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard’s school come as well, kneeling by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boy’s answers.  The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child –a child who understands something about the world and about Heaven that those around him do not.  He tries to explain that “we’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.”[10] Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here.  All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to discern.

Then Gerard dies.  Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort! as thou it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said, ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know’ I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved ignorance of mortal brains.”[11]

After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone and they did not return. “’They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”[12]

In 1955, shortly after the famed Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson.  Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but to no avail.  The next day she jumped from the window to her death.  Kerouac was very disturbed by this and returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas.  Of course, his mother was there too.  The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future novel, The Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time.

In January 1956, Mémêre left Rocky Mount for New York to attend a funeral.  It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Kerouac sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard.  “My sister and her husband weren’t interested.  They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine.  It was written by hand on the kitchen table.  My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light.  You got to live with your family, you know.  Mémêre wasn’t there.  She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn.  If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it.  We’d have talked all night.  But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…”[13]

At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was in the process of synthesizing his two religions – Catholicism and Buddhism; both are clearly represented in the novel, and Kerouac successfully harmonizes them to present his Catholic sensibility from his recently adopted Buddhist perspective.  To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not.  But he continued to maintain his belief in Catholicism throughout his life.  He was Catholic in his heart, and was devout in his own way.  His beliefs at the time of writing the novel can probably be summed in the words he says that Gerard’s “sad eyes first foretold”: “All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.”[14]

It only took Kerouac approximately fifteen days to write Visions of Gerard, though John Kingsland, who read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of that first published novel are included in Visions of Gerard.[15] On January 15, 1956, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder that the novel was finished.  In that letter, he called the work his “best most serious sad and true book yet,”[16] and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961, still two years before its publication.  By late 1956, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking Publishers, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing.  In response to requests to revise the novel, Kerouac told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands.  As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.”[17] But by 1958, Kerouac was offering to revise the novel and substitute Catholic references for the Buddhist ones if Viking would buy the book.  He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his ever-growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion.  He wrote that Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”[18]

The book, along with Big Sur, was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance.  When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but it’s unclear if any changes were made between its original writing, which was done in pencil, and its final, published version.  In December 1962, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen, “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…”[19] Who cares?  Jack certainly did.  For all the coolness of that statement, Kerouac was crushed by negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were very bad indeed.  The New York Herald Tribune stated that it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often pridefully ‘sincere’ that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…In someone else’s hands, it could have been moving.  Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself.  As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.”[20] The review in the New York Times wasn’t any better: “…the clangor we hear far too often is the narrator’s jaunty, garrulous hipster yawping, and before its implacable onslaught all feeling disintegrates. It is not enough to say that the style does not evoke or intensify the emotion. It betrays and debases it. The dead boy deserved better of his eulogist.”[21] Biographer Gerard Nicosia states that “critics seemed to be stirring for new lefthanded and underhanded ways of putting [Kerouac] down.”[22] This further fueled Kerouac’s downward spiral – now he was not only the cause of juvenile delinquency, but he was desecrating his brother’s memory and exploiting his death.

In an October 1963 letter to friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac states, “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it.  So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.”[23] So much for not caring.  Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he desired professionally was to be taken seriously.  Since the publication of On the Road, he had been physically declining largely due to the notoriety it brought him.  He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything he wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint.  But while this novel does have an overarching religious sensibility to it, it is a very sad tale.  Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother – he worshipped him and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother.  “For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Dulouz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness.”[24] He was extremely jealous of Gerard’s friends, and when they would come to visit the bed-ridden boy, Jack would complain to Mémêre and she would send the boys away, saying that Gerard belonged to Jack.  Losing his brother appears to have been very traumatic for Kerouac – he grew frightened of the dark and often wondered how he could get into heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother.  For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”[25]

Neighborhood playmates of Gerard remember him as a normal, but sickly, kid and suggest that Kerouac largely embellished the story of his brother’s holiness.  In fact, in a letter to his sister, Caroline in 1945, Kerouac admitted all he remembered of Gerard was the slap over the erector set.[26] The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged and reinforced by Mémêre and greatly merged with the French tradition of child-saints.  It is legitimate to wonder how much Gerard’s death – and his doting mother’s reaction to it – influenced Kerouac later in life.  In the same letter to Caroline, he admits feeling guilty about Gerard and that he may have been responsible for the death.  But imagine Jack’s position: as a child he believed his brother was favored over him, his parents view the boy as a saint.  Gerard’s piety was used as a standard against which Kerouac often measured his own life, and he failed miserably against that standard.  Gerard’s death has come to be seen by researchers as a potential source of Kerouac’s torments and turmoil, and Visions of Gerard has been described as being “told from the standpoint of a man looking from the dark torrents of a raging river at an unattainable peaceful shore.”[27] But though the boy’s death was clearly a tragedy, and served as a source of terrible guilt and anguish for Kerouac – and perhaps even was the original catalyst that eventually led to his alcoholism and death, we are also faced with the question of whether, had Gerard lived instead, Kerouac would have ever become a writer in the first place.  As Kerouac asks in the novel, what would have happened to Jack without Gerard?

“The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen and ink…because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero – Écrivez pour l’amour de son mort.”[28]

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 5.

[2] “Book News from Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, Inc.” Empty Phatoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac. Ed. Paul Maher, Jr. New York: Thurder’s Mouth Press, 2005.  223

[3] Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee.  Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.  NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1978.  4.

[4] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[5] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 11.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 36.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Ibid., 109-110.

[12] Ibid., 117

[13] Charters, Anne. Kerouac: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.  252.

[14] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 6.

[15] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 500

[16] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[17] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 7 October 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  589.

[18] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 29 November 1958.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  169.

[19] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Philip Whalen. 13 December 1962.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  353.

[20] Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[21] Maloff, Saul. “A Yawping at the Grave.” New York Times. 8 September 1963.

[22] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983.  648

[23] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to John Clellon Holmes. 5 October 1963.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[24] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 2.

[25] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 109.

[26] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake. 14 March 1945.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  87.

[27] Simpson, Emily Patricia. “Religious Turmoil: The Conflict Between Buddhism and Catholicism in Jack Kerouac’s Life and Writing.” MA Thesis.  North Carolina State University, 2003.  28.

[28] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 112.

Lisa Brawn’s Beat Woodcuttings

Lisa Brawn has been experimenting with figurative portrait genre woodcuts for almost twenty years. She has recently been working with century-old Douglas Fir beams salvaged from restoration projects.

Among her current projects is a healthy interest in the Beat Generation. While reading Ginsberg’s Selected Poems 1947-1997, she has been applying her woodcutting skill to the image for famous Beat figures (and Hunter S. Thompson, for the pleasure of our Gonzo-loving fans…)

She is represented by AXIS Contemporary Art, Calgary, Stratus Gallery, Banff, The Front Gallery, Edmonton, and Van Dop Gallery, Vancouver. She has over two hundred woodcuttings available for your delight on her website,

Alene Lee – Subterranean Muse

by Steven O’Sullivan

Alene Lee is the real name of The Subterraneans’ Mardou Fox, and of Irene May from Big Sur and Book of Dreams. Little is known about her, as she fell from the unwanted spotlight. She isn’t even acknowledged in books devoted to the women of the Beat Generation.

We have seen photos of her, and we know part of her racial heritage – black & Cherokee. We know Kerouac met her as she typed manuscripts for Burroughs and Ginsberg in New York. But her words are lost. Her memory exists only in the macho boasts of Kerouac…

More than likely you’re wondering, “Who the hell is Alene Lee?” And that, my friends, is exactly the point. We can look at pictures of Ms. Lee and see that she was dark, beautiful, unsure, and volatile. Yet this is only scratching the surface, presumably more lies beneath the surface. . . Right?

Granted, the above-mentioned are fantastic descriptors that I’m sure any woman would settle for, but Lee had to be more than that. Through one tabloid-esque fictionalization of her spontaneous relationship with Mr. Kerouac in the Beat classic The Subterraneans as the maddening Mardou Fox, Lee became the looming question mark of the Beat generation. By all accounts, an enchanting but volatile whirlwind of a woman.

Easily, The Subterraneans is a re-telling of the tumultuous thunder of Jack and Alene (Leo and Mardou respectively). Lee maintained however that upon reading the book she was stunned. Jack, she said, was so excited to show it to her and then, in her eyes, the manuscript turned out to be a harsh and unforgiving account that was maybe just a little too revealing of the personal side of their respective egos.

Apparently there’s a problem on our hands now. Jack writes a best-selling book that Alene claims is an absolute sham. So, who’s got it straight? Did things really go down like Jack said or is he just another classic male bullshit artist? A slave of the ego. These questions can probably best be answered by first determining who she really was…

By all published accounts (the few that there are), Lee’s essence was that of the queen of cool. A high priestess in the realm of that crowd Jack tagged infamously as the Subterraneans. She hit the trippiest drugs, drank the stiffest drinks, knew about and listened to the hardest bop, and did it all with a collected, smoky exterior. Men fell at her feet muttering drunken praises. Cup of wine in hand at Dante’s. espousing the virtue of the nouveau cool.

At least, this is how he paints her in the beginning. As the novel progresses we see her devolving into an emotional train wreck. She’s all ups and downs and binges into dark depression and hopeless emotional attachment to Jack. Things are much darker when you step behind the circus doors. Exteriors of shimmering cool are most often built on foundations of volatile instability.

Was this why Lee felt such a cold-water stun at reading the manuscript? Having one’s soul bared open and critiqued is a moment of pain and vulnerability. Within the context of the novel she seemed aware of her emotional traumas and tendencies towards madness, yet that was a personal side of an experience she shared with Jack. Their moments together were shared in bed, with the lights off, amidst wine and dark-eyed companionship. They were shared in trust. To then have the contents of this trust betrayed into daylight for a public audience to view at will… that is a low-blow. Right into the gut. The kind of blow that gives you those cheese grater guts, and really, what are you supposed to do? It’s like drinking bitter wine… a cold emotional slap. The relationship thrown back at her. There… Did it taste as good as you thought it might?

Of course, let’s try to take this objectively. We’ll presuppose Jack’s painting of Lee is accurate. Lee really was just a fuming mass of unpredictable feminine wiles. Does he have the right to put these details in a book? We might immediately jump to a decisive no. It was a personal experience between two lovers that should have remained private. Well, sure that’s all well and good, but what the hell is the whole basis of literature? Experience. Life. The muse. Inspiration comes from somewhere. Stories rot out from something. Let’s not write this off as something to be vaulted and set aside. Propriety is an illusion.

Run right along, alone little dog.

Maybe the Beach Boys were right. Wouldn’t it be nice if this were a completely different scenario? What if Jack was getting played? What if we were all getting played… The whole thing a mocking dirty sham. Lee’s a brilliant scholar working on a sociological grant from Berkley to conduct a study on Frisco’s underbelly. Roaring youth counterculture class mash. She’s playing it up. The queen. The butterfly. Move in for the kill. Jack’s the prey. Isn’t it great? That tortured artist that he felt so strongly about embodying. Splitting time between home, mother, writing, work productivity. . . then booze, women, madness, dark, night, evil. Teetotalling between Catholicism and Alocholism in a hail of madness. And Lee’s just soaking it up. Loving it. Provoking him, creating him, watching and waiting and wrenching. Page after page of theory work being sent back to the school. The professor is laughing, tenure at his doorstep. A brilliant social statement. Capturing the essence of the solitary rebel. After all, there were those countless thru-the-night-into-dawn times she’d sit alone reading thru anthologies and classics and theory and again and again.

Of course, life is not quite so fortunate in its doling out, no matter how much you might read. Lee wasn’t a shiny scholar from Berkley. She wasn’t a scholar of anywhere. Lee was just a cold-water flat girl off Heavenly Lane. Running around in rags and raggedy windblown hair. Sure, the goddess of cool. Smoked out withdrawals and all.

They were both mad. Her and Jack. Mad for each other, for the kicks, for that salty coastal air that chaps your lips and spark jumps your heart full of shutter-closed closeness and disaster.

We’re starving here.

Where are we going now?

Let’s remember Lee’s own words:

These were not the times as I knew them. . .

So why had Kerouac seen them as such? Perhaps his egocentric mindset blocked him from emotional connection. Sexual experience served only to stimulate his creative mind. Of course that would mean reducing all interaction with Lee to solely a sexual endeavor of experiential function. He had just read Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm which sparked and nurtured this fleeting idealism about relations. Release of sexual energy and tension frees the creative mind. To run right out the door straight home to the typer for day upon day of firing off inkspot ammunition onto page after page into a cup of literary excellence. The forthcoming novel to end all novels. Bound up sexual tension constricts the wellspring. Alene Lee was a jungle-gym. Mark Twain’s laughing all over again.

But let’s not make her out to be a saint just yet. Granted, we can logically assume that, given Jack’s egocentric stance combined with a slight tendency towards chauvinism, he may have blown some events out of proportion. Maybe even made up a few of them. It was a book, after all, so let’s cut him at least a length of slack for a minute.

Even still, despite what he may or may not have whipped out of thin air. . . where does that leave us with the ending? What do we do about that? There’s Lee’s downfall. Sleeping with Yuri. The final turn of the screw in Jack’s madness. One step over the line and such.

I’ll tell you where it leaves us: It leaves us at the end of a story. And I’ll tell you where it leaves Alene Lee: At the end of a story.

It seems that the “Lee Problem” is one of perception. It is quite and commonly possible for two people to be involved with each other and for each of them to be taking completely different elements out of the situation. To be seeing things under totally different lens. The two might agree the sex last night was great but they might have polar opposite reasons for thinking such. Come on, what’s more vague than the term “great sex?” In fact, even more than that, they are probably coming from completely different foundations for judging such situations. The night’s events might have been great for the lady because she finally felt fulfilled and appreciated while the experience was great for the guy just because the lady was such a physical maelstrom; which could of course play a hand into why she felt fulfilled: He’s operating on a pulsating level of intensity due to being so aroused by her physical attributes; this intensity translates in turn to an overwhelming work of sensory reception for the woman. Thus, it becomes the most cataclysmic event of her sensual and emotional life. The question is… where are we drawing the line? Is he just in for the kicks? Is she just in for the kicks? Was it a great big overwhelming kick for the both of them, or was it something more for her, something more for him?

This is, of course, a microcosmic example of problems involving perception. Yet it can still be applied to the Lee situation as a whole. Maybe they were just worlds apart. On completely different planes of thinking and experiencing life. But everything’s got to intersect at some point. Some vector of divination juxtaposing two separate identities for a brief while. Suspending starvation and stability for a half-cocked shot at tranquility.

More death. This is getting swept away. Not under the rug, but out the door. It’s been exposed to the elements too long. I’m losing it.

Where are we left now? Back to a dark and beautiful shade. The high priestess of hip looking down from wherever it is the hipsters go to die and reign eternally in those cyclical cultural waves. We’re in a maze or a whirlpool and I’m getting less and less sure of what it is.

Maybe Jack, for all his allegations and insecurities, had Lee figured out. He had at least figured out a way to preserve her, you can argue in what light and reference, but she’s there still. Locked in the amber of Jack’s mind… page 42… gazing at Lee on the bed…

“. . .so Mardou seen in this light, is a little brown body in a gray bed sheet in the slums of Telegraph Hill, huge figure in the history of the night yes but only one among many. . .”

The Beat Generation may have been only one roaring night in the scheme of literature, and Lee was just the screaming distraction between drink six and drink seven. You know there was something there. You just can’t pin it down exactly.

That’s the way it goes with nights like that. Nights like Alene Lee. And so she’ll slip even further into the murky waters of literature’s muses. Obscured by time.

And now, a closing word from our sponsor. . .

Letter from Ginsberg to Snyder. Dated January 1, 1991. Contains following excerpt:

Spent a day with old love black lady Alene Lee hospital bed dying of cancer, near expiration, the room space seemed      calm, grounded — extremely peaceful — perhaps her mind in that state so open and gentle i sense it — felt very good — carried me for days. . .

End transcript.

There isn’t a lot of additional reading available out there on the subject of Alene Lee. People are happy to write her out of history and move on. They don’t need more than a fictional character in a book to be satisfied.

But here at Beatdom we always want to know more, and thanks to the following clues from Dave Moore (the Kerouac expert who brought you two articles in this issue), here is a list of places you can go to find out more:

Kerouac, Jack, Book of Dreams

Kerouac, Jack, Big Sur

Kerouac, Jack, The Subterraneans,

Knight, Arthur, The Beat Journey (p. 172)

Knight, Arthur, The Beat Vision (p. 208)

Morgan, Bill, The Beat Generation in New York (p. 125)

Sandison, David, Jack Kerouac: An Illustrated Biography (p. 106)

Saroyan, Aran, The Street

Turner, Steven, Angelheaded Hipster (p. 142)

Kerouac and the Outsider – A Puzzle

by Dave Moore

It was Horst who started it. Horst Spandler has been translating the 1971 Kerouac anthology Scattered Poems into German. Along the way he’s been asking others their advice on the meaning of parts of Jack’s poems. One such query I received, a few months ago, concerned Kerouac’s rather fine “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” (on page 29). Horst wanted to know whether the line which reads “sad today glad tomorrow: somber today drunk tomorrow” should really have “sober today” as that seemed to fit better.

As Ann Charters, the compiler of the anthology, notes at the back of the book, this poem was gathered from The Outsider magazine, 1962. A friend of mine had a copy of the relevant issue, #2, and provided me with a photocopy of the poem from page 68. Looking at this I could see that Horst’s intuition was right – the words should indeed be “sober tomorrow.”

I decided to check the remainder of the poem for possible typographical errors in the Scattered Poems version. I was surprised to find a major difference near the end. The line which in Scattered Poems reads:

“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of Ciardian poetry”

appeared in my xerox from The Outsider as:

“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of drawing room poetry”

This seemed too major a difference to be a mere typo. I asked others their thoughts, and whether they knew which was the correct version. A letter from a friend astounded me. He enclosed a photocopy from his copy of The Outsider #2, and in this one the line finished with “… of Beatnik poetry.” He also enclosed a xerox of the next page in the magazine, which was a drawing of two vultures observing a ship approaching some rocks. One bird is saying to the other: “So what if Kerouac is on board? You can’t believe everything Ciardi says.” This ties in with the mention of Ciardi in the Scattered Poems version, John Ciardi being a poet much opposed to the work of Kerouac and the other Beats.

But what was going on here? Three different versions of the poem from three different sources. I decided to cast the net wider, and contacted everyone I knew who might have a copy of The Outsider #2 and ask how their version read.

Over the following couple of weeks I was able to monitor the poem in over twenty different copies of The Outsider #2. Five more variant lines were discovered in the process, and the occurrence of each was as follows:

“… of Ciardian poetry”  4

“… of civilized poetry”  4

“… of chamber poetry”  4

“… of Beatnik poetry”   4

“… of drawing room poetry”      2

“… of Ciardi poetry”                   1

“… of Chinese poetry”   1

“… of wellbred poetry”  2

The Outsider was a small literary magazine that ran to just five issues in the period 1961-69. It was edited by Jon Edgar Webb and produced by the Loujon Press, the enterprise of Jon and his wife Louise (Lou) in New Orleans. Jon Webb died in 1971, and the Loujon papers are now held by the Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois. I wrote there for advice and guidance with this puzzle, and although the very helpful librarian was unaware of the multiple versions of the poem, he was able to send me a copy of Kerouac’s original typescript of his poem to the Loujon Press, together with Jack’s accompanying note.

In Kerouac’s original, the line in question reads “… of Chinese poetry” and Jack gave precise instructions to the editor:
Dear John —

Be sure everything is linotyped the way I wrote it — There are no typos in my typewriter script — I mean, the punctuation, fucktuation, capitalization and NON CAPITALIZATION & spacing, etc. – I re-typed the poem twice to make every last spacing unsmudged as William the Conquerer’s Record — Yr. first issue of OUTSIDER was very valuable — Fuck Colin Wilson & all anti Christ poets

Jack Kerouac

Despite this, on Kerouac’s typescript the word “Chinese” has been circled in blue and a question mark placed near by. In pencil a line has been drawn towards the circled word “Chinese” and at the end of this drawn line the words “use alternate words” have been written, in a hand other than Kerouac’s and probably Jon Webb’s.

And alternate words were indeed used, as I had discovered. The Outsider #2 was published in the summer of 1962, but Kerouac was unaware of the alterations to his poem for at least two and a half years.

During 1964 the Italian translator Fernanda Pivano had been compiling an anthology of new American poetry and had been in touch with Kerouac for contributions of his own, and of his friends. The collection, Poesia degli ultimi americani finally appeared in November 1964 and included Kerouac’s “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” as well as several choruses from Mexico City Blues and Some Western Haikus. Fernanda sent Kerouac a copy of her book, and received the following letter:

January 11, 1965

Dear Fernanda — Thanks for the Christmas card and the anthology in the

mail — There’s a great mystery in it.  I really am tremendously curious to find out and I wish you would tell me: on page 246 is the end of my poem

(“Sept.16, 1961 Poem”), the second line from the top reads: “This is an

attempt at the easy lightness of civilized/poetry.”  But I had written

“Chinese” poetry and I go on to say that I shd. really “use my own way,”

ie., western instead of eastern.  WHO CHANGED THE WORD CHINESE TO

“CIVILIZED”?  And why?  How did you get that poem?  Was it that printed page from The Outsider?  And if so, was it already marked like that?  This is a case of altering my poetry without my knowledge, and I’m sure it wasnt you, but somebody did it.  Now you’re going to think I’m mad at you again but I’m not: I only want to know, out of great curiosity, how this unauthorized change came about, and who did it, and why.  As you see, it gives the suggestion that I dont consider myself civilized!  Just think how James Joyce would have hit the roof!  So long, Cara Nanda


It appears that Fernanda had used a version of the poem from a copy of The Outsider with “civilized poetry” (just as Ann Charters later used one from a copy with “Ciardian poetry”). Kerouac was naturally annoyed to learn that his poem had been altered by someone else without his knowledge or permission. I can’t help imagining how further incensed he would have been if he had known that multiple changes had been made and were in circulation in different copies of The Outsider #2.

I have so far traced eight different variant lines in twenty-two different copies of the magazine. It is known that 3000 copies of the magazine were printed by the Webbs, on a hand press, in an operation which took almost a year. Being hand-printed, it would have been relatively easy to change a word or two of type at any time, but why would anyone want to?

Maybe Jon Webb was just having some fun at Kerouac’s expense. Being of an older bohemian generation, he may have looked down on Kerouac and his buddies whom he possibly considered to be “the new kids on the block.” Or maybe he was attempting to stir up further trouble between Kerouac and John Ciardi? It’s maybe significant that no more work of Kerouac’s appeared in other issues of The Outsider.

Why did Kerouac not learn of a change to his poem until 1965 – did the Webbs not send him a copy of The Outsider #2? It’s probable that they did, and at least one copy has been found which contains Kerouac’s intended word “Chinese”, so maybe that was the version they sent him in 1962.

In 2003 Jeff Weddle published his PhD thesis for the University of Tennessee: “The Loujon Press: An Historical Analysis.” I contacted Jeff to ask if, during his research, he’d encountered anything about these unauthorized changes. Jeff replied that he had noticed a difference between Kerouac’s typescript of the poem and its appearance in his copy of the magazine, where the word appears as “civilized,” (and this is mentioned in his thesis) but he was unaware of the multiple variants.

In his thesis Jeff Weddle also notes that Jon Webb heavily edited and re-titled the piece by William Burroughs which appears in The Outsider #2 as “wilt caught in time.” According to Weddle, the published version “bears little resemblance to the author’s original submission.”

Again, since Weddle has apparently seen only one copy of The Outsider #2, it is possible that different variants of the Burroughs piece were published. Jeff told me that, while he was investigating the Loujon Press for his thesis, he had come across other examples of Webb changing texts. This is evidently an area which requires further research.

Does anyone out there have access to copies of The Outsider #2 with yet different versions of that line in Kerouac’s poem? Perhaps we can sample more than 22 of the 3000 copies known to have been printed.

And how about the William Burroughs piece? Maybe variant versions exist of that, too.

Let’s compare notes.

Dave Moore

Visions of Vollmer

by David S. Wills

In Issue Two of Beatdom, we ran a story about the women of the Beat Generation, and we obviously talked a little about Joan Vollmer. However, we didn’t say enough to do her justice, for she was a fascinating character who became famous for all the wrong reasons.

Vollmer took a bullet in the head from her husband, William S. Burroughs, on September 6th, 1951, and went down in literary history as no more than a wife and a victim of a drunken attempt at William Tell…

But Vollmer was the embodiment of Beat. She was ferociously intelligent and an incredible rebel. She loved drugs and sex, philosophy and chaos. She was privy to the creation of the Beat Generation, as her apartment in New York was the centre of the pre-history of the movement.

Ginsberg wrote ‘Howl’ after dreaming of Vollmer and Burroughs claimed to have only ever written because of her death. Every major participant of the movement agrees upon one thing – that she was intelligent and witty. Her influence upon the Beats was undeniable.

In histories of the Beat Generation, Vollmer is afforded far more importance than any other female member of the group or its associated movements and circles. She is treated almost like the men… But not quite. She is still denied her place.

Indeed, she was never the artist her male counterparts were. She was a muse and more, but she never wrote a book or a poem. Consequently, her memory continues through the literature of her contemporaries, who for some reason seem to deny her the respect we know they had…

We will take a look at some of the more significant references here, to get a grip on how she was viewed by her contemporaries.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Alias – Jane Lee

His relation with his wife was one of the strangest: they talked till late at night; Bull liked to hold the floor, he went right on in his dreary monotonous voice, she tried to break in, she never could; at dawn he got tired and then Jane talked and he listened

Here Kerouac describes an interesting relationship between Burroughs and his wife, as well as inferring her importance to the rest of the Beats. Vollmer is seen as an active participant, and keen study. She listens and shows respect, but is ultimately allowed to speak, and has the attention of Burroughs, and of Kerouac.

However, in On the Road, Kerouac is describing Vollmer after the period of time she spent in New York, when her influence could be greater felt, and whilst in the sad and pathetic state of her addiction to bennies.

Although this is sadly the most famous reference to Vollmer in the Beat canon, it does her the least justice.

Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City

Alias – Mary Dennison

There's no doubt about the fact that Mary Dennison is mad, but that's only because she wants to be mad.  What she has to say about the world, about everybody falling apart, about everybody clawing aggressively at one another in one grand finale of our glorious culture, about the madness in high places and the insane disorganized stupidity of the people who let themselves be told what to do and what to think by charlatans -- all that is true! …There's only one real conclusion to be drawn.  In Mary's words, everybody got the atomic disease, everybody's radioactive. 

Here Ginsberg’s character is speaking about Joan Vollmer. Despite her never getting a speaking part in this novel, her ideas are not only mentioned, but described. Her opinion so valued by Ginsberg and Kerouac, that it deserves a single paragraph. We can see in her paraphrased idea, that she shared the Beat principals and world perception.

Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz

Alias – June

In this nearly non-speaking role, Joan is again referenced as a silent intellectual. Her home is the hangout, her intelligence is acknowledged, but she only gets one brief and dramatic paraphrased line:

I can never forget how June’s present husband, Harry Evans, suddenly came clomping down the hall of her apartment in his Army boots, fresh from the German front, around September 1945, and he was appalled to see us, six fullgrown people, all high on Benny sprawled and sitting and cat-legged on that vast double-doublebed of ‘skepticism’ and ‘decadence’, discussing the nothingness of values, pale-faced, weak bodies, Gad the poor guy said: ‘This is what I fought for?’ His wife told him to come down from his ‘character heights’ or some such.

Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody

Alias – June

Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans

Alias – Jane

This novel proves of little use in highlighting the role of Vollmer in the Beat Generation, except that she appears in memories that Kerouac has. Her ghost remains with him, a spectre of the past.

William S. Burroughs, Junky

In this novel, we barely get a reference to Burroughs’ wife, and she isn’t even mentioned by name. We are introduced to her when Burroughs is arrested, and he tells the police he has a drug-addict wife.

Later, Burroughs slaps her across the face twice for throwing his heroin on the floor. She tells him the drug is making him boring, but then backs down and tells him to do whatever.

John Clellon Holmes, Go

Alias – Liza Adler

Unhappily married to an officer still in Japan, she had an integrated insolence toward everything which made her insights seem the more brilliant and audacious,and her insistence on the fragility of all human relationships profound. Liza was… a fascinating and sickly plant that thrived on the stifling atmosphere of argument over coffee and the student's tendency to analyze everything and reduce it to a "manifestation" of something else.  She was, on top of this, a violent Marxist with a quick, destructive tongue and a mental agility. She battled with him in class, mocked him to his face, asked him openly to have meals with her, attacked him for his "unconscious fascism," doused all his ideas in the cold water of logic, and finally made a class confederate of him.

Here we see the depiction of Joan Vollmer that is recognizable as the intellectual only briefly referenced by Kerouac. We see her charm the narrator with her brilliance. This is a character that one can imagine being held in high regard by the other Beats, rather than the silent girl in the shadows, portrayed by too many of her contemporaries.

Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw

Though through his own writing, one barely notices he has a wife, the biography of William Burroughs, by Ted Morgan, presents a view of Vollmer that is more balanced and fair that that found in Kerouac or Burroughs. He presents Vollmer as an equal to Ginsberg, and as a truly revolutionary thinker. His depiction of Vollmer is drawn from the views held by Burroughs and Edie Parker.

Edie thought Joan was the most intelligent girl she had ever met. She had an independent mind, always questioning what anyone said, including her teachers at Barnard. In one of her marginal notes in her copy of Marx's Capital 
and Other Writings, there are echoes of Burroughs’: "Maybe Marxism is dynamic and optimistic, and Freudianism is not. Is one more serviceable than the other? Why does it always have to be either/or?"

Indeed, from reading about Vollmer’s notes, one does see the influence of Burroughs… Or perhaps it is not so much the influence of Burroughs that we note as the influence of Vollmer upon Burroughs… If Burroughs respected and listened to his wife so much, perhaps some his wit and cynicism came from her. It sounds like that is a possibility.

Morgan also notes that Vollmer was remarkably well read. She seems to have similar influences to the men in the Beat circle, and seemed to enjoy reading and talking about these books and theories whilst in the bath. She also loved classical music and talking about philosophy whilst on 110th Street and Broadway.

But perhaps the most valuable quote comes from page 123:

Burroughs saw Joan as a woman of unusual insight. She was the smartest member of the group, he thought, certainly as smart as Allen, in many ways smarter, because there were limits to Allen's thinking, but none to Joan's. She started Burroughs thinking in new directions, got him interested in the Mayans, suggested that Mayan priests must have had some sort of telepathic control. She had an odd and original way of looking at things, and a great insight into character. For instance she said about Jack that he had a natural inborn fear of authority and that if the cops ever questioned him his mouth would fall and out would come the name they wanted.

Here is what we’ve felt but been denied through the works of the most famous Beats: a glimpse of the true estimation of Joan Vollmer. She was not a silent outsider, nor was she denied recognition. She was admired as an intellectual heavyweight, someone smarter than Allen Ginsberg. She even had opinions about the so-called King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac.

But if Vollmer was so highly thought of, then why do her aliases take a side role in Beat literature?

Sadly, it seems that Beat literature may have stemmed from the deep and dark thoughts of brilliant young minds, but it sold because of the wild antics. Vollmer was a woman, and she was above much of the juvenile delinquency that made the others famous. When she is referenced as a mysterious figure in Kerouac and Burroughs, it is because talk only carries so far. The action was carried out by the men, and consequently Vollmer was relegated to the history books.

Her untimely death didn’t help much, either.

Neal Cassady, Collected Letters, 1944-1976

Joan is brittle, blasé brittleness is her forte. With sharpened laughs and dainty oblique statements she fashions the topic at hand. You know these things, I need not elaborate. But you ask for an angle, well, Julie’s hair is matted with dirt I told; oh fuck it, disintegration of continued habit patterns (child raising here) has Joan laboring in a bastardized world wherein the supply of benzedrine completely conditions her reaction to everyday life. ETC. I love her.

In his Collected Letters, which was of course not published during his lifetime (Cassady published nothing whilst alive), there are many references to Vollmer. Mostly, she appears as another character in the early days of the Beats, as she does in Kerouac’s books. But the above quote shows a little more depth. It paints a sad portrait of Vollmer, but alludes to her intelligence.

Herbert Huncke, Guilty of Everything

The clique consisted Joan, Bill, Allen, who had a place of his own but spent a great deal of time there, myself, and later, Jack Kerouac… They were very witty with a terrific bite, almost vitriolic with their sarcasm. They could carry on these extremely witty conversations… I couldn’t always understand them, and it used make me feel sort of humiliated because I obviously did not know what they were talking about.

Huncke was a close friend of Vollmer’s. He was frequent visitor to her apartment in New York, and even came to visit her when she lived with Burroughs in Texas. He thought she was stunningly beautiful and extremely intelligent.


In 2000, Gary Walkow made a film called Beat that sounds as though it adds to the memory of Joan Vollmer, but rather perverts and distorts the story of her life. Walkow was happy to do an interview with Beatdom for Issue Three… until he realised that our questions all revolved around his shockingly poor filmmaking and truth-telling abilities. The interview never came to light…

James W. Grauerholz wrote an enlightening document on the infamous ‘William Tell’ incident, that shows Walkow’s representation as not so much a distortion or artistic interpretation of the facts, as a flat-out lie.

Grauerholz commented upon the film and the statement on the production company’s website that claims the film to be utterly true and based upon hard research and a collaboration with Burroughs.

Funnily enough, Grauerholz recalls when he and Burroughs were approached by Walkow at an airport, but dismissed him as ‘a creep.’ The film was surrounded by false representations, and exists only as a perversion of the history of the Beat Generation and an unfair portrait of Joan Vollmer.

Unfortunately, one has to dig deep to find a fair representation of Vollmer.

The Beats & Sixties Counterculture

The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip’, a period of various shifts that have shaped our current society[1].  This hints at an underlying consensus that the 1960s were a time of high artistic endeavour, the centre of countercultural resistance, and some of the cultural ripples that are still being felt today.

by Jed Skinner

What factors influenced this period of time for this decade to be so prominent?  The cluster of significant events that occurred in the late Sixties has led Gitlin to compare this time to ‘a cyclone in a wind tunnel’[2], and Rabinowitz argues that ‘the 1960s confound representation – or rather narrative – because words fail; image and sound […] are what remain’[3]; events and figures that ‘stand out’ in these ways are those that are likely to receive the most attention.  These two arguments enhance the point that, because there are many narratives of the Sixties, each one places emphasis on different aspects of the decade.

When one considers the notion of the Beat generation’s ideas of the Fifties contributing to aspects of the following decade’s culture, art and politics, it can be easy to focus solely on the prominent figures and events, and link them together.  When this happens, an inevitable decision is being made: what is worthy of being called Beat, what is worthy of being called Sixties culture, and where such culture lies geographically as well as historically.

A linear narrative where there are, in Negus’ words, ‘distinct breaks involving beginnings and endings or births and deaths’[4] generates problems.  This approach generally fails to acknowledge other perspectives, to account for the voices of people excluded from the narrative.  A Vattimo argues, it is only from the ‘victors’ of history ‘that history is a unitary process in which there is consequentiality and rationality’[5] .  What I would like to do in this essay is consider the notion put forward by Laibman, that ‘there was not one 1960s; there were many’[6].  This is not to say that the Beats did not influence anything, and I do not wish to undermine or trivialise their work and its importance.  It is also impossible to go into detail about every aspect of Beat culture.  However, by looking generally at some of the areas where the Beats’ influence occurred, what it influenced, and to what extent, this will expose other voices and locations, which I hope will better inform the argument I wish to make.

It is important to consider the social contexts of the Fifties to be able to understand why the Beats’ work was considered to be so significant.  One of the central themes in historical narratives of the Beats is a description of a prevailing climate of conformity in post-war America.  Following the end of World War II, the ideas and ideologies that were driving factors during the conflict were seemingly discredited.  Woods argues that, in America, intellectuals began to focus their attention onto ‘the roots of totalitarianism, dissecting evolving notions of democracy and republicanism’[7].  What resulted from this was a more scientific, calculated approach of looking at how society should operate.

Herman argues that

planners and policy makers had been convinced by their experiences during World War II that human beings could act very irrationally, because of a teaming, raw, unpredictable emotionality.  The chaos that lived at the base of human personality could infect social institutions to the point where society itself would become sick.[8]

It was therefore perceived necessary for American society, if it wished to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the war, to be controlled and contained to some extent from the factors that could lead to such chaos.  In the late Forties and early Fifties, the US Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings that, as Holton describes, were ‘aimed at persecuting those who did not agree with a narrow definition of political reality’[9]: the most famous instance resulted in scores of Hollywood actors, directors, producers and screenwriters being ‘blacklisted’ from employment for alleged ‘subversive’ activities.  What emerges from this climate is what Marcuse describes as ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought’, whereby ‘ideas, aspirations and objectives that […] transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe’[10].   This manifests itself through the pressure on individuals to behave as part of larger groups, to avoid any particular ‘individuality’.  Riesman et al’s 1950 publication The Lonely Crowd describes the rise of the ‘other-directed man’[11], a new figure, entirely the product of America’s rising managerial class and prosperous post-war economy[12]; a replacement of ‘the traditional “inner-directed”, self made American’.  The other-directed man ‘suppressed his individuality, spurned conflict, and sought guidance and approval from the environment around him’[13].  This sort of figure was an ideal target for advertisers using the new medium of television[14], which contributed to a large shift in the way people bought goods.  Towards the end of the 1950s, the US economy had shifted from a ‘production economy’, based around meeting basic human needs, to a market-orientated, consumer economy[15], which emphasised status over class[16].  This was a phenomenon that inspired Bell to proclaim in 1960 that Western society had reached ‘the end of ideology’[17], that ‘ideology, which was once a road to action, has come to a dead end’[18].

Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl made its debut at a poetry reading in 1955, and, Holton argues, ‘seemed to offer the means to break out of the cultural enclosure […] and into a dimension unrecognized in Marcuse’s analysis’[19].  Much has been written about this long poem, but the general consensus has been that Howl expressed a vocal frustration at a stifling, corporate, conforming America, with unrestrained fury and anger.  Gitlin argues that Howl was ‘the first time in the American twentieth century’ that ‘poetry read aloud became a public act that changed lives’[20].  In 1957, a year after publication, the work was the focus of an obscenity trial.  Debates about the alleged ‘obscenity’ of the text in court helped to bring the poem to wider prominence among those who were outside of Ginsberg’s literary circle.   The same year, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, and the two works ‘vaulted from anonymity’[21] a small group of bohemians who would become known as the Beat Generation.

Why so?  Gitlin argues that ‘if the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty’[22].  This mindset is best displayed in Norman Mailer’s influential 1959 essay ‘The White Negro’.  Here, Mailer holds up a new kind of figure as a solution to the ‘bleak scene’ of society[23]: ‘the American existentialist – the hipster’, who ‘exists in the present,  in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat’[24].  In this new world, there are only two options available: rebellion or conformity.  ‘One is Hip or one is Square’, he argues, ‘one is a frontiersmen in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society’[25].  If one is white (and one must be, to be able to have the choice), the appeal of being hip lies in its existentialist appeal, in its abandonment of a traditional family-centred lifestyle, and the adoption of social mores from a dangerous, excluded Other: ‘the Negro’.  This, in Mailer’s view, is where the source of hip lies, in Negro music (‘jazz’), Negro life choices (‘a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger’), and Negro philosophy (‘he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present’).  Therefore the hipster is ‘a white Negro’, having ‘absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro’[26].

Although grossly laden with racial stereotypes of a pre-Civil rights era America, Frank argues that ‘The White Negro’ ‘managed to predict the basic dialectic around which the cultural politics of the next thirty-five years would be structured’[27].  However, there is a difference between two different kinds of ‘Beat’ sensibilities that have been established: the literary type epitomised by Ginsberg and Kerouac on one side, and the ‘hipster’/’beatnik’ on the other.  This is not to say that the ‘literary’ Beats did not have any of the ‘hipster’ qualities – far from it.  Rather, as Starr argues, contemporary critics tended to argue that ‘true’ Beats such as Ginsberg and Kerouac made ‘literary creativity a focal point of their lives’, whereas others, who would qualify as ‘hipsters’ or ‘Beatniks’, merely attended jazz clubs and visited coffeehouses, and were insignificant[28].  Furthermore, the prominent Beat figures, with a few exceptions (such as Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka), were white, and were overwhelmingly from middle-class families.

Consequently, Beats have generally been portrayed as a minority of generally white, literary articulate intellectuals; scholars ‘understand the Beat Generation in terms of a literary avant-garde and evaluate its historical significance accordingly’[29].  The others – the Beatniks – were from differing socio-cultural and racial backgrounds[30], and were considerably larger in number than the ‘literary’ Beats.  As Beat poet Diane di Prima recalls, that around the time of Howl’s publication, ‘there were only a small handful of us’.  The traditional argument described by Starr – that Beats were ‘a small group of cultural radicals’ – generates a situation where ‘the broader parameters of the Beat Generation’ become ignored[31].

When considering the notion of ‘Beat ideas’, it is important to consider the ideas of those from outside the pantheon of literary figures.   Although Ginsberg, Kerouac and the like were obviously important to the Beatniks, which should not be underestimated, it is also the case that the Beatniks were equally important as the literary figures in connecting notions of Beat ideas with others from outside the scene.  Starr notes that repeated police visits of coffeehouses in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and allegations of police bribery against owners, had resulted in marches, pickets and sit-ins against police harassment during the late 1950s through to the early 1960s[32].  As the Beats mobilized to defend themselves from police harassment, they ‘forged alliances with community leaders and civil liberties groups to defend their position within the urban landscape’[33] in the process.  It could be argued that the ideas expressed in literary form by the Beat authors were in turn acted on by a wider circle of many groups, whose significance is crucial to the Beats’ continuing cultural standing.  As these people gathered together in urban areas, ‘enclaves’ of Beat social networks began to be created, comprised of people with similar tastes and values.

The existence of a Beat enclave in North Beach, San Francisco, and a few years later, the large hippie community of Haight-Ashbury, can be constructed as a physical, direct line of influence from the Beats to the hippies – and therefore a demonstration of Beat influence on 1960s culture.  I would argue that the Beats were influential in the culture of the Sixties, but their influence was predominantly on the construction of the ‘counterculture’.  What the counterculture entails is complex: it is, in Marwick’s view, a term used ‘to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society’[34]; however, ‘counterculture’ also means different things to different people, and as Marwick argues, ‘there was no unified, integrated counter-culture, totally and consistently in opposition to mainstream culture’[35].  In addition, Marwick cites the first instance of the term in 1968 in the highbrow publication The Nation[36], whereas contemporary writer Thomas Albright uses ‘underground’ in a 1968 Rolling Stone article[37].  What I mean by ‘counterculture’ is a rough amalgam of alternative ways of living, literary works, art, music and politics, but not a definable movement with a firm link to any ideology or political persuasion.  Its origins lie in the Beat enclaves that were created by people moving to towns such as San Francisco and New York, where the Beat writers lived and worked.  Certain areas, such as North Beach in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York, and Venice in Los Angeles, were home to an infrastructure of coffeehouses, theatres, bars and spaces founded and frequented by these people, who all resided there in pursuance of ‘alternative’ life choices, separated from the all-encompassing ‘mainstream’ culture.

The hippie scene, which began in San Francisco and is almost universally portrayed as the ‘image’ of the counterculture (if not the Sixties), can be considered to be heavily influenced by the Beats primarily for geographic reasons.  As Puterbaugh notes, when Beatniks began to move to San Francisco, the housing of choice was the old Victorian mansions of the Haight-Ashbury area, which were available for low rent[38].  The Beat poet Michael McClure notes that the geographic proximity of the Haight-Ashbury area to North Beach meant that there were ‘people overlapping each other from what had been a number of separate existences’, creating a ‘huge, fluid scene’ of people with similar tastes and interests[39].  As Shank notes, such scenes can be an outlet for creativity to move beyond ‘locally significant cultural values’ towards ‘an interrogation of dominant structures of identification, and potential cultural transformation’, through the exploration of new identities and collective involvement[40].  In this case, the large number of people moving to San Francisco in the 1960s made it possible for resident Beats, Beatniks and their values to mingle with those who were new to the counterculture scene and city.  Albright argues that ‘certain major strands’ of Beat values became infused in the development of the new scene: the Beats’ self-conscious ethos of ‘dropping out’ of a perceived establishment lifestyle; the ‘intense and programmatic’ alienation of Beats from mainstream notions of society; a focus on Orientalism, Eastern mysticism and European existentialism; recreational drug use in pursuit of a ‘total experience’; a ‘worship of Art, in true romantic tradition’; and the elevation of music to an art form (jazz for the Beats, rock in the counterculture scene)[41].  These bohemian enclaves established by the Beats ensured that a sense of community was able to exist.

As Cohen notes, some of the factors which unite people in the ongoing development of a music scene are ‘age and gender, webs of interlinking social networks and a gossip grapevine’[42], all of which could be found in these enclaves.  The San Francisco scene allowed musical developments such as acid rock to develop: a type of music spawned partly from Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Tests’, where LSD-spiked Kool-Aid was freely distributed to people, often without their knowledge.  (A direct beat connection lies in the fact that Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelled around the US on a ‘magic bus’, driven by Neal Cassady, the real life Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road).  Gitlin notes that ‘the Acid Tests evolved into Trips Festivals and scheduled concerts, with a new sound – spacy, unbounded whorls, not discrete songs: acid rock’[43].  Acid rock bands that rose from this scene include the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others, all based in San Francisco.  Fertile artistic grounds were also present in New York: three of the four Mamas and Papas met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and Bob Dylan resided there.   However, the problem with reading the counterculture as Sixties culture is that its prime geographical locations and most fertile grounds were in these enclaves, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others; in the United States, in the Western hemisphere.  ‘Sixties culture’ has various connotations depending on where one looks.  A cultural ‘revolution’ in America is something very different to the Cultural Revolution that took place in China during the 1960s, where millions of people died.  Even if one only looks at America, there are large differences in the late 1960s between the various areas of the country.  The Civil Rights movement, with its figurehead Martin Luther King, fought against corrupt politicians, police and racists in the struggle for racial equality.  There were no Beat enclaves in the Southern states of America, with segregation existing until (and even beyond) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed it.  Instead, to pursue a freer lifestyle, people were to travel away from the South, to escape to these other places, else be excluded from having a choice.  The consequence has been that the influence of the Beats upon wider areas of society in America is actually quite varied.  In particular, the extent to which Beats were politically active is of interest.

In 1952, Beat poet John Clellon Holmes wrote of the hipster, ‘there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it.  To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd’[44].  Later, however, some Beats became more radicalised.  Starr notes how Chester Anderson, editor of the Beat magazines Beatitude and Underhound, addressed a rally against police maltreatment in North Beach in 1960, advising the crowd to ‘sue’ the police and to ‘fight back in every legal way’ if treated unfairly[45].   John Haag, owner of the Venice West Café in Los Angeles, was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, including the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Civil Liberties Union, and organizations fighting police harassment[46].  However, it seems that because the enclaves were to some extent ‘removed’ from what could be considered the ‘mainstream’ of society, not all Beats actively pursued political involvement.  The actual extent to which Beat ideas were able to shape aspects of society through politics was very much dependent on the individuals involved, and whether or not these ideas were taken up by others.

In the 1960s, student-led political organizations, comprised of people including Beats, were formed.  These included the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, founded in 1960, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)[47].  It is possible that as these organizations grew, those Beatniks that were most politically inclined became more involved with these and other such groups.  As the Vietnam War escalated from the mid-1960s, the SDS attracted new members.  Sale describes these people as

non‑Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. They tended to be not only ignorant of the history of the left and its current half‑life in New York City, but downright uninterested.[48]

I do not wish to argue that SDS was ineffectual or apathetic, but as Miller argues, ‘many recruits were drawn to SDS not by left-wing ideology but by their opposition to the war and the draft […] and their attraction to the counterculture’[49].  This is interesting, because one of the criticisms of the counterculture, as Frank argues, is that it ‘is said to have worked a revolution through lifestyle rather than politics […] through pleasure rather than power’[50].  An example of such an argument is Puterbaugh’s claim that the Grateful Dead were ‘largely responsible for the spread of the counterculture and its perpetuation over time’[51].  Why?  Because they were ‘primarily associated with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, having provided an acid-blues soundtrack as the house band for the anarchic Acid Tests’[52].  It can be deduced that the counterculture was primarily an artistic outlet: a leisure-based lifestyle choice.  This is queried by Harrington, who 1972 wonders if ‘the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise’[53].  The counterculture ultimately became a ready-made market for advertisers: the central countercultural notion of ‘hip’ was the capital most sought after in connection with a brand.  Perhaps the most notorious example was Columbia Records’ advertisement in a 1968 edition of Rolling Stone: its slogan was ‘The Man Can’t Bust Our Music’[54]: some distance away from the Beat venerations of existentialism, voluntary poverty, personal and spiritual release.

Miller notes that, by 1967, liberal-leaning politicians ‘were giving friendly speeches at antiwar rallies, defining moderate opposition as an acceptable part of the political spectrum’[55].  When the new capitalist incarnation of ‘hip consumerism’[56], Harrington argues that ‘bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle class morality’.  Once this had disappeared, ‘bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe’[57].

However, what is important to consider is that the influence of Beat ideas, at the most basic level, offered an alternative way of living in American post-war conventionality, stemming from a time, Jameson argues, where ‘no society has ever been so standardized’[58].  As Starr notes, the Beat communities, through the utilization of public space in urban, bohemian enclaves, had challenged racial segregation, homophobia and ‘created a vibrant counterculture which facilitated individual liberation and collective political action’[59].  These achievements have been built upon by countless activists who have progressively challenged such discrimination from the Fifties, through the Sixties to the present.  The Beats’ valuation of personal freedom through artistic expression resulted in the founding of enclaves and artistic scenes where this expression could be explored at a remove from the more ‘mainstream’ ways of living.  This legacy has influenced not just the Sixties, but those wishing to pursue alternative ways of living through to the present day.

Word count: 4,123


Albright, Thomas, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in

Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in George-Warren, Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356.

Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1960]).

Bennett Woods, Randall, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2005).

Clellon Holmes, John, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November

16th, 1952.

Cohen, Sarah, ‘Scenes’, in Horner, Bruce and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular

Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250.

Columbia Records Ad: <

free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].

Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of

Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Freeman, Jo, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson

(eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman &

Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24.

Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993).

Harrington, Michael, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972.

Herman, Ellen, The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.

Holton, Robert, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.),

Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26.

Jameson, Frederic, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Laibman, David, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’,

Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 3-4.

Mailer, Norman, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer,

Norman (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1992) pp.337-359.

Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964).

Marwick, Arthur, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United

States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Miller, Frederick D., ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson (eds.),

Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.303-324.

Negus, Keith, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.

Puterbaugh, Parke, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in George-Warren,

Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.357-363.

Rabinowitz, Paula, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A

Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).

Sale, Kirkpatrick SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).

Shank, Barry, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH:

Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

Starr, Clinton R., ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective

Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.41-54.

Vattimo, Gianni, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in Vattimo, G. and P. A. Rovatti

(eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the

Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21.

[1] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p.1.

[2] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993), p.242.

[3] Paula Rabinowitz, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98, p.73.

[4] Keith Negus, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.

[5] Gianni Vattimo, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in G. Vattimo and P. A. Rovatti (eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21, p.19.

[6] David Laibman, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’, Science & Society, ibid., 3-4, p.3.

[7] Randall Bennett Woods, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.151.

[8] Ellen Herman, in The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.

[9] Robert Holton, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Jennie Skerl (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26, p.12.

[10] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964), p.12.

[11] David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p.17.

[12] Woods, p.134.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p.127.

[15] Ibid., p.123.

[16] Ibid, p.151.

[17] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1960]).

[18] Ibid, p.393.

[19] Holton, p.17.

[20] Gitlin, p.45.

[21] Holton, p.11.

[22] Gitlin, p.46.

[23] Norman Mailer, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp.337-359, p.339.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p.341.

[27] Frank, p.246.

[28] Clinton R. Starr, ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Reconstructing the Beats, pp.41-54, p.41.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p.47

[31] Ibid., p.43.

[32] Ibid., p.50.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.12.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p.11.

[37] Thomas Albright, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356, p.351.

[38] Parke Puterbaugh, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, pp.357-363, p.357.

[39] Michael McClure, ref. in Puterbaugh, p.362.

[40] Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p.122.

[41] Albright, p.352-5.

[42] Sara Cohen, ‘Scenes’, in Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250, p.241.

[43] Gitlin, p.207.

[44] John Clellon Holmes, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16th, 1952, ref. in Gitlin, p.51.

[45] Ibid, p.51.

[46] Starr, p.52.

[47] Jo Freeman, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24, p.8.

[48] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), p.204-5.

[49] Frederick D. Miller, ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, pp.303-324, p.313.

[50] Frank, p.15.

[51] Puterbaugh, p.360.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Michael Harrington, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972, p.164.

[54] See <> [accessed 7th May 2009].

[55] Miller, p.312.

[56] Frank, p.26.

[57] Harrington, p.99.

[58] Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.17.

[59] Starr, p.53.

Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway Review No Country for Old Men

by Matt Gibson

Hunter S. Thompson

The theatre was dark and reeked with the stench of a hundred overfed accountants gorging on chemical drenched popcorn and syrup water. I’d been assigned to review No Country for Old Men for Rolling Stone, and was already a week past deadline, but had abandoned the assignment partly because when you eat as much mescaline as I had it’s very hard to focus on a predetermined task, and also because I realized what a fleecing the operation was. Fifteen dollars for a ticket. Eight dollars for popcorn. Four dollars for soda. This wasn’t art. It was a twisted perversion of the American dream, a herding of overweight suburbanites into giant pens with flashing pictures on the wall to stupefy them into paying outrageous prices for sickening foods.

I had brought my lawyer, a large hairy Samoan, and I explained this to him as we waited to purchase a package of Mentos, which is the only thing that will calm him in the throws of a powerful mescaline trip, but the mescaline was already batting his mind around like a squash ball. He kept looking around and talking about an agent and the ‘incident’ on his last trip to Batangas. Suddenly he muttered something about “the banana man” and ran down the up escalator, leaving a trail of sweatpants wearing housewives on the ground. I slipped into the theater.

The movie had started, but I was distracted by the raincoat-wearing pervert in front of me, who looked like the police sketch of a local pedophile. I was trying to get into position to snap his neck without drawing attention when I saw that a man further down in the theater kept turning to look at me. He was old and reptilian. Was this the agent that my lawyer had seen? Paranoia gripped me. Did I have any outstanding warrants? Was he an assassin? Or worse yet, a Republican? It was clear that I had to make a run for it and come up with an excuse for not finishing the article.

I ran out the emergency exit hoping that it would sound the alarm and empty the theater, but the alarm didn’t go off. There was a fire extinguisher in a glass case on the wall. I broke the glass and the alarm screamed. I sprinted back into the theater using the fire extinguisher to create a smokescreen. I thought I was in the clear, but as I ran up the aisle the agent leaped in front of me like an orangutan and punched me in the face. I awoke to my lawyer explaining to the theater manager that I was autistic and threatening to sue him for discrimination against the handicapped if he didn’t allow us to leave.

He pulled me to my feet and dragged me out my Cadillac, which we drove at top speed through the city, onto the interstate and headed for Vegas, where I had a friend who could give us some queludes to bring us back to our senses so that we could figure out who the agent was, and what he wanted.

Jack Kerouac

Neal and I had been planning to see No Country for Old Men because Neal and I always dug Cohen brothers movies and how they created such funny-sad characters that mirrored the funny-sadness of life, but when we were in the Royal having a beer before the movie Neal met a this beautiful little thin-hipped waitress who was almost finished work and decided to boost a car and drive her out of the city and make her in a field – Neal apologized profusely because beneath his animal sexuality he’s really a golden hearted angel and I told him that it was OK and bought a bottle of port to keep me company and hid it under my raincoat but that was a bad idea because I got too drunk waiting for the movie to start and couldn’t see clearly or understand the story so I started meditating on this crazy cat behind me who was moving around and mumbling a crazy dark monologue about pedophiles and agents and he kept getting more and more agitated like a tortured dark theater ogre until finally he stood up and bounded down the aisle on great long ogre legs and rushed out the door – then the fire alarm went off and he rushed back in shooting plumes of white foam across the theater while running up the aisle – but then suddenly a man stood up and punched him, which I hated because I hate to see anything hurt, and can’t even bring myself to kill a mosquito, and because I came to think that he was a of mad angel here to save us all from ourselves so I ran out of the theater and kept running for two blocks before realizing that I’d left the port in the theater and that I didn’t have money to buy more and that even after encountering a wild angel of the night, when your wine is gone and you’re alone the city is a desolate place – so I sat down on and cried into my knees wishing that Neal and the waitress would pull up in a car blaring bebop on the radio and carry me off into the hopeless American night.

Ernest Hemingway

I sipped gin from the flask that Ezra had given me and I hid it under my coat whenever the usher walked past. The gin was cold and biting and helped to pass the time while I waited for the movie to begin. After a while the theater became dark and quiet. The movie began. It was No Country for Old Men by the Cohen brothers, who always made fine movies, so I expected to enjoy it.
The story followed a man who killed people for profit and fun, a cowboy who discovered a bag of money, and an idealistic policeman. The story was interesting and I liked it although it wasn’t much like the brothers’ previous movies. The writing was refined and the cinematography was good.

The experience was all very good except for a man several rows behind me who kept talking and moving around. I kept turning around to glare at him so that he would be quiet. Eventually the man stood up and ran out the emergency exit. A moment later the fire alarm went off and the man rushed back into the theater screaming “fire” and shooting a fire extinguisher into the crowd. I had been enjoying the movie a great deal and this made me very angry so, when he came near me I stood up and punched his face. I could tell he wasn’t a boxer because he had no legs. He fell down and shouted for others to attack me because I was an “agent” and going to take him away for “water boarding”, so I punched him again and put him out.

After that the movie was postponed until the police could come, and I had an appointment with Gertrude for aperitifs at the Royal, so I left. I can’t say much about this movie except that the beginning is different from anything that the Cohen brothers have made, but it’s probably as good as anything that they’ve made, and it may attract lunatics, but it’s probably worth seeing if you’re not afraid to box a lunatic.

Hunter S. Thompson & the Beats

Hunter S. Thompson was no Beatnik. For one thing, he was too late. By the time he was knocking out Gonzo journalism, Kerouac had died, the hippies had come to power, and Ginsberg had moved from Beat guru to counterculture superhero.

But Thompson frequently finds himself a place in the hearts of Beat readers, for he embodied a similar, although in some ways wildly different, ethos. Thompson was a rebel hero for a generation. His books shocked readers, appalled critics, and inspired millions. He didn’t seek to change the world in any grand way, but like the Beats, Thompson sought to point out its flaws, while working to create his own little place, a place where he could be free.

Thompson wasn’t a particularly great reader of Beat literature, either. He admired Kerouac’s discovery of Neal Cassady as a literary device, but disliked his style of writing. In Wenner & Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Semonin, a childhood friend of Thompson’s, claimed Thompson became interested in ‘beat culture’ in Puerto Rico, during the period Thompson later ficitonalised in The Rum Diary.

A letter to Jim Silberman (his editor at Random House) gives evidence of Thompson’s awareness of Beat literature, and some connection to it in his own work, as he talks about the Beats setting down a path that he could follow. It seems that he is suggesting that Kerouac and Ginsberg allowed him to write the way he did. In a 1965 letter to Carey McWilliams of The Nation, Thompson talks about his times around Columbia in ’58 to ’59, and says ‘I believe we were called “bums,” although “beatnik” quickly became popular.’ So at one stage Thompson did honestly consider himself a ‘beatnik’.

Yet, though one must look closely for these links, there are a few stories and connections that are less subtle. Thompson was a literary man, after all, and he had an opinion on his predecessors. He also got to meet many of them, albeit briefly, at various stages in his life.


The most obvious link Thompson had with the Beat generation was his connection to Allen Ginsberg. Although the two were hardly kindred spirits, they had a respect for one another, and came to half-befriend one another over many years. In a letter to William J. Kennedy, in 1968, Thompson described Ginsberg as “One of the few honest people I’ve ever met, for good or ill.”

In his The Book Report interview, Thompson said:

Yeah. Allen was a particular friend, one of my heroes, really. I knew him almost as long as I’ve been writing… I was once arrested with Ginsberg. He was a big help to me. He was one of the few people who read unknown writer’s work. Maybe he was just hustling me. He liked to flirt, Allen. They called him a monster but he was only falling in love.

In Douglas Brinkley’s The Art of Journalism: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson tells of his first encounter with Ginsberg. They met in San Fransisco, through a mutual weed dealer. Over several months, Ginsberg helped Thompson to edit a book he was working on at the time, Hell’s Angels.

Later, during Ken Kesey’s legendary party for the unification of the Merry Pranksters and the Hell’s Angels, Thompson met Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This is the night of Thompson’s ‘arrest’ with Ginsberg, as the two drove to buy booze for the party, and were stopped by the police. Apparently, all Ginsberg could say to the police was, “I’m a poet… I’m a poet!”

In a 1965 letter to Murray Fisher at Playboy, Thompson explains that:

My tail-light lenses were cracked, so they cited me, and would have taken me and Allen Ginsberg to jail, I think, if I hadn’t been sporting a tape recorder. Ginsberg was so enraged by the harassment that he might want to write an ode about it. If it interests you, I’ll ask him. Anyway, neither my woody gard nor Ginsberg’s foot-long beard made the right sort of impression…

In a 1966 letter to Ginsberg, Thompson asks permission to use the whole of the poem, ‘To the Angels’ in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Thompson explains to Ginsberg how much he loves the poem, and how much it means to his book, and then promises that although he has no money, to give Ginsberg a percentage of the royalties of the book.

However, according to Michael Soheim, in Gonzo, Thompson and Ginsberg seemed to have fallen out sometime around 1970. He tells the story of when Thompson was drinking in the famous Jerome Bar in Aspen, and deliberately avoided meeting Ginsberg. Apparently Thompson owed Ginsberg “some time together.”

Corey Seymour tells a story that perhaps elaborates upon this. In 1994, at a Beat Generation Conference in New York, Thompson told Seymour several stories about Ginsberg, and finished by saying that he needed to get in touch, as they hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Hours later, Seymour met Ginsberg and told him how to contact Thompson. Thompson then briefly explained to Seymour that Ginsberg had been too embarrassed to speak to him since a “lost weekend” in the late sixties. “It’s a little-known fact, Corey, that Ginsberg was a horrible drunkard.” Thompson and Ginsberg met later that day.

Johnny Depp tells the story of Ginsberg’s memorial service in Los Angeles. Thompson was unable to attend, but agreed to write something if Depp would read it at the service. However, Thompson delayed and cancelled, until a minute before Depp was about to leave, expecting to go onstage with nothing to say, and Thompson faxed him a eulogy that described Ginsberg as “a dangerous bull-fruit with the brain of an open sore and the conscience of a virus… crazy, queer, and small…” and that he was looking forward to meeting the Grim Reaper “because he knew he could get into his pants.”


To Susan Haselden, Thompson wrote:

Certainly I’ve read The Subterranean: all his crap for that matter. The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was not quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they’re both withered appendages to On the Road – which isn’t even a novel in the first place.

Doug Brinkley, the editor of Thompsons letters and his literary executor, knew better than anyone what Thompson thought of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental – but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of ‘looking for the lost dad I never had.’ Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn’t even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal.

In Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen says that Thompson admired Kerouac’s On the Road, but only in the political sense. He disliked Kerouac’s other books, and wasn’t enthusiastic about the Beats as a movement. In a 1962 letter to Paul Semonin, Thompson wrote ‘I have tonight begun reading a shitty, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur.’ But there are many references to his having read, and been influenced to some small degree, by On the Road. Granted, millions of people Thompson’s age at the time were influenced by the book, but nonetheless it seems to creep up when people talk about the young Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson took a cross-country roadtrip that was allegedly inspired by Kerouac, and arrived in San Francisco to visit the areas made famous by the Beats. Semonin eluded to an influence Kerouac held over Thompson whilst in Puerto Rico, as the two young men read Beat literature and came to adopt Beat ‘personas.’

As much as anything, it seems Thompson was drawn to the same kind of thing as Kerouac. Thompson was intrigued by the bright lights and temptations of the city, but he was also drawn to wilderness. Both loved to get away from people. At different times, they ended up in Big Sur, a rugged wilderness that drew many Beat and counterculture artists to its magnificent crashing shoreline. When living in Big Sur and struggling badly for money, he submitted writing to Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s agent, and was rejected. This prompted one of Thompson’s many nasty letters in reply.

If we look at the authors’ two most famous works, we can see similarities. Both claim their works as both truth and fiction; both wrote travelling buddy stories; both detailed outrageous fun and drug use and youthful exuberance. In Thompson and Kerouac, the words just fly off the page at speed, as natural as thought. Their most famous novels were popular and critical successes, particularly long after the fact.

Kerouac and Thompson sought critical success as serious writers, but lamented the fact that their fame largely extended to frat boys and wild youngsters with a rebellious streak. Both died feeling that they lacked recognition for their work and that their lives had spiraled into decline with the burden of fame.

In 1995, Thompson was on the panel at the Jack Kerouac Conference in New York


We know that Thompson read William Burroughs and respected him, but not much else is clear. He certainly wished to be uttered in the same breath as Burroughs, and not because they both wrote explicitly about drugs or that they loved guns.

In 1997, after Burroughs’ death, Thompson wrote an obituary that was essentially the story of when the two writers met and fired guns together. At this time, Burroughs was an old and frail man, but he managed to make a huge impression upon Thompson by firing a powerful handgun with some accuracy. Twice during the article, he manages to make a joke about Burroughs killing Joan Vollmer.

William had a fine taste for handguns, and later in life he became very good with them. I remember shooting with him one afternoon at his range on the outskirts of Lawerence. He had five or six well oiled old revolvers laid out on a wooden table, covered with a white linen cloth, and he used whichever one he was in the mood for at the moment. The S&W .45 was his favorite. “This is my finisher” he said lovingly and then he went into a crouch and then put five out of six shots through the chest of a human-silhouette target about 25 yards away.

Later, in Hey Rube, Thompson refers to Burroughs as his friend, and says that the author was ‘robbed and badly beaten, many years ago, by a gang of paramilitary dope addicts who had never even heard of him’ in New York.

Neal Cassady

Early in his life, Thompson was apparently fascinated by Neal Cassady. According to Dou Brinkley, he thought the star of On the Road ‘was flat-out amazing.’

In 1966, Thompson decided he wanted to write a story about Cassady and Ken Kesey after the Merry Pranksters were arrested for marijuana possession. Thompson had become friends with Allen Ginsberg and was riding with the Hell’s Angels when the meeting between the Pranksters and the Angels occurred. There was a famous party that was written about by both Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and Neal Cassady was there. Sandy Thompson recalled that the party was wild, with everyone just ‘being high and silly.’

Gregory Corso

The connection between Corso and Thompson is neither obvious, nor easy to find. I only added it here because it stuck strangely in my mind and I spent a great deal of time, calling in many favours, to get the right reference.

In Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, there is a short story about when Thompson and Gene McGarr went to the Living Theatre on San Fransisco’s 14th Street to watch Kerouac read from Satori in Paris. Kerouac was naturally drunk and slurred through the performance. When Gregory Corso stepped on stage to read his poetry, Thompson and McGarr were enraged by his shortness and femininity, and proceeded to kick beer bottles, ending the performance and getting themselves thrown out.