Archives For Beatdom #6

Stuff from issue six.

A Transylvanian Tale

Searching for silence in Romania

Winter in the Eastern Bloc, it’s about 9pm, the night sky outside is blacker than hell. We are just about to cross the border by train between Hungary and the north of Romania; this is the frontier land before we reach Transylvania.

The train slowly grinds to a halt and a couple of brutish looking Magyar border guards approach us and bark the singular word “passport”’ in our faces. We oblige and hand over our British documents and the transaction passes without further incident. An American Jew named Brian who had become a travelling companion of ours is not so lucky; he is met with deep suspicion. Apparently the Hungarians don’t like the Yanks very much, something about too many Hungarian immigrants arriving in the United States. They look him up and down with a vague sense of ritualistic tradition and with unnecessary theatrics hand him back his passport.

The train begins to crawl into the darkness once again. An hour later my head is out the window and I am dragging on a cigarette, watching the bluish gray smoke swirl away into the night-lands as we pass them. Something feels different, something in the air. Through the murk of the landscape I get the sense that something is towering over us. As the tobacco exits my system and my airways clear up a little, it suddenly occurs to me what the difference is – it’s the atmosphere, the air is mountainous; we are in the Carpathians. I know from what little I’d read back in Scotland that our destination is somewhere in the middle of three vast ranges which are within these mountains. Some time later I fall asleep. Can’t remember what I dreamt.

Suddenly I am jolted awake by my travelling partner, “We’re here” he shouts. Sleepily, I respond, “Where?” “Cluj-Napoca!” I grab my backpack and my guitar case and jump onto the concrete of the dimly lit platform. Cold air smacks me in the face like a son of a bitch.

You know now how we arrived, for clarity’s sake I will go back in the narrative and explain why we were there in the first place. The two of us were art students at the time and in our 3rd year of study we were given the opportunity to escape on what is known as an Erasmus Scholarship. In the office the ‘coordinator’ handed me a slip of paper which had a list on it, a list of destinations. As I scanned my eye down the paper I saw the words ‘Cluj-Napoca, Romania, (Transylvania)’. My mind recoiled at the thought that Transylvania was even a real place. I thought it was from the archives of fiction. I had to find out for myself.

Cut to the train station in Cluj-Napoca. We enter into what I can only surmise is the waiting room. It is thick with cigarette smoke and foreign language. We walk through instinctually and emerge into the street. A gaggle of taxi drivers sharing stories raucously gesticulate and laugh. We stand blinking. 30 seconds later we hear the crack of a whip and some hollering and through the smog from right to left pass a horse and cart carrying around seven passengers being pursued by a pack of rabid looking dogs. I turn to my travelling partner, “It looks like the dark ages.” He nods grimly.

Within two minutes of arriving we are in a taxi speeding towards an unknown neighbourhood with an address written on a match box. We also have a phone number. The driver tells us in broken English that the address doesn’t exist. He proves himself to be a really nice guy by phoning our ‘contact’ on his mobile and not abandoning us until he knows we are ready to be abandoned. Eventually we find the international student halls and we wave goodbye to our driver. We walk through the door and are met once again by an authoritative looking man demanding our passports. He has been expecting us evidently but just wants to make sure we are who we say we are. Once he is satisfied we are shown to our rooms, or rather room. The distance between our beds was no more that a metre. We were going to get to know each other pretty well.

I have not yet told you about my travelling buddy and new roommate. His name is Kern, which comes from Scottish Gaelic and means ‘The Dark One.’ He was in fact a very jovial character, although he was always confused. His mind had difficulties in processing, names, dates, language and places which at first I found rather irritating. I did not understand. He is to this day the single most indecisive person I have ever known, but this was part of his charm. I will say one thing, he was fucking brilliant at poker because he had no idea himself that he was bluffing. You could never tell.

Over the next week or so all of the students had pretty much arrived. There were 2 Spaniards, 4 Poles, a Slovenian, 2 Lithuanians, a Hungarian, a German guy, a Mexican, 2 French, a Belgian girl, 2 Czechs, a Colombian, a Serbian and of course us 2 Scots. We were quite a mixed bag.

Our first venture out of the city as a group was quite extraordinary. I will tell you the tale. A few Romanians that we became acquainted with invited us to join them on a trip to a place known as ‘Retezat’. To this day I still have no idea where it is. All I know is that we got there by two trains and one minibus.

Around 20 of us piled into the train compartment and we sped away. The Romanians successfully managed to bribe both ticket collectors on both trains and the whole two hour journey came to about $5. We eventually alighted, after changing once, at some tiny village in the middle of nowhere and sat down at the village’s only bar/shop. It soon became clear that the owner also had a business of driving people up into the mountains. He closed up his shop up and we filled up the two minibuses.

We moved through the countryside and started climbing up through the hills. The hills became mountains and the road became ice. It was as if the road itself became a frozen river. The vehicle began to slide around and the passengers became visibly nervous. The bus that I was in was mainly full of boys, the other contained the girls. We reached a bridge that spanned a terrifying chasm. It was made of concrete and looked ridiculously flimsy. As the minibus crawled across we received a call, the bus behind was having severe issues with traction; it couldn’t go on. We were instructed to get out and walk from here on; the girls were getting our bus.

I walked very cautiously, placing one foot softly in front of the other. I felt like I was walking a tightrope, a ten foot wide tightrope made of concrete. The 1 foot high railing either side was twisted and broken in places and I was shitting myself. When we made it to the other side we discovered a row of graves, some even bearing the same second name. The driver with the girls pulled up, smiled and made a gesture which confirmed my suspicions. These poor bastards had plummeted the 400 feet or so to their deaths, probably in very similar weather.

We walked up and up for what seemed like miles until the bus came back down to retrieve us. We arrived at the first of three lodges and were treated with a thoroughly underwhelming meal of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and tinned hot dogs. There was no road after this, only a path leading up through the eerie looking pine forests.

We arrived at the second of the lodges, the one at which we would be staying. They were mountain cabins made of logs and had no electricity or running water. The wood for the stove was frozen solid and it took great effort to get warm. The temperature outside was probably about -3. After some snacking and chat we all settled down for the night double-bunking for warmth. I thought I heard the howling of wolves somewhere up the valley but dismissed it as paranoia.

By morning spirits had hit rock bottom, the Spaniards had never before experienced snow and refused absolutely to get out of bed. We left them to their misery and climbed up the valley. The snow became thicker and at some points was close to a metre deep. On we went.

We reached the 3rd lodge at around 10 in the morning just as the sun was rising. This was the timberline. We were at about 1200m. The sun cast an orange glow as it rose over the vast mountain cliffs to our left which blazed on our right. After a real struggle we reached the 2000m sign-post which was on the edge of a frozen lake, completely covered in snow and invisible to those who didn’t know of its existence.

Some of the group went on to see a glacier which was further up but I remained where I was, alone. There were some huge boulders that were presumably swept down by ancient ice which I climbed up onto. From here I could look down the valley and past miles and miles of snow and dark pine forest. Mist was creeping up the valley, soon to engulf us. I suddenly realised how silent this land was. There was not a sound to be heard. I thought back and realised that I handy even seen a bird up here. There were no airplanes, we were far from any flight path, no telephone masts, nothing. It was the most profound silence I had ever experienced and it gave me an almost inexplicable feeling. I don’t think there is a word for it. I lit up a cigarette and inhaled the smoke mixed with mountain’s air. I’ll be searching for that silence for the rest of my life.

Written by Omar Zingaro Bhatia

A Postcard from Ginsberg

In January 1976, Columbia Records released Desire, the Bob Dylan LP, replete with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg. I was 18 years old at the time and worked at a newspaper in Allentown, PA, as a copywriter/copyboy. Continue Reading…

On the Road changed my life… Kind of

by Wayne Mullins

One of the most common quotes you will hear from fans of Jack Kerouac is how reading his seminal novel On the Road changed their lives. I have come to the conclusion that sadly this isn’t actually true. I myself went through the same emotional rollercoaster after reading this book, but many years on I have figured out that sadly it hasn’t really changed my life a great deal (if at all), but that I just really, really liked his book. Below you will find a short essay on my related life experiences and how I tried to emulate the adventures within the book and become more “beat” after reading Kerouac for the first time.

As so often happens in my life my introduction to something important and life changing, in this case Kerouac and the Beat movement, occurred purely by the most random of occurrences. In 2004 I had grown fond of an American animated series called “Home Movies.” The series revolved around a young boy named Brandon and his friends as they write, direct and star in their own home movies, while interacting with a number of memorable and off-beat characters. In one episode, the main character Brandon decides to run away from home and “Live on the road, just like Jack Kerouac.” This throw away line that would barely register with most viewers started to play on my mind and as a fairly young (24 years old) man with little experience of American literature; I had no idea who this Kerouac fellow was or why Brandon would want to emulate him.

A short trip to Amazon provided me with my first taste of the Beat visage. Glowing references and “classic” status were thrown about like confetti and littered many of the books on offer, but one in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd in its referential glory. That book of course was On the Road. Devouring the book chapter after chapter, the story of a young man seemingly looking for answers from other people in a society that he didn’t quit fit in struck a chord within me. Having grown up either being made to read “serious” books in school or trashy horror novels for fun, it came as something of a shock to discover that the printed word could be so personal, beautiful and meaningful. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, something had been identified inside of me. I then came to fully realise that my quiet social awkwardness and misplaced feelings towards myself and society, a feeling that I wanted to do my own thing and be damned with conventional culture were by no means unique. I had discovered, thanks to this cartoon, that these feelings had been experienced by people just like me 50 years earlier and that they had even gone through the trouble of writing books about it.

Always wanting to see the world, and in particular America, I had managed to experience a brief flurry of adventure in my nineteenth year, when a student work programme had allowed me to travel and work in America on a Summer camp for Jewish children in the Pennsylvania mountains. Though ultimately a false dawn in my new and exciting life of travelling the world and having adventures like a Welsh Sal Paradise, it did give me a taste of what was possible, even if the highlight of my trip to the USA was lasting just one weekend in Manhattan before flying home. Though brief, I started to believe that it was possible to have the kind of life I had only read about and it none the less provided me with some frame of reference for the future I wished to experience.

After returning to the UK, I took a menial and soul destroying job as an office administrator for the Health Service, with the sole intention of saving enough money in order to plan my next trip abroad. Around this time, however, I also started an illicit and secret affair with a femme-fatal-like, slightly older work colleague. I justified this to myself as a worthy and fun escape from the brain sapping monotony that everyday life in a modern office offers. Eager to impress and deepen our emotional bond I offered to lend her the book that had come to mean so much to me. She eventually returned it some months later upon my repeated request and when quizzed as to what was her favourite part of the book, she crushed me by replying “Ohhh, all of it.”  Needless to say, the book was unread and any further connection I was hoping to make with this woman would have to be purely physical and have nothing to do with something as unpopular and time consuming as intellectual attachment.

I’d love to say that my main source of joy in life was riding the pussy express all the way to fun-town, but I find that as I get older, people who have a brain capacity that limits them to banal soap operas are of no use to me. I am no longer willing to put up with know nothing idiots and empty headed hot-mouths, both of which Wales has too many off. Not being able to make a deeper connection with this woman over a movement and rich as the Beats and with something as personal to me as On the Road, eventually lead us to go our separate ways. Also, she was married, which somewhat complicated things.

But I will always remember my beautiful blonde and sexy office-lover; a woman who I will always remember (rightly or wrongly) as someone who was always five minutes away from either hitting the bottle in her sad, trapped despair or ripping my clothes off with her sweet, angel voiced fury.

Undeterred I vowed to continue my Beat studies and continue with my original plan to travel and apply myself to fully understanding the messages they taught. However, I was having trouble putting into practice what I had learned as I had always been a fairly quiet and shy person, but unlike Kerouac I had neither the constitution or liking for alcohol which helped him deal with the same problem. There is a part of my brain that I can never turn off, no matter how drunk I get and that was that I was never comfortable trying to be a person that I was not. I always have a damned voice inside my head letting me know in no uncertain terms that I’m faking it and the glazed, dopey and slouched appearance alcohol gives me makes me look like a dizzy school boy after his first hit of vodka.

The years slowly ticked by as my plans to travel gathered dust amongst the haze of car payments, work commitments and my own procrastinating nature. Salvation was to come however when a kindred spirit came into my life through work, a man by the name of Neil. Being single, fun and most importantly the same age as myself, it was an ice cold shower of a wakeup call when I realised that there was a universe beyond the middle-aged, sagging, dog-eared, dried up, miserable excuse for a women that seem to populate offices everywhere. The connection with Kerouac once again came to the fore as I soon found that Neil embodied the spirit and soul of Dean Moriarty, a friend that I had been unconsciously looking for (at least in my mind) since I first read On the Road all those years ago. Neil typified the complete embodiment of how to live life without regret. He was tall, good looking, insanely confident and the women loved him, everything I felt was denied to me, either through reality or my own warped view of self. To my surprise, he was also a good person and an even better friend.

Away from the attention of the dog-eared humpties, we spent countless hours talking about love, life, our hopes and dreams and our plans for the future. Though easy to dismiss as hedonistic in nature and loud and brash, Neil possessed a keen intellect and warm personality as he continually pushed me to expand my comfort zone and to explore life. To say we were complete opposites would be a fair assumption. While I was quiet and somewhat introverted, he delighted in shouting expletives at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street, always happy to be the centre of attention. With Neil in attendance it was a satisfying feeling knowing that I was finally starting to experience some of the counter culture and wild living that I had read so much about, though be it from the safety of a Friday night out on the town in deepest, darkest South Wales.

While I continued into my slow slide towards 30 with very little hope or salvation in sight and my plans of travelling now almost forgotten in the midst of time, Neil had dreams and goals of his own that he wanted to achieve. He wanted to travel, he wanted to experience life and he wanted to have fun. Quitting his job in the company in which we both worked for and leaving his rock band behind (yes, he was even in a rock band), Neil set out for Australia and South America on his journey of self-discovery and adventure. Though tentative gestures of an invitation were made to come with him to Australia early on in his planning, I felt I had to decline the offer at the time as I saw it as Neil’s path, a path which he should be allowed to walk alone for a while. Besides, I had my own path to walk at this point and decided to take a big risk by quitting my job after nearly 8 years and open my own business.

Over a year has since passed and it brings us pretty much up to the present at the time of writing. Having stayed in intermittent contact with Neil during this time, it was with great excitement that I received an email from him letting me know that he was planning on travelling across North America. I felt that this was the right time to make another change in my life and the thought of a real life On the Road adventure with my surrogate Cassady was too good an opportunity to pass me by. The dreams from my youth of travelling and exploring life dusted themselves off and I enthusiastically wrote back asking what he thought of the possibility of road-tripping with me around the USA. Sadly, his reply was not what I had hoped.

Somewhat tired from the constant travelling over the last 18 months, Neil had decided to spend the majority of his time when in the USA entrenched in the music scene in Nashville. Not planning on making any further road-trips in the immediate future, he none the less offered me a small crumb of possibility with a bitter-sweet “maybe, who knows?” final sentence. Approaching 32 year of age and with the possibility of making my long wished for road trip looking ever slimmer by the day, I lay awake at nights, well in the small hours, staring at the ceiling and running through all the possible adventures and trips in my imagination.

One night we are hitting the Jazz clubs of Manhattan, the next we are crossing the great deserts of Utah in an open top Cadillac, then maybe a stop off in San Francisco so we can take in the spiritual home of the Beats. But all the while I am reminded that even though my dreams of travelling may never now come true, the truth in the fantasy that I had learned from Kerouac and On the Road is that they have indeed changed my life.

They have taught me that my own mind can provide me with a life that I can live a hundred times in the space of a few hours while just lying in bed, while I wait for the lesser dreams to come.

The End of the Road

R. R. Reno

The road dominates the American imagination, from the Oregon Trail to Route 66. That strange, in-between time of escape, freedom, and adventure: On The Road, you leave behind all the ordinary routines and demands. Still, I was surprised when my daughter was assigned On The Road in her high-school English class. Kerouac’s frenetic novel seemed less obvious a choice than Moby Dick and less safe a choice than To Kill a Mockingbird.

But I soon discovered that daughter’s assignment reflects a new consensus about American literature. The Library of America series put out a Kerouac volume last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the pub­lication of On The Road in 1957. A number of other books devoted to Kerouac and On The Road hit the shelves of the big bookstore chains. Literary journals published retrospectives. These signs point to a re­markable fact: Jack Kerouac’s evocation of the rag-tag beatnik culture of his day has entered the canon of Great American Novels.

On The Road is a thinly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s road trips in the late 1940s. A talented work­ing-class kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was recruited to play football at Columbia University in 1941. After two years he dropped out to become a writer, living in New York as the proverbial struggling artist.

It was there he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and other poets, writers, and wandering souls. Kerouac dubbed his little group the Beats. The name came from a slang term for down and out, but, when applied to the literary crowd, it came to capture the ragged, free-spirited existence of those who live on the edges of society. After the traumas of the great Depression and World War II, the vast majority of Americans eagerly returned to the relative stability of middle-class life, now reaching outward to the newly emerging suburbs. The Beats were the first wave of rebellion against this larger trend. They self-consciously set themselves against the postwar push toward normalcy by surviving on odd jobs, G.I. benefits, and donations from friends and family.

On The Road opens in this New York scene of aspiring poets, writers and seekers. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is trying to make his way as a young writer. But life has become suffused with the “feeling that everything was dead.” (In real life, Kerouac’s father died in 1946). The would-be young sages have reached various dead ends. “All my New York friends,” Sal reports, “were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons.”

But a new possibility appears when there arrives in town a man named Dean Moriarty — based on Neal Cassady, a charismatic personality of great importance in the history of the Beats. Abandoned child of a drunk in Denver, sometime resident of reform schools, and con man, Dean is a man of unaccountable energies and appetites. The incarnation of pure American freedom, he casts his spell over Sal’s circle of friends. His zest of life galvanizes the seeking literary types living in dank walk-ups in Manhattan. But Dean leaves, and in leaving, he becomes the lure that draws Sal out of New York and onto the road.

The body of the novel is divided into four main road trips, three crossing and re-crossing the United Sates, and the fourth from Denver down to Mexico City. Sal narrates his adventures in the fast-paced fashion of this happened and then that happened. He meets oddball characters. There are numerous stops and side adventures. And yet, the story comes quickly to focus on Dean. No matter where the road leads, it inevitably involves finding Dean, being found by Dean, launch­ing out on cross-country drives with Dean, partying all night with Dean, and finally, in Mexico City, being abandoned by Dean.

Kerouac is not subtle about Dean’s role. Although Dean steals without hesitation, cheats on his women, ignores his children, and abandons Sal when he is sick, Dean has “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.” “Behind him charred ruins smoked,” the narrator tells the reader, but Dean rises out of the chaos he creates with a “ragged W.C. Fields saintli­ness.” Soaked in sweat, muddy, and reeking of urine, Dean radiates “the purity of the road.” Despite Dean’s erratic, destructive, and selfish behavior, Kerouac describes his achievement with clarity: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness — everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” The quintessential free spirit, he has the power to turn his back on all the hin­dering limitation that ordinary folks feel so acutely, the most limiting of which are moral conventions. “The thing,” he preaches, “is not to get hung up.”

As Kerouac tells us in a moment of revelation, “I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint.” The rhetoric of holiness so closely combined with sordid behavior can outrage the pious reader of On The Road, but it should not surprise. Kerouac is following a long literary tradition of juxtaposing high and low, sacred and profane, noble and base. Sal writes in order to convey his “reverent mad feelings.” Dean is angelic in his “rages and furies,” and Sal records that, in a night of revelry, “Dean became frantically and demonically and seraphically drunk.” Dean is a con man and a wise man, a mystical lecher, a debauched embodiment of spiritual purity.

The problem of happiness is at once social and existential. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed early in the modern era, social expectations alienate. The examples are many. Good manners dic­tate saying “thank you” even when we are not truly grateful. Prudence and anxiety — about the dire conse­quences of poverty encourage us to save for the future and resist the temptation to spend for the pleasures of the moment. Conventional morality condemns as sinful those actions that are based on some of the immedi­ate sexual desires of men and women. In each case, and in countless others, what we think and feel and want are at odds with what is expected.

Rousseau was a complicated thinker. His theory of the social contract can give the impression that he endorses the classical picture of happiness as socializa­tion into a community of virtue. But in his influential dramatizations of the good life, Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise, he outlined a new approach. Those who wish to live well must break the charm of social conventions so that they can live according to their truest impulses and innermost desires.

The bohemians followed Rousseau’s advice in nine­teenth-century Paris. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were New World bohemians, and in the twentieth century the tenements of Greenwich Village became an important center of American bohemian life. The personalities, motivations, and literary move­ments were different in each case, but they all viewed the rigid social and moral conventions of respectable society as impoverishing and unnecessary.

Rousseau’s counsel and the bohemian approach to life can seem an easy hedonism, but it never has been, or at least never merely. Rousseau knew that man is a social animal. We are hardwired to want to live in accord with social conventions. As a result, any sort of deviance that is intentional rather than pathological has a heroic magnificence — a status Rousseau proudly assigned to himself. Not surprising­ly, then, one of the signal features of the bohemian project has been a celebration of transgression for its own sake. Those who break the rules — whether artistic, lit­erary, or moral –gain the most admiration, because they have demonstrated their self-willed freedom from society.

The Beats were quintessential bohemians who felt the plain-Jane expectations of middle-class American life as an infecting, constraining force. Wife, career, mortgage, children, savings accounts, and quiet subur­ban streets: These were realities overlaid by the dead­ening expectations of conventional morality. Escape was essential, and, although Kerouac and the other Beats lacked Rousseau’s clarity about the constant impulse of human nature to accept and submit to social authority, they intuitively recognized the need for dramatic acts and symbols of transgression.

All of this makes it wrong to read On The Road as a story of adolescent self-indulgence and thrill-seeking. Just as St. Francis tore off his clothes in the city square and rejected life according to normal hopes and fears, so Dean is a man entirely outside society. His criminal­ity is not motivated by a mean desire for money. He does not steal cars to sell them, for that would simply be a dishonest way of getting the equivalent of a regu­lar paycheck. Dean commits crimes because it is in his nature to grab whatever is at hand to enjoy the moment. His transgressions, Kerouac tells us, were all part of “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy.”

Dean wants to live, and, as Jesus advises, he worries not about the morrow while he pops pills, smokes joints, and downs shots of whiskey. In his conscienceless care­lessness, Dean is angelic. “He was BEAT — the root, the soul of Beatific,” living in the moment, one tap of the cymbal at a time.

In 1957, the New York Times review hailed the novel’s publication as “a historic occasion.” The review trumpeted that On The Road offers “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” Of course, as David Brooks so cleverly observed in Bobos in Paradise, we’re all weekend beatniks now. The counterculture of transgression that dominates On The Road has thor­oughly colonized our middle-class world.

Transgression and marginality have become the new normalcy. The bohemian rejection of social con­vention was first theorized as a normal stage of psychological development (“adolescent rebellion”), and more recently it has been made into both commercial fashions and academic dogma. Aging rock musicians go on tours and play their songs of youthful lust and rebellion to graying Baby Boomers who need Viagra. College professors theorize transgression as an act of political freedom. It’s easy to see that Kerouac road that leads from the Beat fantasies of primal innocence to our own day, where white boys from the suburbs dress like drug dealers, girls like prostitutes, and mil­lionaires like dock workers. Crotch-grabbing rap singers play the role of well-paid Dean Moriartys.

Perhaps that’s why some critics think of On The Road as simply early propaganda for our current cul­ture. Writing in the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels argues that Kerouac “was a harbinger” of an age “in which every intelligent person was expected, and came himself to expect, to forge his own soul unguided by the wisdom of his ancestors.” We care about Kerouac, Daniels claims, only “because he was a prophet of immaturity.” “To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor,” Daniels adds. The book’s sig­nificance “is sociological rather than literary.” And then with a hauteur one expects from the New Criteri­on, he concludes, “The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholar­ship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.”

I don’t dispute that Kerouac’s accounts of beatnik life inspired the adolescent rebellion in the 1960s which eventually became the perpetual adolescence of our own times. But Daniels seems wrong, both about what On The Road says culturally and about what it achieves as a work of literature.

Kerouac was not a writer who anticipated the 1960s, which, in fact, he disliked and denounced before his premature death in 1969. He does not treat the road as a path into the supposedly real self, nor does it lead toward an imagined better society. On The Road disparages “the complacent Reichiananlyzed ecstasy” of progressive folks in San Francisco. It expresses no confidence that heroin or marijuana or whiskey bring us to some hidden truth about our souls. The novel is noticeably uninterested in social or economic utopias. There are no communes, no health-food cooperatives, no late-night meetings to talk about revolution.

On the contrary, Kerouac focuses on the disordered, episodic, and chaotic nature of his experiences. He seems less a prophet of any particular way of life than an observer of the inconclusive thrusts of bohemian desire for authentic life — and the counter-thrusts of reality. Sal despairs of “the senseless nightmare road.” Faced with embittered friends, Sal tells us, “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” The sentiment is resignation, not sybaritic self-indulgence. “Every­thing,” Sal recalls, “was collapsing” as Dean’s aimless antics lead to a dead end. Sal follows Dean, but the promises of the moment seem always broken soon after they are made. While traveling, Sal recalls a lonely song with a telling refrain: “Home I’ll never be.”

Kerouac ambivalence is not just a matter of clash­ing emotions that come from the highs and lows of life On The Road. The book is forever careening forward, and the story never rests in any particular observation or experience. Kerouac lists the towns that Dean drives through at high speeds —Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Pueblo, Walsenberg, Trinidad: Transition and movement agitate the novel and the reader.

Kerouac’s accounts of his experiences are either catalogues of indigestible detail or surreal sketches. On one page Sal is drunk in a San Francisco restaurant. A page or two later he is on a bus where he meets a Mexican girl and falls in love. Only a few pages further he abandons her to make his way back to New York. The novel does not develop. It tumbles. The rat-tat-tat of narration, the quick snap­shots of local color, and the raw emotions recalled give the story a feeling of restless seeking rather than sus­tained introspection, philosophical coherence, or care­ful social analysis.

This overall literary effect was not accidental. Ker­ouac took his trips with the self-conscious goal of gath­ering material for a novel. For a couple of years he struggled with numerous drafts, always unsatisfied with the results. In April 1951, Kerouac decided to begin again. This time he taped together several twelve­-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, trimmed to fit into his typewriter as a continuous roll. In three weeks he typed the entire story from beginning to end as one  long paragraph on the single scroll of paper.

The marathon performance became something of a legend, and it was romanticized by Kerouac himself as part of his later theory of “spontaneous writing.” And yet, the approach was not a cheap publicity stunt. As Louis Menand has observed, the taped-together sheets of paper constrained and disciplined Kerouac. The scroll prevented the sort of deepening of theme, char­acter, motive, and experience that comes with circling back to revise. Kerouac did revise later, but mainly to consolidate and simplify the various road trips into a more manageable form. He did not introduce layers of authorial reflection into the relentless flow of events and personalities.

As a result, On The Road does not emerge as a bohemian manifesto with a clear agenda or as an exis­tentially deep reflection on the inner life of a counter-cultural hero. The Beat lingo is omnipresent, and its slogans, aspirations, and hopes are plainly in view. Dean Moriarty is certainly a high priest of transgres­sion. But because all these elements of the narrative cas­cade through the pages, nothing stands out to sum up or interpret events. The details — and especially the dated existentialist slogans and Beat truisms — fall away because they fall behind. Prose racing forward, the road simply becomes a desperate, necessary, ancient quest for what Kerouac describes in a number of places as “the pearl.”

That feeling — of straining, desperate, and failed seeking — does not define the world we live in today. Our tattooed adolescents enjoy small pleasures of rebellion and collect the socially approved badges of nonconformity. Our literature is dominated by the languid Iowa Writers Workshop style: carefully wrought set pieces to accompany our studied and care­fully constructed self-images. On The Road may have given us our clichés about authenticity, but not our qui­escence — not our postmodern roles as managers of dif­ference, not the temperate transgressions on which we insist as middle-class Americans.

The self-congratulation of the 1960s is entirely ab­sent from On The Road. Kerouac does not compliment himself as a rebel after the fashion of Hunter S. Thompson. He is no Hugh Hefner posing as a heroic hedonist. Many scenes are debauched, but Kerouac does not tote up his demerits, like a high-school boy bragging about how many beers he drank. The book expresses hunger and never satisfaction, not even in its own countercultural image. “I had nothing to offer anyone,” Kerouac writes in a line that sums up the effect of the whole book, “but my own confusion.”

There is, however, an unexpected, subtle relevance, one that testifies to Kerouac’s achievement as a writer rather than his influence as a legendary member of the Beat generation. Sal consistently conveys notes of sad­ness that grow ever more palpable as the book draws to an end. One drunken episode brings not good times but instead memories of an earlier, urine-soaked and unconscious night on the floor of a men’s room. The road of transgressive freedom seems haunted by defile­ment. Sal’s final visions in Mexico City do not come from any high at all, but instead from fever-induced delusions as Dean leaves him. Sickness and abandon­ment take the place of the promised adventure and fellowship of the road.

Most poignantly of all, the novel opens with volu­ble talk about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Proust, but it concludes with Dean’s strange, incoher­ent effusions. By the end, Sal tells us, “He couldn’t talk any more. He hopped and laughed, he stuttered and fluttered his hands and said, ‘Ah–ha – you must listen to hear.’ We listened, all ears. But he forgot what he want­ed to say.” Dean’s mind is so fried by drugs and alcohol that he can no longer carry on a conversation. The seraphic mystic of “pure love” becomes a mute oracle. The great bohemian guru can no longer offer guidance. One feels the need for the road in Kerouac’s forward-leaning prose. But the reader also feels the failure. “I think of Dean Moriarty,” Sal the narrator writes in his final line, “I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found.” Then, as if wishing to ward off the demons of emptiness and loss, Sal repeats, “I think of Dean Moriarty.”

The sad sense of failure and decay of On The Road strike me as far more contemporary than the revelry and debauchery of the novel. We have not inherited Dean’s “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy,” nor have we found our way to the “joy of pure being.” True enough, we smile and congratulate ourselves for our progressive attitudes as we accommo­date ourselves to a society committed to embracing any number of strange “lifestyle choices.” But on the whole, our culture seems dominated by worries. The media lust for bad tidings, as if to insist that we must suffer for failing to find the pearl of great price. At lead­ing universities, one can be forgiven for concluding that our academic leaders believe that Western culture does not deserve to thrive or even to survive — a thought held even as they ride along the surfaces of a remark­able social tolerance, born of our tacit affirmation of the transgressive beatitude of Dean Moriarty.

It is as if we very much want to believe in Dean, but, like Sal at the end of On The Road, we know we cannot rely on him to give us guidance. We want to believe the promises of bohemian life — to live according to our own innermost selves — but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive hero­ism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disap­pointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the countercultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions.

I do not claim that Jack Kerouac was a great writer, but Kerouac’s lasting achievement in On The Road is beyond doubt. The manic, forward-leaning rush of Kerouac prose drives his writerly ego to the mar­gins of the narrative. This allows the novel to depict the bohemian project rather than offer a statement of its goals or summary of its philosophy or airbrushed pic­ture of its heroism. Kerouac was a witness to the Beat generation, not its poet or spokesman or philosopher king.

It is stultifying to approach literature always expecting moral instruction in the form of ready and true principles for how to live. And it is absurd to reject Kerouac simply on the grounds that he fails to teach sound morals. Literature can instruct at a deeper level. Literature can show us how and where our human par­ticularity overfloods our moral ideals.

And when it does, readers are left to navigate on their own — to test, as it were, the sufficiency of their own moral resources to make sense of the strange, pulsing, living, and almost always perverted and con­fused realities of human life.

So it was for me the first time I read On The Road more than twenty-five years ago. A bohemian fellow traveler of sorts, I had already been on my own road, hitchhiking many times across America. The book had a paradoxically sobering effect as I read it one day on the front porch of a hostel in France, outside of Chamonix, overlooking a meadow in late spring bloom. When I finished I felt a judgment on my Emersonian fantasies of originality.  My small efforts to escape from the safe streets and calm kitchens of mid­dle-class America were, I learned, part of an old story. I was going down an often-walked road with my emblematic backpack and blue jeans and torn T-shirt. I felt like a suburban explorer who suddenly realizes that the nearby forest is not the Amazonian jungle.

More slowly and more unconsciously, I also felt the sadness: the incoherent babbling of Dean Moriar­ty, the sulfurous red dawns that always seemed to follow the all-night reveries, the way in which what Sal wanted seemed to slip from his hands, the mute indif­ference of the great American landscape that Kerouac evokes so passionately, the hard asphalt of the road itself.

Kerouac’s manic rush of prose lays bare his own ambivalence and self-contradiction. He did not pack­age the bohemian experience with a peace symbol and the earnest pose of a young revolutionary of high moral purpose. He told a story that forces us to con­sult our moral compass. He helps us see that Dean Moriarty, the antimomian shaman of the American imagination, achieves no beatitude and has no blessings to give.

You can reach Dr. Reno by email at

The Crooked Path Towards Salvation


I pull into the parking lot of the Motel 6 at 3 am. I’ve been driving for 18 hours straight, most of them supplemented by heavy doses of caffeine and THC. The combination of fatigue, a waning buzz and hours spent in wistful rumination leave me in a strange emotional state. The best way to describe it is I feel as if I don’t exist. It’s like one of those out of body experience scenes in a movie where the spirit floats above the bed and looks down with detachment at its earthly form.  I see me sitting in my black sedan on a drab, cracked slab of concrete in Davenport, Iowa, in the center of a vast plain.

My view of the journey here is less clear. The nearly 1200 miles I traveled from New Hampshire passed in a string of flashing white lines and gradually flattening landscape that didn’t seem to have a definitive beginning or end. Images of the drive are burned into my head: a fine mist settling over the tops of the green hills of Pennsylvania, farmhouses and huge, long irrigation machines, an abandoned factory in some small, sad town whose name I’ve forgotten, a child’s face in an adjacent vehicle whose piercing gaze momentarily captivated me as I blazed past him on the highway.

All I have of the immense distance I just covered are a few random snapshots and even those don’t seem real. Nothing seems real. Any sense of purpose I had upon setting out is lost. The only thing I’m sure of is that this is Jack Kerouac’s fault.


I first read On The Road in August of 2005. Right from the first paragraph, in which Kerouac states he was getting over, “…my awful feeling that everything was dead” and “…I’d always dreamed of going west, seeing the country, always vaguely planning and never specifically taking off,”  he was speaking to me. Like Kerouac, I won’t bother going into much detail about what led to my particular depression except that it was the perfect storm of being rejected from the law schools I’d applied to, dumped by my girlfriend, laid off from work and having to move back in with my parents. Within the span of a few weeks the entire life I’d imagined for myself was gone.

In particular, one memory from my first reading stands out so clearly that I often suspect it’s embellished. I’d been entranced by Kerouac from the opening page, but the following line served to stir something in particular inside of me: “What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

After reading this I set the book down on the bed next to me.  The mid-afternoon sun was blaring through the bay window at my back. My journal lay on the bedside table with a pen stuck in the pages as a marker. I lay back in bed with my eyes shut and my arms folded underneath my head.  A feeling of calm washed over me.

I’ve often thought back on this episode, knowing it to be seminal in my life, but never completely sure why. With the passage of time I’m now able to discern just what happened in that moment: I realized, for the first time, that I wanted to be an artist; nay, that I was an artist and I needed to start acting like one. Pulling myself out of the hole I was in required living a spontaneous and creative life. A man who does not do what he was born to do is bound to toil in misery.


“Sir? May I help you?”

The voice comes from behind the reception desk, produced by one of those blond, round, low-income American women whose age is nearly impossible to determine.

“Sir, breakfast doesn’t’ start til’ 8 a.m.

I’ve been standing in the dining area, idly handling a miniature box of cereal. I haven’t spoken in nearly a day and when I reply, “Yes, of course,” it sounds like I’m shouting at her. I see fear in her eyes, the perception of danger at this swarthy out-of-stater gripping Frosted Flakes, yelling at her from across the lobby.

I set the processed, enriched corn product down and stride cautiously to the desk. The clerk hides behind one of those tight-lipped smiles that only narrowly masks discomfort.

“I need a room…one suitable for sleeping.” I try to discern if I’m still yelling.

She smiles awkwardly. “Is it just you tonight, sir?”

Sensing that my New England accent is frightening her, I merely nod.

“Sir, it’s $39.99 per night.”

I grunt, reach for my wallet and remember it’s in the car. I point to the parking lot and turn out my pockets, hoping she’ll understand. As I step outside I take inventory of the out-of-state plates. On the interstate cars pass east and west, motoring to some destination, setting a course towards the satiation of some need, all of us sharing Davenport at 3 a.m…never to know each other, never to know the outcome of even a chance meeting…all ghosts, floating across the phantasmal plains, acting on the perception that something must be done to gain peace, that we’re somehow doing the right thing.


The major epiphanies of one’s life tend to feel like they happen all in one instant even though they are usually the end result of things that have been gathering, fecundating in the mind for days…weeks…months…years…

For as long as I can remember, I always felt different. There is no simple or concise way to explain this. The feeling manifested itself most noticeably at the perception that everybody was taking life more seriously than I was.  I found myself attracted to anything that was cracked or a bit off kilter. Only the strange was of any interest to me. I was vaguely aware that I wanted something else out of life but I had no idea what it was or how to get it.

Like most kids I went along doing what I was expected to. This mostly meant doing well in school. Even when I was very young, though, I had no interest in my studies. It dawned on me early on that being a good student merely required rearranging information in a way that was pleasing to my teachers. This didn’t cause me to suffer in school. If anything, I became a better student. I was a cold-blooded killer who dispatched of assignments with a slightly disdainful indifference. It was all a game and winning meant figuring out the rules and following them.  The real problem was that there was nothing I cared to win.

By high school I had the feeling that everything I did was a wasted movement. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere spinning my wheels. I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol in the 10th grade. While not satisfying on any sustained, deep level, getting high and wasted temporarily alleviated my boredom with life. They met, in a crude way, my desire for a different perspective.

I entered university hoping that I would find my niche as my studies became more focused. Instead, I got more off track with each successive semester. I knew that the end game of my collective four years was a career. I was racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt for a piece of paper that said I was qualified to do this or that. The unspoken mandate was that I get a job right away to pay back my loans. It was essentially a sophisticated form of debt-bondage.

The pressure was mounting to choose a direction. All around me, people were getting more and more certain of what they wanted while I became less sure. My reaction to having no vision of my own was to increasingly define myself in opposition to the goals of others and mainstream society. A man who knows himself only through what he is not is in fact nothing. This is how it was for me the first 24 years of life. I was a nothing man, taking stands against what I didn’t want or found egregious, but never knowing what I actually desired for myself.

There was nobody who seemed to share my plight. Even among my friends who understood me best there was a definite divide. All of them, in one way or another, were on a path to somewhere. I was wallowing in indecision, a starving beast in the wilderness, feeling more alone and crazy with each passing day. In an attempt to quell my growing angst I decided to just pick something and go with it. I got a full-time job, a girlfriend and began preparing for the law school entrance exam.


The hotel room has the same crass, homogenous attempt at charm as the lobby – a bland sterility that always struck me as uniquely American.It has likely been cleaned by another tick-like woman. The sheets have no doubt absorbed the semen of a traveling water-filtration salesman on his way to Wichita. I choose the bed with a slightly skewed angle of the television, thinking it’s less likely he wanked here.

It’s nearly 3:30. I’m on the brink of dead-tired and lucid- a point where it’s either sleep or smoke dope and navigate the doldrums of near-dawn Iowan basic cable. The latter strikes me as so depressing that slumber becomes the easy choice.

As I drift off to sleep flashes of the kids song, “..merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream…” float through my head, sung hauntingly by children who don’t grasp the truth of what they’re saying, who may not until, years later, they find themselves in the midst of an enormous field, potentially lying in another man’s semen, knowing how they got there only theoretically.


When the future I’d banked on came crashing down around me it felt like I had lost everything.  In reality, the placebo plans I’d made had never been mine in the first place. The things I’d decided to do were merely a reaction to being lost. Stripped of them, I had a chance to start over.

I started to write every day in my journal, something I hadn’t done since high school. At first the words were cathartic, a way to release my inner turmoil. But as I pressed forward with them I began to uncover pieces of myself that had been so cracked and fleeting I was never able to pull them together. In particular, I revisited an idea of going out west that I’d entertained since beginning university. The move was vague, both in terms of geography and purpose, but that was the beauty of it. For sixteen years I had been pumped through the educational system where, generally, my choices had been dictated to me. What I wanted was to do something completely of my own volition.

In that time I also made a point to catch up on all the books I’d long been meaning to read. They were mainly a distraction from myself; none of them excited me in more than a superficial way. That is, until I picked up On The Road.

Really, what I found in that book was sympathy. Sal Paradise was going through what I was. Kerouac’s prose expressed the angst of a young man wanting something out of life that wasn’t offered by conventional wisdom. His protagonist’s search for “IT” mirrored my long standing desire for “something else.”

“The straight line will take you only to death,” says Sal at one point in the book. In response to this ethos he and Dean Moriarty set off back and forth across the country in search of “kicks” which are a series of movements and deflections. All the while “IT” remains elusive and ill-defined, knowable only by experience. Through all of their starts and stops Sal and Dean follow an internal compass, circling in upon “IT,” that visceral state of awareness that will unite and give purpose to their divergent experiences.

Jack Kerouac was the corroborating voice I never had in my life. He showed me a way out of my dilemma, that salvation was possible. He was a New England boy, just like me, who had barreled headlong into the west, navigating by his own moral lodestar, creating crazy, beautiful art in the process. I never wanted to be the next Jack Kerouac. What I was looking to become was a truer version of myself. Dear ol’ Jack just pointed me in the right direction.


I open my eyes to brilliant sunlight reflecting off of ubiquitous whites, tans and beiges. I prop myself up on one elbow and as the hotel rooms comes into focus I recall the mad dash across a third of the country which led me here. The neurosis of last night is gone. In its place is a feeling of calm determination that I am one step closer to something worth pursuing.

The scene is reminiscent of one from On The Road when Sal awakens in an Iowa hotel and for a brief spell doesn’t know who he is. The difference is that I, perhaps for the first time, have a sure sense of who I am. The sun rising over the plains hearkens not just a new day in the middle of America, but the dawn of my new life. To borrow Kerouac’s terminology, never has “the East of my youth” felt further away or “the West of my future” closer. I experience a fleeting encounter with “IT.” It is a sacred taste, finally, of “something else.”

I shower, gather my things, dig in at the complimentary breakfast and get back on the interstate. Driving across the plains I think of Sal and Dean searching for kicks. Surely they traveled this same highway at some point, burning towards that “next crazy venture beneath the skies.” I find myself wondering more than once “What would Jack do?” But more often, and more importantly, I think: “What am I going to do?”

In Tangier

by Steven O’Sullivan

“A true document of human desperation.”

-Playwright Tennessee Williams on Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel about life in Tangier, 1973.

The release of Choukri’s For Bread Alone came in the midst of Tangier’s development as a hideout for expatriate writers and artists. American writer Paul Bowles was one of the pioneering residents of Tangier and responsible for the English translation and release of For Bread Alone, a novel that would stand for years as a controversial testament to the darker realities of Tangier. These harsh realities coupled with the glistening promise of creation drew in expatriates seeking new approaches to life for many, many years.

Bowles had worked predominantly as a composer in New York, but when Doubleday approached him with a contract for a novel he felt it was time to make a change into full-time writing. Bowles noted, “I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I was sick of writing music for other people.” He had visited Tangier intermittently for 16 years prior and he moved there permanently in 1947. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. They would remain in Tangier together until his death in 1999.

Upon Bowles’ initial arrival, the city seemed detached from the rest of the world; isolated by endless sand dunes from the south and the waters of the Mediterranean at the north. Bowles felt a mythical, enchanting quality vibrating thru the city. From Bowles’ accounts the city feels similar to Henry Miller’s Paris of the 20s. Dirty bars, broken streets, and prostitutes in everyone’s bedroom were hallmarks of the dark side of Tangier. Despite the upscale, colonial European neighborhoods, violence stood strong in the shadows of the forgotten slums.

However, Bowles moved south into the sahara to write much of his novel. He shacked up in the decrepit desert hotels and wrote like a madman. These times are vividly reminiscent of Antonioni’s landmark film The Passenger. One can easily imagine Bowles as Jack Nicholson’s desperate journalist losing his mind in the midst of alcoholism and the stark white walls of the hotel. Regardless Bowles did manage to accomplish his goal. The novel was written.

Doubleday rejected the completed manuscript, much to their later regret. Within months, thru an independent publisher, The Sheltering Sky had gone thru three printings and sat at the top of the New York Times book list.

With the success of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles established himself as a serious writer. And throughout the 50s and 60s countless others would be driven to Tangier seeking that same maddening inspiration that had grabbed Bowles with such a vengeance.

French thief-turned-writer Jean Genet as well renowned playwright Tennessee Williams would both settle in Tangier, turning out many promising works.

Bowles’ fiction also inspired Beat madman William S. Burroughs to take up residence in the city in 1953. Burroughs’ infamous lifestyle and actions had led to an outlaw status in his favorite cities, thus he needed a new refuge in which to create. One Burroughs biography states that he rented a room above a homosexual brothel. In addition to this, drugs flowed easily and cheaply in the streets of Tangier. These surroundings left Burroughs quite at ease and he began the initial work on what would eventually become his magnum opus, Naked Lunch.

Burroughs’ first stay in Tangier was brief as he attempted a return to America after only a few months. However, his standing in the eyes of friends, family, and publishers remained tarnished. Even Allen Ginsberg, once his closest friend, refused him on all accounts. At this time Kerouac was neck deep in a Buddhist devotion, working on a biography of Siddhartha Gautama.

So, back to Tangiers it was.

Despite a modest allowance from his parents back home, royalties from Junkie were still not coming thru, so he began turning out travel articles on Tangiers to supplement his income.

With the comfort of a cornucopia of exotic drugs (not readily available back in the States) and sexual counterparts, Burroughs dug in deep and worked tirelessly on the Naked Lunch manuscript.

For the following four years Burroughs remained in Tangier continuing to write until his departure for Paris in the fall of ’59. And in the meantime his inspirations grew.

Eventually, his reputation at home began to heal, and his friends sought him out. Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived in Tangier in 1957. Up to that point, Burroughs was the only one with any kind of global travelogue and perhaps his confidants were looking to catch up with him and experience firsthand some of the visions that Burroughs had caught wind of and sent home in letters and stories. Additionally, they were able to offer a guiding editorial approach in refining the wild-eyed manuscript which at the time was merely a scattered stream-of-conscious narrative running amok in Burroughs’ mind.

One must remember that Burroughs’ first two publications, Junkie and Queer, while controversial in content were conventional in terms of style. Sure they were graphic tales of drug-induced homosexual depravity, but they were written with a literary suit and tie in hand. Naked Lunch was his first attempt at a non-linear narrative and such a radical approach to writing was certainly going to take some trial and error shots at refining. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg had found their own unique voices with On the Road and Howl respectively, Burroughs was about to come into his own.

The style Burroughs developed at this time, and later at the Beat Hotel in Paris, can be seen as a natural evolution resulting from an adaptation to his surroundings. Just as George Orwell did with Down and Out in Paris and London, Burroughs took in the desperation of his circumstances, financial strain and social disdain, and fueled a machine with them. A machine powerful enough to turn out a work that would radically redefine literary concepts across the globe. This style would become his weapon, and with everyone subsequent work following Naked Lunch he would wield that weapon with a devastating efficiency.

One can imagine Kerouac and Corso dashing from one bodega to the next, desperately eluding dawn. Drink, drink, drink it down, down, down… chasing blindly after women, men, cats, dogs, and mice… thoroughbred Americans ravaging Tangierian nighttime with shouts and screams, kicking the air, and pumping fists at darkness… then, finally, facing the inevitable sun-up of the shattered glass of last night’s Grecian vase… stumbling back to the brothel and Burroughs delivering a scolding at arrival… having been up all night typing away at the masterpiece fueled by a Eukodol kick (crazy German-made opioid).

Of course, true to his restless nature, Burroughs left Tangier with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959 and the trio met up with Gregory Corso, and later Peter Orlovsky, taking up residence at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Yet Bowles, the grandfather of Tangier madness, remained. Who knows if Burroughs and Bowles ever even crossed paths. Regardless, Bowles’ influence on Burroughs is indisputable. Hell, beyond mere literary influence, Bowles inadvertently led Burroughs to Tangier in the first place which in hand provided the backdrop and experience that pushed Burroughs into new territories as an artist.

And that’s where we’re going to leave Burroughs. On his way to Paris. Since this is a travel issue, I want to focus on one man and the mythology he created at one destination. So we return to Bowles.

When Bowles initially arrived in Tangier he regarded it as an attractively unassuming city. Yet no more than ten years later in 1958 Bowles had witnessed a complete transformation. No more was the peaceful white city Matisse had taken inspiration from the in the early 1900s. The city had experienced a deranged westernization. The traditional cloaked garb of the Moslems had been replaced with jeans and t-shirts. Yet this change Bowles witnessed was not, in his eyes, for the worse, “The foreigner who lives here on a long-term basis will still find most of the elements that endeared the place to him in the old days.”

The above quote came from a travel article on Tangier Bowles penned in 1958. A bit later on in the article Bowles gives an account of the prevailing cultural mash-up found in Tangier. His words are devastating:

You will run into a Polish refugee who arrived ten years ago without a penny… and today runs a prosperous delicatessen and liquor store; an American construction worker who came to Morocco to help build the United States air bases, and has since become a freelance journalist; a Moslem who spent years in a Spanish jail for voicing his opinion on Generalissimo Franco, and now is a clerk in the municipal administration offices; an English masseuse who was passing thru Tangier twenty years ago on a holiday trip and somehow has never left; a Belgian architect who also runs the principal bookshop; a Swiss businessman who likes the climate and has started a restaurant and bar for his own amusement; an Indian prince who does accounting for an American firm; the Portuguese seamstress who makes your shirts. . .”

It is this diversity that gives Tangier its beauty and appeal. It’s as if time slows down in the secluded city and each resident finds an expression and appreciation for life they’d not yet possessed or had perhaps lost along the way. Maybe it comes in quietly from the coast with the tides or maybe it blows in stiffly with the winds from the southern desert.

Of course, even in Bowles’ time the bastardization of Tangier had begun. The city was beginning to modernize with the destruction of the classic and old to be replaced with brand-new European eyesores. Yet Bowles maintained that even in lieu of such drastic changes that Tangier never lost its aesthetic appeal.

To hear Bowles tell it there was a deep, dark charm to the city in the years prior to his writing the article. In the 40s and early 50s (around Burroughs’ time of arrival), the Zopo Chico served as the hotspot of most social life. The Zopo Chico was essentially the town square, housing many of its nightclubs and sidewalk cafes. Bowles recalls a time when the cafes were open all night and all day and he would go in at 5 a.m. to watch the nightclub cats stumble dutifully home with the night’s luster still in their eyes.

Thru Bowles’ eyes the beauty and charm of Tangier would be forever preserved by its topography. The buildings and the streets might change, but there was nothing anyone could do to change the rolling hills surrounding the city, the high plain on which it stands, or the mountains off in the distance that frame the whole picture. Bowles brilliantly noted that the beauty of the sky and landscape could never be destroyed in that,

“You don’t look at the city, you look out of it.”

Keep it burning.

The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.


Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs


Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …


This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.


Allen Ginsberg


From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:


Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.




Neal Cassady


Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.


Gary Snyder


Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.


After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.


by Alene Lee


Catherine was sick. They were going to put her in a hospital. The doctor thought electric shock would be advisable. Alene recoiled. The third one. The last of her sisters.  The most vibrant, the one who danced like a LaChaise woman, the one who had loved the most… why must they kill the ones who really live?

She remembered way back. Alene and Catherine had both belonged to the band. The Memorial Day Parade, with the bands from all over Staten Island parading past. Alene and her friends would sit high on the banks of one of Staten Island’s many hills. She never knew whether she enjoyed playing most or sitting high on the grassy mound of sidewalk looking down on the glorious array of clashing colors & instruments in the sun. And then, their band, pounding out wild exciting drum beats like war itself covering with blood the battlefield of life. The melodies were so wild and strong that the pale faces seemed ashen under the tumultuous riot of strict hammering beat that pressed itself out enveloping and deadening all other sounds and attained a threatening ascendancy. And there was Catherine, in her maroon & cream uniform, twirling the baton, an inspiration to the trumpet, drum and fife. She lifted each beautiful muscular leg into the air. Someone whispered admiringly, “An African Queen!” Her clear black skin sparkling, giving off light & vibrant color, so dark you could swim and dream.


The pure joy, the feeling of what you are, pulsating like heart beats, the suppressed pride breaking out—it more than made up for the cold winter mornings, waking up with wind soaring through the brown shackles into your spine. Waking up to a cold stove, chopping wood in the backyard and looking at the majestic hills that seemed to form the round earth itself. To me, those hills were the boundaries of the world. No matter in which direction you looked they seemed to curve round enclosing you.

The sun of band time and the sun of hot summer mornings in the box rooms, sweating and the smell of burning paper, which you had set to the iron bed last night, because it is the only way to kill the bedbugs. The sorrow of mornings, looking out the windows at beautiful stucco & brick houses on the hills surrounded with bushes & carefully tended plants & flowers, a pretty blonde girl tripping down the stairs. How could you not love those beautiful things?

“Hey man, stop doing that, look—here comes Catherine!”

The boys used to love to watch her walk with quick vibrant grace down the uneven sidewalks. Like a prancing filly. A leg swinging, stepping up, head high and, as a boy said,

“Watch it go down, man!”

She was the pride of self in being, that pleased by existing.

I carried these untold things, which I had not thought about in years, across the bright sunshined waters on the ferry, past the Statute of Liberty. The ferry docked on the Staten Island side and I walked up the winding hill towards the home which had once been the only home I ever knew. I passed the old schoolhouse with its 4 clocks, impossibly squatting on the highest hill. Yet despite the stops at what should have been historic streets and corners of my life, I could not feel that things were really very different from what I had known and imagined them to be.

But God, it’s something to have a home where the odyssey of your soul can be bound, even though you may end up defeated by pickles in a wooden barrel run by a man who liked little colored girls. And your mother hiding from bill collectors, leaving Catherine and yourself at the door with the strength of “we don’t know nothin.”

We stole peaches, Catherine climbing the highest and being the stealthiest. We picked berries from the hills. Memories of Catherine playing hide-and-seek and leaving me in a dark wooded garden. Suddenly I heard the splatter of glass, and Catherine sauntered into sight, “What happened?” “Oh, nothin.” And as we walked to the sidewalk a man, “You little bastards!” After a surprised startled moment of immobility, looking first behind at a huge dark figure, and in front at a quickly disappearing pair of fleet feet, we gathered our wits and broke into a run. And I was the one caught and walloped.

But that was later. Very much later. Before that there was the organ grinder man, a funny little man with a hunched back, an old Sicilian, with a parrot he loved. Every week he would come by and Catherine and I would dash out of the house, no matter what threats pursued us, rushing towards the faint sounds which neared as we raced, “bettcha I beat you” to the organ, which I would stand by transfixed watching the old man’s gnarled, sun and aged brown hands move and create a world they seemed to share together with the organ.

Catherine loved the parrot. The old man would let the bird perch on her wrist and she would coo and he would give them each a fortune. We followed him for as many blocks as we could after ducking around our own house singing with him, as people came out of their homes and bought their numbers from the bird. A parrot, an old man, and two little black girls. One in tattered cotton dress, with a naturally regal stance and a long leg usually poised in front, as though it would begin to run when the signal was given.

Catherine had been born on a farm. Afterwards our father ran off leaving our mother Maimie in the midst of the depression without food and money. He came back one day with another woman and he took Catherine. He was taken to the hospital several years later and after a couple of months he was declared “shell-shocked.” So then Catherine had to come to Staten Island to the bare little cold-water flat to live with our mother and us younger sisters, whom she hardly remembered as babies.

Mamma never bothered to tell us we had another sister. But there she was, one day, when I came home from somebody’s house, standing flat in front of my face, looking at us and the small rooms. “This is your next oldest sister. She’s ten,” and that’s all mamma said. Ethel embraced her wholeheartedly.

Catherine was clearly not happy to be there. She looked around the cold water flat, the center of which was the kitchen, like it was a prison. But Ethel’s friendliness touched her. I was distant and resentful. And things got worse when I was no longer the oldest whom Ethel had to mind. “Now Ethel has mamma and Catherine and she doesn’t need me any longer,” I thought. And Catherine Ethel obeyed, which she had never done with me.

But Catherine was my sister… and my mother said she’d come to live with us… and she had just come off her Daddy’s farm. And she was as big and healthy as a cow, too. And neither of us knew what to say or do.

Big, light-complexioned, with a heart shaped face and fine thin eyebrows (not like mine which were bushy and came straight across my eyes), and two of the biggest longest waviest braids that I’d ever seen, all the way down her back. I don’t exactly remember when I knew I was jealous as I could be.

And she had pretty fat legs, too! “Now I ain’t got no black wavy hair.” And she was lighter. No matter what Negroes say about “I’m just as good as anybody” I knew they was favored. And it wouldn’t be easy on me having her there. I had always thought I was the best thing around… and it wasn’t easy to see that maybe I wasn’t. I had never really looked at myself critically before and this was the beginning of it.

I was as skinny as I could be without falling for want of something to hold me up. I was a real tomboy and I used to fight all the time. And I used to win most of those fights, till one day a big hefty red-haired gal from Georgia came and hit me and won a fight outside the school. She didn’t hurt me, but she sure did have me pinned against the wall and I couldn’t get out from under… and I sure was embarrassed, since I realized I couldn’t go round fighting anymore, and that was hard, too. And now–Catherine.

Course, I thought for the longest time that I loved her madly and was proud of her cause I couldn’t take admitting otherwise. But I would dream all day long, sad things that’d make me cry out loud, even in school, about my sisters and mamma. How Catherine took ill and died, or lost a leg, or how her face got burned and how people would take pity on me when they saw how bad I felt about all this tragedy, and they’d say what a good sister I was. I must’ve killed, burned, and mutilated Catherine at least once a day… besides funerals and tragedies I had going for my mamma.

Before Catherine came and before I lost the big fight, I played mischievous pranks on any adult who seemed easy to prey upon. I once sent an old woman rushing up three flights of stairs in the adjoining apartment to her house after knocking on her door frantically and with mock hysteria screaming, “Miss Sadie needs a kettle of hot water right away. Something terrible has happened. Hurry.” It was not necessary for me to witness the ensuing surprise and anger in person. I rolled on the grass with laughter behind the tree on the hill across the street. Of course, I was always punished properly and harshly for these pranks. But beatings did not leave much of an impression on me.

Only Ethel, the youngest of the Garris sisters, had always lived with our mother. And, they had that closeness that develops with the youngest child… an understanding. She was born understanding mamma and she knew she was some strange kind of comfort to mamma. Not like a responsibility, but something of her heart. She was our mother’s pet, loved with mixed tenderness, protectiveness, and resentment. She was not pretty like the three of us older sisters. Bird-like with darting eyes and a small sharp face and rather longish nose, brown enough so that even she was aware of the difference in skin color between herself and us. But mamma was dark like her. And her great strength was in our mamma, who she knew loved her.

Our oldest sister, Ressie, was grown and had long ago left the island after graduation. With memories of breadlines and starving, she married in Washington D.C. After a year or two in the civil service she and her husband had gone into the ‘numbers’ business. Ressie visited us when Ethel and I were very little. She seemed always to be in two positions. Either in bed, smoking, with long curved nails hanging or sitting in front of the coal fire smoking with a cup of coffee. Smoking and drinking coffee, that’s what I learned from Ressie. Maimie had been very proud of her oldest daughter. She would observe Ressie as closely as she could, anticipating the drama that would seem to follow in the wake of such stunning clothes, beautifully coifed hair and beautiful hands. Later, Ressie sent clothing home, expensive clothing, but what was the sense of a $60 suit with no shoes to put on, and no blouse to wear under?

There was always something missing. Something we didn’t have the very next morning—shoes, money for a school book or to go to the cleaners, but none of that really mattered until later, when we were old enough to know. Catherine took a housekeeping job at nine years old to have money for school and clothes and shoes. She was fiercely protective of Ethel, as she would be of a crippled bird.

Our mother worked two jobs, one early in the morning and the other in the afternoon to early evening, yet barely would ends meet. Always hiding from bill collectors because of some small thing, a radio or a chair gotten on the installment plan, a knock at the door, and Catherine at the door, “My mother isn’t home.” “When will she be home?” “I don’t know. She is visiting a sick friend.” “Well, we’ll have to take back the…” “Well you can’t, my mother isn’t home and I don’t owe anything,” slamming the door. That was the home motto, “Don’t let them in.”

I dreaded summertime. After the anticipation of freedom when school ended, nothing ever seemed right in the summer. Although I knew that a good part of the Island went swimming, fishing, and dancing, these activities were few and far in between in my life.

With the arrival of my sister Catherine, the death of my foster mother, Miss Janie, and approaching puberty, my dreams took a mournful cast. I began reading a great deal. I had never belonged to any group, I had no friends, my family was my enemy, and the neighbors with their incessant fighting during the summer nights made morning light become shame.

I began to withdraw from the intimacy and familiarity of neighbors, and became more conscious of the world around me. I began comparing. And, I always came out second best. I envied everyone. Even the ‘everyone’ that I didn’t want to be. My sister Ethel, I envied for her nonchalance and her ability to make light of everything and take the best she could get from life, my sister Catherine, for her beaus and friends and dances, in spite of the poverty of the: ‘not-the-right-dress,’ ‘the hem isn’t straight,’ ‘no handbag to match my shoes,’ and ‘my hair needs doin.’

I don’t know exactly when I stopped liking my sisters, in particular Ethel. But I started thinking that we weren’t really sisters. I can invent some real definite reasons why I didn’t like Ethel. First, she was younger than me. When she was little Mamma made me drag her around with me. She was ugly, she was dark, and she was noisy. And, she was treacherous. But she was smart too and she knew what I was feeling and probably knew why. She was a thief and she’d lie right in front of your face and even if you caught her doing something she’d tell you it wasn’t so and not crack even a bit. I’d know she had the better of me and as a result I would have to show her I was both older and bigger than she by cracking her on the head a little. And that only made me madder ‘cause I had to do it.

But Ethel was a wiser and more quick-witted child than I. And I knew it. I viewed her with a hate mixed with envy and a sort of respect for Ethel’s vibrant swift body and quick mind. The way she always seemed to sink but for a moment and then would be buoyed up and full of irrepressible gaiety and curiosity. I hated her without knowing how much I really hated myself.

One of the places I would take her to was a nice clean playground in a different neighborhood. One day we went to the playground and sang together. I suddenly realized that all those people were white and I perceived what we were in those people’s minds. No one—not one other kid—was colored. All their parents were there with them. And we, Ethel and I, were little “colored” girls who couldn’t make fools of ourselves because we didn’t count in the first place, and that’s what “we” did—sing and dance. Little colored boys and girls singing and dancing for white people. Nothing else. Just little niggers.

And suddenly I didn’t want to be a ‘nigger’ and I never sang or danced there again. And whenever I saw Ethel dancing for anyone, like that grocery store man, who sold pickles in a barrel, with his fat belly and cigar, sitting outside the store, throwing pennies at her, I could have strangled Ethel. But the words for the problem hadn’t formed in my brain yet and I didn’t know how to name the difference and therefore I couldn’t explain to Ethel. I would tell her, “They’re laughing at us.” And Ethel would look up and say “They’re supposed to laugh and enjoy dancin’.” And I would hate Ethel because she reminded me of how I had looked at it too. And, Ethel could really dance and she did not care how she looked to others. She did what she enjoyed and she did it without fear. Ethel was my living past, in the face of a new hate of self that I wanted to forget, pretend never existed.

When Catherine started babysitting, my mother tried to get me to do the same. But I loathed the idea of working for a family as my mother had done all her life as a domestic. It seemed like worse than suicide to me. Any suggestion of my mother’s made her all the more an enemy. I could see no reason why she didn’t manage to provide me with all that I needed, including a home. I hated her for the way we lived. She would nag me, cajole me, beat me, trying to get me to clean the house or put my clothes in order. She would accuse me of lack of pride and I would only tighten up and harden my feelings, redoubling my determination to do none of those things. She would scream, “Do you think I’m your slave?” and I would wish she was.

I was determined to “wallow in filth” (as my mother sarcastically reiterated) before I would lift one finger to make right a condition I felt I should never have been in. I was too afraid of the consequences of any action on my part. Any compromise with the life we were leading, anything done to make it pleasant, seemed to me would lead to destruction through the acceptance of that life.

I would sit on the curb in front of someone else’s house, that was pleasanter, and stare at the red-bricked road. I began to hate the ramshackle house we lived in. That house was so very brown and beat. I have never seen a house so beat. I would try to avoid being seen entering it during the day. If it were absolutely necessary to do so while anyone was passing by, I would pretend that I was visiting someone, stopping to stare upwards and peer at the number on the door, as though I had no idea where I was.

I’d been raised by my foster mother, Miss Janie, since I was a little baby… and, like a sing-song recital, parts of that childhood would come to me from mamma and from Miss Janie, the few remaining times I saw her– ‘How Miss Janie took care of me’… ‘how she loved me’… ‘would I like her to adopt me?’… ‘how’d I like to stay with them for good?’

It ain’t good to give a child that many choices… and sometimes I wanted to be adopted and sometimes I didn’t… and sometimes I wanted my mamma and sometimes I wished she wasn’t my mamma and didn’t take me back.

My foster parents had raised me in a clean, orderly apartment. We had a garden, chickens, and a way of life that made it possible, to this day, for me to remember almost every detail of daily living. Saturday’s I polished the furniture. After school, I went to the store. After supper, I washed the dishes. And in the summer, I was allowed to play for a couple of hours. The kitchen table was round and made of mahogany. The kitchen clock hung on the wall above the refrigerator. The coal stove, which was later converted to oil, was large enough for a restaurant. The wine sat behind the stove. King, Miss Janie’s husband, made his own wine. Paul, their son, slept in the sun-parlor. When I was smaller, I slept with him. The dining room was almost too small to hold the large dining table with at least ten legs and the six knobbed chairs I polished every week. The living room, which faced the street, was wide with a player piano, and a couch with a red-jacketed huntsman and hound dog above it. I slept there. I lived with them until I was six and a half years old. And at about the same age Catherine was when she returned to us, before she got left at mamma’s door, I went back to Miss Janie’s for a short time.

While at Miss Janie’s, I was sick a good deal. I had most of my childhood illnesses there. I remember them pleasantly. I was waited on hand and foot. I was given castor oil, orange juice, ice cream, and treated solicitously.

When I was taken back by my mother and I caught a month long illness, I was cured of being ill for good. My mother accomplished this by making it unpleasant. Whether I made it more difficult for her than I would have for Miss Janie, I don’t know, but I do know that after calling her five times within the hour her voice began to take on a sharp edge and I knew she wished she could slap me. I would brood and feel put upon. Up until recently, I have always considered my mother cruel, unfeeling, and hateful, and though I am past twenty-one, I have harbored ill feelings towards her as a result of her nagging, and supposed ill-treatment of me. However, she did cure me of any desire to be ill and physically dependent.

We lived on York Avenue and we girls went to School 17, on the hill. Our house was the ugliest and most beat up on the street (and in all of New Brighton, for that matter). That house was rain washed brown, with withered worn splitting wood and rusting nails from head to foot. But the view from the hallway was beautiful. You could see the island as round, with trees and an occasional house. I loved that hall window. It gave me a feeling of majesty, surveying my imagined kingdom, to escape the sorrow within.

Six families lived in that old building. Three apartments on each side, one on each of the three floors. And, in the backyard, down a little back-alley hill, there were six different scraggly vegetable patches. And though it wasn’t the country, everyone grew vegetables—and don’t you think they were growin’ em for fun, like some folks do, it was so they could eat during the summer, till winter when there were lean salt-porked times again.

All of the six families weren’t all families to each other either. We were family of sorts, cause we had to be, my mother and I, Ethel and Catherine. We lived on the top floor on the school side of the building (every morning five minutes later than I ought to have—I looked out the window at the red school house with its big clocks, 4 of them, with different times on each, to see I was late again).

Life was eventful at 205 York. I not only thought so but so did the other inhabitants, the neighbors, and the police. There was Miss Sadie, running down the middle of York Avenue with a hatchet, tryin’ to kill her old man. And she had religion too, the fire of religious fervor and conviction. And there was Mrs. Perry and her beer in the sink and in the icebox and the card games. And the iceman comin’ and the woodman comin’–a bushel of wood for 25cents and the coal and a big black dusty bag of coal in the coal bin and the cellar full of ashes, white grey ashes and little half-burned coals. The steady tingle of coal pouring into the bin. That sound of that tingling coal, through a child’s ears, was so absorbing.

And ol’ man Johnson, the number’s runner with his numbers slips and book, a quiet ole man with his daughter Francis and her hunched back. And the Smith girls, three tall, skinny girls and their men who would show up at 205 after midnight, in cars. Miss Ethel out on the streets on Saturday nights with ice picks and knives, cursing and fighting, but who never seemed to get hurt but was always hurtin’ somebody. And me getting’ out of the police car after freckle-faced Ray took us walking all over Staten Island we got lost. And on the first floor, as you went in the door, Miss Minnie (who mamma was real good friends with) and her daughter Ethel. I used to try to figure out what they were friends about cause mamma wasn’t friendly… didn’t think much of anybody. Downstairs, underneath us, Mr. Hicks and his girlfriend, Lucille, stayed. Mr. Hicks was a tall, slender, wavy-haired brown skinned man—an image of konked-hair aspiration. He was real nice to Ethel. He was her hero. Mr. Hicks always had girlfriends and card games. When he wasn’t beating Lucille, there were card games all night long. Men and women would come and leave all night and all day long, drinking King Kong beer, and even whiskey.  And sometimes they would play cards for days.

And sometimes Mamma went down and played cards, and of course we found ten thousand different things to ask her, til she would get mad at us. I didn’t like to see Mamma down there playing cards, and she knew it. It made me look like I didn’t want to look. And there were a lot of rough women there too, and she was my mamma. Some of those women came to our house at times and I didn’t like them either. They talked rough and acted rough. Then Mamma would drink too much and I would come down and ask her something and she would kiss me in front of all those people… saying nice things she never thought to say in the dim cold morning or the afternoons when I came home from school. How could I be anything if she was going to be like that? Kissin’ me and showin’ me off in front of all those people… and in front of men I had to run from when I met them in the dark hallways… and her kiss mixed heavy with the smell of beer and wine and snuff to cap it off! And her with such a pretty soft sensitive brown face with high pronounced cheekbones, black hair parted in the middle like a placid Indian… grabbin’ at my hair and tryin’ to show them the streak of red hair right in the middle… why’d she always do that? Not giving it the credit from a father and creating doubt in me about that because I didn’t know where it came from either… and didn’t know why she did it or what it meant.

Winters at 205 York were without insulation. In the winter it was cold. I started making the fire in the stove in the morning for fun when I was seven years old, and I made it so good that mamma stopped getting up til it was warm and before I knowed it was something I had to do.

My sisters and I didn’t love each other none, but in the winter with cold air seeping through the wood slats at night, we’d begin to like each other more. All three of us shared a bed and we’d snuggle up under one another and play writing games on each other’s backs. And we’d get up under one another like puppies ‘til Mamma came and then we were all strangers again, fighting and hating.

In the summer it was hot and the smell of burning paper, used to burn out bedbugs, would permeate the house. Summer mornings I would cautiously awake while everyone was still sleeping, surveying the bed for blood spots and bedbug stragglers. I would feel triumphant. The very fact that it was morning and I was there and they weren’t was a victory of sorts. Out of sight out of mind. I would go back to sleep with relief. The day had not yet come cause dreamin wasn’t done with ‘til Mamma called us, warningly and finally.

My mamma was somethin’ else. She was always complaining either about what we didn’t do, me and my sisters, or about what we didn’t have. When she was drinking she’d promise me a nice house… always talkin’ about that house we were gonna  have… and how nice we was goin’ to live in it… and every time me believing it… settin’ me thinking about that house all the time… and mostly looking through the windows of other people’s houses, all over the island… and wishing I was in them… warm and good inside… with us sittin’ down at a dining room table and eatin’ and invitin’ friends in to visit awhile. In reality, we never invited friends to 205 York ‘cause Mamma would sit there and act evil and say real unpleasant things to us while they were there and downright nasty things about them when they’d gone after a strained half-hour or so.

But then that’s a longer story… my mamma… she knew how to create dissatisfaction, alright. I guess she kind of hated us all ‘cause she couldn’t give us anything we ought to have and we were always there to remind her of it.

After Catherine’s arrival I had to start thinking about what I could do that nobody else could do real well. I couldn’t be a big fighter… cause there was always somebody bigger… I couldn’t be the prettiest because not only were there all those movie stars but because of Catherine. I thought, “I gotta do something, be something that nobody can take away from me.” And I pondered, and thought, and I read. And I read many a day and months, and thought… and one morning I woke up and knew that I could get something and be something that I didn’t have to ask anyone for and nobody could take away from me. I could feel harder, think harder and take riches from the world that they couldn’t stop me from having cause most people didn’t know they were there for the taking. And nobody could stop me from having them as long as I didn’t let them know what it was I wanted. And that became mine, my dream. And being black didn’t matter, cause schools, the principal, nobody could take from you what they didn’t know existed. And all I had to do was guard it, and believe in it and it would be mine some day.



Now, I was walking back to that ramshackle house to see if I could stop our mother from putting Catherine in for electric shock. I would try to save my older sister. I wondered, as I walked, how I grew so far apart from everyone on the island? It was easy to know. I had stopped being a part of anything all those years ago. When I became absolutely determined to shake free of my family, I would latch onto other people or be taken up by others for short periods of time. It would be with other girls I liked, or girls whose lives I liked. I always followed people for some quality. I was never sure whether they possessed it or if I endowed them with it. What it came down to was that they seemed free. They were not like me, they were not like my family.

And now, I was coming back home and I thought I should feel glad to know that all I was and felt and desired and been and been thought of by others would be admired. But the world I was walking back into had not changed with time. Only the buildings had gotten more ragged and worn or torn down, but mamma, Ressie, Ethel, and Catherine were all still stuck in the time and place they never moved from. Almost the same as when I had left them years before. I would enter their world and try, try to pluck out my sister Catherine, and try not to fall back into that time warp where I became little skinny, lonely defiant unheard child again.





When Alene submitted this and other stories to Fred Jordon of Grove Press he rejected them, telling her that they would not (at that time) be of any commercial value.   And so deterred she stopped writing about her  sisters and about Staten Island.  But all of this was who she was when she first met Kerouac.  All Kerouac seemed to see was a girl who looked Indian and who was sexy and who was available.  All he saw was the ‘black thing.’  That is, the ‘black thing’ that only existed in his mind and erotic imaginings.



Finding Alene

Finding Alene–Excerpts

by Christina Diamente

There is of course no definitive way of knowing a woman who has been dead for almost two decades. Knowing and understanding her in life was equally complicated. Nineteen years after her death, Alene lives only now in Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans, in the fading memories of the few people, still alive, who knew her, and in the faded, disintegrating letters and journal entries she left behind. Excerpts from a woman, who never stopped writing but who never submitted any of her writings for publication, are what remain.

2:00 am, May 28, Memorial Day 1965

How clear everything is just before waking. The inner voice bridging the abyss told me this morning: ‘Alene, you said you were going to wait until you were past forty, just like Conrad, before you began to write. Write. You have as much chance of making several hundred dollars, or even a thousand, if you do what you want to do. Why do you feel so guilty? Time is runnin’ out. Take hold of life before it is too late.’

But I’m such a coward. I know it is not a question of writing, it is a question of beginning to do what you want to do: not doing ‘your thing’ but taking your best hold on existence.

Although Alene did make a serious effort to write consistently from that point on, she never wrote in what she or Grove Press editor Fred Jordan considered to be a commercially viable form. Stories were started but never finished. Outlines were written but never fleshed out. Mostly she wrote journal entries when she was angry or troubled, in times of stress or great unhappiness. Always haunted by her childhood, Alene seemed always to be attempting to survive that past, which constantly threatened to catch up to her. Alene had been told by her mother that their “people died young” and she always believed that she would as well. For Alene, the proof of this was in the actual deaths of her mother before age fifty and two of her sisters before sixty. Alene believed that she too would die at an early age. So, as she began to unravel the details of her childhood in Staten Island, it was always with the sense of one who felt she was recording the events of the ongoing procession towards death from her childhood on. The narrative was always about what was lost and about the pain of living.

Throughout her life she struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that sometimes manifested itself in delusions, sometimes in manic episodes punctuated by fierce pacing, and sometimes in catatonic and almost schizophrenic fugues. In between these states and sometimes through them Alene wrote, sometimes remembering the past and sometimes struggling to make it through the present. Often she wrote about writing. In the following excerpt, Alene wrote about her writing process on a trip that she took back to her childhood home in Staten Island. She was trying to recapture the Staten Island community of her youth in the 1930s.

“I found a room on a narrow street near the docks, with a family that had recently emigrated from Jamaica. How strange to be here, the original ‘Quarantine’ section of America. Every journey to the island seemed to lead me further back in time, to some original immigrant’s landing place . . . or a place of detention.

I dreamed of these streets of long ago, filled with crowds, colorful costumes of many lands, waiting to gain entrance to America.

My whole life has been one long waiting to gain entrance. I was a first generation northerner, but that had never occurred to me, until a couple of years ago. I had no memory of any other place. North Carolina was a place where my mother, Mamie, was left parentless when she was nine years old. It was a place not of fond memories. Nor was Washington DC, where I was born. My mother had never spoken of these places in any manner that left more than a scent of them.

I would like to write about New York, about Staten Island in the 30s and 40s… and the wilderness that once existed there. The Dutch Huguenot section where we used to fish and wander. The people on Ely Street. The Lorillard snuff my mother used to indulge in. The longshoremen and the fighting and the screaming. The Irish I knew, with their children with long curls. The organ grinder man and the monkey who picked your lucky number for a nickel. The large mansions and the dissimilarity of the homes on the island–Italian white stucco homes, and grapevines across from ramshackle broken down tenements. And Polish sullenness, and the West Indians who were the first blacks to own their homes, and the hatred between them and the southern Negroes. The pier where one could fish before it became a Naval base. And long rides down Holland Blvd., where they finally removed the orange lights after 30 years, because they said it caused accidents.

The steep hills… there are very few flat straight roads in Staten Island. Snug Harbor, the old men and the animals and lover’s lane. Miss Mary, who stabbed and killed a couple of people and who was only exiled from Staten Island as punishment. My friend, Veronica, who was shot, and her husband who only served one year in jail. And that nasty old sea captain with his fat blowsy, purpled-legged, false eyelashed yet extremely beautiful ex-showgirl wife, who went once a week to the store for liquor. And who still lives there and goes to the A&P once a month. He has long since died. She set the house on fire—the roof is gone but she still lives there like a queen. And, most of all, I want to tell the story of my sisters.”

Alene did finally write about her sisters in a short story, recovered here, with all of her sister’s real names. In the autobiographical story, Alene recalls her formative childhood experiences in Staten Island of the 1930s. Alene dedicated the story to her mother and sisters of whom she said,

I see even today, walking along 14th Street, or in Harlem, on a subway stair, reflected in expressions of dejection, fear, bitterness, sometimes secret exultation, the faces of Maimie, Catherine, Ressie, Ethel, and myself and know them well. For they are truly the faces of my mother and my sisters and I feel their secret hurts as my own. I feel for you but I just can’t reach you. This is my attempt.

Walking With the Barefoot Beat: Alene Lee

by Christina Diamente


No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering

And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell

And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her

The Subterraneans, p.50


Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of  his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.

However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half.  The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.

Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.

Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s.  However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”

Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life  Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.

As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.

While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and  the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.

It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.

Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.”  He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.

Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.

In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then  I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.

Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more.  In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.

To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their  “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.

One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.

But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg.  She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that  period.

This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.