Archives For Beatdom #12

Herbert Huncke – Times Square Superstar

by Spencer Kansa.

 Spencer Kansa and Herbert Huncke London

I first met Herbert Huncke in the Spring of 1992, during a layover in New York, en route to visiting William Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Shortly after my Manhattan arrival, I received a phone call at my hotel from Burroughs’ consigliere, James Grauerholz, who graciously welcomed me to America. During our conversation, I joked how I’d been hanging around Times Square, looking for Huncke, figuring the guy was long gone by now, only for James to tip me off that, on the contrary, Huncke was very much alive and could be found playing poker most evenings at the Chelsea Hotel.

Naturally I was excited by the chance to meet this legendary catalyst to the Beats, and as I headed out from my Midtown hotel that evening, nightwalking the charged, narcotic streets, I felt high just from being on them. I was amazed by how deserted New York became at night, and the fact that you can walk entire blocks of the teeming metropolis – inhabited by over a million people – and not see a soul. The sidewalks fresh from a recent rain shower, glistening under the orange haze of street lights. The skyscrapers as broad and impressive as Robert Mitchum’s shoulders.


I eventually arrived at the Chelsea around ten, but when I asked after Huncke at the front desk I was told me that he hadn’t dropped by tonight, but I was free to wait for him in the front lobby on the chance that he would. I took a seat on the couch there and got talking to Nina, a spaced-out, Mogadon voiced broad who, I later learned, was one of the main drug connections in the place. Studying her puffy, heavily made-up face, I zeroed in on her staring eyes, which never once blinked as she ran through the gamut of famous names she’d met here.

Once Nina left, I passed the time surveying the art trophies on the wall and watching as the former Warhol actress Viva Superstar swanned out of the building, trailing domestic melodrama, before another Warhol acolyte, the dancer Victor Hugo, pirouetted in. I’d subsequently ask Huncke about Warhol, imagining he would’ve been an ideal candidate for the Pop artists’ rogues gallery of outsiders, but Herbert admitted that, when they met, he and Warhol hadn’t gotten along at all.

Over an hour passed and there was still no sign of Huncke but, eventually, a gambling gal pal of his, Linda Twigg, did show up and put me on the phone with him. My ears were soon greeted by a woebegone, Droopy Dog voice which, although mournful, had a strangely suggestive quality to it. After a pleasant back and to, we hooked it up to meet the next day.


At that time Huncke was living in a basement along a row of bombed-out brownstones on East 7th Street, in the furthermost wastelands of Alphabet City, a locale that got progressively more derelict the deeper you ventured into it. I tapped on the dusty window, as per instructions, and heard the man himself shuffling down the hallway. He was small and seemed pigeon-chested, and the hollow cheeks and drawn mouth of his gaunt face, billboarded a half-century heroin habit. But, it was true what they say, the smack really did seem to have suspended his ageing process. It wasn’t only his nice head of slicked back, chestnut brown hair that made you forget that this was man in his late70s. It was also his attire – blue jeans and a dark blue bomber jacket. In fact, he could’ve been Iggy Pop’s long lost father, something I would tease him about later. Herbert actually held out hopes of meeting the stage diving Stooge one day, but I don’t think anything ever come of it.

It was only my second day in New York, and I was already breaking bread with Herbert Huncke, a man who’s gritty autobiography read like a real life film noir. Celebrated by Beat historians as the vice-ridden Virgil who guided Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg through the nocturnal New York underworld of the 1940s: a demimonde of dark delights. The seasoned schmecker who administered Burroughs his first shot of morphine, whose plaintive expression of feeling beat – tired, exhausted and worn-out – was reinterpreted by Kerouac and transformed into the uplifting beatific spirit for their post-war generation.

The next seven hours spent in his company sped by in a cocaine-fuelled gabfest, as I lapped up the hard-won lore laid down by this wily, old street fox, who had spent the best part of sixty years doing whatever it took to survive. Huncke certainly lived up to his legend. I was treated to a personal reading and listened, enraptured, at his first-hand accounts of watching my heroine, Billie Holiday, crooning her heart out at Birdland. Or the yarns spun about his old partner in crime Phil White – AKA The Sailor in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – and the trips they took abroad, including a memorable stopover in London just after the war.

Prompted by my name, Huncke recounted how he once had a black boyfriend called Spencer, who had worked for Gore Vidal and, on the subject of monikers, he reminisced how black pimps used to crack up when he told them his surname, because it sounded so similar to “honky.”

Unsurprisingly, given Huncke’s modus operandi, law and order was a recurring topic of conversation and, during our first encounter, he rapped about the Tompkins Square Park riots that broke out, four years earlier, when heavy-handed cops waded in to destroy the makeshift “tent city” that the homeless had established there. With vexation he described the sickening scenes of violence as cops cracked skulls with their billy clubs and made sure their badges were covered up so they couldn’t be identified and later prosecuted. Huncke then fished a handgun – a .45 – out of a trunk, which he kept as protection.

In the middle of our powwow, Huncke’s friend, Dimitri, showed up. He was also a musician, like myself, and came across as a soulful dude, with Andre Agassi eyes and gypsy features. Over more snorts, the newcomer brought up the controversy over the new Joe Camel advertisement campaign, and the two of them noted how the chain smoking camel’s cartoon face appeared redolent of both male and female genitalia, depending on how you looked at it.

I quizzed Herbert about his friendship with Burroughs and although suspicious of Burroughs’ sometimes waspish manner and caustic world view – “That’s just Bill being Bill”, he sniffed – whenever he spoke about his old confrère it was always in glowing terms. He considered Burroughs one of the worlds greatest writers and gave the impression that he felt both grateful and bemused to have been taken up, originally, as a streetwise fount of knowledge, by these budding literary lions. Before I left Huncke asked if I would pass on his new address to Bill when I met up with him, and I was happy to be used as a go-between,

In contrast to Burroughs’ mordant misanthropy, a bare-bones humanity poured out of Huncke’s own writing, and my favourite memories of him were when he’d read from one of his books, be it Huncke’s Journals, Guilty of Everything or The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. It was riveting listening to him recite his poignant, compassionate portraits of the often marginalised characters he had known in his life, such as the heart-rending story of Elsie John, a six and ½ foot tall hermaphrodite sideshow freak, who took the tenderfoot Huncke under her wing, and introduced him to the joys of junk. Huncke’s relationship with Elsie ended with her arrest and, on a chilling cliffhanger, the reader is left to imagine the fate worse than death that awaits the vulnerable androgyne, as she’s about to be thrown to the wolves in the prison bullpen.


Huncke wrote how, after taking a shot of heroin, he would close his eyes and his mind became absorbed with visions of people and places, past times and old faces. A vanishing world of vaudeville hotels leftover from the Wild West, and a sleazy backstreet bar in New Orleans, where a trick once paid him to watch as he balled a Negro whore. A compendium of folktales drawn from the underbelly of a lost America that was magically brought back to life in the pages of his memoirs, or passed on, via the oral tradition, at his private and public readings.

I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the opium dens he frequented in Chinatown back in the old days and, in common with all many users, Huncke could be a real sweetheart when he was smack sated, but the more he started jonesin’ for his next fix, the crankier he become. If left unassuaged, he could turn into a real crabby curmudgeon. But it all came with the territory. Huncke possessed an incredible metabolism. He remains the only guy I’ve ever met in my life who would do cocaine to get some sleep! Like Burroughs, he railed against the evil and idiocy of drug prohibition and the phoney war on drugs, and similarly blamed their demonisation on an ignorant and histrionic media. He had earned his insights.


Born in 1915, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, but raised in the middle class environs of Chicago, Huncke was barely in his teens when he fled his broken home and all the restrictions it placed upon him. He set out, like a depression era Huck Finn, armed only with a cigar box containing a toothbrush; a razor, a handkerchief and a clean pair of socks. Seeking peace of mind, and possessed with a wanderlust to explore the country, he hit the road, hitchhiking and riding the rails with hobos across all 48 American states.

Under the tutelage of Runyonesque reprobates, he engaged in prostitution and low level larceny – nefarious misadventures that provided him with two pivotal experiences in life – his first joint and his first blow job. Although he could enjoy such hedonistic pleasures while he was still honing his street wits, the outlaw life was a precarious business, and one disastrous nights stay in Los Angeles culminated in an arrest that left him with a lifelong loathing for The City of Angels.

New York, on the other hand, was a different matter, and it was there, in 1939. that Huncke’s wayfaring came to end. Nestled in the bohemian bosom of the Big Apple, he felt a true sense of belonging at last and, for the first time in his life, he could walk around 42nd Street and hold his head up high.

Living the hard knock life of a junkie and petty criminal extorted a terrible price though, and the consequences of his risky choices meant he had to endure the long drawn-out misery of serving time in such brutal hell holes as Sing Sing. It was while incarcerated that he learned that the difference between a faggot and a street hustler like himself was: “A faggot is everyone’s property.”


In the autumn of 1994, Huncke flew into London to undertake a short reading tour in promotion of his books and a new spoken word CD: From Dream to Dream. We hung out while he was in town and I visited him again in New York that Christmas. By then he was ensconced at the Chelsea Hotel, having moved there that summer following the tragic death of his ace boon buddy, Louis Cartwright, who was stabbed to death during a street fight in the East Village, reportedly over panhandled money.

Huncke was living in room 828, a tiny shoebox of a room with a single cot, a sink and a window view of neighbouring rooftops and apartments. His rent paid at the charitable behest of those psychedelic sons of beatniks, The Grateful Dead. Although he was, by then, the only interesting person left in this obscenely overpriced roach pit, Huncke confided that the hotel management didn’t like him, and when I enquired why he sighed, “I’m not good for business.”

The final time I visited Herbert at the Chelsea, he’d just returned from the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, where he had read alongside Patti Smith. A framed poster, picturing the two of them, hung proudly on his wall. Huncke was also basking in the latter-day glory being bestowed upon him by the Whitney Museum, who treated him as a VIP guest at their Beat Culture and The New America retrospective.

It was great to see Huncke getting some legitimate recognition at last. Herbert and Louis, a deeply affecting documentary, directed by Laki Vazakas, was already in the pipeline, and Huncke had recently been interviewed by the BBC for a TV documentary on the pioneering sexologist Doctor Alfred Kinsey, who, back in the mid-40s, had paid Huncke to solicit the colourful denizens of Times Square, (including Burroughs and Ginsberg), to be interviewed for his groundbreaking report into The Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male.

Typically, the book publishers waited until after Huncke’s death to release his collected works. A crying shame, as Huncke could have sorely used that moolah while alive, but, alas, the old adage about how the best work is worth most after the workman can’t be paid, followed him to the crematorium.


One of my lasting memories of Huncke dates from that period. It occurred the night before I flew home to London, and he begged me for a favour. Herbert had an appointment at the methadone clinic the next day and asked if I could supply a sample of my urine for him to take there, as his was bastardised with traces of smack, coke and God knows what else! I was clean at the time and more than happy to lend a, ahem, hand. In fact, it was a dubious honour.

Huncke always used the sink in his room to take a slash, but I passed on that and went to the john at the end of the landing. After I presented him with the beaker of pure piss, Huncke gave me a peck on the lips and promised to call me in the morning before I left for my flight. It was then, as I was descending the staircase, that the screwy thought hit me: God! I hope that is what he’s using it for. I sure hope he’s not guzzlin’ it!

Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler’s L.A.


by Chris Dickerson


Certain cities belong to a few writers. They may not own the towns exclusively, but they’ve put their stamp on them so indelibly in their books and stories that anybody who writes about the places after them can’t help but live in their shadow. Dashiell Hammett long ago claimed San Francisco. Those chilly, fog-wreathed sidewalks where Sam Spade pursues the elusive Maltese Falcon reek of Prohibition Era corruption and Barbary Coast intrigue. You can still hear the echo of the pistol shot in the back alley where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was gunned down.

New York belongs to Pete Hamill. Not only in his three Sam Briscoe private eye novels, but in anything Hamill writes; be it journalism or fiction, the soggy heat of a summer’s day lingers over Times Square and Forty-Second Street, clogs the subways, and mingles with the fumes of trucks and taxis while the Christmas snows turn the metropolis into a hushed, glimmering wonderland.

Robert B. Parker staked out Boston for private detective Spenser, just as surely as London – where it’s always 1895 – belongs to the bustling Victorian jungle of Sherlock Holmes, and the narrow, winding streets of Paris, with its cozy cafes and the sluggish Seine, are home to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Many writers have tackled the sprawling crazy-quilt that is Los Angeles; John Fante springs to mind, Michael Connelly, and certainly Charles Bukowski, but nobody captured the town better, in seven novels and numerous short stories written between 1933 and 1958, than Raymond Chandler. L.A., pure and simple, is “Chandlertown.” When Chandler writes about Los Angeles, you can smell the orange trees, the jasmine, and the eucalyptus on the night wind, feel the breeze sliding across the mountainous landscape from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and see the moon shining down like a hallowed street lamp above the ghostly black palm trees.

What’s most remarkable is, in the decades since Chandler was sending his private investigator Philip Marlowe, out on his adventures from an office on Hollywood Boulevard, the place hasn’t changed all that much – not the architecture, the people, or the sins committed in the City of Angels.

Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, but after his parents split up when he was a boy of seven, his mother, who was Anglo-Irish, took him back to her home in England.  He was educated there, returning to America in 1907. Then Chandler drifted. He worked a variety of menial jobs, signed on with a Canadian unit in World War I (when his outfit was shelled by the Germans, he was the only survivor), eventually winding up as the bookkeeper for an oil company in Southern California.

The Depression put an end to that. Chandler’s habitual boozing and chasing secretaries might have had something to do with it too, but either way in 1932 he was out of a job, past forty, with a wife eighteen years his senior, and a bleak future.

He decided to become a writer. He’d played around with writing as a young man, scribbling poetry and minor literary reviews. Now – with few other prospects – he went at it with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a dogged (and probably desperate) detective. He read pulp magazines. There were a few hundred of them on the newsstands every week, offering up adventure tales, sci-fi, westerns, horror, sex, and detective stories;  plenty of detective stories.

Chandler soon saw that the best of the “hard-boiled” writers was Dashiell Hammett, but Hammett didn’t invent the American private eye any more than Chandler did. That distinction probably belongs to a genial hack named Carroll John Daly, whose private detective, Race Williams, burst on the pages of Black Mask magazine in 1920 with both .45 pistols blazing, while a breathless flapper cowered behind him. Daly and the rest of his ilk, pounding out stories for the various magazines, showed Chandler the basic formula for keeping a story fast-paced, action-packed. “When in doubt,” Chandler noted, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

Hammett, though, was doing more than just that. Chandler, too saw the potential for character development, crackling dialogue, social commentary, and a centeredness of time and place in the gaudy, rip-roaring world of the pulps.

Chandler’s first sale to Black Mask was 1933’s “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”; he was paid a whopping $180, a penny a word. His detective isn’t called Marlowe, but otherwise, everything else – especially the Los Angeles setting – is in place. Chandler would labor in the pulp salt mines for the next few years, honing his craft, painstakingly writing and rewriting his stories, chipping out a living (he said that at one point, he had nothing to eat for five straight days but soup). By 1939 he was ready for the big jump, and published his first novel: The Big Sleep. Its hero is a tall, good looking, well-dressed man, with a sense of integrity, a sharp eye, and a guarded nature, private eye Philip Marlowe. The landscape he moves across is the city of L.A.

“Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” “A man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero; he is everything… The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Marlowe established his office on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar Avenue, on the sixth floor of the Cahuenga Building. But Chandler was sometimes cagey with his locations (like when he changed the name of Santa Monica, where a great deal of action takes place in his books, to “Bay City”). The Cahuenga Building is actually a block west from Hollywood and Ivar, on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Built in 1921, it still stands today, opposite a sign on the corner denoting Raymond Chandler Square, and another sign nearby with a photo of Bogart and Bacall from the film version of The Big Sleep, indicating the location as a “Historic Hollywood Site.”

Marlowe kept the same office for years, a dusty little two-room suite down at the end of a corridor, with a pebbled glass door on which was stencilled, Philip Marlowe – Investigations. From here, he could look out over the city and gauge its mood:


– There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

(Red Wind 1938)


But if Marlowe was reluctant to change offices, he changed his place of residence frequently. The Big Sleep finds him living in a small apartment with a Murphy bed coming down out of the wall. He lives in the Hobart Arms, “a huge white stucco affair.” He lives in an apartment in the “Berglund Arms”; and at one point, he has a place on Vine, a few blocks from his office. By the time of The Long Goodbye, he’s taken a rented house up a long flight of redwood stairs on Yucca Avenue. Marlowe’s frequent moves may reflect Chandler’s own. He seemed to be a restless man, and he and his wife moved often, finally settling in La Jolla, many miles down the coast from L.A.

Marlowe stayed in Los Angeles, and Chandler sent him roaming widely. His investigations take him from the quiet suburbs of Pasadena to the opulent estates of Beverly Hills (“the best policed four square miles in California”) and Brentwood; from the art deco high-rises of downtown L.A. to the shadowy streets of Bunker Hill; from the gated mansions along Los Feliz Boulevard. out to the ocean and “Bay City.”

What’s perhaps most interesting is the places Marlowe doesn’t go. Chandler never sends him into the picturesque and bustling streets of Chinatown, or over into the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, or into the African-American section of Watts, though the opening chapter of Farewell, My Lovely, does find Marlowe in an African-American bar downtown, dragged there by the hulking Moose Malloy, in an area that “wasn’t all Negro yet.” Those locations would seem the ideal geography for an L.A.-based private eye, but Marlowe never goes near them.

It could be because Chandler wasn’t a journalist; he wasn’t interested in exploring areas he didn’t know well. Hollywood and its environs, Chandler knew. But even so, another aspect not explored in detail in the books is the movie industry. Chandler makes some swipes at it in The Little Sister – the primary female character is aspiring movie star Mavis Weld – but he never gives “the industry” the beating that, say, Nathaniel West does in Day Of The Locust. He certainly could have.

No matter. What Chandler gets, he gets right. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a city of corrupt cops and politicians (like Police Chief “Two Gun” Bill Davis and Mayor Frank Shaw and his brother Joe “The Enforcer” – those aren’t Chandler characters, they were real enough in the 1930s), and mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, running the gambling, drugs, and prostitution rackets, and the small-time grifters, the shop girls, and pretty boys who come from all over the country to be famous, to be in the movies, to capture the American Dream.

Little has changed. Davis and Shaw are gone – the city even has a Latino mayor finally – but the cocaine is still in abundance in the Sunset Strip clubs, and the prostitutes stroll nightly on Santa Monica Boulevard. The LAPD may not be as corrupt, but a recent federal bust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found wide-spread abuse of prisoners and rampant drug-dealing in Men’s Central Jail downtown – all of it being done by the sheriffs.

Bugsy Siegel – who said about gangland murders, “We only kill each other” – and Mickey Cohen are history, but now Russian gangs battle it out, and kill each other regularly over in East Hollywood, while the Bloods and Crips have been fighting their turf wars in South L.A. for decades.

And every day the prettiest girls from Pittsburgh, or Portland, or Peoria, get off the bus, or the plane, or the train to become movie stars, or TV stars, while the boys coax their battered over-packed cars up the ramps from the Hollywood Freeway, coming from Denver or Dallas or Duluth, to make it as rock stars, or stand-up comics, or on the next big reality show. They just want to become rich and famous. And the grifters and hustlers and con artists are waiting for them.


When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Blvd., and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

(The Long Goodbye 1954)






Thorpe, Edward, Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, hard cover, 1983)

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (New York: The Overlook Press, 1987)

Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation

John Holmes at Kerouac's Funeral

We recently passed a watershed moment in modern American literature, as November, 2012, marked sixty years since John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine.

To many, this is the sum of all Holmes is known for.

His seminal Beat novel Go, also published sixty years ago (five years ahead of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road), still remains in the shadow of Kerouac’s first book about those times. As evidenced by one of the most popular social networking websites, the cult of celebrity embraces Kerouac. The various tribute pages devoted to Kerouac see traffic from over a quarter of a million people, while the single page dedicated to Holmes draws slightly more than three hundred followers.

Even people who knew him personally seem oblivious to the facts of his life.

In our last issue, Al Hinkle – who is portrayed as a character in both books – noted that Holmes’ version of the period “is probably the more accurate.” However, Hinkle goes on to speak of Holmes’ first wife, “Marian was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.” The fact is that after divorcing Marian, Holmes married Shirley Radulovich in September, 1953, and the couple remained together until 1988, dying within weeks of each other. Both were victims of cancers attributed to their heavy use of tobacco. These facts are found in the richly informative book Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Brother-Souls gives us a painstakingly accurate account of the intertwined lives of the two men. In so doing, it also unveils a myriad of previously-unknown facts about peripheral personalities like Hinkle, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, and many others.

If not for the frequently-noted dates and fastidious footnotes, this work of non-fiction would read like a novel – a novel deserving space on the same shelf between Go and On the Road. While On the Road has its hero in the central figure of Cassady as Dean Moriarty, Go looks at the same period with its focus on Ginsberg as David Stofsky. It is at Ginsberg’s party at his apartment in Spanish Harlem where he, Holmes, and Kerouac initially met in July 1948.

Also in our last issue, Ann Charters mentioned that she and husband Samuel worked on Brother-Souls to “redress that wrong” done to Holmes by Kerouac, when he portrayed the former as “a wimpy rival.” She told us that “It was a difficult book to write but one of its pleasures was the opportunity to give back Holmes his voice as a writer who was an enormous influence on Kerouac.”

It can be argued that the first piece of what would become known as Beat Literature appeared in early 1948 when Holmes published his jazz/slang-infused short story, “Tea for Two,” in Jay Landesman’s magazine, Neurotica. The little magazine founded by St. Louis, Missouri, native Landesman, Neurotica became, in style and spirit, the first Beat-themed literary journal even before the term “Beat” was coined.

A few months earlier, at age twenty-two, he broke into the publishing world with a book review printed in the March, 1948, issue of Poetry magazine. The following year, he sent the first chapters of his novel to Landesman. about the colorful characters in burgeoning Bohemian scene, which flourished around him in New York’s Greenwich Village.

At roughly the same time, he heard stories about another young writer he referred to as “Karawak” in his journal, who had written a novel, The Town and The City. As yet unpublished, the only copy was the fat manuscript typed by Kerouac, which was being passed around and talked about in the literary circles of New York City’s young intellectuals, to which Holmes was privy. Both men met at the party and, after sizing each other up in their perspective journals, soon became fast friends and confidants.

Before reaching this point in the book, the Charters’ not only detail the childhoods of both men but trace their family trees, as well – on one side back to the 1736 death of Maurice-Louis Alexandre Le Bris de Kerouack, and on the other back to 1594, when George Holmes was born in England. Interestingly, Holmes’ family tree included not only one-time presidential candidate John McClellan Holmes, Sr., the celebrated Union general of the Civil War, and the renowned essayist and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a male ancestor who married a woman from the family in which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born.

Ironies and similarities such as their same birthdate of March 12, (Kerouac was five years older) are recounted, as are vivid shared memories of the Flood of 1936, which Kerouac witnessed from the banks of the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. Eighty miles upstream, Holmes watched from the side of the Pemagawassett River, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, as it rose and flowed into the Merrimack, carrying the same waters and debris which neither of them would ever forget.

One early question left open is why they both decided to become writers. The closest thing to an answer may be the “On Spontaneous Prose” section of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters and published by Viking Penguin in 1995. Significantly, in that volume, she conceived the idea of tracing Kerouac’s life through a collection of his writings. When she mentioned the project to Holmes, he told her that he had the same idea in 1965. Not long before his death, Holmes suggested that he and Charters collaborate on it but as his health deteriorated, he passed it back to her with his blessings and an offer of help if she needed it.

In Brother-Souls, we have two scribes writing about two other writers. This unique circumstance makes for more than just a diligent study of two convergent writers; it gives insight into their individual writing processes and an insider’s look at the business of writing and publishing in America at that time.

Aside from the usual suspects, we meet Landesman and Gershon Legman. Legman would become editor of Neurotica and his influence on Holmes is noted. Ginsberg had his first “professional” poem published in the sixth issue of Neurotica in 1950. A collaboration written with Kerouac, who took no credit, “Song: Fie My Fum” was met with derision by Legman, who voiced his first impression of the poem by asking, “Did it take two of them to write that piece of shit?” Ginsberg rankled at the fact that Landesman required him to get down on his knees before accepting one of his poems. The poem was four stanzas culled from the poem “Pull My Daisy,” to which some accounts credit shared authorship to Cassady, as well.

Carl Solomon, recently released from New York State Psychiatric Institute where he met Ginsberg, had rented an apartment, and as suggested by former institute-roomie Ginsberg, threw a New Year’s party to usher in 1950. Landesman showed up with Holmes and was initially attracted by Solomon’s “certifiable” state of insanity and his experience with electroshock treatments but, when approached, Solomon steered him towards Ginsberg and Kerouac as being better choices for writers. Just before this scene, we are treated to a look at the meeting of Ginsberg and Solomon, for whom “Howl” was dedicated.

The Charters’ follow Ginsberg to his meeting with William Carlos Williams who advises him to, drop rhyming metric poetry, in favor of the “variable breath-stop length for metric measurement” as well as looking to his own experiences for the subject matter in his poems.

We see Holmes quickly establish himself as an “accepted” poet by 1950, with submissions published in Partisan Review and Harper’s magazines. However, in order to satisfy himself as being a real writer, he felt the novel was the form that he needed to master. To this end, he kept copious journals of the events of his life and of those around him. These were the source material for the chapters of Go which he sent to Landesman in 1949. Always generous with his friends, Holmes tried to help Ginsberg by sending his poems to his editor at Partisan Review. He also spent his time offering encouragement to Kerouac, who was also trying to find his voice in his “road novel” while trying to find a publisher for The Town and the City. During 1950-51, while Holmes wrote Go, Kerouac visited his apartment daily, to drink, talk, and – most importantly – read the novel page by page as it issued from Holmes’ typewriter. It is very likely, On the Road, given these circumstances, may never have found a form were it not for the encouragement and example given by the younger Holmes.

While this review/essay is not written to “kneecap” Kerouac, we have to wonder if (after all the ballyhoo, Gap adverts, Facebook pages, and movie treatments) the progression and continued adulation of the Beat Generation as we know it would even have been possible without Holmes. While Ginsberg is typically seen as the gadfly of the collected group of writers, throwing parties and initiating meetings, it was Holmes who opened the doors to Neurotica for them. Any writer knows the magnitude of the importance of publishing their first piece of work outside of school, and in a professional publication. Few things are more encouraging than seeing your own name in print for the first time.

To a group of writers who unashamedly pushed the limits of sanity, to whom mental instability actually became a badge of honor, the steep precipice of self-doubt reached by the constant rejection of one’s work could be the hardest hurdle to clear. By coincidentally meeting Landesman, Legman, Kerouac, and Ginsberg all in that same July weekend, could Holmes have been the spark that was necessary to set off the Beat firecracker? Perhaps the truest irony of his depiction as “wimpy” is that he is the most obvious catalyst which brought them all exposure.

Neal Cassady is most often seen as the touchstone at the center of the group, although it has been said that they all would have followed Burroughs anywhere he went. The more we unravel Cassady, the less grand of a person he becomes. Holmes mentions the black and blue marks left by Cassady, on LuAnne Henderson. His capacity for mental cruelty and abandoning wives and friends at crucial times most likely stems from his own abandonment by his father in Denver, Colorado. Holmes stayed steady in his support of Kerouac’s work, even as the latter heralded Cassady as the superior writer in the group and referred to him in a letter as his “only true friend.” Cassady responded in kind, in his usual manner, by abandoning him in Mexico City, sick with fever and dysentery.

In his moodiness, Kerouac’s misanthropy also got the best of him. Shouting matches between he and Holmes kept to an intellectual level. In barrooms, he was severely beaten more than once, thanks to his mouth and temper but especially as his alcoholic deterioration worsened. Holmes became hesitant to tell him about advances he got from publishers, for fear of setting him off. One point that Kerouac dwelt on during his struggles with On the Road was that Holmes “had no right to write a book about everyone’s private lives.” Both men were doing the same thing, writing about the same people and situations from different angles. Reading Go as it was written page by page kept him from duplicating scenes already covered by Holmes – but working around another serious writer could be enervating for anyone.

In all fairness to Kerouac, artists who show genius, often do so to express what they cannot in normal life and interpersonal relationships. As artists, writers may plumb themselves to reach those recesses and depths of feeling which are too painful or impossible to relate in any other way. In his essay “Are Writers Born or Made?” he distinguished between talent and genius, observing that many may show “talent” but genius is the rarity. “Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber,” he noted, “but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through – originality.”

While we appreciate the work they leave behind, the inner torment they endure is not a pretty thing – consider Van Gogh disfiguring himself, Rimbaud cultivating head lice “to throw on passing clergymen,” or Artaud’s claim to having been “suicided by society.” Holmes may have sealed his own fate by being too well-mannered. After all, we learn that Holmes was the only one of Kerouac’s friends that his mother Memère did not dislike.

Nonetheless, about three weeks after Holmes finished the last pages of Go, Kerouac became inspired by a letter from Cassady which turned into a rabid series of letters between them. The excitement of these exchanges prompted him to pull all of his notes together and unleash the torrent within upon the now-famous scroll he fed through his typewriter. It seems safe to say that while Cassady sparked him to action, Holmes laid the foundation during those daily visits. The resulting three-week period of speed, coffee, and typing which resulted in On the Road has since snowballed into an oft-told tale, but Brother-Souls reminds the reader that this was not all spontaneous prose. Kerouac’s fastidious habit of keeping notebooks provided for a vast amount of his material.

Between the five years, from the writing to its publication in 1957, the details and struggles of both men’s lives and work come to life in print. Meanwhile, other key events fall into place: Ginsberg meets his life-long companion, Peter Orlovsky; there is the first reading of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl for Carl Solomon” at 6 Gallery; Kerouac writes and details the remaining six books of the “Legend of Duluoz” along with three other volumes; the first complete reading of “Howl” takes place (and is attended by Samuel Charters); and the Beat Movement goes mainstream. While most of the key players became victims of the fame, Ginsberg used it to his advantage.

When City Lights got charged with obscenity for distributing Howl and Other Poems, more fuel was added to the fire – especially when presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled it to be not obscene. Curiously, Ginsberg slighted Holmes with the omission of his name from the dedication page. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady got a nod from the poet, placing them forever in the highest order of Beats. Holmes had gone out of his way to get Ginsberg published, sending his work to New Directions after his editor at Partisan Review  passed on it, as well as paying the grand compliment of making him the central character in Go. The depiction of Ginsberg in the book posits a good theory as to why he was snubbed. Kerouac had called Holmes “savage” in his treatment of the people he wrote about. Ginsberg for his part, had been disappointed in the account of his Blakean vision but, at the same time admitted to the veracity of the portrayal of himself.

“You really haven’t caught the way it felt,” he told Holmes, “but you’ve caught something else. You’ve caught the solemn funny little kid I guess I must have been in those days.” It seems that no amount of speculation will ever get to the heart of it but the glaring fact of Holmes’ exclusion from the dedication and the hurtfulness of the action cannot be overlooked. The Charters’ attribute some of it to Holmes distancing himself by leaving New York to live in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, but Cassady and Burroughs were both much further removed geographically.

Six months after the appearance of On the Road, Kerouac published The Subterraneans (to be followed in another six months by The Dharma Bums), heightening his fame but not his luck. With money in his pocket for a change, he traveled out of the United States. As usual, he quickly returned to New York to stay close to his mother. One night, while trying to reach the proper degree of stupor in a local bar, he sustained a broken nose and arm from a beating by a homosexual professional boxer, who claimed he had slurred an insult at him. Later, the depiction of Cassady as pothead led to his arrest and imprisonment.

The whole Beat scene, which thrived in the underground, exploded across the media in 1958, meeting curiosity, admiration, and derision. The term “Beatnik” popped up – a poke in the eye, as it was spawned from the name “Sputnik,” the space craft launched by Russia. Nothing linked to Russia could be good in those days. To word irked both men, as they saw it as a symbol of the manipulation, commercialization, and degradation of their once-pure vision. Every critic, pundit, journalist, and magazine writer had something to say about the phenomenon, ranging from suspicions of dangerous revolutions and proliferation of juvenile delinquents to dismissals of idle young hipsters with nothing important to do in life. Holmes had left the United States with Shirley on December 12, 1957, to realize his dream of traveling in Europe for two months, funded by an advance he received for his “jazz” book, The Horn.

While working on Perfect Fools, his follow-up novel to Go, he published a short story which would become The Horn‘s first chapter in the August, 1953, issue of Discovery magazine. The second chapter appeared in Nugget, in October 1956. With the rejection Perfect Fools by Scribners’, his spirits sank. He put his energy into writing the “jazz novel,” writing the remainder between spring, 1956, and fall of 1957. Although relations between he and Kerouac were deteriorating, Kerouac kept a promise and wrote a letter praising the novel to Hiram Hayden at Random House two months after the release of On the Road.John Holmes 1947

Accepted immediately and published in July 1958, it sported a recommendation from Kerouac on the cover. Despite the ongoing “Beat frenzy,” sales were moderate, likely due to July traditionally being a slow month for sales or perhaps getting lost among the wave of second-rate, imitation Beat-themed books which flooded the market – potboilers written to cash in on the trend. Selling well enough to require a second printing, mainstream reviews failed to reach the depth of it but it was warmly embraced by the cognoscente, including Studs Terkel and Ralph Gleason. Landesman read it on radio in St. Louis for half an hour, showing how taken he was with it.

Perhaps the most ambitious and meticulously-constructed of all the Beat novels, The Horn fascinates, not just by intricacy, but in the marvel of a writer dreaming up such a concept. As for structure, it is the only “true novel” that either he or Kerouac ever produced, not being based on their real-life experiences. In fact, it cannot really be classified as “Beat.” As Holmes wrote, regarding the reviews, “The Beat Generation tag has been either ignored (it having nothing to do with the book), or mentioned only in passing, for which I am grateful.” Even attempting to describe it presents a daunting task, so here we rely on excerpts from Brother-Souls, first with this section from Holmes’ journals…


The real origin of the book…lay in my feeling that the jazz artist was the quintessential American artist – that is, that his work hang-ups, his personal neglect by his country, his continual struggle for money, the debasement of his vision by the mean streets, his oft times descent into drugs, liquor, and self-destructiveness – all this seemed to me to typify the experience of our great 19th Century American writers: Poe’s loneliness, drunkenness and obscurity; Melville’s half-of-life anonymity; Hawthorne’s hermit years; Emily Dickinson’s spinster-bedroom full of immortal poems; Mark Twain’s wastage of so much of his talent on get-rich-quick schemes; Whitman’s decision to stay with the trolley drivers and whores and good old boys from whom his work took so much sustenance. The novel as it evolved, then, was to be about the American-as-artist.


A month earlier, he explained in a letter:


“I was working on three levels at the same time. I wanted each of these characters to represent an American writer, which is the only reason why I put those two little epigraphs in front of each chapter. But I also wanted him to represent a particular kind of jazz musician, and I had to create a fictional character doing these things, so that Edgar Pool, for instance, is Edgar Allen Poe.”


Now we give part of the synopsis by Charters/Charters – but note that these are just mere snatches taken from the in-depth explanation they provide, much of what was missed by many initial reviews.


Holmes structured it:

As a kind of dual narrative, each of the narrative streams illustrating and complementing the other. Each of the major characters was introduced in chapters titled “Chorus,” and the choruses alternated with chapters titled “Riff,” which told the novel’s story…Holmes preceded each Chorus with a quotation from one of the nineteenth-century American writers who had given him the novel’s theme. With the quotations he was suggesting an identification in each chapter between the jazz musician and the individual writer, and he tied the substance of the quotation as closely as he could to the chapter itself…

The quotation for the first Chorus is from Thoreau, and the name of the musician is Walden Blue. “Walden” is an obvious allusion to Thoreau’s Walden and “Blue” as clearly identifies him as a musician…

The second Chorus introduces an alto saxophonist named Eddie Wingfield“Wings” Redburn. The quotation is taken from Melville, whose fourth novel was titled Redburn

A quotation from Hawthorne introduces the Chorus representing the pianist Junious Priest…the musician who was the model for Junius was the avant-garde jazz pianist Thelonious Monk…

The central woman figure…is a singer named “Geordie Dickson,” who is locked in a despairing, unending relationship with the novel’s main protagonist, the tenor saxophonist Edgar Pool…a combination of singer Billie Holiday and Emily Dickinson…

The name of the trumpeter Curny Finnley is derived from the archetypal figure “Huckelberry Finn,” and the Chorus introducing him opens with a quotation from Finn’s creator, Mark Twain…Curny Finnley…was in part modeled on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie…

The Chorus introducing the tenor saxophonist Metro Myland opens with a quotation from Walt Whitman…”Myland” is an allusion to Whitman’s personal sense of his Americanism, of the nation as “My land”…Metro, for Holmes, was “just any great big yawping tenor sax player, but he’s also Walt Whitman”…

The final two Choruses portray Pool’s last hours…from the doomed, desperate Edgar Allen Poe. Holmes’ comment on the character of Pool was that his novelistic character was, of course, Lester Young, but also Poe…

As an aid to himself in clarifying the book’s structure, Holmes wrote the Choruses first, which described his principal figures. He then wrote the Riffs sections, creating the narrative around his fictitious characters…


Here, it is significant to note that tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Lester Young inspired Ginsberg’s creation of “Howl” when the poet wrote several verses in a vocal imitation of Young’s chorus-on-chorus jazz progression, the succession of verses building upon each other and raising the rhythmic energy to an ecstatic level. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg refers to one of the jazz man’s signature songs, “Lester Young was what I was thinking about… ‘Howl’ is all ‘Lester Leaps In.’”

The “jazz book” idea provided fodder for many of the vociferous conversations between Holmes and Kerouac. The recognition of its brilliance only grows with time, as will the brilliance of Brother-Souls.

In 1958, while Kerouac felt his first anxiety over waiting for royalties from the movie version of On the Road (a state of anxiety similarly affected Kerouac fans that waited impatiently until 2012 for its release), Holmes grew increasingly frustrated with the media attention and his realization that the movement they had created ultimately distanced the once close-knit pair. He also bristled at being used as a substitute spokesman for the Beat Generation and the perception of himself as a replacement for Kerouac when the latter could not be found. In spite of this they still kept in touch via letters, proving the true durability of their friendship.

Holmes The HornHolmes would face his own problems later that year, in the bleak state of his finances and the emotional turmoil that engulfed him when his father suffered a heart attack in October, forcing an end to years of estrangement. At their home in Old Saybrook, he and Shirley were just about to run out of firewood as the toughest part of the cruel New England winter fell upon them. Luckily, relief came when friends going on vacation asked them to sit their house.

In early February, Landesman sent a hundred dollars in a letter after hearing about their difficulties. These acts of kindness helped them through the winter, and in May, they were able to return to visit New York when Landesman staged the first and only Beat musical, The Nervous Set, and all performances sold-out. Kerouac showed up at the theater drunk and promptly fell asleep in his seat, vanishing during the intermission. The trip gave them some respite but in July a rush-hour accident on the New Jersey Turnpike put his father back in the hospital in Camden and one of his hands had to be amputated as a result. In the days that followed, a stroke paralyzed half of his father’s body.

Weeks spent keeping vigil at the bedside, trying to help nurse his father back to health led to exhaustion and near the end of August, John McClellan Holmes Sr., after weeks of suffering and staring at the stump of his hand, lost the will to live and passed away.

Although their relationship was frequently antagonistic, the event haunted the junior Holmes (who had taken “Clellon” as a pen-name to allay confusion with the well-known poet, John Holmes) for years. He wrote about the experience in the poem “Too-Late Words for My Father,” which he completed years later, in 1973. Old friend Alan Harrington, novelist and On the Road character, helped him with the hospital expenses. The chronic emotional devastation left him unable to write much outside of his journals and he slipped into one of the most unproductive periods of his life. Days spent drinking and arguing with Shirley exacerbated the situation. An unpaid electric bill for eight dollars forced him to hide upstairs when the electric company worker came to shut off his power in September of 1961 and the following month he was arrested for shoplifting a few dollars worth of groceries at a local market. The local press used the story to lampoon him with an embarrassing, supposedly-funny headline.

At this point something snapped inside him. A lesser man may have acted out against himself but in Holmes’ case, the situation forced him to pull himself together, deal with his creative block and begin writing again. As is often the case, a great man finds his true measure at the worst of times, not the best. It is also worth noting that through it all, Shirley stayed with him, working where she could to support them both. Holmes appears to have been one of the few of his peers to maintain a traditional “’til death do we part” relationship.

His turn back to the positive side spurred an equally positive reaction from magazines he submitted his work to, after braving it through a short period of rejected stories. Around the time he came to terms with the fact that his novels would never bring him as much fame as his poetry and non-fiction, he won Playboy magazine’s Best Non-Fiction award for 1964, with the essay, “Revolution Below the Belt.” This shows how deeply Legman had influenced him with his fixation on all things sexual years earlier.

His sister Liz, also a writer, made the acquaintance of Nelson Algren, author of the groundbreaking novels, A Walk on the Wild Side and The Man with the Golden Arm. During this period of regeneration, she introduced the pair. Once again, he enjoyed the luxury of intellectual stimulation that is peculiar to like-minded writers. For his part, Algren equally valued conversation with a mind sharp enough to write a book like The Horn.

Although he appeared the stronger of the two “brothers,” Kerouac never found his feet once he started balancing them on bottles. The sad facts of his self-immolation fill pages and support a variation on one of Legman’s favorite themes – that violence in modern society results directly from the repression of our sexuality. In his case, the violence turned inward and bespeaks the result of not being able to fully love a woman in a true manner. Sex is more than just a function of the genitalia. It is an outward expression of love and tenderness. He loved his mother, there is no doubting that, but his inability to correlate love and sex (the Cassadian logic of all people being apples and we just need to pick them and eat them as we will) may have been his undoing. This is not something Ann and Samuel Charters broach in the book but this writer’s attempt at explaining his trip from top of the heap to bottom of the glass.

Although we suggest that Holmes sparked the kindling that ignited the Beat fire, it is commonly accepted that Kerouac is responsible for the Beat Movement gaining the momentum to be a worldwide cultural revolution, these sixty years later. He is the primary visual symbol. He is the face of it today, not the angelic hipster Cassady, whose death from exposure in the Mexican night froze “blood on the tracks” after he bridged the generation gap between Beat and Hippie; not even Ginsberg who may have been the most prolific producer of the lot. His radicalism and homosexuality may have been off-putting to a straight society.

Kerouac – the older brother who died as the younger, the televised, the Adonis – he is the symbol who put a face on the new culture at the piano with Steve Allen speaking cool and hip and mellifluous.

The triumph of Holmes’ later years overshadows the misery of those when he was beaten-down Beat, in the truest sense of the word. The world of academia sought him out and he accepted residencies at several fine schools. Never giving up on the novel, he produced two more, Get Home Free in 1964 and Nothing More to Declare in 1967. More books appeared posthumously. He enjoyed the company of his old cronies when Ginsberg brought them together at Naropa Institute, for a celebration of Kerouac’s work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication, of On the Road in 1982. His dedication to his craft supplied him with purpose and a way to communicate while fighting a recurrent cancer when it robbed his frantic gift of speech.

He survived nineteen years after Kerouac and twenty after Cassady. In March, 1988, he died at age sixty-two, his beloved wife Shirley with him as ever. In death, as in life, she followed him just two weeks later, a common fate of couples who share a true love. Earlier in the year, he learned that three of his novels would soon be reprinted on Thunder Mouth Press. So with his once-greatest fear of vanishing “without leaving some trace,” this surely gave him strength even as mortality fleeted.

To paraphrase Kerouac’s paraphrasing in “Are Writers Born or Made?” – It ain’t whatcha live, it’s the way atcha live it.

This reviewer hopes the reader bears in mind that this piece may seem full of facts but it is only a fraction, less than even a fiftieth, of pages presented in Brother-Souls. In the entire canon of Beat books, it is arguably the single, most comprehensive view of the scene as it unfolded – and absolutely the most authoritative work on Holmes and Kerouac. It is the only book which comes to mind where the footnote pages themselves are a treat to read.

We come away from reading it with the feeling of just completing a course in history, absorbing enough to get an A+ on the subject. If some obvious facts are missing here, it is simply because we chose to focus primarily on Holmes, then Kerouac and the others.

We first became aware of Ann Charters in 1973, when her biography on Kerouac (with Samuel Charters) became widely celebrated and instantly considered as the definitive book on him. While relishing the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins since the 1970s and growing up with the music of Country Joe and the Fish even earlier on life’s soundtrack, we only recently discovered our ignorance of the fact that Samuel Charters had a hand in delivering these important sounds. A Grammy award winner, he produced five of the six Country Joe LPs. In 1959, with Ann in tow, he found Hopkins in Houston, Texas, and did field recordings of him. These were released on the Folkways label and led to a rediscovery by an appreciative new audience

At last count, eighteen books credit him as author. This is aside from collaborations listed in the thirty-book bibliography of Ann Charters, printed in our last issue. The count does not include Portents, the self-published small-press they ran in the 1960s. In literature and music the couple are a national treasure, both gifted individually and as a team. She is also an accomplished, recorded ragtime pianist. A recently-posted Youtube video (you can find it on shows them working together, reading poetry at a Beat event in England earlier this year.

Ann Charters and Samuel Charters did more than write a large part of Brother-Souls, they lived it and witnessed it first-hand.

Buy it!


This review/essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. Find it on Amazon.



The Voice is All: Joyce Johnson Talks about Her Latest Book

The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.

But Johnson’s contribution to Beat studies have been tremendously important, and Minor Characters has become a classic. In her subsequent works, Doors Wide Open and Missing Men, Johnson continued to add to our understanding of the Beats and their literature through a decidedly personal approach, offering a rare insider’s guide to the Beat Generation and the life of Kerouac, whom she dated between 1957-58.

Thus there was the expectation that in her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, we would once again be treated to a subjective and personal account of the author, most likely focusing on the two years during which time they were romantically involved. But that was not the case. Johnson has taken advantage of the recent opening of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection in order to research a period of his life that ended six years prior to their meeting. She has chosen to study only a short period, and to examine it from an entirely different angle than that attempted by any of the countless previous biographers and critics.


Why focus on the period up until 1951?

I intended from the start to make the development of Jack’s writing – from his acquisition of English, which was a second language for him, through the discoveries that led him to his becoming exactly the writer he wanted to be – the central focus of my book. By the time I began writing about 1951, I felt that by following Jack through the series of breakthroughs after On the Road that resulted five months later in the writing of Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, I had told not only a complete story, but the most important story about Jack, in a way that cast light upon the future years I did not cover.


What inspired you to examine the importance of his cultural and linguistic background, and to what extent did that inform his style of writing?

Curiously, although it is a well known fact that Jack was Franco-American, the implications of his cultural heritage were not explored in previous biographies. I first became aware of how important it might be in early 1980’s when I read Kerouac: A Chicken Essay by the French-Canadian poet, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu. That book captured something about Jack that I had felt intuitively when I knew him. When I decided to write the biography, this was another theme I wanted to explore, and I found a lot that related to it in Jack’s papers, since it was a constant preoccupation of his. There’s an extraordinary entry in a 1945 journal, for example, where he writes that although he can understand and appreciate “American richness,” it will never be his because he is only “half-American.” During the years when he was growing up, Franco-Americans were a despised minority (in New England they were called “white niggers”); in On the Road and in his journals, Jack refers to his “white ambitions” – language only someone who did not feel “white” would use.Joyce Johnson

Jack’s family spoke the French-Canadian dialect known as joual, and he did not learn his first words of English until he was six. Although he succeeded in mastering English, and in the process forgot some of his French, the joual seems to have been his interior language, and writing evidently involved a kind of process of translation. That process gave him an exceptional sensitivity to sound. After years of keeping the French out of his American voice, in 1951 he began to let it back in – first in On the Road, which was preceded in March of 1951 by a novella written in French, where I believe Jack found the voice he would use only a few weeks later for the narrator of the novel he had been unsuccessfully struggling to write for the past four years…It’s those French overtones that give Sal Paradise’s voice its special sound.


You’ve said you were less than satisfied with previous biographies of Jack. How does yours ‘set the record straight’?

It is only in the last few years that scholars have had access to the Kerouac Archive, which contains such a remarkable record of Jack’s life and creative development in journals, letters and manuscript. This is essential material for biography. Without it, past biographers had to rely largely on oral history, which was valuable but not necessarily reliable, and on what Jack wrote about his life in his novels, which could often be misleading, since his books are indeed works of fiction. Based largely on anecdotal material gathered from interviews, the books presented a picture of Kerouac in which the emphasis seemed to be upon his dysfunctionality and the extraordinarily dedicated artist that he actually was often got buried in a mass of sensational details.


The book is touted as a bit of an “insider’s guide” due to your relationship with Kerouac, but you first met him six years after the period your book examines.  How did you go about researching the book? 

My book is the product of fifty years of reflection on Jack, during which my understanding grew with everything new that I learned. Although the relationship I had with Jack when I was in my early twenties lasted less than a couple of years, it happens to be one of his longest relationships with a woman. During that period I saw him at his best and at his worst, and got to know the quiet, tender, extremely vulnerable person Jack was when he was sober; when I showed him portions of my first novel, I experienced personally his unfailing generosity to other writers. At seventy-seven, I am hardly sentimental about Jack, but I still feel deep sad affection for him, and my intimate knowledge of him definitely shaped my point of view when it came to writing The Voice Is All. But every biography is inescapably shaped by the writer’s point of view, which is why each biography of the same person will tell a different story. 

I began working on The Voice Is All early in 2008 and for the next three years spent two days a week taking notes at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where I kept running into other Kerouac scholars…I went through Jack’s papers chronologically while my writing kept pace with my research, and became rather fanatical about establishing an exact chronology for the events in his life, which I felt was very badly needed…I read up on Franco-American life in the United States, and also read some of the writers who were most important to Jack – especially Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis Ferdinand Céline.


Was it tough with the restrictions imposed by the Sampas family?

The restrictions upon how much I could quote seemed a challenge at first, but I have ended up feeling the book is all the better for them. I had to choose each quote very carefully and concentrate upon its meaning, which I think has given my book a certain clarity. The narrative, unbroken by long quotes, also has a unity of tone that I think is all to the good. I was very pleased when one reviewer compared my book to “a big Russian novel,” because that’s how it felt to me while I was living inside it and writing it.



This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12:

Jack Kerouac’s Poetry—Where is the Gold, if There’s Gold?

Jack Kerouac

This paper is a short inquiry into the quality of Jack Kerouac’s poetry. Kerouac is an American writer who has maintained an enduring hold on succeeding generations of readers through his long prose works, such as On the Road and The Dharma Bums.  He wrote numerous books of poetry, approaching the art seriously and passionately. Many of his poetry manuscripts, unable to find a home while he was alive, have been published since his death in 1969.

    These books include The Book of Sketches, The Book of Haikus, the multi-book volume, Book of Blues, Pomes All Sizes, and Scattered Poems; as well as the contemporaneous volumes, Heaven and Other Poems, and Mexico City Blues. Some prose works also contain Kerouac poems.

     Allen Ginsberg said, “Alas a poet not yet appreciated by the Academy as represented by major college Anthologies used in the quarter century or so since Kerouac’s death in 1969” (Pomes All Sizes vi).

    Is such neglect justified? We know that if a writer produces both poetry and prose, often the poetry will be overlooked – especially if the writer’s novels have done well. Few know that Sandra Cisneros began her career as a poet and has published excellent verse volumes with Knopf. Few are familiar with the poetry of the novelist Erica Jong. Master of Fine Arts programs force creative writers to specialize, thus widening the gulf between genres as well as implying that writers can be good only if they are “one note Johnnys.”

I have set up a few criteria to my beginning inquiry into the quality of Kerouac’s verse:

(1) Willingness to cross taboos to explore dangerous subjects – one form of bravery

(2) Intelligence or awareness

(3) The appearance of vulnerability and honesty – another form of bravery

(4) Original Contributions to the craft

(5) A few magnificent poems

I realize my list is limited and biased, and would be glad to entertain suggestions to improve and enlarge my standards of evaluation if I decide to expand this paper into a book. I will not attempt the impossible: to limit my standards to the purely aesthetic, literary, or technical.


Willingness to Cross Taboos and Explore New Subject Matter:

One function of literature is to bring into the light what festers in darkness. Taboos often get crossed in art. Ginsberg played a role in America’s painfully slow but gradual acceptance of homosexuality. Kerouac was confused and ashamed of his gay side. I quote this passage from the 1950s to show Kerouac brave enough to undertake a taboo subject few writers today will explore, childhood sexuality – and perhaps understandably so, with our concern for child abuse. This passage may make you uncomfortable, and we must note that Kerouac may not have seen or recorded all that is happening:


The tall sexual Negro

boy on the junkyard

street near the Gas

  Tank Jamaica, about 7

or 8 yrs old, he was

running his palm along

 his fly in some Sexual

story to the other little

boy Negro who had his

arm around him as they

came up the street in

the gray rain of Satur-

day afternoon – smoke

 emanating from junk fires,

  smell of burnt rubber, piles

   of tires, junk shops

     with old white stoves

on the blackmud sidewalk…

(Book of Sketches, 384)


Intelligence and Awareness:

With such a large body of poetic work, I could quote many passages to suggest the intelligence or awareness of this writer. Mexico City Blues can be enjoyed for its shrewdness. Kerouac is not afraid to write abstractly in his poetic work, although he does not do so often. In the passage I am about to quote, abstraction would be hard to avoid:


Light is Late




it happens after you realize it

        You don’t see light

        Until sensation of seeing light

Is registered in perception… (107)


Vulnerability and Honesty:

The Beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg were the first confessional poets, before Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell acknowledged his debt to Ginsberg. Here is Kerouac moving from intelligent thought, to immediate observation, to vulnerable self-confession, all in one poem. Poets talk about movement in a poem. This one has it:


That which has not

 long to live, frets—

 That which lives


 Is full of peace

And there is no man who’ll live forever

Here it is California,

little young girls going to

school in the fresh &

dewy sidewalks of sleepy

San Luis….


My life so lonely &

        empty without someone

        to love & lay, & without

        a work to surpass

        myself with, that I

        have nothing nothing

        to write about even

        in the first clear joy

of morning— (Book of Sketches)


Original Contributions to the Craft:

Kerouac was inspired by California architect and historic preservationist Ed Divine White, “to sketch in the streets like a painter but with words.” Kerouac’s sketching technique reminds one of Zola walking through the tenements of Paris with a notebook, or of Van Gogh getting out of his studio to paint in the fields and streets.

In The Book of Sketches, Kerouac with pen and notebook, writes about ships and ship’s harbors; people on the streets; rail yards and trains; friends, hitchhiking, and nature. This method creates an immediacy and precision of detail nearly impossible to achieve when in the study, “reflecting in tranquility” – to alter slightly Wordsworth’s phrase. At times the details are so overwhelming – or data heavy – that the writing begins to bog down and bore, but at other times sketching is highly effective. Here is one short example, from “Sketch of a Beggar.” Recall that this was written in the early 1950s; traditional rhyme and meter were still dominant but have been abandoned by Kerouac:


The strange Allen Ansen-looking

but fat chubby Mexican beggar standing

in front of Woolworth’s on Coahuila

behaving spastically, with short haircut

  • of bangs, brown suitcoat, white shirt,

big pot belly, rocking back and forth

jiggling his hand…He cant conceive that

someone (as I) can be watching from

across the street 2nd story window

(Book of Sketches 411)


The sketch technique that Kerouac initiated in poetry was acknowledged and borrowed by Allen Ginsberg in such poems as “The Bricklayers’ Lunch Hour,” and “Iron Horse.” Ginsberg carried it forward by using a tape recorder. Kerouac of course knew what he was doing and to ward off criticism wrote the following, short explanation under the title of the book, “Proving that Sketches ain’t verse/ But Only What Is.”

The sketch is a recording of what is observed, by the senses, in word form, and can make a claim to the truth that verse written from memory may lack, since memory usually is less reliable than perception. I want to quickly mention that Kerouac was also one of the first to experiment with different shapes for poems beyond the traditional acrostics and shape poems. He made list poems, poems with numbered lines, poems with illustrations, and he often moved his lines and stanzas around on a page to give the reader visual variety or to signal pauses.

The second major contribution to the craft of poetry is Kerouac’s jazz poetry. He wrote: “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday…my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway through the next” (Mexico City Blues). The notion that a theme or idea in a poem does not end with the poem but may play into another poem halfway is unique, as is the emphasis on the oral that most of his “Blues” jazz poetry books maintain.  Kerouac’s “form” in Mexico City Blues was to compose each poem on a small notebook he carried in his pocket.

Such an approach is a new conception of form for literature. Traditionally, form in poetry was determined by metrics, line length syllable counts, or by rhyme scheme. AR Ammons much later modified Kerouac’s technique to write a book length poem called

“Tape for the Turn of the Year”, typing the long skinny poem on a roll of adding machine tape.  Ammons’ method also relates to The Dharma Bums and On the Road where Kerouac used taped sheets so he would not have to pause to insert paper in his typewriter and lose the flow of thought and emotion.

Kerouac also adds, “As in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of time,” (Heaven and other Poems 56). Kerouac is arguing for an oral-based free verse where the poems develop shape determined by the emotions of moments in time, much like a jazz improviser playing with a tune on stage. This was a time when Columbia University’s English department generally disapproved of Whitman. Later, in a letter to Don Allen, Kerouac would observe, “Funny how they look so old fashioned now, they were written in ’54 but now everyone writes like that…” (Heaven and Other Poems 58).

My son is a jazz musician, and we sat down one afternoon with Kerouac’s ‘blues books’ and could not find any definite 1950’s jazz beats in the lines of those poems. If they follow a beat at all, it is the “beat of time” – the grand time of the universe – not the beat of jazz music performed.


A Few Magnificent Poems:

Innovation in technique distinguished Walt Whitman’s verse, but by using that technique Whitman created magnificent poems. A poet only needs a few magnificent poems to make it permanently into the anthologies, and to be more than “a poet’s poet,” but who can “survive” being compared to Whitman?

Although I believe Kerouac wrote excellent poems using new techniques, he did not succeed magnificently as Whitman does so often, from “Song of Myself” to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Many consider Mexico City Blues to be his best poetic work. I do not agree. Such opinion derives from a time when little of Kerouac’s verse was available. The choruses of Mexico City Blues remind me of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in their lack of concern for the reader and in the pretentious overuse of names of friends and of Buddhist phrases. They seem closer to the work of John Ashbery than to the work of Beat writers, who wrote about and hoped to be read by the ordinary and even the downtrodden “fellaheen.” Still, Kerouac does get off many excellent blues riff poems. I quote from the 242nd chorus:

Charley Parker, forgive me—

Forgive me for not answering your eyes—

For not having made any indication

Of that which you can devise—

Charley Parker, pray for me—

Pray for everybody and me

In the Nirvanas of your brain

Where you hide, indulgent and huge,

No longer Charley Parker

But the secret unswayable name


Where Pound called his individual poems “Cantos,” Kerouac calls his “Choruses.” The parallel is clear, and like Pound, Kerouac aims to produce an important book length poem sequence. Mexico City Blues has long been in print and until a few years ago was a common sight on the poetry shelves of most bookstores. Unlike Pound, Kerouac is able to complete his work and manages to come to a final synthesis and resolution, relating Buddhism to the artist’s search for the ultimate, but ultimately choosing the path of art over the path of Buddhism (Memory Babe, Nicosia 488). The choruses are avant-garde in style yet in part religious poems – unusual in our secular era – and that’s why Kerouac relates them to jazz on a “Sunday afternoon.”

“Touchstones” were the method the Victorian poet and critic Mathew Arnold used to make critical evaluations. Using touchstones means to use other writers as a means of comparison and a way to set up standards. I have used both Whitman and Pound as touchstones to help place Kerouac’s achievement as a poet. Comparing Kerouac to Whitman is a bit unfair. Few poets the world over can compete on such a level. Plenty of poets fill the of college anthologies who are far from being equals to Whitman.

Does Kerouac deserve to be in the college poetry anthologies as Ginsberg thinks? I firmly believe that Kerouac does, on the strength of poems contained in the recently published Book of Sketches. “First Book” has musical lines such as these:


August senses September

In the deeper light of

Its afternoons—senses

Autumn in the brown

burn of the corn, the

stripped tobacco—

the faint singe appearing

  • on the incomprehensible

horizons… (23)


This sixty-two page, three sectioned poem, achieves not only fine lyric moments, a memorable narrative line, and interesting characters, but it also has the immediacy and vivid accuracy of imagery only possible with the sketch technique.


…in the corner where

the light falls flush,

bright creampink

  that shows a tiny

  waving threat of

  spiderweb overlooked


by the greedy house-



The poem explores the hard life of Kerouac’s sister and brother-in-law, living with their child in the South, with compassion and dignity. Here Kerouac does follow Whitman’s example to write about the common people in language most can understand. The fact the poem requires little work by scholars or critics will not, I hope, interfere with the poem’s future reputation or appreciation.

Kerouac’s long poem does not have the dramatic urgency of Ginsberg’s great Kaddish, but is a fine poem nevertheless with its slower pacing and rhythms. Here the poet speaks with dignity and reserve. There is no sense of the artist’s heavy pain or near crackup. Fine moments exist in all of Kerouac’s poetic work. His book of haikus is humorous, readable, and full of wonderful surprise turns of phrase. In his haikus, Kerouac is one of the first to break with the five, seven, five Japanese syllabic pattern imposed on English. The sustained poetic achievements that Kerouac will be remembered for, I believe, are best found in the recently published Book of Sketches and The Book of Haikus.





This essay was originally published in Beatdom #12


American Zen

Zen Books

Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen[1] in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori[2], or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.

This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.

The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.

Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.

Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.

Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.

Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.

There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”


1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.”  This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers.  When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.


2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.



This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. You can buy it on Amazon (as a paperback or ebook), or at our webstore.


Somebody Blew Up America: A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue. You can purchase it on Amazon and Kindle.


Amiri Baraka is Beat.

He walked away from the scene in Greenwich Village, where he edited literary journals Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear from 1958-65. Working with Hettie Cohen, Michael John Fles, and Diane Di Prima, respectively, the journals brought new works by new names. Featured writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure. He co-founded Totem Press and was influential in the launching of Corinth Books. Yugen magazine was perhaps most significant as the platform for the “new” Beat writers, allowing their work to find a place in one of the first venues to give credulity to the movement.

A wise and controversially outspoken man, his views have kept him on the Outside, the Beat side. The U.S. Air Force discharged him after two years of service due to his belief in communism. In 1961 he was arrested for distributing obscenity after mailing copies of The Floating Bear, Issue Nine, to subscribers; and his presence at the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, saw him arrested and severely beaten by police. It was also the year he changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. The charges against him were eventually dropped and much of his support came from the Beat community.

From Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, his first book of poems in 1961, to his upcoming play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, he has stayed the course, worked and fought for his beliefs of an equitable society.

With the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (who visited Baraka’s Newark home a week before his murder), he left the mostly-white Bohemian literary scene and the environs of the East Village to take up a more radical stance towards Black Nationalism. But despite his distancing himself from the Beats in the mid-sixties, Baraka read poetry and attended panel discussions at Beat-haven Naropa Institute through the 1980-90s, and remained friends with Ginsberg until Allen’s death in 1997.

More recently his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” brought an end to his New Jersey “Poet Laureate” post when Governor Jim McGreevey took umbrage to the poem’s questioning of the events surrounding the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Centers. The “Who?’ of the exploding owl in the poem echoes the angst of Ginsberg’s voice in “Howl.” Having heard Ginsberg recite live from ten feet away, this writer finds both poems equally as exciting and important.

Baraka has been called “the triple-threat Beat.” His talent has brought him recognition and awards not just in poetry and prose but also in theater as an Obie Award winning playwright. A sampling of awards bestowed upon him include the PEN Open Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. Maybe one of the most bittersweet titles placed on him is that of the Poet Laureate of Newark Public Schools, which he received after Gov. McGreevey’s actions against him

Additionally, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and regarded as a respected academic, having taught at the state universities of New York at Stony Brook and Buffalo, Columbia University, and other institutions. Amiri Baraka photo


We started by asking why he walked away from the Beat Movement, which gave him a vehicle to establish himself as writer/thinker/activist to a wider audience.


Well, that whole thing [the Beat Movement], was very explosive, but remember that the whole Civil Rights Movement was intensifying. I got out of the service in 1957. The Montgomery bus boycott had gone on a couple years before. After they had successfully made them integrate those buses, they blew up Doctor King’s house. At that point, it really began to be clear this was the kind of struggle that was going on particularly in the south, at least for me, having been in the service for two years.

That was the point that it became clear… until they blew up King’s house and he says… you know, the black people showed up at his house with their rifles and said, “What should we do, what should we do, Doctor King?” and he said, “If any blood be shed, let it be ours.” So my whole generation reacted negatively to that and said, “No, it won’t be like that. If people are going to be shooting, they are going to be shooting back and forth.”

Malcolm X appeared at that scene with his whole idea about, you know, “You treat people like they treat you. They treat you with respect, you treat them with respect. They put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery.”

So a whole generation of black youth responded to that positively as a sign that Doctor King was indeed a normal man instead of some kind of a saintly non-violent kind of perseverant. During that period, the next years of 1958-1960… In 1959, Fidel Castro led that revolution in Cuba so I went down there the next year, 1960, to Cuba and met Fidel, Ché Guevara, and all those people. I also met the black activist from North Carolina, Robert Williams, who was in exile in Cuba because he had really been practicing a kind of a self-defense in North Carolina, a thing that actually ended up with him stopping the [Ku Klux] Klan – removing their hoods… and then he found out it was the State Police! Then they framed him for kidnapping a white couple and he went to Cuba to escape that kind of injustice, so I met him.

Anyway, that was the point – 1960 – when, while I had this kind of awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, I actually became much more directly involved in it. So, about 1965, when Malcolm X was murdered, I felt the best thing to do would be to get out of the Village and move to Harlem. I found that, for a lot of black people, that event made us take stock of ourselves and move out of Greenwich Village into Harlem. That was actually the point. I began the Black Arts Repertory Theater Company in 1965 at 130th Street and Lenox Avenue.


Who else was involved in the theater?


Larry Neal, poet, and Askia Touré, poet, those were two of the leading figures. Many people came to Harlem who were not already in Harlem, because they were attracted to the Black Arts Repertory School that we opened. We would send out trucks into the neighborhood every day… four trucks, one had graphic arts, the other had poetry, the other had music and the other had drama. We did this every day throughout the summer of 1965 so that created a kind of militant venue for Black Arts. They found that was desirable rather than having to submit to the continued racism of Greenwich Village.


The perception is that the Village was not so racist.


At that particular point, a lot of young black people felt it was better to move to Harlem to take an active kind of fighting stance against it, rather than to be isolated in Greenwich Village.


Taking action was better than writing about it or publishing work about it?


Right, absolutely… it was not only about the publishing; it was about actually being an activist in that community and on the street and actually making Black Arts relevant to the movement rather than simply commenting on it.


Do you feel that we are losing ground and giving back too much of what was gained then?


Absolutely! It is like one step forward, two steps back. The whole Obama campaign, the victory… on one hand has brought a kind of very sharp reaction. It is like after the Civil War – once the slaves were so-called “emancipated,” that’s when you get the Ku Klux Klan and the black “coons” and all of that strict re-segregation. Rather than ending slavery you got the whole segregation of the south and the whole dividing of the south into black and white even though they were theoretically free from slavery… but slaves were plunged into sharecropping and many times they couldn’t go anywhere. The white people in the south wouldn’t let them go until years after slavery was over. They started going north and west. You can read about that in a book called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. She charts that whole immigration out of the south by my people.


Amiri BarakaThe Obama Administration… since the first election, racism feels more prevalent.


It’s a stirring reaction to that election. Now we have the Tea Party. The Tea Party is correspondent to the Klan. They appear… the whole takeover of the Congress and the House of Representatives certainly existed because of these kinds of racist incidents – whether Trayvon Martin in the South [Martin was shot in February 2012] or shooting Amadou Diallo in the Bronx [police in February 1999] or the various kinds of murders out in California. It’s a sharp reaction and it shows the reaction is not just against black people but even young white people, like those taken up with the whole Occupy Movement across the country. There is just widespread dissatisfaction in society as it is.


How do you feel about the Occupy Movement?


I think it’s a good idea. It is uncertain and uneven but still a good idea and many times there are too many people completely lacking in the experience, in social struggle, or just anarchism, walking around who believe in no kind of government and no kind of organized response but certainly who are opposed to blacks in politics and it is a very ragged kind of result that comes out of that – but still the idea is a good idea and whatever kind of result you can get from that, even though it’s going to be much less than it would be if it were organized, you still have to support it.

Part of the reason is that it’s like the Sisyphus Syndrome. The only thing that’s happening now is that, between the Republican force pushing to the right, to restore the kind of Republican rule to go to back to Bush, which had been more extreme – what is underneath this is an attempt to erect a kind of corporate dictatorship. Coming out of all these Republicans’ mouths, especially the Tea Party, is the whole question that government is too big, that government is the enemy. The enemy is the lack of development. The fact that poverty still poxes this country and the development is, so far,  uneven without a gap between the little six-tenths of one percent of the wealthy and the rest of the people. This has grown bigger and, actually, since Roosevelt and the New Deal we were talking about closing that gap. We talked about creating a much more equitable society. Now even the middle class is feeling the kind of strains that the working class is feeling. So the only thing the republicans have done…I mean, look at the surplus that Clinton had, billions of dollars in surplus, George Bush got rid of it…in the couple of terms that Bush had, he got rid of it a couple of times. He got rid of it.

How? The war, certainly… 9/11 was, to me, just a door opening to exploit the Middle East.


Like the 2.9 trillion dollars that Rumsfeld announced was missing on the day before 9/11? He claimed they didn’t know what they did with it…


Right! They didn’t know what they did with it… the people who got it know what they did with it… (laughs).


Can any government be righteous?


I’m a communist. I’m a Marxist. I believe that, ultimately, people will become sophisticated enough to understand that they themselves must rule – not just some little, small elitist group of exploiters. That is what the struggle is for – to see if this society itself becomes equitable. It is going to be hard because we are going to have to go through this period of intensified corporate domination, this last ditch struggle and the fact that it is now a global economy. You see that the struggles on Wall Street have affected the whole world and the only way that they feel they can gain any kind of superiority is war. That’s when they can hire more workers. That’s when they can fill their coffers and that’s exactly what they want to do… war… and that’s the only way capitalism can remain balanced on two feet, so to speak, but it will never be secure. That’s the problem that the people of the world face, that they have to finally overthrow these governments. They have to overthrow the monopoly of capitalism. That’s the task that faces humanity if it is ever to be truly civilized. You can’t be civilized with capitalism. It is too elitist. Most people are up against it. Most people cannot ever get a real education. Most of us still live in slums. It is something that is destined to be destroyed that will be very difficult to destroy it in its last days.


Speaking of last days, what do you think of the FEMA camps and the things like the Georgia law that is in Congress to bring back the guillotine?Baraka book cover


Are you serious about the guillotine?


Yes, it is a bill in legislature. They say they are running out of the drug to kill people with. You also have the Social Security Administration buying thousands of rounds of ammunition lately and you have to wonder what they need that for.


That’s the penalty for moving towards a corporate dictatorship because these people, the republicans and the Tea Party and these people, they’re not talking about the government. They’re talking about the government. They are talking about straight-out rule by the rich. It may be a terrifying scenario but that is what is in the works unless the people can find the wherewithal, the understanding, and the organization to resist it.

Even in its ragged state, I would rather have the Occupiers than nothing at all. The problem is that, too often, the people in power are opposed to the Occupiers. That’s the problem, most of the people who are in these posts, these small bureaucratic posts, they are even acting against their own interests, not to mention the police and those who are charged with keeping the order – an order that does not even serve them! It’s a tragic situation. But I don’t know what Social Security would be doing with all those guns. I don’t know that.


“Somebody Blew Up America.” You were censored by the New Jersey governor for publishing and performing this poem. The media depicts others who have questioned the events of 9/11 as crazy.


I understand it, yeah. That’s it. You got it. All you have to do is open your mouth, like they say you’ve got freedom of speech – as long as you don’t say anything. The minute you open your mouth, then that’s the end of that. Then they attack you. It has certainly happened to me. It happens to all kinds of people… even somebody like Bruce Springsteen, when he first sang that song about “fighting the yellow man for the white man.” They silenced him for a few years but he managed to come back. It’s that way, if you talk to say anything. There is a long history of that, particularly (for) Afro-Americans, but everybody else, too.

Like that attack on the film industry in the fifties, to remove any taint of the Left from the film industry, the blacklisting of the whole film industry. The whole McCarthyism thing and the fact that, during World War Two, the United States’ closest allies were Russia and China, but after World War Two our closest allies were suddenly the same people we were fighting, Germany and Japan… figure that out! Then China and Russia became our worst enemies. Why is that? It’s because they wanted to cut loose any kind of sign of supporting socialism. Since China and Russia were socialist countries our struggle with these socialist countries, then, was to make sure they were opposed to that (socialism). Finally, Russia succumbed and China has been riddled with imperialist advance. Finally, this corporate America is what dominates and wants to make sure that monopoly capitalism and imperialism outlast anything.


Why do you think people do not pay more attention to this?


The people who could make the most noise about it are afraid they are going to lose their whatever, their positions, afraid they are going to lose what they have. The problem with the great majority of people is that they are not organized and sometimes they don’t have the facts so they don’t know what is going on. It happens too often, even if you elect good people… like in Newark back in 1970, the first black mayor, the second black mayor. We haven’t had a white mayor in Newark since 1970… but then we get somebody like Cory Booker, the present mayor, who actually is sent here by corporate ventures to turn the whole advance, the drive to some kind of equitable city government, around. Now we are struggling against that. Now we have a situation where the mayor is trying to sell our water to private interests. It’s unbelievable. He is trying to sell the water plus about two thousand acres of land where we have the water.


Water is getting more expensive, like oil.


That’s what they want to do – jack the prices up and so this is an ongoing struggle. The largest corporation in Newark, which is Prudential Insurance, the largest insurance company in the world, they haven’t paid any taxes since 1970. One of their buildings is worth 300 million dollars a year in taxes. They were given a tax abatement in 1970. That was the “white-mail” they put on the new black city government, “Either give us a tax abatement or we are leaving.” That is not supposed to be eternal. I mean, you could give them a thirty-year abatement and it still would be over by 2000. We still have twelve years of twelve times 300 million dollars a year, we wouldn’t have a deficit… but they refuse to pay their taxes. They built an arena. They have the NCAA [basketball]; they have the Devils hockey team, which is an interesting idea for Newark. When they have all kinds of big events, they say we owe them money. They utilize our water. They utilize our police for security. We have to pay the police overtime any time they have an event and they say owe money.


Funny how all the venues are named after financial institutions these days, as opposed to names of great people.


That’s right. That’s just an indication of where everything is going. Everything is named after a bank or some other kind of corporation… even baseball stadiums. That’s absurd. Here everything is named after Prudential. (laughs)


Which medium do you find most useful in reaching people and motivating them?


The problem, again, is the control by the organizations. In the sixties, for instance, the whole emergence of abstraction and the corporations first fought against abstraction. That is the problem with the arts… it is like “freedom of the press”. You can have freedom of the press if you own a press otherwise you have to deal with a mimeograph machines and small distribution. That’s the way it is with all of the arts. That is the theater of grants. Somebody has to bestow that support upon the artist. Unless you really qualify, philosophically, to be in those venues, you are not going to be there.

I produced a play back in the sixties when I was perhaps unclear what I wanted to say, though they could deal with that to a limited degree. Back then it made it very, very difficult for me to get anything onstage. I have a play coming out in the spring about [W.E.B.] Dubois, called The Most Dangerous Man in America. That’s what the FBI called him. It’ll be a month run at a small theater on the Lower East Side.


You are accomplished and awarded in so many art forms… if you were to be remembered by one piece of work, what would you choose it to be?


I think the book on black music, Blues People, that I wrote… people still quote that and cite that. I think that is the most important one. People came out in 1963 and is the book of mine that is the most constantly-referenced. I think it was the most popular. I have had other works which had a great deal of  (laughs) in the United States.

It’s about African-American music from Africa and how it developed in the United States. The seeds of that book came to me in a class I had with a man named Sterling Brown, a great poet who was my English teacher at Howard University. A friend of mine named A.B. Spellman who is also in the book, and who wrote a book called Four Lives in the Bebop Business, we had both finished class and he invited us to his house because we had some pretensions of knowing about the music. Once we were there, he showed us. He had this library with music, by genre, chronologically, by artist, and he told me, “That’s your history.”

In that kind of capsule statement what he was saying was that if you analyze the music, if you follow the music, you’ll also find out about the peoples’ history. So that’s what I did – tried to show how when the music changed it signified change in the status of the people and their condition. Everything about their lives has undergone some important change and the music is a result of the affect of the change. It goes to the earliest kind of music – the slave song, the early blues, the city blues, you know, the kinds of variations on that… like coming into the north and how it affected the music. It covers up to the 1960s.


You collaborated with The Roots about ten years ago… in hip-hop. Who are the most important artists or have been?


It changed a great deal from the early hip-hop of the 1970s, which was just a field called “rap.” Hip-hop is actually a kind of a category that includes different aspects of it all… the DJ, the rapping, graffiti, break dance. Rap, particularly, changed a great deal from the 1970s. The early rappers were much more conscious of making a social statement of protesting the kind of conditions they lived in and that black people lived in. It was really a kind of urban journal type thing, like Afrika Bambaataa from the South Bronx. Then, later on, people like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

RunDMC was a period of development of that was put together by the guy (named) Russell Simmons, who then became rap’s biggest entrepreneur.


Do you think people like Russell Simmons can be as well-accepted and still keep an edge?


People have to sort that out themselves and find out how those kinds of ties (either) support what they are doing or obstruct it. They might just change what they are doing or what they thought and come out with something that may not be as important as what they were doing before. It depends on how you deal with relationships with those institutions and organizations.


Can you tell more about your new play?


The play is about W.E.B. DuBois, when he was about 83 years old and was taking a very activist position against nuclear weapons and everything, including going to conferences in Europe to protest nuclear weapons. He was indicted as an “agent of foreign power,” being a “father” of books. He had just run for political office, he and a man named Vito Marcantonio, a lawyer who was really the last Italian communist in the U.S. Congress. Anyway, when DuBois was indicted because he was in a peace organization [he was chairman of the Peace Information Center, formed in 1950], they had the trial in Washington, DC, and Marcantonio defended him. He was the lawyer.

It was a drawn out trial but finally he won the case because it turned out that the chief witness against him was, in fact, the man who had invited DuBois to join the peace organization. So the thing was overthrown but DuBois was prescient enough to understand it. that he said, “Now the little children will no longer see my name.”

After that they took his passport and tried to keep him from traveling. Then in 1958, the Supreme Court overthrew that ruling and gave him back is passport so he was able to travel throughout the world… Europe, Russia, China. He had been invited to edit Encyclopedia Africana by Kwame Nkruman, who was the newly-elected Prime Minster of Ghana. He went there, declared his membership in the Communist Party and he died in Ghana on the day before the March on Washington, which was started by Reverend Martin Luther King, so it’s a real cycle.


That covers a lot of territory.


It is going to be mainly the drama of just before the indictment… and how they prepared for this trial. The main part of the play is the trial itself, and the rest focuses on his travels around the world, particularly Russia, China, and Ghana. That should be out in spring of next year.


Did you have a personal relationship with Malcolm X?


I met Malcolm one time, after he had his house in Long Island firebombed and he was moving around Manhattan. I saw him, actually, with a man named Mohamed Babu at the Waldorf Astoria, where Babu had a room. We met into the wee hours of the morning. That was the only time I actually talked to Malcolm.


You and Lenny Bruce were often mentioned in the same news stories and seem to have been crucified at the same time.


I didn’t know him. Like I said if you speak out and identify with any kind of activism you are going to get jumped. That’s it – and you can’t expect any other thing to happen.


Did you like his act? Were his racial routines funny to a black person?


Sure, at the time. What was relevant is that he was trying to be for real, to bring some reality to America and make a commentary on America and that was the point. Given the content, he was attacked for profanity and obscenity and all those things.

At that time, I was arrested for sending obscenity through the mail [for] publishing The Floating Bear. In one of them I had a play of mine in there or a short story… whatever, and an essay by William Burroughs. [The material deemed obscene consisted of “The Eighth Ditch” an excerpt from his novel, From the System of Dante’s Hell, and the Burroughs’ poem, “Roosevelt after Inauguration”].

This stuff that happened to Lenny Bruce was common, given that situation, because that is when that whole attack was common when you tried to do that – you were met with some kind of withering charges. I defended myself in court by reading the decision on [James] Joyce’s Ulysses and certainly that won the decision for me… (laughs).



The 1934 Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on Ulysses opened the doors for the publishing of many literary works besides those published by Baraka. Joyce’s book was used in the defense of novels Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Tropic of Cancer. The works of Amiri Baraka have, similarly, pushed open doors for new generations of creative minds to pass through.

Mr. Baraka was open and generous with his time. He still reads poetry in performance and we encourage you to see him if you ever have a chance. If you want Beat, he is more real than all the recent movies about the “usual suspects.” He is a living literary treasure and his work should be celebrated by all freedom-loving Americans and World Citizens.

Watch for his new play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, in spring and pick up a few of his books while you are waiting. He is the real deal and he speaks more sense than any other public figure that comes to mind.


Salute him and enjoy his work!

The Beat Rap Sheet

Beat Generation Newspaper Clipps

But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac

The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.

It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.

But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.

As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.Burroughs Kills Wife Newspaper

Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.

His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.

The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.

When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.

Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.

Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.

Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.

Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.

Kerouac mugshotBurroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.

With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.

Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.

Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.

At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.

When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.

In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.

It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low.  Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.

The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.

Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

Neal Cassady mugshot

Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”


Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.

By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.




This essay first appeared in Beatdom #12. You can purchase it on Kindle or in paperback.