For some reason, if you look back through literary history, it seems most great authors had a fondness for cats. Purrrhaps* that’s because being a writer often requires a rather cat-like existence… but more likely it’s just a case of confirmation bias. The internet loves cats, therefore there will be enough photos of authors and cats circulating online to convince us that cats are somehow muses to the greats of literature. But whichever of those options is true, certainly enough of our great writers have had close relationships with felines to make it seem as though cat-ownership is somehow a pre-requisite for literary brilliance.
The writers of the Beat Generation were no strangers to this odd phenomenon, as I shall explore below:
Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother
Jack Kerouac included the above quote in his novel, Big Sur, about the death of Tyke, his beloved cat. The passage in which he mourns the loss of his cat his heart-wrenching and shows the genuine love he had for the animal.
…he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand and with his little head hanging down, or just purring for hours… He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him around my wrist or drape him and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold that big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he’d just purr, he had complete confidence in me…
When Kerouac travelled Europe, evidently the cats he saw left a significant impression upon him:
What amazed me as much as anything were the fat calm tabby cats of London some of whom slept peacefully right in the doorway of butcher shops as people stepped over them carefully, right there in the sawdust sun but a nose away from the roaring traffic of trams and buses and cars. England must be the land of cats, they abide peacefully all over the back fences of St John’s Wood. Edlerly ladies feed them lovingly just like Ma feeds my cats. In Tangiers or Mexico City you hardly ever see a cat, if so late at night, because the poor often catch them and eat them. I felt London was blessed by its kind regard for cats.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs oddly became quite well-known among cat-loving types for his book, The Cat Inside, in which he tells bizarrely adorable stories about his precious kitties. For readers familiar with the author’s earlier works like Naked Lunch, this might have been a rather big surprise. Indeed, as a young man, Burroughs was more interested in torturing cats than cuddling them. Something changed in him late in life, and he became a convert to cats, claiming “My relationship with cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance.”
Yet aside from passages decrying dogs and musing on the nature of cuteness, Burroughs’ thoughts on cats aren’t entirely alien to his earlier writings. He argues that a cat’s role in the human world is, and always has been, as a “psychic companion” and that above all else they are “practical.”
Elsewhere, Burroughs spoke of the importance of cats in his life. When Allen Ginsberg asked him about love, he claimed that he only wanted to be loved by his cats. In his very last journal entry, he claimed love to be the most important thing in the world… and cited his love for his cats as an example of that sort of love.
Allen Ginsberg was more inclined to use the word “cat” to refer to people than actual felines, and didn’t leave much of a written record of his relationship with the cats in his life. However, he owned a cat during his stay at the Beat Hotel in Paris, and upon returning to the U.S. after that trip he adopted another cat. Later in life, while living at East Hill Farm, he also owned cats.
That isn’t to say cats were entirely absent from his poetry. They pop up in little poems he noted down in his journals, with one of the better lines being:
Truth climbs upon the bed like a black cat purring
*Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself making just one stupid cat pun.
“We passed the Apollo theater . . . . and then we crossed the street to a penny arcade . ....
Tristessa Black tresses Dirty dresses You mess-a Mucha lucha, Muchacha, señorita Esperanza...
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 - the WAR issue. For about ten years after...
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ ...
Naked Lunch is the book that catapulted William S. Burroughs from a minor author and figur...
Paul Maher Jr has written an intimate, interesting look at the life of Jack Kerouac – not ...