Defining Beat: Era, Location, and the Importance of Considering Women

 

The Beat Generation, though small in numbers, had a profound effect on the American literary tradition. Coming into existence just after World War II, Beat writers sought to examine post-war capitalism and materialism, coupled with hints of Cold War anxiety. These writers were reacting to many of the high modernists, such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, attempting to reclaim literature from academics that often sounded pretentious, detached, and largely inaccessible; the works of Beat authors tend to be closer to confessional, intimate, and, in general, more in touch with the self. Due to the nature of their surrounding social circumstances, many of the Beat authors tended to have similar themes in their works: drug use, restlessness, sexual freedom, and, ultimately, a rebellion against social norms; however, these characteristics do not make a generation—Beat implies time and place as well, largely New York City and San Francisco in the 1950s. Though the “big” Beat authors are male—Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—several female writers also existed in the Beat movement, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson. In Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters, as well as di Prima’s collection of poetry, Pieces of a Song, and her memoir, Recollections of my Life as a Woman, Beat themes and locations are prevalent, similar to any of the other canonical Beat writers; therefore, di Prima and Johnson should be understood as Beat writers, offering female voices to a male-dominated movement.

Because of the Beat Generation’s small size relative to other literary periods—as well as the Beats having a proclaimed spokesperson—it becomes easier to define what is and what is not Beat. Kerouac, the spokesperson for the Beats, writes about the foundation of the Beat Generation, saying he likes “long outlines of personal experience and vision, night-long confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul)” (On the Origins, 60). This statement is quite an accurate summary of Beat literature—personal, confessional, an attempt for the soul to escape from the treachery of capitalism in the fifties—and that theme can be found in any of the Beat works, though it occasionally manifests itself with different subject matters. On the Road is arguably the best example of the spiritual journey the Beats sought after, a re-visioning of the American Dream, a running away from the culture that Ginsberg presents in Howl. The other Beat works, though unique in other ways, react and attempt to cope with the dismal visions of reality in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s work. What On the Road does not accomplish, however, is the method of prose Kerouac developed to make his work seem closer to the spirit and pays a tribute to a popular Beat influence—bop. For the Beats, the spontaneity of feeling that manifests itself in bop music is a keystone for their writing that displays unabashed emotion, and this idea is the essence of the Beat Generation.

In terms of time and place, Joyce Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters, is unarguably Beat—she recounts Kerouac’s life in New York City in the late fifties, as well as other major figures in the Beat movement. In terms of time, Johnson claims, “the late fifties had a special intensity that has never been equaled since. The Beat movement lasted five years” (xxxiv). Her involvement with these people does not alone make her a Beat. Her writing explores the development of her identity as well, most certainly influenced by the city and people around her. When Johnson was thirteen, before she met any of the Beat figures, she observed “that America is a place of enormous injustice and inequality, where the little children of miners starve in shacks and where Negro men are lynched or jailed for crimes that are not even crimes,” then offered an example, Willie McGee (31). These same social injustices are spoken about, explicitly, in Ginsberg’s “America”: “America free Tom Mooney / America save the Spanish Loyalists / America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die / America I am the Scottsboro boys” (57-60). At her young age she was already observing the injustices the Beats reacted to, coupled with her own need to escape her more traditional family life in favor of the lifestyle surrounding Washington Square: “I’ve fallen in love with them all. It’s as though a longing I’ve carried inside myself has suddenly crystallized. To be lonely within a camaraderie of loneliness” (27).

By the time she attended Barnard College, she decided she “was giving up Bohemianism, which I now saw as childish,” though, ultimately, she rescinded this idea after meeting Kerouac (47). It was at Barnard where she discovered she “had little respect for respectability” (65), similar to the Beat mentality, and where she first read about the Beat Generation: “but wasn’t this ‘bottled eagerness’ exactly what we felt? Could we be somehow more a part of the Beat Generation than of the Silent one we’d been born into chronologically?” (71). It is at this point when Johnson began to feel distinct dissatisfaction with tradition, moving out of her parents’ apartment, seeking forbidden-at-the-time love affairs, and eventually discontinuing her studies at Barnard. After meeting Kerouac and developing some relationship with him, Johnson noted that Kerouac referred to her as “my little secretary” in his letters to her and this caused her to think “how Beat could I actually be, holding down a steady office job and writing a novel about an ivy-league college girl on the verge of parting with her virginity” (205). The next paragraph began “but I didn’t last long at my new place of employment,” and marked the beginning of her career as a Beat.

From here she moved to the East Village, much against her parents’ wishes, as it was then considered a poor neighborhood, or as she describes it: “the sweet slums of Bohemia and beatnikdom” (208). She wanted to actively pursue Kerouac in his travels, primarily because of a love for Kerouac, but the narrative also suggests a desire to be free. One of the times Kerouac stayed with Johnson she remembers hearing Kerouac working on a novel on her typewriter, and this caused her to remember that she “thought that if you could only write with perfect honesty about the very thing that was troubling you, you could transcend it, lay it to rest” (224). Johnson, in recollection, sees herself here at the height of Kerouac’s influence, of his ideas about spontaneous prose. It is not fair to say Johnson’s position as a Beat is dependent on Kerouac’s influence, because nearly the entire first half of the memoir is without his presence, taking great care to explain how Johnson herself formulated her own ideas from childhood—they just happened to align with the Beat mentality. Johnson concludes her book with this statement: “I’m a forty-seven-year-old woman with a permanent sense of impermanence. If time were like a passage of music, you could keep going back to it till you got it right” (262). This claim is her attempt to understand herself, her tendency to run away from the traditional, to pursue herself rather than societal conventions. This notion, combined with her presence in major Beat figures’ lives secures her place as unarguably Beat, and furthermore, the work as a whole explains exactly how “Beat” becomes developed inside one’s self.

Diane di Prima also appears to exist just outside of the core Beat movement; however, this should not be the case—like Johnson, her work contains the correct time and place, but also seeks to find the same spiritual freedom present in other Beat writing. Spiritual freedom, for the Beats, is ultimately tied to rebelling against social conventions because these conventions are exactly what cause the need for rebellion. Di Prima’s “Poem of Refusals” offers a good display of her sedition: “I will not / glance sidelong after reading a poem / to see / if you understood it” (8-11). Here, in the middle of a poem containing primarily social-oriented refusals, is a refusal of perceived literary convention as well—consistent with the reaction to modernism that permeates Beat work. In this example it is not clear who, exactly, glances sidelong, but the nature of the statement is more important: rejection of convention and changing literary values.

In On the Origins of a Generation, Kerouac argues that he inherited his Beat values from his family: “It [Beat] goes back to the 1880s when my grandfather Jean-Baptiste Kerouac used to…” (57). Kerouac also insists the movement is founded in a sensitivity for all things: “I have never had anything to do with violence, hatred, cruelty, and all that horrible nonsense” (64). It is not fair to say that di Prima definitely read this manifesto, but it seems likely. Her poem “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa” echoes many of the ideas in On the Origins of a Generation. In it, she writes:

 

“thank you

………………………………

………………………….for

pulling my hair when I

pulled the leaves off the trees so I’d

know how it feels” (10-16)

 

Present, here, is the same sensitivity for living things found in Kerouac’s manifesto, and these values are also handed down to her via her family. These values are certainly widespread throughout many literary eras, but because di Prima writes from the same time period and the same location as other Beat writers, her work is decidedly Beat. She also is aware of the Beat movement, as she notes in the April fool birthday poem, “we are / involved in it now, a revolution, up to our knees and the tide is rising” (16-18), and again later in the poem “talking revolution / which is love, spelled backwards, how / you would love us all, would thunder your anarchist wisdom” (29-31). Again the influence of Kerouac is present here, but it is very important to note she describes her grandfather’s wisdom as anarchist, the politically motivated rebellion similar to “Howl” or Ferlinghetti’s “I am Waiting”: “I am waiting / for the war to be fought / which will make the world safe / for anarchy” (17-20).

Di Prima’s Recollections of my Life as a Woman also helps secure her place as a Beat writer. In it is the Beat mode of thinking, similar to Johnson’s memoir, though more outwardly Beat. In her work, an amalgam of Beat influence is seen. When she writes about her friend Mike, she notes “I was told he was in a loony bin near Buffalo, another casualty of the American Way,” a sentiment similar to Ginsberg’s lament for Carl Solomon (131). At one point she visits with Ezra Pound and remarks “the whole visit was a very intensive schooling. Ezra Pound’s generosity, his unique perspective” (143). She had a literal dialogue with Pound, similar to the dialogue Corso wishes to have in “I am 25,” where he expresses a desire to “rip out their apology tongues” (17). It is not explicitly stated in the poem, but it seems “I am 25” is directed towards Pound: “I did those then/ but that was then/ that was then,” (9-11) seeming to refer to Pound’s changing attitude about his previous actions while in the mental institution, later appearing in Canto CXX: “Let the Gods forgive what I / have made” (5-6). Pound is clearly an influence for the Beat writers, though they primarily react against his detachedness, and Pound’s response to poems di Prima sent him reflect the change: “NO ONE EVER MUCH USE / AS CRITIC OF / YOUNGER GENERATION” (140).

Keats was also a big influence on di Prima—she mentions him multiple times in her memoir, and writes a poem to him, “Ode to Keats,” expressing his influence on her. Like many of the other Beat writers, she wished to recollect a Romantic poet in her writing. As with Johnson, it is important to remember that di Prima’s status as a Beat writer is not dependent on other Beats; however, when questioning inclusion into a movement, similarities and influence are certainly a factor. Di Prima’s work, without alluding to other Beats, stands alone as Beat literature—not only because of the thematic content (which can be found across many different literary eras), but because she wrote in the fifties, in New York City, and was heavily influenced by jazz: “the house was almost never without music…Messiaen, Scriabin, Miles Davis, the MJQ, Stravinsky, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Bessie Smith, Sara Martin, filled our space. Our ears and our heads” (138).

Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson certainly belong in the Beat movement; furthermore, they are essential to understanding what it means to be Beat. Both of these writers existed in a male-dominated movement, and to include them in understanding that movement is of the utmost importance—both Johnson and di Prima, in their memoirs, examine how and why Beat developed intrinsically, offering insight to the culture the Beats were reacting to—different than the way Ginsberg describes it. Johnson also offers a different Kerouac than seen in his novels, a Kerouac that is softer and understanding but cannot escape his own vices. These two writers existed in the same time and place as the other Beats, influenced and were influenced by the other Beats, and share the same attitudes as the other Beats, and need to be included. Understanding the culture surrounding the Beats is essential to understanding the movement—their ideas are not idiosyncratic; however, the context the work was revealed in is, and di Prima and Johnson both help to understand that culture and why a reaction was needed.

 

Works Cited

 

Corso, Gregory. “I am 25.” Gasoline. San Francisco: City Lights, 1955. 42. Print.

DiPrima, Diane. “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa.” Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. 69. Print.

—. “Ode to Keats.” Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. 57-59. Print.

—.”Poem of Refusals.” Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. 132-133. Print.

—. Recollections of My Life as a Woman. New York: Penguin, 2001. 124-159. Print.

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “I am Waiting.” A Coney Island of the Mind. New York: New Directions. 49-53. Print

Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” Collected Poems. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 154-56. Print.

—. “Howl.” Collected Poems. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 134-41. Print.

Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. “On the Origins of a Generation.” Good Blonde and Others. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1993. 55-65. Print.

—. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “The Cantos.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, et al. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 368-387. Print.

 

**

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #17.

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M.G. Wessels

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M.G. Wessels writes fiction and poetry, when he can, as well as an essay or two. When not writing, he can be found fixing airplanes or trying craft beer; however, it is considered bad practice to combine the two. His work as been featured in Apeiron Review, Text, Centrifuge, and is forthcoming in THAT literary review. He lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

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