The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men.
The Beat Generation pretty much mirrored the lifespan of Film Noir and Abstract Expressionism that started in the early ’40s and ended by 1955 or so. The original holy triumvirate of Kerouac/Ginsberg/Burroughs met in New York in the mid ’40s while Kerouac and Ginsberg were freshmen at Columbia. Hal Chase was from Denver and quickly introduced them to Neal Cassady, the hero/anti-hero of the Beat movement, and the subject of On the Road, the bible of the Beat generation that Kerouac wrote on a roll of paper in a three week Benzedrine rush, so he didn’t have to turn the page. Westward expansion was part of the Beat myth, but more than that it was consciousness expansion through drugs and religion that ultimately made them popular in the ’60s with the hippies, who were intellectually spearheaded by the West Coast Beats championing the holy triumvirate. Many literary critics have written about how Kerouac all but wrote a modern day Huckleberry Finn with On the Road, by recreating Huck’s ride on the Mississippi River, and replacing it with an automobile, the great innovation of the twentieth century, and that Neal Cassady all but redefined the modern American hero, but there was a difference. Kerouac was writing about his own life in such a dramatic way that he was all but breaking down the doors between art and life, an anti-bourgeoisie idea borrowed from Dadaism, and Kerouac turned the act of writing into something like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, making writing itself a performance, or a ritual.*
The East Coast Beats literally gravitated towards the West like the whole culture was doing in the wake of World War II. I’m from L.A., and my Grandpa told me this was because a lot of the enlisted men got to see California for the first time and the sunny skies, free living, and pretty women lead them to stay there, but my Grandpa was also a simple man, and thought sunshine made people taller, so there was probably more to it. Deeply ingrained in the American character was the yearning to always be moving west, to always be looking for new land, new ideas, new modes of expression, to be the last best hope on the planet earth, a new society free of all the hang ups of the past that had come to define world history and artistic restriction. The American story was one of westward expansion from the very beginning so it would make sense that a movement originating in New York City with a big bang would seek a new beginning and go further than their immigrant parents had when they landed in the New World. The original Beats wanted to cut loose from the puritanical strain and academic rigor of the East by first living like hoods in Times Square, but ones with spiritual beliefs, and then packed up the car for California.
Denver was the West Coast hub for the Beats and something Kerouac gets at geographically in On the Road, and that would make sense since it’s the last Western State, or the first Midwestern one, out on the Great Plains. Denver was the home of Neal Cassady, Hal Chase, and probably one or two luminaries I’m not remembering, and there was a great character in On the Road named Ed Dunkel, a comically absurd man running away from his wife and he may have been from Denver, the door through which the Beats entered the west. So, Neal Cassady was the great link to the West and in a funny twist not only became a legend for On the Road, but then became the next generation’s hero by driving Ken Kesey’s magic bus out East, but Kesey’s Merry Pranksters found none of the enlightenment they were looking for, and headed back out West. Cassady was the ferryman linking the East Coast Beats to the West Coast Beats, an as of yet unnamed group that can be seen as a bridge to the hippies, or the middle ground between them and the holy triumvirate. Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was not a West Coast Beat but saw the enduring qualities of the holy triumvirate, and yet they must’ve seemed antiquated to his “Electric Kool-Aid” frame of mind. Kesey must’ve felt like an East Coaster free of fiefdom to an Englishman when he took his band out East and the only thing a drunk Kerouac had to say to him in 1964 was: “Are you a communist?”
The West Coast Beats weren’t communists and may not have had a political thought in their heads. They were part of a hip wave that Kerouac was famous for starting and City Lights Bookstore was the Taj Mahal for the entire Beat Generation. It was run by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a West Coast Beat from the East famous for his poem, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” but more than that, through publishing. City Lights became famous for its unforgettable Pocket Poets series and one these was Ginsberg’s Howl, one of the great works of the Beat Generation. The West Coast Beats had no significant works of literature any historian would remember for their singularity of vision, though taken as a movement they made an impression, but this is a big distinction and vaunts the East Coast Beats over the West Coast Beats.
Gary Snyder was the first West Coast Beat I was introduced to and his poetry was one long homage to nature without even the angst of a survivalist. The West Coast Beats also didn’t have a holy triumvirate, nor as dramatic an origin or story, except the one that Kerouac painted for them, but that was from the point of view of a middle age drunk, trying to find meaning in life. The West Coast Beats were family men by comparison to the East Coast Beats, or middle class swingers, without a muse like Neal Cassady, acting as a protean bisexual hero, nor did they have anyone with the imagination of Burroughs spinning out sci-fi horror visions of the super sensual mind. Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, and even Robert Duncan seemed more comfortable than the East Coast Beats in academia even though the holy triumvirate hailed from the Ivy League, but they turned their back on Columbia and Harvard for the publishing world. Kerouac immortalized Gary Snyder as Japhy Ryder in the popular Dharma Bums, and the impression I was left with was of an impish handsome woodsy Zen nature poet with none of Kerouac’s hang ups about sex, rooted in an old world Catholicism, nor was Japhy a drunk like Kerouac, but more of an enlightened monk high on God and the simplicity of life. Snyder and the West Coast Beats seemed to be almost devoid of the political struggle that defined the East Coast Beats who sought to see nature through a chain link fence.
I’m going to do a literary experiment and write this to the recent film adaptation of Big Sur that brought out the West Coast/East Coast polarity, and sparked these thoughts. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early ’90s and met one of the last surviving West Coast Beats, Casey Sonnabend. I wrote a coming of age story about him and Hal Chase called, If So Carried by the Wind, so a lot of my thoughts on the West Coast Beats come from Casey. He would tell stories about going to Alan Watts’ houseboat in Sausalito and how he told him, “Never take acid more than once a year or you’ll become a casualty.” Watts was an archetype of a West Coast Beat, trying to live a regulated Zen life, with free love, but struggling with alcohol. He was also a philosopher of Eastern thought, and in the same way that the East Coast Beats popularized Be-Bop for a generation of white kids, a school of jazz that took its name from cops beating on black musicians with their billy clubs, so did Watts and the West Coast Beats turn on a generation of upper middle class Judeo-Christian kids to Zen thought and the mysteries of the Far East, when the average American man was still struggling with buying Japanese products because of the aftermath of World War II.
Watts and Snyder were the intellectual weight of the Haight Ashbury scene that exploded in acid rock with bands like the Grateful Dead, Kesey’s house band, and the Jefferson Airplane. The Beats from both coasts have been credited with the hippies who sprung out of the bare bones Beat prosody, published a good decade after their madcap adventures and alive in the minds of the youth. Big Sur might be the only Kerouacian tale that addresses what a bummer fame was for the “King of the Beats,” who was a bit older than the young man he wrote about and felt like a fraud. Kerouac was living with his Mom in Lowell, Massachusetts, by the time of the Summer of Love, and though Big Sur takes place about a decade before this there is really a sense that he’s looking to the West Coast Beats to save him, and I’d say part of that must’ve had to do with them being the next popular wave in literature, since the holy triumvirate and their offspring (Corso, Huncke, Waldman, etc.), had their day and a new one was dawning.
In Big Sur and The Subterraneans, Kerouac is desperately trying to hang onto his youth through the West Coast Beats, the new wave, but he never seems to find the solace he’s looking for in these poets. The movie Big Sur seems relatively faithful to the novel, and if you get into the Beats all of Kerouac’s novels are essential, but that and Desolation Angels are the ones on the West Coast. Desolation Angels and Big Sur were two of the last I read in my twenties, and while the prose of Big Sur seemed faithful to the Kerouac that readers had become accustomed to, Desolation Angels almost read like Kerouac was trying to write a novel in haiku, and indeed the haiku became a favorite form of his as he got older, and that he mastered especially in Mexico City Blues, his great work of poetry. But Kerouac’s themes about the eternal were always hindered by a dark looming depression that the West Coast Beats had freed themselves from, and I think it scared the young poets to see their hero wasted on alcohol and sorrow. The tragedy of Big Sur is that the second tier West Coast Beats took center stage even as Kerouac tried to reconnect with Neal Cassady, but they had nothing to say to each other having used up each other for art.
As for Burroughs, he was an East Coast Beat until the end, and it’s hard to even imagine him in California in the ’50s, let alone having anything to do with a “rucksack revolution.” He was an oddball out in Tangier on his own plane of reality with Paul Bowles and the mugwumps he was conjuring for Naked Lunch. The life of William S. Burroughs is in many ways distinct from Kerouac and Ginsberg’s, who were completely caught up in imagining Neal Cassady as the uberman for a new generation of Americans pumped on the speed of the automobile, western expansion, consciousness expansion, and the idea that we could still create a new man in America, a new extension of the cowboy so popular in movies and TV of the ‘50s. Burroughs knew Neal Cassady, but I think didn’t dedicate much of anything to him in his prose, and if anything went on a much different kick than Kerouac or Ginsberg, who were realists for the most part, and even travelled to the same parts of the country at the same time. William S. Burroughs often gets categorized under the sci-fi genre which is technically accurate much of the time, though to say he was a normal pulp writer would really be missing the point, but he wasn’t into Zen poetry. Burroughs got more into literary assemblage, or what he called the cut-up, and started doing the equivalent of sound experiments for his prose, a direction neither Kerouac nor Ginsberg ever explored.
None of the holy triumvirate ever really assimilated into the West Coast Beats, though Ginsberg was the closest, but I’m not even sure how close he got becoming a man of the people more than from any one camp. The Beats now get grouped under one big umbrella that incorporates the East Coast and the West Coast so that they’ve become like one big political party tying together the country between the coasts. Not surprisingly, this landscape plays out in contemporary politics with New York, parts of New England, and the west coast holding the liberal flag; the Midwest is literally in the political middle, and the South is gone on Republican Party politics and gothic literature. So, the Beat nation basically covered blue state territory, with the exception of Colorado, and maybe a couple of others that are what the political scientists call purple, and what Casey would’ve joked was “purple prose.” In some ways, you can’t disassociate the West Coast from the East Coast Beats since Neal Cassady was the holy Adonis to bring the regions together through Hal Chase.
The East Coast Beats in the ’40s were shady subversive intellectuals defying conventional morality in their never ending pursuit of kicks, but this led them into crime. Kerouac was involved in a murder with Lucien Carr, a poetic figure who was in with Burroughs, and brought infamy onto the group. Burroughs fell into the Times Square scene through Herbert Huncke, the character study for Junkie, his first novel, and still one of his most beloved. The Columbia kids with the help of an older Burroughs had gone to New York and walked through the underworld, unbeknownst to them, all for a poetic ends. Even Ginsberg, the only hippie of the East Coast bunch was alien to the West and reeked of old union halls, and Cold War politics. Ginsberg always looked like he stepped out of a Jewish deli even as he was chanting Hare Krishna with thumb cymbals.
The West Coast Beats didn’t seem to have anything too dark in their past except for the problems now commonly associated with the hippie era of sex addiction and marijuana abuse, but those happen to Wall St. brokers, too. They became aging hippies and were relatively clean and squeaky kids whose heroes from the East – Kerouac and Ginsberg – took them in as young geniuses carrying the Beat torch, and this must’ve fueled the West Coast Beats with a real sense of purpose hard to imagine. They were the next wave of poets that were going to overtake America and what people would now associate with the fashion of the Hipster movement and the Redwood logger look, but the Hipsters aren’t into Zen philosophy – yoga is the new Zen. They’ve taken on the aesthetics of the West Coast Beats and eat in diners their ’50s heroes would’ve loved.
In my day, the Gen X literati could easily be defined by his/her favorite Beat in the holy triumvirate. If it was Kerouac it meant that he/she liked the classic conservative studied pose of a successful novelist, who put art above life. If it was Ginsberg, you were marked as a hybrid of an East Coast Beat and a West Coast Beat, not to mention Warhol’s studio 54 vision of the 70s, shift shaping with each generational trend. Ginsberg was a chameleon who envisioned how he and his talented friends from Columbia could become the next big literary movement, and this was no small feat. So, if you were a Ginsberg fan you’d understand the meaning of celebrity and how to create a movement, but this doesn’t do his poetry justice, and Howl may be THE stand out poem of the 20th century. It’s the only one aside from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland whose first line is etched in my brain – “I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked.” For that alone, Ginsberg should be in the poetry hall of fame but poetry is purer than rock n’ roll and hasn’t been corrupted like that yet.
A Burroughs fan generally points to someone who would laugh at the West Coast Beats as granola eating, Zen loving hippies, who had no edge in their poetry. The Burroughs fan generally has much more insidious political thoughts than the West Coast Beat, trying to run from politics by reveling in nature, and seeing God in a raindrop. I doubt Burroughs could care less if he was staring at a mountain, or staring at a wall, and one of my favorite photos of him is in his suit in Tangier lying face down on the beach, while Kerouac the jock is smiling above him in his swim shorts.
If you liked the East Coast Beats then you were into the young version of Ginsberg and Kerouac, but by the early ’90s they had stained themselves by association with the West Coast Beats in the eyes of the Gen X literati. To be a Burroughs fan, a popular political stand, meant that you were akin to a David Lynch fan thinking him the preeminent filmmaker of his day and would mock a granola eating West Coast Beat vision of haiku poetry, even though in real life David Lynch was into transcendental meditation, but no bother. Also, William S. Burroughs taught at Naropa, or the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” (that’s a mouthful!) and walked around with Tibetan monks, but I’m sure this gets glossed over. I saw a documentary about Naropa in my freshman year, 1986, and it was almost like watching an after school special from the ’70s, a time that was feeling more and more distant. It’s no surprise the school was in Boulder, Colorado, the gateway to the East and West, and a stone’s throw from Denver, the home of Neal Cassady and Hal Chase.
In my memory, Gary Snyder was the most popular of the West Coast Beats, and studying him meant an appreciation for nature like John Muir, mixed with subtle insights into art and academia. A Gary Snyder kind of guy might be a Zen poet who could spend hours going down to the beach and arranging rocks, something Kerouac would’ve enjoyed, but Kerouac has the factory town depression era mentality of Massachusetts deep in his bones, and could never be free enough to embrace pure Zen. He was someone trying to be a Zen master who instead became the king of the Beats, and Burroughs became an underground hero for the punks, whose name evokes a certain taste for the macabre. He’s also considered the most intellectual of the Beats and if you want to sound like you have a taste for genius you say you like Burroughs more than Kerouac or Ginsberg, though on further inspection it’s a stereotype and they were all very blessed.
The West Coast and East Coast Beats breathed life into the landscape when modernity was still flourishing, and really thought they could reinvent the world based on ancient Greek philosophy, Zen poetry, abstract painting, and metaphysical religion. It was a time that Che envisioned a new man free of the flaws that held the human project back, and so the Beats were an incredibly hopeful movement however beat-down they were because of the factory sludge of the industrial revolution that they were born into but hoping to be new Whitmanesque super heroes, banging on people’s doors in the middle of the night to wake them up for the enlightenment. Modernity ended by the ’70s, and the Beats have become a largely archaeological study for young Americans trying to figure out their cultural roots, but in a postmodern age it’s hard to imagine yourself a Greek God recreating the world in your image like Kerouac and Ginsberg were doing, and like Burroughs was too, but in his own cut up logic. The best we can do now is imitate the fashion of the Beats, and eat a can of beans like we’re hoboes, trying to see what it feels like to be an artist.
*It has recently been revealed that the U.S. government was funding the Abstract Expressionists as a counterpoint to communist conformity, and maybe one day it will be revealed they were doing the same for the Beats!