Tenements absorbed the sun to brick and spread the heat like a steam iron, pressing ideas flat, airless, into our street lives. Waiting for the number to come out, welfare wary, drinking cheap wine, whining about the sure memory of the south, gaining minute reputations, habitually wanting and needing things, observed nodding to nada with the “white lady.” Colored, and recently “Black” by most definition, coping & cropping personalities to a new South in Harlem… Continue Reading…
Archives For amiri baraka
An Overview of LeRoi Jones’ Greatest Commentary on the Struggle of the Black Man and Racial Relations in Post-World War America
Before Amiri Baraka changed his name, he was LeRoi Jones: poet, playwright, and husband to Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish woman. Together LeRoi and Hettie edited the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen, which later published such literary icons as the Beat Generation’s Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The couple’s relationship strained as Jones fell in with the ideology of Malcolm X, breaking away from the Beat Generation and into movements such as Black Nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. Baraka’s play Dutchman, written as LeRoi Jones, opened at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on March 24, 1964 to intriguing acclaim for an off-Broadway production. This initial production sparked the beginning of Baraka’s revolutionary immersion into Black Nationalism, political theatre, and the eventual name change from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. Dutchman examines race relations in post-World War America and also commentates on the relationship between white women and black men and the implicit stereotypes presented. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman presents the suffering of the Black man in America in order to emphasize an illicit political agenda that caters to Black Nationalism. Continue Reading…
Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones chronicles a forty year friendship through their correspondence, as well as Jones’ occasional fragments of narrative, from the early sixties until Dorn’s death in 2004. It isn’t just a collection of letters; it includes faxes and e-mails. It covers a wide range of subjects – though mostly focuses on the personal struggles of motherhood, work in the publishing industry, and staying financially afloat. Continue Reading…
The Beat Generation found itself mystified by the black culture of the time. This mystification granted them agency in manifesting their deepest desires of free-flowing sexuality in what they observed from the black people with which they surrounded themselves. Associating themselves with black people allowed them to further their performance as “The Hipster” or the “White Negro.” The very idea of being “beat” implies a white desire to be black and participate in black cultural norms, such as a wider acceptance of sexuality and jazz, instead of those set by white society, which was more mainstream. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road romanticizes black culture in this regard. However, Hettie Jones’ 1990 memoir How I Became Hettie Jones emphasizes different aspects of black life through her interracial relationship, which shows a new vision on the Beats’ desire to be black. How I Became Hettie Jones reinterprets Kerouac’s On the Road by demystifying the romanticization of his white desire to be “Negro.” Continue Reading…
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life. Continue Reading…
Yesterday, on 9th January, Amiri Baraka passed away at the age of 79. He was an influential and highly controversial figure, who was at times associated with the Beat Generation and Black Arts movement.
In the 1950s Baraka went by the name LeRoi Jones and worked as a poet associated with the Beats. Living in Greenwich Village he was friends with Allen Ginsberg and gained fame for his poetry and jazz criticism.
Later he came to identify with Malcolm X’s black separatist movement and rejected links with the Beats and other predominantly white groups. He gained notoriety for passionate and often violent works of literature, such as the play “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself,” as well as for his outspoken anti-white sentiment.
In recent years Baraka caused public outcry with his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which was commonly derided as anti-Semitic, and led to him being forcibly removed from his position as poet laureate of New Jersey.
Still, like those other Beat poets whose work offended and ultimately changed the world around them, Amiri Baraka came to gain recognition for his work, and will continue to influence the culture for years to come.
Beatdom was fortunate to speak with Baraka in 2013. Read the interview here.
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. Continue Reading…
It’s here, it’s here, it’s finally here!!!!
That’s right, ladies and gentleman. Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue – is now on sale. You can purchase your copy on Kindle or good old dead tree format, both from your favorite industry-crushing internet monopoly. The Paypal link from Beatdom Books is coming soon…
If you’ve read Beatdom before, then you’ve probably already placed your order for this new installment. You know what to expect, as we always deliver the best of the best of the best. But for those of you out there who have never before set eyes on the beatest literary journal around, let me give you a run-down of what to expect:
Firstly, let’s talk about the interviews. Beatdom editor, Michael Hendrick, has been busy talking with Patti Smith and Amiri Baraka – two of the biggest names in their respective fields. The conversations span politics, pens, and poetry. David S. Wills talked to none other than Joyce Johnson, one of the key influences in bringing to light the women of the Beat Generation. She discusses her new book – The Voice is All.
Then there are the essays. As always, you can count on Beatdom to bring you the finest in literary criticism and history analysis, and this time we have once again triumphed. We start with David S. Wills’ essay, “Beat Rap Sheet,” in which he highlights the criminal records (or unrecorded criminal activities) of the Beat trinity- William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. Matthew Levi Stevens takes it from there with a deeper look into the criminality of Burroughs, whose psychologist once referred to as a “gangsterling,” for his juvenile obsession with bad guys. We take a slight detour from the Beat route to look at Raymond Chandler and his portrayal of Los Angeles’ infamously mean streets, before returning to the Beats with essays by Chuck Taylor and Philip Rafferty, who discuss the value of Kerouac’s poetry and the extent to which the Beats were truly Zen, respectively.
Poetry is always a huge draw for our readers, and this time around we’ve packed a lot of quality verse into our little magazine. Our poets for this issue are Jamie McGraw, Catherine Bull, Michael Hendrick, Velourdebeast, Kat Hollister, Holly Guran, MCD, and Alizera Aziz.
We have fiction from Beatdom regular, Zeena Schreck, who has given us her theatre monologue, “Night Shift, Richmond Station,” and also from newcomer, Charles Lowe, with his tale of life in China, “Baby American Dream.” Both continue our exploration of the criminal element.
Jerry Aronson, director of the magnificent documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, is back with a special Beat photo, and Spencer Kansa, author of the first ever Beatdom Books publication, Zoning, recounts a visit he paid to the late Herbert Huncke – the very man who inspired Burroughs and co. to their own criminal exploits in the 1940s.
We also have a review of Ann Charters and Samuel Charters’ book, Brother-Souls, which examines the life of John Clellon Holmes. The review functions also as a biographical essay, detailing some of the more interesting aspects of Holmes’ life.
Finally, we wrap up this outing with yet another piece of artwork from the one and only Waylon Bacon, entitled “Rogues Gallery.”
The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip’, a period of various shifts that have shaped our current society. This hints at an underlying consensus that the 1960s were a time of high artistic endeavour, the centre of countercultural resistance, and some of the cultural ripples that are still being felt today.
by Jed Skinner
What factors influenced this period of time for this decade to be so prominent? The cluster of significant events that occurred in the late Sixties has led Gitlin to compare this time to ‘a cyclone in a wind tunnel’, and Rabinowitz argues that ‘the 1960s confound representation – or rather narrative – because words fail; image and sound […] are what remain’; events and figures that ‘stand out’ in these ways are those that are likely to receive the most attention. These two arguments enhance the point that, because there are many narratives of the Sixties, each one places emphasis on different aspects of the decade.
When one considers the notion of the Beat generation’s ideas of the Fifties contributing to aspects of the following decade’s culture, art and politics, it can be easy to focus solely on the prominent figures and events, and link them together. When this happens, an inevitable decision is being made: what is worthy of being called Beat, what is worthy of being called Sixties culture, and where such culture lies geographically as well as historically.
A linear narrative where there are, in Negus’ words, ‘distinct breaks involving beginnings and endings or births and deaths’ generates problems. This approach generally fails to acknowledge other perspectives, to account for the voices of people excluded from the narrative. A Vattimo argues, it is only from the ‘victors’ of history ‘that history is a unitary process in which there is consequentiality and rationality’ . What I would like to do in this essay is consider the notion put forward by Laibman, that ‘there was not one 1960s; there were many’. This is not to say that the Beats did not influence anything, and I do not wish to undermine or trivialise their work and its importance. It is also impossible to go into detail about every aspect of Beat culture. However, by looking generally at some of the areas where the Beats’ influence occurred, what it influenced, and to what extent, this will expose other voices and locations, which I hope will better inform the argument I wish to make.
It is important to consider the social contexts of the Fifties to be able to understand why the Beats’ work was considered to be so significant. One of the central themes in historical narratives of the Beats is a description of a prevailing climate of conformity in post-war America. Following the end of World War II, the ideas and ideologies that were driving factors during the conflict were seemingly discredited. Woods argues that, in America, intellectuals began to focus their attention onto ‘the roots of totalitarianism, dissecting evolving notions of democracy and republicanism’. What resulted from this was a more scientific, calculated approach of looking at how society should operate.
Herman argues that planners and policy makers had been convinced by their experiences during World War II that human beings could act very irrationally, because of a teaming, raw, unpredictable emotionality. The chaos that lived at the base of human personality could infect social institutions to the point where society itself would become sick.
It was therefore perceived necessary for American society, if it wished to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the war, to be controlled and contained to some extent from the factors that could lead to such chaos. In the late Forties and early Fifties, the US Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings that, as Holton describes, were ‘aimed at persecuting those who did not agree with a narrow definition of political reality’: the most famous instance resulted in scores of Hollywood actors, directors, producers and screenwriters being ‘blacklisted’ from employment for alleged ‘subversive’ activities. What emerges from this climate is what Marcuse describes as ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought’, whereby ‘ideas, aspirations and objectives that […] transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe’. This manifests itself through the pressure on individuals to behave as part of larger groups, to avoid any particular ‘individuality’. Riesman et al’s 1950 publication The Lonely Crowd describes the rise of the ‘other-directed man’, a new figure, entirely the product of America’s rising managerial class and prosperous post-war economy; a replacement of ‘the traditional “inner-directed”, self made American’. The other-directed man ‘suppressed his individuality, spurned conflict, and sought guidance and approval from the environment around him’. This sort of figure was an ideal target for advertisers using the new medium of television, which contributed to a large shift in the way people bought goods. Towards the end of the 1950s, the US economy had shifted from a ‘production economy’, based around meeting basic human needs, to a market-orientated, consumer economy, which emphasised status over class. This was a phenomenon that inspired Bell to proclaim in 1960 that Western society had reached ‘the end of ideology’, that ‘ideology, which was once a road to action, has come to a dead end’.
Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl made its debut at a poetry reading in 1955, and, Holton argues, ‘seemed to offer the means to break out of the cultural enclosure […] and into a dimension unrecognized in Marcuse’s analysis’. Much has been written about this long poem, but the general consensus has been that Howl expressed a vocal frustration at a stifling, corporate, conforming America, with unrestrained fury and anger. Gitlin argues that Howl was ‘the first time in the American twentieth century’ that ‘poetry read aloud became a public act that changed lives’. In 1957, a year after publication, the work was the focus of an obscenity trial. Debates about the alleged ‘obscenity’ of the text in court helped to bring the poem to wider prominence among those who were outside of Ginsberg’s literary circle. The same year, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, and the two works ‘vaulted from anonymity’ a small group of bohemians who would become known as the Beat Generation.
Why so? Gitlin argues that ‘if the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty’. This mindset is best displayed in Norman Mailer’s influential 1959 essay ‘The White Negro’. Here, Mailer holds up a new kind of figure as a solution to the ‘bleak scene’ of society: ‘the American existentialist – the hipster’, who ‘exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat’. In this new world, there are only two options available: rebellion or conformity. ‘One is Hip or one is Square’, he argues, ‘one is a frontiersmen in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society’. If one is white (and one must be, to be able to have the choice), the appeal of being hip lies in its existentialist appeal, in its abandonment of a traditional family-centred lifestyle, and the adoption of social mores from a dangerous, excluded Other: ‘the Negro’. This, in Mailer’s view, is where the source of hip lies, in Negro music (‘jazz’), Negro life choices (‘a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger’), and Negro philosophy (‘he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present’). Therefore the hipster is ‘a white Negro’, having ‘absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro’.
Although grossly laden with racial stereotypes of a pre-Civil rights era America, Frank argues that ‘The White Negro’ ‘managed to predict the basic dialectic around which the cultural politics of the next thirty-five years would be structured’. However, there is a difference between two different kinds of ‘Beat’ sensibilities that have been established: the literary type epitomised by Ginsberg and Kerouac on one side, and the ‘hipster’/’beatnik’ on the other. This is not to say that the ‘literary’ Beats did not have any of the ‘hipster’ qualities – far from it. Rather, as Starr argues, contemporary critics tended to argue that ‘true’ Beats such as Ginsberg and Kerouac made ‘literary creativity a focal point of their lives’, whereas others, who would qualify as ‘hipsters’ or ‘Beatniks’, merely attended jazz clubs and visited coffeehouses, and were insignificant. Furthermore, the prominent Beat figures, with a few exceptions (such as Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka), were white, and were overwhelmingly from middle-class families.
Consequently, Beats have generally been portrayed as a minority of generally white, literary articulate intellectuals; scholars ‘understand the Beat Generation in terms of a literary avant-garde and evaluate its historical significance accordingly’. The others – the Beatniks – were from differing socio-cultural and racial backgrounds, and were considerably larger in number than the ‘literary’ Beats. As Beat poet Diane di Prima recalls, that around the time of Howl’s publication, ‘there were only a small handful of us’. The traditional argument described by Starr – that Beats were ‘a small group of cultural radicals’ – generates a situation where ‘the broader parameters of the Beat Generation’ become ignored.
When considering the notion of ‘Beat ideas’, it is important to consider the ideas of those from outside the pantheon of literary figures. Although Ginsberg, Kerouac and the like were obviously important to the Beatniks, which should not be underestimated, it is also the case that the Beatniks were equally important as the literary figures in connecting notions of Beat ideas with others from outside the scene. Starr notes that repeated police visits of coffeehouses in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and allegations of police bribery against owners, had resulted in marches, pickets and sit-ins against police harassment during the late 1950s through to the early 1960s. As the Beats mobilized to defend themselves from police harassment, they ‘forged alliances with community leaders and civil liberties groups to defend their position within the urban landscape’ in the process. It could be argued that the ideas expressed in literary form by the Beat authors were in turn acted on by a wider circle of many groups, whose significance is crucial to the Beats’ continuing cultural standing. As these people gathered together in urban areas, ‘enclaves’ of Beat social networks began to be created, comprised of people with similar tastes and values.
The existence of a Beat enclave in North Beach, San Francisco, and a few years later, the large hippie community of Haight-Ashbury, can be constructed as a physical, direct line of influence from the Beats to the hippies – and therefore a demonstration of Beat influence on 1960s culture. I would argue that the Beats were influential in the culture of the Sixties, but their influence was predominantly on the construction of the ‘counterculture’. What the counterculture entails is complex: it is, in Marwick’s view, a term used ‘to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society’; however, ‘counterculture’ also means different things to different people, and as Marwick argues, ‘there was no unified, integrated counter-culture, totally and consistently in opposition to mainstream culture’. In addition, Marwick cites the first instance of the term in 1968 in the highbrow publication The Nation, whereas contemporary writer Thomas Albright uses ‘underground’ in a 1968 Rolling Stone article. What I mean by ‘counterculture’ is a rough amalgam of alternative ways of living, literary works, art, music and politics, but not a definable movement with a firm link to any ideology or political persuasion. Its origins lie in the Beat enclaves that were created by people moving to towns such as San Francisco and New York, where the Beat writers lived and worked. Certain areas, such as North Beach in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York, and Venice in Los Angeles, were home to an infrastructure of coffeehouses, theatres, bars and spaces founded and frequented by these people, who all resided there in pursuance of ‘alternative’ life choices, separated from the all-encompassing ‘mainstream’ culture.
The hippie scene, which began in San Francisco and is almost universally portrayed as the ‘image’ of the counterculture (if not the Sixties), can be considered to be heavily influenced by the Beats primarily for geographic reasons. As Puterbaugh notes, when Beatniks began to move to San Francisco, the housing of choice was the old Victorian mansions of the Haight-Ashbury area, which were available for low rent. The Beat poet Michael McClure notes that the geographic proximity of the Haight-Ashbury area to North Beach meant that there were ‘people overlapping each other from what had been a number of separate existences’, creating a ‘huge, fluid scene’ of people with similar tastes and interests. As Shank notes, such scenes can be an outlet for creativity to move beyond ‘locally significant cultural values’ towards ‘an interrogation of dominant structures of identification, and potential cultural transformation’, through the exploration of new identities and collective involvement. In this case, the large number of people moving to San Francisco in the 1960s made it possible for resident Beats, Beatniks and their values to mingle with those who were new to the counterculture scene and city. Albright argues that ‘certain major strands’ of Beat values became infused in the development of the new scene: the Beats’ self-conscious ethos of ‘dropping out’ of a perceived establishment lifestyle; the ‘intense and programmatic’ alienation of Beats from mainstream notions of society; a focus on Orientalism, Eastern mysticism and European existentialism; recreational drug use in pursuit of a ‘total experience’; a ‘worship of Art, in true romantic tradition’; and the elevation of music to an art form (jazz for the Beats, rock in the counterculture scene). These bohemian enclaves established by the Beats ensured that a sense of community was able to exist.
As Cohen notes, some of the factors which unite people in the ongoing development of a music scene are ‘age and gender, webs of interlinking social networks and a gossip grapevine’, all of which could be found in these enclaves. The San Francisco scene allowed musical developments such as acid rock to develop: a type of music spawned partly from Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Tests’, where LSD-spiked Kool-Aid was freely distributed to people, often without their knowledge. (A direct beat connection lies in the fact that Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelled around the US on a ‘magic bus’, driven by Neal Cassady, the real life Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road). Gitlin notes that ‘the Acid Tests evolved into Trips Festivals and scheduled concerts, with a new sound – spacy, unbounded whorls, not discrete songs: acid rock’. Acid rock bands that rose from this scene include the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others, all based in San Francisco. Fertile artistic grounds were also present in New York: three of the four Mamas and Papas met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and Bob Dylan resided there. However, the problem with reading the counterculture as Sixties culture is that its prime geographical locations and most fertile grounds were in these enclaves, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others; in the United States, in the Western hemisphere. ‘Sixties culture’ has various connotations depending on where one looks. A cultural ‘revolution’ in America is something very different to the Cultural Revolution that took place in China during the 1960s, where millions of people died. Even if one only looks at America, there are large differences in the late 1960s between the various areas of the country. The Civil Rights movement, with its figurehead Martin Luther King, fought against corrupt politicians, police and racists in the struggle for racial equality. There were no Beat enclaves in the Southern states of America, with segregation existing until (and even beyond) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed it. Instead, to pursue a freer lifestyle, people were to travel away from the South, to escape to these other places, else be excluded from having a choice. The consequence has been that the influence of the Beats upon wider areas of society in America is actually quite varied. In particular, the extent to which Beats were politically active is of interest.
In 1952, Beat poet John Clellon Holmes wrote of the hipster, ‘there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd’. Later, however, some Beats became more radicalised. Starr notes how Chester Anderson, editor of the Beat magazines Beatitude and Underhound, addressed a rally against police maltreatment in North Beach in 1960, advising the crowd to ‘sue’ the police and to ‘fight back in every legal way’ if treated unfairly. John Haag, owner of the Venice West Café in Los Angeles, was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, including the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Civil Liberties Union, and organizations fighting police harassment. However, it seems that because the enclaves were to some extent ‘removed’ from what could be considered the ‘mainstream’ of society, not all Beats actively pursued political involvement. The actual extent to which Beat ideas were able to shape aspects of society through politics was very much dependent on the individuals involved, and whether or not these ideas were taken up by others.
In the 1960s, student-led political organizations, comprised of people including Beats, were formed. These included the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, founded in 1960, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It is possible that as these organizations grew, those Beatniks that were most politically inclined became more involved with these and other such groups. As the Vietnam War escalated from the mid-1960s, the SDS attracted new members. Sale describes these people as non‑Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. They tended to be not only ignorant of the history of the left and its current half‑life in New York City, but downright uninterested.
I do not wish to argue that SDS was ineffectual or apathetic, but as Miller argues, ‘many recruits were drawn to SDS not by left-wing ideology but by their opposition to the war and the draft […] and their attraction to the counterculture’. This is interesting, because one of the criticisms of the counterculture, as Frank argues, is that it ‘is said to have worked a revolution through lifestyle rather than politics […] through pleasure rather than power’. An example of such an argument is Puterbaugh’s claim that the Grateful Dead were ‘largely responsible for the spread of the counterculture and its perpetuation over time’. Why? Because they were ‘primarily associated with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, having provided an acid-blues soundtrack as the house band for the anarchic Acid Tests’. It can be deduced that the counterculture was primarily an artistic outlet: a leisure-based lifestyle choice. This is queried by Harrington, who 1972 wonders if ‘the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise’. The counterculture ultimately became a ready-made market for advertisers: the central countercultural notion of ‘hip’ was the capital most sought after in connection with a brand. Perhaps the most notorious example was Columbia Records’ advertisement in a 1968 edition of Rolling Stone: its slogan was ‘The Man Can’t Bust Our Music’: some distance away from the Beat venerations of existentialism, voluntary poverty, personal and spiritual release.
Miller notes that, by 1967, liberal-leaning politicians ‘were giving friendly speeches at antiwar rallies, defining moderate opposition as an acceptable part of the political spectrum’. When the new capitalist incarnation of ‘hip consumerism’, Harrington argues that ‘bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle class morality’. Once this had disappeared, ‘bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe’.
However, what is important to consider is that the influence of Beat ideas, at the most basic level, offered an alternative way of living in American post-war conventionality, stemming from a time, Jameson argues, where ‘no society has ever been so standardized’. As Starr notes, the Beat communities, through the utilization of public space in urban, bohemian enclaves, had challenged racial segregation, homophobia and ‘created a vibrant counterculture which facilitated individual liberation and collective political action’. These achievements have been built upon by countless activists who have progressively challenged such discrimination from the Fifties, through the Sixties to the present. The Beats’ valuation of personal freedom through artistic expression resulted in the founding of enclaves and artistic scenes where this expression could be explored at a remove from the more ‘mainstream’ ways of living. This legacy has influenced not just the Sixties, but those wishing to pursue alternative ways of living through to the present day.
Albright, Thomas, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in
Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in George-Warren, Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356.
Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 ).
Bennett Woods, Randall, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005).
Clellon Holmes, John, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November
Cohen, Sarah, ‘Scenes’, in Horner, Bruce and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular
Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250.
Columbia Records Ad: < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-
free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].
Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of
Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Freeman, Jo, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson
(eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman &
Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24.
Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993).
Harrington, Michael, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972.
Herman, Ellen, The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.
Holton, Robert, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.),
Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26.
Jameson, Frederic, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Laibman, David, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’,
Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 3-4.
Mailer, Norman, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer,
Norman (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1992) pp.337-359.
Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964).
Marwick, Arthur, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United
States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Miller, Frederick D., ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson (eds.),
Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.303-324.
Negus, Keith, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.
Puterbaugh, Parke, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in George-Warren,
Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.357-363.
Rabinowitz, Paula, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A
Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98.
Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).
Sale, Kirkpatrick SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).
Shank, Barry, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan University Press, 1994).
Starr, Clinton R., ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective
Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.41-54.
Vattimo, Gianni, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in Vattimo, G. and P. A. Rovatti
(eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the
Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21.
 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p.1.
 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993), p.242.
 Paula Rabinowitz, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98, p.73.
 Keith Negus, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.
 Gianni Vattimo, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in G. Vattimo and P. A. Rovatti (eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21, p.19.
 David Laibman, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’, Science & Society, ibid., 3-4, p.3.
 Randall Bennett Woods, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.151.
 Ellen Herman, in The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.
 Robert Holton, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Jennie Skerl (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26, p.12.
 Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964), p.12.
 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p.17.
 Woods, p.134.
 Ibid, p.127.
 Ibid., p.123.
 Ibid, p.151.
 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 ).
 Ibid, p.393.
 Holton, p.17.
 Gitlin, p.45.
 Holton, p.11.
 Gitlin, p.46.
 Norman Mailer, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp.337-359, p.339.
 Ibid., p.341.
 Frank, p.246.
 Clinton R. Starr, ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Reconstructing the Beats, pp.41-54, p.41.
 Ibid., p.47
 Ibid., p.43.
 Ibid., p.50.
 Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.12.
 Ibid., p.11.
 Thomas Albright, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356, p.351.
 Parke Puterbaugh, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, pp.357-363, p.357.
 Michael McClure, ref. in Puterbaugh, p.362.
 Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p.122.
 Albright, p.352-5.
 Sara Cohen, ‘Scenes’, in Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250, p.241.
 Gitlin, p.207.
 John Clellon Holmes, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16th, 1952, ref. in Gitlin, p.51.
 Ibid, p.51.
 Starr, p.52.
 Jo Freeman, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24, p.8.
 Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), p.204-5.
 Frederick D. Miller, ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, pp.303-324, p.313.
 Frank, p.15.
 Puterbaugh, p.360.
 Michael Harrington, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972, p.164.
 See < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].
 Miller, p.312.
 Frank, p.26.
 Harrington, p.99.
 Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.17.
 Starr, p.53.
History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.
Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.
Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)
But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.
Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.
Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.
Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.
Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.
She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.
Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.
Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.
Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.
She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.
Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.
Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.
According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”
She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.
She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.
Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.
Diane di Prima
Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”
Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.
She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.
She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.
Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.
It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.
While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.
She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.
But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.
Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.
Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.
When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.
Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.
Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.
Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.
In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.
Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.
Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.
Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:
Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.
Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.
Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.
She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.
Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.
That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.
But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.
I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.
Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.
When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.
For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.