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Naked Performativity: Examining the Work of William Burroughs

“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”

— William Burroughs,


William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self. Continue Reading…

Reconsidering the Importance of the Joan Anderson Letter

It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history.

Last month, however, came the biggest event of them all. It was a shockwave that passed quickly through not only the Beat studies community, but the literary world as a whole. The fabled Joan Anderson Letter – thought to be the origin of Jack Kerouac’s bop spontaneous prose style, and until now considered lost at sea – was found and quickly put up for auction. The buzz spread far beyond the various online Kerouac communities to newspapers around the globe, and for seemingly good reason. It seemed hard to understate the importance of this letter in Beat history, but also, by proxy, its significance upon Western culture. It was considered the missing link, or even the Holy Grail, of Beat studies.

The Past

The story goes that the letter was a breakthrough for Jack Kerouac, who, when it was composed, was struggling with the genesis of what would become his most famous work, and one of the most important novels in American history, On the Road. On December 17th, 1950, Neal Cassady wrote Kerouac a letter that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would later refer to as “the Joan Anderson letter” due to a passage within that referred to a woman Cassady had slept with. The confessional style of Cassady’s writing was influential over the recipient, who would put down the “original scroll” version of On the Road only a few months later, in April, 1951. When, in 1965, he was asked about the origins of the book’s style, Kerouac explained, “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names.”

Kerouac, ever interested in mythologizing, and in creating and maintaining the image of Cassady as some immaculate saint, went on to call it “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”[1] Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.”[2] Ginsberg was equally enthusiastic, writing to Cassady in March, 1951: “I am impressed and astonished at the magnitude of the work that you have done in the Joan Story, which seems to me an almost pure masterpiece.”[3]

It would seem that On the Road couldn’t have been written without the Joan Anderson letter. Without On the Road, the face of Western culture – or at least counterculture – over the next half century would be staggeringly different. It changed everything, giving rise to the hitch-hiking, hedonistic youth of the sixties, and by consequence influencing so much of our literature, music, and film thereafter. And, according to Kerouac’s own claims, all that seemed to have stemmed from Cassady’s letter.

Although part of the letter was transcribed – possibly by Kerouac or Ginsberg – and published posthumously in Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third, the entire letter went missing and was presumed lost. Naturally, this added to its mystique. The sacred text that Kerouac claimed to have been the greatest thing ever written, and the central piece in the creation of one of the most important novels in recent history, was apparently – and befitting such an epic tale – lost at sea. The story goes that Kerouac leant the letter to Ginsberg, who gave it to the literary agent, Gerd Stern (who helped publish William S. Burroughs’ Junky) in 1955. Later they claimed that Stern had been reading it on a houseboat when it had gone overboard and into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, lost forever. The greatest words ever assembled on paper were washed away, never to be read by another soul. Kerouac chastised Ginsberg, and Ginsberg blamed Stern, and Stern insisted that he’d returned it to Ginsberg. According to Jerry Cimino, curator of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, Stern was pleading his innocence for decades, and claimed that Ginsberg admitted fault later in life.

The Present

However, as Stern always maintained, he had returned the letter to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg had sent it elsewhere. In fact, he had sent it to Richard Emerson at Golden Goose Press. The letter remained unread and, shortly after, Emerson closed the press and sent his archives to a friend. About two years ago, Jean Spinosa – the daughter of Emerson’s associate – found the letter in her father’s Oakland home, and last month she announced that it would go to auction through the Profiles in History auction house. The Holy Goof’s Holy Grail had been discovered.

Immediately there was a tremendous amount of speculation regarding its fate. The scroll version of On the Road was purchased by Jim Irsay in 2001 for $2.43 million, and so, given the perceived importance of the Joan Anderson Letter, it would surely fetch a sizeable sum. However, for most Beat fans, the greatest question lay in whether or not they would eventually get to read what Kerouac had claimed to be the best writing in American history – the magical 16,000 words that inspired On the Road. Cimino quickly started a crowdfunding venture in an attempt to secure its purchase for the Beat Museum. This move proved popular among online Beat communities, quickly raising more than $7,000 towards its $500,000 target, as it would place the artifact in trustworthy hands and ensure it was published rather than kept in a private collection.

Alas, perhaps predictably, both the Cassady and Kerouac estates entered into the fray and had the auction indefinitely postponed. The Kerouac estate claims ownership over the physical letter while the Cassady estate merely contends that they own the copyright to the words, while they would be content to allow Spinosa to continue with the auction. In any case, with such a large sum of money and such an important piece of literary history hanging in the balance, it is unclear what will happen. The legal situation is somewhat difficult to determine, too. Who exactly owns the letter? Cassady wrote it, but wrote it for Kerouac. It was sent to Kerouac, but Kerouac gave it away to Ginsberg. Ginsberg sent it to Golden Goose Press, and from there is ended up with Jean Spinosa… Surely, then even the Allen Ginsberg Estate has a claim for ownership of the letter!

In any case, the letter is now stuck in legal limbo until the lawyers have had their say, and we can all just hope that it is resolved amicably and with due consideration to its value as an historical document deserving of public display.

The Future

Regardless of the present situation, it would seem that the letter is invaluable, as a part of Beat history almost as important as the scroll itself. Yet Beat fans and scholars are often guilty of perpetuating myths, and in order to take the movement seriously, one needs to be critical and ask questions that are often unpleasant and now it is time that we ask whether the letter was as important as Kerouac claimed. We need to acknowledge that Kerouac’s obsession with Cassady often blinded him to his friend’s flaws, and that Cassady was far from a saint.  Indeed, it hard to imagine the contents of the letter – once published – living up to the hype. After so many years and after such a staggering twist in the tale, it truly would need to be, as Kerouac claimed, one of the best pieces of writing in American history. Yet while Kerouac touted it as of unimaginable importance, he was unable to recall even its length – placing it at 40,000 words, rather than 16,000. This is indicative of his propensity to exaggeration, and we should not so readily fall into the trap of believe his every word. Too much of Beat biography already comes from Beat fiction.

Furthermore, as Ann Charters explained, firstly in Brother-Souls and later to the New York Times, Cassady had received a letter from John Clellon Holmes only ten days prior to writing the Joan Anderson Letter. This was known as the Fay Kenney Letter, and it elicited much the same response from Cassady as Kerouac displayed to Neal’s. “Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-EEEE, a real whiz of a letter!” Cassady replied to Holmes, before penning his own imitation.  Indeed, Cassady’s was not only similar in terms of content, but also in regards its style. That would then take some of the burden of responsibility off Cassady and place it on another of Kerouac’s friend, Holmes, whose own novel on the Beat Generation, Go, was published in 1953. John Tytell, in The Beat Interviews, noted that Holmes had viewed the On the Road scroll in 1951 and more or less copied the content, minus the style, for his own book. It is bizarre to think, then, that Kerouac may have inadvertently copied Holmes’ style himself, before Holmes took Kerouac’s book and dropped the style that he created… In any case, in addition to the conflated lineage of style Holmes may also be partly responsible for Kerouac’s gushing praise over the letter, as Charters suggests that Holmes’ lack of enthusiasm for Cassady’s  letter may have contributed to a childish defensiveness that pushed Kerouac further into his Cassasdy myth-making.

Joyce Johnson believes that there is altogether far too much importance placed upon the influence of Neal Cassady in Kerouac’s work – even if that largely stemmed from Kerouac’s own words. In her latest book, The Voice is All, and in an e-mail to Beatdom, she stated that Kerouac’s opus was the result of countless years of hard work, rather than simply an epiphany after reading Cassady’s letter. Such a view, she believes, is typical of a tendency to downplay Kerouac’s intelligence and ability, and she places the blame firmly at the feet of the Sampas family, whose reluctance to grant access to the archives for so many years resulted in sub-par scholarship based upon assumption and myth. She argues that Kerouac’s original versions of On the Road featured Cassady-like characters before he’d even met Cassady, and that these originated with his reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night in 1945. “While the Neal Cassady legend, along with the notion that Jack dashed off  OTR in only three weeks, has always fascinated Jack’s fans, it has contributed to the lack of respect for Jack’s contribution to American literature,” she points out.

Regarding the letter, Johnson explains:

Unfortunately, what gets lost in all the discussion about the importance of the letter is the real story of the many years of grueling work and abandoned trial efforts that led the way to the writing of On the Road. While Cassady definitely deserves some credit, he is given far too much, and Kerouac, as usual, is given far too little for his artistry, imagination and dedication.

Until the spring of 1951, Jack resisted writing in the first-person. All the discarded versions of OTR had omniscient third–person narrators. When he received the Joan Anderson letter in December 1950, Jack immediately felt inspired to write Neal a series of memoir-like letters about the death of his brother Gerard. But the powerful voice he unleashed in those letters had appeared before in passages in his journals–Jack had been capable for years of writing that way but had held back in his fiction. This may have had a good deal to do with his ambivalent feelings about his Franco-American identity, his determination to master his second language, which was English, and to suppress the French in which he thought. Between the summer of 1950 and the spring of 1951, one abortive version of OTR  followed another, and out of desperation Jack even attempted to write one in French. But then, in March 1951, he put OTR aside and wrote the novella La Nuit Est Ma Femme about an unsuccessful Franco-American writer named Michele Bretagne, who was never able to hold a job because of his need to write. Writing in French, in the first-person, Jack gave Bretagne a direct, conversational voice that was strikingly similar to the one he would give Sal Paradise. Having found the voice he was looking for, Jack was finally able to write OTR–a book that would incorporate some episodes and passages from discarded manuscripts.

Looking beyond its influence over Kerouac and to its importance as a piece of literature, we must also avoid being carried away by Kerouac’s enthusiasm, or Ginsberg’s, for that matter. While it was Ginsberg who leant the letter to Stern, and Ginsberg who sent it to Golden Goose, and who even called it a “masterpiece,” the poet was also of the opinion that it could not be published in its original state. It was, he believed, unfinished. He also had criticism about its use of language and sound, which he seemed to consider easily fixed. In any case, while the Beat Generation has long been associated with the notion of “first thought, best thought,” and their work characterized as hastily composed and unedited in its published form, this has been proven false, and had Ginsberg succeeded in finding a publisher for the letter, it surely would’ve been finished and fixed before going to print.

The Joan Anderson Letter is then hard to separate from the myth that has long-surrounded it. In books about the Beat Generation it is simply referred to as the letter that made everything fall into place for Kerouac, yet the scholars cannot place its word count, page count, or exact content – despite often writing as though they had studied the letter in detail. Even now that it has risen from its watery grave, it is in some ways a productive of the myth-making Beat Generation, and we need to examine it fairly and reasonably in order to give it any genuine sense of importance. From the stories Kerouac and Ginsberg spun about their friends and the hopeless praise they bestowed upon one another, to the persona Burroughs created for himself, it was a movement based upon legends which are freely parroted by biographers and journalists, and it has continued to hold sway over its readers largely for the same reason. Now that the story about its disappearance has been proven as a fiction, we must look carefully at the letter itself. Kerouac may be known as the great rememberer, but he was also rather loose with the truth, and it would be sensible to avoid further perpetuating myth by taking his words for granted. None of this means we should ignore the letter by any means, but rather that we should be skeptical and not be carried away by the excitement of its discovery.


[1] Over the years, Kerouac would compared Cassady’s writing, and in particular this letter, to Proust, Twain, Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Celine, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, and Dreiser.

[2] Carolyn Cassady, in a phrase that foreshadows the false story about the letter’s disappearance, observed that Kerouac had gone “overboard” in his praise for Cassady’s writing, and astutely observed that Kerouac simply could not see the flaws in his friend’s writing.

[3] It should be noted here, if not elsewhere, that both Kerouac and Ginsberg were tireless in heaping praise upon the work of their close friends, and terribly liberal in their use of grand comparisons to history’s finest writers.

Coming Soon: The Beat Interviews

We are delighted to announce that John Tytell’s book, The Beat Interviews, will be released on October 18th by Beatdom Books. The Beat Interviews cover preview


About the Author:

John Tytell (born May 17, 1939) is an American writer and academic, whose works on such literary figures as Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs, have made him both a leading scholar of the Beat Generation, and a respected name in literature in general. He has been a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York since 1963. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987).



About the Book:

In The Beat Interviews, John Tytell speaks with Beat Generation luminaries Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg about their lives and the lives of their contemporaries. These groundbreaking interviews were conducted in the 1970s and are collected here together for the first time. In addition, the author has gathered essays giving insight into the style and philosophy of the Beats, elucidating upon the interviews to provide a unique comprehensive overview of the Beat movement.


About the Publisher:

Beatdom Books was founded in 2007. This small, independent press has published books about the Beat Generation, such as Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry (2012), David S. Wills’ Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, Philip Willey’s Naked Tea: The Burroughs Bits, and Marc Olmsted’s Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72-’97. It also publishes a small number of fiction and poetry titles, as well as the internationally acclaimed Beatdom literary journal.



Early Commentary:

Tytell is a great companion.  Here at the top of his form he celebrates the Beats with his all-encompassing sensitivity to the major writers.  Tytell’s deep commitment and warm personal insights shine through The Beat Interviews.

– Ann Charters, author of Kerouac: A Biography, and editor of Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.


Just when we thought there was nothing more to say about the Beat Generation, John Tytell’s new book is refreshing.  At the heart of the book are his interviews, conducted when the key figures were alive and talking.  The straightforward Q and A format allows us to hear their distinctive voices before they were edited and tidied up as literary history.  It is rare to be able to enjoy the oral voice so clearly.

– Steven Watson, author of The Birth of the Beat Generation.


In addition to being one of the country’s leading scholars in the field of Beat Studies, John Tytell was intimate with most of the era’s major literary figures.  That fact alone makes these interviews indispensable.  He has interspersed insightful essays throughout this exceptional collection of interviews, to reveal each writer as a truly unique individual.  Nevertheless they somehow merged to form one of America’s greatest generations of authors.  Tytell’s enlightened and unsurpassed approach makes for worthwhile reading and is a researcher’s dream.

– Bill Morgan, author of The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Guide and editor of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.


It is wonderful to start the book with Huncke and so nice to also read and therefore be in the same room with Carl. And the second Chapter The COOL World sets up Holmes interview, and is really important stuff. And all the essays in the book are really well done and INTERESTING!! So if this new book can excite an 83 year old, imagine what a gift this book will be to younger folks!!

– David Amram, author of Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac.

If John Tytell’s new book were merely a re-visit to these stars of the Beat Generation from an earlier time, The Beat Interviews would be a valuable reminder of who they were to anyone interested in this unique counter cultural literati. But, this slim volume is so much more. Interwoven with the writers’ first hand accounts, Tytell’s sharp analysis, honed by decades-long scrutiny, updates the record and corrects the revisionism as time moves farther from the facts. The impulse to mythologize, inherent to the Beat movement, is busted here, and the truth is so much more exciting. Now that the beat writers have
entered history, this book is essential reading for understanding their lives and literature, from a critic who was there from the beginning.

– Regina Weinreich, author of Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics, editor of Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, and co-producer/director of the documentary, Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.


John Tytell’s The Beat Interviews, a rich collection of some of the raw material behind Professor Tytell’s considerable scholarship, offers a first-hand focus on significant Beat Generation figures Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg.  Though several of them have taken on a larger-than-life status, their interviews offer an inescapable sense of their personal presence: Huncke talks to us with his “midnight mouth,” Burroughs gives us his unadorned Factualist truths, and Ginsberg shares personal recollections and literary insight on Burroughs himself…. A sixth “interviewee” is John Tytell, whose commentaries on each author are so conversationally written we’re certain he too is seated close, talking to us.

– Gordon Ball, author of East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg and Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness.


John Tytell’s Beat interviews are particularly illuminating because he has always known the right questions to ask. Like all his valuable work on the Beats, starting with the ground-breaking Naked Angels, this book reflects a profound and informed understanding of their place in American literature, their cultural importance and the tumultuous lives they lived.

– Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters and The Voice is All.

Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer

Here at Beatdom we have always had a fondness for Peter Orlovsky, and were surprised and delighted to hear about this brand new – and overdue – publication, Peter Orlovsky: a a Life in Words.

Orlovsky is known as “Allen Ginsberg’s lover” or his husband, friend, life-partner, or whatever relationship is attributed to them by whatever scholar or journalist. But what we forget is that, while certainly no Ginsberg, he was a poet in his own right. He was a character but he was also a writer. He was not just a background to the Beat Generation, but part of it. And that this is the first major book about him is rather sad. But, better late than never.

And, also, what a cover. Two penises on one literary textbook cover. You have to admire that!


From the publishers (Paradigm):


“The Peter Orlovsky you will meet in this book has only a slight resemblance to the wacky kid immortalized in Kerouac’s sunny pages as ‘the greatest man in San Francisco’ or the silent companion in Ginsberg’s tender poetry. Here, for the first time, Bill Morgan has used Peter’s words to take us behind his handsome face. Orlovsky’s journals, letters, and poems offer us glimpses of his mind with and without Ginsberg.”
—from the Foreword by Ann Charters, editor of The Portable Beat Reader

Until now, the poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Allen Ginsberg’s lover for more than forty years, has been the neglected member of the Beat Generation. Because he lived in Ginsberg’s shadow, his achievements were seldom noted and his contributions to literature have not been fully recognized.

Now, this first collection of Orlovsky’s writings traces his fascinating life in his own words. It also tells, for the first time, the intimate story of his relationship with Ginsberg.

Drawn from previously unpublished journals, correspondence, photographs, and poems, Peter Ovlovsky, a Life in Words, begins just as Orlovsky is discharged from the Army, having declared that it was “an army without love.” The book follows the young man through years of self-doubt and details his first meeting with Ginsberg in San Francisco from his own perspective. During that same year, Peter, always acting as the caregiver in his relationships, adopted his teenage mentally impaired brother, and tried to help him make a life for himself.

In never-before-heard detail, Orlovsky describes his travels around the world with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Corso—whose writings so often benefited from knowing the highly creative and inspiring Orlovsky.

Orlovsky’s story is a refreshing departure from the established history of the Beats as depicted by his more famous companions. The reader will discover why Jack Kerouac described him as the saintly figure of Simon Darlovsky in Desolation Angels and why the elder poet William Carlos Williams praised his poetry as “pure American.” His was a complicated life, this book shows, filled with contradictions. Best known as Ginsberg’s lover, Orlovsky was heterosexual and always longed to be with women. Always humble, he became a teacher at a Buddhist college and taught a class that he entitled “Poetry for Dumb Students.” His spirit was prescient of the flower children of the sixties, especially his inclinations toward devotion and love. In the end Orlovsky’s use of drugs took its toll on his body and mind and he slipped into his own hell of addiction and mental illness, silencing one of the most original and inspiring voices of his generation.

  • This is the “Orlovsky Reader” (which Ginsberg always wanted to publish) offering poetry, prose, and journal entries, created by the man who was the muse of the Beat generation.
  • Reveals the nature of the Ginsberg and Orlovsky sexual relationship, which hasn’t been fully revealed before; Peter was never gay and didn’t find men sexually attractive.
  • Exhibits Orlovsky’s distinct style of writing, which wasn’t derived from the other writers living around him.
  • Includes many previously unpublished poems.

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

John Holmes at Kerouac's Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A month earlier, he explained in a letter:


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


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


Holmes structured it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it!


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



Dig This ~ Ann and Samuel Charters Read Beat Poetry

We found this while doing some research on the Charters’ Book, “Brother-Souls:John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. It has only had 79 views so far, so enjoy something new!!!

Read a review of their book and learn about John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac in Beatdom 12!!!

It is published on the University Press of Mississippi. Buy a copy on Amazon or at the usual outlets. It is one of the best Beat reads you will ever find!

Beatdom 12 ~ The Crime Issue ~ Coming Soon!!!

Yes, friends, Beatdom Issue Twelve is on it’s way and today we unveil the cover, featuring the lovely Zeena Schreck – who was kind enough to contribute this wonderful photo for the cover, as well as a short monologue (meant for stage) which she wrote at about the same time the photo was taken.

“I thought they’d compliment each other in a film-noirish type way, for a crime-theme. I hope you like it,” she says and we hope that you enjoy her work, too. Zeena and Nikolas Schreck have been great contributors since they joined us, and we are always delighted with what they have to share with us.

Issue Twelve will be another jam-packed issue, featuring interviews with Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka and Joyce Johnson and a close look at the first person to publish a piece of Beat Literature, John Clellon Holmes. He is featured in a review of the great biography/period non-fiction book on University of Missisippi Press, Brother-Souls by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters.

There are plenty of other great contributions pouring in but there is still time for you to send something, if you have a Beat-tinged piece on crime, or even a Beat-related bit of work. We are happy to look at your submissions. Deadline is in two weeks on November 1.

Beatdom 12 should roll off the presses in the first weeks of December, so save some cash in that holiday budget of yours to get a nice present for yourself!

Cover photo: Max Kobal/Copyright: Zeena Schreck.
Graphic Design: Waylon Bacon

Something New! Beatdom Book Club Discussion Group – “Brother-Souls”

When we interviewed Ann Charters in our current issue, Beatdom Eleven, she brought up the relationship between Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes and the importance of Holmes in the evolution of the seminal style, syntax and spirit of Beat Literature, as demonstrated by Kerouac’s daily digestion of each page as Holmes’ novel, Go.

Here is a slice of that interview…
Ann Charters – “I can understand (Alene) Lee’s anger at Kerouac after he appropriated her story in The Subterraneans (though at the request of Grove Press she signed a paper giving her consent). What he did to his friend John Clellon Holmes in that autobiographical novel was much worse: Kerouac portrayed Holmes as such a wimpy rival that the literary portrait trapped him for eternity as “the quiet Beat” just as a fly is trapped in amber. Sam and I tried to redress that wrong in our recent biography Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation. It was a difficult book to write, but one of its pleasures was the opportunity to give Holmes back his voice as a writer who was an enormous influence on Kerouac during the years 1948 to 1951, especially in Jack’s creation of the “scroll” version of On the Road.
I don’t think I should have written more about Alene Lee in my early biography (Kerouac, 1973), because she didn’t play a major role in Jack’s life. Much later when I found out from the English Beat scholar Oliver Harris that she had typed the manuscript of Burroughs and Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters, I included that information in Brother-Souls to give her credit.
But I wish I had known more about Holmes’ long friendship with Kerouac when I wrote the
biography, because Holmes was a major influence and he deserves much more credit for his role as a Beat novelist, poet, and historian. Certainly Holmes’ memoir Nothing More to Declare and his novel Go are major achievements in the Beat literary canon. Jack read every chapter of Go as it left John’s typewriter, and it helped break the emotional log-jam that prevented him from writing about his road trips with Neal Cassady.”

This caught our interest so we were very pleased at the arrival of Brother-Souls in the old Beat Mailbox. A full review of this terrific work will appear in the next issue of Beatdom…Issue Twelve, The Crime Issue.The thing is – the book is much more that what we expected, so we are reading slowly and savoring. Instead of a basic nuts-and-bolts account of the facts, this is a volume that reads with the excitement of any of the best Beat novels. Though more factually forward and to the point than the diamond-hard poetic styles of description which infused On The Road, Go, The Dharma Bums, etc., we still get the adventures, the substance of an era frozen in time, and all the usual suspects – and then some!
Before we even arrived at chapter one, the three page prologue dazzled us with an array of “Who’s Who In Hip”…we come across the names of the Velvet Underground, The Fugs, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Saunders, Diane di Prima, Andy Warhol, Charles Olson, Peter Orlovski, Anne Waldman, Timothy Leary…even W.H. Auden walks through to buy a newspaper…Will they all show up eventually? Perhaps not all of them but it certainly grabbed our interest immediately.
By force of habit, we opened the book to a random page to see what we found and, there on page 179, we have Neal Cassady sending Holmes, in the words of the former, “Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-EEEE! A real whiz of a letter” in his typical ebullience! What more can you look for in a quick introduction to the text?
If you are reading this post you are probably on this site for a reason – to learn about, celebrate or simply enjoy that which is Beat Culture and Literature. To that end, we suggest you go out to a store, click on, break out the Kindle – however you prefer to do it – get yourself a copy of Brother-Souls and read it. When we went to our local library to see if we could get a copy, we couldn’t. Utilizing the inter-library loan service, we were shocked to find that not a single public library in the State of Pennsylvania had a copy.
That is just pathetic.
So, if you are used to getting reading materials and books at the local branch and they do not have it, or are not aware of it here is all the information they need to order a copy…
Give them the information and don’t cut them any slack if they argue!

Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation
By Ann Charters and Samuel Charters
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN 978-1-60473-579-6, hardback, $35
Email –

If they can afford multiple copies of that Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, let them know they can get something besides that sort of drivel for your tax dollar. This is literary history and it belongs in any and every self-respecting library!

Before Issue Twelve appears with the full review, we will post a short version of Brother-Souls on this site. We would love to open up a discussion and have you send us your comments. If you already read it, please post a comment and start a forum here. For the fun of it, please include the city and country you are writing from.
If you have to give the clerk at Barnes and Noble a hard time to get your copy, tell us about that, too! Let’s all read a great book together and have some fun doing it. If you like, we can have discussions on other books in the future.
What do you say?
Be there or be square!!!

The Nature of Beatdom Issue 11 (with lots of photos)

Dear Readers,
We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures – because this is about as many as we think we can squeeze into a single post.

The idea is to show that, while the ebook and kindle formats are handy, Beatdom is still fun to have your own personal copy of, like in the old days of the literary journal, when you stuck it in your pocket or bag and pulled it out to read while on the bus, at the doctor’s office or in a crowded movie theater while some delinquent threw JuJubes in your hair.

While we all know you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anybody who is familiar with French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the poem, ‘After The Deluge,’ from his earth-shattering collection ‘Illuminations,’ will spot him right away, That is thanks to the keen handiwork of multi-faceted artist Waylon Bacon, who graced the front cover of this issue with his brilliant dexterity and use of color.

It is a treat to get to see him do something for us in deep rich tones, since he has had to restrain himself to using black and white ever since we changed the format to that of the classic, standard old-style 6×9-inch black and white format, used by most literary journals.

In the following story by Katy Gurin, ‘Grizzly Bear,’ you can see more of Waylon’s work, only in the b/w format. This is still another excellent short story by Katy, about what can happen when people commune a little too closely with nature. This tale showcases her usual splendid imagination and wonderful gift for detail. Stuck in between there, shown on the back cover, since most people look at the front and back before opening it, is the advertisement for the next fiction release from Beatdom Books, ‘Egypt Cemetery,’ a memoir by Editor Michael Hendrick, which will be available soon at the usual outlets.

It is also worth noting that Katy will be publishing a full volume of her short stories with Beatdom Books, later this year. That volume will be illustrated by Waylon, since the two of them make such a great team for two people who have never even met each other. As Katy’s story continues the partygoers dressed as bears start to act more like bears just for the drunken fun of it.

Waylon not only provided the fine images you see here – but also managed to include some of his favorite monsters, like Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, and some weird looking what-cha-ma-callits, that only he sees when he closes his eyes at night.

Bears like to catch fish but fishtank owners are not always appreciative. As you can see, our half-drunk pseudo-bears wander out into the Halloween night and do all the things bears are wont to do, until they are confronted by a real bear. How Katy thinks this stuff up is a mystery to us but we have been lucky enough to have her writing such inventive stories with truly absorbing plots since she was kind enough to provide us with her very first and fabulous yarn, ‘Meat From Craigslist,’ back in Issue Number Nine.

Next we have a look at the life of William S. Burroughs during his days as a farmer, written by Editor David S. Wills. Burroughs didn’t do so well working the land but Mr. Wills has been farming up quite a bit of information on the pistol-happy author while lurking about the Burroughs Archives at the New York City Public Library lately. Watch for more!

Somehow, archaeologist, activist and Beatdom regular Robin Como managed to find time to write two more of her intoxicatingly exquisite poems for your pleasure and if she doesn’t run away, we hope to have her back with more in our next issue!

Michael Hendrick tracked down Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, on Thanksgiving Day morning last year, forcing him to hold a copy of Beatdom Issue Nine and interviewing him on topics ranging from going to Hell, to how his grandfather wrote one of the first recorded rock songs before rock’n’roll was invented, to the Right to Bear Arms.

Taking time out from his extensive studies, returning writer Rory Feehan penned this account of still another famous sharp-shooter, Hunter S. Thompson and his ventures and misadventures while living a not so quiet existence at perhaps California’s favorite Beat retreat, Big Sur.

While everybody was awaiting the release of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ Mr. Wills tracked down the last remaining live male character depicted in the movie, Al Hinkle, who Kerouac called Ed Dunkel in the book. Mr. Hinkle is delighted to appear here.

Assistant Editor Kat Hollister, who labored intensively to help put this issue together marked her first appearance in Beatdom with the poem you see below; her efforts were rewarded by the dubious distinction of having it placed across from a poem by returning Beat literate Chuck Taylor, on the dodgy subject of his erection. Mr. Taylor dug up the old form of ‘doggerel’ to justify it, along with the fact that we are the only journal who would risk publishing it.

Where have you seen this face before? On the cover, it’s Arthur Rimbaud again, next to an essay by poet Larry Beckett, who takes apart the aforementioned poem, ‘After The Deluge.’ It is an insightful look at one of Rimbaud’s best know works, and also gives us a glimpse at the fantastic style of literary critique to be found in Mr. Beckett’s upcoming offering from Beatdom Books, ‘Beat Poetry.’

Matthew Levi Stevens is a new name to Beatdom readers and here he presents us with a review of the latest collection of letters written by William S. Burroughs when he was still living as an expatriate.

Kat Hollister, following the indignity of having her poem placed facing Mr. Taylor’s doggerel, was happy to find a spot next to this wonderful photograph, ‘wetlands in march no.2,’ by well-known nature photographer, g. thompson higgins.

Artist/Photographer/Musician and Writer, Zeena Schreck returned again this issue, with this touching and enlightening article. She writes of how she and multi-talented husband, Nikolas Schreck, stepped up and acted to save the lives of eighty wolves, diverting their carriage to safe habitat as they were being sent to an otherwise slow and cruel death.

Ann Charters, a name familiar to everybody in the world of Beat Literature and Literary History spoke with Mr. Hendrick, on working with Kerouac, the beginnings of Beat, her meeting with Alene Lee and the importance of John Clellon Holmes to the Beat Generation.

Internationally renowned poet Michael Shorb, a strong voice on environmental issues, was kind enough to grace our pages with this, his first appearance in Beatdom.

Reaching past Rimbaud to William Blake, Mr. Wills weighs in with a quick word on the literary influence of one of the most visionary of voices and his influence on the Beats.

When we think of Beat we think of the road and it is hard to think of a band who pounded the pavement harder than the Ramones. Richie Ramone, the fastest of the fast, spoke with Mr. Hendrick about life on the road, his forays into the Big Band sounds of the Drum Gods and his activism on behalf of pooches in peril in Los Angeles.

As usual, Waylon won’t go back into his cage until he gets one last bite on the hand the doesn’t feed him, so we leave you with him and his now traditional ‘last page, last word.’ This one, Waylon aptly titled ‘Sometimes Eye Gets Crazy!’

Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether.

In the late ‘50s, Kerouac was rather enthusiastic about the “hipster” movement happening in New York, but he used a different name for it. In September 1957 Kerouac stated on national television that “the Beat Generation ‘was basically a religious generation’ and that he was ‘waiting for God to show his face.’”[1] Just before then he had written an article titled “About the Beat Generation” in which he claimed that Oswald Spengler had “prophesied” this sort of movement. Kerouac wrote to his friend Philip Whalen that he “wanted (as originator of the phrase) to sneak it in that it means religiousness, a kind of Second Religiousness (that Spengler spoke) which always takes place in late civilization stage… The 2nd Relig. is sublime…a reappearance of the early springtime forms of the culture.”[2] Kerouac wasn’t the only one calling it a religious movement. In the same year Norman Mailer referred to the hipster scene as “a muted cool religious revival to be sure…”[3] Mailer defined “religious” only in passing, saying that “one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’—whatever the purpose may be…”

Kerouac had first consciously linked his mostly literary/philosophical ideas to religion in 1954 while visiting his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. When he went, in his words, to “sit in meditation in the absolutely deserted afternoon church of Ste. Jeanne D’Arc,” it dawned on him that Beat didn’t just mean “down and out”; it also meant “beatific.”[4] That word holds a specifically Catholic connotation, since “beatification” is one of the steps in the canonization of a saint after a person has died.[5] But also, “beatific vision” denotes “the direct knowledge of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven.”[6]

To Mailer the Beat movement had a more figurative connection to religion, but Kerouac saw a literal relationship. In fact, Kerouac criticized those like Mailer who, in the words of Kerouac scholar Ann Charters, “stressed the antisocial image (‘Beat’) of the hipster instead of pointing out the religious significance (‘beatific’)…”[7] The result was that Kerouac confused most of the audiences who heard his attempts to explain “the Beat Generation,” even though he had been developing these ideas for at least three years before becoming a hit author. Writing to the editor of a Catholic magazine shortly after his “beatific” realization, Kerouac outlined his belief that “self-realization or highest perfect wisdom, ecstasy of transcendental insight…can only be achieved in solitude, poverty, and contemplation.

“…I intend to ascend by stages & self-control to the Vow to help all sentient beings find enlightenment and holy escape from the sin and stain of life-body itself—”[8]

These statements reflect the unique mash-up of Catholicism (a prominent branch of Christianity) and Buddhism that Kerouac tried to manifest in his life. Kerouac was raised in a fundamentalist Catholic environment, directed mostly by his parochial school and his devout mother Gabrielle. He didn’t rebel against this indoctrination in an outward way. Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker, writes in her memoir You’ll Be Okay that Jack even studied the Bible as a young adult in the early 1940s. “While he wasn’t working he was either sleeping or barricading himself in the bathroom for hours at a time reading Shakespeare and the Bible.”[9] And Douglas Brinkley, editor of Kerouac’s journal collection Windblown World (containing entries from 1947 to 1954), says that Jack had drawn crucifixes throughout his hand-written notebooks.[10]

However, by the 1950s Kerouac apparently had mixed feelings about Christian scripture, and he may have come to relate more to the figure of the Buddha than to Jesus Christ. For instance, in a letter to Carolyn Cassady written on July 2, 1954 (just before attributing the religious meaning to “Beat”), Kerouac said, “I’m sure Christ never trekked to the Orient, only wish he had, one dab of Buddhism would have wiped clean from his mind that egomaniacal Messiah complex that got him crucified and made Christianity the dualistic greed-and-sorrow Monster that it is… Buddha never claimed to be God, or Son of God…”[11]

In a similar way, Kerouac connected with and wrote about the Buddhist concept of the “Bodhisattva.” He introduces the term into the “Duluoz Legend” in The Dharma Bums as “meaning ‘great wise being’ or ‘great wise angel’…”[12] Alan Watts, philosopher of Zen Buddhism, also discusses the term in his influential 1957 book The Way of Zen: “From the popular standpoint, the Bodhisattva became a focus of devotion (bhakti), a savior of the world who had vowed not to enter the final nirvana until all other sentient beings had likewise attained it.”[13] He says the term “bodhi” means roughly “awakening.”[14] Yet another meaning is the view of Bodhisattva as “he whose being is enlightenment.”[15]

The original meaning of “Beat” as “down and out” still fit into Kerouac’s religious aspirations, because Jack found evidence for it in both Catholicism and Buddhism. “Ray Smith” (Jack’s fictional version of himself) of Dharma Bums says he “was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths [of Buddhism], All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved, which I didn’t quite believe was possible then.”[16] In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac uses similar words when portraying his Catholic family: “…we were made to suffer and be harsh in return, one the other, and drop turds of iron on brows of hope, and mop up sick yards and sad–– ‘…All right, we’re all born to die, it’s the same story for everybody, see?’ …there’s no explaining your way out of the evil of existence.”[17]


On the one hand it was paradoxical for the Beat Generation to seek out religion, since the Western youth movement defined itself largely by a departure from traditional morals, accepted social norms, and mainstream culture. But on the other hand, Existentialist literature heavily influenced the “hipster” or Beat movement of the 1950s – and, as Walter Kaufmann explains in his 1956 anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, “…religion has always been existentialist: it has always insisted that mere schools of thought and bodies of belief are not enough, that too much of our thinking is remote from that which truly matters, and that we must change our lives. It has always been preoccupied with suffering, death, and dread, with care, guilt, and despair.”[18]

Many of these writers – Kerouac and Mailer included – faced sizeable existential conflicts of their own. With that in mind, it seems natural that Mailer would call the “hipster” an “American existentialist,” in addition to proclaiming the budding counterculture a “religious revival.”[19] In the same piece Mailer writes that “the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence…”

Statements like these tie the post-war counterculture symbolically to what might be described as the original Western counterculture, which began in the first centuries A.D.: Gnosticism and alchemy. For our purposes, Gnosticism can be understood as an early form of Christianity, while alchemy – commonly misconstrued to be merely a fledgling version of chemistry – was also a psycho-spiritual practice found in various forms throughout the world, with the utmost goal of individual development. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, specifically calls alchemy an “undercurrent” to Christianity and says it “endeavors to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites. […] The alchemists ran counter to the Church in preferring to seek through knowledge rather than to find through faith… But in reality they were in much the same position as modern man, who prefers immediate personal experience to belief in traditional ideas… The central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy… It was founded on the perception of symbols thrown up by the unconscious individuation process which always sets in when the collective dominants of human life fall in to decay.”[20]

Jung devised that term, the “process of individuation,” to describe the sort of personal evolution that can occur when the conscious and unconscious elements of the Self become integrated through keeping a dream journal, “active imagination” (interacting with figures from dreams and fantasies), and other related methods. As he writes, “Individuation, becoming a self, is not only a spiritual problem, it is the problem of all life.”[21] Jung discovered through his work as a psychoanalyst in the early twentieth century that, in dreams and other altered states of consciousness, people had access to symbolic imagery and information with parallels in world mythology, art, and religion from throughout the ages, regardless of whether those people had ever been exposed to the content in their waking lives. Not only that, but Jung later saw the same symbolism at work in alchemy. He called the common symbols “archetypes,” and the metaphysical realm from which they sprung he named “the collective unconscious.”

The evidence became so startling that Jung had to depart from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, in order to remain scientific. The primary reason for Jung’s disillusionment was that Freud wanted to make a dogma of his sexual theory of psychoanalysis, based on three developmental stages (oral, anal, genital) and the idea that repressed sexuality led to the manifestation of most of our culture.[22] As Jung writes in his autobiography, “a dogma, that is to say, an undisputable confession of faith, is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all.” Jung’s perspective applies not only to Freudian psychology but also to the creeds of churches – which Jung carefully distinguishes from the spiritual side of religion. “A creed gives expression to a definite collective belief, whereas the word religion expresses a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical, extramundane factors. […] To be the adherent of a creed, therefore, is not always a religious matter but more often a social one and, as such, it does nothing to give the individual any foundation.[23]

The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) under heavy influence from Jung and Freud, because Campbell saw psychoanalysis as the key to understanding world mythology (including religious myth).[24] In that book, Campbell tracks the parallels between myths from different places and eras, and synthesizes them into a single “Monomyth.” As he writes, “In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called ‘the archetypal images.’”[25]

In short, the process of individuation requires a decisive withdrawal from worldly affairs: social, professional, etc. And that process should very well be considered “spiritual” or “religious” development. In the “hip” lingo of the 1950s, this sort of activity was associated with the word “dig,” as in, digging into one’s own mind or soul. Mailer explains: “…you say simply, ‘I dig,’ because neither knowledge nor imagination comes easily, it is buried in the pain of one’s forgotten experience, and so one must work to find it, one must occasionally exhaust oneself by digging into the self in order to perceive the outside.”[26] In this case, the goal was to be prepared to handle anything that arises in life, be it an external (social) or internal (psychology) issue. Mailer specifically hoped to guard against “a pain, a guilt, a shame or a desire” that could disrupt one’s conscious mood or behavior.

By the mid-1940s, Kerouac had already involved himself in the world of New York “hipsters.” But the “movement” really came to fruition in the early ‘50s (at least, in its secular form), as depicted in books like The Subterraneans. Then Kerouac became infatuated with Buddhism in 1954, and that influenced most of the books he wrote from that point on, even the version of On the Road published in 1957. To this day, Kerouac’s best-known statement on Buddhism remains The Dharma Bums, a novel written in November 1957 based on experiences in 1955 and ’56. While it is published simply as “fiction,” the book – like the rest of Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend” – is still considered at least “semi-autobiographical” in the sense that it is based on events from his life and written from the first-person perspective. Because of that, the reader gets a basic overview of some of Kerouac’s efforts at spiritual (or metaphysical) development, many of which seem to suggest that Jack was decisively engaged in his own process of individuation. From surface appearances, we would expect this to be the case for anyone following the “Beat” creed.

Kerouac had known for some time that he wanted to be a writer, but his discovery of Buddhism appears to have given him the desire to teach as well – that is, to teach the wisdom of Buddhist scriptures, or “sutras,” to the unknowing American masses.[27] Just as he had read the Bible incessantly, in 1954 Kerouac began to do the same with English and French translations of Eastern scriptures. One of his favorites was A Buddhist Bible, an anthology by Dwight Goddard that contained The Diamond Sutra, among others.[28] In the first published biography on Kerouac, Charters comments aptly on Jack’s sudden interest in Eastern religion: “Buddhism was a discovery of different religious images for his fundamentally constant religious feelings. He always remained a believing Catholic. It was just that, for a time, he was a self-taught student of Buddhism. He read widely and deeply in Buddhist texts, translated sutras from the French, and even wrote a biography of the Buddha. But at the root of his absorption in Buddhism was the fact that he felt it offered him direct philosophical consolation for the disappointments in his life, and, particularly, for the drawn-out agony waiting to place On The Road and the refusal of publishers to recognize his genius.”[29]

Kerouac considered The Dharma Bums to be a prominent part of a Buddhist awakening happening in the United States in the late 1950s. With Western readers buzzing over the English-language works on Eastern philosophy and religion by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and others, Kerouac wrote to Whalen that “1958 will be a great year, year of Buddhism. …now with Dharma Bums I will crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom…”[30] But in the process of propagating “the path,” he made a few miscalculations. First, he imagined that the Western translations were exact equivalents to the Eastern originals – and that Eastern religion could be fully understood by reading scriptures alone. Second, he mistook religious myths (Eastern and Western) for literal truth, instead of what they actually are: symbolic descriptions of natural processes, both physical and metaphysical. Or stated a different way, he invested too much in words, while mostly missing out on the subjective experience to which the words refer. We’ll examine both in turn.

Since Kerouac had read the Eastern scriptures in French and English, with the concepts already transmuted into Western culture, he was immediately drawn to Buddhism. He felt no conflict using different words if they appeared to mean the same thing as the ones in his native Catholicism. In fact, the new terminology gave him an edge as a writer. Alien words like “Zen,” “Bodhisattva,” and “satori” retain a fresh feel in Western minds even today. But the Eastern scriptures were not written in a Western language. As Watts explains, the path by which Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan is not even fully known, so describing the religion and its development presents many difficulties. “The first, and most serious, is the problem of interpreting the Sanskrit and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved,” writes Watts. “This is especially true of Sanskrit, the sacred language of India… Both Western and Indian scholars are uncertain as to its exact interpretation… The discovery of proper European equivalents for philosophical terms has been hindered by the fact that early lexicographers were all too ready to find correspondences with Western theological terms, since one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the [Christian] missionaries.”[31]

Also, Westerners were largely unaware that Eastern philosophy had survived mostly through oral history and direct instruction, as opposed to the written, pseudo-historical accounts and imitative rituals (i.e., indirect metaphysical experience) in the Western monotheisms. As Jung puts it, “…the ideal [of Christianity] has been turned by superficial and formalistically-minded believers into an external object of worship, and it is precisely this veneration for the object that prevents it from reaching down into the depths of the psyche… Christ can indeed be imitated even to the point of stigmatization without the imitator coming anywhere near the ideal or its meaning.”[32] The result was a state of widespread confusion in which many people had a sense of understanding Buddhism when in fact they did not.

This problem is actually a compound one. Not only did Kerouac take for granted that he understood Eastern philosophy after reading the English translations, but he actually contributed to the Western misconceptions of Eastern ideas by putting them in his books, primarily in The Dharma Bums. One of the most persistent errors is the Western understanding of “karma,” which in its current English denotation is more Christian than Buddhist. Like most Westerners, Kerouac uses the word in Dharma Bums with a sense of cosmic morality, suggesting something like “what goes around, comes around.” As “Japhy Ryder” (based on Kerouac’s friend Gary Snyder) puts it, “…when I discovered Buddhism and all I suddenly felt that I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago and now because of faults and sins in that lifetime I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America were nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.”[33] According to Watts, the idea that “faults and sins” could affect someone’s future life is an odd combination of Christian “morality” and Eastern reincarnation. “Buddhism does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey. The Buddha’s precepts of conduct…are voluntarily assumed rules of expediency, the intent of which is to remove the hindrances to clarity of awareness. Failure to observe the precepts produces ‘bad karma,’ not because karma is a law or moral retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful actions, whether conventionally good or bad, are karma in so far as they are directed to the grasping of life.”[34]

In other words, no act is “good” or “bad” in itself, but is so judged depending on the perspective of the observer; so this process is relative to a person’s upbringing, worldview, value system, etc. People produce “bad karma,” however, when they grasp at theoretical outcomes in life (i.e., what seems like a “good” idea, plan, or scheme). Such an idea is so foreign to Western minds that we simply fit it into our own pre-existing “moral” constructs. By extension, Westerners tend to speak in ways that split thoughts and feelings from the person “having” them. Actually a person is empirically (measurably) inseparable from those very thoughts and feelings – an idea that didn’t fully enter Western thought until Alfred Korzybski developed general semantics in the 1930s. Watts writes: “This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi…a state of profound peace.”[35] Yet Kerouac uses the term samadhi in a different sense, calling it “the state you reach when you stop everything and stop your mind…”[36] Kerouac was attracted to the idea of clearing the mind of its contents – and even Watts sometimes seems to be suggesting such a thing. But this entirely misses the point, as we’ll see shortly.

Watts also says that the long-term goal is a “natural, ‘un-self-grasped’ state of the mind.” In fact, this is basically what is meant by the original concept of nirvana. As Watts explains, “Nirvana is the way of life which ensues when clutching at life has come to an end.”[37] Opposed to this is the idea of samsara, which Watts calls a state of “pure self-frustration,” or “the vicious circle…the Round of birth-and-death.”[38] In Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, as in most Western discussions of these topics, nirvana and samsara are equated roughly to the places of “heaven” and “hell” from Christian doctrine. For example, in this dialogue, “Ray Smith” (Kerouac’s self-image) seeks clarification from “Japhy Ryder”: “’We’re all in Heaven now, ain’t we?’

“’Who said so?’

“’Is this nirvana we’re in now or ain’t it?’

“’It’s both nirvana and samsara we’re in now.’

“’Words, words, what’s in a word? Nirvana by any other name.’”[39]

Of course, Kerouac also missed the true meaning of the term dharma. He uses “Dharma bum” to signify little more than a “rucksack wanderer” [40] – a blend of American hobos and outdoorsmen, and Buddhist monks who spent their lives removed from society, often in the mountains. Watts writes that “the Buddha’s Dharma [is] the method or doctrine whereby self-frustration is brought to an end.”[41] The fact that Kerouac died at age 47 of an abdominal hemorrhage brought on by severe alcoholism is proof enough that Kerouac never escaped his state of “self-frustration.” When one examines the evidence, it becomes clear that Kerouac had little concern for using the terms how they were intended to be used. Some of the Eastern words he used most frequently had little or no connection to the original meanings. Or even if Kerouac knew the meaning, he usually made little effort to explain it to his audience. He was satisfied to toss around Buddhist terms as though they were wild cards, whether or not they matched the reality of what was happening in his life. In practice Bodhisattva became “hipster,” satori became “pseudo-enlightenment,” and “Zen”…well, by the sound of Kerouac’s “Zen Free Love Lunacy,”[42] it seems that it became the hippie movement of the 1960s.

Today, in the twenty-first century, many people do the same when discussing shamanism, the “chakra” system from Kundalini yoga, and other non-Western traditions. Watts calls this sort of thing “[eating] the menu instead of the meal,” or “climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.”[43] He was actually drawing from Korzybski, who writes, “A map is not the territory it represents…”[44] Kerouac often made what Korzybski would call “aristotelian misevaluations” – which essentially means that, in line with Western tradition (going back to Aristotle), Jack focused on verbal definitions of “religious” activity, while remaining largely ignorant of subjective metaphysical (i.e., internal, psychological, “spiritual”) development.

Some ideas with a more mythological basis will help demonstrate the problem. One example is Kerouac’s use of the term “yabyum,” which he introduces in Dharma Bums through the character “Japhy” as a “traditional…ceremony from Tibetan Buddhism” in which a woman sits face-to-face on a man’s lap, both often nude and presumed to be engaging in coitus.[45] But in the context of the novel, “yabyum” is used synonymously with “sex” or “orgy” (group sex). This is equivalent to the Western misconception of Tantric yoga as merely a sexual activity. Campbell writes in Hero that yabyum doesn’t necessarily relate to the act of intercourse at all. The mythological images of united male and female are symbolic of “eternity and time,” and are often depicted as a single hermaphroditic entity. “This is the meaning of those Tibetan images of the union of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with their own feminine aspects that have seemed so indecent to many Christian critics. …the female form (Tibetan: yum) is to be regarded as time and the male (yab) as eternity. The initiate, through meditation, is led to the recollection of this Form of forms (yab-yum) within [oneself].”[46]

A related mix-up happens in Dharma Bums when the reader is introduced to the “mandala.” In the story, Japhy draws a circular design on the ground that, he says, will allow him to “predict the future.”[47] While it’s not incorrect to call the mandala a “magic circle,” this sort of description doesn’t provide much understanding. Jung found such circular designs in religious artwork throughout the world, and he came to think of them as “a psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego.”[48] In other words, the mandala is a symbolic representation of the Self in its totality – including but not limited to the parts that fall into conscious awareness. Symmetrical designs such as mandalas or yantras have also long been used to focus awareness during meditation.[49] Jung’s colleague Aniela Jaffé explains their significance: “In terms of psychological symbolism, it expresses the union of opposites—the union of the personal, temporal world of the ego with the non-personal, timeless world of the non-ego. Ultimately, this union is the fulfillment and goal of all religions: It is the union of the soul with God.”[50]

Although it’s largely absent from the Christian tradition, meditation is a key component of any subjective spiritual exploration. Kerouac incorporated meditation into his lifestyle during the peak of his infatuation with Buddhism, and he thought strict self-discipline would bring greater results. However, Kerouac’s use of Benzedrine for recreation and writing had by that time caused a drastic reduction in his physical health. As Charters explains, “His legs, already suffering from insufficient blood circulation with phlebitis, pained him excruciatingly in the crossed-leg [meditation] posture.”[51] It’s unfortunate that Kerouac stuck to that meditation position so doggedly, since it’s not at all required. According to Watts, many schools of Buddhism criticize sitting meditation with the aim of achieving “Buddhahood,” because it means one is grasping for results or caught in “attachment to form.”[52] Really one can enter a state of meditation (i.e., contemplation, focused awareness, “mindfulness,” etc.) while undertaking any activity. This is yet another example of Kerouac putting too much emphasis on an idea from Buddhism, while missing the point of the experience.

Similarly, Kerouac got the impression that one of the main points of meditation was to deactivate the apparatus of thought. He wrote a poem to Ginsberg titled “How to Meditate” that read in part: “…the mind blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought comes a-springing from afar with its held-forth figure of image, you spoof it out…and it fades, and thought never comes––and with joy you realize for the first time ‘Thinking’s just like not thinking––so I don’t have to think any more.’”[53] As it turns out, this is only the goal in certain schools of meditation (and it might not even be the optimal way to meditate), as Arnold Mindell – a Jungian Analyst who went on to develop his own school of Process-Oriented Psychology (also called “process work”) – explains in Working On Yourself Alone (1990). Using wisdom from alchemy, Taoism, and other traditions, Mindell addresses the common assumptions that have developed in the Western approach to Eastern practices. “Like western instructors, many Buddhist teachers are, in principle, open to all experiences, techniques and religions, but in practice they tend to stress an inner focus which represses fantasies, spontaneous thoughts or ideas, and emotional affects. As a result, meditators are often bothered by unavoidable ‘disturbances’ which they are taught to tolerate.”[54] Instead of attempting to wipe out such “distractions,” Mindell argues, working with them can lead to great progress in the process of individuation.


When The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, Gary Snyder’s first responded with warm praise, calling it a “beautiful book” and saying that “Alan Watts is knocked out by the book & said so on the radio…”[55] However, Snyder – who had travelled to Japan to study Zen Buddhism – changed his tone by March 1959, as Charters informs us. “Snyder wrote Kerouac, ‘I told you I liked it, but that doesn’t make it right. What concerns me is your mind . . . Do you think you understand [Buddhism]?’ […] Later Snyder told interviewers that Japhy Ryder was a fictional character, not a realistic portrayal of him, and that Kerouac’s narrative about meeting him and the other poets in California in 1955 should be read as a freely embellished work of Jack’s imagination.”[56]

As we saw above, Kerouac’s attraction to Buddhism was based mostly on its apparent consolation for his trouble getting on with life. But other than the idea that “life is suffering,” Kerouac was equally attracted to the idea that “life is a dream.” In the same July 1954 letter to Carolyn Cassady quoted above, Kerouac wrote: “After reading the Diamond Sutra, which says that all things, including asceticism, are but a dream and an arbitrary conception not to be grasped, it seems I’ve been loosening my grip on Virtue…”[57] Helen Weaver got a close look at Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism while dating Jack in the late 1950s, as she shared in a 2010 interview with Beatdom editor David Wills. “The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self. […] When I tried to discuss our ‘problems’ with [Jack] his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me ‘Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real—it’s all a dream.’ So early on I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.”[58]

The field of quantum physics has now provided some evidence for the idea that the physical universe is illusory in nature. But that doesn’t require faith or belief – and it has a limited application to daily life and “ordinary” states of consciousness. In essence, Kerouac was asking people to believe something that they had not perceived directly. For most people, “reality” is based on sensory information and mental constructions enforced by social interaction. As Jung said above, dogma offers no direct path to spirituality. Even in the early twentieth century, the founders of Eastern studies in the West were calling scriptures such as The Diamond Sutra works of “metaphysical agnosticism.”[59] That is, “there is a sense in which the ‘highest perfect knowledge’ may be referred to as ‘unknown.”

Many times now we’ve come across the concept of the “union of opposites” or “incompatibles”; Jung also called them “irreconcilables.”[60] From a Jungian perspective, the goal of alchemy and Gnosticism (as well as some Eastern practices) is to integrate the conscious ego with the personal and collective unconscious – i.e., to integrate the psychic opposites. In Jung’s system this is done mostly by working with dreams, visions, and synchronicities (meaningful coincidences). But Mindell has expanded upon that in process work to include body symptoms, spontaneous movement, relationships, world conflict and more. Others would say that psychedelic substances serve the same purpose. The point in all cases is to bring disavowed parts of the Self into conscious awareness.

None of this has any connection to what we now call “religion.” “Religions are divisive and quarrelsome,” writes Watts. “…as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept ‘pure,’ and—because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. […] Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.”[61] Strangely enough (considering his earlier disparagement of Christ’s “egomaniacal Messiah complex”), Kerouac was trying to convert people to his “Beat” creed so that he wouldn’t have to face his own unconscious Self. His Westernized Buddhism functioned as a half-conscious cover-up for Jack’s lifelong attachment to his mother (part dependency, part Oedipal complex) and, therefore, to the pessimistic worldview of fundamentalist Catholicism.

Kerouac had “discovered” Buddhism at one of the lowest points in his life, when he was desperately hoping to publish On the Road and become a respected author. As Jung’s colleague Marie-Louis von Franz explains, this is the exact sort of circumstances that would lead someone toward true metaphysical development. “The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of ‘call,’ although it is not often recognized as such. On the contrary, the ego feels hampered in its will or its desire and usually projects the obstruction onto something external.”[62] In Kerouac’s case it was the publishers who took the blame, and he subsequently directed his efforts externally into the study and practice of Buddhism. But the “call” was not to “help all sentient beings,” as he wrote Carolyn Cassady in 1954; it was first and foremost an inward call.

This leads us to yet another meaning behind the term Bodhisattva. On the one hand (in Campbell’s words): “…all suffering…the mad figures of the transitory yet inexhaustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence is the essence of Emptiness: ‘The Lord Looking Down in Pity.’

“But the name means also: ‘The Lord Who is Seen Within.’ We are all reflexes of the image of the Bodhisattva. The sufferer within us is that divine being. […] This is the redeeming insight.”[63] Luke in the Christian tradition brings essentially the same message – that the “kingdom of God is within you.”[64] Of course, that notion has been withheld from parishioners or distorted to maintain their dependence on the Church. That institution talks incessantly about the resurrection of Christ, without ever clarifying that it is a symbolic expression of the possibility of human rebirth. In the Catholic world of Kerouac’s upbringing – as in the “Duluoz Legend” that he went on to write – we are merely “born to die” (as we saw above from Visions of Gerard). His mother had stamped this defeatist message into his mind since he could remember. It is mostly a philosophy of self-fulfilling (self-defeating) prophecy and mortal despair.

While it seems that Kerouac played an important role in a Western post-war spiritual awakening, this has by and large been a superficial movement. Kerouac’s mash-up of Buddhism and Christianity was a template for most “New Age” practices and sub-cultures that claim to use Eastern religion and philosophy to heighten “spirituality” or “consciousness.” In reality, we have yet to transcend our mostly Western mental formulations about metaphysics, and writers like Jack Kerouac are actually holding us back.


[1] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 73. From editor’s note by Ann Charters.

[2] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 66-68.

[3] Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.”

[4] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 447, 526. Also: Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. pp. 200, 389.

[5] “Beatification.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/9/2011.

[6] “Beatific vision.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed on 10/9/2011.

[7] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 93. From a footnote by Ann Charters.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 444, 447-448.

[9] Parker Kerouac, Edie. You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac. p. 242. Also, p. 106.

[10] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. p. xv.

[11] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 427.

[12] Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[13] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. 60.

[14] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 44.

[15] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p. 151.

[16] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[17] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. pp. 13-14.

[18] Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. by Walter Kaufmann. pp. 49-50.

[19] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[20] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 23, 35.

[21] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 124.

[22] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. pp. 149-151.

[23] Jung, C.G. The Undiscovered Self. pp. 20-22.

[24] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. vii.

[25] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 17-18.

[26] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[27] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 218.

[28] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 415-416. Kerouac called it “The Buddhist Bible.”

[29] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 190-191.

[30] Kerouac, J. Selected letters, 1957-1969. p. 111.

[31] Watts, A. Ibid. pp. 30-31.

[32] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 7.

[33] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 31.

[34] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 52.

[35] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 53.

[36] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 33.

[37] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 50.

[38] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 48.

[39] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 114.

[40] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. pp. 97-98.

[41] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 51.

[42] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 30.

[43] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. xi. Also: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 1966. New York: Random House, 1989. p. 13.

[44] Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. p. 58. Italics are Korzybski’s.

[45] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 28-31.

[46] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 169-170.

[47] Kerouac, J. Ibid. pp. 53-54.

[48] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 98-99.

[49] Mindell, Arnold. Working On Yourself Alone: Inner Dreambody Work. p. 25.

[50] Jaffé, Aniela. “Symbolism in the Visual Arts.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. pp. 267-268.

[51] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 219.

[52] Watts, A. The Way of Zen. pp. 110-111.

[53] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 219-220.

[54] Mindell, A. Working On Yoursel Alone. pp. 5-8.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 177. Letter from Gary Snyder to Jack Kerouac.

[56] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 213. Charters added “Buddhism” in brackets.

[57] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 426-427.

[58] Wills, David. “Helen Weaver: Remembering Jack Kerouac.” Beatdom. Issue 5. January 2010. p. 69.

[59] The Diamond Sutra. Translated and introduced by William Gemmel. p. xiii. Referring to statements by Max Müller.

[60] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 146-147.

[61] Watts, A. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. pp. 10-11.

[62] Von Franz, M.-L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. p. 169.

[63] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. 161.

[64] “Kingdom of God.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/31/2011.