The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men. Continue Reading…
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In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…
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 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.” Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.
For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.
Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.
The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.
Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.
Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.
It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.
The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it.
Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. was born in the dilapidated Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York in 1928. He spent his formative years surrounded by petty thieves and delinquents, frequenting the local pool halls. After finishing ninth grade, Selby became a Merchant Marine and traveled the world, eventually being exposed to bad meat while at sea and contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis.
Selby returned to the United States to be hospitalized. The doctors told him that he had less than a year to live and he subsequently spent four years in and out of hospitals. He was the only survivor in his tuberculosis ward, most likely because his mom bought him an experimental drug treatment from the black market. Selby endured excruciating surgeries; at one point ten ribs were removed from his back to get to his collapsed lung and he developed chronic pulmonary problems.
During Selby’s many surgeries, he was given morphine to curb his pain. He fell in love with the opiate rush, which mutated into a nasty five year spell of heroin and alcohol dependencies. It was in the hospital that Hubert Selby Jr. had a spiritual awakening and epiphany, realizing that he didn’t want to die as a man without accomplishments. His life-long dream was to become a composer but he lacked the resources to attain a formal education in composing so he decided to become a writer because he “knew the alphabet.”
Selby developed an avant-garde style that ignored the conventions of traditional prose. He showed irreverence towards punctuation and grammar and often replaced apostrophes with slashes. He relied upon hard-hitting dialogue and a stream-of-consciousness style that was already being employed in Beat literature by Jack Kerouac.
Hubert Selby Jr. got two of his short stories published in the early sixties: “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” which were about drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and part of the seedy underbelly that Selby had been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. “Tralala” was the story of a young prostitute that ended with a brutal gang rape. It was celebrated for its rawness and its unorthodox stylistic choices. However, many critics attacked the story for its brutality and the journal’s editor was arrested for selling pornographic material to a minor.
Selby assembled six of his stories and submitted them as a novel to Jack Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord. In 1964 Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was released by the infamous Grove Press, the same publishing house that had published William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1959. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Last Exit to Brooklyn should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.
Last Exit to Brooklyn explored the great failure of the American Dream as it shriveled in the shadows of post-war Brooklyn. Like Selby’s first two stories, which were included in the novel, it dealt with subjects that were taboo in the American psyche of that time: rape, prostitution, homosexuality, violence, and sexual anguish. The stories were told with an objective and voyeuristic eye. Selby showed deplorable characters and examined their failures with compassion, whether the failures were monetary or emotional. He chose empathy as the device to fix where the American Dream had gone awry, suggesting that love could help us prevail no matter how cold or empty we had become.
Last Exit to Brooklyn became an international best seller and catapulted Hubert Selby Jr. to literary fame. He was still helplessly addicted to heroin so he decided to escape from the New York drug scene by moving to Los Angeles. He fell into his old habits out west and was quickly impoverished by his addiction, blowing all of his royalty earnings on drugs.
In 1967 Selby was busted for a possession of heroin in Los Angeles. He spent two months in the Los Angeles County Jail and ended up getting clean for good, eventually refusing morphine on his death bed despite his pain. It was during this time that Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Great Britain and banned in Italy, creating more notoriety for the book and helping to bump sales to over seven million.
Selby’s second novel, The Room, was published in 1971. The novel chronicled an insane man trapped in a prison cell as he fantasized about the revenge he would seek on the people that put him there. The Room examined the depths of the psyche and was Selby’s boldest statement on the human condition. The book received positive reviews and was commercially successful . Selby once stated that he could not read it for decades after writing it and that it was, “the most disturbing book ever written.”
The seventies were Selby’s most prolific writing period. In 1976 he published The Demon which examined the rise and fall of Harry White, a young and successful business man who had compulsive urges to sleep with married women. As his womanizing becomes blasé, Harry begins to delve into criminality and eventually murder to satisfy his relentless compulsion. This was yet another novel that explored the dark depths of the human psyche, while also latching onto themes of greed and obsession. The Demon received tepid success nationally earning greater appreciation abroad.
Requiem for a Dream was published in 1978 and is Selby’s most profound exemplification of the failure of the American Dream. Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it is the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb and her heroin addicted son Harry, as they enter ill-fated quests for better lives. Sarah is a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose weight so she can appear on a television game show. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to circumvent responsibilities and achieve their dreams by selling drugs. Shortcuts in life soon become the antagonist, as Sarah becomes emaciated and delusional from amphetamine-laced diet pills and Harry suffers his own unspeakable horrors of addiction.
Requiem tells the universal story of seeking improvement in an upgraded and techno-colored life. It is about what happens when we choose to take more than we give: the failure of the American Dream. The consequences lie in the destructiveness of the soul, something that can happen to a group of friends planning to get an ounce of pure heroin or to a blameless old woman, nestled alone in her apartment, obsessing about her chance to get on television.
Selby succeeds in showing the downward trajectory of these four central characters by writing with an unwavering sense of compassion. Although they fail in achieving what they believe to be their tickets to better futures, he teaches us that love and empathy are the only way to save their souls, that there is a discernable difference between selfish materialism and the American Dream.
In 1986 Selby published a collection of short stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow. The collection included fifteen stories and covered over two decades of writing. The stories were crafted with typical Selby compassion, exploring the mundane failures of American culture.
Selby spent the next decade in literary silence. In 1989 a film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was made by German film maker Uli Edel. Selby made a cameo as a taxi driver in the film which stared Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was successful both critically and commercially and once again boosted Hubert Selby’s popularity as a transgressive writer, finding him a new and younger audience. It was during this time that the punk rock-luminary Henry Rollins linked up with Selby and expanded his readership by setting up recording sessions and booking readings and appearances all around the world.
In 1998 Selby came out with his acclaimed comeback novel, The Willow Tree. The Willow Tree is considered the gentlest work in Selby’s catalog, a story that is filled with hope and forgiveness. It is the unlikely tale of a bond between a vengeful African-American teen and an older Jewish man, who becomes his pathway toward redemption. The novel was attacked by critics for being too derivative and lacking the rawness of his previous works. Fans celebrated The Willow Tree for Selby’s willingness to give light to his idiosyncratic dark style.
Requiem for a Dream was adapted to a film in 2000 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The film stared Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, and Ellen Burstyn. Hubert Selby Jr. again had a cameo as a trash talking prison guard and Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was during this time that Selby taught creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Waiting Period was Selby’s final novel and was published in 2002. It tells the story of a disgruntled war veteran who attempts to purchase a hand gun to commit suicide but is stopped due to a five day waiting period. In the time that it takes to get the gun he decides to go on a mass murder spree and kill people that finds despicable. The novel is laced with ambiguous voices that the protagonist hears that could be perceived as either God or the devil. Waiting Period was unsuccessful commercially and was brutally attacked by critics for lacking Selby’s signature naturalism.
Hubert Selby Jr. died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on April 26, 2004. The American Dream was a major fixture in all of Selby’s books. He wrote about the loss of opportunity and the failures committed by disdainful characters. This was all written with a great sense of love and empathy, no matter how low a person was in his stories, there was always a sense of hope because he sketched them with compassion. This was his antidote for the failure of the American Dream: that we must transcend failure by loving those around us. The American Dream failed in his stories because of greed, lack of love, selfishness, and materialism. Selby’s greatest gift was teaching us that if we just follow our hearts, if we stop taking shortcuts, It/ll be better tomorrow.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life.
The second-generation of Beats, born in the 1930s, occupy a peculiar position in relation to the first-generation Beats – the celebrated male writers who met around the Columbia University campus in the early 1940s and would catalyze each other to literary breakthroughs. The second-generation, male and female authors alike, rejected or accepted the label “Beat” to differing degrees. The women stood on the edge of the Beat party, so to speak, due to the workings of socialised gender expectations of the time. The women who were of age with the Columbia group did not harbor literary ambitions – Carolyn Cassady identified as a painter rather than a writer at the time – or if they did show literary inclination it did not manifest into output; we can think of Joan Vollmer Burroughs’ self-destructive impulses. In contrast, the second-generation created substantial bodies of work based on sustained imaginative investment in their inner lives – other names to note are Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel, Hettie Jones and Bonnie Bremser – with many beginning to write in the 1950s. Some of these writers later turned to autobiographic prose works which appeared in a flurry in and around the 1990s, and resonated with feminist studies’ critical excavations of women’s memoir writing as a whole; arguably with these Beat women empowering it by their maverick lifestyles.
This generation also occupied a particular position in relation to the Second World War. They were too young to understand what was occurring, and safe from blitzing and racial persecution.
In Diane de Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), a vast work of meditative autobiographical prose which portrays her early life growing up in Brooklyn, to her move to Manhattan where she lived as a poet and encountered the Beats, first through a correspondence with Ginsberg after Howl and Other Poems was brought to her attention. It then charts the trajectory of her writing, her work in publishing, which included The Floating Bear newsletter that was co-edited with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), the birth of her children, and her move to the west coast, with di Prima weaving personal, creative, political, and spiritual modalities seamlessly. Early in the text she describes a constant state of war, not only the “vast global entity” of the war in Europe, but the stultifying atmosphere in the home of her parents, who were both American-born children of Italian immigrants:
For me [the war] is everywhere: the War between my parents, the War between myself and the entity they are, the War between all the family and what I have gathered is a hostile world. My father goes out into it and returns discouraged. There is War upon war in my world, and they are all muted, hushed-my parents never argue.
One of her earliest memories was hearing her parents discussing the war in hushed tones while she sat unobserved in a corner of the kitchen in their Brooklyn brownstone. They speak in Italian, the language reserved for their private conversations. But the child understands, sensing the fear in her father’s voice as he states “We can’t get out of it now,” and in her mother’s “whimper of agreement.” This is after the United States entered the war, causing division in the Italian-American family, and threatening “the homeland” which eventuates in her paternal grandfather’s brother making the decision to “go home” to Sicily with his family, thus creating a “splitting of the tribe.” It speaks of both the fracturing war brings, and the split identity of Italian-Americans at the time, with di Prima describing further division for those of Sicilian origin, as a “Mediterranean, or North African ritual”: “Cousins wept, and wondered if they would next see each other across battle lines.”
The theoretical concept of “postmemory” from the cultural critic Marianne Hirsch helps elucidate the nature of the trauma the second-generation Beats inherited from both the parental generation and the European-born grandparental generation. Postmemory is “distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection,” and its “connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.” Such investment in imagination suits the poetic, reflective mode of these collective works in which there is a disconnection between family history and the secrets hidden there. Hirsch bases her work in the context of children of survivors of the Holocaust, but allows for other trauma such as migration to create postmemories across the generations. “Loss of family, home, of a sense of belonging and safety ‘bleed’ from one generation to the next,” she writes. Persecution, poverty, and geo-political shifts had been among the motivations for the waves of European emigration to America, and the Second World War came as a reminder and magnification of such old wounds, which did not end in 1945 as instead global hostility and threat switched gears into a Cold War context.
In another example from Recollections, di Prima presents the memory she inherited from her beloved grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi. He is presented as an idealized father figure, in contrast to her physically abusive father. Domenico was an atheist and anarchist who had known Carlo Tresca, the supporter of Italian radicals Sacco and Vanzetti, during their trial for murder. She would sit in his lap listening to stories, “sometimes facing the wall together as if to shut out distractions.” He would teach her the forbidden Italian, and conjure images of the old world, describing olive groves until the child “saw them blowing silver-green in the wind.” Although he promised to take her there after the war, he would die before the war ended; leaving di Prima with an embodied connection – postmemory – of a land she had never seen.
As well as providing a sense of Italian heritage, and a passion for knowledge and poetry, Domenico is valued for showing her a political consciousness grounded in love. In the poem “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” which serves as a preface for di Prima’s Vietnam War era collection, Revolutionary Letters, she aligns the memory of watching her grandfather address the crowd at a political rally prior to the outbreak of war with the current situation:
strangers on the street, filled with their love and
mine, the love you told us had to come or we
die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in
spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars, so glorious
to me your white hair, your height your fierce
blue eyes, rare among italians
There is the sense that Mallozzi foresaw the defeat of his political ideals as war ensued, and anarchist love was replaced by mass slaughter and then amnesia in the postwar atomic age. It was also a love that di Prima did not experience from her parents, which she would search for through establishing a community of like-minded souls in the Beat era and thereafter.
Through the evocation of lost radical politics there is a connection to Allen Ginsberg’s depiction of his mother Naomi in his long narrative poem “Kaddish.” Ginsberg has a bridge status between the generations of Beats, and also in his reaching out to later generations of hippies and punks. Provoked by Naomi’s death in 1956, “Kaddish,” which stands as an imaginative offering of the traditional Kaddish prayer, was not read at her funeral because a “minyan” or quorum of ten Jewish men was not present. Ginsberg was on the west coast at the time of her death, and thus themes of guilt, grief, and remembrance inform the poem. It describes Naomi’s history of shifting mental states over the years, which included repeated breakdowns and paranoia concerning persecution from Hitler or her family members acting on his behalf. Naomi had moved to the United States as a child with her family in 1905 from the Vitebsk region in Russia’s Jewish Pale, now modern day Belarus. The first pogroms had begun in the territory that year, and later when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Vitebsk ghetto was created with its inhabitants liquidated. This sense of various trajectories of anti-Semitic persecution gives a context to “Kaddish,” along with Naomi’s incongruity as a Communist Party member in the new world. In Part IV of the poem the sense of breakdown and dislocation is staged on the mother’s body, with successive images building up with the cumulative effect of a litany:
with your sagging belly
with your fear of Hitler
with your mouth of bad short stories
with your fingers of rotten mandolins
with your arms of fat Paterson porches
with your belly of strikes and smokestacks
with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War
with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers
with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the
pickles of Newark
with your eyes
with your eyes of Russia
Ginsberg presents the body of the immigrant woman as metaphorically representative of the political and geographic dislocation of the twentieth century: the “vast global entity” is played out on her body, which is literally dissected in the lines breaking across the page. The poem bears witness to his mother’s life, acknowledging his European lineage and placing himself therein, with its legacy of trauma, failed hope, yet commitment to idealism, beauty, and humanity. Tenderly and brutally, he re-enacts the pain and shame in what amounts to a drag process as he speaks for Naomi, imaginatively investing in his postmemory.
The Jewish context connects the experiences of various Beat writers. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson is a memoir not only of her love affair with Kerouac, but of her bohemian youth, and the road away from home life with her assimilated parents. When she finds an apartment in the East Village, in the “sweet slums of Bohemia and beatnikdom,” she notes her mother’s incomprehension of her daughter’s move to slums her grandparents had struggled to avoid. She remembers journeys out on Jewish holidays from their comfortable Upper West Side home to visit cousins in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who were less assimilated, rougher in manner, and accumulated fat to crowd out the “specter of leaner days.” Johnson, née Glassman, chronicles a turbulent relationship with her mother, a common thematic strand of the women writers of the Beat generation. If Ginsberg’s ultimate horror is fucking his mother, as “Howl”’s expletives and “Kaddish”’s more graphic depictions suggest, the horror for the women writers is becoming their mothers.
A second memoir, Missing Men, follows Johnson’s discovery of the painful details of her Jewish heritage. After her grandmother had died and “the wall around the past briefly became permeable,” an aunt showed her a photograph of her grandfather, Samuel Rosenberg, a “poet and scholar, the descendant of a long line of eminent rabbis in Warsaw” who had sailed to America with his wife and youngest children in the 1890s. Up until that point, the sixteen-year old Johnson had been told that her grandfather had died when he was thirty-seven years old of some unmentioned illness. But her aunt reveals the truth, that after injuring his hands in a factory and having been unemployed for a while, he committed suicide. The skills for which Rosenberg had been regarded as a “promising young man in Warsaw had no negotiable value” in New York, “a world in which he could not find his bearings.” Johnson includes family photographs throughout Missing Men – recovered photographs of Rosenberg, her parents, aunts, and as the text develops into the next two sections, photographs of both of Johnson’s husbands. For Hirsch, photographs are the “medium connecting first- and second-generation remembrance, memory and postmemory”; they are “leftovers, the fragmentary sources and building blocks, shot through with holes […] affirm[ing] the past’s existence and, in their flat two-dimensionality, they signal its unbridgeable distance.” Johnson describes her own efforts at “resurrecting” the cultured man she never knew, searching for him in
“exiles, in artists who could not find acceptance, in the rage and sadness of these men that would make me fall in love with them and ultimately leave me alone again with my freedom.”
Di Prima’s Recollections gives a parallel account of a maddened American-born mother, Emma di Prima, who literally tries to scrub clean the past and assimilate into the American ideal she perceives. Long sections of the text are dedicated by the writer to cathartically encountering Emma’s ritualistic cleansing and dressing routines: recounting being scrubbed in the bath until her skin was raw; wearing dresses so stiffened with starch that they rubbed holes into her neck and waist; underwear elastic and patent leather shoes that dug into her flesh; heavy combs “with ‘unbreakable’ stamped across the top” which her mother would boast of breaking on her daughter’s thick, curly hair. Young di Prima’s skin was the “interface” between herself and her mother and it was “always red – from scrubbing, from battering, from starch, from shame.” Like Naomi’s, the body of the immigrant daughter is a contested site. The mother’s scrubbing of her child’s skin can be read as an extreme displacement of the immigrant’s desire to scrub clean the signs of racial difference, and its attendant traces of impoverished, troubled histories – a “whitening” of sorts.
Expanding on this theme, the critic Wini Breines has interpreted the “racial meanings” behind the “adult culture’s dualism of light and dark.” Whiteness was coded as the norm and ideal across American society, evident in pastel-colored clothing, light-colored, tidy hair, accompanied by good, clean personal hygiene. This all-American ideal dominated the cultural spectrum not only in “beauty standards” but in “mainstream movies, television, magazines, and advertising.” In contrast, darkness was coded as negative and seen in the black leather of real life “hoods” and on-screen delinquents, the dark clothes of black-clad beatniks with their unruly, long hair, and poor personal hygiene, with their alleged filthiness being another shading of darkness. Such delinquents sometimes “were dark” due to immigrant backgrounds. This resonates with the Italian and Jewish lineages discussed so far, and other Beats like Kerouac with his French-Canadian and Iroquois blood. Breines explains that: “Difference was supposed to be invisible in postwar America. In this version, America was a welcoming melting pot into which everyone could and would be incorporated. Erasing one’s difference, assimilating, was a sign of Americanness. And assimilation meant passing for white.” (400)
She points to the invisibility of African-Americans in the mass media, quoting the writer Michelle Wallace, who “grew up watching a television on which I rarely saw a black face, reading Archie and Veronica comics, Oz and Nancy Drew stories and Seventeen magazine, in which ‘race’ was unmentionable.” In her analysis of the clothing choices of white American youths, the beat(nik)s included, Breines observes that wearing black conveyed “being unable to attain, or rejecting, prevailing values and standards of attractiveness, being an outsider.”
Alongside the erasure of the ethnic other in society’s images of itself, there often lurked shame in uneasily assimilated families, for example, di Prima’s father’s shame at his dark Sicilian lineage. She recalls the suspicion shared by her mother and aunts that his “genes [were] not okay,” and who by contrast, were proud of their blue-eyed “northern” father Domenico Mallozzi. Such racism in American immigrant communities can be seen as an extension of the eugenic concerns of the day, which simultaneously were being taken to genocidal extremes by Doctor Mengele and his Nazi cohorts across the Atlantic.
Unlike those who wished to scrub themselves clean in America in their pursuit of the American dream, the Beats mined the horror, eviscerated the broken hearts of the family tree, and portrayed their postmemory in autobiographic writing. They proclaimed themselves orphans, dirty and lost like their immigrant ancestors in a new world grown rich and fat on industry spawned from war technology and efficiency – high on Moloch, but low on soul. They sought out the slums of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and the Mexican borderlands. Secret heroes were not only the jazz musicians and hobos, but migrant family members like Naomi Ginsberg, Domenico Mallozzi, and Samuel Rosenberg. We can also think of Jack Kerouac’s French-Canadian grandfather Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, who he summons up in “The Origins of the Beat Generation.” He “used to go out on the porch in big thunderstorms and swing his kerosene lamp at the lightning and yell ‘Go ahead, go, if you’re more powerful than I am strike me and put the light out.’” For Kerouac this man was an antecedent of an America “invested with wild self-believing individuality” which “had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead.”
The second-generation Beats mine the inheritance of the daughter and son, revealing the complex layering of “war upon war” across the generations. A lasting image is of the young Diane di Prima eyeing a burning effigy of Hirohito as she questions an uneasy peace after V-J day: “It turned out to be as warlike as the rest. On Brooklyn sidewalks, kids ran by with dolls’ heads on broomsticks. Beheaded dolls with slanted eyes painted on. Norwegian kids, Italian kids, ran screaming. Japanese heads on sticks, or hung on the fences. I stood quiet inside our wrought iron gate and watched. Afraid to step into it. “
Breines, Wini, ‘The “Other” Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls.’ Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple U P, 1994)p. 382-408.
Charters, Ann, The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1994)
Di Prima, Diane, Revolutionary Letters Etc. (San Francisco: City Lights , 1971).
Di Prima, Diane, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (New York: Viking, 2001).
Ginsberg, Allen, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960 (San Francisco: City Lights , 1961). Rpt. 2010.
Hirsch, Marianne, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MT: Harvard U P, 1997).
Hirsch, Marianne, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia U P, 2012).
Johnson, Joyce, Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983) Rpt. 1994. London: Virago.
Johnson, Joyce, Missing Men: A Memoir (New York: Penguin, 2004) Rpt. 2005.
Johnson, Joyce, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (New York: Viking, 2012).
Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy M. Grace, Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation (New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 2002).
Kerouac, Jack, ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’ Playboy (June, 1959). Rpt. 1998. Good Blonde and Others (San Francisco: Grey Fox) p. 55-65.
Knight, Brenda, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley: Conari, 1996).
Miles, Barry, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin, 2002).
 In her Portable Beat Reader, Ann Charters posited two generations of Beat writers: firstly, those associated with the East Coast Beats, and secondly those “fellow travelers” who were influenced by the breakthroughs of the first generation. Joyce Johnson and Nancy Grace, however, suggest a three generational model to accommodate the range of women Beat writers they discuss in Girls Who Wore Black.
 Edie Kerouac-Parker’s You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007) can be placed alongside Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg (London: Black Spring, 1990) as narratives with a speaker who exists, first and foremost, “in relation to” the famous Beat figures, and written in conventional mimetic styles.
 Johnson notes that the minority populations of French-Canadians in New England were referred to as “white niggers.”
From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:
The Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius.
The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.
To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:
All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.
The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.
The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”
Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.
So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.
“Wars don’t advance mankind except materially”
In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:
For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . . I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.
However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.
Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.
The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.
His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.
After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”
But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:
I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.
Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.
In Vanity he described the experience:
Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.
On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.
During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.
Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.
During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:
“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:
“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”
Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”
Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.
“At Hiroshima all was lost.”
William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.
In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.
In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”
When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy. He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.
In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:
the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.
However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:
In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.
The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.
Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.
Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.
In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.
Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”
War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:
This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.
“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.
Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.
He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.
In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:
I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.
Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”
After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.
There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.
It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.
Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.
Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”
For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.
For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.
As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.
In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.
In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.
But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.
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.