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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This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.
Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen.
Has Kerouac been much of an influence on your life?
Growing up in Germany I didn’t really start reading much English-language literature until well into my twenties, after I moved to the States. Kerouac was always somebody I knew about, but it wasn’t until shortly before the film that I read his work.
Had you read Big Sur prior to signing on to this project? If so, what did you think?
When I heard that Michael Polish was beginning work on Big Sur, I decided to read it – less because of the possibility of working on the film, but because I figured it must be an interesting work if Mike decides to create an adaptation. Also, Big Sur (the place) always fascinated me – I consider it to be the most stunning landscape I have ever visited. I absolutely loved the book. The first thing I noticed in it was the rhythm. It soon became clear, at least for me, that the book eludes you until you decide to read it aloud (or aloud in your head – hearing the sounds of the words, rather than merely absorbing their meanings.) So to me “Big Sur” is perhaps more a long poem rather than a novel. It was a deeply moving experience to get inside the head of someone so close to the breaking point that his perception of this amazing landscape turns from awe-inspiring to awe-ful. Kerouac’s awareness of his own state of mind is so astute yet disarming, there is no chance of keeping any “safe distance” from it. It would take a cynic to not be touched by this book.
One reason that Big Sur has been such a loved book of Kerouac’s is that it is possibly his most lyrical. He wrote it by the sea, and so the sound of the sea is reflected in the flow of the prose. In a book so lyrical, how did you go about composing a soundtrack that would adequately reflect Kerouac’s prose?
The musical palette – the instruments mostly – was already set, since I was hired to pick up the music where Bryce and Aaron Dessner left off. From the start, Mike did not want a “historically accurate” score – say, an early 1960s Jazz score – but wanted a score that expresses Kerouac’s journey to an audience of today. The Dessners set a wonderfully moody yet strong tone in the cues they completed before I took over. It was important that Jack not be made “soft” – he needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of his mind and body.
After reading the book my fist step was to listen to recordings of Kerouac reading his own work, since I wanted to represent *his* rhythms in the music. That turned out to be unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr (who plays Jack Kerouac in the film and reads the ever-present voiceover) does an amazing job of capturing Kerouac’s sound and cadence.
Additionally, I created some sketches that were never meant to be part of the score, but only served to hone my senses to the sounds of Big Sur: I used recordings I had made of the environmental sounds there during prior visits – waves, wind, trees – and “painted” musical colors onto them – a voice coming out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc. This was never meant for anyone but me, in order to give me a sense of “what could live in this environment.” Among other things, many of the electronic tones in the score were a direct result of these experiments.
In the end it became a very simple matter of reacting directly and immediately to the rhythms and colors of the environment in the picture, and especially to Jean-Marc Barr’s voice as Kerouac in the voiceover. Every film score is largely a matter of “fitting in to what’s already there,” but in this film, with the prominent voiceover, and strong poetic images, this was even more the case – the music score had to seamlessly become but one player in the quintet of actors’ performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music.
“At the time I sincerely believed that the only decent activity in the world was to pray for everyone, in solitude.” i
Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov is a madwoman or did she just read too many poems? ii
Lear on the moor of woes, sinful and sorrowful, sorrows heaped one after another with only the Fool as companion
“. . . why ask questions or tear hair or weep. . .” iii
Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin is The Idiot
“Dostoevsky of Czarist Russia, a Saint,” iv who stood before the Hans Holbein painting Christ’s Body in the Tomb “as if dumbstruck . . . riveted” v
Lizaveta Prokofyevna is Mrs. Epanchin
Ivan Fyodorovich is General Epanchin
Aglaya Ivanovna is Miss Epanachin the Youngest
Gavrila Ardalionych is Ganya
Rogozhin is wicked
Ginsberg, “I’m Prince Myshkin” (holy fool)
Carl Solomon, “I’m Kirilov” (nihilist) vi
I am Kulchicovsky “in the lost alleys of Russian sorrow. . .” vii
I AM WHO AM viii
And who are you?
During a storm at sea, Jean-Louis heard the words:
Everything is God
Nothing ever happened except God ix
And Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the Lifex
ego sum resurrection et vita
(In memory of a beloved young man)
i Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p.355.
ii Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.569.
iii Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p.5.
iv Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p.55.
v Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.xiii.
vi Mitchner, Stuart. (March 13, 2011). Living in Dostoevsky: Joseph Franks’ Acclaimed Biography Was Born in Princeton. Town Topics. www.towntopics.com
vii Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur (New York: Penguin Books, 1962), p.11.
viii Ex 3:14
ix Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir. (New York: Penguin Books, 1999),p.140.
x Jn 11:25
Words by Rory Feehan
Photos by David S. Wills
“My only faith in this country is rooted in such places as Colorado and Idaho and maybe Big Sur as it was before the war. The cities are greasepits and not worth blowing off the map.”
– Hunter S. Thompson (from a letter to Lionel Olay,February 16, 1962)
Hunter S. Thompson is a name that will always be associated with a variety of locations – from his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky, to his longstanding fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado; from San Juan in Puerto Rico, courtesy of The Rum Diary, to Las Vegas and his journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson was a seasoned traveller and indeed such was the extent of his time on the road in his early twenties that he once declared his wanderlust made “Kerouac look like a piker.” Although the natural environment has always played an integral role in the make-up of Thompson’s work, it remains an element of his writing that is all too often overlooked in favour of focusing on the more radical characteristics that have come to define both his literary persona and Gonzo Journalism. In order to fully understand and appreciate the various underlying principles that motivated Thompson and shaped his development as a writer, attention must be paid both to the manner in which he utilises the natural environment as a literary device and how the frontier as a concept lies at the heart of his literary oeuvre.
Interestingly, the very point in Thompson’s life where the aforementioned come into being, a time and place that could be considered the genesis of both the fictive persona of The Hunterfigure and Gonzo Journalism, is actually one of the most overlooked periods in his life. That place is none other than Big Sur, California. Thompson arrived there in November of 1960, in the hope of settling down to write what he called “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” inspired by his experiences living in San Juan. His journey from the Caribbean island to his new home on the west coast of America had been far from straightforward, with New York City being the first port of call in July, 1960, in what would become a westward voyage across the country that echoed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is important, however, to first examine how and why Thompson ended up in Big Sur from San Juan, as the journey itself reveals important details concerning Thompson’s motivations that ultimately find their ultimate expression through his writing.
The West Is The Best – Goodbye to the Rat Race
The catalyst that spurred Thompson on his travels echoed that of certain frontiersmen that first journeyed westward across the land in search of pastures new: they were both equally motivated by a desire stay one step ahead of the law. In the time-honoured tradition of the outlaw heroes that he so admired in his youth, Thompson had fled Puerto Rico whilst out on bail awaiting charges of breach of the peace and resisting arrest. Rather than await his fate, Thompson, as ever, opted to control his own destiny and thus returned to the familiar scene of New York. Though he had become disillusioned with journalism following his stint in Puerto Rico, he still had a strong desire to get his fiction published and whilst in New Yorkhe made one final pitch to Grove Press to garner interest in Prince Jellyfish, his first novel. Success, however, was far off, and upon receiving yet another rejection letter, Thompson decided to move on from the novel, declaring to William Kennedy that he would “chalk that year up to experience.” For Thompson, though, New York proved to be only a temporary stay. His focus quickly switched to the horizon and an escape route away from the big city. He was never comfortable living in a city the size of New York, though he did find it to be a never-ending source of intrigue. When he first arrived there on Christmas Eve, 1957, the towering skyscrapers made such an impression that he later wrote,
I’d never been there, never even seen it. I remember being stunned at the New York skyline as I drove over this big freeway, coming across the flats in Secaucus. All of a sudden it was looming up in front of me and I almost lost control of the car. I thought it was a vision.
However, the constant struggle to survive on a meagre wage in New York had been the principle reason for Thompson fleeing to Puerto Rico by January, 1960, and now, six months later, he had come full circle. The city had proven to be a rich learning experience in the past, from his stint working as a copyboy at Time, to the classes in “Literary Style & Structure” and “Short Story Writing” that he had taken at Columbia University. Living inNew York had also exposed him to the very epicentre of the Beat Generation universe, and their rise to literary prominence did not escape his attention. He was particularly taken by Jack Kerouac, whose “confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style,” according to Thompson’s literary executor, Douglas Brinkley. For Thompson, though, the negative aspects of living in New York far outweighed the positive to such an extent that he harboured a life-long aversion to the “rat-race” reality of big city life, a sentiment that was all too clear from even the earliest days of his time in New York, as illustrated in his letter to his former English teacher at Louisville Male High School, Arch Gerhart, dated January 29, 1958:
Anyone who could live in this huge reclaimed tenement called Manhattan for more than a year, without losing all vestiges of respect for everything that walks on two legs, would have to be either in love, or possessed of an almost divine understanding. The sight of eight million people struggling silently but desperately to merely stay alive is anything but inspiring. For my money, at least eight million people would be much better off if all five boroughs of New York should suddenly sink into the sea.
In the two years following that appraisal, Thompson had only found more reason to convince him that his time was best spent elsewhere. He had hoped thatPuerto Ricowould have been the solution to his problem, but even a supposedCaribbeanparadise turned out to have a dark side. Thompson, however, had not entirely given up on the region and by August, 1960, he had another island in the Caribbean in his sights – Cuba.
As with all of his endeavours, the potential for excitement and adventure was always paramount and now Cuba was at the centre of attention, following the exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara a little over a year earlier. The image of the guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, greatly appealed to Thompson’s romantic sensibilities. There was also the Hemingway connection to contend with, which only served to heighten Thompson’s desire to travel to the country in search of work and indulge his fantasy of following in his literary heroes’ footsteps. The dream quickly fell by the wayside once Thompson realised that work opportunities on the island were scarce and his own financial situation had deteriorated to the point of making any return to the Caribbean impossible. Undaunted by this discovery, a new plan of action swung into gear by September, with Thompson and his friend Paul Semonin deciding to undertake the cross-country road trip that would culminate in his arrival at Big Sur.
The duo’s first destination was to be Seattle, which involved delivering the vehicle they were journeying in to a car dealer, after which they hoped to make their way down to San Francisco. Once they took to the highways, they quickly found themselves paying homage to Kerouac’s On the Road. As Paul Perry noted in Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson:
Their first rule of the road was to pick up every hitchhiker. In western Kansas, Semonin stopped for a man carrying a five-gallon gas can. When the hitchhiker got into the backseat, he flipped the latches on the can to reveal it was stuffed with clothes. “No one will pick you up if they think you’re a hitchhiker,” he explained. “You have to be a motorist in distress.” Hunter smelled a story and interviewed the man about the difficulty of getting rides. When they neared a signpost that proved they were in the middle of nowhere, Hunter made Semonin stop and take a picture of the interviewee with his thumb out, looking forlorn.
Given the nature of their expedition and literary sensibilities, the Beat Generation connotations are unsurprising. Thompson was particularly fixated on the image of the lone hitchhiker during this jaunt, with multiple photographs taken by both Thompson and Semonin along the way consisting of a solitary figure standing at the edge of an empty highway, awaiting the opportunity to catch a ride to the next town from a stranger that might never materialise. The sheer vastness of the landscape in the background creates an overwhelming sense of isolation but also raises the alluring prospect of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom. It was an intoxicating picture for Thompson but one that he felt was increasingly under threat, as is evident from his article “Low Octane for the Long Haul”…
Hitchhikers have fallen on bad times in recent years. The raised thumb, long a symbol of youthful adventure, suddenly took on a threatening aspect when both Hollywood and the Readers’ Digest decided the public would be better off if hitchhiking were a lost art. It almost is – and things have come to such a sad pass that only uniformed servicemen and Jack Kerouac seem to be able to move about the country with any ease. The others are having trouble. Most people are afraid of them, insurance regulations prevent truckers from picking them up, and a good many of those who still stop for the stranded thumb are often more dangerous than the hitchhikers themselves.
It was a doomed image that Thompson himself brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with his alter ego, Raoul Duke, and attorney Dr. Gonzo terrorizing a hitchhiker on the desert highway to Las Vegas, a place that we are ominously reminded as being the last known home of the Manson family.
In 1960, there was still a vestige of innocence and youthful optimism that had yet to be swept away by the tide of violence that would come to define the decade ahead. Upon his eventual arrival in San Francisco in October of that year, Thompson delighted in seeking out the North Beach haunts of the Beats, including the City Lights Bookshop owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the novelty of the city by the bay soon wore off and, once more, Thompson found himself cursing the pressures of city life. The task of finding accommodation was temporarily eased by his friend John Clancy offering him the use of his vacated apartment until the lease had expired. Clancy was moving across the bay to Berkeleyand so Thompson seized the opportunity with relish. Yet the perennial problem of employment once more reared its ugly head, with a soon-to-be despairing Thompson applying for everything from bartending to selling encyclopaedias. He was met with rejection across the board. When his application to the San Francisco Chronicle for work went completely unacknowledged, Thompson sent Editor Abe Mellinkoff an Orwellian put-down entitled “Down and Out in San Francisco”…
City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs – Republicans all…city of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window, and somehow it’s always enough – city, like all cities, of lonely women, lost souls, and people slowly going under. City of newspapers for Nixon (“careful now, don’t upset the balance of terror”)…where you talk with editors and news directors and creative directors and hear over and over again how easy and necessary it is to sell out…
There was now also a notable political edge seeping into Thompson’s writing, no doubt a reflection of the extraordinary political circus that was unfolding before an electrified nation – the first televised presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy.
Standing On the Edge of a New Frontier
With an average audience of some sixty million viewers, the four televised debates generated massive publicity and exposed the candidates to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. When the black and white images beamed across the country there was a stark contrast in appearance between the two contenders – Nixon was recovering from illness and appeared gaunt, not to mention ill at ease, while Kennedy was confident, energetic, and relaxed. It proved to be a pivotal moment in American politics that sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, culminating in Kennedy’s victory that November. Thompson would later point to the televised presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy as a moment of great importance in his political awakening:
That was when I first understood that the world of Ike and Nixon was vulnerable…and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten…and it had never occurred to me that politics in America had anything to do with human beings. It was Nixon’s game – a world of old hacks and legalized thievery, a never-ending drone of bad speeches and worse instincts…With Nixon as the only alternative, Kennedy was beautiful – whatever he was. It didn’t matter. The most important thing about Kennedy, to me and millions of others, was that his name wasn’t Nixon.
The power of television had permanently altered the nature of electoral campaigns, marking the end of the Eisenhower era, and ushering in the golden age of Kennedy’s Camelot. At the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles the previous July, where Kennedy had been formally selected as the presidential candidate, he delivered his acceptance speech from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where he first used the term “the New Frontier” to describe the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in the oncoming decade:
…I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free…Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment…we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s…The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.
In many ways, the 1960 presidential election was emblematic of an entire generational shift in the national psyche. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of his election as, “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” Indeed, this change would become a cultural tsunami that would sweep across the country over the coming decade, altering virtually every facet of the American way of life in the process. For many, the opening salvo in this transformation had actually been fired almost a year before Kennedy’s election. The incident in question occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College refused to leave a segregated lunch-counter in the local Woolworths store. The sit-in set off a wave of similar protests across the nation and became a defining moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Seemingly overnight, what had been bubbling underground for years, came rushing to the surface, but now the voice of protest, dissent, and rebellion had spread to form a multitude of different voices and groups, each with their own story and vision of change. InSan Franciscothat summer, protestors at City Hall adopted the sit-in as a non-violent approach to voicing their opposition to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but what started off as a peaceful event descended into a brutal confrontation with the police. Many of the attendees were students at nearbyBerkeleyUniversity, which was becoming a hotbed of civil liberties activists, and such activism was rapidly spreading to other campuses. America was now bearing witness to the rise of what would become known as the New Left, whose underlying policy was to take to the streets and actively engage the opposition.
If action was the operating mantra, then no writer was more suitable to the call than Hunter S. Thompson, whose own work ethic operated on the same principle of shaping reality through action, and then writing about it. The road ahead for Thompson would prove to be as convoluted and challenging as that of the New Left, and while San Francisco would ultimately feature predominantly as a focal point for their respective endeavours, it had yet to deliver for Thompson as the year drew to a close. Tired of his fruitless quest for employment, his thoughts now rested solely on completing his Caribbean novel, but first he would have to settle on a suitable place that would facilitate such a commitment, and for a struggling writer in California there was really only one possible destination. Directly south of San Francisco, amidst the ancient redwood groves of the Santa Lucia Mountains and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lay a territory of legendary repute – Big Sur.
Fear and Loathing in the Garden of Agony
Thompson’s attraction to Big Sur was inevitable, given its hedonistic reputation as a haven for a motley crew of artists and social misfits. One name above all had become synonymous with the area and that was Henry Miller. Thompson had long been enthralled by the work of the notorious iconoclast, whose first published book, Tropic of Cancer, had been banned in the U.S. on the basis that its content was obscene and pornographic. Miller lived in Big Sur between 1944 and 1962, during which time he produced some of his most revered writing – including Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Unfortunately, Miller was absent for the entire duration of Thompson’s stay in Big Sur during 1961, having travelled to Europe for several months, leaving behind a notable void in the community. In the months that followed, that void was more than filled by Hunter S. Thompson, who made sure to leave behind an indelible mark as The Outlaw of Big Sur.
Thompson initially rented a small cabin, the kind of which were scattered all along the coastline, nestled in the shadows of Big Sur’s giant redwood forest. Here he was joined by girlfriend Sandy Conklin and, as usual, money was scarce. The couple survived on meagre supplies delivered on credit by the postman, as there was no accessible store within the vicinity. Never one to keep a low profile, Thompson was quick to reach out to the Big Surcommunity, in particular author Dennis Murphy, whose 1958 breakthrough novel The Sergeant had become an internationally acclaimed bestseller. Murphy was a native of Salinas, a small city just north of Big Sur and home to literary giant John Steinbeck, who had a close connection to the Murphy family. Steinbeck allegedly used Dennis and his brother, Michael, as the basis for Cal and Aron Trask in East of Eden. The Murphy family were prominent in Big Sur, where they operated a large retreat compound, famous for its natural hot spring steam baths. Here Dennis Murphy would play host to his friends, of whom several were prominent figures in the Beat movement. He was particularly close to Jack Kerouac, who lived for a period in nearby Bixby Canyon, in a small secluded cabin owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac was battling alcohol addiction at the time and recounted his experience in the autobiographical novel Big Sur. In many ways, the Murphy compound was the nerve centre for Big Sur’s artistic circle and Thompson’s inclusion in this scene was all but a matter of time.
In the end, it was actually Thompson’s financial situation that propelled him into the inner circle at thehot springs. Unable to afford the rent for his cabin, Thompson sought out cheaper accommodation, and was directed to the Murphy compound by Dick Rowan, a photographer friend that lived adjacent to the property. The compound itself was run by Dennis Murphy’s grandmother, who was looking to rent a small annex to the main ‘Big House,’ as the family home was known. At only $15 a month, it was ideal for Thompson, who was further delighted to be offered the position as caretaker to the entire property, with the main house being vacated by Mrs. Murphy periodically throughout the spring due to renovations being undertaken as part of an ambitious project to transform the compound. Thompson moved into the annex on February 1, 1961. Shortly thereafter, work began on what would become known as the Esalen Institute.
The brainchild of Michael Murphy and Dick Price, the Esalen Institute was envisaged as a centre “devoted to the exploration of human potential” where a select group of influential figures could “develop revolutionary ideas, transformative practices, and innovative art forms.” Focusing largely on the teachings of Eastern religions, philosophy, and psychology, notable participants included writers Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Ray Bradbury, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Campbell, the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesised LSD-25, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert. Throughout the sixties, Esalen would become a sort of countercultural Mecca, a focal point for the leading figures of the movement. Although Thompson’s arrival in Big Sur coincided with the genesis of Esalen, the spirit of personal growth and transformation had long been a feature of the community and it proved to be especially so for the burgeoning Gonzo Journalist.
Though he came to Big Sur to focus on writing “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” Thompson also continued to submit articles to newspapers and magazines in an effort to provide some form of income to support himself and Sandy for the duration of their stay. His big breakthrough came when he finally managed to break onto the national stage courtesy of Rogue magazine, who paid him $350 for his article entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,” a timely portrait of both Henry Miller’s life in Big Sur and the off-beat community that had built up around him. A month prior to the article’s publication, in September, 1961, a high profile obscenity trial had taken place surrounding the attempt by Grove Press to publish Tropic of Cancer for the first time in the United States. Anything connected to Miller, censorship, or pornography became a highly sensitive topic in a politically charged atmosphere across the nation. In light of this, it is ironic that not only was Thompson’s article published in a magazine that was a market rival of Playboy, but also that part of the article itself involved the disclosure of the somewhat controversial escapades of the Big Sur community.
In retrospect, the article is as illuminating of Thompson himself as it is of the subject matter. In many ways, Big Sur’s eccentric community and its enigmatic figurehead proved to be the ideal vehicle for Thompson, affording him the opportunity to exercise his flair for wild language, which melded seamlessly with the overall context of the piece itself – a perfect reflection of the spirit of anarchistic freedom that remained a constant association throughout Big Sur’s storied history, irrespective of the somewhat inflated truth:
If half the stories about Big Sur were true this place would long since have toppled into the sea, drowning enough madmen and degenerates to make a pontoon bridge of bodies all the way to Honolulu…The very earth itself would heave and retch in disgust – and down these long, rocky slopes would come a virtual cascade of nudists, queers, junkies, rapists, artists, fugitives, vagrants, thieves, lunatics, sadists, hermits and human chancres of every description.
Writing with absolutely unapologetic conviction, Thompson crafts a portrait of the Big Surway of life that zeroes in on the truth behind the myth, despite compromising his position in the community in the process. It was a dedication to the story that foreshadows much of his later work, particularly that of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and the manner in which he was unafraid to burn bridges in his pursuit of the real story hidden behind a web of political spin. In terms of the Big Sur myths, the first one that Thompson tackled was its reputation as a hell-raiser’s paradise, a wanton den of hedonistic pleasure straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thompson was unflinching in his appraisal that the reputation was not entirely unfair, though more likely as a result of the behaviour of the weekend visitor, pinpointing Murphy’s Hot Springs as being the central focus for thrill seekers of every persuasion:
During the day most people observe the partition that separates the men’s side from the women’s, but once the sun goes down the baths are as coeducational as a cathouse New Year’s Eve party, and often twice as wild. This is the glamorous side of Big Sur, the side that occasionally matches the myth – and none of it is hidden away in the hills, as a lot of people seem to think.
In his assessment of the long-term residents, he was even more provocative with his choice of words, describing the owner of the Big Sur Inn, Helmut Deetjan, as looking “more like a junkie than a lot of the hopheads who’ve been on the stuff for years.” Of Henry Miller’s personal secretary, Emil White, Thompson claimed that people frequently mistook him for “a hermit or a sex fiend.” Despite these inflammatory remarks, it is precisely these individuals who represent the otherBig Sur, a side that Thompson considered to be truly fascinating, particularly in relation to the almost pioneer-like sense of determination and independence that distinguished the long term residents from the ever-changing influx of tourists to the area. To reinforce this difference, he delves into the harsh reality of living in an isolated, lonely wilderness, which is so far removed from the norms of regular urban life that it takes a special kind of individual to truly tolerate Big Sur for any significant length of time. Having come toBig Sur and experienced this struggle for himself, Thompson made no attempt to gloss over the details, offering candid anecdotes that thoroughly dispel the romantic notion that life amongst the small bohemian colony served as an easy escape from the confines ofMiddle America. The majority of the individuals in this community were either artists or writers, who spent their time largely engrossed in their own work, unperturbed by the events of the outside world. Some even went so far as to be entirely self-sufficient, living off the land without so much as electricity. Having grown accustomed to living not only geographically, but also socially, apart from the rest of society, a tangible resistance to outsiders was prevalent amongst the group. Indeed, this is a sentiment to which Thompson repeatedly returned throughout the article, acknowledging the tension and distrust that existed between the community and uninvited visitors. In light of this observation, his decision to paint a thoroughly dysfunctional picture of Murphy’s Hot Springs in the closing paragraphs of the article proved to be a high risk manoeuvre. Not only was Thompson breaking the trust afforded to him by the community, but he was also undermining the Murphy family, who were in the process of launching the Esalen Institute. The image created by Thompson was precisely that which they had sought to leave behind:
This place is a real menagerie…There are only two legitimate wives on the property; the other females are either mistresses, “companions,” or hopeless losers…the late Dr. Murphy, conceived this place as a great health spa, a virtual bastion of decency and clean living. But something went wrong. During World War Two it became a haven for draft dodgers, and over the years it has evolved into a lonely campground for the morally deformed, a pandora’s box of human oddities, and a popular sinkhole of idle decadence.
The succinct but damning description firmly put Thompson on a collision course with his landlord, Vinnie Murphy, the matriarch of the Murphy family, which once more carried with it the inescapable sense that he was unable to exist harmoniously with any figure of authority. He did have a certain amount of breathing space before publication of the article, but his increasingly unpredictable and erratic behaviour in the intervening period ensured the prospect of a confrontation to be inevitable.
The Outlaw of Big Sur
The Big Sur article was a watershed moment for Thompson, revealing the changes developing within his writing, in conjunction with affording an insight into his ever-growing identification with individualist anarchism and the cult of personality. However, there is one particular statement from the article that is definitive in terms of illustrating the underlying reasoning behind the radical change in Thompson’s outward persona: “This place is a mythmaker’s paradise, so vast and so varied that the imagination is tempted to run wild at the sight of it.” Witnessing firsthand the fervour surrounding Henry Miller’s association with Big Sur was proof enough for Thompson that his statement was no simple theory. In writing of this phenomenon for Rogue magazine, Thompson creates a detailed portrait that illustrates the extent to which he understood the various factors that had elevated Miller from writer to icon. He had also witnessed the insatiable public appetite for more, withBig Sur constantly inundated by those who sought out the notorious writer, only to be met with something entirely unexpected:
They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.
None of this was lost on Thompson. Combined with the money and the confidence from successfully selling his article, he quickly embarked on his own relentless mythmaking strategy. To that end, the Big Sur wilderness proved to be the perfect setting for invoking the larger-than-life outlaw persona that would define his life and work.
The first to bear witness to this transformation in Thompson was the immediate community surrounding Murphy’s Hot Springs, where Thompson had embraced his role as caretaker with relish. Carrying a bullwhip and a truncheon as he patrolled the property, the darker confrontational aspect of his personality radiated an overt threat of violence that did not sit well with the more sedate, pacifist spirit of the larger community. One of the most notable figures that frowned upon his behaviour was Joan Baez, who had just released her self-titled debut album. In a way, the two figures represented the different sides to the Big Surenvironment, with Baez evoking the daytime tranquillity and peace amongst the towering Sequoia forest and Thompson representing the untamed violent underside of the night that ultimately governed survival in the wilderness. It was an opposition which ultimately proved to be the barrier that ensured that Thompson and Baez remained somewhat distant in their neighbourly relationship; the divide was far too ingrained for either of them to be able to bridge the gap. As Peter Whitmer noted in When the Going Gets Weird, Baez was “born into a legacy of pacifism in the same degree that Thompson was born into a legacy of Kentucky feudal violence.” It was also a division that would come to define the years ahead for both Thompson and his neighbour. Baez and many of the Big Sur community embraced that which would come to define the hippie generation – a peculiar smorgasbord of folk music, Eastern religion, psychedelic drugs, and non-violent protest. For Hunter S. Thompson it was a different path, one that would lead to riding with the Hell’s Angels and a trip to the very edge where the American Dream turned into the American Nightmare by way of the bomb and the bullet. That being the case, it was all too fitting that it was in Big Sur where he first seriously embraced what would become a lifelong obsession – guns.
Thompson liked nothing better than to punctuate the Big Sur serenity with drunken outbursts during the day and bouts of gunfire in the middle of the night, targeting raccoons with blasts from a twelve-gauge shotgun and simultaneously shattering his neighbours’ nerves in the process. The drunken antics were considered tolerable. The gunfire became a near constant in what was once a serene forest thanks to Thompson’s newest pastime, one that once more stemmed from his Hemingway fantasy – blood sport. Thompson’s accomplice, when it came to hunting down the game that inhabited the Big Sur wilderness, was a sculptor named Jo Hudson. Together, they soon acquired a less than flattering reputation. Whitmer explains,
The two men would pile into Jo’s car at night, stick a couple of beers between their legs, and load up the back with their dogs and go deer hunting. “The Senseless Killers Club” was what some called it – running down deer blinded by Hudson’s headlights on Route 1, or shooting wild boar that roamed the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Of course, making an impact, negative or otherwise, was what mattered, as was the feeling of not only matching his literary idols, but going one step further. Douglas Brinkley described Thompson’s tendency towards “sardonic one-upmanship,” and went on to add that “if Hemingway, rifle in hand, had hunted big game around Mt. Kilimanjaro, then Thompson would stalk wild boar with a Bowie knife in Big Sur.” To compound the distasteful manner in which their hunting sorties were viewed by the rest of the community, Thompson delighted in utilising various remnants from a wild boar kill for his own brand of practical joke. The severed heads of the animals turned up in a variety of locations, including the hot springs, much to the distress of the unfortunate victims of the act. Thompson never let an opportunity for street theatre to go to waste.
This impulse towards the theatrical is further evident in the manner in which Thompson began to mould his outlaw persona with a level of dedication befitting that of a method actor. With the money he received from Rogue magazine he immediately set about boosting his armoury, first by purchasing a .22 calibre pistol, followed swiftly by a .44 Magnum and a rifle. He said,
With the Rogue money I bought a pistol and a Doberman and a lot of whiskey, and now a man up the road has put the sheriff on me for shooting while drunk and keeping a vicious dog.
The .44 Magnum in particular would become an essential association for Thompson, remaining a constant part of the Hunterfigure image as renegade outlaw. Re-inforced through numerous references to it throughout his writing, it became a favoured prop when he was photographed. These new additions to his collection were not just for show. Thompson furthered his alienation from the community by first shooting out the windows of his own cabin and then using his neighbours’ windows as target practice. Twice he was spoken to by the sheriff about his violent behaviour, but it did little to alter his ways.
The most notable event during Thompson’s Big Sur tenure was undoubtedly his confrontation with a group of gay men who had made a habit of visiting Murphy’s Hot Springs on weekends. Soon their presence became a problem, with Michael Murphy and Dick Price wanting to put an end to the activity that was taking place there. They sought to establish the Esalen Institute, whose operating ethos did not include the use of the hot springs as an all-night party venue. As caretaker, it was Thompson’s duty to enforce the new rules and, in typical fashion, he set about doing so in a particularly over-the-top and menacingly theatrical manner. Whitmer explains,
“The Night of the Dobermans” is how locals recall it: a mad romp around the baths, maybe thirty or forty naked men doing whatever naked men who are willing to drive pink Cadillac’s all the way from L.A. or San Francisco to Big Sur are prone to do. Suddenly, above the boom of the surf, above the riot of their own partying, came the sound of pistol shots, the voice of Hunter Thompson, and enough canine snarling to ice their blood.
The following night, the group of men returned the favour. Thompson suffered a severe beating and only managed to escape being thrown off a cliff due to the intervention of his friend, Maxine Ambus. When Thompson retreated to the sanctuary of his cabin for the rest of the night, he made sure to voice his displeasure at the incident in his own particular manner of expression. Again, from Whitmer,
For the rest of the night he punctuated the silence of Big Sur with rifle shot fired through his unopened window. In the morning, Murphy looked out to find a horizontal line of bullet holes, and Thompson’s clothes hung on the line. “They were stiff as a board with blood,” Murphy said.
Thompson was quick to capitalise on the balance of terror that he maintained with the local community in Big Sur, regaling his friends with letters concerning his daily strife in a manner that not only bears many of the hallmarks of Gonzo Journalism, but also illustrates an effort to stage-manage his life in order to project the requisite image. Brinkley said,
It is clear from the letters that Thompson deliberately cultivated himself as the American Adam, a figure defined by critic R.W.B Lewis as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
This marriage between the image that he was fostering in his writing, one that both reflected and simultaneously informed his way of life, is also evident in his photography from this period. The central emphasis is, of course, that which was also conveyed throughout his writing, that of the Hunterfigure as an outlaw, the rugged individualist and writer juxtaposed with the frontier-like vast wilderness of Big Sur. The most powerful of these images captures Thompson, pipe in mouth, typing at a small table overlooking the plunging cliffs of theBig Surcoastline. Another shows him surveying the view with a telescope, with a rifle by his side, accompanied by Agar, his Doberman. Hunting is a prominent theme, with many photographs capturing his boar-hunting exploits. One particular photo of the hanging carcass of a boar features Thompson’s handwriting on the reverse. It simply states – “Joan Baez butchering hogs – Big Sur 1961.” When he submitted various photographs in conjunction with an article, Thompson provided various explanations for each image. For a group shot Thompson identifies Jo Hudson as “yachtsman and big-game hunter,” John Clancy, “now a SF lawyer,” with Sandy described as “then private secretary and constant companion to Big Sur’s most prominent thug.” Another similar image, this one actually including Thompson himself, is captioned – “More of same. Foreground is the thug – in this case, the author.” In retrospect, these are the first photographs of Thompson in the guise of his literary alter ego.
Though clearly happy to promote this image and, indeed, live up to the name, Thompson knew that he was making life difficult for himself in the community. It was a pattern that dominated his life ever since his youth in Louisville. A copy of Rogue magazine containing Thompson’s article on Big Sur had made its way to Vinnie Murphy, the eighty-nine year old matriarch of the family and owner of the hot springs. She did not appreciate Thompson’s description of the antics at the baths, particularly his disclosure of its popularity as a homosexual rendezvous point. Thompson was given one month to leave the property. Though hardly a stranger to receiving an eviction notice, in Big Sur it proved to be a particularly difficult problem for Thompson to resolve. The Rogue article mentioned a number of other members of the community, who were similarly none too pleased by the article’s content. Finding a new property to rent proved to be impossible. It was clear that Thompson’s time in Big Sur had come to an end in a manner that could only serve to highlight the extent of his outsider status. Whitmer explained,
In his expulsion from Big Sur, Thompson was cast out of a community of castaways; even with an international reputation as a pornographer, Henry Miller had been welcomed here with open arms. Thompson seemed to be taking iconoclasm to new heights.
Big Surhad more than lived up to its reputation as a place of personal growth and transformation. For Hunter S. Thompson the untamed wilderness and the inherent freedom that it afforded represented anAmericathat was increasingly under threat. Though he leftBig Surfor pastures new, it is no coincidence that Thompson eventually settled in Woody Creek, Colorado. His “fortified compound” in the Rocky Mountains spoke to his romantic sensibilities, fitting perfectly with his image of the outlaw individualist. Free from the constraints of city life, it was a place where he could be the master of his own domain. It was this same wild nature and inclination to challenge the dominant and established power structures that also enabled Thompson to break free from the existing literary rules and establish his own unique genre of Gonzo Journalism. Beyond this, it often boiled down to appreciating the simple things in life – like being able to walk outside, stark naked, to fire your .44 Magnum at targets on the hillside before loading up on mescaline and blasting “White Rabbit” at 110 decibels while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide – and not get arrested.
Perry, Paul (1992) Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S.
Thompson. New York: Avalon.
Thompson, Hunter S. (2001). Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey
of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 2]. London:
Thompson, Hunter S. (2006). Gonzo. Los Angeles: AMMO
Thompson, Hunter S. (1992). Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the
American Dream [Gonzo Papers, vol. 3]. London: Picador.
Thompson, Hunter S. (1997). The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern
Gentleman, 1955-1967 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 1]. New York: Villard.
Whitmer, Peter O. (2000) When The Going Gets Weird. Princeton: POW.
We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures – because this is about as many as we think we can squeeze into a single post.
The idea is to show that, while the ebook and kindle formats are handy, Beatdom is still fun to have your own personal copy of, like in the old days of the literary journal, when you stuck it in your pocket or bag and pulled it out to read while on the bus, at the doctor’s office or in a crowded movie theater while some delinquent threw JuJubes in your hair.
While we all know you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anybody who is familiar with French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the poem, ‘After The Deluge,’ from his earth-shattering collection ‘Illuminations,’ will spot him right away, That is thanks to the keen handiwork of multi-faceted artist Waylon Bacon, who graced the front cover of this issue with his brilliant dexterity and use of color.
It is a treat to get to see him do something for us in deep rich tones, since he has had to restrain himself to using black and white ever since we changed the format to that of the classic, standard old-style 6×9-inch black and white format, used by most literary journals.
In the following story by Katy Gurin, ‘Grizzly Bear,’ you can see more of Waylon’s work, only in the b/w format. This is still another excellent short story by Katy, about what can happen when people commune a little too closely with nature. This tale showcases her usual splendid imagination and wonderful gift for detail. Stuck in between there, shown on the back cover, since most people look at the front and back before opening it, is the advertisement for the next fiction release from Beatdom Books, ‘Egypt Cemetery,’ a memoir by Editor Michael Hendrick, which will be available soon at the usual outlets.
It is also worth noting that Katy will be publishing a full volume of her short stories with Beatdom Books, later this year. That volume will be illustrated by Waylon, since the two of them make such a great team for two people who have never even met each other. As Katy’s story continues the partygoers dressed as bears start to act more like bears just for the drunken fun of it.
Waylon not only provided the fine images you see here – but also managed to include some of his favorite monsters, like Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, and some weird looking what-cha-ma-callits, that only he sees when he closes his eyes at night.
Bears like to catch fish but fishtank owners are not always appreciative. As you can see, our half-drunk pseudo-bears wander out into the Halloween night and do all the things bears are wont to do, until they are confronted by a real bear. How Katy thinks this stuff up is a mystery to us but we have been lucky enough to have her writing such inventive stories with truly absorbing plots since she was kind enough to provide us with her very first and fabulous yarn, ‘Meat From Craigslist,’ back in Issue Number Nine.
Next we have a look at the life of William S. Burroughs during his days as a farmer, written by Editor David S. Wills. Burroughs didn’t do so well working the land but Mr. Wills has been farming up quite a bit of information on the pistol-happy author while lurking about the Burroughs Archives at the New York City Public Library lately. Watch for more!
Somehow, archaeologist, activist and Beatdom regular Robin Como managed to find time to write two more of her intoxicatingly exquisite poems for your pleasure and if she doesn’t run away, we hope to have her back with more in our next issue!
Michael Hendrick tracked down Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, on Thanksgiving Day morning last year, forcing him to hold a copy of Beatdom Issue Nine and interviewing him on topics ranging from going to Hell, to how his grandfather wrote one of the first recorded rock songs before rock’n’roll was invented, to the Right to Bear Arms.
Taking time out from his extensive studies, returning writer Rory Feehan penned this account of still another famous sharp-shooter, Hunter S. Thompson and his ventures and misadventures while living a not so quiet existence at perhaps California’s favorite Beat retreat, Big Sur.
While everybody was awaiting the release of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ Mr. Wills tracked down the last remaining live male character depicted in the movie, Al Hinkle, who Kerouac called Ed Dunkel in the book. Mr. Hinkle is delighted to appear here.
Assistant Editor Kat Hollister, who labored intensively to help put this issue together marked her first appearance in Beatdom with the poem you see below; her efforts were rewarded by the dubious distinction of having it placed across from a poem by returning Beat literate Chuck Taylor, on the dodgy subject of his erection. Mr. Taylor dug up the old form of ‘doggerel’ to justify it, along with the fact that we are the only journal who would risk publishing it.
Where have you seen this face before? On the cover, it’s Arthur Rimbaud again, next to an essay by poet Larry Beckett, who takes apart the aforementioned poem, ‘After The Deluge.’ It is an insightful look at one of Rimbaud’s best know works, and also gives us a glimpse at the fantastic style of literary critique to be found in Mr. Beckett’s upcoming offering from Beatdom Books, ‘Beat Poetry.’
Matthew Levi Stevens is a new name to Beatdom readers and here he presents us with a review of the latest collection of letters written by William S. Burroughs when he was still living as an expatriate.
Kat Hollister, following the indignity of having her poem placed facing Mr. Taylor’s doggerel, was happy to find a spot next to this wonderful photograph, ‘wetlands in march no.2,’ by well-known nature photographer, g. thompson higgins.
Artist/Photographer/Musician and Writer, Zeena Schreck returned again this issue, with this touching and enlightening article. She writes of how she and multi-talented husband, Nikolas Schreck, stepped up and acted to save the lives of eighty wolves, diverting their carriage to safe habitat as they were being sent to an otherwise slow and cruel death.
Ann Charters, a name familiar to everybody in the world of Beat Literature and Literary History spoke with Mr. Hendrick, on working with Kerouac, the beginnings of Beat, her meeting with Alene Lee and the importance of John Clellon Holmes to the Beat Generation.
Internationally renowned poet Michael Shorb, a strong voice on environmental issues, was kind enough to grace our pages with this, his first appearance in Beatdom.
Reaching past Rimbaud to William Blake, Mr. Wills weighs in with a quick word on the literary influence of one of the most visionary of voices and his influence on the Beats.
When we think of Beat we think of the road and it is hard to think of a band who pounded the pavement harder than the Ramones. Richie Ramone, the fastest of the fast, spoke with Mr. Hendrick about life on the road, his forays into the Big Band sounds of the Drum Gods and his activism on behalf of pooches in peril in Los Angeles.
As usual, Waylon won’t go back into his cage until he gets one last bite on the hand the doesn’t feed him, so we leave you with him and his now traditional ‘last page, last word.’ This one, Waylon aptly titled ‘Sometimes Eye Gets Crazy!’
Henry Miller’s books are like a bowl of French onion soup; overwhelmingly rich, intimidatingly dense, and always served with class. Each sentence then becomes a thick, cheesy bite, and shortly after you infiltrate the crust to begin pecking away at the center, you’ve had enough. At least for now.
Luckily, unlike soup, Miller’s writing doesn’t lose steam. You may have to set the work down for an hour, a day, a week or a month, but it rests in your mental den like a fine memory.
His narrative diction is absolutely remarkable, splattering gorgeous images across the page with unrelenting force. He’s also delightfully filthy, which may explain why his most acclaimed work, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for 27 years after its initial publication in 1934.
Let’s take a look at some of Miller’s vibrant passages and perhaps you’ll find him as brilliant as I do.
From Tropic of Cancer:
As I say, the day began gloriously. It was only this morning that I became conscious again of this physical Paris of which I have been unaware for weeks. Perhaps it is because the book has begun to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere. I walk through the streets big with child and the cops escort me across the street. Women get up to offer me their seats. Nobody pushes me rudely any more. I am pregnant. I waddle awkwardly, my big stomach pressed against the weight of the world.
The notion that you, as a writer, are one against the world has always appealed to me. It’s a sense of motivation that grows from ego, but it can sustain you for a lifetime and push you to create things you never thought yourself capable of. And the image of his book being his child, something he is literally pregnant with, is fantastic. It shows both how much he cares about his work and how much he’s willing to exploit his authorship. “I am a writer, a great writer, and you must respect me, you must bow down to me.” Again– it’s heavy self-absorption, but most of it’s merely inside the brain.
An example of his extreme, exaggerated foulness, also from TOC:
At night when I look at Boris’ goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces…
This is comically graphic, but written with such purpose and anger I can’t help but love it. He continues to say her name, which to me, points to his infatuation with her and not simply the act of fucking. And also, in a way, this can be seen as another attack against the page and those who stand in his way. His need to emerge victorious spreads across each and every desire in his head.
If you don’t take his “threats” too seriously here, you’ve got to laugh. The absurdity is outrageous.
Two selections from The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, published in 1959:
He whipped himself into such a frenzy of impatience that when he emerged into the spotlight, accompanied by a few thin squeaks from the violin, he was cavorting like a crazy goat. From the moment his feet touched the sawdust it was sheer improvisation. Not one of these wild, senseless capers have ever thought of before, much less rehearsed. He had given himself a clean slate and on it he was writing Antoine’s name in indelible letters. If only Antoine were there, could witness his own debut as a world figure!
The following day, emotionally exhausted by the ravages of his dream, Auguste decided to remain in his room. It was only towards the evening that he bestirred himself. He had spent the whole day in bed, listlessly toying with the throngs of memory which for some inexplicable reason had descended upon him like a plague of locusts. Finally, weary of being buffeted about in this vast cauldron of reminiscence, he dressed himself and sauntered out to lose himself in the crowd. It was with some difficultly that he managed to recall the name of the town through whose streets he was strolling.
This book, or long short story (a mere 40 pages), recounts the story of a clown regaining his glory on stage. Although brief, it’s marvelously written and if anything, is more lavish than anything else Miller has done.
Much of the protagonist reminds me of John Fante’s character Arturo Bandini and his incessant, introspective battle. The imagery is always beautiful and the ordinary is magnified, focusing on insecurity and the necessity of approval.
A definite light read, but as the paragraphs show, it’s not one ounce short on imagination and ability. I highly recommend this story.
From the short story collection Nights of Love and Laughter, published in (I believe) 1939:
The men at the helm, who were spared the horrors of combat, now play their ignominious role in which greed and hatred rival one another for mastery. The men who bore the brunt of the struggle are too sickened and disgusted to show any desire to participate in the rearrangement of the world. All they ask is to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of the petty, workday rhythm which once seemed so dull and barren.
That passage is from the first story entitled The Alcoholic Veteran with the Washboard Cranium. The title alone is magnificent and the selection is a great account of post-war apathy/disillusionment. Again, there’s the dichotomy of good vs. evil, hero vs. enemy, lucky vs. unfortunate. He consistently writes with confrontational intent, keeping the narrative accelerator floored which allows him to guide you through his words with precise control.
From The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, published in 1945, after Miller returned to America to live in Big Sur (home of the famous Henry Miller Memorial Library):
A heavy mist had descended. I walked cautiously in my bare feet for the old bricks were slippery with moss. As I got to the far corner of the rectangle the light of the moon broke full and clear on the serene face of the goddess there enshrined. I leaned over impulsively and kissed the marble lips. It was a strange sensation. I went to each of them in turn and kissed their cold, chaste lips. Then I strolled back to the trellised garden house which lies on the banks of the Bayou Teche. The scene before my eyes was that of a Chinese painting. Sky and water had become one: the whole world was floating in a nebular mist. It was indescribably beautiful and bewitching. I could scarcely believe that I was in America. In a moment or so a river boat loomed up, her colored lights scattering the dense mist into a frayed kaleidoscope of ribboned light. The deep fog horn sounded and was echoed by the hooting of invisible owls.
It’s funny to think that the same man who spoke of shoving animals up a woman’s ass finds the subtle beauty in marble statues and river landscapes.
This passage displays the delicacy with which Miller can construct his sentences, sharing a simple moment alone among surprisingly beautiful surroundings. Normally a fan of lengthy, expansive run-ons, he tones it down here in structure and vocabulary, allowing the description to speak for itself. Perhaps the scenery left his more speechless than usual.
From Black Spring, published in 1936:
And then comes a time when suddenly all seems to be reversed. We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets– we remember only. Like a monomaniac we relive the drama of youth. Like a spider that picks up the thread over and over and spews it out according to some obsessive, logarithmic pattern. If we are stirred by a fat bust it is the fat bust of the whore who bent over on a rainy night and showed us for the first time the wonder of the great milky globes; if we are stirred by the reflections on a wet pavement it is because at the age of seven we were suddenly speared by a premonition of the life to come as we stared unthinkingly into that bright, liquid mirror of the street. If the sight of a swinging door intrigues us it is the memory of a summer’s evening when all the doors were swinging softly and where the light bent down to caress the shadow there were golden calves and lace and glittering parasols and through the chinks in the swinging door, like fine sand sifting a bed of rubies, there drifted the music and the incense of gorgeous unknown bodies.
This in quintessential Henry Miller; a sprawling, vast narrative rant which speaks to specific, yet relatable moments of nostalgia, whether they bring pain or joy, happiness or loneliness, spliced between incredibly luscious and innovative images which often personify that which we would never attach human emotion.
We grew up in school being taught to never being a sentence with “and” but that’s exactly what he does here, throwing us right in the middle of his internal monologue. Note that in the second sentence he speaks of living in ideas and fragments, while chopping up the sentence with two commas. That, to me, is an unbelievably talented writer matching structure with content, which adds a visual element necessary to truly grab your reader.
The comparison to a spider spinning an endlessly pointless (“obsessive, logarithmic”) web is perfect, which he follows up with his trademark sexually-driven picture of a chesty woman bending over, showing us her “great milky globes.” But not only that, he romanticizes the erotic image by adding the element of rain. A nice touch, you might say, but how about instantly tying it back in with the childish recollection of wet pavement described perfectly as a “bright, liquid mirror of the street.” I can’t say enough about the mind of this man.
And to be fair, this thought continues for another two pages. Miller is a man unafraid of losing your attention because he’s had it all along. That or he’s lost you immediately, but then why give a shit about you?
Beat Hotel Trailer8th December 2011
The world premiere of Alan Govenar’s 2011 documentary, The Beat Hotel, will screen at 8:00PM December 8 at Cinematheque, Copenhagen, as part of a month-long film series dedicated to ‘all things Beat’. Click on the words in red above for “Beat Hotel Trailer”. Here is a description of The Beat Hotel from the film’s website:
The Beat Hotel, a new film by Alan Govenar, goes deep into the legacy of the American Beats in Paris during the heady years between 1957 and 1963, when Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso fled the obscenity trials in the United States surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. They took refuge in a cheap no-name hotel they had heard about at 9, Rue Git le Coeur and were soon joined by William Burroughs, Ian Somerville, Brion Gysin, and others from England and elsewhere in Europe, seeking out the “freedom” that the Latin Quarter of Paris might provide.
The Beat Hotel, as it came to be called, was a sanctuary of creativity, but was also, as British photographer Harold Chapman recalls, “an entire community of complete oddballs, bizarre, strange people, poets, writers, artists, musicians, pimps, prostitutes, policemen, and everybody you could imagine.” And in this environment, Burroughs finished his controversial book Naked Lunch; Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin invented the Dream Machine; Corso wrote some of his greatest poems; and Harold Norse, in his own cut-up experiments, wrote the novella, aptly called The Beat Hotel.
The film tracks down Harold Chapman in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent England. Chapman’s photographs are iconic of a time and place when Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Corso, Burroughs, Gysin, Somerville and Norse were just beginning to establish themselves on the international scene. Chapman lived in the attic of the hotel, and according to Ginsberg “didn’t say a word for two years” because he wanted to be “invisible” and to document the scene as it actually happened.
In the film, Chapman’s photographs and stylized dramatic recreations of his stories meld with the recollections of Elliot Rudie, a Scottish artist, whose drawings of his time in the hotel offer a poignant and sometimes humorous counterpoint. The memories of Chapman and Rudie interweave with the insights of French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, author Barry Miles, Danish filmmaker Lars Movin, and the first hand accounts of Oliver Harris, Regina Weinrich, Patrick Amie, Eddie Woods, and 95 year old George Whitman, among others, to evoke a portrait of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and the oddities of the Beat Hotel that is at once unexpected and revealing.
Here’s a quick rundown of all films showing:
THE BEAT HOTEL also 12/16 730pm
Alan Govenar, 2011 / 82 min.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN 12/15 5pm 12/21, 7pm
Yony Leyser, 2010 / 87 min.
ONE FAST MOVE OR I’M GONE: KEROUAC’S BIG SUR 12/10 445pm, 12/18 7pm
Curt Worden, 2008 / 98 min.
FERLINGHETTI 12/13 730pm 12/28 815pm
Christopher Felver, 2009 / 80 min.
WORDS OF ADVICE + LOWELL CELEBRATES KEROUAC 12/14 730pm 17/18 730pm 12/27 715pm
Lars Movin & Steen Møller Rasmussen, 2007 & 1998 / 74 min. + 35 min.
THE SOURCE 12/9 730pm 12/29 615pm
Chuck Workman, 1999 / 88 min.
A SELECTION OF SHORT BEAT FILMS:
PULL MY DAISY (Robert Frank & Alfred Leslie, 1959 / 30 min.) 12/17 215pm and 12/30 745pm
TOWERS OPEN FIRE (Antony Balch, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin & Ian Sommerville, 1963 / 10 min.)
WHOLLY COMMUNION (Peter Whitehead, 1965 / 33 min.)
THE DISCIPLINE OF D.E. (Gus Van Sant, 1982 / 13 min.)
THE JUNKY’S CHRISTMAS (Nick Donkin, 1993 /
by Nick Meador
At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties, yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.
In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…” Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).
On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.” Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison. After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.
But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”
However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959, and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…” This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.
After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960. Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.
Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .” That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”
In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,” a nickname for psilocybin. Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.” Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.
Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”
Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”
During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.” The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains. Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.
On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…” Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”
This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene. Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”
The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.
Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…” This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.
Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.” Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“
Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”
There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.” Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” 
In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment. Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.
So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”
It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…” Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.” We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.
In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island. When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which today would be called “schizophrenia.” But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”
Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions. “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.
This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.
When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine, and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death. In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”
More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.” This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.
In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.” In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”
But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…” One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”
There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother. In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.” Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.
Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out. He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…” Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”
When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.” One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…” When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.
Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…” Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography. Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.
All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…” Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.
Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“ He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”
In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”
Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.” Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”
Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.
In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“ Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.
But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.” It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).
This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans ). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“
We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…” So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.
Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.
 Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
 Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
 Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.
 Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
 Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
 Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
 In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.
 “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml
 Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.
 An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque
 Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
 “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
 “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
 Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
 Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece
 Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.
 Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.
 “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm
 “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.
 Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
 Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.
 Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.
It seems that everyone is digging the Beats this month. Google just added an “Allen Ginsberg” section to my Google News, and it’s yielding some interesting results. His name keeps popping up, probably with a bit of encouragement from the flurry of new movies about his contemporaries.
So here are a couple of links that might be of interest to our wonderful readers:
The Plot Turn On the World: The Leary/ Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy
And of course, there’s the news about Big Sur: The Movie