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War Upon War: The Second-Generation Beats and Postmemory

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.

 

 

 

Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life. Continue Reading…

“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” i

The title of the William Butler Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” makes me cringe. Is it kind to encourage a friend whose talent may be nonexistent, or is it kinder to speak plainly, in other words, tell the truth? Friend, it’s my unfortunate obligation to say you have no talent in this area and must give this up, the sooner the better, because you‘re wasting everyone’s time and making yourself crazy and are playing the fool on the world’s stage.
Then, there is the other friend who may be the most talented man at the open mic, and this poor soul just can’t catch a break. He’s got looks, lyrics, musicality, but he’s a shy boy and doesn’t know how to promote himself. He spends years writing elegant, intelligent songs that go way over everyone’s head, but those few who hear these songs recognize his heartbreaking talent, unknown, as Yeats writes, that comes “to nothing.” Shy boy knows the world’s great poets. He actually reads Wallace Stevens and can recite Yeats and deeply loves Robert Frost and all those dusty, bearded New Englanders. He stays home year after year in the quiet of his lonely room and writes notebooks worth of lyrics and records songs on a little recording device and spends long evenings with his acoustic guitar in hand. I say perhaps Yeats is being a bit harsh? Maybe shy boy encourages others, maybe just one or two others, and from those two, perhaps good will come from what seems barren. And, hope upon hope, maybe someday shy boy will crack the glass ceiling and rise in “Triumph.”

Perhaps I’m more optimistic than Yeats. Yes, the writer, the musician, the artist, the creator, desires recognition, desires to leave something of herself behind, as a memento of a life lived. “Now all the truth is out,” whose truth, Yeats, the world’s truth, the money men’s truth, the truth and inner depths of the artist? “Be secret and take defeat,” go in the corner and quietly lick those wounds; take it like an adult. “How can you compete,” yes, you unknown writer, how can you compete with, say, a television personality who writes one book after another and then gets to promote it every night on HIS television program, quite brazenly and without any shame at all? Or that rock star sitting in the corner at the party listening to his own records, how can you compete? Yes, “turn away,” turn away from the things of this passing world, and let the creation of your own work bring you inner joy, ah, easier said than done. Yes, it’s difficult to labor away, year after year in oblivion, but what else is there to do? Who can decide: should you keep this up or give it up? Only the one, you. Be joyful in the creation of your good work.
This is a true story, and I don’t want to give hope to the hopelessly untalented. I had a cousin in Cape Cod who was married to a musician for years and years. I imagine she thought he was hopeless; she was frustrated, resentful, discouraged. They got divorced. Musician moved to Australia . . . and became a big time recording artist. Cousin is all alone and sad, reminiscing of younger musical days.
Yeats, methinks your poem is sweetly supportive. The artist is brave, whether successful or not. He stands naked in front of the world and must accept the world’s rejection, silence, indifference, scorn, jealousy, mockery, criticism, harsh and ill-formed opinions for everyone to read on Internet reviews. But
the great thing, the brave thing, is that he gets up there and does his art, and does it again, and again. What say you Professor Mark Van Doren so many years ago at Columbia University with your own mad “hot blood of youth” students of English literature “Out naked on the roads” ii who turned the world upside down and faced rejection, scorn, and trials, too?

 
i Yeats, William Butler. “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”
ii Yeats, William Butler. “The Cold Heaven.”

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks

One famous and pivotal moment in Beat history was the killing David Kammerer by Lucian Carr. It was the end of some things, the start of others, and above all a landmark piece of history that involved some of the most famous writers of the twentieth century.

On 13th August, 1944, Lucian Carr was drinking with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, his two Columbia University buddies, when David Kammerer appeared and joined the group. Kammerer was thirty-three, much older than the young future Beats. Carr was only nineteen years old, but Kammerer had been sexually obsessed with him for at least five years, since first guiding Carr’s Boy Scout group on nature walks.

When Kammerer and Carr left the bar at three in the morning, to walk and talk by the Hudson River, it was the last time anyone would see Kammerer alive. According to Carr, Kammerer tried to sexually assault the younger man, and Carr defended himself by stabbing his attacker twice in the chest with a small Boy Scout knife. In a panic, Carr filled Kammerer’s pockets with stones and throw his body into the Hudson River.

But that was where the story ended between the two parties, as Carr went to seek refuge with Burroughs. Burroughs, a good friend of Kammerer, simply told Carr to get a good lawyer and turn himself in. Indeed, Burroughs’ use of his family’s wealth to hire good lawyers kept him from a life in jail.

Next, Carr went to visit Kerouac, who responded differently, helping Carr to dispose of the murder weapon, and then taking him on a tour of the city to talk about what happened. They went to a museum and watched a movie, The Four Feathers.

But two days later, Carr broke under the strain of guilt and turned himself in to the police. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested. Burroughs used his family’s money to pay the bail, but Kerouac couldn’t, and was bizarrely forced to marry Edie Parker in order for her family to pay his own bail.

Carr was sentenced to a maximum of ten years in jail, a light sentenced based on the defence argument that because Kammerer was homosexual, the murder was an ‘honour killing’ that protected Carr from being raped.

Nonetheless, it changed much. Kerouac was now married, Carr was gone from the circle, and all of the writing of the time centred on the infamous event. Ginsberg wrote The Bloodsong, but was warned by the assistant Dean that Columbia didn’t need any more bad publicity. Kerouac and Burroughs, however, wrote a novel called, strangely, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks.

The novel would prove to be a thorn in the side of Carr, who emerged from prison a reformed man with little interest in his Beatnik past, and instead had the desire to go straight, without anything to remind him or embarrass him for a horrible incident. But now, after Carr’s death, the long awaited literary even has come – the release of the lost Beat Generation novel that predates all others by many years.

In between, there was a description, by Kerouac, in Vanity of Duluoz, but the truth was heavily distorted. Kerouac talked about it with Ann Charters, for his biography. And two years later, excerpts of Hippos appeared in a magazine and Burroughs had to sue to protect Carr, who was trying to work a stable life as a journalist. A short excerpt, too, came in Word Virus, but still there was no great effort made to bring about this near mythical text.

For many years, Burroughs maintained that the title of the novel came from his memory of a radio report about a fire at the St. Louis Zoo, when the announcer burst into fits of laughter when attempting to read the line.

And for years the novel didn’t surface, in spite of attempts by both Kerouac and Burroughs. Burroughs has mentioned that the novel was ‘not a very distinguished work’, but nevertheless it attracted an agent who was willing to push it around and tolerate many, many rejections.

Most of the rejections came, presumably, because of the totally inappropriate subject matter. This was before Kerouac and Burroughs were famous, able to say what they wished, but they still had elements of their future selves hidden in the text. Taking it turn about, chapter-by-chapter, the two friends each wrote from the point of view of a different protagonist. Kerouac’s chapters contained the original elements of Kerouacian prose, and Burroughs had some of the hallmarks of Junky or Queer, but neither author exposed his true brilliance of his truth style.

It seems they limited one another, although not necessarily in a bad way. They could only write what they knew, after all, and they both new different things, both in terms of facts and of style. One can tell when reading portions of the book where something was written by Kerouac or Burroughs. Burroughs’ sections contain strong and mystical descriptions of drug use, gay sex, and hallucinatory violence. Kerouac’s sections ramble on. But neither author goes to the extremes reached in his own books.

The result, we now see, is perhaps not a classic work of literature, but certainly an interesting one, and not the epic failure that Burroughs tried to have us all believe with his dismissive comments in the eighties. Instead, there is now something else for Beat fans to read, to learn a little more about Beat history, now that all the players in the scenario are safely entombed beyond the grave. There are no more hurt feelings, no more treading carefully.

Perhaps Burroughs said it best in a milder moment:

“It wasn’t sensational enough to make it from that point of view, nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it from a purely literary point of view. It sort of fell in-between. It was very much in the Existentialist genre, the prevailing mode of the period, but that hadn’t hit America yet. It just wasn’t a commercially viable property.”

Indeed, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks has reached a time when it will be loved, and that raises real questions over its literary merit. But then again, who really cares, so long as it’s a fun read? The key is in both authors calling it ‘hard-boiled’. When was hard-boiled ever really out and out literary?