Archives For david kammerer

The Burroughs Millions

In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund

From Beatdom #16

William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:

I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …

But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…

Celebrate Jack Kerouac’s Birthday with The Haunted Life

Today is 12th March, and that means it’s Jack Kerouac’s birthday. Every year, people celebrate by embarking upon road trips, holding readings, or just sitting down with a dog-eared copy of On the Road or Big Sur.

In recent years, interest in Kerouac and his work (as well as that of his contemporaries) is strong as ever. We’ve had movies and books continuing his legacy, and in time for his birthday we also have the release of a long-though lost novella, The Haunted Life.

Set in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, The Haunted Life was written in 1944, following the murder of David Kammerer. As such, this piece of writing comes from an important period in Kerouac’s life. It is also a fascinating insight into the author’s development, as the book is very different to his later works, but not entirely dissimilar to his first novel, The Town and the City.

To read an except, please visit The Guardian’s website. To purchase the book, which also contains notes, letters, and sketches from during its composition, please click the link below…

 

 


Homophobia in the Media’s Treatment of New Ginsberg Movie

So Daniel Radcliffe is going to play Allen Ginsberg in a new movie, called Kill Your Darlings. The movie is about the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a story which is part of Beat lore.

Yet for some reason, when you search for news about this announcement on the internet, it seems that there is a varying level of interest in the subject matter. More high-brow publications are fascinated by the story of Boy-Wizard-Turns-Beat-Poet, whereas at the other end of the scale, there is astonishment that this wholesome young man is portray – gasp! – a homosexual.

Ok, so Allen Ginsberg was gay and was not shy of making that fact known. David Kammerer was also a homosexual, and as the victim of the murder central to the movie’s plot, it is not homophobic at all to mention that the movie will likely contain some references to homosexuality. Indeed, Radcliffe himself mentioned to the French media that he would be playing “a gay character” in his next movie. Yet, the media seems disproportionately interested in this fact, as though there is something seedy or twisted about him (apparently inseparable from his most famous role) playing a gay man.

Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage.

The news appears to have been broken by Twitch, which – along with a few other publications – reported the story responsibly, mentioning that Radcliffe had claimed he was playing a “gay character” in his next movie (although mistakenly refers to Carr as Kammerer’s lover). We also have an announcement from the UK Press Association. It also does not play up the gay angle, and only mentions that his character is a homosexual in relation to what Radcliffe told the French press.

Daniel Radcliffe is apparently going to play beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his next film.

The Harry Potter star was quoted in the French press last week saying that he would very likely be playing a gay character in a film to be released in 2012.

Now movie blog Twitch.com reports he has been cast in Kill Your Darlings, a thriller based on actual events, and centred around the relationship between Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr.

Carr is credited for connecting writers Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S Burroughs but is best known for being found guilty of the murder of his lover David Kammerer in 1944.

The film is to be directed by script writer John Krokidas and previously began production in 2009 with Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jesse Eisenberg and I’m Not There’s Ben Whishaw attached to play Kerouac, Ginsberg and Carr, respectively.

It is not known if any of these actors are still attached to the project.

James Franco recently played Ginsberg in biopic Howl, released last year.

There is some more responsible reporting from The Guardian, which only mentions that the movie involves a “gay stalker”, which is true and central to the plot of the film. NME mentions the “gay stalker” and also references Radcliffe’s hint at a “gay character”.

At the other end of the spectrum there is The Sun, which unsurprisingly revels in playing up the gay angle. The sensationalist title reads, “Potter’s Dan Radcliffe to Play Gay Poet”. The article then focuses almost entirely on the fact that Radcliffe is playing a homosexual character, implying that there is something wrong with this, and something wrong with homosexuals. It mentions that Ginsberg was “openly gay” as though this is something we should still be shocked by, and even sinks as low as to dredge up rumours that Radcliffe himself is a homosexual. The language used to describe is “battle” against being thought of as gay, and the fact that they think it is worth mentioning that he supports tolerance towards homosexuals is appalling.

His new role is a brave move for the star, who has battled rumours that he is homosexual.

He has also donated cash to a US charity that promotes tolerance towards gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

In March 2010 he denied being gay following internet speculation about his sexuality.

That this is even worth mentioning shows a worrying degree of prejudice on the part of the writers and editors… although given the history of the “news”paper, it is hardly a surprise.

We also have some shoddy reporting AceShowBiz, who deem the gay element of the film so important that they place it firmly in the title of their article. The article then focuses on the fact that Ginsberg was a homosexual, implying – as did The Sun – that this makes him an unwholesome, undesirable character to play. But how much stock can you put in an article written by someone who fails to realise that Ginsberg has been dead for more than a decade (“…is a gay rights activist…”) and stated that Kammerer and Carr were “lovers”, when in fact Kammerer’s obsession with Carr was entirely one-sided.

The HuffPo also falls into the trap of referring to Kammerer and Carr as “lovers”, and also calls the movie, “gay-themed”. I can’t say that I’ve seen the screenplay, but I’d be surprised if it was gay-themed, whatever that means. More likely it’s a movie about a pivotal event in literary history, focused on a murder. I doubt that they’d refer to any other thriller as, “straight-themed” or play up the sexuality of a couple of heterosexuals.

Towleroad quite likely has the best headline relating to the Radcliffe/Ginsberg story, saying: “Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsburg (sic) in Gay-Themed Thriller”. So not only have they fallen into the trap of assuming this movie is all about homosexuality, just because it features a gay character, but they have misspelled that gay character’s name!

A website called Fansshare evidently seems set on claiming that worst title award, with: “Daniel Radcliffe to Star in Gay Movie”. That seems a little misleading, as though Radcliffe were starring in a gay porno. The article then says that he “has to portray a gay man,” which is just awful phrasing, and then has a whole paragraph devoted to whether or not he will have to kiss another male. One can almost hear the editors tittering in the background.

The website FilmSchoolRejects sadly states that it’s wrong for actors to play gay characters at the risk of setting a bad example for kids: “…now he’s playing a homosexual drug addict. That’s a little much for someone who, just a few months ago, was an idol to little kids. How about we dial it down a notch Daniel?”

Overall, coverage of this breaking story has been embarrassing. If you search Google News for “Daniel Radcliffe Allen Ginsberg”, you will be hard-pressed to find a source that doesn’t play up the gay angle. More worryingly is the number that includes “gay” in the title or subtitle of the article, highlighting the importance it holds to the author or editor of that publication. That sexuality is such a big deal in 2011 is a damning indictment of our society, and media outlets do us no favours by displaying their shock when a young man – a hero to children! – decides to play a homosexual character, or jumps to the conclusion that a movie featuring a gay character will inevitably be “gay-themed” or just plain “gay”.

Then again, look at these articles. They basically plagiarise one another, contain numerous glaring factual inaccuracies, refer to “Ginsburg” as a “beatnik” (a derogatory term), and often refer to Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Are these professional journalists that are writing? Are they responsible, intelligent bloggers? Does it appear that anyone has cast any form of editorial eye over these pieces of shoddy reporting? No. Perhaps Google “News” should have more stringent criteria for the reporting that cluttering my feed.

Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsberg

Apparently Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, has agreed to play the role of Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ new movie, Kill Your Darlings. The movie is said to revolve around the 1944 New York world of the Beats, focusing on the fallout from the murder of David Kammerer.

Radcliffe takes over from Jesse Eisenberg, who was originally slated to play Ginsberg, and joins Chris Evans and Ben Wishaw in the line-up. The usual movie news websites seem to enjoy playing up the fact that this is a “gay” movie.

It seems that the Beats are firmly back in film fashion, with Howl, On the Road, Big Sur, and Queer all attracting attention recently. Let’s just hope Radcliffe does as good a job as James Franco.

Walking With the Barefoot Beat: Alene Lee

by Christina Diamente

 

No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering

And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell

And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her

The Subterraneans, p.50

 

Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of  his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.

However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half.  The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.

Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.

Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s.  However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”

Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life  Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.

As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.

While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and  the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.

It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.

Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.”  He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.

Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.

In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then  I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.

Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more.  In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.

To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their  “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.

One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.

But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg.  She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that  period.

This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.

The Sea is my Brother

Since the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Kerouac has been somewhat revitalized. Despite being dead for forty years, Beat enthusiasts are still getting to read fresh material, as publishers trawl through his estate for unpublished material.

First there was the Original Scroll version of On the Road, which cast off the restraints necessary for the first fifty years of publication, and included the real names of characters as Kerouac famously wrote them in his legendary writing fit that produced a 120-foot long scroll manuscript. Next came Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, which has been less successful, but still of great interest to Kerouac fans. It is a retelling of the life of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, who led perhaps the first Beat life. After that there was And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which Kerouac co-wrote with William Burroughs after the murder of David Kammerer, in 1944.

Now there is The Sea is my Brother, Kerouac’s first novel, but one which has been lost in time. It was never published during his tragic life, but Kerouac wrote the book during his time at sea. It is the story of Wesley Martin, a man who ‘loved the sea with a strange, lonely love.’

The Sea is my Brother appears to share the spirit of On the Road and Kerouac’s early Beat philosophy. It is about loneliness and a search for love in an unpleasant world. According to Kerouac’s notes on the book, it is about ‘the vanishing American… the American Indian, the last of the pioneers, the last of the hoboes.’

Another note states that the book tells the story of a ‘man’s simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies.’ That sounds promising, indeed. Hopefully this will mirror Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘lost’ Rum Diary, which found legitimate success when released in 1998. It will certainly be interesting to see a new emergence from the period that spawned Kerouac’s greatest works.

Strangely, early references to the novel on the internet seem convinced that it will usher in a ‘new Beat Generation’, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hopefully, Kerouac will continue to find fans for years to come, but I highly doubt this will have the same effect on society as On the Road.

The Sea is my Brother has been purchased by Harper in the US, and will hopefully emerge within the next year. It will apparently be packaged with correspondence from the author around the time of writing the book.

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?

Women of the Beat Generation

History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.

Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.

Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)

But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.

Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.

Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.

Carolyn Cassady

Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.

Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.

She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.

Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.

Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.

Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.

She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.

Joyce Johnson

Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.

Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.

According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”

She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.

She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.

Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.

Diane di Prima

Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”

Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.

She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.

Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.

Hettie Jones

It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.

While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.

She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.

Edie Parker

Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.

Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.

When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.

Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.

Joan Vollmer

Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.

Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.

In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.

Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.

Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.

Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.

Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.

Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Anne Waldman

 

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.

That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.

But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.

Elise Cowan

I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.

Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.

When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.

For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.

Know Your Beats

A very brief guide to the players of the Beat Generation.

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