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Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

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

Death Within a Chrysalis

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,[1] 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…”[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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”[6]) 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…”[7]

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,[8] 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…”[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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 . . .”[12] 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!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] 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.”[16] 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[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

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—”[19]

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.”[20] 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.[21] 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!)…”[22] 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…”[23]

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.[24] 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…”[25]

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…”[26] 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.”[27] 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–––“[28]

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[29]) 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.”[30]

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.”[31] 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?’” [32]

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.[33] 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.”[34] 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…”[35]

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…”[36] 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.”[37] 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.[38] 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,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] 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.”[41]

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.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

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,[44] 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.[45] 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…”[46]

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.”[47] 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.”[48] 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.”[49]

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…”[50] 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—”[51]

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.[52] 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.”[53] 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.[54] 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…”[55] 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.”[56]

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.”[57] 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…”[58] 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…”[59] 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.[60] 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…”[61] 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–––“[62] 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…”[63]

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]?”[64]

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.”[65] 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—“[66] 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.”[67] 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 [68]). 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–––“[69]

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…”[70] 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.


Footnotes

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] 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.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] 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.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml

[16] 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.

[17] 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

[18] 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

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] 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

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] 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.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] 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.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] 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.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.

Long John Silver and the Beats

by Wayne Mullins

 

Many people ask what are the Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a Flaming Pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A’. ‘Thank you, Mister Man,’ they said, thanking him…

John Lennon

This colourful and creative reason for the name “The Beatles” is something you can immediately associate with John Lennon and his amazing ability to take a fairly mundane topic and give it an otherworldly slant.  However, the real reason behind the name and spelling of The Beatles owes a lot more to the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac than it does to mystic pie riders from the sky.

It was 1957, a time when the Beats were at the height of their powers: Allen Ginsberg was in Court defending his poem ‘Howl’ and On the Road had its first publishing and became an instant classic. At the same time, across the Atlantic, the Beatles (originally called The Quarry Men) formed in Liverpool, England. Several name changes occurred in the early life of the Beatles before John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe decided to honour the memory of Buddy Holly by changing the band name to the Beetles (as a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), but as John Lennon was a fan of clever word play he decided to change the spelling of The Beetles to Beatles as a way to suggest “beat” or “beat music”. As John Lennon said in a 1964 interview, “It was beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music.”

The Beatles and the Beats shared much in common during these early years. The friendships, relationships and experiences formed by both groups during their early days were to go on and shape entire generations in the decades that followed.

Further evidence of the Beat influence on the Beatles came from the time John Lennon spent at Liverpool College of Art. The Beat culture in Liverpool was certainly one of many influences on him; he knew Adrian Henri, and many of the professors who taught John at Liverpool College of Art were ardent followers of the Beat Movement. His dear friend June Furlong had posed for quite a few Beat artists and John loved the free-form mode of expression that the Beat generation endorsed. However, John was not a “joiner.”  He didn’t want to be linked to any one movement or any one philosophy. When the Beatles journeyed to Hamburg in the summer of 1960, Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe became enamoured of the Existential Movement (“the Exi” as John referred to them), but John scoffed at it as silliness. Much later in life when John sang his long list of the things he didn’t believe in (in the song, “God”), he was not so much rejecting everything on that list as he was telling the world that he was not a part of any group. He was himself. And he felt that was enough.

While Lennon may never have been a follower in the tradition sense, it is clear nonetheless that the Beat movement did play an important part in the development of both his and the Beatles vision. While the Beats are famously associated with their love of Jazz, there were notable occasions when the world of Beat and sixties pop music crossed paths. Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography details an encounter between Allen Ginsberg and The Beatles in the mid sixties.

“Then Allen Ginsberg came in … He went over to the chair Dylan was sitting in and plonked himself down on the armrest … John Lennon broke the silence snarling:

“‘Why don’t you sit a bit closer then, dearie?’

“The insinuation – that Allen had a crush on Dylan – was intended to demolish Allen, but since it wasn’t far from the truth anyway, Allen took it very lightly. The joke was on them, really. He burst out laughing, fell off the arm and onto Lennon’s lap. Allen looked up at him and said, ‘Have you ever read William Blake, young man’

“And Lennon in his Liverpudlian deadpan said, ‘Never heard of the man.’

“Cynthia, who wasn’t going to let him get away with this even in jest, chided him: ‘Oh, John, stop lying.’

That broke the ice.

 


The Beats are largely seen by the public (either rightly or wrongly) as the founders and spiritual leaders of both the Beat and Hippie movements. But this never sat particularly well with several members of both groups. Jack Kerouac in particular came to resent the perceived image the Beat followers had of him and claimed “It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” But follow him they did, often forcing him to move around the country with his mother when his address became too public – allowing eager young Beatnik followers who saw him as some kind of prophet to show up at his door uninvited. Though they were often disappointed that he was not the man they imagined him to be, they would often drag the bloated, old man Kerouac had grown into out for an all night drinking session, just so they could say they partied with “Sal Paradise.”

John Lennon was a person who always strived to be an individual and not belong to any group. But some of the ideals that the Hippie movement cherished, John cherished. After all, his most famous message was “Love is all you need.”

During the mid-sixties the rapidly expanding Beat movement underwent another transformation. The jazz, sunglasses, dark clothing and goatee beards faded out of fashion to be replaced by up tempo rock and pop music, long hair, bright psychedelic clothing and a more high profile form of protest. Many of the original Beats were still active members of the Hippie movement, the most famous of these being Allen Ginsberg who became a permanent fixture of the anti-war movement during this time.  While the Beats were largely apolitical, the Hippies were more active and goal-orientated in their protests; protests that started with the anti-war movement, leading onto civil rights and environmental protests. However, not all of the Beats were so quick to embrace the new counter culture movement. Kerouac in particular was strongly opposed to the Hippie movement and labelled it as “new excuses for spitefulness.”

Both Beatnik and Hippie movements were committed to mind-expanding drug experimentation, free love, anti war protests and living a life of personal and spiritual vision. The Beats pioneered the recreational use of marijuana and Benzedrine, paving the way for the generation that followed to experiment with LSD and other drugs. It’s easy to see how one movement morphed into the other. While the Beatniks may have started the counter culture, music, drugs and promiscuous sex movement, it was the Hippies that really popularised it through a combination of upbeat and catchy sixties pop music and its more inclusive nature.

Drugs played a big part in both movements and Kerouac was famous for his marathon Benzedrine writing sessions (sometimes lasting days). Lennon also experimented quite frequently with mind expanding drugs. His songs, “She Said, She Said,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver demonstrate the influence of the drug culture on John’s lyrics and music.

Famously both the Beats and The Beatles grew weary of the straight laced and conformist attitude of western religions and explored the East in a search for deeper meaning and answers. Both Kerouac (Christian) and Ginsberg (Jewish) had strong attachments to their religions in their youth, but during the early fifties Ginsberg started to become involved in Buddhism while living on the West Coast and Kerouac began to develop his Transcendentalism-based fascination with Buddhism while living on the East Coast. Eager to explore the new consciousness of their newfound Eastern teachings, the Beats revelled in the power of the new philosophy which placed the power of the individual at the spiritual centre of life. Many of the Beats took their new teachings very seriously, travelling to Japan to be closer to the original source and in Ginsberg’s case even going on to become a devoted Tibetan Buddhist after being tutored by his mentor, a monk called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Eastern influences can be seen throughout the writers’ work in pieces such as ‘Howl’ and The Dharma Bums.

When the Beatles started to experiment with their own ventures into the Eastern region it was to prove just as controversial as when the Beats had first began to explore the East a decade earlier. When the Beatles famously travelled to India to converse with the Maharishi during their exploration of Hinduism it was not to be without incident. John Lennon was extremely disillusioned with Eastern philosophy when he returned from the Beatles’ ashram with the Maharishi. In fact, John left in utter disgust and when the Maharishi asked John why he was leaving, John replied, “You’re the mystic. You tell me.”

At the end of John’s life, he was spending a great deal of money each week reading books on all sorts of faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. Having been raised in the Anglican Church John was toying with returning to his religious roots. If you study one of the last photographs of John (in his New York Shirt) before he was killed, he is wearing a crucifix. John believed that God could not be put into a tiny box of any faith. He looked to the East, the West and all points in between. And that after all, is where he believed God was.

Many critics were quick to label the Beat writers “armchair Buddhists” in the sense that they only picked the parts of the religion that was of use to them, abandoning the rest. The Beatles also faced similar accusations in relation to their “free love” and “peace” message of the Hippie era. John Lennon didn’t like materialism and yet he owned a large portion of The Dakota on New York’s West Side, a plethora of expensive guitars, a great deal of land and property on Long Island. John Lennon devoted his life to peace, but he wasn’t opposed to violence when his best friend was threatened by a group of thugs.

That being said, Lennon wasn’t a pacifist to the point of surrendering his values. He didn’t want “peace at any price.” He realized that peace was a cooperative agreement between two people, two cultures or two nations. If one party failed to honour that commitment, then the process was ineffective and other means of solving the problem would then be necessary. In his revision of the rock anthem “Revolution,” John says, “But when you talk about destruction… don’t you know that you can count me out/in.” Why “out/in”?  John wasn’t nebulous in his stance on war and peace. He was being very clear in these lyrics: he was saying that he would like to be counted out of destruction, war and violence (just as the Hippies would have wanted), but in reality there were cases in which one must stand up and fight or stand up and protect/defend. John knew that life wasn’t a simple flower-powered love-in. Life had to be evaluated on a case by case basis.Kerouac and Lennon

By the end of both their lives, I feel it’s fair to say that both Jack Kerouac and John Lennon, the two people who probably best represent the movements of the Beats and Hippies, had both fallen out of love with their original message. John Lennon was not a person who wanted to be a leader or a follower; he was someone that I don’t think would want to be tagged as part of any movement. As he said in ‘God,’ “I was the Walrus, but now…now I’m John.” He wanted to be individual. What he gave to his era which influenced the Hippie culture as well as a very straight-laced mainstream group of people, he gave out of his need to express himself, to “sing his heart.” If it changed or influenced others, then fine. If it didn’t, then that was fine too. He sang because he had to sing, not because he wanted to lead change or direct a movement.  Jack also appears to be a man who wanted to bring people together and teach the world all the new wonders he had found, but eventually his message became more important than its content, leading him to lose the spark of passion, a spark that he felt could change the world and make it a better place. He famously once said “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” This is the clearest message he could have given that he felt any kind of cultural movement was largely superficial and if you really wanted to make a difference and change the world, you would have to do it in your own way.

However, despite both movements being just memories now, they have left long and lasting legacies that continue to be as powerful today as they were 50 or 40 years ago.  The message of peace and love is always “right on time.” It was brilliant when Jesus proclaimed it. It was powerful when Ghandi proclaimed it. It was courageous when Martin Luther King proclaimed it. It is never outdated. It is the only message; and as cynical as we may be about things as they are today, it is love upon which we focus when everything else around us is falling apart.

Peter Orlovsky Obituary

On May 30th, 2010, Peter Orlovsky died at the age of 76. He is best known as the long-time partner (and muse) of Allen Ginsberg, but he was also a great poet in his own right.

Biography

My biography was born July 1933

The first sentence of Orlovsky’s biography in New American Poetry 1945-1960

Born into poverty, Orlovsky dropped out of high school to support his family by working in a mental hospital, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War in 1953 at age 19. After telling his commanding officer that, “An army with guns is an army against love,” he was sent to work at an army hospital in San Francisco.

At 21 Orlovsky met Allen Ginsberg. It’s part of Beat legend that Ginsberg fell in love with a painting of Orlovsky (who was then working as a model) just before meeting the man himself in the San Francisco studio of painter Robert LaVigne in December 1954.

The couple moved into a North Beach apartment together and announced that they were “married.” They spoke openly of their relationship, and were listed as “married” in Ginsberg’s Who’s Who entry in the years following his rise to fame.

They travelled around the world together – spending two years in India, learning about Eastern philosophies. Both men took great interest in Buddhism during their travels.

Peter Orlovsky became an important part of the Beat Generation, although he only began writing poetry at the provocation of Ginsberg while the two were in Paris. He appears in Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams and Desolation Angels as Simon Darlovsky, and in The Dharma Bums as George.

Later, he taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. His course was called, “Poetry for Dumb Students.”

As well as working as a model, teacher and a poet, Orlovsky made several movie appearances. Along with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gregory Corso, he appeared in Couch (1964), which was directed by Andy Warhol. Me and My Brother (1969), directed by Robert Frank, concerned Orlovsky’s relationship with his brother Julius, who was schizophrenic. He appeared (uncredited) in Bob Dylan’s 1979 Renaldo and Clara. In 1990 he appeared in Frank’s C’est Vrai.

Although their relationship was not always monogamous (with Orlovsky displaying heterosexual leanings) they were inseparable at times, and stayed together on-and-off until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Poetry

Orlovsky’s poetry became known for its simple, earthy honesty. He spoke freely (and often enthusiastically) about bodily functions and most famously about assholes. He couldn’t spell, but through his misspellings and the unusual phrasings of his work comes a refreshing freedom and originality.

His “Frist Poem” was published in 1958 by Yugen literary journal. It begins:

A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified

Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air

Of his poetry, William Carlos Williams once exclaimed: “Nothing English about it – pure American.” That was something Williams hoped poetry would become – a natural, organic voice, free of rules and traditions. Orlovsky’s poetry celebrates that which is distinctly natural and does not attempt to grasp grandiose philosophies.

As Gregory Corso put it,

An agricultural romantic, the Shellean farmer astride his Pegasusian tractor re-poems the earth with trees of berry and roots of honey; whose dirtian hands scribe verses of soy, odes of harvest; whose hymns to redolent shovels of manure nourish the fields that so nourish us, both in body meal and the cosmetics of soul.

Perhaps he was best described by the poet Michael Horovitz (with whom he read on his trips to the United Kingdom) as “refreshingly unliterary.”

Bibliography:

Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 (1971)

Lepers Cry (1972),

Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978)

Straight Hearts’ Delight Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, co-authored with Ginsberg (1980)

The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.

 

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs

 

Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …

 

This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.

 


Allen Ginsberg


 

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

 

Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.

READ MORE ABOUT ALLEN GINSBERG’S TRAVELS HERE

 

 

Neal Cassady

 

Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.

 

Gary Snyder

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.

 

After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.

Lady Beats

by Hannah Withrow

1

I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women.  My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica.  Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,

Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”

That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell.  What did such a woman have to say?  Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor.  Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day.  She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends.  But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself.  Hot, hot, hot!  A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.

Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator?  He can’t possibly understand.  It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.

Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.

This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that?  And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”

Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.

This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.

2

How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.

Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife.  But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion.  Do you see race in this?  Have you forgotten?  It would get worse.”  Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is.  And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.

Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art.  Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.

I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.

3

By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.

Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.

While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.

I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic.  Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.

What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.

Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able.  She writes,

The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means.  But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from.  The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.

I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,

And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’  He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience.  Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?

It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.

Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.

Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence.  At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.

Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.

4

I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters.  I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.

Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:

She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals.  Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.

Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.

When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.

Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.

The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.

5

In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,

He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.

Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:

Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues.  He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty.  I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day.  Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.

I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.

In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.

6

Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.

She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.

It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,

From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.

It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.

Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?

Death I’m coming

Wait for me

I know you’ll be

At the subway station

Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka

And your single simple answer

To every meaning

I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.

But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.

7

These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.

Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.”  Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.

Sources:

Bremser, Bonnie. Troia: Mexican Memoirs. New York: Croton Press, 1969.

Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.  New

York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

di Prima, Diane. Memoirs of a Beatnik. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San

Francisco, 1988.

—. Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. New York: Viking

Penguin, 2001.

Johnson, Joyce.  Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit

of Jack Kerouac. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing

the Beat Generation. Piscataway: Rutgers, The State University, 2002.

Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.

Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. New York:

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums.  New York: Signet, 1959.

Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the

Heart of a Revolution. New York: MJF Books, 1996.

Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation.

New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.

The Battle for Kerouac’s Estate

by David S. Wills

“Money is the root of all evil”

For I will

Write

In my will

“I regret that I was not able

To love money more.”

Jack Kerouac, 238th Chorus, Mexico City Blues

Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver. By the time he died he had become a shell of the man he once was. He lived with his mother, drank himself beyond recognition, and was flat broke.

But as we all know, Kerouac’s fame only grew after his death, and in death came the respect he craved in life. His unpublished works were published, and his out of print books were brought back into print. People began caring about Kerouac again.

Many of the greatest writers, musicians and artists of the latter half of the twentieth century claim that Kerouac was a huge inspiration in their life. On the Road is now required reading in high schools and universities, and instead of Kerouac being loved only by literate fratboys, his work is considered by scholars and published by Penguin Classics. His influence upon Western society has been immeasurable.

In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity surrounding Kerouac’s old work. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road came and brought the release of the original scroll version. And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, co-written with William S. Burroughs, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, and The Sea is my Brother, have all been recently published.

So it is no surprise that Kerouac’s estate is worth a little more than the ninety-one dollars he owned when he died. After fifty years of fame and forty years of posthumous analysis, Kerouac’s estate is now valued at up to forty million dollars.

However, there has been somewhat of a furore over the ownership of that estate, and recently a long battle was ended with the shocking verdict of the American legal system, which deemed the will of Kerouac’s mother to have been a fake.

When Kerouac died, his will ignored many of the people who were expecting to be included. Instead, he left everything to his mother – a woman who had been an ogre-like figure throughout Kerouac’s life. When she died in 1973, Gabriel Kerouac allegedly passed control of Kerouac’s estate to his third wife, Stella Sampas.

Kerouac’s will deliberately overlooked Sampas, against whom Kerouac had allegedly planned upon entering divorce proceedings. In a letter posted to his nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, on October 20th, 1969 (the day before his death), Kerouac said,

I’ve turned over my entire estate to Memere, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you…

I just wanted to leave my “estate” (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is…

I want you to know that if you’re a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we’re of the same blood.

Paul Blake Jnr has spent much of his life in poverty and consequently sold the famous letter from his uncle to art dealer Alan Horowitz, who sold it to the New York Public Library. At present it remains in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The Sampas family, however, claims that the letter is a forgery.

When an attempt was made to make the note public, the Sampas family threatened a lawsuit, claiming that it was part of the Kerouac archive, but that it was also a forgery… One must wonder why they were so protective over something that they so strongly disputed.

In 1990, Stella Sampas died and left control of the estate to her family. Her brother, John Sampas, assumed control of the estate and became Kerouac’s literary executor. With the continuing fame of Kerouac and his work, the family profited by selling the scroll manuscript of On the Road for more than two million dollars to Jim Irsay, and even a raincoat, hat and suitcase to Johnny Depp for around forty thousand dollars.

Whilst the constant passing of ownership seems strange and confusing, the person who was most confused was Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter by Joan Haverty. Having been denied any part in the control of her father’s estate, she called into question the validity of Gabriel Kerouac’s will. Her suspicions had been raised when she noticed, in 1994, that her grandmother had evidently spelled her name wrong on her own will.

Therefore, Jan Kerouac’s charge was that the signature on Gabriel Kerouac’s will had to have been forged, and that neither she nor her son had wanted control of the estate to rest outside the immediate family. The Sampas family’s ownership was thus illegal, in Jan Kerouac’s eyes.

In 1994, Jan Kerouac went to court to prove her argument. She cited the 1969 letter from Kerouac to his nephew that stated he wished his estate to be controlled by his blood family after his death. In the letter ee also discussed the idea of divorcing his wife, Stella, to whom Gabriel Kerouac’s will left the estate. Furthermore, the man who’d allegedly witnessed the signing of the will – Clifford Larkin – admitted to having witnessed no such thing. It was even suggested that Gabriel Kerouac was medically incapable of signing anything. After all, she was a frail old woman with few physical abilities, and the signature was strong and defined – that of someone with significant strength in their arm.

Jan Kerouac died in 1996, naming Kerouac biographer Gregory Nicosia (who wrote Memory Babe) as her literary executor, and her husband – John Lash – as overall executor. Lash, however, disagreed with her charge against the Sampas family and in 1999 Nicosia resigned from his post. The case was dismissed soon after.

Kerouac’s nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, has always kept fighting the same battle as Jan Kerouac, and recently he carried the litigation to court again, and won. It is argued, however, that Blake never particularly cared, and that he only took it this far on the advice of Nicosia, who brought him food when he was homeless, and dragged him along in his fight against the Sampas family.

Citing medical evidence and the testimony of a handwriting expert, Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, declared Gabriel Kerouac’s will a forgery. It seems, then, that the ownership of Kerouac’s estate by the Sampas family – aside from the one-third dowers entitlement to Stella Sampas – was illegal, and came to pass only through an act of criminal fraud.

Now, fourteen years after Jan Kerouac’s death, it seems she has succeeded in liberating Kerouac’s estate from its wrongful owners.

The question now, however, is what will happen if Paul Blake Jnr comes to control the estate. Jan Kerouac always said she wanted her father’s work given to a library, but it is argued that the Sampas family rejected numerous offers from libraries. No one even knows what exactly they owned, or the precise value of Kerouac’s estate. Fans of Kerouac tend to gather in opposition to John Sampas because of the sale of so many artefacts, but he argues that he has done Kerouac’s work a great service.

The problem now is that there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Sampas family committed the act of fraud. They were not even involved in the 2009 court case. Kerouac’s estate passed from Jack to Memere to Stella and then to John Sampas. Mr. Sampas can therefore hardly be considered the crook he is portrayed by Nicosia and so many irate Kerouac fans.

Furthermore, it would be impossible to reclaim the sold items and return them to Blake – Kerouac’s only living blood relative. It would be unreasonable, too, to expect Sampas to repay Blake for the items he has already sold, considering he probably acted without knowledge of the forged will.

If Sampas is to hand over the remaining items to Blake, that might only account for a few pieces of writing, as Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection in New York, says “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” Nicosia claims that thousands of pieces of Kerouac’s writing to collectors, although the Sampas claims that it was only fifty or sixty, and that they were sold to generate the required operation capital for the estate. These documents were copied and are presently available to view at the Berg.

Critics, however, posit that there are some major gaps in the collection. While Sampas sold around 2,000 items to the Berg Collection for an undisclosed sum in 2001, there are no complete drafts of The Dharma Bums or Vanity of Duluoz, absolutely nothing on Big Sur, and of course, the most famous piece – the original scroll manuscript of On the Road, one of the most famous documents in literary history – has itself been on the road since being sold to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and close friend of Hunter S. Thompson.

Jeffrey Weinberg – John Sampas’ consultant from 1991 to 1993 – claimed to have negotiated the sale of a hand-illuminated manuscript of Book of Dreams to a Rhode Island lawyer for more than $25,000, as well as many other letters and rarities.

However, the scroll of Big Sur belongs to Helen Suprenant, heir of Stella Sampas. Nicosia eludes to it having been sold to a random collector, but it seems to have been given to Suprenant as an inheritance. The scroll for The Dharma Bums was purchased by the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, in cooperation with a university. The Kerouac House, for those who don’t know, is a former residence of Kerouac that John Sampas helped Bob Kealing find and preserve turn into a literary monument.

As for the On the Road scroll, the fee it commanded and the fact that it is not readily available for study are offset by the fact that it tours the world, allowing people to view Kerouac’s work up close. Furthermore, the Berg Collection has a digitised version available for study, as well as a scanned replica.

Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust claims that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Sampas family sold pieces of the Kerouac archive, because many buyers apparently bought only with the intention of donating to the Berg Collection.

In terms of royalties, On the Road alone sells around 60,000 copies per year. Blake’s lawyers are looking into his claim to some of that money, although Blake claims he is only interested in looking after his uncle’s work. Experts say that Blake may be entitled to a third of the Kerouac estate, but no one really knows what comprises that collection, or what its value may be. Jan Kerouac was added to the list of copyright owners in 1985, when the copyright was up for renewal, after being told in 1982, at a Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado, by John Steinbeck’s son, that she needn’t have prostituted herself and lived in poverty for so long – she was entitled to a share of the royalties.

Only the Sampas family know for sure what remains of the Kerouac estate. Douglas Brinkley has been allowed to view the collection for what he planned on being the first official Kerouac biography, but when he failed to deliver the manuscript in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the project appeared to be cancelled. Sampas himself claimed that there are no decent biographies of Kerouac in existence – something that Beatdom would vehemently deny. One only has to look at Paul Maher Jnr’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography or Barry Gifford’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac to see that Sampas’ claim is absurd. They may not be perfect, but perhaps Sampas is guilty of a little hyperbole.

One might well wonder what Kerouac’s contemporaries thought of the situation… After all, it seems unusual that for so long the battle raged between Jan Kerouac, Paul Blake Jnr and the Sampas family. Why didn’t Kerouac’s friends enter into the debate?

Well, the case was never exactly obvious. There was no way of knowing what Gabrielle Kerouac wanted, and so the words of Kerouac’s own friends are hardly worth much. Jan Kerouac was never a part of any circle of Beat Generation writers. She barely knew her father, and whilst Paul Blake Jnr and his uncle shared a close relationship, Blake was never as driven as Jan Kerouac in pursuit of the settlement of the estate.

Jan Kerouac’s godfather, Allen Ginsberg, waded briefly into the argument, examining the debate in the early ‘90s. He apparently studied the case for a few days before deciding the Jan Kerouac had no particularly strong claim to the estate. By all accounts, he was never particularly fond of his goddaughter, whom many consider coldly ignored by the otherwise loveable Ginsberg.

According to Aram Saroyan,

Nicosia had… been organizing a fund raiser to help Jan with her medical bills and told me Allen had called friends like Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and discouraged their participation and later about the Kerouac conference in Manhattan: With some of the participants having a claim to be there far less valid than Jan Kerouac’s, she along with Gerry Nicosia were thrown out of the conference by campus police when she attempted to get on the podium and speak about her father’s archives.

Gregory Corso, however, disagreed, and signed a petition to allow Jan Kerouac to speak at the conference in New York in 1995 that was held in honour of her father. But as Nicosia later claimed, “John Sampas was calling for the university police to arrest her, and Allen said, ‘Yes, take her out, she’s irrelevant.’ I stood up from the audience and started yelling at Allen: ‘Allen, you’ve got to let her speak! She’s Jack’s daughter!’ Sampas said, ‘Get rid of him, too!’”

William S. Burroughs seems to have sympathised somewhat with Jan Kerouac’s claim, and gave her several of his paintings to sell. One of those paintings was sold sight-unseen to a bidder for $3000. The money went to pay for her dialysis, which she required four times a day.

Brenda Knight, the author of the fantastic book Women of the Beat Generation, said that Kerouac’s friends “were worried about getting ‘blacklisted’ in an unofficial way.” Such was the power of the Sampas family that other writers were afraid of speaking against them. Gerald Nicosia speculated that perhaps they were afraid of aligning themselves with Jan Kerouac, who only met her father twice. He claimed that the Sampas family had spread rumours about her that had damaged her reputation, and that scared away members of the Beat Generation.

Nicosia himself claims to have been stopped in numerous endeavours by the apparently wicked Sampas clan. For one thing he claims that John Sampas forced his Kerouac biography out of print.

Michael Lally – a writer and friend of Nicosia –claims that a book he wrote that was in preproduction with Penguin books, was scuppered after he aligned himself against the Sampas family.

John Sampas, however, replied by saying: ““I’m a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character. I’m just Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law… Nicosia is a well known ‘nut case’ who has been stalking the Kerouac estate for years.”

Recently, a debate has been raging between two Kerouac scholars that may lend credit to Sampas’ remark about Nicosia’s integrity. Although it has no real consequence for the estate of Jack Kerouac, the argument throws a shadow of doubt over Nicosia, who supported Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jnr. It also casts a dark shadow over the past forty years of Kerouac studies.

At Litkicks (a fantastic website devoted to all things literary) Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr took their personal and professional differences and exposed them to the world on the discussion board of a page titled “Kerouac Estate Battle Again”.

The author of the brief update regarding the news announcement was Levi Asher, a member of the well known Beat-L community in the 1990s. The Beat website was a target of Nicosia’s incessant spamming for his cause, and eventually the group disbanded after the flame war became too much for members to cope with. Nicosia would respond to arguments against him with ten page point-by-point retaliations. In the end, Nicosia went as far as to file a half a million dollar defamation suit against one of his detractors, Dianne de Rooy. The group founder, Bill Gargan even attempted to ban discussion of the Kerouac estate, but in the end Nicosia threatened him with legal action and forced the group to shut down.

It should be noted that John Sampas was also a member of the Beat-L group, although he never posted. He admits to giving encouragement to Nicosia’s detractors offline, but maintains that he liked to read only because he enjoyed seeing what people thought of Kerouac’s work.

Many comments on the Litkicks board were left in admiration of Nicosia, but several alluded to or charged him with certain morally dubious actions. Asher himself pointed out that Nicosia acted on behalf of Jan Kerouac when Asher published one of her short stories. Nicosia didn’t care that Asher had Kerouac’s permission to do so.

Attila Gyenis – editor of Dharma Beat – argued that Nicosia had misrepresented certain facts, including saying that Jan Kerouac received no money from the Sampas family, when she did in fact receive a yearly payment.

It didn’t take long for Nicosia to pass comment on the topic, and on the other members of the group. He denied the accusation that he misrepresented Jan Kerouac’s royalties, explaining that she was nonetheless lied to be the Sampas family, who tried to pay her nothing, and then less than she was entitled to, and finally paid her $50,000 per year only when her medical expenses exceeded that amount. According to Jeffrey Weinberg, Sampas “did absolutely nothing to help Jan Kerouac, which I think is despicable. It was legal, but it wasn’t moral.” Sampas denies this, claiming that he offered more money, but that the offer was pointedly rejected.

Nicosia then posited that John Sampas heavily censored Kerouac’s writings, citing Rod Anstee’s study that showed 300 deletions that were never marked. If true, that would be an astonishing blow to Sampas’ credibility.

He also repeated the claim that Sampas had distributed Kerouac’s work to collectors around the globe, and that the Berg Collection was woefully lacking the scrolls, on which Kerouac wrote between eight and ten of his novels, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris, Vanity of Duluoz, and Mexico City Blues.

One might wonder why exactly Nicosia levels his complaint at Sampas and not at, for just one example, the Ginsberg Trust, who auctioned his personal effects at Sotheby’s. Or the countless girlfriends and Kerouac associates who sold their personal Kerouac-related effects for personal gain, rather than donating them generously to the public interest. Indeed, according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.

Finally, Nicosia claims that the Sampas family forced the closure of his Memory Babe archive at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He says that it took him eleven years of legal action and that John Sampas kept pressuring the university to keep the archive shut.

After these arguments, Paul Maher Jnr jumped into the fray with some crude personal insults and some questioning of Nicosia’s work in comparison to his own efforts, which were apparently made with the blessing and supervision – although not too much supervision, he states – of John Sampas.

Maher also claims that the Berg Collection’s inventory refutes Nicosia’s claim that Sampas is selling off the Kerouac archive irresponsibly. He also claims that if Sampas were to auction off the estate piece by piece it would be perfectly legal, and that other authors have their work distributed across the world.

It seems as though Maher is missing the point a little, with Nicosia’s argument being that the scrolls (or rather, as he would call them, “the rolls”) are not available for study, and that it would be easier to have everything in one public collection. He does, however, make a reasonable argument by stating that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to be gathered in one place. He says that the Berg Collection is a phenomenal resource as it is.

After this, the two scholars get down to arguing matters surrounding their respective books. Nicosia asks why Maher used his work without crediting him – citing a witness from the University of Massachusetts. Maher argued back that Nicosia had profited from Xeroxing Kerouac’s unpublished writings – an act of obvious copyright infringement – and sold it to a university, therefore it was never Nicosia’s to begin with and that he need never have credited Nicosia. In fact, Maher claims, since the Sampas family was in control of the Kerouac estate, he could well have credited John Sampas.

Next, he offered the fact that Nicosia had sent threatening, paranoid e-mails to Maher’s publishers, and to Douglas Brinkley – whom the Kerouac estate had asked to write the official Kerouac biography – with insults about Maher.

Maher also claims that he doesn’t care at all about the court verdict and that it makes no difference to anything. However, in his personal blog (the arrogantly titled “You Don’t Know Jack”) he discusses the matter differently, calling it a “botched decision” and defending the Sampas family – with whom he, for posterity’s sake distanced himself from on Litkicks. He offers a portrayal of Stella as a literal saint, deserving of everything Kerouac owed, and eluding to a relationship with Gabrielle that would have resulted in her bequeathing Sampas everything in her will.

Maher also offered several documents – which have subsequently disappeared from the webhost – that show Jan Kerouac’s apparent desire to part company with Nicosia… Indeed, a little digging will show that prior to her death, she was trying desperately to get away from her literary executor. Nicosia was busy suing her relatives and guiding her literary career, and she wanted to get rid of him. But, just like when Kerouac tried to get rid of his wife, his daughter tried to ditch Nicosia and died before she could follow through. Nicosia, however, managed to convince Kerouac to sign a will that left him as her “literary representative”, in charge of all posthumous works. He has used this position to sue her beloved heirs, her brother David and her ex-husband John Nash. One of the documents she wanted to sign before her death was intended to repeal Nicosia’s position as her “literary representative”.

It is claimed that he travelled to Jan Kerouac’s apartment immediately after her death, took all of her possessions, then proceeded to destroy them, store them or hide them, depending upon their value and relation to his actions.

In life and death, Jan Kerouac’s name has been used by Nicosia to make money and to gain a reputation. He uses her sad life story to manipulate journalists and judges. Allegedly, he even managed to sell Jack Kerouac’s name to Levi-Strauss for $11,000, apparently because he copyrighted Kerouac’s name and image in the state of California.

And that’s about all I’m going to write on the subject of Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr. Suffice it to say they continued their petty banter for some time after that. Their argument is fascinating as an example of the turbulent world of literary studies, which many would think dull and uninteresting. But people care. Sometimes they care enough to act like fools. Sometimes they care enough to lie, to insult others, and to bicker in front of bemused on lookers.

But the fact is that they care. Kerouac is still as relevant today as he ever was. His readers and scholars care so deeply about him, and think they understand him because of the intimate, personal nature of his writing, that they are willing to make grand leaps in faith to defend him and his legacy.

Whilst both Nicosia and Maher appear to be incredibly childish, I must say that I am lost in navigating this labyrinth of accusations, facts and lies. Their language is both grandiose and pathetic, with reason and logic largely lost in the midst of a flame war that is more commonly in the domain of the humble, non-professional nerd… We know for one thing that Gabrielle’s will was forged. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was incapable of signing her name, and that control of the estate should never have gone to Stella Sampas. When it comes down to it, money ruined everything. It looks as though the Sampas family cheated Jan Kerouac out of money and profited unfairly from her father’s estate. But under John Sampas’ stewardship the name of Jack Kerouac rose from that of a famous author to that of a literary icon, studied the world over and given the respect he desired. One could try to predict what will happen next on a purely legal basis, but the only thing that is for sure is that Kerouac fans and scholars will be divided and reduced to the level of bickering children for years to come.

Sources

This isn’t an easy subject to research… For the basic facts pertaining to the court case, please consult Google News and look through old reports from reputable publications.

For more about Sampas, Nicosia and the debate that has long since raged you might want to prepare yourself. Nicosia’s confrontational information log-jam makes it hard to pick truth from fact. Likewise, Maher’s arrogant style of forcing facts at you makes it hard to take him seriously.

Be prepared to do some digging. Be a sensible reader, too. Don’t believe everything you read. Always remain sceptical. And for the love of god, don’t offend Gerald Nicosia… He might just take you to court.

Asher, Levi, ‘Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again…’ http://www.litkicks.com/KerouacEstateBattleAgain/

Maher Jnr, Paul, ‘Professors of Babylon’, http://kerouacquarterly.blogspot.com/2010/01/professors-of-babylon.html

Maughan, Stephen, ‘And the Beat Goes on’, http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201001/kerouac-1.phtml

Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Press Conference Speech, June 5 2007’, http://whollycommunion.blogspot.com/2007/09/gerald-nicosia-press-conference-speech.html

Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After his Death’, http://www.geraldnicosia.com/html/geraldframeset2.html?kerouachtml/kerouacreport.html~content

Roadrat, ‘Fight over all things Kerouac’, http://www.roadratroberts1.bravepages.com/JACK%20KEROUAC%203.htm

Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard

By Kristin McLaughlin

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? – Jack Kerouac[1]

Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine (Jack was four at the time) of rheumatic fever.  As the cornerstone of the Dulouz legend, Visions of Gerard, along with Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, deals with Kerouac’s early life in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Most biographers agree that though Kerouac left Lowell after high school, he never left it emotionally.  That was where his heart remained.  In 1963, six years before his death, he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to return to every known and fabled corner.  A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.”[2]

Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, one of Lowell’s neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River.  Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th/early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills.  By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining as the mills began to close.

He was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher”[3] and Gabrielle, known to everyone as Mémêre, conducted the household in a Quebecois patois known as joual.  For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school.

Kerouac’s mother played an important – perhaps unhealthily important – role in his life.  He told biographer Anne Charters that his mother was the only woman he ever loved.  She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip.  After Gerard’s death, she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known), and that continued throughout his life.  While his father seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in the Kerouac children a religious sensibility that is apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings.  Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working-class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview.  Though he did a lot of things that could be viewed as the antithesis of those influences, it’s clear in his writing that those influences were always there.

In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac seamlessly blends dream and reality to create a “book of sorrows.”[4] Though evidence suggests that most of the scenes in Visions of Gerard do not stem from Kerouac’s real memories, he manages to meld his few recollections, his dreams and visions, his mother’s romanticized anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother.  To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap that was still alive.  Horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures, he brought the mouse home, bandaged it up and took care of it.  Before long the cat found the mouse and ate it, leaving only the tail behind.  Gerard scolded the cat, but not in the mean way you would expect from a child.  Instead, Gerard gives the feline a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others.  Leo tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat things that are smaller than us.  But Gerard wants none of it.  “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! – without thinking, without knowing.”[5]

As stated earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disorder affecting the heart, joints, skin, and nervous system that can develop after a Group A streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever.  Though he was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life, Kerouac does not put the boy’s suffering in the forefront.  Gerard, in his saintliness, suffers quietly, without complaint.  Despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed.  “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”[6]

Gerard oversees Jack, wanting him to be good.  Kerouac writes of when he stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper.  Gerard scolds him, like he scolded the cat, and together they patched the newspaper back together, so the picture was as good as new.  Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is competition.  Little Jack wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”[7]

The Gerard that Jack knows is otherworldly.  He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs.  He tells his little brother about the color of God.  He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy whom he pushed when the child accidently knocked over something he was making.  The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.”[8] Near his death Gerard tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven – those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven – See?”[9] When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard’s school come as well, kneeling by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boy’s answers.  The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child –a child who understands something about the world and about Heaven that those around him do not.  He tries to explain that “we’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.”[10] Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here.  All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to discern.

Then Gerard dies.  Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort! as thou it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said, ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know’ I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved ignorance of mortal brains.”[11]

After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone and they did not return. “’They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”[12]

In 1955, shortly after the famed Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson.  Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but to no avail.  The next day she jumped from the window to her death.  Kerouac was very disturbed by this and returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas.  Of course, his mother was there too.  The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future novel, The Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time.

In January 1956, Mémêre left Rocky Mount for New York to attend a funeral.  It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Kerouac sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard.  “My sister and her husband weren’t interested.  They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine.  It was written by hand on the kitchen table.  My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light.  You got to live with your family, you know.  Mémêre wasn’t there.  She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn.  If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it.  We’d have talked all night.  But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…”[13]

At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was in the process of synthesizing his two religions – Catholicism and Buddhism; both are clearly represented in the novel, and Kerouac successfully harmonizes them to present his Catholic sensibility from his recently adopted Buddhist perspective.  To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not.  But he continued to maintain his belief in Catholicism throughout his life.  He was Catholic in his heart, and was devout in his own way.  His beliefs at the time of writing the novel can probably be summed in the words he says that Gerard’s “sad eyes first foretold”: “All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.”[14]

It only took Kerouac approximately fifteen days to write Visions of Gerard, though John Kingsland, who read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of that first published novel are included in Visions of Gerard.[15] On January 15, 1956, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder that the novel was finished.  In that letter, he called the work his “best most serious sad and true book yet,”[16] and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961, still two years before its publication.  By late 1956, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking Publishers, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing.  In response to requests to revise the novel, Kerouac told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands.  As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.”[17] But by 1958, Kerouac was offering to revise the novel and substitute Catholic references for the Buddhist ones if Viking would buy the book.  He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his ever-growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion.  He wrote that Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”[18]

The book, along with Big Sur, was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance.  When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but it’s unclear if any changes were made between its original writing, which was done in pencil, and its final, published version.  In December 1962, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen, “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…”[19] Who cares?  Jack certainly did.  For all the coolness of that statement, Kerouac was crushed by negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were very bad indeed.  The New York Herald Tribune stated that it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often pridefully ‘sincere’ that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…In someone else’s hands, it could have been moving.  Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself.  As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.”[20] The review in the New York Times wasn’t any better: “…the clangor we hear far too often is the narrator’s jaunty, garrulous hipster yawping, and before its implacable onslaught all feeling disintegrates. It is not enough to say that the style does not evoke or intensify the emotion. It betrays and debases it. The dead boy deserved better of his eulogist.”[21] Biographer Gerard Nicosia states that “critics seemed to be stirring for new lefthanded and underhanded ways of putting [Kerouac] down.”[22] This further fueled Kerouac’s downward spiral – now he was not only the cause of juvenile delinquency, but he was desecrating his brother’s memory and exploiting his death.

In an October 1963 letter to friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac states, “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it.  So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.”[23] So much for not caring.  Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he desired professionally was to be taken seriously.  Since the publication of On the Road, he had been physically declining largely due to the notoriety it brought him.  He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything he wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint.  But while this novel does have an overarching religious sensibility to it, it is a very sad tale.  Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother – he worshipped him and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother.  “For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Dulouz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness.”[24] He was extremely jealous of Gerard’s friends, and when they would come to visit the bed-ridden boy, Jack would complain to Mémêre and she would send the boys away, saying that Gerard belonged to Jack.  Losing his brother appears to have been very traumatic for Kerouac – he grew frightened of the dark and often wondered how he could get into heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother.  For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”[25]

Neighborhood playmates of Gerard remember him as a normal, but sickly, kid and suggest that Kerouac largely embellished the story of his brother’s holiness.  In fact, in a letter to his sister, Caroline in 1945, Kerouac admitted all he remembered of Gerard was the slap over the erector set.[26] The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged and reinforced by Mémêre and greatly merged with the French tradition of child-saints.  It is legitimate to wonder how much Gerard’s death – and his doting mother’s reaction to it – influenced Kerouac later in life.  In the same letter to Caroline, he admits feeling guilty about Gerard and that he may have been responsible for the death.  But imagine Jack’s position: as a child he believed his brother was favored over him, his parents view the boy as a saint.  Gerard’s piety was used as a standard against which Kerouac often measured his own life, and he failed miserably against that standard.  Gerard’s death has come to be seen by researchers as a potential source of Kerouac’s torments and turmoil, and Visions of Gerard has been described as being “told from the standpoint of a man looking from the dark torrents of a raging river at an unattainable peaceful shore.”[27] But though the boy’s death was clearly a tragedy, and served as a source of terrible guilt and anguish for Kerouac – and perhaps even was the original catalyst that eventually led to his alcoholism and death, we are also faced with the question of whether, had Gerard lived instead, Kerouac would have ever become a writer in the first place.  As Kerouac asks in the novel, what would have happened to Jack without Gerard?

“The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen and ink…because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero – Écrivez pour l’amour de son mort.”[28]


[1] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 5.

[2] “Book News from Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, Inc.” Empty Phatoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac. Ed. Paul Maher, Jr. New York: Thurder’s Mouth Press, 2005.  223

[3] Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee.  Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.  NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1978.  4.

[4] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[5] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 11.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 36.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Ibid., 109-110.

[12] Ibid., 117

[13] Charters, Anne. Kerouac: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.  252.

[14] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 6.

[15] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 500

[16] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[17] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 7 October 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  589.

[18] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 29 November 1958.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  169.

[19] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Philip Whalen. 13 December 1962.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  353.

[20] Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[21] Maloff, Saul. “A Yawping at the Grave.” New York Times. 8 September 1963.

[22] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983.  648

[23] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to John Clellon Holmes. 5 October 1963.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[24] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 2.

[25] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 109.

[26] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake. 14 March 1945.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  87.

[27] Simpson, Emily Patricia. “Religious Turmoil: The Conflict Between Buddhism and Catholicism in Jack Kerouac’s Life and Writing.” MA Thesis.  North Carolina State University, 2003.  28.

[28] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 112.