Archives For diane diprima

Somebody Blew Up America: A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue. You can purchase it on Amazon and Kindle.

 

Amiri Baraka is Beat.

He walked away from the scene in Greenwich Village, where he edited literary journals Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear from 1958-65. Working with Hettie Cohen, Michael John Fles, and Diane Di Prima, respectively, the journals brought new works by new names. Featured writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure. He co-founded Totem Press and was influential in the launching of Corinth Books. Yugen magazine was perhaps most significant as the platform for the “new” Beat writers, allowing their work to find a place in one of the first venues to give credulity to the movement. Continue Reading…

The City Lights Bookstore: the Beatnik’s Mecca

There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in the same way as the City Lights Bookstore. Situated in the heart of San Francisco and owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the most prolific Beat Generation poets there is, the City Lights Bookstore is a Mecca for all beatniks and book lovers. A visit to City Lights is enough to transport anyone back to simpler times where you can focus on words, lyrics and meanings rather than your groceries, prescriptions or health insurance renewal.

City Lights Background

The City Lights Bookstore champions independent publishers and first published a huge number of now legendary cult titles including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The store exudes warmth and despite its cramped interior, it’s easy to see that every spare space is filled with the books that make San Francisco famous. Of course, to remain afloat, you’ll find the main floor stacked out with modern and contemporary fiction but also an astonishingly large collection of translated works from around the world, an area the shop’s founder Ferlinghetti has been said to be particularly interested in. The area we’re looking for however is found on the top floor. Book after book of poetry is stored up there and you can peruse the titles of your favourites and also indulge in some newer contemporary writers.

The store itself was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a close friend and the publishing company, responsible for so many of the classic Beat generation texts, began at the same time. This combination of both a publishing company, a bookstore and of course the name of a cult legend above its door has meant that City Lights is one of the most successful independent bookstores worldwide. When visiting City Lights, many pilgrims have even had the great honour of meeting Ferlinghetti, who still uses the store to read, write and relax. Since 2001, the store has been recognised as an official historic landmark thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, due to its role in the literary history of the city.

City Lights Publishing House and the Pocket Poets Series

The publishing arm of the bookstore is also very popular. The instantly recognisable covers of the Pocket Poets Series included sixty books by Beat Generation poets as such as Kerouac, O’Hara, Levertov and of course, Ferlinghetti himself. The books were initially designed to make the poems of the Beats affordable and accessible to all and gave many people their first foray into an alternative, somewhat avant-garde area of poetry. Many of the collections originally published by City Lights Publishing in the Pocket Poets Series have gone on to be considered real classics such as Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. In the late sixties the publishing arm began to operate from a different location but was nevertheless successful, continuing to publish works by alternative, off-beat authors, branching out to specialise in world literature too. Recent developments in the non-fiction political arm of the publishing house has meant that City Lights can now include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among the authors they’ve published.

City Lights Foundation: giving something back to San Fran

The development of the City Lights Foundation is also a testament to the influence of the store. The foundation works with the aim of advancing deep literacy which roughly translates as their desire to strengthen literacy skills but also those essential elements of knowledge which enable people to develop and evolve as individuals and community members. This all sounds pretty deep and a lot of the works published via the Foundation are non-fiction dealing with very sensitive topics including homelessness, prison life and social justice.

The City Lights Bookstore describes itself as a specialist in world literature, the arts and progressive politics and hosts readings from modern day new generation Beat-style writers and pioneers the work of independently published authors.

Any self-respecting fan of the Beat Generation has the City Lights Bookstore among their top five places to visit before they die and in reality, it does not disappoint. On just entering the building you can begin to understand and immerse yourself in the world that your idols once inhabited. The City Lights Bookstore is a beacon for all beat pilgrims and somewhere which continually revolutionises and seeks to enhance the modern readers’ understanding of literature.

 

Article by Izzy Woods

Photo by David S. Wills

Many Loves

by Dr Madhu Mehrotra and Geetanjali Joshi Mishra

“Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”

-Walt Whitman

“Longing is a better muse than satisfaction” says Regina Marler the author of ‘Queer Beat: How the Beats turned America onto sex’ and this is very true with regard to the nucleus of the generation which broke all rules of hegemonic, heterosexual, square society, a generation that questioned procreation itself, that regarded ‘manly love’ as the source of all enlightenment and divinity. Without Kerouac there would have been no ‘Howl’, without Neal there would have been no On the Road and without Ginsberg there would have been no Naked Lunch. It is rather amusing that all these poets were at some point of their lives unrequited lovers of each other. While Ginsberg longed for sexual unification with Kerouac and Neal, Burroughs on the other hand loved Ginsberg who in turn loved Burroughs but not the way he loved Neal and Jack and his long time flame Peter Orlovsky. Though there were many heart breaks, and Ginsberg felt that both Kerouac and Neal “ didn’t want anymore sex” with him and that they actually “rejected” him, but “had there been direct, requited, unhampered love between any two Beats, they would have paired off and broken the circle”.  This is what is so unique about these writers, they were muses  to each other  and without one the other was incomplete.

The generation has been accused of being sexist, though women were not very popular as a part of the Beat generation, there were few who made some impact and were part of the grand orgy. Diane Di Prima, a bisexual bohemian, the writer of ‘ Memoirs of a beatnik’ and the co-editor of a newsletter  ‘The Floating Beer’ was one such magnetic woman who quite often made out and participated in orgies involving almost all the major Beat poets. She describes one such occasion when all the poets got involved in one of the most mystifying orgies of their time. She says “it was a strange, nondescript kind of orgy. Allen set things going by largely and fully embracing all of us, each in turn and all at once, sliding from body to body in a great wallow of flesh.” Ginsberg in particular loved to “lie down between the bridegroom and the bride” and would embrace “those bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless.”

Ginsberg

In the 1950s it often seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg. The enormous publicity that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to respectability. Although many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry. ‘Howl’ was the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is characteristic of Ginsberg’s position during this time. Ginsberg followed the poetic tradition of Whitman and spoke about the ‘self’ in his poems, though Whitman kept his sexuality mostly underground emphasized behind the themes of procreation in his work, Ginsberg on the other hand celebrated it. Whitman’s sexuality was portrayed as both active and passive in his works; he devoted much attention to the image of two lovers happy together as to actual moments of sexual penetration.  In Ginsberg the desire for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be laid, whereas in Whitman the experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world. Ginsberg takes inspiration from Whitman when he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an affirmation of the homosexual’s alienation from the “straight” world and a desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it.

The  writing  of obscene, and provocative phrases like ‘Butler has no balls’ and ‘Fuck the Jews’ and tracing two lewd drawings, one of a phallus and testicles and the other of a skull and cross bones on the dust of his dorm window, led to the expulsion of Allen Ginsberg from Columbia University. What could have caused Ginsberg to create such an outrage? For answers we might have look into his childhood. Naomi gave birth to Irvin Allen in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, his father Louis was for Allen an ‘old fashioned’ lyric poet who was used to making ‘clever puns.’ Ginsberg was in a silent and intense war against his parents, his silent revenge, gave birth to the most remarkable pieces of American poetry, ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’. Ginsberg was always haunted by the ghosts of his parents; he would be haunted all his life by Naomi, which resulted in some very provocative and obscene episodes in ‘Kaddish’. Bill Morgan in his book I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg captures the appalling incidences that took place in the house of young Allen: “she seldom wore a dress around the house and Allen became quite familiar with his mother’s anatomy. He was particularly upset when he saw her wearing only a bloody menstrual pad while doing her chores.”

His motherless childhood starved him of loving touch and affection, physical contact became a very strong need. He would share the bed with his brother, who would push him away as he would desire to be physically close to him. “I must have been a sexpest to the whole family” confessed Ginsberg years later. Louis Ginsberg called him a “Little Kissing bug” as he desired to be physically close to his father and brother. His yearning to be close in childhood manifested itself in a profound sense of alienation in his youth, his sense of alienation was intense and excruciating, even in the company of the like minded crazy men, whose minds were ‘destroyed by madness’, Allen always remained a lone star, he wanted Jack to remember that he was a Jew and an outcast “I am alien to your natural grace,” he wrote. “I am in exile from myself.” He added, “You are an American more completely than I, more fully a child of nature and all that is the grace of the earth…I am not a child of nature, I am ugly and imperfect.”

An Era of Sexual Liberation

To top it all 1950’s was an era of sexual liberation and revolution. The concept of ‘Free Love’ as expressed by hippies, didn’t just appear overnight. It was a philosophy with roots deep in human consciousness and the 50’s which just required a little encouragement to surface. That encouragement appeared in the 1950s in the form of new knowledge about human sexuality, ‘the pill’, psychedelic drugs, and a counter-culture which rejected the conservative ways and embraced individual freedom. A new awareness of human sexuality began to spread among Americans starting with the Kinsey Report in 1948. It was a nine year study of human sexuality which opened everyone’s minds to the diversity of sexual behaviour. The result of the survey indicated the astonishing truth that up to 10% of the entire population was gay. One statistic suddenly put homosexuality into a whole new light for many people. Another statistic from the study that shocked people was the fact that nearly everyone masturbated. The backdrop for a new generation to explore their sexuality in a free and uninhibited way was initiated in the late 50’s. Allen Ginsberg and his circle wrote popular books that embraced sensuality and sexual experimentation as an essential ingredient to living life to its fullest. Yet it took America with its conservative, Puritan roots a while to catch on to this new awareness and freedom as Americans were programmed at an early age to regard sex and marriage as a sacred pair, not to be separated. So the whole generation growing up in the 1960s, developed a radically different attitude towards sex as compared to their parents. Drugs like marijuana, alcohol, LSD and cocaine loosened inhibitions and sex became just another ‘turn-on’. Gay men and women started coming out of the closet in the cities. Communal living situations fostered short-lived relationships, and much sexual experimentation. As a young student when Ginsberg got admitted to Columbia, he neither had any notion of what literary style he would adopt for his poetry, nor did he realize his potent and hidden homosexuality. He, for the first time explored his homosexuality through the company of men Like Lucien Carr and Kerouac. 1950’s was not an era of sexual liberty and liberation, homosexuality on the other hand was considered abomination by the civilized ‘square’ society. Ginsberg kept his homosexuality hidden and used coded language to communicate with likeminded intellectuals. Homosexuality being considered as felony caused homosexuals to go underground and create their own secret society, it was this secret society that Ginsberg communicated with, in bars and coffee shops. He started reading books on the subject of ‘sex’, both fiction and nonfiction, Clifford Howards’s idea of ‘phallus’ being “the embodiment of creative power” interested him the most and he formed his own mythology of phallus being the fountain of all creativity. Jonah Ruskin, the writer of ‘American Scream’ gives us an account of Ginsberg’s sexuality and his fascination for sex and Kerouac.  “Sex and sexuality became the subtext of his fiction and poetry; almost all his symbols were sexual symbols, he explained to Kerouac. At eighteen Ginsberg fell in love with Kerouac and wrote love poems and love stories about him.” He confesses in his gay sunshine interview , conducted in 1972 in his Cherry Valley  farm in upstate New York that when he realised in the early 50’s that he was in love with Kerouac, he told him one night, “Jack, you know I love you, and I want to sleep with you, and I really like men.” Though Kerouac didn’t seem to be really interested at that time, Ginsberg felt that “he wasn’t going to reject” him “really, he was going to accept my soul with all its throbbing and sweetness and worries and dark woes and sorrows and heartaches and joys and glees and mad understandings of morality…” Eventually both of them caught up together, Ginsberg recollects that “I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.”

The principal episode in the life of Ginsberg which changed the course of his writing forever was his affair with Neal Cassady. It was in the year 1946 when Allen Ginsberg and Neal Casady met; Allen instantly fell in love with the wild, young and handsome boy he came across. Cassady was “The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.” Cassady was a sexual outlaw and Ginsberg was aware of his dark ‘caliban’ side. Cassady was a sadist and derived pleasure in abusing Allen both physically and emotionally, but Ginsberg on the other hand ‘turned the agony of their relationship into the ecstasy of art. If he was sexually abused he would be inspired to write poetry.” Neal Cassady was the major influences that inspired ‘Howl’, and it is Cassady who is the sexual hero of the poem, in the poem he appears to be the ‘Adonis of Denver’ Adonis being a Greek mythological figure associated with male youth and beauty. In ‘Howl’ Ginsberg describes Cassady as “flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake” who “went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too…” Indeed, Cassady often took on a larger than life persona in much of the Beat literature. ‘Please Master’ is one of the most graphically written works by Ginsberg about his relationship with Neal Cassady. Ginsberg portrays sadomasochistic sexuality precisely as a symbolic relationship, with language, too, that is ironic in its erotic affirmation of the master’s dominance and slave’s submission. In ‘Please Master’ Cassady seems self-evidently the controlling master having his way with a submissive Ginsberg. However a closer reading of the poem dramatizes sexual activity that, of course, would not occur without the person in the slave subject position initiating intercourse. However, it was Peter Orlovsky with whom Ginsberg had a long lasting affair which continued as long as Ginsberg was alive. The Pygmalion legend came true for Allen when he first saw a painting of Peter made by a young artist by the name of La Vigne, he was at once in love with this young boy in the painting with his yellow hair and a pleasing smile. Peter was primarily heterosexual and cried the first time after making love to Allen. Allen explained this later by stating that “the reason he wept was that he realised how much he was giving me, and how much I was demanding, asking and taking” while Allen on the  other hand knew that in Peter he had found a long lasting union, he wrote a poem called ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’ addressing it to Kerouac, describing his inner state of mind after having Peter in his life:

I’m happy Kerouac, your madman’s Allen’s

finally made it: discovered a new young cat,

And my imagination of an eternal boy

Walks on the streets of San Francisco,

Handsome, and meets me in cafeterias

And loves me…


Later when Allen and Peter moved in together they shared a beautiful bond of trust, faith, friendship and love. Peter was much younger to Allen and looked up to him, together they travelled a lot to Asia, especially India, where they lived for several years and kept on visiting later. Allen for the first time proposed marriage. It was Peter with whom he wanted to share that special bond of trust and everlasting love. He proposed that he and Peter should take marriage vows and one morning at 3 AM “We made a vow to each other that he could owe me, my mind and everything I knew, and his body; and that we would give each other ourselves, so that we possessed each other as property, to do everything we wanted to, sexually or intellectually, and in a sense explore each other until we reached the mystical ‘X’”

Freedom and Love

Allen as a lover had always been demanding but at the same time he had given freedom to his partners to explore their own sexuality. The desire to be laid, and to be loved are the strongest in Ginsberg. He always feared separation and pain and begged his lovers not to condone their love. In one of his journals, he wrote an entry addressed to Peter saying, “So I don’t care who else you screw, make it with girls, only to be sure to keep compassion for me, answer call when I break down to need of love moment- initiate my liberation and sexual revelation of self. Far as I know I want to be tied to bed and screwed, whipped, want to wrestle and blow and come in unison, sexual ecstasy…”

On the other hand with Neal Cassady Ginsberg shared a sadomasochistic relationship. Neal abused Allen, which he encouraged, “I want to be your slave, suck your ass, suck your cock, you fuck me, you master me, you humiliate me” wrote Ginsberg in one of his journals. Ginsberg’s father Louis Ginsberg, knew that Neal was a bad influence and he warned his son to “Exorcise Neal”. Ginsberg finally understood that Neal was not the partner who could have shared a bond of eternal love and ecstasy with him.

Ginsberg was a self declared homosexual and thus kept off woman for most of his life. It is said that he embraced misogyny in the 50’s and though he admitted that he hated women, he did have some female partners. He fantasised making love to Neal and his wife Carolyn which he mentions in his ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’ He had both male and female lovers who came together for the celebrated orgies at his apartment. In the beginning of 1955, he wrote to Jack telling him how he had come to enjoy the company of women too, “something great happens to me in Frisco. After girl now for first time in life boy.” Johan Raskin talks about Ginsberg’s liberated and ecstatic life in California, he says “California was dream-like not because he was writing great poetry, but because he was enjoying great sex.”

Conclusion

Eroticism and its elements have long been considered mystic in the poetic traditions of the world. It could be the troubadours of the English courtly love poetry or the erotic Sanskrit verses, mysticism can be said to be inherent in them. Ginsberg refers exclusively towards the glorification of the human body. In fact, it will not be an overstatement to say that Ginsberg is a neo humanist; he aims at establishing a contact with his spirit and the universal human spirit through extensive allusions to the body, in Ginsberg the allusions to the body and the longing to make love and be loved represents a yearning thirst to satisfy the instinct for spiritual growth. Ginsberg may be easily compared with the few poets who could understand the transcendence of sex into the realms of spirituality much on the lines that Osho later picked it on. Osho argued in his book ‘Sex Matters’ that love and sex are inseparable and that orgasm is an inside into timelessness and thoughtlessness. These were the lines on which Ginsberg wrote his erotic love poetry.

It is true that Ginsberg’s sexual self and his ‘Many Loves’ dominated most part of his life and had a remarkable influence on his writings. It seemed that the more sex he got the better he wrote. Sex inspired him and worked as an elixir; though he had many affairs mostly disappointing he continued his search for the ultimate love making that could take him to the ‘mystical X’ he was searching all his life.

Poetess and Patriarch

An exploration of female Beat writers and their involvement with the second-wave feminist movement

By Lee McRae

 

‘American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate… It is not surprising that in it the experience of being American is equated with the experience of being male.’

Judith Fetterley – The Resisting Reader (1978)

This introductory quote by Judith Fetterley has been chosen for its boldness and will hopefully set the pace for some of the topics I am going to cover in this article. Through much of the twentieth century, women – as academics, scholars, feminist theorists, leaders of political groups – have sought to challenge what it means to be female and to fundamentally confront the supposed innate and biological factions against those which are socially formed in a political spectrum that undervalues women as creative, artistic and intelligent members of the human race. So how do the women of the Beat Generation fit into this? Firstly, it has been suggested that women members of the Beat Generation lived an emancipated existence that found its routes within the Beat ideals themselves – the freedom of expression, the resistance to mundanity, the sexual freedom – all of which became adopted towards the end of the 1960s when the countercultural revolution and the feminist movement were in full-swing. Secondly, we can derive from the literature produced that the women Beats felt a strong sense of self, a sense of one’s own place within, what was mainly, a male-dominated, male-orientated body of commercial literature; as Ronna C. Johnson tells us; ‘all women Beat writers express a rebellious, anti-establishment critique of women’s assigned place and value in patriarchy, and this gendered emphasis is the radical distinction by which beat literature is amended by its female practitioners.’

Allen Ginsberg, on the topic of female writers within the Beat generation, was once quoted as saying, ‘Among the group of people we knew at the time, who were the [women] writers of such power as Kerouac or Burroughs? Were there any? I don’t think so.’ In this statement Ginsberg tells us how he failed to recognise the contribution of literature by women of the Beat generation that equalled in quality to that of its contemporaries.  Much has been said about this quote. From a feminist-literary perspective this quote embodies what many women feel as patriarchal hegemony, meaning that within the forces of the industry and in culture generally, women are considered the subaltern – the undervalued.  Later in this article I will discuss the writings of the women who contributed so greatly to the Beat Generation. But first I want to place feminism in its true historical context.

Being Beat and Being Woman

American feminism tends to be split into two categories; first-wave and second-wave movements. First wave, as Valarie Sanders tells us, began as early as 1848 with revolutionaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Early campaigns were an attempt mainly to change ‘divorce laws, married women’s property rights, and the vote.’ Despite motivated campaigns the ability to vote spread over several decades – firstly being lifted in Wyoming, in 1869, and then in Utah, in 1870. Almost five decades later, by the 1920s, most of the northern states had also abolished this out-dated exclusionary practice. The second- wave feminist movement, as Sue Thornham describes, is often associated with the 1960s countercultural revolutions. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded NOW (national organisation for women). This organisation arose out of the ineffectiveness of government bodies to promote equality within the work place. Also during this time the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ began; ‘Unlike NOW, these groups had no national organisation; instead they drew on the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities.’ An action which is often synonymous with feminists of the 1960s – the burning of the bra – was in fact true to a certain extent, in that at some demonstrations a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ was set alight, where women could dispose of items which oppressed them as women – ‘dishcloths, high-heels, bras and girdles.’

The counterculture itself – a period usually coupled with freedom and liberation – is often criticized for its attitudes towards women. Rochelle Gatlin, in her book American Women Since 1945, tells us how she feels the counterculture was a male led movement; ‘Men were willing to become more “feminised” but they did not encourage women to assume traditional masculine characteristics.’ She goes on to say, ‘The model for sexual liberation was a masculine one.’ Many women felt that the removal of ‘sex’ from ‘feeling’ was advantageous to men in that it led to sexual promiscuity. The media at this time only seemed to re-enforce the notion of women as objects for male attraction; the magazine Cosmopolitan, started in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown, was targeted commercially at the single girl, who took the pill and who lived alone. In the magazine emphasis was placed solely on fashion, beauty and sex serving only to place women into the category of ‘male-lust-objects’. In a similar way the magazine Seventeen, ‘designed for teenage girls, emphasised physical attractiveness. Advertising showed models in postures of sexual surrender to men and in competition with each other.’

The Beat Generation found itself in between the two periods of feminist discourse. The period prior to the second-wave movement is often termed ‘protofeminist’. Ronna C. Johnson tells us how female Beat writers were an integral element to this protofeminist period; their work tends to ‘challenge and interrogate assumptions about women, gender, and relations between the sexes, and asserts a corrected version.’ Sex for the Beats is commonly cited as one of the boundary-breaking taboos to which they discussed, admired and used in a multitude of ways (see: tantric sex). The idea was freedom and an expression of one’s true natural being (be it male or female); as Clinton Starr notes: ‘the Beat Generation was intricately intertwined, discursively but also materially, with sexuality, race relations, and gender roles in the post-war decades. The Beat lifestyle offered an escape from the sultry American role as homemaker; as Brenda Knight tells us; ‘Being beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.’ The conservatism of 1950s America aimed to instil a sense of national pride in a time fraught with cold-war panic, inadvertently placing women under the thumb of men and depicting them as either ‘wives…’ or ‘mothers…’ What is evident in the writing of female Beat writers is trueness to self and an accurate perception of the realities faced by women within the 1950s and 1960s. Beat poetess, Anne Waldman tells us how women were ‘driven, despite, fighting against the constraints of culture, family, education… often dwelling in the twilight of a “great” man’s personality or career.’

The Women of the Beat Generation

Anne Waldman, perhaps one of the most prolific of female beat writers, played a role in bringing the issues that women face into a public sphere – in both her essays and prose. The writings of Anne Waldman, as Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace tell us, ‘not only incorporate beat perspectives but [also] extend through and beyond beat into a women-centred, countercultural idiom.’ On the recovery of women Beat writers Anne Waldman tells us how ‘it is necessary to bring the female persona, the feminine principle, feminist concerns, the sense of the women’s struggle as wives, lovers, mothers, artists, breadwinners… into the whole macrocosm that is the beat literary movement.’

The Waldman poem Fast Speaking Woman, from the collection of the same name, is a chant-based mantra that’s primary focus is to speak to everywoman; she states, ‘I had in my head that I would do a list-chant telling all the kinds of women there are to be.’ The poem begins with the citation, ‘“I is another “- Rimbaud. The poem itself is an impassioned monologue using mainly the prefix ‘I am the/a…’ used to denote the different characters of women; ‘I’m the abandoned woman… the absinthe women… I’m the girl under an old fashioned duress.’ The Beat life she led inevitably led to her realisation of the issues faced by women. In an interview Waldman speaks about the many ‘interesting creative women’ she knew ‘who become junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions.’

Beat author Diane Di Prima was heavily involved with the iconic Beat figures. She first moved to the lower east side, New York in 1953 where she began a relationship with Ezra Pound. In 1957 she first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and other of Beat’s iconic figures. Memoirs of a Beatnik is a biographical novelette depicting a seventeen-year old Di Prima’s coming of age in the midst of the 1950s Beat revolution. In this account, emphasis is placed on the ever relinquishing sexual oppression that was felt by American youth. Di Prima discusses both sexual encounters with men and women; chapter two, for example, details how she came to lose her virginity on a one-night-stand. The novelette is written with coarse, descriptive sexual imagery; ‘afterwards there was blood on his cock, and when I could move again I licked it off, swallowing my childhood, entering the world of the living… He was on me now, bucking and straining like an animal. A faun. But it was too much. My small tight cunt couldn’t take in his huge cock.’ She also makes reference to sexual promiscuity; ‘I had forgotten the name of the man whose hand was in my cunt.’ Further in, and she describes to us her experience of lesbianism; ‘Five or six girls had gathered in one room. One had been chosen and ritually stripped, and the rest, posted at different parts of her anatomy, sought to arouse her while she lay naked on the bed.’ Di Prima here is confronting, within a literary exercise, her experiences as a young woman who fought for self-realisation and freedom; allowing herself to express and fulfil her sexual desires without fear of social persecution from an American mainstream based on oppression.

It is also worth mentioning Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson as two poets, who sought an ulterior existence in the Beat exterior; as Nancy M. Grace tells us, ‘As historians, Johnson and Jones embark on the formidable task of speaking as gendered beings, knowing full well that their lives in the Beat avant-garde broke many of the rules for “good girl” behaviour promulgated at mid-twentieth century.’ Johnson had a two year relationship with Kerouac. In her book Minor Characters, Johnson describes how she felt an otherness regarding her involvement in the Beat movement; ‘I ended up accidentally with Kerouac in the centre of the action, yet always felt myself on the periphery. I was much more of an observer than I wanted to be.’

The Power of the Pen

“When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject.’

Simone De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)

Writing seemed to be somewhat of a catalyst for the second-wave feminist movement. This form of expression was paramount to the success of women’s rights; writing (particularly scholarly), allowed women to create concise and politically armed pieces of literature that could function as biblical rhetoric; as Cora Kaplan wrote, ‘defiance is a component of the act of writing for women.’ Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is certainly considered a canonical piece of writing; the book deals principally with the ‘cultural construction of women as the Other,’ in similar ways in which Edward Said talks of the cultural construction of the Orient by the West in his book Orientalism (1978). Other works of interest through the 1960s/70s include Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970); (note: the publication of Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969)).

In the twentieth century much of the literary merit goes to the male writers. One possible reason for this, as Rita Felski points out, is the ‘many hurdles’ faced by women who wish to devote their lives to writing; ‘economic dependency, lack of time and space, the relentless intrusion of everyday life in the form of squalling infants or testy husbands [and] the disparagement faced by women who chose to remain single or childless.’ Women could not associate enough with the writings of men, and if they wished to read, they were expected to ‘read as men’. The problem was identity. A literature was required that related to women’s true sensibilities rather than those sensibilities being dramatised by male authors, as Judith Fetterley writes; ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness.’

I feel that within the female Beat canon this sensibility is realised. By not only living but exhibiting – within their writing – their lives, these women could reach out to those disillusioned by American values, the American dream and misogyny. The ambition and drive these women had personified a message that was to become all too clear within the feminist movement that proceeded; as Anne Waldman petitioned, ‘We no longer have to be fetched up.’ Feminism is a movement with labyrinthine academic possibilities. In this article, I realise I have only scratched the dirt-sodden surface of women’s politics. Without further in-depth analysis of the role of the female Beats within the feminist movement, little in the way of a conclusion can be given. I would suggest, however, to anyone who has an appetite for Beat literature to visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the works of its female practitioners. It is in these works where we find true Emersonian-reliance upon the self; where we find a disparagement between media-representations of women and the lives of women; and most important of all, where we find intelligent, creative and articulate pieces of fiction and prose.

Beatdom #8 Released!!!

It’s been a long wait, folks, but it’s finally here… Beatdom’s SEX issue. That’s right. An issue of your favourite Beat magazine devoted to the most stimulating of subjects: sex.

In this titillating Beat outing we bring you:

A guide to Jack Kerouac’s sex life

Bob Dylan: Romance & the Rolling Stone

An interview with Carolyn Cassady

An exploration of male and female Beat poetry

The life of Elise Cowen

Plus poetry, art and fiction from some of the best writers of today

and much, much, much more.

 

Find this issue on Amazon.

Please help Beatdom to reach a wider audience by passing these links to your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Beatdom Growth

Firstly, I would like to say “Merry Christmas!” (or Happy Holidays) to our readers and to those of you who’ve just stumbled upon the website. Beatdom is neither Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. But we love Christmas. We are capitalist swine and we love gifts and food.

I would like to also take this chance to say “Thank you!” (the capitalization and exclamation point are necessary) for visiting Beatdom.com and for reading the magazine. These past few months have seen tremendous growth across all of our online endeavours, as well as in sales. The new website seems very popular, and as we iron out all the little bugs we appreciate the links from other sites that seem to be popping up across the web.

Lastly, I’d like to make a few announcements about the long awaited (yup, it’s been around six months) eighth issue of Beatdom. This will be the sex issue. Submissions are now closed and you can expect to see a few more notices popping up over the coming weeks about developments in editing and whatnot. For the moment, we have a list of tentative inclusions that we’d like to share:

We have essays on: Bob Dylan as a romantic

Jack Kerouac and sex

Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima and the male/female poetic divide

Female Beat writers and the second-wave feminist movement

Elise Cowen

Allen Ginsberg’s sexuality

Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski and waitresses

Poetry

Fiction

An oral biography of Gregory Corso

An interview with Carolyn Cassady

And here’s a sneak peak at the cover…

The Beats & Sixties Counterculture

The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip’, a period of various shifts that have shaped our current society[1].  This hints at an underlying consensus that the 1960s were a time of high artistic endeavour, the centre of countercultural resistance, and some of the cultural ripples that are still being felt today.

by Jed Skinner

What factors influenced this period of time for this decade to be so prominent?  The cluster of significant events that occurred in the late Sixties has led Gitlin to compare this time to ‘a cyclone in a wind tunnel’[2], and Rabinowitz argues that ‘the 1960s confound representation – or rather narrative – because words fail; image and sound […] are what remain’[3]; events and figures that ‘stand out’ in these ways are those that are likely to receive the most attention.  These two arguments enhance the point that, because there are many narratives of the Sixties, each one places emphasis on different aspects of the decade.

When one considers the notion of the Beat generation’s ideas of the Fifties contributing to aspects of the following decade’s culture, art and politics, it can be easy to focus solely on the prominent figures and events, and link them together.  When this happens, an inevitable decision is being made: what is worthy of being called Beat, what is worthy of being called Sixties culture, and where such culture lies geographically as well as historically.

A linear narrative where there are, in Negus’ words, ‘distinct breaks involving beginnings and endings or births and deaths’[4] generates problems.  This approach generally fails to acknowledge other perspectives, to account for the voices of people excluded from the narrative.  A Vattimo argues, it is only from the ‘victors’ of history ‘that history is a unitary process in which there is consequentiality and rationality’[5] .  What I would like to do in this essay is consider the notion put forward by Laibman, that ‘there was not one 1960s; there were many’[6].  This is not to say that the Beats did not influence anything, and I do not wish to undermine or trivialise their work and its importance.  It is also impossible to go into detail about every aspect of Beat culture.  However, by looking generally at some of the areas where the Beats’ influence occurred, what it influenced, and to what extent, this will expose other voices and locations, which I hope will better inform the argument I wish to make.

It is important to consider the social contexts of the Fifties to be able to understand why the Beats’ work was considered to be so significant.  One of the central themes in historical narratives of the Beats is a description of a prevailing climate of conformity in post-war America.  Following the end of World War II, the ideas and ideologies that were driving factors during the conflict were seemingly discredited.  Woods argues that, in America, intellectuals began to focus their attention onto ‘the roots of totalitarianism, dissecting evolving notions of democracy and republicanism’[7].  What resulted from this was a more scientific, calculated approach of looking at how society should operate.

Herman argues that planners and policy makers had been convinced by their experiences during World War II that human beings could act very irrationally, because of a teaming, raw, unpredictable emotionality.  The chaos that lived at the base of human personality could infect social institutions to the point where society itself would become sick.[8]

It was therefore perceived necessary for American society, if it wished to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the war, to be controlled and contained to some extent from the factors that could lead to such chaos.  In the late Forties and early Fifties, the US Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings that, as Holton describes, were ‘aimed at persecuting those who did not agree with a narrow definition of political reality’[9]: the most famous instance resulted in scores of Hollywood actors, directors, producers and screenwriters being ‘blacklisted’ from employment for alleged ‘subversive’ activities.  What emerges from this climate is what Marcuse describes as ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought’, whereby ‘ideas, aspirations and objectives that […] transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe’[10].   This manifests itself through the pressure on individuals to behave as part of larger groups, to avoid any particular ‘individuality’.  Riesman et al’s 1950 publication The Lonely Crowd describes the rise of the ‘other-directed man’[11], a new figure, entirely the product of America’s rising managerial class and prosperous post-war economy[12]; a replacement of ‘the traditional “inner-directed”, self made American’.  The other-directed man ‘suppressed his individuality, spurned conflict, and sought guidance and approval from the environment around him’[13].  This sort of figure was an ideal target for advertisers using the new medium of television[14], which contributed to a large shift in the way people bought goods.  Towards the end of the 1950s, the US economy had shifted from a ‘production economy’, based around meeting basic human needs, to a market-orientated, consumer economy[15], which emphasised status over class[16].  This was a phenomenon that inspired Bell to proclaim in 1960 that Western society had reached ‘the end of ideology’[17], that ‘ideology, which was once a road to action, has come to a dead end’[18].

Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl made its debut at a poetry reading in 1955, and, Holton argues, ‘seemed to offer the means to break out of the cultural enclosure […] and into a dimension unrecognized in Marcuse’s analysis’[19].  Much has been written about this long poem, but the general consensus has been that Howl expressed a vocal frustration at a stifling, corporate, conforming America, with unrestrained fury and anger.  Gitlin argues that Howl was ‘the first time in the American twentieth century’ that ‘poetry read aloud became a public act that changed lives’[20].  In 1957, a year after publication, the work was the focus of an obscenity trial.  Debates about the alleged ‘obscenity’ of the text in court helped to bring the poem to wider prominence among those who were outside of Ginsberg’s literary circle.   The same year, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, and the two works ‘vaulted from anonymity’[21] a small group of bohemians who would become known as the Beat Generation.

Why so?  Gitlin argues that ‘if the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty’[22].  This mindset is best displayed in Norman Mailer’s influential 1959 essay ‘The White Negro’.  Here, Mailer holds up a new kind of figure as a solution to the ‘bleak scene’ of society[23]: ‘the American existentialist – the hipster’, who ‘exists in the present,  in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat’[24].  In this new world, there are only two options available: rebellion or conformity.  ‘One is Hip or one is Square’, he argues, ‘one is a frontiersmen in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society’[25].  If one is white (and one must be, to be able to have the choice), the appeal of being hip lies in its existentialist appeal, in its abandonment of a traditional family-centred lifestyle, and the adoption of social mores from a dangerous, excluded Other: ‘the Negro’.  This, in Mailer’s view, is where the source of hip lies, in Negro music (‘jazz’), Negro life choices (‘a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger’), and Negro philosophy (‘he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present’).  Therefore the hipster is ‘a white Negro’, having ‘absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro’[26].

Although grossly laden with racial stereotypes of a pre-Civil rights era America, Frank argues that ‘The White Negro’ ‘managed to predict the basic dialectic around which the cultural politics of the next thirty-five years would be structured’[27].  However, there is a difference between two different kinds of ‘Beat’ sensibilities that have been established: the literary type epitomised by Ginsberg and Kerouac on one side, and the ‘hipster’/’beatnik’ on the other.  This is not to say that the ‘literary’ Beats did not have any of the ‘hipster’ qualities – far from it.  Rather, as Starr argues, contemporary critics tended to argue that ‘true’ Beats such as Ginsberg and Kerouac made ‘literary creativity a focal point of their lives’, whereas others, who would qualify as ‘hipsters’ or ‘Beatniks’, merely attended jazz clubs and visited coffeehouses, and were insignificant[28].  Furthermore, the prominent Beat figures, with a few exceptions (such as Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka), were white, and were overwhelmingly from middle-class families.

Consequently, Beats have generally been portrayed as a minority of generally white, literary articulate intellectuals; scholars ‘understand the Beat Generation in terms of a literary avant-garde and evaluate its historical significance accordingly’[29].  The others – the Beatniks – were from differing socio-cultural and racial backgrounds[30], and were considerably larger in number than the ‘literary’ Beats.  As Beat poet Diane di Prima recalls, that around the time of Howl’s publication, ‘there were only a small handful of us’.  The traditional argument described by Starr – that Beats were ‘a small group of cultural radicals’ – generates a situation where ‘the broader parameters of the Beat Generation’ become ignored[31].

When considering the notion of ‘Beat ideas’, it is important to consider the ideas of those from outside the pantheon of literary figures.   Although Ginsberg, Kerouac and the like were obviously important to the Beatniks, which should not be underestimated, it is also the case that the Beatniks were equally important as the literary figures in connecting notions of Beat ideas with others from outside the scene.  Starr notes that repeated police visits of coffeehouses in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and allegations of police bribery against owners, had resulted in marches, pickets and sit-ins against police harassment during the late 1950s through to the early 1960s[32].  As the Beats mobilized to defend themselves from police harassment, they ‘forged alliances with community leaders and civil liberties groups to defend their position within the urban landscape’[33] in the process.  It could be argued that the ideas expressed in literary form by the Beat authors were in turn acted on by a wider circle of many groups, whose significance is crucial to the Beats’ continuing cultural standing.  As these people gathered together in urban areas, ‘enclaves’ of Beat social networks began to be created, comprised of people with similar tastes and values.Sixties Artists

The existence of a Beat enclave in North Beach, San Francisco, and a few years later, the large hippie community of Haight-Ashbury, can be constructed as a physical, direct line of influence from the Beats to the hippies – and therefore a demonstration of Beat influence on 1960s culture.  I would argue that the Beats were influential in the culture of the Sixties, but their influence was predominantly on the construction of the ‘counterculture’.  What the counterculture entails is complex: it is, in Marwick’s view, a term used ‘to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society’[34]; however, ‘counterculture’ also means different things to different people, and as Marwick argues, ‘there was no unified, integrated counter-culture, totally and consistently in opposition to mainstream culture’[35].  In addition, Marwick cites the first instance of the term in 1968 in the highbrow publication The Nation[36], whereas contemporary writer Thomas Albright uses ‘underground’ in a 1968 Rolling Stone article[37].  What I mean by ‘counterculture’ is a rough amalgam of alternative ways of living, literary works, art, music and politics, but not a definable movement with a firm link to any ideology or political persuasion.  Its origins lie in the Beat enclaves that were created by people moving to towns such as San Francisco and New York, where the Beat writers lived and worked.  Certain areas, such as North Beach in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York, and Venice in Los Angeles, were home to an infrastructure of coffeehouses, theatres, bars and spaces founded and frequented by these people, who all resided there in pursuance of ‘alternative’ life choices, separated from the all-encompassing ‘mainstream’ culture.

The hippie scene, which began in San Francisco and is almost universally portrayed as the ‘image’ of the counterculture (if not the Sixties), can be considered to be heavily influenced by the Beats primarily for geographic reasons.  As Puterbaugh notes, when Beatniks began to move to San Francisco, the housing of choice was the old Victorian mansions of the Haight-Ashbury area, which were available for low rent[38].  The Beat poet Michael McClure notes that the geographic proximity of the Haight-Ashbury area to North Beach meant that there were ‘people overlapping each other from what had been a number of separate existences’, creating a ‘huge, fluid scene’ of people with similar tastes and interests[39].  As Shank notes, such scenes can be an outlet for creativity to move beyond ‘locally significant cultural values’ towards ‘an interrogation of dominant structures of identification, and potential cultural transformation’, through the exploration of new identities and collective involvement[40].  In this case, the large number of people moving to San Francisco in the 1960s made it possible for resident Beats, Beatniks and their values to mingle with those who were new to the counterculture scene and city.  Albright argues that ‘certain major strands’ of Beat values became infused in the development of the new scene: the Beats’ self-conscious ethos of ‘dropping out’ of a perceived establishment lifestyle; the ‘intense and programmatic’ alienation of Beats from mainstream notions of society; a focus on Orientalism, Eastern mysticism and European existentialism; recreational drug use in pursuit of a ‘total experience’; a ‘worship of Art, in true romantic tradition’; and the elevation of music to an art form (jazz for the Beats, rock in the counterculture scene)[41].  These bohemian enclaves established by the Beats ensured that a sense of community was able to exist.

As Cohen notes, some of the factors which unite people in the ongoing development of a music scene are ‘age and gender, webs of interlinking social networks and a gossip grapevine’[42], all of which could be found in these enclaves.  The San Francisco scene allowed musical developments such as acid rock to develop: a type of music spawned partly from Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Tests’, where LSD-spiked Kool-Aid was freely distributed to people, often without their knowledge.  (A direct beat connection lies in the fact that Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelled around the US on a ‘magic bus’, driven by Neal Cassady, the real life Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road).  Gitlin notes that ‘the Acid Tests evolved into Trips Festivals and scheduled concerts, with a new sound – spacy, unbounded whorls, not discrete songs: acid rock’[43].  Acid rock bands that rose from this scene include the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others, all based in San Francisco.  Fertile artistic grounds were also present in New York: three of the four Mamas and Papas met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and Bob Dylan resided there.   However, the problem with reading the counterculture as Sixties culture is that its prime geographical locations and most fertile grounds were in these enclaves, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others; in the United States, in the Western hemisphere.  ‘Sixties culture’ has various connotations depending on where one looks.  A cultural ‘revolution’ in America is something very different to the Cultural Revolution that took place in China during the 1960s, where millions of people died.  Even if one only looks at America, there are large differences in the late 1960s between the various areas of the country.  The Civil Rights movement, with its figurehead Martin Luther King, fought against corrupt politicians, police and racists in the struggle for racial equality.  There were no Beat enclaves in the Southern states of America, with segregation existing until (and even beyond) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed it.  Instead, to pursue a freer lifestyle, people were to travel away from the South, to escape to these other places, else be excluded from having a choice.  The consequence has been that the influence of the Beats upon wider areas of society in America is actually quite varied.  In particular, the extent to which Beats were politically active is of interest.

In 1952, Beat poet John Clellon Holmes wrote of the hipster, ‘there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it.  To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd’[44].  Later, however, some Beats became more radicalised.  Starr notes how Chester Anderson, editor of the Beat magazines Beatitude and Underhound, addressed a rally against police maltreatment in North Beach in 1960, advising the crowd to ‘sue’ the police and to ‘fight back in every legal way’ if treated unfairly[45].   John Haag, owner of the Venice West Café in Los Angeles, was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, including the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Civil Liberties Union, and organizations fighting police harassment[46].  However, it seems that because the enclaves were to some extent ‘removed’ from what could be considered the ‘mainstream’ of society, not all Beats actively pursued political involvement.  The actual extent to which Beat ideas were able to shape aspects of society through politics was very much dependent on the individuals involved, and whether or not these ideas were taken up by others.

In the 1960s, student-led political organizations, comprised of people including Beats, were formed.  These included the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, founded in 1960, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)[47].  It is possible that as these organizations grew, those Beatniks that were most politically inclined became more involved with these and other such groups.  As the Vietnam War escalated from the mid-1960s, the SDS attracted new members.  Sale describes these people as non‑Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. They tended to be not only ignorant of the history of the left and its current half‑life in New York City, but downright uninterested.[48]

I do not wish to argue that SDS was ineffectual or apathetic, but as Miller argues, ‘many recruits were drawn to SDS not by left-wing ideology but by their opposition to the war and the draft […] and their attraction to the counterculture’[49].  This is interesting, because one of the criticisms of the counterculture, as Frank argues, is that it ‘is said to have worked a revolution through lifestyle rather than politics […] through pleasure rather than power’[50].  An example of such an argument is Puterbaugh’s claim that the Grateful Dead were ‘largely responsible for the spread of the counterculture and its perpetuation over time’[51].  Why?  Because they were ‘primarily associated with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, having provided an acid-blues soundtrack as the house band for the anarchic Acid Tests’[52].  It can be deduced that the counterculture was primarily an artistic outlet: a leisure-based lifestyle choice.  This is queried by Harrington, who 1972 wonders if ‘the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise’[53].  The counterculture ultimately became a ready-made market for advertisers: the central countercultural notion of ‘hip’ was the capital most sought after in connection with a brand.  Perhaps the most notorious example was Columbia Records’ advertisement in a 1968 edition of Rolling Stone: its slogan was ‘The Man Can’t Bust Our Music’[54]: some distance away from the Beat venerations of existentialism, voluntary poverty, personal and spiritual release.

Miller notes that, by 1967, liberal-leaning politicians ‘were giving friendly speeches at antiwar rallies, defining moderate opposition as an acceptable part of the political spectrum’[55].  When the new capitalist incarnation of ‘hip consumerism’[56], Harrington argues that ‘bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle class morality’.  Once this had disappeared, ‘bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe’[57].

However, what is important to consider is that the influence of Beat ideas, at the most basic level, offered an alternative way of living in American post-war conventionality, stemming from a time, Jameson argues, where ‘no society has ever been so standardized’[58].  As Starr notes, the Beat communities, through the utilization of public space in urban, bohemian enclaves, had challenged racial segregation, homophobia and ‘created a vibrant counterculture which facilitated individual liberation and collective political action’[59].  These achievements have been built upon by countless activists who have progressively challenged such discrimination from the Fifties, through the Sixties to the present.  The Beats’ valuation of personal freedom through artistic expression resulted in the founding of enclaves and artistic scenes where this expression could be explored at a remove from the more ‘mainstream’ ways of living.  This legacy has influenced not just the Sixties, but those wishing to pursue alternative ways of living through to the present day.

 


Bibliography

Albright, Thomas, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in

Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in George-Warren, Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356.

Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1960]).

Bennett Woods, Randall, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2005).

Clellon Holmes, John, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November

16th, 1952.

Cohen, Sarah, ‘Scenes’, in Horner, Bruce and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular

Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250.

Columbia Records Ad: < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-

free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].

Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of

Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Freeman, Jo, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson

(eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman &

Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24.

Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993).

Harrington, Michael, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972.

Herman, Ellen, The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.

Holton, Robert, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.),

Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26.

Jameson, Frederic, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Laibman, David, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’,

Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 3-4.

Mailer, Norman, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer,

Norman (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1992) pp.337-359.

Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964).

Marwick, Arthur, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United

States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Miller, Frederick D., ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson (eds.),

Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.303-324.

Negus, Keith, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.

Puterbaugh, Parke, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in George-Warren,

Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.357-363.

Rabinowitz, Paula, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A

Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).

Sale, Kirkpatrick SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).

Shank, Barry, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH:

Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

Starr, Clinton R., ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective

Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.41-54.

Vattimo, Gianni, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in Vattimo, G. and P. A. Rovatti

(eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the

Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21.


Footnotes

[1] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p.1.

[2] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993), p.242.

[3] Paula Rabinowitz, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98, p.73.

[4] Keith Negus, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.

[5] Gianni Vattimo, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in G. Vattimo and P. A. Rovatti (eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21, p.19.

[6] David Laibman, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’, Science & Society, ibid., 3-4, p.3.

[7] Randall Bennett Woods, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.151.

[8] Ellen Herman, in The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.

[9] Robert Holton, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Jennie Skerl (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26, p.12.

[10] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964), p.12.

[11] David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p.17.

[12] Woods, p.134.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p.127.

[15] Ibid., p.123.

[16] Ibid, p.151.

[17] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1960]).

[18] Ibid, p.393.

[19] Holton, p.17.

[20] Gitlin, p.45.

[21] Holton, p.11.

[22] Gitlin, p.46.

[23] Norman Mailer, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp.337-359, p.339.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p.341.

[27] Frank, p.246.

[28] Clinton R. Starr, ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Reconstructing the Beats, pp.41-54, p.41.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p.47

[31] Ibid., p.43.

[32] Ibid., p.50.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.12.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p.11.

[37] Thomas Albright, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356, p.351.

[38] Parke Puterbaugh, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, pp.357-363, p.357.

[39] Michael McClure, ref. in Puterbaugh, p.362.

[40] Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p.122.

[41] Albright, p.352-5.

[42] Sara Cohen, ‘Scenes’, in Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250, p.241.

[43] Gitlin, p.207.

[44] John Clellon Holmes, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16th, 1952, ref. in Gitlin, p.51.

[45] Ibid, p.51.

[46] Starr, p.52.

[47] Jo Freeman, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24, p.8.

[48] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), p.204-5.

[49] Frederick D. Miller, ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, pp.303-324, p.313.

[50] Frank, p.15.

[51] Puterbaugh, p.360.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Michael Harrington, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972, p.164.

[54] See < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].

[55] Miller, p.312.

[56] Frank, p.26.

[57] Harrington, p.99.

[58] Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.17.

[59] Starr, p.53.

Women of the Beat Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn Cassady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joyce Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diane di Prima

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

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

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

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

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

Hettie Jones

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

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

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

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

Edie Parker

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

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

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

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

Joan Vollmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denise Levertov

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

Joanne Kyger

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

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

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

Anne Waldman

 

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

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

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

Elise Cowan

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

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

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

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