The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it. Continue Reading…
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by Christina Diamente
There is of course no definitive way of knowing a woman who has been dead for almost two decades. Knowing and understanding her in life was equally complicated. Nineteen years after her death, Alene lives only now in Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans, in the fading memories of the few people, still alive, who knew her, and in the faded, disintegrating letters and journal entries she left behind. Excerpts from a woman, who never stopped writing but who never submitted any of her writings for publication, are what remain.
2:00 am, May 28, Memorial Day 1965
How clear everything is just before waking. The inner voice bridging the abyss told me this morning: ‘Alene, you said you were going to wait until you were past forty, just like Conrad, before you began to write. Write. You have as much chance of making several hundred dollars, or even a thousand, if you do what you want to do. Why do you feel so guilty? Time is runnin’ out. Take hold of life before it is too late.’
But I’m such a coward. I know it is not a question of writing, it is a question of beginning to do what you want to do: not doing ‘your thing’ but taking your best hold on existence.
Although Alene did make a serious effort to write consistently from that point on, she never wrote in what she or Grove Press editor Fred Jordan considered to be a commercially viable form. Stories were started but never finished. Outlines were written but never fleshed out. Mostly she wrote journal entries when she was angry or troubled, in times of stress or great unhappiness. Always haunted by her childhood, Alene seemed always to be attempting to survive that past, which constantly threatened to catch up to her. Alene had been told by her mother that their “people died young” and she always believed that she would as well. For Alene, the proof of this was in the actual deaths of her mother before age fifty and two of her sisters before sixty. Alene believed that she too would die at an early age. So, as she began to unravel the details of her childhood in Staten Island, it was always with the sense of one who felt she was recording the events of the ongoing procession towards death from her childhood on. The narrative was always about what was lost and about the pain of living.
Throughout her life she struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that sometimes manifested itself in delusions, sometimes in manic episodes punctuated by fierce pacing, and sometimes in catatonic and almost schizophrenic fugues. In between these states and sometimes through them Alene wrote, sometimes remembering the past and sometimes struggling to make it through the present. Often she wrote about writing. In the following excerpt, Alene wrote about her writing process on a trip that she took back to her childhood home in Staten Island. She was trying to recapture the Staten Island community of her youth in the 1930s.
“I found a room on a narrow street near the docks, with a family that had recently emigrated from Jamaica. How strange to be here, the original ‘Quarantine’ section of America. Every journey to the island seemed to lead me further back in time, to some original immigrant’s landing place . . . or a place of detention.
I dreamed of these streets of long ago, filled with crowds, colorful costumes of many lands, waiting to gain entrance to America.
My whole life has been one long waiting to gain entrance. I was a first generation northerner, but that had never occurred to me, until a couple of years ago. I had no memory of any other place. North Carolina was a place where my mother, Mamie, was left parentless when she was nine years old. It was a place not of fond memories. Nor was Washington DC, where I was born. My mother had never spoken of these places in any manner that left more than a scent of them.
I would like to write about New York, about Staten Island in the 30s and 40s… and the wilderness that once existed there. The Dutch Huguenot section where we used to fish and wander. The people on Ely Street. The Lorillard snuff my mother used to indulge in. The longshoremen and the fighting and the screaming. The Irish I knew, with their children with long curls. The organ grinder man and the monkey who picked your lucky number for a nickel. The large mansions and the dissimilarity of the homes on the island–Italian white stucco homes, and grapevines across from ramshackle broken down tenements. And Polish sullenness, and the West Indians who were the first blacks to own their homes, and the hatred between them and the southern Negroes. The pier where one could fish before it became a Naval base. And long rides down Holland Blvd., where they finally removed the orange lights after 30 years, because they said it caused accidents.
The steep hills… there are very few flat straight roads in Staten Island. Snug Harbor, the old men and the animals and lover’s lane. Miss Mary, who stabbed and killed a couple of people and who was only exiled from Staten Island as punishment. My friend, Veronica, who was shot, and her husband who only served one year in jail. And that nasty old sea captain with his fat blowsy, purpled-legged, false eyelashed yet extremely beautiful ex-showgirl wife, who went once a week to the store for liquor. And who still lives there and goes to the A&P once a month. He has long since died. She set the house on fire—the roof is gone but she still lives there like a queen. And, most of all, I want to tell the story of my sisters.”
Alene did finally write about her sisters in a short story, recovered here, with all of her sister’s real names. In the autobiographical story, Alene recalls her formative childhood experiences in Staten Island of the 1930s. Alene dedicated the story to her mother and sisters of whom she said,
I see even today, walking along 14th Street, or in Harlem, on a subway stair, reflected in expressions of dejection, fear, bitterness, sometimes secret exultation, the faces of Maimie, Catherine, Ressie, Ethel, and myself and know them well. For they are truly the faces of my mother and my sisters and I feel their secret hurts as my own. I feel for you but I just can’t reach you. This is my attempt.
“‘Disgusting,’ they said . . . ‘Pornographic’ . . . ‘Un-American trash’ . . . ‘Unpublishable’ . . . Well, it came out in 1959, and it found an audience . . . Town meetings . . . Book burnings . . . And an Inquiry by the State Supreme Court . . . That book made quite a little impression . . .” — William Burroughs
In 2006 Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” turned fifty years old. A year later, in 2007, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit that same milestone. Now it’s William S. Burroughs’ (the oldest of the trio) turn to see his masterpiece turn fifty.
In July of 1959 Naked Lunch was published in France by Olympia Press. American obscenity laws prohibited the publication of the book in the United States, and so it wasn’t until 1962 that Naked Lunch came to be published by Grove Press. The two editions differed greatly because the Grove Press version was based on a much earlier manuscript, given to them by Allen Ginsberg.
The title of the book is a somewhat contentious issue. According to Burroughs’ introduction, Jack Kerouac was responsible for naming the book, and that “the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Kerouac appreciated the accreditation, as he stated in a 1960 letter to Ginsberg, but pointed out that the phrase had been misread. Originally it had been “Naked Lust”.
And so from the misread “Naked Lust” we came to “Naked Lunch”, which the publisher of the book and many of fans over the years have all mistaken for The Naked Lunch. Over the years editions have varied in titling the book with or without the article “the”.
But the debate over the title of the novel is hardly the limit of its controversy. Naked Lunch caused an uproar upon publication, and has been infamous ever since. Its obscenity trial in Boston was the last significant obscenity trial in American literature.
Upon its publication in the United States it was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles ban was repealed in 1965 and the Boston ban was repealed in 1966, due to the fact that the books were deemed to have some social value.
Ginsberg – who helped Burroughs write Naked Lunch – was instrumental in orchestrating its success over the obscenity charges brought in a Boston courtroom. He was, of course, no stranger to such controversy and censorship. In 1957 the Supreme Court’s Roth v. United States decision saved all copies of “Howl” from being destroyed and freed Lawrence Ferlinghetti from criminal charges of distributing obscene material through his City Lights bookstore.
Ginsberg thus testified as an expert witness on behalf of Grove Press, who succeeded in having the book tried instead of individual retailers – as a means of protecting its constitutional rights. When he appeared in court he even went as far as to wear a shirt, tie and jacket – something that was unheard of for Ginsberg at the time. He normally fit the bill as a stereotypical Beatnik.
Ginsberg spoke about the novel in court for more than an hour, discussing its structure, themes and literary merit. Having helped Burroughs compose it appeared to have given Ginsberg a better understanding of Naked Lunch even than its author. He dissected every element of the book and demonstrated how it acted as an incredibly complex piece of social criticism, and was therefore an important piece of art.
Despite Ginsberg’s testimony – not to mention that of Norman Mailer and the other witnesses – the judge branded Naked Lunch obscene, and few people were surprised.
However, on July 7th, 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favour of the appeal that was launched by the defense, and a huge victory was struck for free speech and for art. Naked Lunch was no longer deemed “obscene”.
It is notoriously difficult to describe or summarize Naked Lunch, which is why it is so surprising that Ginsberg so adequately put forth its case in Boston, and why critics reacted so well to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version.
Naked Lunch isn’t meant to make any particular sense in a conventional, linear way. The book is intended to be read in any order, in keeping with the cut-up method used to create it from Burroughs’ giant manuscript, and the chaotic volumes of writing from which various parts of his novels were drawn. He believed that by distorting the text he was revealing implicit meanings. As Ginsberg demonstrated in his courtroom defense, Naked Lunch was hardly lacking in meaning.
There are passages in the text that deal with capital punishment, with drugs, sex… The prose flits between locations from New York to Tangiers, and predicts with startling precision a future that the book continues to outgrow. It deals with themes and ideas that are still relevant today – and as such one could claim is more significant a piece of writing that either On the Road or “Howl”. One could spend years pulling Naked Lunch apart and explaining each scene or sentence or moment. In doing so, if Burroughs’ theory has any credence, we are exploring the author’s mind.
Indeed, Naked Lunch was more than social commentary – it was a highly personal book in many respects. Although Kerouac and Ginsberg helped Burroughs compile his book, it was drawn from stories and journals inspired by his own warped life. Naked Lunch unfolded sporadically over nine years and never truly settled on any finalized version. It was – like Burroughs himself – in a constant state of flux and development. Reading the “Editor’s Note” from the Restored Text edition, it is a wonder that the novel ever came to be published.
But published it was, thanks entirely to Ginsberg’s role as literary agent for the Beats. He managed to have excerpts published by Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review, LeRoi Jones’ Yugen, and – controversially – the Chicago Review. The book was composed throughout travels on four continents, but finally came to a “final” version only when Maurice Girodas told Burroughs that he had two weeks to make the Olympia Press deadline.
For more information on Naked Lunch and its fiftieth anniversary, please see www.nakedlunch.org or read Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
by Steven O’Sullivan
It’s like a compass. A compass operates on magnetics. People always seem to be in such a rush to articulate themselves. But maybe we just can’t articulate certain emotions. Maybe there’s just those things we’re inexplicably drawn to. Maybe. A kind of primordial magnet inside us that knows better than we do. Something like love; if love stepped on broken glass and stumbled around a little and had a couple more drinks and… well, I don’t know.
Here we go.
Burroughs. We’ve read his books, we’re well aware of his literary impact (if you don’t, then go home and read Junky immediately and cry yourself to sleep for about a week or so); especially regarding a writer’s right to obscenity. Burroughs’ pioneering success at getting Naked Lunch published in lieu of obscenity charges is right up there alongside Ginsberg and Howl.
That’s all well and good. But. . .
Libertarian triumph is not really what concerns me regarding Burroughs. Visions, rather, pique my interest in him.
In Kerouac’s On the Road we find Burroughs, alias Old Bull Lee, gracefully slumming it in a mansion shack outside of New Orleans with his beloved, pre-William Tell Joan Vollmer. In between front-yard soda can shoot-outs and absolute drug-induced space-outs, he is a man concerned with direction. Visions, Burroughs seems to believe, will guide us thru life. A fleeting, subliminal influence; holding out just long enough to give us a turn. After Jack gets an inexplicable feeling about a horse at the racetrack that ends up winning, Burroughs refuses to dismiss it as coincidence. A brief dissertation on visions follows:
“How do you know your father, who was an old horseplayer, just didn’t momentarily communicate to you that Big Pop was going to win the race? The name brought the feeling up in you. . . Mankind will someday realize that we are actually in contact with the dead. . . if we only exerted enough mental will, we could predict what is going to happen within the next hundred years and be able to take steps to avoid catastrophe.”
Granted, this kind of belief can be construed as perhaps a bit too mystical for truly practical application. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just mystical enough. It doesn’t seem to me that the Beats ever particularly shunned the concepts of mysticism. If anything Ginsberg and Snyder rather embraced them. Burroughs exudes a unique concern for humanity on the whole, unlike many of the Beats who seemed more interested in forming a microcosmic society that adhered to their ideology.
What concerns me is that interest in minutiae. The thought that maybe visions grasp those feelings our tongues can’t seem to articulate.
The weight of the inarticulate can be overwhelming at times. The vicious frustration that seems to shut you off from the world. They’re staring at you, your lips moving, forming shoddy attempts at cohesion. . . yet all that’s coming is drivel. After enough time, your frustrated attempts don’t clear anything up, they just seem to build a wall between you and the rest of the world. But you know that it’s important. Whatever it is, you know that it matters. It’s eating you up inside, keeping you up at night and it just won’t come. But it’s the reason you had that one more drink, it’s the reason you quit that job and up and relocated without so much as a word to those that seemed closest to you. Tearing your roots out thru your head just seemed to make sense, but any time someone demands an explanation you can’t do it justice. You can’t really do anything for that matter except stare at them awkwardly with your mouth open and crooked, your nose just as crooked as your thoughts.
It’s like in Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary when Thompson’s alter ego, Kemp, imagines himself being interviewed and questioned as to why it was that he up and left New York City. Thompson blamed it on the ‘sack’. The inevitable sack that comes down over your head and snuffs out your life right before you.
So what the hell are you going to do about it? I guess we need some kind of a compass to steer us away from that looming goddamn sack.
Maybe it is visions that serve as that compass. Visions so fleeting that you can’t even pinpoint them when they flash across your mind. But at the same time, they’re so vibrant and painful that you’re forced into action. After it passes you can’t determine the why or the how. The push came nonetheless. The push out of the way of the sack. One more step in the right direction. One more intelligently placed bet on the right horse. That’s how it worked for Kerouac at least. That’s what sparked Burroughs’ diatribe on the visions in the first place. Something steering us in the right direction.
I suppose, in a technical sense, you could label Burroughs a writer. Novelist. Whatever. Seems like that’d be kind of missing the reality though. After all, the man didn’t start writing for quite a long time, and even after he started, he was constantly being pushed by others to keep on. In the 50s he had settled in at Tangiers to focus more seriously on his writing, yet it was not until Ginsberg and Kerouac arrived in ’57 and pushed him to utilize the “cut-up” technique, that Naked Lunch became the literary phenomenon that it is known as today.
Despite finishing what many see as his magnum opus, it would be several more years before Naked Lunch was even published. When controversial publisher Maurice Girodias decided to take on Naked Lunch it was not at Burroughs insistence. Rather, Girodias had been following the controversies that had sprung up in resistance to the content of the book. Burroughs was simply along for the ride; completely unconcerned with any kind of literary gain or notoriety. And additionally, the paycheck that would hopefully come. Burroughs was at a tough point in his life financially and any kind of monetary break would be a much-welcomed one. After the sale of the international rights to Naked Lunch, a $3,000 advance went to Burroughs from Grove Press. He immediately used it to purchase drugs.
With this brief history of the creation of Naked Lunch, we see Burroughs writing as a means to ends, not as a focus. Ends of travel, drugs, young boys. . . not press parties, exposure, renown. Searching after visions and inspiration. That innate, primordial compass guiding him bit by bit.
If the act of writing itself was simply an aesthetic devotion. . . it follows that something equally as honest would serve as a catalyst. Joan Vollmer’s accidental death, served from his own hands in a drunken game of William Tell gone tragically wrong, proved to be that catalyst. He is quoted as crediting the incident for pushing his life into a different direction:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
Ugly Spirits are vague and vengeful demons. No choice except to write one’s way out? Out of what? That possessive entrapment that looms constantly over one’s head? And what, exactly, might that be? The sack. A vision. We can see how desperately Vollmer’s death affected him. Not simply affected him, but sparked him. And where did it drive him? To exotic locales, drug-induced run-ins with degenerates. . . it drove him to ends of one kind or another. The best way he could possibly hope to articulate that haunting vision that drove him was to credit it as a vague and vengeful Ugly Spirit that refused to abandon his heels.
Vollmer’s death, manifest in the act of writing, magnetized itself to Burroughs. So he kept moving, kept running; occasionally throwing out slips of paper that attempted to make sense of it all. Of course, he barely had the time to even consider them. He just spat them out and left them behind for others to judge.
Magnetized. Like a compass. Maybe after fourteen hundred words you are able to work it out for someone else. Not for yourself, though.
Maybe that’s the juxtaposition of the two. A compass to show you the way and a vision to get you started. Not that you’ll understand either of them. And maybe you don’t need to. After all, it doesn’t really matter where you find it.