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The Beat Generation and Travel

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

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

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

 

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William S. Burroughs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


Allen Ginsberg


 

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ MORE ABOUT ALLEN GINSBERG’S TRAVELS HERE

 

 

Neal Cassady

 

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

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gary Snyder

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Corso

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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

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

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

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

Michael McClure

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

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

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

Bob Kaufman

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

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

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

Harold Norse

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

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

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

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

The Plurality of Beat Spirituality

by Lee McRae

‘The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole are holy! – Allen Ginsberg

In the twenty-first century many do not find much need to cling so readily to a spiritually all-omnipotent, all-divine, transcendental figure. Nor do people need to. Our lives are spent conceptually designing our self-entertainment, our lifestyles and our loves. In the wake of modernity and the highly empirical nature of the twenty-first century, one is left with very little time to examine the nature of reality, the construct of life and the divine. It is here where we can learn from the Beat Generation. The Beats, with their opposition to the materialism of 1950s America, found time to awaken to the spiritual and the transcendental whilst moving away from the clinical. For me the spiritual side of the Beats is an important aspect and one which has not had the full recognition it so rightly deserves. I am going to look at several key spiritual movements and people who have inspired the Beats. Literature around this subject tends to be biased towards the area of Buddhism and in particular Zen Buddhism; I hope to show that this is not merely the case and there are in fact a plethora of spiritual influences which affected the Beats, most of which pre-date Buddhist urges and awakenings.

It was Jack Kerouac who, in 1953, whet his appetite with the spiritual teachings of the Buddhist faith. By accident he picked up a copy of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, when in fact he was searching for information on the Hindu faith. He was inspired to do so after reading Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Thoreau, a nineteenth century philosopher and transcendentalist, explains how ‘Simple Living’ is the key to the spiritual enlightenment. When it came to the Buddhist faith the Beats tended to factor several of the major teachings from different areas, including Mahayana, Tantric practices and Zen. Tantric practises gave the Beats sexual independence where Zen offered the Beats a sense of freedom in their spontaneous expression, a freedom of free-thinking. So why Buddhism, why the reaction against the religious institutions of the West? In answering this we may as well start at the start and look towards the German philosopher Oswald Spengler.

Spengler compiled a two volume doctrine entitled The Decline of the West. This doctrine discusses the rise and fall of civilisations that, for the Beats, captured the spirit of their times. A copy of this text was first handed down to Jack Kerouac in 1945 as a present from William Burroughs and was to become important in several respects. Firstly, Spengler suggests that it is within the cultures of the East where a person may find their spiritual path and rescue them from the failing West, a notion that would have no doubt inspired Kerouac to see beyond the mono-cultural boundaries of 1950s America and to explore deep, both culturally and spiritually, into unknown territory. Secondly, Spengler suggests that it is those who are downtrodden and downbeat who will prevail when social structures collapse. Spengler denotes these as the ‘fellaheen’, a term originally ascribed to an Arabian peasant or labourer.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs found that the ‘fellaheen’ were all around them in America; the underclass, the racially marginalised and the generally inferior were all considered to be part of this much darker but all the more real existence. Kerouac came to call these ‘the subterraneans’, where Ginsberg preferred the term ‘desolation angels’. Kerouac would spend a great amount of time exploring African-American culture, detailing the music and finding his home amongst the late-night saxophonists in Harlem. For Burroughs his work is filled with dystopian passion, a deep and sordid look at the life of the underclass, a life he himself could profess to living, an existence formed around drug habits and proletariat misgivings, un-publishable literature and homosexual desires.

In an article by Stephen Prothero entitled On the Holy Road he links the Spenglerian notion of the ‘fellaheen’ to two inspirational Beat figures, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. Huncke was the embodiment of the ‘fellaheen’, the ‘holy Creephood’, who become the personification of Beat idealism. However, as Prothero tells us, by following the wayward instability of Huncke the Beats could have possibly turned their spiritual venture into an ‘amoral, nihilistic apocalypticism’. It was only in the hedonism and voyeuristic stability of Neal Cassady where the Beats would begin a new route and move forward in their establishment of a ‘New Vision’. What distinguished Cassady from Huncke was a criminality that was awash with pleasure, a larceny of delight regardless of economic reward. This led to Cassady being idolised as a free-thinking Beat contemporary, or as Ginsberg coins in his poem ‘Howl’, ‘secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver – Joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls’. So, was Spengler an important influence upon the Beats on their journey into the ‘New Vision’? Possibly so, but as you probably have gathered, the Beats had a multitude of influence and inspiration from a range of movements, intellectuals and spiritual figures. Let us move forward to the movement known as transcendentalism.

So what is transcendentalism? Put simply it is the prioritising of the spiritual or intuitive over the material or empirical. American transcendentalism was a movement which began in the nineteenth century with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The catalyst for the movement was an essay written in 1836 by Emerson, entitled Nature. Inspired by German idealism and English Romanticism, the transcendentalists compiled a series of thought based on the nature of how we exist and view the world around us. Transcendental idealism, the term from which transcendentalism is derived, comes from the term applied to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant who proclaimed ‘all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects’. John Tytell in his Beat book Naked Angels, tells us how, in many ways, the Beats paralleled the American transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth century.

The Beats’ ideas of reformation, revolt and revolution hold roots among the great thinkers of this period. Thoreau, as Tytell notes, had an ‘essentially conservative distrust of machines and industry’, a ‘desire to return to the origins of man’s relations to the land’. The poet and transcendentalist Walt Whitman, whom I have not yet mentioned, was also of great importance in the construction of Beat idealism. Whitman influenced much of Ginsberg’s poetical work with the use of the long-line, as well as influencing the Beats spiritually with his connection to the American transcendentalist movement. Whitman was a true Beat ancestor: he had strong political views that sort to reform America, he refused to accept gender roles and he held an interest in the religions of the East. Like some of the Beats, Whitman’s work was deemed obscene with overt sexual references and homosexual nuances.

Emerson, perhaps the most important practitioner in this movement, was a spiritual tactician who explored the inner spirituality of the self. During his lifetime Emerson investigated the Hindu scriptures in his attempt to make contact with the sacred on the nonverbal level, to be inspired on intuition alone and to find the divine within nature. Emerson taught that ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’. In 1963, Timothy Leary, a writer, avid friend to Burroughs and advocate of psychedelic drugs, was fired from a teaching post at Harvard, yet for Leary this was something of an honour as Emerson, too, had once been fired from Harvard in 1838, after evangelically urging his students to renounce organised Christianity and to find God within.

So far I feel I have not spoken very much about the Beat writer William Burroughs and I think this is understandable, for Burroughs lacked the spiritual urges of his counterparts and had very little faith or interest in the Buddhist religion either. In Lawrence Coupe’s book Beat Sound, Beat Vision, Burroughs is in fact dismissed entirely and focus is placed mainly on Kerouac and Ginsberg for the reason that Burroughs did not particularly have this spiritual side to him as did the others. Ted Morgan, in his biography of the writer entitled Literary Outlaw, speaks of an interesting meeting Burroughs had in 1975 at his time spent at the Naropa Institute, Colorado. The institute brought like-minded individuals together as well as cultivating the spiritual side using Buddhist philosophy. During his time spent there Burroughs watched carefully the Tibetan monk known as Trungpa. Burroughs became more and more cynical about the holiness of this man and, as Morgan notes, ‘Trungpa did not appear to be a model of ascetic behaviour, with his drinking, his chain-smoking, and his habit of asking his female devotees to become his concubines’. Perhaps rightly so Burroughs was weary about how devoted his Buddhist associates were to the religion and the lifestyle that was expected of them. After dinner one night Burroughs noted that ‘in 3,000 years the Buddhists have not come up with the answer to the question: What is the real nature of the word?’

Burroughs was not the only person to doubt the Buddhist awakenings of the Beats either. Alan Watts, writer of The Way of Zen, who had a part in popularising Buddhism throughout the counterculture, famously said that Kerouac had ‘Zen flesh but no Zen bones’. Even Gary Snyder, ‘Zen lunatic’ and prodigy in the Kerouac novel The Dharma Bums, believed that Kerouac had not taken much at all from the religion. He believed Kerouac had only taken the Buddhist idea of ‘emphasis on compassion’ and the extension of time and space. As for Ginsberg, Buddhism, with the help of Kerouac as a spiritual guide, became his life-love and his joy and would write and study a great deal around the subject, venturing into many different areas of practice. Where Ginsberg would continue his practice of the religion, Kerouac, in the years before his death, became dissatisfied with the teachings and returned his faith to Catholicism. In the last year of his life, in an interview for the Paris Review, Kerouac was questioned as to why he had written and placed his faith in Buddha and not Jesus; Kerouac retorted angrily at the question, saying ‘All I write about is Jesus!’

Kerouac, in a scene from The Dharma Bums, asks the character Japhy – the real Gary Snyder – ‘What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s Nirvana?’ To which Japhy replies ‘According to your own interpretation’. In this same conversation Kerouac tells us how he feels ‘suppressed’ by this need to separate ‘Buddhism from Christianity, East from West, what the hell difference does it make?’ Later in the book Japhy makes a comparison between Kerouac and the Buddhist author Dwight Goddard. Goddard, like Kerouac, spent much of his life in celebration of the Buddhist faith but then, approaching the end of his life, devoted himself to the Bible and Christian teachings. What I see in Kerouac is a conflict, this need to retain a sense of his childhood leanings toward Catholicism, his later love for Buddha, the transcendental divine, and the appreciation of nature, all of which is well documented in his novel The Dharma Bums.

So what can we assess from this conflicting, plurality of spirituality, other than that it cannot be reduced to a simple sentence declaring the Beats as Zen? For one thing we can appreciate that the area of spirituality, in particular, caused a great conflict of views between the principal Beat writers. What started off as an avid interest in spirituality, the divine and transcendentalism, soon filed off into several conflicting routes. Kerouac in particular was greatly influenced by nature and transcendentalist writings but found a conflict between the religions of East and West and found it difficult to so readily disregard Catholicism all together. Ginsberg’s formal understanding and study of Buddhism came later on in the 1970s and was to become the basis for much of his influence both musically and lyrically. For anyone who has read Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America will note, the book seems structured mainly around the chanting of ‘Om’ at every appropriate occasion or Ginsberg opening a case to reveal a harmonium to which he begins to play. For Burroughs, there is much less emphasis in his life on religion. Most notably were his interest, appreciation, as well as criticism of Scientology, which he believed would be very useful but held a certain scepticism regarding the organisation itself.

This account can only act as an introduction to the Beats and issues of spirituality and there are many more ideas and areas that could have been discussed: Ginsberg’s ‘mystical visions and cosmic vibrations’ which unveiled in the form of a hallucination of the English romantic poet William Blake and Gary Snyder’s enthusiastic and influential study of Buddhism, are to name only two. I hope though this piece forms, at least, an invitation to the reader or scholar to discover more about a complex and intriguing web of relations and attitudes to the religious which underlie the Beat odyssey.