The Beats were, in many ways, an international literary movement. Although in defining the Beat Generation, we tend to look at a core of three writers, expanding out to include others like Gregory Corso and “second generation Beats” like Diane di Prima, and they are all American. Sure, there were British artists inspired by the Beats, and India’s Hungry Generation, and all across the world youths writing poetry like Ginsberg… but in the end, the Beat Generation was an American movement. Only it wasn’t purely American: it was a bunch of Americans inspired by the outside world. Continue Reading…
Archives For india
from Beatdom Issue 10 (buy here)
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra and Ravi Mishra
As a religion, Hinduism has been one of the most ancient and generational expressions. These expressions and beliefs are handed down from the past generation to the present. The Hindu religious thought is such that, on one hand it seeks to exclude life and its aspects in its entirety, and, on the other, its beauty is such that it radiates in the full expression of all forms of life…those that have been considered mainstream through the ages and those that have baffled the matrix of the mainstream. Hinduism is naturalistic. A true Hindu does not believe in institutionalized religion; far from it, he/she inherits a doubt in all things institutional and becomes culturally inclined to observe society from a distance whenever he/she finds it imposing upon his spiritual and personal growth.
The Bhagvad Geeta or the Song of the Lord, the greatest-known book to guide conduct and human existence in Hinduism, expects one to play one’s role in the social and the worldly structure while keeping oneself at bay from expectations of societal and worldly gains. Then, there are the ‘Renunciates’ – those that feel that the world and society are obstacles in the way of realization of truth and that to realize truth one has to look beyond and out of the social structures. These men and women earn the distinction of being the ‘Sadhus’. They have held light to the Indian Civilisation from time immemorial. They are the wise. Once, they were also the erudite holders of the scales of moral and social justice in society, though they, themselves, were out of it.
It is a fairly well-documented fact that the Sadhus and Indian religions have cast an impression on the writers of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had travelled extensively across India in 1961-62 and stayed with some very prominent thinkers and writers of the period. One of them was the current president of India, Pratibha Patil (then a girl of nineteen), with whom Ginsberg stayed in Varanasi in 1962. Patil has been known later to have tried psychedelic drugs with the Indian Sadhus – Baba Neem Karoli, in particular. The Beats and the Sadhus meet in the context of Hinduism in many ways. They had very similar philosophies and aims, which in the context of Hinduism make them so akin to each other. They both seek advancement of their souls and spiritual elevation. They look for it beyond the frontiers of common humanity. The world beyond ours’ hosts the road to their ‘unworldly’ and asocial spiritual fulfillment.
In Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas, Sondra L. Hausner, writes that the Sadhus do not believe in following the constraints of space and time. They believe in being on the move – as staying in one place restricts their intellectual and spiritual growth. One almost wonders if On the Road could have been written had Kerouac not experienced these brilliant realisations which richen his plot? The knowledge that Hinduism advocates is the knowledge that Kerouac offers his readers in his defining work. It is also the same as what made the Sadhus so venerated and revered: the experience of what lies beyond the common boundaries of Humanity. Dissociation from fixities is not the only common feature among the holy men ofIndia and the Beats. In the context of Hinduism’s infinity, drug use and sex for salvation are other commonalities. Although the latter appears confined to some obscure and secret societies of Sadhus, the former remains readily seen among them.
Lord Shiva, the Supreme God in Hinduism, one of the forms of the Hindu trinity of Brahama, Vishnu and Shiva, is worshiped with the offerings of cannabis and other intoxicants. Considered to be the supreme consciousness who lies outside the human realm he is still found somewhere within each of us. It is He we seek to explore and His energy that we wish to obtain by meditation, prayers and other spiritual means. Having gained the enlightenment and full of benevolence for all, the Sadhu wishes to dispel spiritual strength in the world and guide mankind on the right course. Shiva, the manifestly terrible form of the supreme consciousness, has also been called the most merciful in the ancient Hindi scriptures. It is this secret that the Beats and Sadhus seek. They care not how they appear and the impression that they make on others – as long as they gain the spiritual strength to hold light to a saddening, darkening world. The Beats and the Sadhus are alive in us, in each of us. We have only to explore them to be mature enough to make our lives more meaningful.
In what may be regarded as one of the biggest fares of humanity in the world, the ‘Kumbh’ in the holy town of Allahabad in India, thousands of Indian holy men descend from the Heavens to Earth, in the midst of mortals…to spend a month or thereabouts with them. They are very strange people, or so we think. Some of them exist in utter defiance of humanity, and we can only ask what it is that they hold to be true. Society, social strictures, codes, values, morals as we know them, do not hold with the Indian Sadhus. They epitomize the most truthful essence of one of the most ancient and theologically superior religions of the world.
The one aspect where Hinduism comes closest to the Beat philosophy is the element of queer sexuality prevalent in both. In the vastness of the great Hindu mythology, the queer elements seem to be interspersed through the many religious texts that Hindus follow to understand their philosophical and religious truths. Although the age-old Hindu literature appears, by and large, to be mute on same-sex love and physical attraction, slips in sexuality, erotic same-sex fascination, and intersex or third gender characters are not very infrequent in the religious narratives of the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas and lore of the regions of the ancient land. In the words of Devaddata Pattanaik, a prominent speaker on mythology: queer manifestations of sexuality, though repressed socially, squeeze their way into the myths, legends and lore of the land.
To begin with, the compendium of Hindu mythology refers extensively to change of gender in the deities and their embodiment of different genders at different times. It also alludes to the combining forms of androgynous or hermaphroditic beings. The Gods participate too. They change sex or manifest themselves as Avatars of the opposite sex to facilitate sexual congress. Their influence on humans is such that the mortals also undergo sex-change through their actions, fructifying the curses or blessings, or as the natural reincarnates.
In addition, it may be said noted that Hindu mythology delves deep into incidents where sexual interactions serve a non-sexual, divine purpose; in some cases, these are same-sex interactions. Ambiguity in judgment of the Gods is revealed when the Gods sometimes condemn these inter-actions, but on the other hand, they occur with their blessing. These mythological interactions have been expressions both of male and female characteristics in the Gods as well as the mortals. Not bound by time and place – they may occur at the same or at different times. They might also become manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’, the revered and widely worshipped figure created by the merging of Lord Shiva and his consort ‘Parvati’. The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘The Lord whose half is a woman’ which, in itself, creates sexual ambiguity. It is said that this form of Shiva represents the ‘totality that lies beyond duality’, and is studied in reference with the communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.
One of the most celebrated and written about examples of same-sex love and transgression of gender exists in the pages of the Bhagavata Purana. There, Lord Vishnu as an enchantress, ‘Mohini’ (a form he took in order to befuddle the demons into abandoning ‘amrita’, the elixir of life), charms Shiva, who is so drawn towards her that they have a relationship followed by the birth of a son. The Brahmanda Purana talks of Shiva’s wife Parvati, who ‘hangs her head in shame’ as she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. Some of the stories also mention Shiva asking Vishnu to appear in the Mohini form again so that he can witness the actual transformation for himself.
Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to ‘suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction.’ Philosophers interpret the narrative more profoundly. Pattanaik declares that efforts to focus only on homoeroticism ignore the narrative’s profounder metaphysical significance – Mohini’s femininity stands for the material aspect of reality, and her seduction is another attempt of Vishnu to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Scholars point to other stories to show that it is only Vishnu’s charm that has the power to enchant Shiva. A demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in ‘his’ vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a ‘thunderbolt’ on his ‘manhood’ during their act of lovemaking.
The later Puranas talk of the origin of God ‘Ayyappa’ . Vishnu, as Mohini, is said to have conceived with the might of Shiva, and borne Ayyappa, whom he/she later abandons in shame. Some scholars dispute this version, arguing that Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which was ejaculated upon Shiva’s embrace of Mohini. There are many versions of the Mahabharata wherein Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, also took the form of Mohini and married ‘Aravan’. This was done to let Aravan be given the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed prior to the Kurukshetra War to ensure the Pandavas victory. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death.
It is more among the humans, particularly in the context of the narrative of the Mahabharata, that sexual changes and slips manifest themselves. One such character becomes ‘Shikhandi’, originally born as a girl named ‘Shikhandini’ to ‘Drupada’, the king of ‘Panchala’. The stories tell us that in her previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named ‘Amba’, whom the great and mighty ‘Bhishma’ had rendered unmarriageable. Having been humiliated, Amba moved in search of revenge, undertook great austerities, and the Gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death.
Another such story that talks about queer sexuality is the tale of ‘Ila’, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati to be a man one month and a woman the next, which appears in several traditional Hindu texts. After changing sex, Ila loses the memory of being the other gender. During one such period, Ila marries ‘Budha’ (the God of the planet Mercury). Although Budha knows of Ila’s alternating gender, he doesn’t enlighten the ‘male’ Ila, who remains unaware of his life as a woman. The two live together as man and wife only when Ila is female. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears Budha a son, although in the Mahabharata Ila is called both mother and father of the child. After this birth, the curse is lifted and Ila is totally changed into a man who goes on to father several children with his wife.
It may thus be seen that the Indian mythological world is replete with transgressions of sexuality to prove to man that sexuality is not constructed traditionally and historically – that same-sex love may be a yearning towards a greater fulfillment. In what may be regarded as the oldest surviving documents of man’s intellectual growth and religious stability, sex and its transgressions have only been the means to obtain the higher plane of human conscience, a life where even Gods desires change of form to demonstrate Nature’s instinct and unleashed, hidden desires. Although the Beats and their thoughts did not spring directly from Hinduism, it is no less remarkable a coincidence that the two are so similar to each other. The Beats may be said to be the greater Hindu, a people who sought not institutions but individuals and looked for growth – not of restrictive notions but the advancement of the human soul.
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 10
They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’.
A Sadhu is a mystic, an ascetic, the one who knows all and is liberated from the materialistic world of humans. He is a wandering monk whose singular goal in life is to achieve ‘moksha’, and he gets it through tough penance and uncommon lifestyle. India has been a country of much interest to the world and the Orient has forever lured the West. It is a country where the solitary aim of life is ‘liberation’ or ‘Moksha’, also called ‘nirvana’. It is the highest form of ‘Purushartra’; the choice to do good things in life, among ‘Dharma’ (duty), ‘Artha’ (meaning), ‘Kama’ (sex) and ‘Moksha’ (salvation). Hinduism has been forever guided and inspired by its spiritual leaders, mainly ascetics or Sadhus. Baldeo Upadhyay observes that “the Indian culture is based upon the three T’s – Tyag (renunciation), Tapasya (penance) and Tapovan (hermitage)”.This clearly means that, in order to achieve truth or the highest form of knowledge, an individual must observe unremitting penance and detachment from worldly vows.
Broadly speaking there are two main divisions, or sects, of Sadhus: ‘Shaiva’ Sadhus who revere Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction and ‘Vaishnavas’ who are ascetic followers of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe. Apart from these two chief categories, there are some ‘Shakta’ Sadhus as well, who are the disciples of goddess ‘Shakti’, the supreme goddess of strength and power. Then, there are the ‘Naga’ Sadhus, (a sub category of ‘Shaiva’) who remain unclothed and wander naked openly in the streets, commanding respect and awe. Nudity in their case is not considered obscene but is seen as the highest form of penance. Along with the ‘Naga’ Sadhus are the ‘Aghories’, or the warrior Sadhus, who not only in some cases remain naked but also smear their bodies with human ash (acquired from cremation grounds, a place of worship and meditation). They are often seen with a human skull, which is used as a begging bowl.
The most remarkable facet of the Sadhu community is their sometimes excessive and non-restrained use of drugs like ‘charas’ (cannabis). The Naga Sadhus, and aghoris in particular, devour these drugs since they consider them as a fundamental aspect of their religious ceremonies and practices. Sadhus claim that use of hallucinatory drugs brings them closer to God, and thus closer to salvation. The use of the hemp plant in the religious rituals of the worship of Lord Shiva is noteworthy. It is said that cannabis is one of the favourite plants of the deity and is thus respected and held reverently by his followers. Drinking of ‘bhang’ (a drink made out of cannabis) is considered highly auspicious by these Sadhus as it is said to unite the disciple with the deity and open a way to achieve salvation and get rid of the miseries of life and death. According to religious beliefs it is said that bhang is capable of cleansing one’s soul of all forms of sin. The religious significance of cannabis and hallucinatory drugs is so obviously felt that it is validated by the fact that in most of the states in India weed is legal and sold openly in the market.
It is this openness in religion and this freedom in choice that inspired some of the Beat writers to extensively travel to India and experience a life without inhibitions and restraints. Initially, the West’s interest in the East was determined by negative impulses, the desire to study the Eastern religions was driven by the fanatical craving to convert the Easterners into Christianity. The West saw the East as ‘heathen’ and took the responsibility of educating the East and showing them the way of Christ. Whatever knowledge an average American possessed about the Eastern religions was due to missionary accounts. It was only in the twentieth century that the East could have been said to have any serious and scholarly influence over the American mind. The Beats may be considered the vanguard in a significant shift in post-World War II American religious consciousness, marked by rejection of institutional religion, a questioning of Christian values, and an affirmation of the possibility of new religious meanings to be found through mystical experience, hallucinogenic drugs and Asian religions.
First emerging in the nineteenth century, American interest in the Asian religions has grown spectacularly since World War II and today effects the lives of large numbers of Americans. Some have dismissed the phenomenon as a fad, while others hail (or denounce) the growth of interest in Eastern spirituality as the beginningstages of a shift in religious consciousness that will profoundly alter the religious view of future Americans.
The one outstanding resemblance between the Beats and the Sadhus is that both of them are away from the humdrum world of the square society; they are both in search of reality and internal peace. The one question that both Sadhus and Beatniks ask is the relevance of life, its meaning and its end. Post Second World War, the Beatniks seemed to have lost faith in Christianity and were looking for answers towards Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. When the strict righteousness of Christianity couldn’t satisfy their enthusiastic spiritual cravings they begged answers from Buddhism. “I don’t know about that, but I get my religion from Buddhism and the Oriental religions. Buddha was one of the original hippies – he was a beggar who rejected the ‘straight’ world. I think incense and charms help turn a person on. The teaching of Nirvana seems to be the essence of truth. The Oriental religions have more to offer than Christianity” said one of the hippies in an interview in 1967.
On one level, the Beat writers may be seen as early leaders in the war era who turned to the East, whose attitudes and use of Asian religious thought provide important insight into the impact of the East on modern American religious beliefs. In the post-World War II period, Beat writers did more than any other literary group to shift America’s cultural focus toward the East. The ways in which the Beats utilized and distorted Asian conceptions reveal both the rewards and dangers of turning to non-European sources. Thus, the Beats can be seen as the precursors to ‘Indian God Men’ who later allured the West into the romance of India and its spiritual offerings.
Marijuana has long been used as a spiritual tool and mood enhancer, and it is also said that a person taking marijuana has a heightened emotional experience. The Sadhu’s intake of ‘ganja’ or ‘charas’ brings them into a state where they feel one with God. The spiritual impact of psychedelic drugs depends entirely upon the person using them, it depends on his/her mental state and his/her intentions in using it. While Sadhus on one hand use drugs to experience the divine presence of God around them, on the other the Beats used them to run away from society into the world of ecstasy and bliss. Sadhus who embrace marijuana as a sacrament find it spiritually beneficial, as they feel that the intake of the drug purifies their soul; marijuana helps them focusing their attention inward, toward the realm of spirit and towards God. Allen Ginsberg in ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’ talks about his experiences with ‘ganja’ during his stay in India:
In sound good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy and perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God’s gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit. Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some…
The question that one may ask is that why men like the Beats and the Sadhus have the desire to escape from reality, and in doing so make use of hallucinatory drugs. Aldous Huxley seemed to have an answer. He said:
Most men and women lead lives, at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.
The Beat writers made use of drugs in order to expand their range of experience beyond boundaries, just as the Sadhu who went into a state of trance after taking in drugs. The Beats also consumed drugs in order to go into the state of trance where they could create poetry which they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. The Beats were troubled souls. They were constantly at war with the world they were living in. In order to achieve peace and nirvana, they made use of drugs to escape into a world of trance, where everything was blissful and serene. Drugs such as marijuana helped them escape into a different world where they felt close to God, close to reality and above all they had a sense of unification with God.
The use of drugs by poets and artists is a known fact. For decades writers have made use of hallucinatory drugs to enhance their artistic ability. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were scandalously known for their drug usage. All the three writers wrote while high on drugs and ended up creating the masterpieces of their lives. Kerouac’s On the Road is a detailed saga of drug use, most of the characters in the novel are seen consuming drugs, especially marijuana, while Burrough’s Junky and Naked Lunch narrates his early years of drug addiction. Burroughs kept on experimenting with several drugs as he claimed that he was ‘bored’ of life. Drugs provided him novelty, while Kerouac continued the use of marijuana and later replaced it with alcohol to get rid of the painful experiences of life.
However, it was Ginsberg who came closest to the aesthetic lifestyle of a Sadhu. He was, in a way, a wandering nomad in search of truth who came to India in search of a guru, someone whom he could revere and also make love to. Ginsberg adorned the looks of a Sadhu too: his unshaved beard and dishevelled hair could pass him easily for a Sadhu. His spiritual cravings led him to haunt the most daunting places on Earth – which included cremation grounds and habitats of aghoris and yogis. Ginsberg was very interested in the concept of ‘nirvana’ and thus he was always occupied with the notions of death and rebirth. Like an aghori he would meditate over cremation grounds late at nights with few of his fellow Indian poet friends. Cremation grounds became a meeting hub of radical poets, Sadhus and an eager Ginsberg who met many aesthetics in the hour of darkness. He questioned the holy men about the meaning of life and death. Ginsberg’s spiritual cravings led him to the pious ghats of Nimtala in Calcutta and Manikarnika ghat in Benaras where he accompanied Sadhus and smoked chillum in their company.
Steve Silberman in his essay ‘The Birth of the Sixties: When the Beats Became Hippies’ talks about Ginsberg’s experiences of the pious ‘ghats’ in Benares and Calcutta:
One of the experiences that made the deepest impression on Ginsberg was spending hours at the burning ghats in Varanasi, smoking ganja with sadhus and mindfully observing the corpses as they turned to ash on the pyres that smoldered all night. Deciding that ‘the present is sufficient subject’, he revitalized his writing by turning his attention away from his cosmic obsessions and toward the humanity around him in the swarming streets of Kolkata and Varanasi. Precisely observed journal entries such as ‘Describe: The Rain on Dasaswamedh Ghat’ became the model for Ginsberg’s later work, which replaced the earlier overheated philosophizing with cinematic rendering of a suffering world.
India taught Ginsberg the devout character of compassion, he realised that the world, which is full of immense suffering and pain, could become bearable only with the help of compassion. Regarding Ginsberg’s spiritual gain, Baker writes:
What held Allen Ginsberg and would hold him for the rest of his life was the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s Sadhus, charlatans, poets, and saints. They sang to him, and they held his hand. They reached out to his lover, and touched his feet; they sucked their teeth in sympathy when Ginsberg confessed his fears of demons, childlessness, old age, abandonment, and death.
Ginsberg found refuge in the spiritual and populated cities of Calcutta and Varanasi, these were the places that made him realize his own self, felt loved and cherished. While on his stay in India, Ginsberg also heavily experimented with drugs. He used marijuana in order to experience God and spirituality. He wanted to discover his own self, to know things more deeply just as a Sadhu would do. Ginsberg travelled extensively and propagated the use of marijuana in different countries, more of a Sadhu in search of the divine presence of God achievable only in a high state. Of all the poets who travelled to East, Ginsberg was the one who was transformed by the journey. It was through his prolonged stay in India and his experiences of staying with Sadhus, yogis and aghories that Ginsberg himself became a ‘guru’ for the young and rebellious youth of the 60’s in the US.
The memory of India lingered with Ginsberg all through his life. A few days before his death in 1997, Ginsberg wrote in his journal for the last time, his final poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’. Therein, he recalled some of the happiest moments of his life, which also included his trysts with India. He recalled his bathing at the banks of the holy Ganges, sitting beside Orlovsky at the Manikarnika ghat, and relishing ‘Chai with older Sunil & the young coffeehouse poets’.
Ginsberg’s main aim in travelling to India was to seek some spiritual answers that the West could not give. He felt that Hinduism could answer all his questions. He believed that ‘ganja’ could help him in his spiritual quest and just as a Sadhu feels unified with God after smoking weed so could he liberate himself and experience a trance-state in which he could be one with God. Ginsberg never did enjoy drugs so much in life as he did in India. There he could use it freely without inhibitions and without having any guilty feelings about it.
Ganja served him as a medium of communication with the Almighty. Ginsberg came to India with an open heart; later he mused on all that India had to offer him – from ‘Ganja’ to God.
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 9
They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’. Continue Reading…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.