The 1940s and 50s were difficult years to be non-conformist, and that was doubly true if you were a woman. The writers of the Beat Generation, as well as their friends and families, who lived bohemian lifestyles in a buttoned-up era, found that their very existence could be dangerous in those days. Whether they were driven to genuine mental illness by the shackles of a repressive society or deemed unfit for society because of their individualist life choices, many of those who fell under the Beat label ended up in the “nuthouse.” For some of them it was just a temporary stay that gave them inspiration for their art, but for others it was a deeply traumatic experience that irrevocably damaged their life. Continue Reading…
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Philip Willey is one beat motherfucker. His website tells me he was born in England in 1941, but I don’t believe that for a second. The man is a stark raving lunatic in the truest and most wonderful sense, with a wicked humor that playfully tells the tragic tale of our most favorite of the Beat “Generation”, Mr. William S. Burroughs.
His CV is impressive, but I won’t bore you or intimidate you with just how impressive it is. He’s an artist, a writer, a countcultural explorer of the highest and most dangerous calibre. The man is a phenom, a beast. He once wrote a book about John Lennon that caused Lennon to remark, “Fuck, this guy’s good. I think I’ll work with him on my next album.” Lennon was shot the next day in an entirely unrelated incident.
Mr Willey – as you may refer to him, or he’s also good with regal terms – is also a painter. For $50 he’ll paint your living room, stealing minimally. But seriously, the man is an artist, and not just in the visual sense. Dig his work.
His latest publication, and Beatdom’s first of 2014, is a thoroughly brilliant and depraved account of the life of our most favorite Beat wife-killer, William S. Burroughs. Inspired by a meeting in a tea house – this was England, after all; where would you expect two people to meet? – this story tracks Burroughs’ life across the globe as a perpetual expat.
So don’t be a fucking moron all your life. Buy a goddamn copy now and support daring bastards like Willey in their efforts to save, change, and destroy the world as we know it. Fuck the system and buy the book. If you don’t, the most likely outcome is that he’ll starve to death, and you don’t want that on your conscience, do you?
One of our readers, Devin Fahey, recently posted a link to the Beatdom FB page. The link was to a provocatively titled article in Bitch magazine, “A Great Artist Kills His Wife—Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in His History.”
The article itself is partly a response to reviews of Barry Miles’ excellent biography, Call Me Burroughs – a much-needed update on the life and times of one of America’s most controversial writers. The author, Leela Ginelle, argues that these reviews cite Burroughs 1951 killing of Joan Vollmer Adams as the most important event in the author’s life, while also pointing out that Miles calls the incident “clearly an accident” and that Burroughs and his fans have made it part of the author’s personal mythology. Continue Reading…
In 1995 a scholar named Jorge Garcia-Robles wrote a long essay about William S. Burroughs’ time in Mexico, partly based upon interviews conducted with Burroughs and people that knew him during his time there. The essay was well-received and won the Malcolm Lowry literary essay award, and Garcia-Robles became the leading expert on the Beat Generation and their ties to Mexico.
Unfortunately this reviewer doesn’t speak Spanish and had to wait a rather long time for the book to be translated. Eighteen years seems surprising for such a highly regarded text to be translated into English. Having waited so long to read this book, and having had it sent all the way from the University of Minnesota (where it was published by the university press) to Cambodia (where your humble reviewer resides) just compounded my excitement.
From the moment I opened the packaging, however, I was disappointed. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and you shouldn’t – but in this case the cover is just plain ugly. The repetition of one image across the front seems lazy, the text is hard to pick out, the spine colour doesn’t match either the colours on the front or the back, and the back cover makes it look like a children’s book.
But, as I said, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Once you open the book, you can see some thought has gone into the layout, and it is mostly visually pleasing, although I would suggest that the text size and line spacing again make this appear like a children’s book – albeit an attractive one.
But I will stop criticizing the design now. That’s neither the fault of Garcia-Robles nor the book’s translator, Daniel C. Schechter, and, after all, some of Burroughs’ own books had ugly editions and that didn’t detract from their quality.
My ultimate assessment of this book – which I have put off now for too many paragraphs – is that it’s more or less unreadable. As I mentioned previously, I do not speak Spanish cannot pass judgment on Garcia-Robles, who by all accounts is a wonderful scholar and an invaluable contributor to Beat studies. So I have to say that the fault lies at the feet of Schechter, the book’s translator. The man appears to have had a tough task set out for him. The original Spanish – I’m told – was a playful, lively, and inventive narrative that fused the culture of Mexico with the research that the author had done. This has simply not come across in the English edition. My guess, as someone who does have experience in translation, is that Schechter has been too literal and too exact, and the result is very awkward and irritatingly inconsistent text. It feels at times as though the publishers simply fed the original text into Google Translate and barely spent an hour tidying up the resulting gibberish. After only a few pages, I found myself dreading the next paragraph as it had become such a chore to read.
In some ways, too, it appears that different writers have written different paragraphs or even chapters, as the chopping and changing of Schechter’s narrative continues to jar the reader. It becomes particularly convoluted when we move into chapter two and Burroughs’ arrival in Mexico. Once again I will give Garcia-Robles the benefit of the doubt and assume that his text read well in Spanish, but in English it’s nothing short of embarrassing:
Mexico City, mid-twentieth century. Maaamboooo… ah uh! Caberets everywhere, brothels on every corner, a vibrant nightlife. Big on the scene was Perez Prado, the pint-sized Cuban inventor of the mambo, with a face like a seal’s and a Luciferesque beard, deported for playing the national anthem in mambo style. Never mind: nothing could stop the fiesta. Cha cha cha… ah uh! It was madness. Aaron Copeland visits the Salon Mexico and is enchanted by the dance hall; the muses descend and he composes one of his greatest symphonic works. Miguel Aleman allowed everything. Hell, we could go all night, the clubs never closed: Ciro’s. Catacumbas. Las Veladoras. La Rata Muerta, Waikiki. Leda. Lola. Tato’s. The culture of the blowout – anything goes. The Mexican Revolution had played itself out, and everyone was fed up with packing pistols and taking up arms. Civilization, senores, civilization! And partying hard. Enough already with the revolutionary ideals, banditry dressed up as a noble cause. Mexico wants peace, progress, cosmopolitanism… ah uh! More madness. Girls girls girls.Tongolele wiggles her hemispheric hips. Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban firecracker, she of the enormous mouth and huge ass, the perennial bad girl of the movies. Su Muy Key, Kalantan, Mapy Cortez, M.A. Pons… glamour gals, happy Afro females, sweat-glistening models, caressable lubricated specimens of the torrid tricolor night. Aaaahhhh uh!
Here Garcia-Robles is attempting to describe Mexico City around the time of Burroughs’ arrival by conveying through prose the vibrancy of the culture and the sentiment of the people. In English, however, the result is a confusing mess of words. It goes on for another few pages, in some ways becoming worse and worse as repetition of phrases are used increasingly out of context (“aaaahhhh uh!” soon becomes as common a means of ending a sentence as a period).
Alas, while Garcia-Robles appears to have consulted some useful sources and provided a solid run-through of Burroughs’ time in Mexico, the book’s focus is too much on capturing the atmosphere rather than actually getting information across to the reader. Granted, the details of Burroughs’ own escapades already can be found in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw and his thoughts on Mexico are pretty much stated in his collected letters, but there should be room to elaborate. Instead, the bulk of the book is given over to sidenotes and diversions. The author appears more interested in transporting the reader back in time and into a very specific place than to give a detailed account of this important period in Burroughs’ life. That’s not to say that there aren’t great nuggets of information hidden away, but this reviewer feels that Garcia-Robles’ book offers little more than existing biographies.
However, despite the many negatives in this review, and the use of the word “unreadable”, the book is not entirely without its merits. Certain sections, where the text is simple and to the point, are interesting and enjoyable to read, and add some background information to the story of Burroughs’ time there. For example, there is a short chapter on Lola la Chata that is engrossing and more or less devoid of the bizarre quirks throughout the rest of the book. The problem here, though, is that most of it isn’t directly related to Burroughs or his time in Mexico. It’s a footnote that overshadows the actual narrative. The section even ends with the acknowledgment that Burroughs never met la Chata but that he was interested in her, and ends with the dubious assertion:
No doubt, Lola, from the heavens, would smile contentedly upon learning of Burroughs’ interest in her.
There is also a lot of information on Burroughs’ charismatic lawyer, Bernabe Jurado, and even a short essay by Burroughs himself about Jurado.
Also of interest are hard-to-find photos, mostly relating to the death of Joan Vollmer. These might disturb some readers as two of them feature Vollmer’s body after she was shot in the head.
Altogether the English translation of The Stray Bullet should be a wonderful contribution to Beat studies, but instead it falls flat on its face. Any valuable information is obscured by crude writing and digressions. I am assured by friends that the Spanish version is indeed worthy of the praise it has garnered since its publication, but I stand by my unusually harsh judgment of Schechter’s translation. This book is virtually unreadable.
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.
by Steven O’Sullivan
It’s like a compass. A compass operates on magnetics. People always seem to be in such a rush to articulate themselves. But maybe we just can’t articulate certain emotions. Maybe there’s just those things we’re inexplicably drawn to. Maybe. A kind of primordial magnet inside us that knows better than we do. Something like love; if love stepped on broken glass and stumbled around a little and had a couple more drinks and… well, I don’t know.
Here we go.
Burroughs. We’ve read his books, we’re well aware of his literary impact (if you don’t, then go home and read Junky immediately and cry yourself to sleep for about a week or so); especially regarding a writer’s right to obscenity. Burroughs’ pioneering success at getting Naked Lunch published in lieu of obscenity charges is right up there alongside Ginsberg and Howl.
That’s all well and good. But. . .
Libertarian triumph is not really what concerns me regarding Burroughs. Visions, rather, pique my interest in him.
In Kerouac’s On the Road we find Burroughs, alias Old Bull Lee, gracefully slumming it in a mansion shack outside of New Orleans with his beloved, pre-William Tell Joan Vollmer. In between front-yard soda can shoot-outs and absolute drug-induced space-outs, he is a man concerned with direction. Visions, Burroughs seems to believe, will guide us thru life. A fleeting, subliminal influence; holding out just long enough to give us a turn. After Jack gets an inexplicable feeling about a horse at the racetrack that ends up winning, Burroughs refuses to dismiss it as coincidence. A brief dissertation on visions follows:
“How do you know your father, who was an old horseplayer, just didn’t momentarily communicate to you that Big Pop was going to win the race? The name brought the feeling up in you. . . Mankind will someday realize that we are actually in contact with the dead. . . if we only exerted enough mental will, we could predict what is going to happen within the next hundred years and be able to take steps to avoid catastrophe.”
Granted, this kind of belief can be construed as perhaps a bit too mystical for truly practical application. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just mystical enough. It doesn’t seem to me that the Beats ever particularly shunned the concepts of mysticism. If anything Ginsberg and Snyder rather embraced them. Burroughs exudes a unique concern for humanity on the whole, unlike many of the Beats who seemed more interested in forming a microcosmic society that adhered to their ideology.
What concerns me is that interest in minutiae. The thought that maybe visions grasp those feelings our tongues can’t seem to articulate.
The weight of the inarticulate can be overwhelming at times. The vicious frustration that seems to shut you off from the world. They’re staring at you, your lips moving, forming shoddy attempts at cohesion. . . yet all that’s coming is drivel. After enough time, your frustrated attempts don’t clear anything up, they just seem to build a wall between you and the rest of the world. But you know that it’s important. Whatever it is, you know that it matters. It’s eating you up inside, keeping you up at night and it just won’t come. But it’s the reason you had that one more drink, it’s the reason you quit that job and up and relocated without so much as a word to those that seemed closest to you. Tearing your roots out thru your head just seemed to make sense, but any time someone demands an explanation you can’t do it justice. You can’t really do anything for that matter except stare at them awkwardly with your mouth open and crooked, your nose just as crooked as your thoughts.
It’s like in Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary when Thompson’s alter ego, Kemp, imagines himself being interviewed and questioned as to why it was that he up and left New York City. Thompson blamed it on the ‘sack’. The inevitable sack that comes down over your head and snuffs out your life right before you.
So what the hell are you going to do about it? I guess we need some kind of a compass to steer us away from that looming goddamn sack.
Maybe it is visions that serve as that compass. Visions so fleeting that you can’t even pinpoint them when they flash across your mind. But at the same time, they’re so vibrant and painful that you’re forced into action. After it passes you can’t determine the why or the how. The push came nonetheless. The push out of the way of the sack. One more step in the right direction. One more intelligently placed bet on the right horse. That’s how it worked for Kerouac at least. That’s what sparked Burroughs’ diatribe on the visions in the first place. Something steering us in the right direction.
I suppose, in a technical sense, you could label Burroughs a writer. Novelist. Whatever. Seems like that’d be kind of missing the reality though. After all, the man didn’t start writing for quite a long time, and even after he started, he was constantly being pushed by others to keep on. In the 50s he had settled in at Tangiers to focus more seriously on his writing, yet it was not until Ginsberg and Kerouac arrived in ’57 and pushed him to utilize the “cut-up” technique, that Naked Lunch became the literary phenomenon that it is known as today.
Despite finishing what many see as his magnum opus, it would be several more years before Naked Lunch was even published. When controversial publisher Maurice Girodias decided to take on Naked Lunch it was not at Burroughs insistence. Rather, Girodias had been following the controversies that had sprung up in resistance to the content of the book. Burroughs was simply along for the ride; completely unconcerned with any kind of literary gain or notoriety. And additionally, the paycheck that would hopefully come. Burroughs was at a tough point in his life financially and any kind of monetary break would be a much-welcomed one. After the sale of the international rights to Naked Lunch, a $3,000 advance went to Burroughs from Grove Press. He immediately used it to purchase drugs.
With this brief history of the creation of Naked Lunch, we see Burroughs writing as a means to ends, not as a focus. Ends of travel, drugs, young boys. . . not press parties, exposure, renown. Searching after visions and inspiration. That innate, primordial compass guiding him bit by bit.
If the act of writing itself was simply an aesthetic devotion. . . it follows that something equally as honest would serve as a catalyst. Joan Vollmer’s accidental death, served from his own hands in a drunken game of William Tell gone tragically wrong, proved to be that catalyst. He is quoted as crediting the incident for pushing his life into a different direction:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
Ugly Spirits are vague and vengeful demons. No choice except to write one’s way out? Out of what? That possessive entrapment that looms constantly over one’s head? And what, exactly, might that be? The sack. A vision. We can see how desperately Vollmer’s death affected him. Not simply affected him, but sparked him. And where did it drive him? To exotic locales, drug-induced run-ins with degenerates. . . it drove him to ends of one kind or another. The best way he could possibly hope to articulate that haunting vision that drove him was to credit it as a vague and vengeful Ugly Spirit that refused to abandon his heels.
Vollmer’s death, manifest in the act of writing, magnetized itself to Burroughs. So he kept moving, kept running; occasionally throwing out slips of paper that attempted to make sense of it all. Of course, he barely had the time to even consider them. He just spat them out and left them behind for others to judge.
Magnetized. Like a compass. Maybe after fourteen hundred words you are able to work it out for someone else. Not for yourself, though.
Maybe that’s the juxtaposition of the two. A compass to show you the way and a vision to get you started. Not that you’ll understand either of them. And maybe you don’t need to. After all, it doesn’t really matter where you find it.
by David S. Wills
The novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen: it has dozens of characters, few of whom are developed from their initial appearance; the action is set in cities all over the world; it is composed of many small, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional story line. It is a novel with a great deal of talk, and the rule of film is that movies move, with minimal talk.
William S. Burroughs, speaking in 1991
With the publication of Naked Lunch there immediately came the cries of “obscene!” from so many conservatives and critics. Nevertheless, the book won its obscenity trial and was released to the general public in the United States, becoming a notorious classic – one of the most depraved and perverse books in modern history, and more importantly a ferocious assault on society and government.
It seemed unlikely, then, that Naked Lunch would one day become a feature film. Yet, not long after the obscenity trial that declared the book of enough social value to be unleashed upon the public, William S. Burroughs was plotting its way into cinema.
From the late sixties until the mid seventies Burroughs tried to turn his literary masterpiece into a commercially viable film. He enlisted the help of legendary British director and producer, Antony Balch, and fellow cut up master and friend, Brion Gysin.
The three men formed a production company in 1970, called Friendly Films Limited. They reviewed screenplays, treatments and ran through ideas together on how to make Naked Lunch work as a movie.
Of course, there were myriad problems. For one thing, it had been a major headache releasing the book because of laws regarding obscenity. It wouldn’t be easy to put together such a pornographic project without incurring the wrath of the censors, or, once again, the law.
Furthermore, Naked Lunch isn’t comprised of a traditional narrative that would adapt well to the screen. The story jumps around wildly through time and space, with characters rarely developing, if at all. Its fragmentary composition would surely baffle film-goers.
This all made the project increasingly unlikely, especially given the cost of making films. Whereas as book could be written with no more wasted than the time and effort of the author (and perhaps a few hundred sheets of paper) a movie cost at least a few hundred thousand dollars to make. And Naked Lunch would have been no ordinary movie: the constant shift from city to city to city would demand filming on location on several different continents.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many considered Naked Lunch “unfilmable”.
Documents still exist in the archive of Terry Wilson – a friend of Burroughs, Gysin and Balch – that let us see what the three men had in mind for filming the “unfilmable” project. Through letters, screenplays and storyboards it is possible to examine the vision they had in attempting to bring Naked Lunch to the screen.
To get around the disjointed narrative the story was to be reordered around certain key points – “intersection points” – that Burroughs dictated. This would have given the plot a little more coherence. Additionally, characters would develop more than in the novel, in line with what Burroughs’ later works suggested would happen – switching quickly through a variety of possible scenarios. For example, Dr. Benway, who appears in several of Burroughs’ novels, would have developed according to his activities outwith Naked Lunch.
Of course, Naked Lunch was never an entirely fictional book. Certain elements were highly autobiographical, and it was possible to elaborate upon the text by simply looking at reality. Gysin- who was the primary screenplay writer for the project – only had to look back at people and places he and Burroughs had encountered together in Tangiers, to find inspiration for additional material. As Gysin said, “Interzone, of course, was Burroughs’ very personal vision of the Tangier scene in the 1950’s, here reinterpreted by me to include the cast of characters whom we both knew there at that time.” The result was a strange mix of fiction and reality.
It was also a challenge finding someone to play the role of William Lee, who would most likely have taken a larger role in the movie than in the book (as in fact was the case in Cronenberg’s movie, twenty years later). Burroughs wrote a confusing, frantic note to Gysin on May 6th 1971:
You see Lee in a sense is an idealized image of the writer able to do all sorts of things the writer can’t do well so maybe start would be possible writer I mean actor who could do a predistiginal you dig. You want somebody to shoot find somebody knows how to shoot just like we find somebody who knows how to hang for the hanging scenes. Just a thought. CAN WE MAKE OUR OWN LEE FROM THE C SCRIPT? It seems to me that the first essential for Lee is PHYSICAL PRESENCE BEING THERE. Love, William.
To get around the shifting and switching of time and space, Gysin proposed something called “Transvestite Airlines” – a device used to transport characters from one time/location to another in an instant.
Perhaps the least surprising element intended for use was that of wild and creative cuts to slice through the randomness of the text. One can’t help but observe that readers of Naked Lunch decades after its first publication probably perceive the book differently in part because of the developments of cinema, which have imposed upon our minds a framework of possibility – allowing present day readers to imagine such cuts as we read, applying some of the rules of experimental cinema to the text of an experimental novel.
An example of the above techniques and ideas can be seen in the following excerpt of a synopsis, one of many versions of many possible plots:
Some say that A.J. is the real controller of the world. A.J. kept Dentway alive to use his genius, hidden in his secret fortress in the heart of Africa in Interzone. Lee travels on a very strange airline to Interzone, determined to find Dentway and get his secret. However, on arrival in this strange land he finds that no one has ever heard of A.J. or his fortress . . . no one that is, except for a small boy. The Shoe Shine boy tells Lee he knows the hideout and will take him there. On arrival at the fortress they are met by Salvador O’Leary Chapultapec, A.J.’s right hand man who was expecting them. Inside the fortress, Salvador shows Lee the hospital wing where the captured Dr. Benway, who has gone mad, is perfecting his newest and even more hideous technique for A.J. A secret meeting for heads of state and visitors from space will be held to demonstrate Dentway’s latest horror. The show is so frightening that Lee, helped by the Shoe Shine boy, sets fire to the fortress and escapes. Nick’s hand extinguishes the fire which is in the ashtray on the Everhard bar and hands Lee his junk. Lee leaves the bath at dawn and buys an old typewriter . . .
One of the more interesting things to note from this excerpt is the cut that keeps the story flowing in spite of the massive jump in time and space. They intended to move as smoothly as possible from an image of a fire in a jungle fortress into a gay bar ashtray.
In 1963 Burroughs, Gysin and Balch collaborated on the short film Towers Open Fire. Directed by Balch, the film featured Moroccan music performed by Gysin, and voice-overs by the unmistakable sardonic Burroughs.
Perhaps of most interest to us are the shots of Burroughs and Gysin performing their cut-up technique, by slicing up a piece of writing and then reading the disjointed results. We also see the “Dreammachine,” Gysin’s zoetropic device that is watched through closed eyes…
In 1966 Burroughs and Gysin worked together to create the short film, The Cut Ups. Whilst filmed before they began plotting a movie of Naked Lunch, The Cut Ups nonetheless came from their collaboration in the aftermath of the publication of Naked Lunch and thus may be able to tell us a little about what we could have expected from the doomed project.
In a word, The Cut Ups is weird. It is a highly experimental film, with a soundtrack of the words “Yes” “Hello” “Look at that picture. Does it seem to be persisting?” “Good” and “Thank you!” run together over a series of seemingly disconnected images that feels very much like an odd dream sequence.
The clips that accompany the unusual soundtrack are mostly of Gysin and Burroughs. When Gysin appears we see him wearing a sweater with a calligraphic design of his own creation, walking through the street. In another scene he is working on paintings. We also see his “Dreammachine.” These scenes often begin with a roller painting a grid.
Burroughs is usually seen looking for or hiding something or things. He is going through a large collection of objects.
All of this is cut together extremely fast, with some of the action sped up. An image is barely on screen for more than a second or two, but then we return moments later and see another brief glimpse of whatever seemingly random thing it was that we were being shown.
These films can both be seen on Towers Open Fire and Other Films by Antony Balch. They also collaborated on other projects, which can be viewed freely on www.ubu.com along with a great many other Beat resources.
In 1991 Naked Lunch was finally committed to film by the director David Cronenberg, and with Burroughs’ permission. Cronenberg acknowledged the book’s label of being “unfilmable”, saying that a straight forward adaptation would “cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world.” Indeed, that’s not hard to imagine.
Instead of filming the events and characters of the book, Cronenberg merged the book with the life of Burroughs, and even with some of his other works. It is metatextual in as much as the film depiction the creation of the book.
Interestingly, Cronenberg decided to blur the lines between reality and hallucination. What transpires the in novel and what actually happened to Burroughs in life are all viewed as a hazy drug-trip. One is never entirely sure what is going on.
Many well known friends and associates of Burroughs are depicted in the movie, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as events that formed part of the Beat consciousness, such as the shooting of Joan Vollmer.
In fact, one could view the movie less as an adaptation of the book than as a biopic with elements of Naked Lunch thrown in to represent the perpetual junk haze in which Burroughs spent most of his life.
The movie featured some of the book’s most memorable moments, including the characters William Lee and Dr. Benway, as well as the Mugumps and the talking asshole, and the locations Interzone and Annexia. All of these were used very differently in the movie than in the book.
With the release of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Burroughs distanced himself somewhat from previous attempts to film the “unfilmable.” He said that “the late Brion Gysin and Antony Balch, set out to adapt it for film,” failing to mention his own input. Also, Gysin’s screenplay had been “long on burlesque . . . a series of music-hall comedy songs that he composed.” He appeared content with the result of a twenty year pursuit for a silver-screen version of his literary classic.
It should be noted, however, that Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy made some very interesting points in criticising the movie. He argues that whereas Burroughs’ depiction of drug abuse and homosexuality were politically and socially charged, Cronenberg’s proved merely for show, a heartless portrait of something without any meaning. Moreover, the literary techniques Burroughs used for his devastating social and political critiques become merely the ramblings of a junky in the movie, rather than something to be respected and studied.
Indeed, fans and critics seemed generally sated by Cronenberg’s effort. Whilst many complained about a lack of faith to the original text, many realised that it had indeed been “unfilmable” in its true form. Cronenberg had certainly achieved something spectacular by coming this close.
by David S. Wills
In Issue Two of Beatdom, we ran a story about the women of the Beat Generation, and we obviously talked a little about Joan Vollmer. However, we didn’t say enough to do her justice, for she was a fascinating character who became famous for all the wrong reasons.
Vollmer took a bullet in the head from her husband, William S. Burroughs, on September 6th, 1951, and went down in literary history as no more than a wife and a victim of a drunken attempt at William Tell…
But Vollmer was the embodiment of Beat. She was ferociously intelligent and an incredible rebel. She loved drugs and sex, philosophy and chaos. She was privy to the creation of the Beat Generation, as her apartment in New York was the centre of the pre-history of the movement.
Ginsberg wrote ‘Howl’ after dreaming of Vollmer and Burroughs claimed to have only ever written because of her death. Every major participant of the movement agrees upon one thing – that she was intelligent and witty. Her influence upon the Beats was undeniable.
In histories of the Beat Generation, Vollmer is afforded far more importance than any other female member of the group or its associated movements and circles. She is treated almost like the men… But not quite. She is still denied her place.
Indeed, she was never the artist her male counterparts were. She was a muse and more, but she never wrote a book or a poem. Consequently, her memory continues through the literature of her contemporaries, who for some reason seem to deny her the respect we know they had…
We will take a look at some of the more significant references here, to get a grip on how she was viewed by her contemporaries.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Alias – Jane Lee
His relation with his wife was one of the strangest: they talked till late at night; Bull liked to hold the floor, he went right on in his dreary monotonous voice, she tried to break in, she never could; at dawn he got tired and then Jane talked and he listened
Here Kerouac describes an interesting relationship between Burroughs and his wife, as well as inferring her importance to the rest of the Beats. Vollmer is seen as an active participant, and keen study. She listens and shows respect, but is ultimately allowed to speak, and has the attention of Burroughs, and of Kerouac.
However, in On the Road, Kerouac is describing Vollmer after the period of time she spent in New York, when her influence could be greater felt, and whilst in the sad and pathetic state of her addiction to bennies.
Although this is sadly the most famous reference to Vollmer in the Beat canon, it does her the least justice.
Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City
Alias – Mary Dennison
There's no doubt about the fact that Mary Dennison is mad, but that's only because she wants to be mad. What she has to say about the world, about everybody falling apart, about everybody clawing aggressively at one another in one grand finale of our glorious culture, about the madness in high places and the insane disorganized stupidity of the people who let themselves be told what to do and what to think by charlatans -- all that is true! …There's only one real conclusion to be drawn. In Mary's words, everybody got the atomic disease, everybody's radioactive.
Here Ginsberg’s character is speaking about Joan Vollmer. Despite her never getting a speaking part in this novel, her ideas are not only mentioned, but described. Her opinion so valued by Ginsberg and Kerouac, that it deserves a single paragraph. We can see in her paraphrased idea, that she shared the Beat principals and world perception.
Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz
Alias – June
In this nearly non-speaking role, Joan is again referenced as a silent intellectual. Her home is the hangout, her intelligence is acknowledged, but she only gets one brief and dramatic paraphrased line:
I can never forget how June’s present husband, Harry Evans, suddenly came clomping down the hall of her apartment in his Army boots, fresh from the German front, around September 1945, and he was appalled to see us, six fullgrown people, all high on Benny sprawled and sitting and cat-legged on that vast double-doublebed of ‘skepticism’ and ‘decadence’, discussing the nothingness of values, pale-faced, weak bodies, Gad the poor guy said: ‘This is what I fought for?’ His wife told him to come down from his ‘character heights’ or some such.
Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
Alias – June
Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans
Alias – Jane
This novel proves of little use in highlighting the role of Vollmer in the Beat Generation, except that she appears in memories that Kerouac has. Her ghost remains with him, a spectre of the past.
William S. Burroughs, Junky
In this novel, we barely get a reference to Burroughs’ wife, and she isn’t even mentioned by name. We are introduced to her when Burroughs is arrested, and he tells the police he has a drug-addict wife.
Later, Burroughs slaps her across the face twice for throwing his heroin on the floor. She tells him the drug is making him boring, but then backs down and tells him to do whatever.
John Clellon Holmes, Go
Alias – Liza Adler
Unhappily married to an officer still in Japan, she had an integrated insolence toward everything which made her insights seem the more brilliant and audacious,and her insistence on the fragility of all human relationships profound. Liza was… a fascinating and sickly plant that thrived on the stifling atmosphere of argument over coffee and the student's tendency to analyze everything and reduce it to a "manifestation" of something else. She was, on top of this, a violent Marxist with a quick, destructive tongue and a mental agility. She battled with him in class, mocked him to his face, asked him openly to have meals with her, attacked him for his "unconscious fascism," doused all his ideas in the cold water of logic, and finally made a class confederate of him.
Here we see the depiction of Joan Vollmer that is recognizable as the intellectual only briefly referenced by Kerouac. We see her charm the narrator with her brilliance. This is a character that one can imagine being held in high regard by the other Beats, rather than the silent girl in the shadows, portrayed by too many of her contemporaries.
Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw
Though through his own writing, one barely notices he has a wife, the biography of William Burroughs, by Ted Morgan, presents a view of Vollmer that is more balanced and fair that that found in Kerouac or Burroughs. He presents Vollmer as an equal to Ginsberg, and as a truly revolutionary thinker. His depiction of Vollmer is drawn from the views held by Burroughs and Edie Parker.
Edie thought Joan was the most intelligent girl she had ever met. She had an independent mind, always questioning what anyone said, including her teachers at Barnard. In one of her marginal notes in her copy of Marx's Capital and Other Writings, there are echoes of Burroughs’: "Maybe Marxism is dynamic and optimistic, and Freudianism is not. Is one more serviceable than the other? Why does it always have to be either/or?"
Indeed, from reading about Vollmer’s notes, one does see the influence of Burroughs… Or perhaps it is not so much the influence of Burroughs that we note as the influence of Vollmer upon Burroughs… If Burroughs respected and listened to his wife so much, perhaps some his wit and cynicism came from her. It sounds like that is a possibility.
Morgan also notes that Vollmer was remarkably well read. She seems to have similar influences to the men in the Beat circle, and seemed to enjoy reading and talking about these books and theories whilst in the bath. She also loved classical music and talking about philosophy whilst on 110th Street and Broadway.
But perhaps the most valuable quote comes from page 123:
Burroughs saw Joan as a woman of unusual insight. She was the smartest member of the group, he thought, certainly as smart as Allen, in many ways smarter, because there were limits to Allen's thinking, but none to Joan's. She started Burroughs thinking in new directions, got him interested in the Mayans, suggested that Mayan priests must have had some sort of telepathic control. She had an odd and original way of looking at things, and a great insight into character. For instance she said about Jack that he had a natural inborn fear of authority and that if the cops ever questioned him his mouth would fall and out would come the name they wanted.
Here is what we’ve felt but been denied through the works of the most famous Beats: a glimpse of the true estimation of Joan Vollmer. She was not a silent outsider, nor was she denied recognition. She was admired as an intellectual heavyweight, someone smarter than Allen Ginsberg. She even had opinions about the so-called King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac.
But if Vollmer was so highly thought of, then why do her aliases take a side role in Beat literature?
Sadly, it seems that Beat literature may have stemmed from the deep and dark thoughts of brilliant young minds, but it sold because of the wild antics. Vollmer was a woman, and she was above much of the juvenile delinquency that made the others famous. When she is referenced as a mysterious figure in Kerouac and Burroughs, it is because talk only carries so far. The action was carried out by the men, and consequently Vollmer was relegated to the history books.
Her untimely death didn’t help much, either.
Neal Cassady, Collected Letters, 1944-1976
Joan is brittle, blasé brittleness is her forte. With sharpened laughs and dainty oblique statements she fashions the topic at hand. You know these things, I need not elaborate. But you ask for an angle, well, Julie’s hair is matted with dirt I told; oh fuck it, disintegration of continued habit patterns (child raising here) has Joan laboring in a bastardized world wherein the supply of benzedrine completely conditions her reaction to everyday life. ETC. I love her.
In his Collected Letters, which was of course not published during his lifetime (Cassady published nothing whilst alive), there are many references to Vollmer. Mostly, she appears as another character in the early days of the Beats, as she does in Kerouac’s books. But the above quote shows a little more depth. It paints a sad portrait of Vollmer, but alludes to her intelligence.
Herbert Huncke, Guilty of Everything
The clique consisted Joan, Bill, Allen, who had a place of his own but spent a great deal of time there, myself, and later, Jack Kerouac… They were very witty with a terrific bite, almost vitriolic with their sarcasm. They could carry on these extremely witty conversations… I couldn’t always understand them, and it used make me feel sort of humiliated because I obviously did not know what they were talking about.
Huncke was a close friend of Vollmer’s. He was frequent visitor to her apartment in New York, and even came to visit her when she lived with Burroughs in Texas. He thought she was stunningly beautiful and extremely intelligent.
In 2000, Gary Walkow made a film called Beat that sounds as though it adds to the memory of Joan Vollmer, but rather perverts and distorts the story of her life. Walkow was happy to do an interview with Beatdom for Issue Three… until he realised that our questions all revolved around his shockingly poor filmmaking and truth-telling abilities. The interview never came to light…
James W. Grauerholz wrote an enlightening document on the infamous ‘William Tell’ incident, that shows Walkow’s representation as not so much a distortion or artistic interpretation of the facts, as a flat-out lie.
Grauerholz commented upon the film and the statement on the production company’s website that claims the film to be utterly true and based upon hard research and a collaboration with Burroughs.
Funnily enough, Grauerholz recalls when he and Burroughs were approached by Walkow at an airport, but dismissed him as ‘a creep.’ The film was surrounded by false representations, and exists only as a perversion of the history of the Beat Generation and an unfair portrait of Joan Vollmer.
Unfortunately, one has to dig deep to find a fair representation of Vollmer.
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.