Archives For john clellon holmes

Coming Soon: The Beat Interviews

We are delighted to announce that John Tytell’s book, The Beat Interviews, will be released on October 18th by Beatdom Books. The Beat Interviews cover preview


About the Author:

John Tytell (born May 17, 1939) is an American writer and academic, whose works on such literary figures as Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs, have made him both a leading scholar of the Beat Generation, and a respected name in literature in general. He has been a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York since 1963. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987).



About the Book:

In The Beat Interviews, John Tytell speaks with Beat Generation luminaries Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg about their lives and the lives of their contemporaries. These groundbreaking interviews were conducted in the 1970s and are collected here together for the first time. In addition, the author has gathered essays giving insight into the style and philosophy of the Beats, elucidating upon the interviews to provide a unique comprehensive overview of the Beat movement.


About the Publisher:

Beatdom Books was founded in 2007. This small, independent press has published books about the Beat Generation, such as Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry (2012), David S. Wills’ Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, Philip Willey’s Naked Tea: The Burroughs Bits, and Marc Olmsted’s Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72-’97. It also publishes a small number of fiction and poetry titles, as well as the internationally acclaimed Beatdom literary journal.



Early Commentary:

Tytell is a great companion.  Here at the top of his form he celebrates the Beats with his all-encompassing sensitivity to the major writers.  Tytell’s deep commitment and warm personal insights shine through The Beat Interviews.

– Ann Charters, author of Kerouac: A Biography, and editor of Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.


Just when we thought there was nothing more to say about the Beat Generation, John Tytell’s new book is refreshing.  At the heart of the book are his interviews, conducted when the key figures were alive and talking.  The straightforward Q and A format allows us to hear their distinctive voices before they were edited and tidied up as literary history.  It is rare to be able to enjoy the oral voice so clearly.

– Steven Watson, author of The Birth of the Beat Generation.


In addition to being one of the country’s leading scholars in the field of Beat Studies, John Tytell was intimate with most of the era’s major literary figures.  That fact alone makes these interviews indispensable.  He has interspersed insightful essays throughout this exceptional collection of interviews, to reveal each writer as a truly unique individual.  Nevertheless they somehow merged to form one of America’s greatest generations of authors.  Tytell’s enlightened and unsurpassed approach makes for worthwhile reading and is a researcher’s dream.

– Bill Morgan, author of The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Guide and editor of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.


It is wonderful to start the book with Huncke and so nice to also read and therefore be in the same room with Carl. And the second Chapter The COOL World sets up Holmes interview, and is really important stuff. And all the essays in the book are really well done and INTERESTING!! So if this new book can excite an 83 year old, imagine what a gift this book will be to younger folks!!

– David Amram, author of Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac.

If John Tytell’s new book were merely a re-visit to these stars of the Beat Generation from an earlier time, The Beat Interviews would be a valuable reminder of who they were to anyone interested in this unique counter cultural literati. But, this slim volume is so much more. Interwoven with the writers’ first hand accounts, Tytell’s sharp analysis, honed by decades-long scrutiny, updates the record and corrects the revisionism as time moves farther from the facts. The impulse to mythologize, inherent to the Beat movement, is busted here, and the truth is so much more exciting. Now that the beat writers have
entered history, this book is essential reading for understanding their lives and literature, from a critic who was there from the beginning.

– Regina Weinreich, author of Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics, editor of Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, and co-producer/director of the documentary, Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.


John Tytell’s The Beat Interviews, a rich collection of some of the raw material behind Professor Tytell’s considerable scholarship, offers a first-hand focus on significant Beat Generation figures Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg.  Though several of them have taken on a larger-than-life status, their interviews offer an inescapable sense of their personal presence: Huncke talks to us with his “midnight mouth,” Burroughs gives us his unadorned Factualist truths, and Ginsberg shares personal recollections and literary insight on Burroughs himself…. A sixth “interviewee” is John Tytell, whose commentaries on each author are so conversationally written we’re certain he too is seated close, talking to us.

– Gordon Ball, author of East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg and Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness.


John Tytell’s Beat interviews are particularly illuminating because he has always known the right questions to ask. Like all his valuable work on the Beats, starting with the ground-breaking Naked Angels, this book reflects a profound and informed understanding of their place in American literature, their cultural importance and the tumultuous lives they lived.

– Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters and The Voice is All.

Go… the Summer, Fall, and Winter of Discontent

The summer, the fall, and the winter of discontent, shovel after shovel of snow that turns to filthy slush, as in slush pile (publishers’ slush piles) . . . the discontent of youth, the discontent of marriage, the discontent of writers, the discontent of New Yorkers, and the discontent that turns to temporary joy at the nightclub The Go Hole. “Go! Go!” and “gone.” The discontent of life right from the beginning, as whimsically stated by William Blake:

“My mother groan’d! my father weapt.
Into the dangerous world I leapt” i

Go the 1952 novel by John Clellon Holmes is a must for any serious Beat reader. It has none of the poetry of Kerouac, but provides an authentic background and clear insight into character, especially chilling are portraits of Bill Cannastra and Neal Cassady. Holmes delivers compelling studies of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and some more minor characters, such as a sympathetic one of Luanne Henderson.
Go was published five years before On the Road, “your book was accepted and mine rejected,” ii in an ironic, fascinating bit of publishing history. “What do I do now? . . . It’s been nothing but a dream all along. How can I earn money? What job can I do?” All those years of writing, gathering material, writing, writing, writing, and then, nothing, rejection, humiliation, a “numb bewilderment of these hapless thoughts.” iii
When reading the Beats, keep in mind that before the Beat Generation, this was the World War II Generation, as explained in this passage about The Go Hole:

“The Go Hole was where all the high schools, the swing bands, and the roadhouses of their lives had led these young people; and above all it was the result of their vision of a wartime America as a monstrous danceland, extending from coast to coast . . . In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them . . . It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life . . . and these introverted kids . . . who had never belonged anywhere before, now felt somewhere at last.” iv

So the go in Go comes from the muse, Neal Cassady , called Hart, who makes no attempt to hide his excitement for the music in his “enormous nervous energy” as he grins and mumbles his approval: “Go! Go!” As Hart shouts “go!” at the musicians, the audience is yelling “go!” at Hart. Holmes, called Hobbes, sees through Hart’s con man ways, but Jack, called Pasternak, and Allen, called Stofsky, adore him. v
The rest is history, Beat history, and once again, in the words of Blake, which Stofsky takes to heart:

“Seek love in the pity of other’s woe,
In the gentle relief of another’s care,
In the darkness of night & the winter’s snow
In the naked and outcast, seek love there!” vi

i Holmes, John Clellon. Go. (Mamaroneck, New York: Paul P. Appel, Publisher, 1977). p. 70.
ii Ibid., p. 254.
iii Ibid., p. 250.
iv Ibid., p. 161.
v Ibid., p. 115-116.
vi Ibid., p. 276.

Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation

John Holmes at Kerouac's Funeral

We recently passed a watershed moment in modern American literature, as November, 2012, marked sixty years since John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine.

To many, this is the sum of all Holmes is known for.

His seminal Beat novel Go, also published sixty years ago (five years ahead of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road), still remains in the shadow of Kerouac’s first book about those times. As evidenced by one of the most popular social networking websites, the cult of celebrity embraces Kerouac. The various tribute pages devoted to Kerouac see traffic from over a quarter of a million people, while the single page dedicated to Holmes draws slightly more than three hundred followers.

Even people who knew him personally seem oblivious to the facts of his life.

In our last issue, Al Hinkle – who is portrayed as a character in both books – noted that Holmes’ version of the period “is probably the more accurate.” However, Hinkle goes on to speak of Holmes’ first wife, “Marian was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.” The fact is that after divorcing Marian, Holmes married Shirley Radulovich in September, 1953, and the couple remained together until 1988, dying within weeks of each other. Both were victims of cancers attributed to their heavy use of tobacco. These facts are found in the richly informative book Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Brother-Souls gives us a painstakingly accurate account of the intertwined lives of the two men. In so doing, it also unveils a myriad of previously-unknown facts about peripheral personalities like Hinkle, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, and many others.

If not for the frequently-noted dates and fastidious footnotes, this work of non-fiction would read like a novel – a novel deserving space on the same shelf between Go and On the Road. While On the Road has its hero in the central figure of Cassady as Dean Moriarty, Go looks at the same period with its focus on Ginsberg as David Stofsky. It is at Ginsberg’s party at his apartment in Spanish Harlem where he, Holmes, and Kerouac initially met in July 1948.

Also in our last issue, Ann Charters mentioned that she and husband Samuel worked on Brother-Souls to “redress that wrong” done to Holmes by Kerouac, when he portrayed the former as “a wimpy rival.” She told us that “It was a difficult book to write but one of its pleasures was the opportunity to give back Holmes his voice as a writer who was an enormous influence on Kerouac.”

It can be argued that the first piece of what would become known as Beat Literature appeared in early 1948 when Holmes published his jazz/slang-infused short story, “Tea for Two,” in Jay Landesman’s magazine, Neurotica. The little magazine founded by St. Louis, Missouri, native Landesman, Neurotica became, in style and spirit, the first Beat-themed literary journal even before the term “Beat” was coined.

A few months earlier, at age twenty-two, he broke into the publishing world with a book review printed in the March, 1948, issue of Poetry magazine. The following year, he sent the first chapters of his novel to Landesman. about the colorful characters in burgeoning Bohemian scene, which flourished around him in New York’s Greenwich Village.

At roughly the same time, he heard stories about another young writer he referred to as “Karawak” in his journal, who had written a novel, The Town and The City. As yet unpublished, the only copy was the fat manuscript typed by Kerouac, which was being passed around and talked about in the literary circles of New York City’s young intellectuals, to which Holmes was privy. Both men met at the party and, after sizing each other up in their perspective journals, soon became fast friends and confidants.

Before reaching this point in the book, the Charters’ not only detail the childhoods of both men but trace their family trees, as well – on one side back to the 1736 death of Maurice-Louis Alexandre Le Bris de Kerouack, and on the other back to 1594, when George Holmes was born in England. Interestingly, Holmes’ family tree included not only one-time presidential candidate John McClellan Holmes, Sr., the celebrated Union general of the Civil War, and the renowned essayist and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a male ancestor who married a woman from the family in which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born.

Ironies and similarities such as their same birthdate of March 12, (Kerouac was five years older) are recounted, as are vivid shared memories of the Flood of 1936, which Kerouac witnessed from the banks of the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. Eighty miles upstream, Holmes watched from the side of the Pemagawassett River, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, as it rose and flowed into the Merrimack, carrying the same waters and debris which neither of them would ever forget.

One early question left open is why they both decided to become writers. The closest thing to an answer may be the “On Spontaneous Prose” section of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters and published by Viking Penguin in 1995. Significantly, in that volume, she conceived the idea of tracing Kerouac’s life through a collection of his writings. When she mentioned the project to Holmes, he told her that he had the same idea in 1965. Not long before his death, Holmes suggested that he and Charters collaborate on it but as his health deteriorated, he passed it back to her with his blessings and an offer of help if she needed it.

In Brother-Souls, we have two scribes writing about two other writers. This unique circumstance makes for more than just a diligent study of two convergent writers; it gives insight into their individual writing processes and an insider’s look at the business of writing and publishing in America at that time.

Aside from the usual suspects, we meet Landesman and Gershon Legman. Legman would become editor of Neurotica and his influence on Holmes is noted. Ginsberg had his first “professional” poem published in the sixth issue of Neurotica in 1950. A collaboration written with Kerouac, who took no credit, “Song: Fie My Fum” was met with derision by Legman, who voiced his first impression of the poem by asking, “Did it take two of them to write that piece of shit?” Ginsberg rankled at the fact that Landesman required him to get down on his knees before accepting one of his poems. The poem was four stanzas culled from the poem “Pull My Daisy,” to which some accounts credit shared authorship to Cassady, as well.

Carl Solomon, recently released from New York State Psychiatric Institute where he met Ginsberg, had rented an apartment, and as suggested by former institute-roomie Ginsberg, threw a New Year’s party to usher in 1950. Landesman showed up with Holmes and was initially attracted by Solomon’s “certifiable” state of insanity and his experience with electroshock treatments but, when approached, Solomon steered him towards Ginsberg and Kerouac as being better choices for writers. Just before this scene, we are treated to a look at the meeting of Ginsberg and Solomon, for whom “Howl” was dedicated.

The Charters’ follow Ginsberg to his meeting with William Carlos Williams who advises him to, drop rhyming metric poetry, in favor of the “variable breath-stop length for metric measurement” as well as looking to his own experiences for the subject matter in his poems.

We see Holmes quickly establish himself as an “accepted” poet by 1950, with submissions published in Partisan Review and Harper’s magazines. However, in order to satisfy himself as being a real writer, he felt the novel was the form that he needed to master. To this end, he kept copious journals of the events of his life and of those around him. These were the source material for the chapters of Go which he sent to Landesman in 1949. Always generous with his friends, Holmes tried to help Ginsberg by sending his poems to his editor at Partisan Review. He also spent his time offering encouragement to Kerouac, who was also trying to find his voice in his “road novel” while trying to find a publisher for The Town and the City. During 1950-51, while Holmes wrote Go, Kerouac visited his apartment daily, to drink, talk, and – most importantly – read the novel page by page as it issued from Holmes’ typewriter. It is very likely, On the Road, given these circumstances, may never have found a form were it not for the encouragement and example given by the younger Holmes.

While this review/essay is not written to “kneecap” Kerouac, we have to wonder if (after all the ballyhoo, Gap adverts, Facebook pages, and movie treatments) the progression and continued adulation of the Beat Generation as we know it would even have been possible without Holmes. While Ginsberg is typically seen as the gadfly of the collected group of writers, throwing parties and initiating meetings, it was Holmes who opened the doors to Neurotica for them. Any writer knows the magnitude of the importance of publishing their first piece of work outside of school, and in a professional publication. Few things are more encouraging than seeing your own name in print for the first time.

To a group of writers who unashamedly pushed the limits of sanity, to whom mental instability actually became a badge of honor, the steep precipice of self-doubt reached by the constant rejection of one’s work could be the hardest hurdle to clear. By coincidentally meeting Landesman, Legman, Kerouac, and Ginsberg all in that same July weekend, could Holmes have been the spark that was necessary to set off the Beat firecracker? Perhaps the truest irony of his depiction as “wimpy” is that he is the most obvious catalyst which brought them all exposure.

Neal Cassady is most often seen as the touchstone at the center of the group, although it has been said that they all would have followed Burroughs anywhere he went. The more we unravel Cassady, the less grand of a person he becomes. Holmes mentions the black and blue marks left by Cassady, on LuAnne Henderson. His capacity for mental cruelty and abandoning wives and friends at crucial times most likely stems from his own abandonment by his father in Denver, Colorado. Holmes stayed steady in his support of Kerouac’s work, even as the latter heralded Cassady as the superior writer in the group and referred to him in a letter as his “only true friend.” Cassady responded in kind, in his usual manner, by abandoning him in Mexico City, sick with fever and dysentery.

In his moodiness, Kerouac’s misanthropy also got the best of him. Shouting matches between he and Holmes kept to an intellectual level. In barrooms, he was severely beaten more than once, thanks to his mouth and temper but especially as his alcoholic deterioration worsened. Holmes became hesitant to tell him about advances he got from publishers, for fear of setting him off. One point that Kerouac dwelt on during his struggles with On the Road was that Holmes “had no right to write a book about everyone’s private lives.” Both men were doing the same thing, writing about the same people and situations from different angles. Reading Go as it was written page by page kept him from duplicating scenes already covered by Holmes – but working around another serious writer could be enervating for anyone.

In all fairness to Kerouac, artists who show genius, often do so to express what they cannot in normal life and interpersonal relationships. As artists, writers may plumb themselves to reach those recesses and depths of feeling which are too painful or impossible to relate in any other way. In his essay “Are Writers Born or Made?” he distinguished between talent and genius, observing that many may show “talent” but genius is the rarity. “Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber,” he noted, “but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through – originality.”

While we appreciate the work they leave behind, the inner torment they endure is not a pretty thing – consider Van Gogh disfiguring himself, Rimbaud cultivating head lice “to throw on passing clergymen,” or Artaud’s claim to having been “suicided by society.” Holmes may have sealed his own fate by being too well-mannered. After all, we learn that Holmes was the only one of Kerouac’s friends that his mother Memère did not dislike.

Nonetheless, about three weeks after Holmes finished the last pages of Go, Kerouac became inspired by a letter from Cassady which turned into a rabid series of letters between them. The excitement of these exchanges prompted him to pull all of his notes together and unleash the torrent within upon the now-famous scroll he fed through his typewriter. It seems safe to say that while Cassady sparked him to action, Holmes laid the foundation during those daily visits. The resulting three-week period of speed, coffee, and typing which resulted in On the Road has since snowballed into an oft-told tale, but Brother-Souls reminds the reader that this was not all spontaneous prose. Kerouac’s fastidious habit of keeping notebooks provided for a vast amount of his material.

Between the five years, from the writing to its publication in 1957, the details and struggles of both men’s lives and work come to life in print. Meanwhile, other key events fall into place: Ginsberg meets his life-long companion, Peter Orlovsky; there is the first reading of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl for Carl Solomon” at 6 Gallery; Kerouac writes and details the remaining six books of the “Legend of Duluoz” along with three other volumes; the first complete reading of “Howl” takes place (and is attended by Samuel Charters); and the Beat Movement goes mainstream. While most of the key players became victims of the fame, Ginsberg used it to his advantage.

When City Lights got charged with obscenity for distributing Howl and Other Poems, more fuel was added to the fire – especially when presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled it to be not obscene. Curiously, Ginsberg slighted Holmes with the omission of his name from the dedication page. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady got a nod from the poet, placing them forever in the highest order of Beats. Holmes had gone out of his way to get Ginsberg published, sending his work to New Directions after his editor at Partisan Review  passed on it, as well as paying the grand compliment of making him the central character in Go. The depiction of Ginsberg in the book posits a good theory as to why he was snubbed. Kerouac had called Holmes “savage” in his treatment of the people he wrote about. Ginsberg for his part, had been disappointed in the account of his Blakean vision but, at the same time admitted to the veracity of the portrayal of himself.

“You really haven’t caught the way it felt,” he told Holmes, “but you’ve caught something else. You’ve caught the solemn funny little kid I guess I must have been in those days.” It seems that no amount of speculation will ever get to the heart of it but the glaring fact of Holmes’ exclusion from the dedication and the hurtfulness of the action cannot be overlooked. The Charters’ attribute some of it to Holmes distancing himself by leaving New York to live in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, but Cassady and Burroughs were both much further removed geographically.

Six months after the appearance of On the Road, Kerouac published The Subterraneans (to be followed in another six months by The Dharma Bums), heightening his fame but not his luck. With money in his pocket for a change, he traveled out of the United States. As usual, he quickly returned to New York to stay close to his mother. One night, while trying to reach the proper degree of stupor in a local bar, he sustained a broken nose and arm from a beating by a homosexual professional boxer, who claimed he had slurred an insult at him. Later, the depiction of Cassady as pothead led to his arrest and imprisonment.

The whole Beat scene, which thrived in the underground, exploded across the media in 1958, meeting curiosity, admiration, and derision. The term “Beatnik” popped up – a poke in the eye, as it was spawned from the name “Sputnik,” the space craft launched by Russia. Nothing linked to Russia could be good in those days. To word irked both men, as they saw it as a symbol of the manipulation, commercialization, and degradation of their once-pure vision. Every critic, pundit, journalist, and magazine writer had something to say about the phenomenon, ranging from suspicions of dangerous revolutions and proliferation of juvenile delinquents to dismissals of idle young hipsters with nothing important to do in life. Holmes had left the United States with Shirley on December 12, 1957, to realize his dream of traveling in Europe for two months, funded by an advance he received for his “jazz” book, The Horn.

While working on Perfect Fools, his follow-up novel to Go, he published a short story which would become The Horn‘s first chapter in the August, 1953, issue of Discovery magazine. The second chapter appeared in Nugget, in October 1956. With the rejection Perfect Fools by Scribners’, his spirits sank. He put his energy into writing the “jazz novel,” writing the remainder between spring, 1956, and fall of 1957. Although relations between he and Kerouac were deteriorating, Kerouac kept a promise and wrote a letter praising the novel to Hiram Hayden at Random House two months after the release of On the Road.John Holmes 1947

Accepted immediately and published in July 1958, it sported a recommendation from Kerouac on the cover. Despite the ongoing “Beat frenzy,” sales were moderate, likely due to July traditionally being a slow month for sales or perhaps getting lost among the wave of second-rate, imitation Beat-themed books which flooded the market – potboilers written to cash in on the trend. Selling well enough to require a second printing, mainstream reviews failed to reach the depth of it but it was warmly embraced by the cognoscente, including Studs Terkel and Ralph Gleason. Landesman read it on radio in St. Louis for half an hour, showing how taken he was with it.

Perhaps the most ambitious and meticulously-constructed of all the Beat novels, The Horn fascinates, not just by intricacy, but in the marvel of a writer dreaming up such a concept. As for structure, it is the only “true novel” that either he or Kerouac ever produced, not being based on their real-life experiences. In fact, it cannot really be classified as “Beat.” As Holmes wrote, regarding the reviews, “The Beat Generation tag has been either ignored (it having nothing to do with the book), or mentioned only in passing, for which I am grateful.” Even attempting to describe it presents a daunting task, so here we rely on excerpts from Brother-Souls, first with this section from Holmes’ journals…


The real origin of the book…lay in my feeling that the jazz artist was the quintessential American artist – that is, that his work hang-ups, his personal neglect by his country, his continual struggle for money, the debasement of his vision by the mean streets, his oft times descent into drugs, liquor, and self-destructiveness – all this seemed to me to typify the experience of our great 19th Century American writers: Poe’s loneliness, drunkenness and obscurity; Melville’s half-of-life anonymity; Hawthorne’s hermit years; Emily Dickinson’s spinster-bedroom full of immortal poems; Mark Twain’s wastage of so much of his talent on get-rich-quick schemes; Whitman’s decision to stay with the trolley drivers and whores and good old boys from whom his work took so much sustenance. The novel as it evolved, then, was to be about the American-as-artist.


A month earlier, he explained in a letter:


“I was working on three levels at the same time. I wanted each of these characters to represent an American writer, which is the only reason why I put those two little epigraphs in front of each chapter. But I also wanted him to represent a particular kind of jazz musician, and I had to create a fictional character doing these things, so that Edgar Pool, for instance, is Edgar Allen Poe.”


Now we give part of the synopsis by Charters/Charters – but note that these are just mere snatches taken from the in-depth explanation they provide, much of what was missed by many initial reviews.


Holmes structured it:

As a kind of dual narrative, each of the narrative streams illustrating and complementing the other. Each of the major characters was introduced in chapters titled “Chorus,” and the choruses alternated with chapters titled “Riff,” which told the novel’s story…Holmes preceded each Chorus with a quotation from one of the nineteenth-century American writers who had given him the novel’s theme. With the quotations he was suggesting an identification in each chapter between the jazz musician and the individual writer, and he tied the substance of the quotation as closely as he could to the chapter itself…

The quotation for the first Chorus is from Thoreau, and the name of the musician is Walden Blue. “Walden” is an obvious allusion to Thoreau’s Walden and “Blue” as clearly identifies him as a musician…

The second Chorus introduces an alto saxophonist named Eddie Wingfield“Wings” Redburn. The quotation is taken from Melville, whose fourth novel was titled Redburn

A quotation from Hawthorne introduces the Chorus representing the pianist Junious Priest…the musician who was the model for Junius was the avant-garde jazz pianist Thelonious Monk…

The central woman figure…is a singer named “Geordie Dickson,” who is locked in a despairing, unending relationship with the novel’s main protagonist, the tenor saxophonist Edgar Pool…a combination of singer Billie Holiday and Emily Dickinson…

The name of the trumpeter Curny Finnley is derived from the archetypal figure “Huckelberry Finn,” and the Chorus introducing him opens with a quotation from Finn’s creator, Mark Twain…Curny Finnley…was in part modeled on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie…

The Chorus introducing the tenor saxophonist Metro Myland opens with a quotation from Walt Whitman…”Myland” is an allusion to Whitman’s personal sense of his Americanism, of the nation as “My land”…Metro, for Holmes, was “just any great big yawping tenor sax player, but he’s also Walt Whitman”…

The final two Choruses portray Pool’s last hours…from the doomed, desperate Edgar Allen Poe. Holmes’ comment on the character of Pool was that his novelistic character was, of course, Lester Young, but also Poe…

As an aid to himself in clarifying the book’s structure, Holmes wrote the Choruses first, which described his principal figures. He then wrote the Riffs sections, creating the narrative around his fictitious characters…


Here, it is significant to note that tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Lester Young inspired Ginsberg’s creation of “Howl” when the poet wrote several verses in a vocal imitation of Young’s chorus-on-chorus jazz progression, the succession of verses building upon each other and raising the rhythmic energy to an ecstatic level. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg refers to one of the jazz man’s signature songs, “Lester Young was what I was thinking about… ‘Howl’ is all ‘Lester Leaps In.’”

The “jazz book” idea provided fodder for many of the vociferous conversations between Holmes and Kerouac. The recognition of its brilliance only grows with time, as will the brilliance of Brother-Souls.

In 1958, while Kerouac felt his first anxiety over waiting for royalties from the movie version of On the Road (a state of anxiety similarly affected Kerouac fans that waited impatiently until 2012 for its release), Holmes grew increasingly frustrated with the media attention and his realization that the movement they had created ultimately distanced the once close-knit pair. He also bristled at being used as a substitute spokesman for the Beat Generation and the perception of himself as a replacement for Kerouac when the latter could not be found. In spite of this they still kept in touch via letters, proving the true durability of their friendship.

Holmes The HornHolmes would face his own problems later that year, in the bleak state of his finances and the emotional turmoil that engulfed him when his father suffered a heart attack in October, forcing an end to years of estrangement. At their home in Old Saybrook, he and Shirley were just about to run out of firewood as the toughest part of the cruel New England winter fell upon them. Luckily, relief came when friends going on vacation asked them to sit their house.

In early February, Landesman sent a hundred dollars in a letter after hearing about their difficulties. These acts of kindness helped them through the winter, and in May, they were able to return to visit New York when Landesman staged the first and only Beat musical, The Nervous Set, and all performances sold-out. Kerouac showed up at the theater drunk and promptly fell asleep in his seat, vanishing during the intermission. The trip gave them some respite but in July a rush-hour accident on the New Jersey Turnpike put his father back in the hospital in Camden and one of his hands had to be amputated as a result. In the days that followed, a stroke paralyzed half of his father’s body.

Weeks spent keeping vigil at the bedside, trying to help nurse his father back to health led to exhaustion and near the end of August, John McClellan Holmes Sr., after weeks of suffering and staring at the stump of his hand, lost the will to live and passed away.

Although their relationship was frequently antagonistic, the event haunted the junior Holmes (who had taken “Clellon” as a pen-name to allay confusion with the well-known poet, John Holmes) for years. He wrote about the experience in the poem “Too-Late Words for My Father,” which he completed years later, in 1973. Old friend Alan Harrington, novelist and On the Road character, helped him with the hospital expenses. The chronic emotional devastation left him unable to write much outside of his journals and he slipped into one of the most unproductive periods of his life. Days spent drinking and arguing with Shirley exacerbated the situation. An unpaid electric bill for eight dollars forced him to hide upstairs when the electric company worker came to shut off his power in September of 1961 and the following month he was arrested for shoplifting a few dollars worth of groceries at a local market. The local press used the story to lampoon him with an embarrassing, supposedly-funny headline.

At this point something snapped inside him. A lesser man may have acted out against himself but in Holmes’ case, the situation forced him to pull himself together, deal with his creative block and begin writing again. As is often the case, a great man finds his true measure at the worst of times, not the best. It is also worth noting that through it all, Shirley stayed with him, working where she could to support them both. Holmes appears to have been one of the few of his peers to maintain a traditional “’til death do we part” relationship.

His turn back to the positive side spurred an equally positive reaction from magazines he submitted his work to, after braving it through a short period of rejected stories. Around the time he came to terms with the fact that his novels would never bring him as much fame as his poetry and non-fiction, he won Playboy magazine’s Best Non-Fiction award for 1964, with the essay, “Revolution Below the Belt.” This shows how deeply Legman had influenced him with his fixation on all things sexual years earlier.

His sister Liz, also a writer, made the acquaintance of Nelson Algren, author of the groundbreaking novels, A Walk on the Wild Side and The Man with the Golden Arm. During this period of regeneration, she introduced the pair. Once again, he enjoyed the luxury of intellectual stimulation that is peculiar to like-minded writers. For his part, Algren equally valued conversation with a mind sharp enough to write a book like The Horn.

Although he appeared the stronger of the two “brothers,” Kerouac never found his feet once he started balancing them on bottles. The sad facts of his self-immolation fill pages and support a variation on one of Legman’s favorite themes – that violence in modern society results directly from the repression of our sexuality. In his case, the violence turned inward and bespeaks the result of not being able to fully love a woman in a true manner. Sex is more than just a function of the genitalia. It is an outward expression of love and tenderness. He loved his mother, there is no doubting that, but his inability to correlate love and sex (the Cassadian logic of all people being apples and we just need to pick them and eat them as we will) may have been his undoing. This is not something Ann and Samuel Charters broach in the book but this writer’s attempt at explaining his trip from top of the heap to bottom of the glass.

Although we suggest that Holmes sparked the kindling that ignited the Beat fire, it is commonly accepted that Kerouac is responsible for the Beat Movement gaining the momentum to be a worldwide cultural revolution, these sixty years later. He is the primary visual symbol. He is the face of it today, not the angelic hipster Cassady, whose death from exposure in the Mexican night froze “blood on the tracks” after he bridged the generation gap between Beat and Hippie; not even Ginsberg who may have been the most prolific producer of the lot. His radicalism and homosexuality may have been off-putting to a straight society.

Kerouac – the older brother who died as the younger, the televised, the Adonis – he is the symbol who put a face on the new culture at the piano with Steve Allen speaking cool and hip and mellifluous.

The triumph of Holmes’ later years overshadows the misery of those when he was beaten-down Beat, in the truest sense of the word. The world of academia sought him out and he accepted residencies at several fine schools. Never giving up on the novel, he produced two more, Get Home Free in 1964 and Nothing More to Declare in 1967. More books appeared posthumously. He enjoyed the company of his old cronies when Ginsberg brought them together at Naropa Institute, for a celebration of Kerouac’s work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication, of On the Road in 1982. His dedication to his craft supplied him with purpose and a way to communicate while fighting a recurrent cancer when it robbed his frantic gift of speech.

He survived nineteen years after Kerouac and twenty after Cassady. In March, 1988, he died at age sixty-two, his beloved wife Shirley with him as ever. In death, as in life, she followed him just two weeks later, a common fate of couples who share a true love. Earlier in the year, he learned that three of his novels would soon be reprinted on Thunder Mouth Press. So with his once-greatest fear of vanishing “without leaving some trace,” this surely gave him strength even as mortality fleeted.

To paraphrase Kerouac’s paraphrasing in “Are Writers Born or Made?” – It ain’t whatcha live, it’s the way atcha live it.

This reviewer hopes the reader bears in mind that this piece may seem full of facts but it is only a fraction, less than even a fiftieth, of pages presented in Brother-Souls. In the entire canon of Beat books, it is arguably the single, most comprehensive view of the scene as it unfolded – and absolutely the most authoritative work on Holmes and Kerouac. It is the only book which comes to mind where the footnote pages themselves are a treat to read.

We come away from reading it with the feeling of just completing a course in history, absorbing enough to get an A+ on the subject. If some obvious facts are missing here, it is simply because we chose to focus primarily on Holmes, then Kerouac and the others.

We first became aware of Ann Charters in 1973, when her biography on Kerouac (with Samuel Charters) became widely celebrated and instantly considered as the definitive book on him. While relishing the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins since the 1970s and growing up with the music of Country Joe and the Fish even earlier on life’s soundtrack, we only recently discovered our ignorance of the fact that Samuel Charters had a hand in delivering these important sounds. A Grammy award winner, he produced five of the six Country Joe LPs. In 1959, with Ann in tow, he found Hopkins in Houston, Texas, and did field recordings of him. These were released on the Folkways label and led to a rediscovery by an appreciative new audience

At last count, eighteen books credit him as author. This is aside from collaborations listed in the thirty-book bibliography of Ann Charters, printed in our last issue. The count does not include Portents, the self-published small-press they ran in the 1960s. In literature and music the couple are a national treasure, both gifted individually and as a team. She is also an accomplished, recorded ragtime pianist. A recently-posted Youtube video (you can find it on shows them working together, reading poetry at a Beat event in England earlier this year.

Ann Charters and Samuel Charters did more than write a large part of Brother-Souls, they lived it and witnessed it first-hand.

Buy it!


This review/essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. Find it on Amazon.



What to Expect from Beatdom #12


It’s here, it’s here, it’s finally here!!!!

That’s right, ladies and gentleman. Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue – is now on sale. You can purchase your copy on Kindle or good old dead tree format, both from your favorite industry-crushing internet monopoly. The Paypal link from Beatdom Books is coming soon…

If you’ve read Beatdom before, then you’ve probably already placed your order for this new installment. You know what to expect, as we always deliver the best of the best of the best. But for those of you out there who have never before set eyes on the beatest literary journal around, let me give you a run-down of what to expect:

Firstly, let’s talk about the interviews. Beatdom editor, Michael Hendrick, has been busy talking with Patti Smith and Amiri Baraka – two of the biggest names in their respective fields. The conversations span politics, pens, and poetry. David S. Wills talked to none other than Joyce Johnson, one of the key influences in bringing to light the women of the Beat Generation. She discusses her new book – The Voice is All.

Then there are the essays. As always, you can count on Beatdom to bring you the finest in literary criticism and history analysis, and this time we have once again triumphed. We start with David S. Wills’ essay, “Beat Rap Sheet,” in which he highlights the criminal records (or unrecorded criminal activities) of the Beat trinity- William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. Matthew Levi Stevens takes it from there with a deeper look into the criminality of Burroughs, whose psychologist once referred to as a “gangsterling,” for his juvenile obsession with bad guys. We take a slight detour from the Beat route to look at Raymond Chandler and his portrayal of Los Angeles’ infamously mean streets, before returning to the Beats with essays by Chuck Taylor and Philip Rafferty, who discuss the value of Kerouac’s poetry and the extent to which the Beats were truly Zen, respectively.

Poetry is always a huge draw for our readers, and this time around we’ve packed a lot of quality verse into our little magazine. Our poets for this issue are Jamie McGraw, Catherine Bull, Michael Hendrick, Velourdebeast, Kat Hollister, Holly Guran, MCD, and Alizera Aziz.

We have fiction from Beatdom regular, Zeena Schreck, who has given us her theatre monologue, “Night Shift, Richmond Station,” and also from newcomer, Charles Lowe, with his tale of life in China, “Baby American Dream.” Both continue our exploration of the criminal element.

Jerry Aronson, director of the magnificent documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, is back with a special Beat photo, and Spencer Kansa, author of the first ever Beatdom Books publication, Zoning, recounts a visit he paid to the late Herbert Huncke – the very man who inspired Burroughs and co. to their own criminal exploits in the 1940s.

We also have a review of Ann Charters and Samuel Charters’ book, Brother-Souls, which examines the life of John Clellon Holmes. The review functions also as a biographical essay, detailing some of the more interesting aspects of Holmes’ life.

Finally, we wrap up this outing with yet another piece of artwork from the one and only Waylon Bacon, entitled “Rogues Gallery.”

Dig This ~ Ann and Samuel Charters Read Beat Poetry

We found this while doing some research on the Charters’ Book, “Brother-Souls:John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. It has only had 79 views so far, so enjoy something new!!!

Read a review of their book and learn about John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac in Beatdom 12!!!

It is published on the University Press of Mississippi. Buy a copy on Amazon or at the usual outlets. It is one of the best Beat reads you will ever find!

Beatdom 12 ~ The Crime Issue ~ Coming Soon!!!

Yes, friends, Beatdom Issue Twelve is on it’s way and today we unveil the cover, featuring the lovely Zeena Schreck – who was kind enough to contribute this wonderful photo for the cover, as well as a short monologue (meant for stage) which she wrote at about the same time the photo was taken.

“I thought they’d compliment each other in a film-noirish type way, for a crime-theme. I hope you like it,” she says and we hope that you enjoy her work, too. Zeena and Nikolas Schreck have been great contributors since they joined us, and we are always delighted with what they have to share with us.

Issue Twelve will be another jam-packed issue, featuring interviews with Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka and Joyce Johnson and a close look at the first person to publish a piece of Beat Literature, John Clellon Holmes. He is featured in a review of the great biography/period non-fiction book on University of Missisippi Press, Brother-Souls by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters.

There are plenty of other great contributions pouring in but there is still time for you to send something, if you have a Beat-tinged piece on crime, or even a Beat-related bit of work. We are happy to look at your submissions. Deadline is in two weeks on November 1.

Beatdom 12 should roll off the presses in the first weeks of December, so save some cash in that holiday budget of yours to get a nice present for yourself!

Cover photo: Max Kobal/Copyright: Zeena Schreck.
Graphic Design: Waylon Bacon

The Nature of Beatdom Issue 11 (with lots of photos)

Dear Readers,
We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures – because this is about as many as we think we can squeeze into a single post.

The idea is to show that, while the ebook and kindle formats are handy, Beatdom is still fun to have your own personal copy of, like in the old days of the literary journal, when you stuck it in your pocket or bag and pulled it out to read while on the bus, at the doctor’s office or in a crowded movie theater while some delinquent threw JuJubes in your hair.

While we all know you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anybody who is familiar with French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the poem, ‘After The Deluge,’ from his earth-shattering collection ‘Illuminations,’ will spot him right away, That is thanks to the keen handiwork of multi-faceted artist Waylon Bacon, who graced the front cover of this issue with his brilliant dexterity and use of color.

It is a treat to get to see him do something for us in deep rich tones, since he has had to restrain himself to using black and white ever since we changed the format to that of the classic, standard old-style 6×9-inch black and white format, used by most literary journals.

In the following story by Katy Gurin, ‘Grizzly Bear,’ you can see more of Waylon’s work, only in the b/w format. This is still another excellent short story by Katy, about what can happen when people commune a little too closely with nature. This tale showcases her usual splendid imagination and wonderful gift for detail. Stuck in between there, shown on the back cover, since most people look at the front and back before opening it, is the advertisement for the next fiction release from Beatdom Books, ‘Egypt Cemetery,’ a memoir by Editor Michael Hendrick, which will be available soon at the usual outlets.

It is also worth noting that Katy will be publishing a full volume of her short stories with Beatdom Books, later this year. That volume will be illustrated by Waylon, since the two of them make such a great team for two people who have never even met each other. As Katy’s story continues the partygoers dressed as bears start to act more like bears just for the drunken fun of it.

Waylon not only provided the fine images you see here – but also managed to include some of his favorite monsters, like Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, and some weird looking what-cha-ma-callits, that only he sees when he closes his eyes at night.

Bears like to catch fish but fishtank owners are not always appreciative. As you can see, our half-drunk pseudo-bears wander out into the Halloween night and do all the things bears are wont to do, until they are confronted by a real bear. How Katy thinks this stuff up is a mystery to us but we have been lucky enough to have her writing such inventive stories with truly absorbing plots since she was kind enough to provide us with her very first and fabulous yarn, ‘Meat From Craigslist,’ back in Issue Number Nine.

Next we have a look at the life of William S. Burroughs during his days as a farmer, written by Editor David S. Wills. Burroughs didn’t do so well working the land but Mr. Wills has been farming up quite a bit of information on the pistol-happy author while lurking about the Burroughs Archives at the New York City Public Library lately. Watch for more!

Somehow, archaeologist, activist and Beatdom regular Robin Como managed to find time to write two more of her intoxicatingly exquisite poems for your pleasure and if she doesn’t run away, we hope to have her back with more in our next issue!

Michael Hendrick tracked down Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, on Thanksgiving Day morning last year, forcing him to hold a copy of Beatdom Issue Nine and interviewing him on topics ranging from going to Hell, to how his grandfather wrote one of the first recorded rock songs before rock’n’roll was invented, to the Right to Bear Arms.

Taking time out from his extensive studies, returning writer Rory Feehan penned this account of still another famous sharp-shooter, Hunter S. Thompson and his ventures and misadventures while living a not so quiet existence at perhaps California’s favorite Beat retreat, Big Sur.

While everybody was awaiting the release of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ Mr. Wills tracked down the last remaining live male character depicted in the movie, Al Hinkle, who Kerouac called Ed Dunkel in the book. Mr. Hinkle is delighted to appear here.

Assistant Editor Kat Hollister, who labored intensively to help put this issue together marked her first appearance in Beatdom with the poem you see below; her efforts were rewarded by the dubious distinction of having it placed across from a poem by returning Beat literate Chuck Taylor, on the dodgy subject of his erection. Mr. Taylor dug up the old form of ‘doggerel’ to justify it, along with the fact that we are the only journal who would risk publishing it.

Where have you seen this face before? On the cover, it’s Arthur Rimbaud again, next to an essay by poet Larry Beckett, who takes apart the aforementioned poem, ‘After The Deluge.’ It is an insightful look at one of Rimbaud’s best know works, and also gives us a glimpse at the fantastic style of literary critique to be found in Mr. Beckett’s upcoming offering from Beatdom Books, ‘Beat Poetry.’

Matthew Levi Stevens is a new name to Beatdom readers and here he presents us with a review of the latest collection of letters written by William S. Burroughs when he was still living as an expatriate.

Kat Hollister, following the indignity of having her poem placed facing Mr. Taylor’s doggerel, was happy to find a spot next to this wonderful photograph, ‘wetlands in march no.2,’ by well-known nature photographer, g. thompson higgins.

Artist/Photographer/Musician and Writer, Zeena Schreck returned again this issue, with this touching and enlightening article. She writes of how she and multi-talented husband, Nikolas Schreck, stepped up and acted to save the lives of eighty wolves, diverting their carriage to safe habitat as they were being sent to an otherwise slow and cruel death.

Ann Charters, a name familiar to everybody in the world of Beat Literature and Literary History spoke with Mr. Hendrick, on working with Kerouac, the beginnings of Beat, her meeting with Alene Lee and the importance of John Clellon Holmes to the Beat Generation.

Internationally renowned poet Michael Shorb, a strong voice on environmental issues, was kind enough to grace our pages with this, his first appearance in Beatdom.

Reaching past Rimbaud to William Blake, Mr. Wills weighs in with a quick word on the literary influence of one of the most visionary of voices and his influence on the Beats.

When we think of Beat we think of the road and it is hard to think of a band who pounded the pavement harder than the Ramones. Richie Ramone, the fastest of the fast, spoke with Mr. Hendrick about life on the road, his forays into the Big Band sounds of the Drum Gods and his activism on behalf of pooches in peril in Los Angeles.

As usual, Waylon won’t go back into his cage until he gets one last bite on the hand the doesn’t feed him, so we leave you with him and his now traditional ‘last page, last word.’ This one, Waylon aptly titled ‘Sometimes Eye Gets Crazy!’

Kerouac on Kindle

A list of currently available Kindle titles by, about, and inspired by Jack Kerouac.

Continue Reading...

Death Within a Chrysalis

by Nick Meador

At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties,[1] yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.

In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…”[2] Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams.[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).

On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.”[4] Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison.[5] After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”[6]) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.

But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”[7]

However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959,[8] and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…”[9] This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.

After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960.[10] Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.[11]

Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .”[12] That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.”[16] Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.

Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”[19]

During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.”[20] The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains.[21] Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.

On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…”[22] Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”[23]

This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene.[24] Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”[25]

The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.

Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…”[26] This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.

Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.”[27] Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“[28]

Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949[29]) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”[30]

There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.”[31] Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” [32]

In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment.[33] Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.

So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”[34] But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”[35]

It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…”[36] Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.”[37] We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.

In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island.[38] When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”[41]

Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.

When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine,[44] and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death.[45] In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”[46]

More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.”[47] This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.

In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.”[48] In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”[49]

But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…”[50] One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”[51]

There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother.[52] In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.”[53] Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.

Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out.[54] He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…”[55] Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”[56]

When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.”[57] One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…”[58] When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.

Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…”[59] Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography.[60] Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority­ and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.

All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…”[61] Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.

Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“[62] He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”[63]

In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”[64]

Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”[65] Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”

Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.

In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“[66] Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.

But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.”[67] It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).

This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans [68]). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“[69]

We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…”[70] So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.

Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011.

[16] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.

[17] An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011.

[18] Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011.

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.

The Beat Generation and Travel

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

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

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

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William S. Burroughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allen Ginsberg

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal Cassady

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

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Corso

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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

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

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

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

Michael McClure

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

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

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

Bob Kaufman

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

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

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

Harold Norse

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

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

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

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