It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…
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This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life. Continue Reading…
Joyce Johnson is best-known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, which focuses on the years 1957-58, and concerns the role of the marginalized woman in the Beat sphere. It is ironic, then, that she is often written off as Kerouac’s girlfriend and the woman who wrote about being Kerouac’s girlfriend. Indeed, Johnson is an accomplished novelist in her own right, and an important figure in Beat studies beyond being merely one of the “minor characters.” Her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, is proof of that.
In 1962, Johnson published her first novel, Come and Join the Dance. She began writing the book a year before meeting Kerouac, and it is considered the first Beat novel written by a woman. Set in 1955, it details the life of a young college graduate in whom Johnson instills the sort of values people thought only the Beat men possessed – a wanderlust, yearning for freedom, sex, and adventure. She said:
“I wanted to write the real way that the girls I knew were living. And it was at a time that there was all this incredible anxiety about having sex, that was the great breakthrough and adventure for a girl – if you could dare to have sex outside your marriage. And so it was about a girl who was in her last week in college and feels that nothing real has ever happened to her, and she decides to lose her virginity. In the 1950s, young women did not write those books.”
Even readers of the Beat Generation may be slightly shocked and surprised, as they are more accustomed to reading about the female participants of the movement as being more reserved in the eyes of their male counterparts. But Johnson’s contributions to Beat studies and, as evidenced in her novels, to the Beat movement itself, have demonstrated that these people were no mere “minor characters,” and were instead sidelined by the history books. Perhaps most recognizable to the Beat enthusiast will be the character Kay, who is based upon the tragic figure of Elise Cowen.
Johnson’s next two novels, Bad Connections (1978) and In the Night Café (1987), are set in the bohemian culture of the 1960s and, like Come and Join the Dance, are located in her native New York City. Written in a crisp, fast-paced prose that exhibits the sort of liberating exuberance that Beat writing was known for, her novels are also tinged with a sadness that is more palpable even than in Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s writing. Her characters face greater obstacles in their lives and as such are even more beat than their male counterparts, and certainly lack the optimism and hope that existed for the men.
Although these are all fine works of fiction, Johnson has come to be known for her work in non-fiction, and particularly her work in the Beat field. Additionally, her first novel was released only in a run of 1,000 copies. As such, they have previously been hard to come by. Fortunately, Open Road Media has obtained and released these three novels in digital format, with a view to doing “a small paper edition” of Come and Join the Dance. These books are wonderful examples of Beat writing that Beatdom highly recommends. See www.openroadmedia.com for more information.
“At the time I sincerely believed that the only decent activity in the world was to pray for everyone, in solitude.” i
Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov is a madwoman or did she just read too many poems? ii
Lear on the moor of woes, sinful and sorrowful, sorrows heaped one after another with only the Fool as companion
“. . . why ask questions or tear hair or weep. . .” iii
Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin is The Idiot
“Dostoevsky of Czarist Russia, a Saint,” iv who stood before the Hans Holbein painting Christ’s Body in the Tomb “as if dumbstruck . . . riveted” v
Lizaveta Prokofyevna is Mrs. Epanchin
Ivan Fyodorovich is General Epanchin
Aglaya Ivanovna is Miss Epanachin the Youngest
Gavrila Ardalionych is Ganya
Rogozhin is wicked
Ginsberg, “I’m Prince Myshkin” (holy fool)
Carl Solomon, “I’m Kirilov” (nihilist) vi
I am Kulchicovsky “in the lost alleys of Russian sorrow. . .” vii
I AM WHO AM viii
And who are you?
During a storm at sea, Jean-Louis heard the words:
Everything is God
Nothing ever happened except God ix
And Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the Lifex
ego sum resurrection et vita
(In memory of a beloved young man)
i Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p.355.
ii Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.569.
iii Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p.5.
iv Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p.55.
v Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.xiii.
vi Mitchner, Stuart. (March 13, 2011). Living in Dostoevsky: Joseph Franks’ Acclaimed Biography Was Born in Princeton. Town Topics. www.towntopics.com
vii Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur (New York: Penguin Books, 1962), p.11.
viii Ex 3:14
ix Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir. (New York: Penguin Books, 1999),p.140.
x Jn 11:25
In Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 by Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, Kerouac writes to Joyce, “It was a good thing you didn’t come back on the ship with me because it only went to big gas tank barges off Perth Amboy.” Kerouac was headed on the Yugoslavian freighter to North Africa on a Sunday, February 15, 1957, and would meet William Burroughs in Tangier.
Joyce Johnson writes in Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, “I was going to stay on board all night and leave in the morning before the Slovenia went on to Perth Amboy to take in fuel.”
Perth Amboy, New Jersey: tankers, tugs, barges, oil refineries, storage tanks and towers, a massive smelting and refinery company, cooper works, cable works, dry docks. What type of date would Joyce and Jack have had in the late 1950s? Being that he was mostly always broke, she could have bought him hot dogs downtown at the Coney Island restaurant or from a pushcart. They could have walked along the waterfront on the boat basin wooden piers and climbed the stairs of Bayview Park, ambled along streets lined with big old houses and mature trees or strolled on the beach, checked out the colonial cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (1685), or taken a look at numerous synagogues, Catholic churches, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Byzantine rite churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran churches.
They could have stopped at taverns and saloons and bars, plenty of those. In fact, Harbor Light tavern was right on the waterfront with a backyard and boat slip looking out at Raritan Bay across from Staten Island. Jack probably would have felt quite at home and the drinks were cheap, cheaper than New York. With its immigrant mix: Irish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Slavic, Scandinavian, Jewish, Italian, established African Americans, newly arrived Puerto Ricans, and even a few French
-Canadians, in some ways with its red-brick factories, Perth Amboy had similarities to Lowell, both Northeastern industrial cities (Lowell twice as large in area and population) with all-important rivers that provided both an identity and a livelihood for its residents.
Joyce could have gone shopping in the downtown area where there were several furriers, hat shops, dress shops, lingerie shops, jewelers, fabric stores, a department store, furniture stores, hardware stores, five-and-tens, bakeries—a Jewish bakery that sold famed rye bread and kosher butchers—but being that Joyce was bohemian and secular, Jack and Joyce could have spent time digging the locals at the train station with trains headed to New York City or south to the shore, and they may have seen bums or even a hobo—they certainly would have seen rough characters—or they could have walked over the Outerbridge or taken the ferry to Staten Island and bought farm-fresh eggs or gone horseback riding. Or they could have hopped on a bus and gone back to New York (about twenty-five miles north).
They could have browsed in the record store or stopped at a coffee shop or a soda fountain or maybe the farmer’s market to buy a chicken or vegetables. Whatever they did, there would have been things to do and something to write about. Or being that Jack and Joyce were bookish, they could have gone to the Perth Amboy Library and read the newspapers. And if Jack was looking (who, Jack?), he probably would have seen a few dark fellaheen beauties.
On Jack’s ocean-bound ship from New York, perhaps the route taken was through the Kill Van Kull—a tidal strait between Staten Island and Bayonne that connects Newark Bay with Upper New York Bay—past the Arthur Kill ship graveyard, and through the Arthur Kill—a major navigational channel of the Port of New York and New Jersey, with its numerous fuel and chemical storage facilities. After the ship fueled up, it headed for the high seas from Raritan Bay to the open Atlantic.
“The barge…was beaten…beat…”
Antony and Cleopatra
Act II, Scene II
(GK Stritch was raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and her family has lived there for four generations.)
(“Headed for the High Seas” www.studiostu.biz/highseas groovy jazz by seaman Victor Deribeprey)
Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.
But Johnson’s contribution to Beat studies have been tremendously important, and Minor Characters has become a classic. In her subsequent works, Doors Wide Open and Missing Men, Johnson continued to add to our understanding of the Beats and their literature through a decidedly personal approach, offering a rare insider’s guide to the Beat Generation and the life of Kerouac, whom she dated between 1957-58.
Thus there was the expectation that in her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, we would once again be treated to a subjective and personal account of the author, most likely focusing on the two years during which time they were romantically involved. But that was not the case. Johnson has taken advantage of the recent opening of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection in order to research a period of his life that ended six years prior to their meeting. She has chosen to study only a short period, and to examine it from an entirely different angle than that attempted by any of the countless previous biographers and critics.
Why focus on the period up until 1951?
I intended from the start to make the development of Jack’s writing – from his acquisition of English, which was a second language for him, through the discoveries that led him to his becoming exactly the writer he wanted to be – the central focus of my book. By the time I began writing about 1951, I felt that by following Jack through the series of breakthroughs after On the Road that resulted five months later in the writing of Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, I had told not only a complete story, but the most important story about Jack, in a way that cast light upon the future years I did not cover.
What inspired you to examine the importance of his cultural and linguistic background, and to what extent did that inform his style of writing?
Curiously, although it is a well known fact that Jack was Franco-American, the implications of his cultural heritage were not explored in previous biographies. I first became aware of how important it might be in early 1980’s when I read Kerouac: A Chicken Essay by the French-Canadian poet, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu. That book captured something about Jack that I had felt intuitively when I knew him. When I decided to write the biography, this was another theme I wanted to explore, and I found a lot that related to it in Jack’s papers, since it was a constant preoccupation of his. There’s an extraordinary entry in a 1945 journal, for example, where he writes that although he can understand and appreciate “American richness,” it will never be his because he is only “half-American.” During the years when he was growing up, Franco-Americans were a despised minority (in New England they were called “white niggers”); in On the Road and in his journals, Jack refers to his “white ambitions” – language only someone who did not feel “white” would use.
Jack’s family spoke the French-Canadian dialect known as joual, and he did not learn his first words of English until he was six. Although he succeeded in mastering English, and in the process forgot some of his French, the joual seems to have been his interior language, and writing evidently involved a kind of process of translation. That process gave him an exceptional sensitivity to sound. After years of keeping the French out of his American voice, in 1951 he began to let it back in – first in On the Road, which was preceded in March of 1951 by a novella written in French, where I believe Jack found the voice he would use only a few weeks later for the narrator of the novel he had been unsuccessfully struggling to write for the past four years…It’s those French overtones that give Sal Paradise’s voice its special sound.
You’ve said you were less than satisfied with previous biographies of Jack. How does yours ‘set the record straight’?
It is only in the last few years that scholars have had access to the Kerouac Archive, which contains such a remarkable record of Jack’s life and creative development in journals, letters and manuscript. This is essential material for biography. Without it, past biographers had to rely largely on oral history, which was valuable but not necessarily reliable, and on what Jack wrote about his life in his novels, which could often be misleading, since his books are indeed works of fiction. Based largely on anecdotal material gathered from interviews, the books presented a picture of Kerouac in which the emphasis seemed to be upon his dysfunctionality and the extraordinarily dedicated artist that he actually was often got buried in a mass of sensational details.
The book is touted as a bit of an “insider’s guide” due to your relationship with Kerouac, but you first met him six years after the period your book examines. How did you go about researching the book?
My book is the product of fifty years of reflection on Jack, during which my understanding grew with everything new that I learned. Although the relationship I had with Jack when I was in my early twenties lasted less than a couple of years, it happens to be one of his longest relationships with a woman. During that period I saw him at his best and at his worst, and got to know the quiet, tender, extremely vulnerable person Jack was when he was sober; when I showed him portions of my first novel, I experienced personally his unfailing generosity to other writers. At seventy-seven, I am hardly sentimental about Jack, but I still feel deep sad affection for him, and my intimate knowledge of him definitely shaped my point of view when it came to writing The Voice Is All. But every biography is inescapably shaped by the writer’s point of view, which is why each biography of the same person will tell a different story.
I began working on The Voice Is All early in 2008 and for the next three years spent two days a week taking notes at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where I kept running into other Kerouac scholars…I went through Jack’s papers chronologically while my writing kept pace with my research, and became rather fanatical about establishing an exact chronology for the events in his life, which I felt was very badly needed…I read up on Franco-American life in the United States, and also read some of the writers who were most important to Jack – especially Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis Ferdinand Céline.
Was it tough with the restrictions imposed by the Sampas family?
The restrictions upon how much I could quote seemed a challenge at first, but I have ended up feeling the book is all the better for them. I had to choose each quote very carefully and concentrate upon its meaning, which I think has given my book a certain clarity. The narrative, unbroken by long quotes, also has a unity of tone that I think is all to the good. I was very pleased when one reviewer compared my book to “a big Russian novel,” because that’s how it felt to me while I was living inside it and writing it.
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12:
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
‘American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate… It is not surprising that in it the experience of being American is equated with the experience of being male.’
Judith Fetterley – The Resisting Reader (1978)
This introductory quote by Judith Fetterley has been chosen for its boldness and will hopefully set the pace for some of the topics I am going to cover in this article. Through much of the twentieth century, women – as academics, scholars, feminist theorists, leaders of political groups – have sought to challenge what it means to be female and to fundamentally confront the supposed innate and biological factions against those which are socially formed in a political spectrum that undervalues women as creative, artistic and intelligent members of the human race. So how do the women of the Beat Generation fit into this? Firstly, it has been suggested that women members of the Beat Generation lived an emancipated existence that found its routes within the Beat ideals themselves – the freedom of expression, the resistance to mundanity, the sexual freedom – all of which became adopted towards the end of the 1960s when the countercultural revolution and the feminist movement were in full-swing. Secondly, we can derive from the literature produced that the women Beats felt a strong sense of self, a sense of one’s own place within, what was mainly, a male-dominated, male-orientated body of commercial literature; as Ronna C. Johnson tells us; ‘all women Beat writers express a rebellious, anti-establishment critique of women’s assigned place and value in patriarchy, and this gendered emphasis is the radical distinction by which beat literature is amended by its female practitioners.’
Allen Ginsberg, on the topic of female writers within the Beat generation, was once quoted as saying, ‘Among the group of people we knew at the time, who were the [women] writers of such power as Kerouac or Burroughs? Were there any? I don’t think so.’ In this statement Ginsberg tells us how he failed to recognise the contribution of literature by women of the Beat generation that equalled in quality to that of its contemporaries. Much has been said about this quote. From a feminist-literary perspective this quote embodies what many women feel as patriarchal hegemony, meaning that within the forces of the industry and in culture generally, women are considered the subaltern – the undervalued. Later in this article I will discuss the writings of the women who contributed so greatly to the Beat Generation. But first I want to place feminism in its true historical context.
Being Beat and Being Woman
American feminism tends to be split into two categories; first-wave and second-wave movements. First wave, as Valarie Sanders tells us, began as early as 1848 with revolutionaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Early campaigns were an attempt mainly to change ‘divorce laws, married women’s property rights, and the vote.’ Despite motivated campaigns the ability to vote spread over several decades – firstly being lifted in Wyoming, in 1869, and then in Utah, in 1870. Almost five decades later, by the 1920s, most of the northern states had also abolished this out-dated exclusionary practice. The second- wave feminist movement, as Sue Thornham describes, is often associated with the 1960s countercultural revolutions. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded NOW (national organisation for women). This organisation arose out of the ineffectiveness of government bodies to promote equality within the work place. Also during this time the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ began; ‘Unlike NOW, these groups had no national organisation; instead they drew on the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities.’ An action which is often synonymous with feminists of the 1960s – the burning of the bra – was in fact true to a certain extent, in that at some demonstrations a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ was set alight, where women could dispose of items which oppressed them as women – ‘dishcloths, high-heels, bras and girdles.’
The counterculture itself – a period usually coupled with freedom and liberation – is often criticized for its attitudes towards women. Rochelle Gatlin, in her book American Women Since 1945, tells us how she feels the counterculture was a male led movement; ‘Men were willing to become more “feminised” but they did not encourage women to assume traditional masculine characteristics.’ She goes on to say, ‘The model for sexual liberation was a masculine one.’ Many women felt that the removal of ‘sex’ from ‘feeling’ was advantageous to men in that it led to sexual promiscuity. The media at this time only seemed to re-enforce the notion of women as objects for male attraction; the magazine Cosmopolitan, started in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown, was targeted commercially at the single girl, who took the pill and who lived alone. In the magazine emphasis was placed solely on fashion, beauty and sex serving only to place women into the category of ‘male-lust-objects’. In a similar way the magazine Seventeen, ‘designed for teenage girls, emphasised physical attractiveness. Advertising showed models in postures of sexual surrender to men and in competition with each other.’
The Beat Generation found itself in between the two periods of feminist discourse. The period prior to the second-wave movement is often termed ‘protofeminist’. Ronna C. Johnson tells us how female Beat writers were an integral element to this protofeminist period; their work tends to ‘challenge and interrogate assumptions about women, gender, and relations between the sexes, and asserts a corrected version.’ Sex for the Beats is commonly cited as one of the boundary-breaking taboos to which they discussed, admired and used in a multitude of ways (see: tantric sex). The idea was freedom and an expression of one’s true natural being (be it male or female); as Clinton Starr notes: ‘the Beat Generation was intricately intertwined, discursively but also materially, with sexuality, race relations, and gender roles in the post-war decades. The Beat lifestyle offered an escape from the sultry American role as homemaker; as Brenda Knight tells us; ‘Being beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.’ The conservatism of 1950s America aimed to instil a sense of national pride in a time fraught with cold-war panic, inadvertently placing women under the thumb of men and depicting them as either ‘wives…’ or ‘mothers…’ What is evident in the writing of female Beat writers is trueness to self and an accurate perception of the realities faced by women within the 1950s and 1960s. Beat poetess, Anne Waldman tells us how women were ‘driven, despite, fighting against the constraints of culture, family, education… often dwelling in the twilight of a “great” man’s personality or career.’
The Women of the Beat Generation
Anne Waldman, perhaps one of the most prolific of female beat writers, played a role in bringing the issues that women face into a public sphere – in both her essays and prose. The writings of Anne Waldman, as Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace tell us, ‘not only incorporate beat perspectives but [also] extend through and beyond beat into a women-centred, countercultural idiom.’ On the recovery of women Beat writers Anne Waldman tells us how ‘it is necessary to bring the female persona, the feminine principle, feminist concerns, the sense of the women’s struggle as wives, lovers, mothers, artists, breadwinners… into the whole macrocosm that is the beat literary movement.’
The Waldman poem Fast Speaking Woman, from the collection of the same name, is a chant-based mantra that’s primary focus is to speak to everywoman; she states, ‘I had in my head that I would do a list-chant telling all the kinds of women there are to be.’ The poem begins with the citation, ‘“I is another “- Rimbaud. The poem itself is an impassioned monologue using mainly the prefix ‘I am the/a…’ used to denote the different characters of women; ‘I’m the abandoned woman… the absinthe women… I’m the girl under an old fashioned duress.’ The Beat life she led inevitably led to her realisation of the issues faced by women. In an interview Waldman speaks about the many ‘interesting creative women’ she knew ‘who become junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions.’
Beat author Diane Di Prima was heavily involved with the iconic Beat figures. She first moved to the lower east side, New York in 1953 where she began a relationship with Ezra Pound. In 1957 she first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and other of Beat’s iconic figures. Memoirs of a Beatnik is a biographical novelette depicting a seventeen-year old Di Prima’s coming of age in the midst of the 1950s Beat revolution. In this account, emphasis is placed on the ever relinquishing sexual oppression that was felt by American youth. Di Prima discusses both sexual encounters with men and women; chapter two, for example, details how she came to lose her virginity on a one-night-stand. The novelette is written with coarse, descriptive sexual imagery; ‘afterwards there was blood on his cock, and when I could move again I licked it off, swallowing my childhood, entering the world of the living… He was on me now, bucking and straining like an animal. A faun. But it was too much. My small tight cunt couldn’t take in his huge cock.’ She also makes reference to sexual promiscuity; ‘I had forgotten the name of the man whose hand was in my cunt.’ Further in, and she describes to us her experience of lesbianism; ‘Five or six girls had gathered in one room. One had been chosen and ritually stripped, and the rest, posted at different parts of her anatomy, sought to arouse her while she lay naked on the bed.’ Di Prima here is confronting, within a literary exercise, her experiences as a young woman who fought for self-realisation and freedom; allowing herself to express and fulfil her sexual desires without fear of social persecution from an American mainstream based on oppression.
It is also worth mentioning Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson as two poets, who sought an ulterior existence in the Beat exterior; as Nancy M. Grace tells us, ‘As historians, Johnson and Jones embark on the formidable task of speaking as gendered beings, knowing full well that their lives in the Beat avant-garde broke many of the rules for “good girl” behaviour promulgated at mid-twentieth century.’ Johnson had a two year relationship with Kerouac. In her book Minor Characters, Johnson describes how she felt an otherness regarding her involvement in the Beat movement; ‘I ended up accidentally with Kerouac in the centre of the action, yet always felt myself on the periphery. I was much more of an observer than I wanted to be.’
The Power of the Pen
“When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject.’
Simone De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)
Writing seemed to be somewhat of a catalyst for the second-wave feminist movement. This form of expression was paramount to the success of women’s rights; writing (particularly scholarly), allowed women to create concise and politically armed pieces of literature that could function as biblical rhetoric; as Cora Kaplan wrote, ‘defiance is a component of the act of writing for women.’ Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is certainly considered a canonical piece of writing; the book deals principally with the ‘cultural construction of women as the Other,’ in similar ways in which Edward Said talks of the cultural construction of the Orient by the West in his book Orientalism (1978). Other works of interest through the 1960s/70s include Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970); (note: the publication of Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969)).
In the twentieth century much of the literary merit goes to the male writers. One possible reason for this, as Rita Felski points out, is the ‘many hurdles’ faced by women who wish to devote their lives to writing; ‘economic dependency, lack of time and space, the relentless intrusion of everyday life in the form of squalling infants or testy husbands [and] the disparagement faced by women who chose to remain single or childless.’ Women could not associate enough with the writings of men, and if they wished to read, they were expected to ‘read as men’. The problem was identity. A literature was required that related to women’s true sensibilities rather than those sensibilities being dramatised by male authors, as Judith Fetterley writes; ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness.’
I feel that within the female Beat canon this sensibility is realised. By not only living but exhibiting – within their writing – their lives, these women could reach out to those disillusioned by American values, the American dream and misogyny. The ambition and drive these women had personified a message that was to become all too clear within the feminist movement that proceeded; as Anne Waldman petitioned, ‘We no longer have to be fetched up.’ Feminism is a movement with labyrinthine academic possibilities. In this article, I realise I have only scratched the dirt-sodden surface of women’s politics. Without further in-depth analysis of the role of the female Beats within the feminist movement, little in the way of a conclusion can be given. I would suggest, however, to anyone who has an appetite for Beat literature to visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the works of its female practitioners. It is in these works where we find true Emersonian-reliance upon the self; where we find a disparagement between media-representations of women and the lives of women; and most important of all, where we find intelligent, creative and articulate pieces of fiction and prose.
By Karen Baddeley
The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border
I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.
She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.
Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.
Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.
Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).
Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.
Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).
Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.
It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:
Fear making guilt making shame
making fantasy & logic & game &
elegance of covering splendor
emptying memory of event
She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.
While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.
She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.
Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).
Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:
Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
I love you
Oh I wish you body here
With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)
She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.
She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.
Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.
Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.
She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.
Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.
It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:
Twenty-seven years is enough
Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry
Daddy – What happened?
Allen – I’m sorry
Peter – Holy Rose Youth
Betty – Such womanly bravery
Keith – Thank you
Joyce – So girl beautiful
Howard – Baby take care
Leo – Open the windows and Shalom
Carol – Let it happen
Let me out now please –
Please let me in (Knight 165)
“Women of the Beat weren’t afraid to get dirty. They were compassionate, careless,charismatic, marching to a different drummer, out of step. Muses who birthed a poetryso raw and new and full of power that it changed the world. Writers whose words weavespells, whose stories bind, whose vision blinds. Artists for whom curing the disease of artkills.” – Women of the Beat Generation (Brenda Knight, 1998) Continue Reading…