The Town and the City is a complete joy, Jack Kerouac’s holiday present to the world.
As the New England chill turns to cold and colored leaves fall from trees, girls and boys, it’s time to dust off copies of The Town and the City and settle down to an autumnal read for the fall season of football games and big Thanksgiving turkey dinners and American life seen through the glorious, golden, rose-colored glasses of Jack Kerouac. Nostalgia never tasted so good: big families, hometown USA Galloway, life along the river, mother and father, brothers and sisters who are best friends, dozens of neighborhood and school pals, big roast beefs and eggs and bacon and coffee smells, cakes and pies, cigars, cigarettes, and whisky, a wonderful jubilation of Christmas and New Year’s holidays and dances and songs, followed by spring and summer and swimming under shade trees.
A delight to read and fun, sentence after sentence, there’s a bounce to the words, a spark and sparkle, like firecrackers crackling on a big night. In a stunning essay “The Blind Follow the Blind” (The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats) Carolyn Cassady states, “Kerouac’s appeal was his joyous celebration of life . . . giving us descriptions so intimate, intense and colorful, few others have matched his gift.” This is especially apparent in The Town and the City where warm-hued descriptions break wave after delightful wave. As in this scene when Mr. Martin [father] and young Mickey [a brother] win at the track. “Now we’ll go to Boston and have a big feed . . . Whattayou say we both eat a couple of steaks apiece, . . . All the ice cream you want! . . . All the steaks and chops and lobster you want . . . all the ice cream and pie and cake in the world! Everything! Fried Clams! hot dogs! hamburgers! sauerkraut and franks! . . .” The excitement, the good times, the adventure is delicious: grab a slice of life and relish it.
The book is divided into five parts; about half is set in the town of Galloway, Massachusetts, a time of idyllic youth, and the other half, after World War II, is set in the city, New York City, that is, mainly Manhattan. The second half is less innocent than the first. The war has changed the world and life has changed the Martin family. The kids have grown up and the family’s fortunes have dwindled. The protagonist has met up with “wild” friends, who of course turn out to be Levinsky, Dennison, and Wood [Ginsberg, Burroughs, Carr] and the whole gang. Mr. Martin muses, “I wish Petey [Jack] could make friends with some nice normal young people,” which of course is hilarious, and how dull things would have been without such intimates. He continues, “I’m proud of you to have dope fiends and crooks and crackpots for friends.” Pete defends his choices, his friends, and just as he thinks he’s found the meaning to love and life, the police come to the door, and then another explosion from the old man, and tears from Ma.
This is a family saga that comes full circle, ending where it began for Dad, George Martin, in the green rolling hills of New England, surrounded by family, home, tradition. But Jack is who he is, “And Peter was alone in the rainy night . . . on the road again, traveling the continent westward . . .” The rest is history, his story, Jack’s stories, autobiographical poetic prose.
Lucien Carr said about Jack (Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac), “I tell you, you will never find as pure a man as that.” And Jack’s purity, his light-shining spirit certainly illuminate the five hundred pages of this, his first published novel. Originally, the novel was about a thousand pages, but the publishers insisted on cuts.
Archives For lucien carr
The Town and the City is a complete joy, Jack Kerouac’s holiday present to the world.
William S. Burroughs knew his William Shakespeare and referenced him in conversations in everyday life throughout his life. Young Billy Burroughs first immersed himself in Will at the Taylor tutoring school in his hometown of St. Louis, and later as a student who audited George Lyman Kittredge’s class—the famous Harvard class by the professor who joined the Harvard faculty in 1888—definitely old, old school. Part of Kitty’s method was to have students memorize the Bard. Thanks to his photographic memory, Bill retained Will’s words easily. [i]
A seventeen-year-old Allen Ginsberg was impressed by his first meeting with Burroughs, by way of introduction through his new friend Lucien Carr. Bill’s remark to the literary Carr, about a lesbian bar scene involving a woman biting another’s ear, “In the words of the immortal bard, ‘ ‘tis too starved an argument for my sword.” How smoothly Shakespeare’s words rolled off the tongue of Burroughs, who seamlessly spewed forth Will. [ii] Awe struck Ginsberg had never heard the Bard used in such an effortless way.
At the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Burroughs was asked, “Who are your favorite authors?” He answered, “Shakespeare . . .” Favorite passage? From Macbeth [iii]:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Bill, sardonic and educated, undoubtedly used Shakespeare’s words as he reflected on the tragedies of his own life: the disconnect with his father, brother, and son; the accidentally shooting that killed his deeply loved wife, and haunted him throughout his life; his mother’s last unhappy years in a nursing home, where he visited her not once; the short and painful life of Billy; and his own addictions and struggles and those of his close friends. As a writer, a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, “a walking shadow” and “poor player” he told tales, full of “sound and fury,” but they are still heard, and apparently signify something, a whole other chapter in the history of literature.
Burroughs once wrote to his son, “Writing is a very depleting, exacting, dangerous and underpaid profession . . . in order to survive we must become performers as well, and peddle our wares like purveyors of snake oil.” [iv] About his own work, “When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say ‘Every word is autobiographical and every word is fiction.’”[v] To the apathetic students he briefly taught at City College, who sat in his New York City class reading comic books, he wanted to dissuade them from writing and yell, “Be a plumber instead!” [vi] Not many plumbers during Shakespeare’s time, but Will was criticized as a jack of all trades: actor, playwright, poet, theater manager, and businessman, yes, a performer, “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
i Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William. S. Burroughs. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), pp. 60-61.
ii ibid., pp. 96-97.
iii ibid., pp. 670.
iv ibid., pp. 528.
v ibid., pp. 573.
vi ibid., pp. 502.
So Daniel Radcliffe is going to play Allen Ginsberg in a new movie, called Kill Your Darlings. The movie is about the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a story which is part of Beat lore.
Yet for some reason, when you search for news about this announcement on the internet, it seems that there is a varying level of interest in the subject matter. More high-brow publications are fascinated by the story of Boy-Wizard-Turns-Beat-Poet, whereas at the other end of the scale, there is astonishment that this wholesome young man is portray – gasp! – a homosexual.
Ok, so Allen Ginsberg was gay and was not shy of making that fact known. David Kammerer was also a homosexual, and as the victim of the murder central to the movie’s plot, it is not homophobic at all to mention that the movie will likely contain some references to homosexuality. Indeed, Radcliffe himself mentioned to the French media that he would be playing “a gay character” in his next movie. Yet, the media seems disproportionately interested in this fact, as though there is something seedy or twisted about him (apparently inseparable from his most famous role) playing a gay man.
Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage.
The news appears to have been broken by Twitch, which – along with a few other publications – reported the story responsibly, mentioning that Radcliffe had claimed he was playing a “gay character” in his next movie (although mistakenly refers to Carr as Kammerer’s lover). We also have an announcement from the UK Press Association. It also does not play up the gay angle, and only mentions that his character is a homosexual in relation to what Radcliffe told the French press.
Daniel Radcliffe is apparently going to play beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his next film.
The Harry Potter star was quoted in the French press last week saying that he would very likely be playing a gay character in a film to be released in 2012.
Now movie blog Twitch.com reports he has been cast in Kill Your Darlings, a thriller based on actual events, and centred around the relationship between Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr.
Carr is credited for connecting writers Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S Burroughs but is best known for being found guilty of the murder of his lover David Kammerer in 1944.
The film is to be directed by script writer John Krokidas and previously began production in 2009 with Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jesse Eisenberg and I’m Not There’s Ben Whishaw attached to play Kerouac, Ginsberg and Carr, respectively.
It is not known if any of these actors are still attached to the project.
James Franco recently played Ginsberg in biopic Howl, released last year.
There is some more responsible reporting from The Guardian, which only mentions that the movie involves a “gay stalker”, which is true and central to the plot of the film. NME mentions the “gay stalker” and also references Radcliffe’s hint at a “gay character”.
At the other end of the spectrum there is The Sun, which unsurprisingly revels in playing up the gay angle. The sensationalist title reads, “Potter’s Dan Radcliffe to Play Gay Poet”. The article then focuses almost entirely on the fact that Radcliffe is playing a homosexual character, implying that there is something wrong with this, and something wrong with homosexuals. It mentions that Ginsberg was “openly gay” as though this is something we should still be shocked by, and even sinks as low as to dredge up rumours that Radcliffe himself is a homosexual. The language used to describe is “battle” against being thought of as gay, and the fact that they think it is worth mentioning that he supports tolerance towards homosexuals is appalling.
His new role is a brave move for the star, who has battled rumours that he is homosexual.
He has also donated cash to a US charity that promotes tolerance towards gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.
In March 2010 he denied being gay following internet speculation about his sexuality.
That this is even worth mentioning shows a worrying degree of prejudice on the part of the writers and editors… although given the history of the “news”paper, it is hardly a surprise.
We also have some shoddy reporting AceShowBiz, who deem the gay element of the film so important that they place it firmly in the title of their article. The article then focuses on the fact that Ginsberg was a homosexual, implying – as did The Sun – that this makes him an unwholesome, undesirable character to play. But how much stock can you put in an article written by someone who fails to realise that Ginsberg has been dead for more than a decade (“…is a gay rights activist…”) and stated that Kammerer and Carr were “lovers”, when in fact Kammerer’s obsession with Carr was entirely one-sided.
The HuffPo also falls into the trap of referring to Kammerer and Carr as “lovers”, and also calls the movie, “gay-themed”. I can’t say that I’ve seen the screenplay, but I’d be surprised if it was gay-themed, whatever that means. More likely it’s a movie about a pivotal event in literary history, focused on a murder. I doubt that they’d refer to any other thriller as, “straight-themed” or play up the sexuality of a couple of heterosexuals.
Towleroad quite likely has the best headline relating to the Radcliffe/Ginsberg story, saying: “Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsburg (sic) in Gay-Themed Thriller”. So not only have they fallen into the trap of assuming this movie is all about homosexuality, just because it features a gay character, but they have misspelled that gay character’s name!
A website called Fansshare evidently seems set on claiming that worst title award, with: “Daniel Radcliffe to Star in Gay Movie”. That seems a little misleading, as though Radcliffe were starring in a gay porno. The article then says that he “has to portray a gay man,” which is just awful phrasing, and then has a whole paragraph devoted to whether or not he will have to kiss another male. One can almost hear the editors tittering in the background.
The website FilmSchoolRejects sadly states that it’s wrong for actors to play gay characters at the risk of setting a bad example for kids: “…now he’s playing a homosexual drug addict. That’s a little much for someone who, just a few months ago, was an idol to little kids. How about we dial it down a notch Daniel?”
Overall, coverage of this breaking story has been embarrassing. If you search Google News for “Daniel Radcliffe Allen Ginsberg”, you will be hard-pressed to find a source that doesn’t play up the gay angle. More worryingly is the number that includes “gay” in the title or subtitle of the article, highlighting the importance it holds to the author or editor of that publication. That sexuality is such a big deal in 2011 is a damning indictment of our society, and media outlets do us no favours by displaying their shock when a young man – a hero to children! – decides to play a homosexual character, or jumps to the conclusion that a movie featuring a gay character will inevitably be “gay-themed” or just plain “gay”.
Then again, look at these articles. They basically plagiarise one another, contain numerous glaring factual inaccuracies, refer to “Ginsburg” as a “beatnik” (a derogatory term), and often refer to Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Are these professional journalists that are writing? Are they responsible, intelligent bloggers? Does it appear that anyone has cast any form of editorial eye over these pieces of shoddy reporting? No. Perhaps Google “News” should have more stringent criteria for the reporting that cluttering my feed.
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)
History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.
Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.
Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)
But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.
Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.
Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.
Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.
Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.
She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.
Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.
Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.
Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.
She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.
Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.
Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.
According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”
She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.
She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.
Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.
Diane di Prima
Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”
Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.
She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.
She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.
Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.
It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.
While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.
She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.
But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.
Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.
Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.
When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.
Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.
Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.
Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.
In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.
Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.
Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.
Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:
Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.
Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.
Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.
She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.
Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.
That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.
But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.
I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.
Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.
When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.
For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.