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Sympathy for the Devil? Reconsidering the Legend of Raoul Duke on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

hunter s thompson

by Rory Feehan

 

 

“He who makes a beast of

himself gets rid of the pain of

being a man”

– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

 

Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.

What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.

In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:

I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77

Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:

Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact  with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.

 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.

That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.

Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure.

The Dark and Bloody Ground

For any discussion that involves deciphering the walking contradiction that was Hunter S. Thompson there is really only one place where you can begin and that is his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Renowned for its bourbon whiskey and horse racing, the Bluegrass State is commonly referred by the natives as the “dark and bloody ground” in reference to the tumultuous and violent history of the region, from its use as a hunting ground by the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes to later bearing witness to the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the final clashes in the War of Independence.  Kentucky was also home to some of the earliest devotees of the American Dream, being the first area west of the Appalachians to be settled by frontiersmen. The opportunity to start a new life free from the constraints of the law governed east coast proved irresistible, with many of this motley crew harbouring a memory filled with contempt for the society they had left behind, where more often than not they had been treated as social pariahs. In many ways the spirit carried by these people became the spirit of the land itself – fiercely independent with a healthy appetite for rebellion and it was this same spirit that flowed in the blood of Hunter Stockton Thompson when he entered the world on July 18th 1937, the eldest son of Virginia Ray and Jack Robert Thompson. He was later described as having – “shot out of the womb angry”.

Thompson enjoyed a somewhat idyllic life growing up in the peaceful middle-class neighbourhood of Cherokee Triangle, a suburb of Louisville. Jack Thompson, an insurance agent who had previously been married, was forty-two when Hunter was born and his relationship with his son was always somewhat distant, perhaps due to Jack’s strict disciplinary role in Hunter’s life. He had a much closer bond with his mother Virginia, who introduced him to tales such as Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also particularly fond of reading about heroes and outlaws of the Wild West, an early influence that was hugely significant according to historian Douglas Brinkley:

when he was growing up in Kentucky, he was obsessed with tall tales. He would read about Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid. He didn’t care whether these stories were true or not – those personas became larger than life. (Stop Smiling Magazine Issue 22)

Indeed, in both his neighbourhood and in school, the young Thompson seemed to be hell-bent on creating his own unique brand of infamy, with his pranks and mischief resulting in a visit to his home by the FBI when he was just nine years old. Accused of having orchestrated the tipping of a Federal Mailbox into the path of a bus, leading to a collision that caused considerable damage, the Agents tried to pressure Hunter into a confession by informing him that they had witnesses. Unconvinced by their story, Hunter called their bluff and enquired as to the identity of these witnesses – the ensuing awkward silence signalled that the game was up. Pressed further by Jack Thompson and having no evidence to substantiate their claim, they swiftly made an exit and were never seen again.

Of course, Thompson was the ringleader of the entire incident and his reasons for doing so reveal an important side to his character. In his opinion, the bus driver needed to be taught a lesson, having become known for pulling away just as the schoolchildren arrived at the bus stop on their way to school. It was a somewhat cruel abuse of the little power he held and it was not going to be tolerated by Hunter and his gang – the Hawks A.C. – with the same spirit of lashing out at those who used their power for nefarious reasons later becoming a cornerstone of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter learned a powerful lesson from the experience and that was to never blindly trust anyone who represented the system, no matter what badge of office they held.

There are two major incidents that occurred in Louisville however, that altered the course of Thompson’s life forever. The first of these was the death of Jack Thompson. His passing had a profound affect on Hunter, coming shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Jack had always maintained a strict guiding influence in Hunter’s life, encouraging his interest in sports and ensuring that he didn’t get too out of hand. After his death, Thompson’s behaviour went unchecked and he quickly spiralled out of control. Virginia Thompson went to work at the Louisville Free Public Library in order to provide for her family, leaving Hunter with plenty of free time to indulge his newfound passion – alcohol. Despite Thompson’s reputation over the years as a notorious chemical abuser, it was a legal drug that first made him a slave to dependency, perhaps more so than any other substance, with the possible exception of cocaine.

In Louisville, it was Thompson’s thirst for alcohol that fuelled his descent into juvenile delinquency. Despite being underage it was never too difficult to gain access to alcohol – after all it was very much part of the social fabric and when the use of fake IDs failed to work for Hunter and his friends, there was always the option of raiding the household liquor cabinet. What followed was usually a bout of running amok and sometimes mindless vandalism, which inevitably brought Thompson into conflict with the law, leading to a stint at the Louisville Children’s Centre. In his inimitable memoir, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson acknowledged his tearaway behaviour as a teenager, likening his antics to that of his childhood hero:

I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a “criminal”: I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That’s all you have to do if you’re a criminal.

Coupled with this reckless behaviour there was also something of a distinct split in Thompson’s identity during this period. At school, despite frequently skipping class to nurse a hangover, he displayed such a talent for writing that his English teacher Harold Teague recommended him to the exclusive Louisville Literary Athenaeum, where he won awards for his satirical essays. Yet the conflicting forces in Thompson’s psyche were never far from the surface, dragging him in opposing directions to such an extent that he was equally comfortable discussing the parable of Plato’s cave, as he was standing in front of judge following his latest bout of drunken revelry. Thompson was adept at compartmentalising different aspects of his life and this extended to his friends, of whom the social range stretched from the underclass to the very top of Louisville’s elite. While Hunter was comfortable moving in both worlds, the more he became exposed to the wealth of a certain circle of friends, the more painfully aware he became of his own social standing. Though Virginia Thompson did her best to raise three sons, it was not easy on her salary as a librarian. While Hunter’s friends talked of going to Ivy League Universities following their high school graduation, he knew this was not a financially viable option. While this situation created a certain resentment for Thompson, it paled into insignificance next to the rage that boiled over within him following an event that marked the end of his youth in Louisville.

Given his love affair with alcohol, it was only a matter of time before Thompson ended up in serious trouble. Yet for once, he was entirely innocent. His only crime was that of being in the company of a friend who had robbed a young couple in the park. Thompson was not even aware of what had actually happened, having been seated in a car during the incident, until he was charged by the police. Nevertheless it was Thompson who bore the brunt of the law, with the sitting judge being more than aware of his previous history as a young offender. This time he was determined that Thompson would not escape unpunished, handing down a six week prison sentence, forcing Hunter to miss two of the most important milestones in any teenager’s life – his eighteenth birthday and graduation from high school. The real injustice of the affair, however, was that the actual perpetrator walked free, courtesy of his influential family connections, leaving Thompson to sit in his cell cursing the injustice of the system and vowing to never again become ensnared in its net.

The social stigma attached to his incarceration was humiliating for Thompson and this was further compounded by his expulsion from the Louisville Literary Athenaeum, whose members had convened a special meeting to decide his status as a member of the association. The entire incident represented an overwhelming rejection by his hometown, but rather than try to atone for his past indiscretions and repair his standing in the community, Thompson instead vowed revenge upon the Louisville establishment. He viewed his treatment as a conspiracy by the authorities and the privileged elite, who had abused their power in order to make an example of him, the easy target with no father to fight his corner.

The fallout from this incident was so emotionally damaging for Thompson that it cannot be underestimated in relation to his direction as a writer. The pain of this incident was a constant driving force that was never far from the surface, strengthening his identification with “outsider” figures and heightening his visceral distrust of authority in all of its representations. Ironically it is also inherently linked to the creation of Gonzo Journalism through The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. In the lead up to his hometown return it was obvious that the opportunity for revenge was on his mind. To Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, he confessed – ‘And that’s it for now, I have to get some sleep before rushing off to confront my festered childhood. God’s mercy on us all.’ In a letter to Pat Oliphant, the first illustrator to be approached for the article, he wrote – ‘Ok for now. I have to get upstairs and call Hinckle. And get my plane ticket – and call my poor mother to warn her that I’m coming back, once again, to whip the shit out of everything I was raised and brought up to hold dear. Selah.’ When Oliphant was unable to accompany Thompson to the Derby, Scanlan’s Monthly made an inspired decision to send Ralph Steadman in his place. What followed was a pure exercise in avenger’s rhetoric by Thompson, with the mint julep-soaked prose eviscerating the Louisville elite in spectacular fashion, particularly when it came to his description of the ‘special kind of face’ that he wanted Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to capture:

It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.

Of course the journey for Thompson as a writer was a long and convoluted one between his exile from Louisville as a youth and his triumphant return at the Kentucky Derby. The intervening period not only covers the birth of Hunter S. Thompson as a writer but also that of The Hunterfigure – and it is this construct that in many ways proved to be the single most important factor for Thompson in his determination to succeed as a writer, as it afforded him the irresistible opportunity to create a fictionalised portrait of his own life, a second opportunity where the cards of fate were not stacked against him as they had been in Louisville.

A Monster Reincarnation of Horatio Alger

The Hunterfigure was first mentioned by Thompson in correspondence whilst living in upstate New York in 1959. Having fled to New York in search of work as a journalist following his honourable discharge from the military, he struggled to make any discernable impact in the profession, habitually managing to get fired for insubordination or destroying office vending machines. Relying on friends and family to stave off hunger and the ever present threat of eviction, he increasingly began to question the merit of pursuing journalism as a career, particularly in light of his obvious disdain for the hierarchical structure of the typical newsroom, coupled with what he perceived as the shocking ignorance by an assortment of editors to his obvious talent. Thoroughly disillusioned with this state of affairs, Thompson composed a lengthy letter to a former girlfriend in which he revealed the predicament of the “Hunterfigure”:

I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should…I know I’m right, but I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right – instead of comfortable…The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is “where do we go from here?

What appears to be an otherwise innocuous statement in fact is a highly literary persona that would eventually be fully realised through the filter of Gonzo Journalism. Unsurprisingly, it also signals his move towards finding solace through fiction, with his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, once again illustrating the distinct sides to his psyche and the desire to make sense of this internal conflict through the cathartic power of writing:

It will be the story of Hunter and Hunter, the way he went and the way he could have gone. And, incidentally, why. I’m using the narrator-participant technique – a la Gatsby – and shooting for a short (300 pages or so) account of three people living a year in New York City that will decide the courses of their lives.

Drawing upon a multitude of experiences between his life in Louisville and his attempt to forge a new beginning in New York, Thompson inserts autobiographical details into a fictional framework to present the story of Welburn Kemp, the first thinly disguised Hunterfigure, who manages to succeed where Thompson himself had failed. Though Kemp experiences the same difficulty in finding work in New York, as a college graduate he is more confident in his dealings with editors, walking out of an interview upon discovering that he is expected to start out as a copyboy. In reality, Thompson could ill-afford to do likewise, accepting the same position with Time magazine, despite considering it as being beneath his talent. Through Kemp, Thompson attempts to exorcise many of his personal demons, creating an idealised world where the rules favour the underdog. The novel also displays the contradictory dichotomy between Thompson’s desire to be accepted by society and that of his embracing of the outsider mantle.

Another important aspect in relation to Kemp is that of the literary blueprint from which he is derived. According to William McKeen, Thompson turned to one of his heroes for inspiration:

The strongest literary influence was J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man. Like that novel’s Sebastian Dangerfield, Kemp is selfish and arrogant and yet too charming to be firmly repellent.

Donleavy’s protagonist is also the forefather of Thompson’s Raoul Duke and significantly shares not just the same attitude, but also a similar dispensation for substance abuse. Sebastian Dangerfield drunkenly rampages through the streets of Dublin, clashing with the authorities along the way and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson amplifies this behaviour in Raoul Duke tenfold, upping the ante to such an extent as to make his drug use redundant. Of course, Duke is far more than a mere exaggeration of Sebastian Dangerfield and while he shares the same literary DNA with Welburn Kemp, there is equally a gulf of difference between Thompson’s respective charges. What ultimately separates the pair is Thompson’s incorporation of Duke into a larger narrative, that upon which America itself stands – the American Dream. Yet this aspect in the evolution of the Hunterfigure did not occur overnight, it was a long process, of which a crucial element is often overlooked – that of Thompson’s time in Big Sur and the influence of Henry Miller.

Thompson had long been an admirer of Miller’s writing and the prospect of living in the vicinity of one his literary heroes proved irresistible when he settled there in 1961. Unbeknownst to Thompson, Miller had earlier departed Big Sur for Europe and as a result their paths never crossed. It is Miller though who, in a way, was responsible for Thompson’s first big break as a writer, inspiring him to write an article, entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller”, which subsequently appeared in Rogue magazine, marking his first national publication. The heart of the article consisted of a detailed analysis of the dichotomy between Miller’s public persona and his private self, a facet of his life in Big Sur that more than piqued Thompson’s interest:

Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.

The observations made here by Thompson clearly illustrate the understanding that he had of the mechanics involved in the cult of celebrity that had enveloped Miller. He identifies the public appetite for controversy and scandal, the potential manner through which literature can create a persona in the public sphere and the ease at which this persona can develop beyond the boundaries of the written word. It was not lost on Thompson that Miller, who had written prolifically of the serenity of life in Big Sur, struggled to cope with the burden of fame that had besieged his once idyllic existence, despite his best efforts to discourage the flood of pilgrims that were now destroying that which he so valued.

He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivating a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities.

In detailing the rise of Miller’s profile and the subsequent siege of visitors to pay homage to their literary idol, Thompson creates a portrait that is astonishingly prophetic of his own eventual profile. The essential difference however, which was already clearly evident in Big Sur, is that unlike Miller, Thompson not only enjoyed the glare of publicity, but actively craved it.

In Big Sur, Thompson began to realise the power of self-mythologizing as a gateway towards a higher goal. Through Henry Miller he witnessed the manner in which an author’s persona could becoming synonymous with nonconformist revolt in the public lexicon, which in turn fuelled the propagation of a discourse that elevated him to a status of near mythic proportions. In this sense, Thompson’s experience in Big Sur proved to be a watershed moment, for it marks the turning point in his development of the Hunterfigure – from being that of a basic autobiographical tool to that of a mythmaking persona.

That this would appeal to Thompson is unsurprising in light of his early childhood fascination with myths and legends. It is this same larger than life trait that Thompson invoked in his later portrayal of sports stars and politicians as the modern day heroes and villains within the new pantheon of American mythology. The common denominator here is the enduring power associated with these figures, the special quality that burns into the collective consciousness of man and survives there for generations.

Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that they tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.

It is his creation of the Raoul Duke persona that is Thompson’s ultimate attempt to fashion a figure, a myth, that connects with a whole new generation in America – a generation that he believed witnessed the death of the American Dream through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even goes so far as to describe Duke as being ‘a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger’ to illustrate his sentiment towards this development, with Horatio Alger having represented the traditional rags to riches story of the American Dream, that with hard work and virtuous living any man could reach the top in life. For Thompson this was a con and in Las Vegas he had found the ultimate proof, a city built on corruption and sleaze that hawked the American Dream to gullible fools who parted with their money in the hope of hitting the big one and striking it rich. Of course, the house always wins, and it is this same false promise that Thompson associates with the blind optimism of the sixties, which was ultimately crushed by the cold hard reality of life under Richard Nixon’s reign.

In this sense, Thompson’s choice of epigraph – ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – can now be considered in a new light. For Thompson the beast is of course Raoul Duke and the pain of being a man harkens back to Thompson’s youth in Louisville where he was ostracised as a “criminal”. Duke is his ultimate revenge on the establishment, his outlaw hero who embraces his status on the edge of society and uses his position to lambaste and ridicule the establishment and their hypocrisy. In a broader context he speaks to the pain of an entire section of American society, from those who are criminalised by the War on Drugs to the many who bought into the sixties dream and were burned in the process.

In closing, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom from Raoul Duke – ‘Learn to enjoy losing.’

The Beat Generation and Travel

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

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

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

 

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William S. Burroughs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


Allen Ginsberg


 

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ MORE ABOUT ALLEN GINSBERG’S TRAVELS HERE

 

 

Neal Cassady

 

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

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gary Snyder

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Corso

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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

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

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

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

Michael McClure

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

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

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

Bob Kaufman

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

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

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

Harold Norse

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

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

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

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