October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
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By Kurt Kline
In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to heal the wounds of racism, capitalist exploitation, and war. If Kaufman is, as many critics have suggested, a shaman, it is perhaps most properly in the tradition of Hoodoo, which employs music as a mode of otherworldly transport or to facilitate trance states. If Kaufman recuperates the bizarre dreamscape and linguistic paradox of the ancient shaman’s song, however, these elements have now been transplanted to alien, perhaps even hostile, Western cultural climes. I examine George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead to demonstrate more clearly Kaufman’s position as mispositioned shaman-healer of the postmodern age.
Although there is no single moment when modernism ended and postmodernism began, the period around WWII can be seen as a time of great transformation. The European avant-garde movement dispersed not only bodily to the far corners of the globe, but spiritually, as a functional vehicle of liberation. But after the war another generation arose. Allen Ginsberg seems to bridge the gaping chasm torn by the war in the middle of twentieth century American and European literature when he gives Ezra Pound a ritual spanking at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The Beats represented a new way of configuring self, art, and world. The postmodern artist was no longer a priest of culture, but an actual enemy of the state. Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce were brought to trial on obscenity charges; Carl Solomon was locked in a madhouse; Bob Kaufman was repeatedly jailed. Beat writers were fighting on the side of the imagination in a war that threatened to strip America of her soul. “The war that matters is the war against the imagination,” Diane Di Prima declares in her poem “Rant”: “All other wars are subsumed by it.” The artist became not a high priest but a culture worker, working within the mythos of the American legend to undermine its insistence on collective conformity, on homogenization of spiritual experience.
The Beats accomplish this in their poetry through the juxtaposition of elements of American mainstream popular culture (its film stars and political figures, its movies, popular myths, and songs) with elements which threatened to revolutionize and perhaps fundamentally undermine it: jazz, blues, Eastern and Western mysticism, Zen, and psychedelic drugs. When Bob Kaufman used the word Beat to describe the poetics that he and his friends were engaged in inventing, it may well have been in reference to the beat of the shaman’s drum, which propels its listeners into the Otherworld. Certainly the Beat poetics seems to recapitulate, within the changing landscape of American popular culture after WWII, the liminal poetics originating from the shaman’s song. Ginsberg writes of the madness and schizophrenia of the artist and of his country. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantra poems GRRRR and GRRRARH their way through a secret language of the animals, filling up the dadaspace of emptiness with new possibilities of meaning. In Bob Kaufman’s art, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to discover the source of and cure to the homicidal madness that Poe, the father of American culture, had intuited as somehow an inherent part of our national consciousness.
Jewish and Black, sane and insane, Kaufman inhabits liminal space in many ways. In the eyes of mainstream 1950’s culture he is criminal, schizophrenic, the rebel, the outsider. But from the point of view of the poets, the musicians, the artists of North Beach and Paris, Kaufman is unbelievably inside, inside inside, showing the workings of the creative mind as it contorts to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by consensus consciousness. Taking into account the ancient poetics of the shaman’s song we are in an excellent position to understand the precise relationship between the poetry of this “screamer on lonely poet corners” and modern culture.
There is in the first place an inherent connection between the shaman’s song and jazz. Jazz grows out of a cultural aesthetic which places a different valuation on shamanic experience than does the European model. The African slaves brought to the new world were only recently and perhaps dubiously converted to Christianity. They preserved their old gods and shamanic customs in folktales, music and art, and, as blues musician and author, Julio Finn observes, “the Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that the African slaves brought with them.” Elements of the Yoruba religion survived in Hoodoo and Voodoo on the bayou and elsewhere as the African witch doctor became the Root Doctor, Obi, Vodun, Wangaleur, the Hootchie-Cootchie Man or Woman. Although Kaufman did not, to the best of my knowledge, receive formal shamanic initiation at the crossroads, as perhaps was the case, as Finn demonstrates, with blues great Robert Johnson, the poet would nevertheless have been quite aware of the Hoodoo tradition, being raised in Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans. In the Hoodoo tradition, music is a key element of spirituality, and opens a channel of communication between man and loa. Kaufman writes about, as I fancy, his younger days in New Orleans, and some of the music that he heard there in the following terms:
Orleans… New Orleans… the bend in the river cleaves to the sky…
…the flowers are still up there on that wall, stem, petal, all,
Their roots playing the silences, between
Feeding pongee petals to soft breezes, flying in darting wonder.
Olatunji Babatunde is the Nigerian drummer whose 1960 album Drums of Passion was so influential on John Coltrane. “Babatunde’s drumbeats” are in clear reference to the African tribal tradition in which rhythm is the soul of life, the source of all human and universal action. Kaufman’s poetry grows out of be-bop, which is integrally linked to this intuition as well as to the struggle of African-Americans for individual and political liberation and the recovery of authentic spiritual experience. Kaufman’s improvisatory, spontaneous, oral poetics, like be-bop, is rooted in spiritual insights deriving from African tribal traditions.
…I DREAMED I DREAMED AN AFRICAN DREAM, MY HEAD WAS A
BONY GUITAR, STRUNG WITH TONGUES, & PLUCKED BY GOLD
FEATHERED WINGLESS MOONDRIPPED RITUALS UNDER A MIDNIGHT SUN, DRUMMING HUMAN BEATS FROM THE HEART OF AN EBONY GODDESS, HUMMING THE MELODIES OF BEING FROM STONE TO BONE AND FROM SAND ETERNAL…
Kaufman’s jazz rhythms set to words hurl the listener into the Otherworld even as does the shaman’s drum. His poetry is truly “Beat” in the sense that it is concerned with and expressive of the shaman’s primal rhythm.
In Kaufman’s poetry will be recognized features of the shaman’s song. The poet’s surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery call to mind the illogical, unnatural images of the shaman, expressive of the bizarre dreamscape of the shamanic Otherworld, a realm of impossible existences, of linguistic paradoxes. To express the liminal reality of the Otherworld the shaman employs a secret animal or nonsense language. Kaufman expresses the inexpressible through linguistic paradox and through the secret language of jazz. Kaufman’s poet moves across “AN UNIMAGINARY LANDSCAPE THAT EXISTS IN A REAL, UNREAL WORLD,” populated by strange “UNBEINGS.” The location of this liminal reality is somewhere, as Kaufman has written,
…BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR, MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF AN OTHER SIDE…
The shaman’s otherworldly journey is recapitulated by Kaufman both in terms of the underworld descent in “THE POET” and a flight into “crackling blueness” in “Ancient Rain.” Such shamanic visitations are common in Kaufman’s oeuvre. “I have walked on my walls each night/Through strange landscapes inside my head,” he writes in “Would You Wear My Eyes?” In “Slight Alterations” he writes:
I climb a red thread
To an unseen existence,
Broken free, somewhere,
Beyond the belts
The purpose of these otherworldly travels is always for Kaufman to redeem suffering through love. In “Plea” he enjoins the “Voyager, wanderer of the heart” to “Seek and find Hiroshima’s children/ Send them back, send them back.” The poet must retrieve the lost and mangled souls of the new atomic age. The poet is the shaman of the culture, who must remember the truth of the nearness of death to us all, and how interconnected our lives are with all the other beings on this planet.
Finally, Kaufman’s poetics conforms to that of the shaman’s song in situating itself as an instrument of healing. Kaufman sings the “song of the broken giraffe,” the “nail in the foot song,” to bring back as if from some quagmire of Hell America’s very soul, ripped from it by greed and warfare and held in thrall by a vast brainwashing apparatus. In “The Ancient Rain” Kaufman writes:
At the illusion world that has come into existence of world that exists secretly, as meanwhile the humorous Nazis on television will not be as laughable, but be replaced by silent and blank TV screens.
The poet exposes the hypocrisy around him and dispels the illusion that has been foisted on the populace, the false myth which asserts there is a single, unitary and unchanging truth. The Ancient Rain is coming to remind everyone of the necessity of change. “The Ancient Rain splits nations that have died in the Ancient Rain…so that they can see the culture of the living dead they have become.” But if everything falls apart it also comes back together again in the Ancient Rain. It falls like balm from the sky, and brings retribution.
The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. The Ancient Rain has moved me to another world, where the people stand still and the streets moved me to destination. I look down on the earth and I see myself wandering in the Ancient Rain, ecstatic, aware that the death I see around me is in the hands of the Ancient Rain and those who plan death for me and dreams are known to the Ancient Rain…silent, humming raindrops of the Ancient Rain.
Kaufman is a visionary in the sense implied by Jonathan Swift when he writes, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” But if Kaufman has a faith in his vision’s veracity and sagacity that rivals Blake’s, he nevertheless experiences vision in every bit the problematic manner of tortured Sioux shaman Black Elk. There is a burden to seeing for Kaufman, even as there was for the Sioux visionary. “I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet, spread-eagled on the bone of the world.” In “African Dream” he experiences as a sort of racial memory the pain of seeing the slave ships that ripped Africans from their homes. As he sees it, he lives through the horror of it: “Green screams enfold my night.” The source of the poet’s purity, his legacy, is his suffering. He sees more deeply because he has to. Suffering is transmuted through the magic of poetry into a medicine or sacred herb. In this, Kaufman closely follows Rimbaud’s seer in seeking alchemical refinement of the soul and distillation of a universal balm such as that sought by the Rosicrucians. Kaufman hails Rimbaud as “brilliant maniac,” and “desert turtle” – in an apparent reference to the hexagonal patterned tortoise backs upon which the I Ching is based – and describes the two writers – himself and the French seer-poet –as
Remnants of neo-classical witch doctors
hurling jagged missives of flame-sheeted bone,
affecting space cures, on curved people…
Implicit in seeing for Kaufman is a deeply rooted social conscience. The grim tattoo of the beat-walker’s nightstick on Kaufman’s body becomes a watchword for seekers of life’s mystery everywhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive, touching and absurd rendering of Kaufman’s poetic is his “Abomunist Manifesto.” In his Abomunist writings, Kaufman launches a humorous but at the same time radical critique of the mainstream American culture. Distorted scenes of American life as filtered through the media weave through Kaufman’s “Abomnewscast…On the Hour…”
America collides with iceberg piloted by Lindbergh baby… Aimee Semple Macpherson, former dictator of California, discovered in voodoo nunnery disguised as Moby Dick… New hit sweeping the country, the Leopold & Loeb Cha-cha-cha…
This is the real news, “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist,” a collaging of media items which reveals the absurdity and yet the morbidity of American life. “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV set off and get under it,” Kaufman’s Abomnewscaster advises us, juxtaposing the traditional healing, transformative, shamanic symbol of the mushroom with the destructive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Standing counter to the Puritan work ethic, the beatnik poet cultivates a Zen-inspired uselessness. “In times of national peril, Abomunists, as reality Americans, stand ready to drink themselves to death for their country,” Kaufman declares, only half-jokingly. In other words, the Abomunist opts out. “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” They will have nothing to do with the system. “Abomunists vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” The Abomunist philosophy is essentially rejectionary. “Abomunists reject everything except snowmen,” Kaufman writes, meaning presumably that the Beats reject a puritanical mindset that subjugates everything to the degree to which it can be exploited. The Abomunist refuses to grow up, to conform to societal expectations, and privileges a child’s sense of play which is painfully at odds with the suffering he sees around him. The Abomunist is further linked by pun to the Abominable Snowman, a dubious creature inhabiting precisely the liminal region between known and unknown, between the possible and the impossible. The fusing of wonder and horror, miracle and sham, are perfectly captured in the monster Yeti. The Abomunist suggests the possibility of seeing the sham and stepping away from the brainwashing machine at the same time as staying attuned to the miraculous. But here is the difficulty. The poet has seen too much of the world’s suffering. “Long forgotten Indian tribes fight battles” on his chest. As reportedly did the Buddha when he attained enlightenment, the poet feels the cut earthworm’s pain as his own. Like the shaman, the poet has journeyed to the source of the pain in order to affect a cure. But will he make it back in one piece?
In “Still Further Notes Dis- & Re- Garding Abomunism” Kaufman presents us with a curious document, supposedly a translation of the Live Sea Scrolls, “one of the oldest Abomunist documents yet discovered.” Kaufman’s story of a beatnik Jesus is perhaps, as Damon suggests, inspired by the Lord Buckley routine “The Naz.” For all its humor, however, its characterization of Jesus seems analogous to the Jesus in Gnostic workings of the Jesus myth found in Nag Hammadi Library. In “The Dialogue of the Savior,” for instance, Jesus says:
Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you be always above…time…
Like Kaufman’s Abomunist poet, Jesus is telling his disciples to opt out of the system. The Gnostic Jesus is more rebellious and more paradoxical than the Jesus presented in the canonized gospels. He’s more the rogue and scoundrel of Bruno’s estimation. Kaufman’s Jesus reports:
Nazareth getting too hot, fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night. Beat vagrancy charge by carrying my toolbox to court–carpenters O.K. Splitting to Jeru. as soon as I get wheels.
Kaufman’s satire of the last few days of Christ’s life imagines Christ as a poet at odds with the conventions of society. In identifying the poet with Christ, Kaufman demonstrates the shamanic impulse in the postmodern era. Christ is the archetypal symbol of the shaman, the healer of physical and spiritual pain, the mediator between worlds. Although Christ’s image is valorized, however, the actual point of his message is often lost, and many who claim to believe in him would still consider his philosophy and actions impractical. But the Abomunist is the very master of impracticality. The drag of the thing is if one wants to be Jesus, one sooner or later must get crucified. And so our beatnik poet does – but it’s out of the pain of this crucifixion that a beatification of the poetry occurs.
Kaufman continues the lineage of shaman-Gnostic visionaries we have been tracing. Gnostic philosophy is embedded in his work. The poet is nailed to the bone of the world – imprisoned in matter. He “HIDES IN A JUNGLE OF WRECKED CLOCKS” and asks, “What time is it going to be?” He rejects time altogether and lives instead among “days and weeks/ That cannot be found on any calendar” and “hours and minutes unknown to the clock.” The Gnostic call for freedom from the Demiurge and his minions becomes in Kaufman’s oeuvre a call for liberation for all sentient beings from the retrogressive spiritual, mental and political forces that bind them.
A significant feature of postmodernism, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, is its pastiche of and commentary upon the mediated world – the texts and sounds and pictures that make up the mythological life of our culture. But although Kaufman joins the offices of poet/culture worker with that of entertainer à la Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce, his attitude toward film has less the zaniness of John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” or the celebratory irony of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” but more of a problem that comes out of Kaufman’s understanding of the role of seeing for the poet. Although many of his poems make mention of movie stars and filmic characters, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Shirley Temple to the Wizard of Oz, Kaufman salutes Hollywood as the “artistic cancer of the universe” and holds the movie industry culpable for the brainwashing of America, to whom war is made a possibility and all record of genocide erased. On the other hand, he uses cinematic motifs and structures to re-write the brainwashing script, to reveal, by exaggerating the lie, the truth that lies behind it..
Kaufman’s filmic genre of preference seems to be the horror movie. He writes humorously of Dracula star Bela Lugosi and describes his Carl Chessman film script as “a horror movie to be shot with eyes.” That the horror movie has played such a pre-eminent role in defining the American cultural landscape says a lot about a tension that is held between us and the natural realm, especially as this is accessed through shamanic praxis. The lycanthropy and vampirism that are mainstays of horror cinema can be looked at as remnants – twisted recuperations – of the transformation into animals undergone by shamans in the séance setting. Dr. Frankenstein employs the theories of Mesmer –themselves thinly disguised recuperations of shamanic wisdom – to reanimate the dead. Poe invented American culture when he invented the horror story, the horror-madness of guilt over having gotten away with it. We got away with it. We slaughtered the American Indians. We enslaved Africans. We decimated Hiroshima. We conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve wreaked evo-havoc on the Black Lagoon in which, in sunnier days, that strange amphibious creature used to play – before a seemingly oblivious John Agar poisoned him, set him on fire, shot at, speared, and caged him before blowing up his lagoon entirely. But now we have the dues to pay, and we’re afraid, very, very afraid. What is the horror movie if not this primal fear – the fear of some lurking remnant of ourselves, still unresolved, that might intrude itself in all its hideousness upon our pleasantly numbed state? The murdered dead don’t stay buried, but have a way of turning into zombies, or ghosts, or ghouls.
In “THE POET” Kaufman describes his underworld journey as a passage through “THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING/DEAD” – an ironic reference both to the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, as Damon suggests, but also to the 1968 George Romero horror film in which a hapless band of humans battle a horde of flesh eating ghouls. Romero’s lampoon of racism and conventionality is quite an appropriate allusion for Kaufman to employ. The poet too, is holding out against hordes of mindless zombies, agents of lifelessness, shambling shades inhabiting this particular version of Hell.
In Romero’s film, the protagonist, Ben, is a young black man and this single fact ironically seems both his power and his curse. Like Kaufman, Ben comes from a culture more connected to tribal shamanic praxis than that of the white folks with whom he is unhappily marooned. Only he knows how to fight the ghouls, which he does, in fact, with the conventional tool of the shaman, fire. With fire he puts the ghouls to rout before taking a fortified position in a house, which now becomes a sort of shamanic tree, an axis between worlds, between the basement and attic, between the living and the dead. He prepares a safe retreat into the underworld of the cellar, but only withdraws there when there is absolutely no hope that any of his fellow humans will be able to extricate themselves.
In the final scene of the film, the zombies have been defeated by sheriff’s deputies armed with flame throwers and shotguns. Ben emerges cautiously from his subterranean retreat, and carefully climbs the stairs of the house, only to be shot in an upstairs window by a white deputy sheriff who mistakes him for one of the remaining walking dead. Who doesn’t see him. Who renders him invisible in order to kill him. Romero makes a sly comment here – reflected in the films stark black-and-white coloration – on the culture’s condemnation of shamanic praxis and its linkage to the blindness of racism.
Kaufman’s “THE POET” shows us the Hell that is imposed on us by our own symbology. The poem is “about” how this hell is created, and what role the poet plays in its creation. The poet is the master of the process of creation. He creates the poem, the world, life itself, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The poet and the poem are each described as “A FISH WITH FROG’S/ EYES.” This forms a haunting refrain:
A FISH WITH FROG’S
CREATION IS PERFECT.
The poet appears here as half-fish, half-amphibian. A frog is a more complex organism than a fish. It is a sort of super-fish able to do everything a fish does but much more. A fish can only see within its underwater domain, but an amphibian is master of water and surface realms. A fish sees what falls into the pond but no more. The fish has no communication with or effect upon the surface world. From its lily pad, the frog can observe and interact with what from the fish’s viewpoint are the sensible and super-sensible realms. A fish with frog’s eyes has a sort of super-vision that allows it to see what other fish would dismiss as beyond the spectrum of their finny experience.
Kaufman’s “FISH WITH FROG’S/EYES” is very much an image of the atomic age. Kaufman felt the Hiroshima bombing as a terrible psychic rift. This horrible power and the war machine which produced it were sanitized by the popular media, but Kaufman sees the glimmer of murder in the cold eye of conformity. He writes with fierce sarcasm:
Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning
Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,
And remember the stereophonic screaming
He wants America to realize what it has done. But meanwhile the Hollywood propaganda machine tries to make a killing at the box office with heroic portraits of men in uniform and their plucky women waiting at home. Even radioactivity was valorized in a special way.
The possibilities of mutation due to exposure to radioactivity were romanticized in science-fiction movies and comic books of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A strange radioactive mist causes the Incredible Shrinking Man (in the film of the same title) to shrink down into the very microcosm of the atom. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it’s a “mysterious high-level radiation” causing a mutation that reactivates the corpses’ brains. A fish with frog’s eyes, an atomic mutant, is the perfect symbol for the poet’s alchemical transformation of the stuff of the post-atomic world.
Kaufman’s poet must write what he sees. He must “WRITE THE TRUTH/EVEN IF HE IS/KILLED FOR IT,” and then he will be killed for it. The poem is that which cannot be denied and which cannot be explained. The poem is life. When death removes its cape from him, the poet understands what he has lived through, and he has no regrets. Although he has been “NAILED TO THE/BONE OF THE WORLD” the poet has at least lived. Like Rimbaud’s seer he will at least have seen. His poem, like Lorca’s, is “WOVEN INTO THE DEEPS/ OF LIFE.” Suffering is the poet’s legacy, but it is a suffering that has been transformed, redeemed. Meanwhile,
THE POET LIVES IN THE
MIDST OF DEATH
AND SEEKS THE MYSTERY OF
It is significant that the poet seeks not the answer to life’s mystery, but the mystery itself. The mystery is the enigma, the incertitude, the paradox, that is creation, that is the poem, that is “PERFECT.”
Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.
”An Anthology of New Poetics. Ed. Christopher Beach. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.
Di Prima, Diane. Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. Print.
Finn, Julio. The Bluesman. London: Quarter Books, 1986. Print.
Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain. New York: New Directions, 1981. Print.
—Golden Sardine. 1967. San Francisco: City Lights, 1976. Print.
—Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.
Romero, George, Dir. Night of the Living Dead. 1968. DVD.
William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,
I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.
Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.
This isn’t too different from Williams S. Burroughs’ claim about the origins of his own weird prose:
I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.
It should also be noted that Burroughs was supposedly unable to recall writing any of the original material for Naked Lunch. However, Burroughs – who originally leant Ginsberg copies of Blake’s poetry when they first met, not long before Ginsberg’s famous vision – was dismissive of the mystical idea of visions, claiming that Blake simply saw things that others couldn’t see.
Blake’s method of transcribing words from the ether also seems to bear a strong resemblance to Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within. Although Kerouac named numerous influences on his style, just months before he died he wrote to Philip Whalen and told him that “Blake’s Jerusalem…is worth a fartune” (“fartune” being a Blakean spelling of “fortune”). Jerusalem was one of the poems Blake claimed to have dictated from a voice.
But perhaps even moreso than Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, it was Michael McClure that took Blake has his greatest literary influence. Like Ginsberg, Blake also came to McClure in a vision, and the two men marveled over the difference in their perceptions of this visitor. McClure explained,
Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision.
This short essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
On October 2nd, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his Beat bookstore and publisher, City Lights, will receive Litquake’s 2010 Barbary Award at Herbst Theater.
The celebration will be attended by Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Winona Ryder, Michael McClure and Eric Drooker. Continue Reading…
By Noel Dávila
On Ginsberg’s anger & kindness, Kerouac’s “homo viator”, Burroughs’ excremental prose and a fateful evening in the American Midwest.
“What is it you want to talk about, in case I have nothing to say?” I received the above message on my phone from Michael Sharp, who I’d been trying to sit down with for nearly three months. As our anticipated encounter approached I wondered at the possibility of yet another setback. Two days before our repeatedly rescheduled talk, I was not pleased with his message. “The Beats”, I replied, “and your experience, interpretation and knowledge of them.” No surprises; simple as that.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome of my conversation with Sharp, a respected professor and published poet. His insight provides a clear path leading from the Romantics of the 19th century to the Beats, and then from the Beats to rock & roll. Having attended a reading from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in the 80s, Sharp draws a parallel between these so-called readings and rock shows, hinting at the exhilaration of a performance few can claim to have witnessed.
Trained as a Romanticist and in the literature and ideas of the Nineteenth Century, Michael Sharp’s expertise also encompasses poetry and Victorian literature. I sat down with him at his office in the University of Puerto Rico to discuss why he thinks the Beats were American literature’s first rockers, Burroughs’ genius or lack thereof, and the momentous performance he witnessed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.
How did you first come in contact with the Beats? Was it through their writing or through the live shows?
I think it must have been through reading them, but seeing some of them perform was great also. I saw Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso on stage at the University of Wisconsin about 25 years ago.
What year was this?
It would’ve been 1980 something… I forget when Ginsberg died – 1997, I think – but certainly all three of them were alive. Corso died in 2000; he’s buried in Rome, you know, next to the poet Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Quite close to Keats’ grave. It must have been about ’82 or ’83.
What can you tell me about the show, or the readings?
Well, it was electric. In one corner, Burroughs sat ominously behind a desk, and his fingers, which were very long, hung over the desk, very noticeably. In fact, his fingers were more noticeable than he was. He wore a gray suit, but then he always wore a suit, and he never moved. I think he read from copies of Junky and Naked Lunch in front of him; that’s all he did, he never moved, and his hands remained like this (places hands on desk). Ginsberg had brought his squeeze box and there was a guitarist with him. Corso, who was “the fourth Beat,” after Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was hovering in the background with a bottle of whiskey – loaded, it seemed. It made for good theater and the nice thing about the reading was that while Ginsberg was doing mantras, he was making eyes at and seemed attracted to the guitarist. This intimate sideshow was part of the show which was periodically interrupted by this strange man here who never moved and Corso who flitted around upstage like a ruined dancer.
So they were all three together?
All three. They were on tour. The University of Wisconsin invited artists, mostly classical musicians and orchestras and Ginsberg & Co were part of the season’s offering. The Beat Show was very memorable and the place was packed.
You’d mentioned it was akin to a rock band playing live.
Oh yes, it certainly was. They were American literature’s first rockers. Well, you know they’re related in a way. Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty (On the Road) is a rapper of sorts. Burroughs later associated with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash, among others.
There is a line that leads from the Beats to many rock bands.
Bob Dylan was a great fan of Ginsberg, so was Kurt Cobain.
Kurt Cobain actually met William Burroughs and they spent some time together.
Yes. In Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, there’s a photograph of the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.. As for Cobain and Nirvana, well, you know, there’s something ‘grungy’ about William Burroughs.
He ventured into other things besides literature: film, acting, multimedia…
He was in a film with Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy). He did a film with Warhol if I remember correctly. He sang as a guest vocalist on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak. He painted, of course. When he moved to Kansas he started to paint, apparently giving up writing, if writing is the right word for what Burroughs did.
The cut up procedure.
Norman Mailer said that Burroughs “Is the only American novelist living today that may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Yes, in a way. I read somewhere that Burroughs, in pushing the limit, found himself in the wilderness of what ‘limit’ sometimes might imply. I don’t know about genius. Burroughs is a dirty writer. I don’t mean that pejoratively. He’s visceral, he’s excremental, and he pushes the boundaries, I suppose. Like many French writers of the 19th century: Baudelaire, de Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He reminds me of Michel Foucault, actually. Foucault pushed the boundaries to the point that he thought that if he went to every bath house in San Francisco, say, he might just cheat AIDS, circumvent it somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there is an adventurism, a great daring in the way that Foucault crossed over in his writing, and I think, perhaps, Burroughs does the same too. Burroughs doesn’t strike me as being the great writer that Mailer claims for him. I think Burroughs did things that people didn’t dare do, or simply couldn’t/wouldn’t do. If that makes him a great writer, fine. Rimbaud, who must have influenced Burroughs, was equally strange, equally courageous, a poetic genius who gave things up to become an arms dealer, of all things. In a way, Burroughs was like Rimbaud; but he simply ‘gave up’ writing later than Rimbaud who quit writing poetry at nineteen.
What’s your take on Burroughs’ drug addiction? What effect do you think it had on his work?
It seems to me to be part and parcel of what it was to be a Beat. You know if it wasn’t LSD, it was peyote. If it wasn’t peyote, it was marijuana. If it wasn’t marijuana, it was Benzedrine. I’m not tremendously sure what they took. Whatever Timothy Leary suggested, I guess!
But he was a life-long opiate addict. Physically he resembled that; pale, skinny…
I suspect there are reasons why people do what they do. Once again, I think Junky pushes the boundaries. It’s a book that hadn’t been written before. It makes de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater seem quite tame. The closest one is perhaps a book by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi whose Cain’s Book describes the life of an addict living on a barge in New York. I don’t have any take on Burroughs’ drug addiction at all. Rimbaud had deliberately dirty teeth. He and Verlaine misbehaved in public, at dinner parties. One of the things Baudelaire liked to do – though I think this may be apocryphal – was throwing flowers into the Paris pissoirs and watching them disintegrate in the urine. Burroughs watched himself in the mirror, presumably, disintegrating. But then he never seemed to. He lived until he was 80 something. He had criminal friends who presumably kept him supplied. He had money for drugs. Not as much money as everyone said he had, despite his family’s adding machine business. Coleridge was an opium addict. It eventually killed him, but in his last years he was cared for by a concerned doctor in London. I think over the years, Burroughs was in the care of lots of people, one of the people who cared for him was Ginsberg. Not physically, but cared for the phenomenon of William Burroughs. Ginsberg, who was a kindly man, arranged for Junky to be published, edited Naked Lunch, etc.
Ginsberg and Burroughs were both homosexuals. Do you think being vocal and open about their sexuality opened doors to the current struggle for gay rights?
Yes, but it’s not as if homosexuality, being gay, hasn’t been around for a while. I mean they were open about homosexuality. Extending sexual boundaries was part of being a Beat as much as it was exploring the possibilities of drugs and spiritual belief. I think the Beats may have opened the doors for gay rights, but Zen Buddhism in some respects and the spiritual power of search were things that kept them going. As for the homosexuality, I don’t know how important it was. They spent a lot of time in Tangier; it’s still an open city. It’s a lovely city too. In Europe, the Beats, for example, are preceded by the 1890s French symbolists, by Oscar Wilde. Burroughs was apparently as much into paid sex as Wilde was. I don’t know if that’s liberating or even how open Burroughs was a homosexual. There’s a photograph here in Caveney’s book of his having his toes sucked by Brion Gysin, a British painter. Is it his toe? I can’t tell. I think he liked to be photographed. Whether or not his being gay enhances his art, I don’t know. I think there was a real bond between all the men from Cassady to Kerouac, from Ginsberg to Orlovsky, from McClure to Corso. Burroughs liked men – despite having been married – men’s company, simple as that.
What do think of Ginsberg’s “Howl”?
It’s Ginsberg’s masterpiece. It reworks the Biblical rhythms, the insistencies of William Blake’s great poetry against a devouring world. Ginsberg looks for a common humanity in a dehumanizing, consumer-driven post 1945 America. It’s very democratic like Whitman’s poetry. You can’t have a democracy unless you include all people in it. If you exclude gays, for example, then you don’t have a democracy. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was appalled by some of Whitman’s notions, he told him to clean up his act, and Whitman – I imagine – must have said something like “I can’t, because if we want a union, then that union includes people like me who fall in love with men on trams”.
Do you agree with the notion that Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s leader?
Yes. Howl is the seminal poem. To go back to Burroughs, if it wasn’t for Ginsberg we wouldn’t have Junky as it is, perhaps. It would have never been published. And Naked Lunch, which is the better book, if you can call it that, was edited by Ginsberg. Yes, he’s important. The thing about Ginsberg too was that he was nice to people, a nurse, a wound-dresser like the great Walt. He helped writers whom he believed had talent, rather like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Rexroth. This is one of the things I have always liked about him as a man. Ginsberg was nice despite the rage. Howl is a very angry poem. Ginsberg looked at America in 1950 understanding that he was a different kind of American. Compare them to the “greatest generation” which came back from Normandy and the Pacific and was venerated as the saviors of the new world. The Beats felt left out. The intelligentsia especially felt left out. This is why I think writers like Ginsberg congregated in places like Columbia University in New York City and the University of California- Berkeley in San Francisco.
They broke those old 50s patterns of thought and behavior. Instead they had hedonism, spontaneity, inconformity…
The Ur-Text for all them, it seems to me, whether it’s Corso or Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs is British Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were rebels, mostly young men (with Mary Wollstonecraft) who felt that a millennial moment was at hand in 1789 with the revolution of France and its enormous social possibilities. Then there was the disappointment of the Terror in 1793 and the split between the younger and older Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge were on one side; Byron, Shelley and Keats on the other. Blake was much older, but a revolutionary all the same. All of them, at various stages of their poetic careers wanted to – as Ezra Pound said much latter – “make in new.” There was a common rebelliousness, a common belief in the possibilities of a new world order based on freedom and justice and equality and fraternity and sorority, at least in the western world. There was an enjoyment in the role of the outsider. Look at… Burroughs. There’s an outsider for you. William Burroughs, the man in the gray flannel suit who never moved, the man with long fingers, the man who wrote Naked Lunch, the man who’s a junky, the man who liked rent boys – I’m guessing – the man who knew and liked Jean Genet, Paris, its grime. He was fascinated by criminals, Times Square lowlifes whose circumstances I believe he empathized with. There’s a Shelleyan quality to almost all the men we’ve been talking about. Shelley was the arch-rebel. Shelley gave away his shoes to a beggar in Ireland. He didn’t ask for them back. Metaphorically, his poetry dares you to do the same. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford for his atheistic views. When his body was cremated on an Italian beach, his heart refused to burn. That’s as good as you get!
The Beat Hotel in Paris.
What I think attracted the Beats to Paris was Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the studied eccentricity of the poet Nerval and his pet lobster. I think the peeling splendor of Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement and its grungy ‘Class 13’ hotel also appealed to them. I’m guessing that they found Tangier much more liberating. They could smoke hashish in the streets, they couldn’t get picked up for particular things, soliciting, say, and they could live relatively open as gays – those of them that were, that is. As for hard drugs, I don’t know. Tangier always strikes me as being the city of the Beats, with the exception of San Francisco and New York, not Paris.
I thought initially that Paris is where you’d seen them perform.
No, I saw them in the American Midwest. I mean, how perfectly junky. Remember Madison is halfway between Columbia and Berkeley!
Any thoughts on On the Road and its lasting influence?
It’s not a book that I’ve found easy to read. Why should it be? But, I do recognize its importance. Dean Moriarty appeals to me. You could say that he’s one of the sources of rap music. Recently a first edition sold for $12,500. Kerouac’s road novels aside, I think where the Beats excelled was the poetry. Corso – remember his “I Am 25”? – “with a love a madness for Shelley”- and Ginsberg were excellent poets. On the Road has lasted, though. It’s a post-Romantic book. Homo viator, man on the road. It’s about two men traveling in Mexico, two men talking, getting into scrapes, falling out with each other. It’s a cool book.
Going back to the performance you saw. When you think back, what sticks out?
I think the thing that made William Burroughs different was the fact that he sat still, oh, and his fingers. That might seem odd. I was totally struck by how somber, how sinister he looked. I thought that Burroughs might not be a man you’d want to find yourself in a room with alone. He struck me as threatening, but then I think that his writings are threatening. To go back to the question about whether he’s a genius or not, perhaps he is because the greatest literature should threaten you in some way: make you think, make you change, make you act. The best of Shelley’s poetry dares you to give away your shoes; if you don’t then you’ve failed the task. I don’t think Burroughs dares you to the needle or dares you into the underworld off Times Square, but there was something singularly odd and different about him, whether you understand it or not. Remember that photograph of him asleep fully clothed on a Tangier beach while Kerouac and Orlovsky beef-cake for the photographer? I’m not sure anything means in Burroughs – nothing has to mean, by the way – but he was a phenomenon and a presence. I think probably I thought he seemed rather evil. I’d just gotten back from Africa when I saw the tickets on sale so I went with my friends Ann, Mike, Marsha, Bob, Ina, and Berger. They’re all Beats still. Someone we knew was writing a doctoral dissertation on the Beats. It was a spectacle and good theater. Burroughs was good theater, it seems to me still. If you look at his face, there’s something quite frightening there. He looked so respectable too. Look at the socks, look at the shoes, the cuffs, the trousers, the hat, and the jacket – but underneath the jacket, of course, he’s wearing a Moroccan jilaba. I love that. Burroughs clearly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Somebody once said that Burroughs is as American as the electric chair.
I think that’s a great quote.
Yes, I think it is too. I’m not quite sure what it means. In a way, I think that’s what strikes me about him.
Oh yes, and dangerous. I mean his writings seem to steal fire. They don’t have the quiet Zen, the environmental concerns of Gary Snyder’s poetry, say. But, like Foucault, his notions in their own shockingly Promethean way are dangerous, challenging. Ginsberg, despite the epic rage in Howl, doesn’t strike me as dangerous as Burroughs. Ginsberg viewed his generation as misunderstood and misused just as Shelley understood the tyrannical England of 1819. Burroughs was a gentleman junky. Taken as a metaphor, ‘junkies’ are dangerous people. The best writers strike me as dangerous. Burroughs seems to convey an underworld most of us don’t want anything to do with. Some of the depths that Burroughs touched, or was involved with ultimately seem to have bogged him down in the unknown territory of “limit.” Foucault crossed over, and it killed him. Rimbaud crossed over and became ostensibly someone else, even, according to his sister, accepting Christ on his deathbed. When Kurt Cobain died, I wondered if Burroughs had had something to do with it.
Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict as well, but he didn’t even live to be thirty.
Burroughs died when he was 80 something. Perhaps moving to Kansas cured him. It might have. More so than Rimbaud, I guess, Jean Genet was a perfect model for Burroughs. The petty thief who wrote great books about incarceration, sex, a terrible upbringing – none of which Burroughs had. Genet who was raped in prison or reform school – I forget which – is venerated in France. One of the reasons that Burroughs is so famous in France is because the French like boundary jumpers. Foucault, to the Left, is a God, or was. Philosophers are venerated like rock stars in France. So is Jean Genet. Thieves, murderers, Genet, Burroughs, even the anti-Semitic Céline have a special place in French culture. In Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book – if my memory serves – there’s one sequence in which the hero Joe Necci makes love to woman on some rolling logs. One of the things that he enjoys most about it is that she’s an amputee. I don’t know if that’s supposed to shock you, it’s like punk hairdos or Sid Vicious on stage. Without reading the book, there’s something shocking about the cover of Junky especially when you remember that the man who wrote it looked so much like an accountant. (Points at book) This is a lost look, don’t you think?
Even the way he spoke was kind of strange.
Yes, sepulchral. Like a funeral director. On the other hand, Noel, in some respects I’ve often thought that it was all just a joke – a joke played by Burroughs on all of us. That we can venerate the excremental, the anal, dirt under the fingernails, people who we spend a lot of time avoiding in life because they’ll steal from you, or stab you in the back, transport you to Auschwitz, have you killed. I think Burroughs meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like Bosch or Breugel. Perhaps, however, there is also a monumental empathy at work that ‘cares for the lost souls, for the shoeless of the earth.’ That’s Naked Lunch; chew on that one.
William Burroughs’ brother read “Naked Lunch” and said that it repelled him.
Samuel Beckett, by the way, had a brother who also disapproved of his writings. If Burroughs’ brother disapproved of him, then Beckett and he are in the same camp. Beckett often didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say so we are left with what he said – remember Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot ? – so if that’s the case with Burroughs, we are similarly left with what he had to say, what he felt. Is he great? Well, he’s different. In a way I think he is great, but I don’t know how, I’m not sure in what way. There was something so much more innocent if you were a Beat and you dressed in a beret and glasses and had a goatee and looked like Dizzy Gillespie, you know? I think Burroughs must have struck everyone in that auditorium as sinister, a touched old man with deep secrets, dark visions.
More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.
We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.
It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.
Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.
JK, Book of Haikus
Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.
Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.
At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.
On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.
“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.
The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.
Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:
Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.
In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.
Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.
Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.
In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”
Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.
After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.
Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.
After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.
In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.
In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.
In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.
When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.
Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.
In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.”
After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.
Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.
Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.
In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,
As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …
This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.
In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.
In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.
Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.
From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:
Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.
Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”
Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.
In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.
During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”
In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.
In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.
Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.
After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.
In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.
Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”
Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.
On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.
In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.
In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.
Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.
Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.
In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)
He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.
After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.
Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.
After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.
Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.
William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady
His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.
Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.
It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.
After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.
Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.
Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.
In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”
In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.
Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.
From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.
The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.
After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)
Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.
His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.
Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.
As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.
Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.
Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.
In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.
Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.
Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.
The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.
He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.
Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.
Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.
It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”
Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.
He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.
Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.
His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.
McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.
He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.
His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.
Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.
He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.
Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.
Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.
Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.
In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.
Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.
by David S. Wills
“Money is the root of all evil”
For I will
In my will
“I regret that I was not able
To love money more.”
Jack Kerouac, 238th Chorus, Mexico City Blues
Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver. By the time he died he had become a shell of the man he once was. He lived with his mother, drank himself beyond recognition, and was flat broke.
But as we all know, Kerouac’s fame only grew after his death, and in death came the respect he craved in life. His unpublished works were published, and his out of print books were brought back into print. People began caring about Kerouac again.
Many of the greatest writers, musicians and artists of the latter half of the twentieth century claim that Kerouac was a huge inspiration in their life. On the Road is now required reading in high schools and universities, and instead of Kerouac being loved only by literate fratboys, his work is considered by scholars and published by Penguin Classics. His influence upon Western society has been immeasurable.
In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity surrounding Kerouac’s old work. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road came and brought the release of the original scroll version. And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, co-written with William S. Burroughs, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, and The Sea is my Brother, have all been recently published.
So it is no surprise that Kerouac’s estate is worth a little more than the ninety-one dollars he owned when he died. After fifty years of fame and forty years of posthumous analysis, Kerouac’s estate is now valued at up to forty million dollars.
However, there has been somewhat of a furore over the ownership of that estate, and recently a long battle was ended with the shocking verdict of the American legal system, which deemed the will of Kerouac’s mother to have been a fake.
When Kerouac died, his will ignored many of the people who were expecting to be included. Instead, he left everything to his mother – a woman who had been an ogre-like figure throughout Kerouac’s life. When she died in 1973, Gabriel Kerouac allegedly passed control of Kerouac’s estate to his third wife, Stella Sampas.
Kerouac’s will deliberately overlooked Sampas, against whom Kerouac had allegedly planned upon entering divorce proceedings. In a letter posted to his nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, on October 20th, 1969 (the day before his death), Kerouac said,
I’ve turned over my entire estate to Memere, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you…
I just wanted to leave my “estate” (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is…
I want you to know that if you’re a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we’re of the same blood.
Paul Blake Jnr has spent much of his life in poverty and consequently sold the famous letter from his uncle to art dealer Alan Horowitz, who sold it to the New York Public Library. At present it remains in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The Sampas family, however, claims that the letter is a forgery.
When an attempt was made to make the note public, the Sampas family threatened a lawsuit, claiming that it was part of the Kerouac archive, but that it was also a forgery… One must wonder why they were so protective over something that they so strongly disputed.
In 1990, Stella Sampas died and left control of the estate to her family. Her brother, John Sampas, assumed control of the estate and became Kerouac’s literary executor. With the continuing fame of Kerouac and his work, the family profited by selling the scroll manuscript of On the Road for more than two million dollars to Jim Irsay, and even a raincoat, hat and suitcase to Johnny Depp for around forty thousand dollars.
Whilst the constant passing of ownership seems strange and confusing, the person who was most confused was Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter by Joan Haverty. Having been denied any part in the control of her father’s estate, she called into question the validity of Gabriel Kerouac’s will. Her suspicions had been raised when she noticed, in 1994, that her grandmother had evidently spelled her name wrong on her own will.
Therefore, Jan Kerouac’s charge was that the signature on Gabriel Kerouac’s will had to have been forged, and that neither she nor her son had wanted control of the estate to rest outside the immediate family. The Sampas family’s ownership was thus illegal, in Jan Kerouac’s eyes.
In 1994, Jan Kerouac went to court to prove her argument. She cited the 1969 letter from Kerouac to his nephew that stated he wished his estate to be controlled by his blood family after his death. In the letter ee also discussed the idea of divorcing his wife, Stella, to whom Gabriel Kerouac’s will left the estate. Furthermore, the man who’d allegedly witnessed the signing of the will – Clifford Larkin – admitted to having witnessed no such thing. It was even suggested that Gabriel Kerouac was medically incapable of signing anything. After all, she was a frail old woman with few physical abilities, and the signature was strong and defined – that of someone with significant strength in their arm.
Jan Kerouac died in 1996, naming Kerouac biographer Gregory Nicosia (who wrote Memory Babe) as her literary executor, and her husband – John Lash – as overall executor. Lash, however, disagreed with her charge against the Sampas family and in 1999 Nicosia resigned from his post. The case was dismissed soon after.
Kerouac’s nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, has always kept fighting the same battle as Jan Kerouac, and recently he carried the litigation to court again, and won. It is argued, however, that Blake never particularly cared, and that he only took it this far on the advice of Nicosia, who brought him food when he was homeless, and dragged him along in his fight against the Sampas family.
Citing medical evidence and the testimony of a handwriting expert, Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, declared Gabriel Kerouac’s will a forgery. It seems, then, that the ownership of Kerouac’s estate by the Sampas family – aside from the one-third dowers entitlement to Stella Sampas – was illegal, and came to pass only through an act of criminal fraud.
Now, fourteen years after Jan Kerouac’s death, it seems she has succeeded in liberating Kerouac’s estate from its wrongful owners.
The question now, however, is what will happen if Paul Blake Jnr comes to control the estate. Jan Kerouac always said she wanted her father’s work given to a library, but it is argued that the Sampas family rejected numerous offers from libraries. No one even knows what exactly they owned, or the precise value of Kerouac’s estate. Fans of Kerouac tend to gather in opposition to John Sampas because of the sale of so many artefacts, but he argues that he has done Kerouac’s work a great service.
The problem now is that there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Sampas family committed the act of fraud. They were not even involved in the 2009 court case. Kerouac’s estate passed from Jack to Memere to Stella and then to John Sampas. Mr. Sampas can therefore hardly be considered the crook he is portrayed by Nicosia and so many irate Kerouac fans.
Furthermore, it would be impossible to reclaim the sold items and return them to Blake – Kerouac’s only living blood relative. It would be unreasonable, too, to expect Sampas to repay Blake for the items he has already sold, considering he probably acted without knowledge of the forged will.
If Sampas is to hand over the remaining items to Blake, that might only account for a few pieces of writing, as Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection in New York, says “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” Nicosia claims that thousands of pieces of Kerouac’s writing to collectors, although the Sampas claims that it was only fifty or sixty, and that they were sold to generate the required operation capital for the estate. These documents were copied and are presently available to view at the Berg.
Critics, however, posit that there are some major gaps in the collection. While Sampas sold around 2,000 items to the Berg Collection for an undisclosed sum in 2001, there are no complete drafts of The Dharma Bums or Vanity of Duluoz, absolutely nothing on Big Sur, and of course, the most famous piece – the original scroll manuscript of On the Road, one of the most famous documents in literary history – has itself been on the road since being sold to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and close friend of Hunter S. Thompson.
Jeffrey Weinberg – John Sampas’ consultant from 1991 to 1993 – claimed to have negotiated the sale of a hand-illuminated manuscript of Book of Dreams to a Rhode Island lawyer for more than $25,000, as well as many other letters and rarities.
However, the scroll of Big Sur belongs to Helen Suprenant, heir of Stella Sampas. Nicosia eludes to it having been sold to a random collector, but it seems to have been given to Suprenant as an inheritance. The scroll for The Dharma Bums was purchased by the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, in cooperation with a university. The Kerouac House, for those who don’t know, is a former residence of Kerouac that John Sampas helped Bob Kealing find and preserve turn into a literary monument.
As for the On the Road scroll, the fee it commanded and the fact that it is not readily available for study are offset by the fact that it tours the world, allowing people to view Kerouac’s work up close. Furthermore, the Berg Collection has a digitised version available for study, as well as a scanned replica.
Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust claims that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Sampas family sold pieces of the Kerouac archive, because many buyers apparently bought only with the intention of donating to the Berg Collection.
In terms of royalties, On the Road alone sells around 60,000 copies per year. Blake’s lawyers are looking into his claim to some of that money, although Blake claims he is only interested in looking after his uncle’s work. Experts say that Blake may be entitled to a third of the Kerouac estate, but no one really knows what comprises that collection, or what its value may be. Jan Kerouac was added to the list of copyright owners in 1985, when the copyright was up for renewal, after being told in 1982, at a Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado, by John Steinbeck’s son, that she needn’t have prostituted herself and lived in poverty for so long – she was entitled to a share of the royalties.
Only the Sampas family know for sure what remains of the Kerouac estate. Douglas Brinkley has been allowed to view the collection for what he planned on being the first official Kerouac biography, but when he failed to deliver the manuscript in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the project appeared to be cancelled. Sampas himself claimed that there are no decent biographies of Kerouac in existence – something that Beatdom would vehemently deny. One only has to look at Paul Maher Jnr’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography or Barry Gifford’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac to see that Sampas’ claim is absurd. They may not be perfect, but perhaps Sampas is guilty of a little hyperbole.
One might well wonder what Kerouac’s contemporaries thought of the situation… After all, it seems unusual that for so long the battle raged between Jan Kerouac, Paul Blake Jnr and the Sampas family. Why didn’t Kerouac’s friends enter into the debate?
Well, the case was never exactly obvious. There was no way of knowing what Gabrielle Kerouac wanted, and so the words of Kerouac’s own friends are hardly worth much. Jan Kerouac was never a part of any circle of Beat Generation writers. She barely knew her father, and whilst Paul Blake Jnr and his uncle shared a close relationship, Blake was never as driven as Jan Kerouac in pursuit of the settlement of the estate.
Jan Kerouac’s godfather, Allen Ginsberg, waded briefly into the argument, examining the debate in the early ‘90s. He apparently studied the case for a few days before deciding the Jan Kerouac had no particularly strong claim to the estate. By all accounts, he was never particularly fond of his goddaughter, whom many consider coldly ignored by the otherwise loveable Ginsberg.
According to Aram Saroyan,
Nicosia had… been organizing a fund raiser to help Jan with her medical bills and told me Allen had called friends like Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and discouraged their participation and later about the Kerouac conference in Manhattan: With some of the participants having a claim to be there far less valid than Jan Kerouac’s, she along with Gerry Nicosia were thrown out of the conference by campus police when she attempted to get on the podium and speak about her father’s archives.
Gregory Corso, however, disagreed, and signed a petition to allow Jan Kerouac to speak at the conference in New York in 1995 that was held in honour of her father. But as Nicosia later claimed, “John Sampas was calling for the university police to arrest her, and Allen said, ‘Yes, take her out, she’s irrelevant.’ I stood up from the audience and started yelling at Allen: ‘Allen, you’ve got to let her speak! She’s Jack’s daughter!’ Sampas said, ‘Get rid of him, too!’”
William S. Burroughs seems to have sympathised somewhat with Jan Kerouac’s claim, and gave her several of his paintings to sell. One of those paintings was sold sight-unseen to a bidder for $3000. The money went to pay for her dialysis, which she required four times a day.
Brenda Knight, the author of the fantastic book Women of the Beat Generation, said that Kerouac’s friends “were worried about getting ‘blacklisted’ in an unofficial way.” Such was the power of the Sampas family that other writers were afraid of speaking against them. Gerald Nicosia speculated that perhaps they were afraid of aligning themselves with Jan Kerouac, who only met her father twice. He claimed that the Sampas family had spread rumours about her that had damaged her reputation, and that scared away members of the Beat Generation.
Nicosia himself claims to have been stopped in numerous endeavours by the apparently wicked Sampas clan. For one thing he claims that John Sampas forced his Kerouac biography out of print.
Michael Lally – a writer and friend of Nicosia –claims that a book he wrote that was in preproduction with Penguin books, was scuppered after he aligned himself against the Sampas family.
John Sampas, however, replied by saying: ““I’m a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character. I’m just Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law… Nicosia is a well known ‘nut case’ who has been stalking the Kerouac estate for years.”
Recently, a debate has been raging between two Kerouac scholars that may lend credit to Sampas’ remark about Nicosia’s integrity. Although it has no real consequence for the estate of Jack Kerouac, the argument throws a shadow of doubt over Nicosia, who supported Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jnr. It also casts a dark shadow over the past forty years of Kerouac studies.
At Litkicks (a fantastic website devoted to all things literary) Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr took their personal and professional differences and exposed them to the world on the discussion board of a page titled “Kerouac Estate Battle Again”.
The author of the brief update regarding the news announcement was Levi Asher, a member of the well known Beat-L community in the 1990s. The Beat website was a target of Nicosia’s incessant spamming for his cause, and eventually the group disbanded after the flame war became too much for members to cope with. Nicosia would respond to arguments against him with ten page point-by-point retaliations. In the end, Nicosia went as far as to file a half a million dollar defamation suit against one of his detractors, Dianne de Rooy. The group founder, Bill Gargan even attempted to ban discussion of the Kerouac estate, but in the end Nicosia threatened him with legal action and forced the group to shut down.
It should be noted that John Sampas was also a member of the Beat-L group, although he never posted. He admits to giving encouragement to Nicosia’s detractors offline, but maintains that he liked to read only because he enjoyed seeing what people thought of Kerouac’s work.
Many comments on the Litkicks board were left in admiration of Nicosia, but several alluded to or charged him with certain morally dubious actions. Asher himself pointed out that Nicosia acted on behalf of Jan Kerouac when Asher published one of her short stories. Nicosia didn’t care that Asher had Kerouac’s permission to do so.
Attila Gyenis – editor of Dharma Beat – argued that Nicosia had misrepresented certain facts, including saying that Jan Kerouac received no money from the Sampas family, when she did in fact receive a yearly payment.
It didn’t take long for Nicosia to pass comment on the topic, and on the other members of the group. He denied the accusation that he misrepresented Jan Kerouac’s royalties, explaining that she was nonetheless lied to be the Sampas family, who tried to pay her nothing, and then less than she was entitled to, and finally paid her $50,000 per year only when her medical expenses exceeded that amount. According to Jeffrey Weinberg, Sampas “did absolutely nothing to help Jan Kerouac, which I think is despicable. It was legal, but it wasn’t moral.” Sampas denies this, claiming that he offered more money, but that the offer was pointedly rejected.
Nicosia then posited that John Sampas heavily censored Kerouac’s writings, citing Rod Anstee’s study that showed 300 deletions that were never marked. If true, that would be an astonishing blow to Sampas’ credibility.
He also repeated the claim that Sampas had distributed Kerouac’s work to collectors around the globe, and that the Berg Collection was woefully lacking the scrolls, on which Kerouac wrote between eight and ten of his novels, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris, Vanity of Duluoz, and Mexico City Blues.
One might wonder why exactly Nicosia levels his complaint at Sampas and not at, for just one example, the Ginsberg Trust, who auctioned his personal effects at Sotheby’s. Or the countless girlfriends and Kerouac associates who sold their personal Kerouac-related effects for personal gain, rather than donating them generously to the public interest. Indeed, according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.
Finally, Nicosia claims that the Sampas family forced the closure of his Memory Babe archive at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He says that it took him eleven years of legal action and that John Sampas kept pressuring the university to keep the archive shut.
After these arguments, Paul Maher Jnr jumped into the fray with some crude personal insults and some questioning of Nicosia’s work in comparison to his own efforts, which were apparently made with the blessing and supervision – although not too much supervision, he states – of John Sampas.
Maher also claims that the Berg Collection’s inventory refutes Nicosia’s claim that Sampas is selling off the Kerouac archive irresponsibly. He also claims that if Sampas were to auction off the estate piece by piece it would be perfectly legal, and that other authors have their work distributed across the world.
It seems as though Maher is missing the point a little, with Nicosia’s argument being that the scrolls (or rather, as he would call them, “the rolls”) are not available for study, and that it would be easier to have everything in one public collection. He does, however, make a reasonable argument by stating that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to be gathered in one place. He says that the Berg Collection is a phenomenal resource as it is.
After this, the two scholars get down to arguing matters surrounding their respective books. Nicosia asks why Maher used his work without crediting him – citing a witness from the University of Massachusetts. Maher argued back that Nicosia had profited from Xeroxing Kerouac’s unpublished writings – an act of obvious copyright infringement – and sold it to a university, therefore it was never Nicosia’s to begin with and that he need never have credited Nicosia. In fact, Maher claims, since the Sampas family was in control of the Kerouac estate, he could well have credited John Sampas.
Next, he offered the fact that Nicosia had sent threatening, paranoid e-mails to Maher’s publishers, and to Douglas Brinkley – whom the Kerouac estate had asked to write the official Kerouac biography – with insults about Maher.
Maher also claims that he doesn’t care at all about the court verdict and that it makes no difference to anything. However, in his personal blog (the arrogantly titled “You Don’t Know Jack”) he discusses the matter differently, calling it a “botched decision” and defending the Sampas family – with whom he, for posterity’s sake distanced himself from on Litkicks. He offers a portrayal of Stella as a literal saint, deserving of everything Kerouac owed, and eluding to a relationship with Gabrielle that would have resulted in her bequeathing Sampas everything in her will.
Maher also offered several documents – which have subsequently disappeared from the webhost – that show Jan Kerouac’s apparent desire to part company with Nicosia… Indeed, a little digging will show that prior to her death, she was trying desperately to get away from her literary executor. Nicosia was busy suing her relatives and guiding her literary career, and she wanted to get rid of him. But, just like when Kerouac tried to get rid of his wife, his daughter tried to ditch Nicosia and died before she could follow through. Nicosia, however, managed to convince Kerouac to sign a will that left him as her “literary representative”, in charge of all posthumous works. He has used this position to sue her beloved heirs, her brother David and her ex-husband John Nash. One of the documents she wanted to sign before her death was intended to repeal Nicosia’s position as her “literary representative”.
It is claimed that he travelled to Jan Kerouac’s apartment immediately after her death, took all of her possessions, then proceeded to destroy them, store them or hide them, depending upon their value and relation to his actions.
In life and death, Jan Kerouac’s name has been used by Nicosia to make money and to gain a reputation. He uses her sad life story to manipulate journalists and judges. Allegedly, he even managed to sell Jack Kerouac’s name to Levi-Strauss for $11,000, apparently because he copyrighted Kerouac’s name and image in the state of California.
And that’s about all I’m going to write on the subject of Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr. Suffice it to say they continued their petty banter for some time after that. Their argument is fascinating as an example of the turbulent world of literary studies, which many would think dull and uninteresting. But people care. Sometimes they care enough to act like fools. Sometimes they care enough to lie, to insult others, and to bicker in front of bemused on lookers.
But the fact is that they care. Kerouac is still as relevant today as he ever was. His readers and scholars care so deeply about him, and think they understand him because of the intimate, personal nature of his writing, that they are willing to make grand leaps in faith to defend him and his legacy.
Whilst both Nicosia and Maher appear to be incredibly childish, I must say that I am lost in navigating this labyrinth of accusations, facts and lies. Their language is both grandiose and pathetic, with reason and logic largely lost in the midst of a flame war that is more commonly in the domain of the humble, non-professional nerd… We know for one thing that Gabrielle’s will was forged. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was incapable of signing her name, and that control of the estate should never have gone to Stella Sampas. When it comes down to it, money ruined everything. It looks as though the Sampas family cheated Jan Kerouac out of money and profited unfairly from her father’s estate. But under John Sampas’ stewardship the name of Jack Kerouac rose from that of a famous author to that of a literary icon, studied the world over and given the respect he desired. One could try to predict what will happen next on a purely legal basis, but the only thing that is for sure is that Kerouac fans and scholars will be divided and reduced to the level of bickering children for years to come.
This isn’t an easy subject to research… For the basic facts pertaining to the court case, please consult Google News and look through old reports from reputable publications.
For more about Sampas, Nicosia and the debate that has long since raged you might want to prepare yourself. Nicosia’s confrontational information log-jam makes it hard to pick truth from fact. Likewise, Maher’s arrogant style of forcing facts at you makes it hard to take him seriously.
Be prepared to do some digging. Be a sensible reader, too. Don’t believe everything you read. Always remain sceptical. And for the love of god, don’t offend Gerald Nicosia… He might just take you to court.
Asher, Levi, ‘Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again…’ http://www.litkicks.com/KerouacEstateBattleAgain/
Maher Jnr, Paul, ‘Professors of Babylon’, http://kerouacquarterly.blogspot.com/2010/01/professors-of-babylon.html
Maughan, Stephen, ‘And the Beat Goes on’, http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201001/kerouac-1.phtml
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Press Conference Speech, June 5 2007’, http://whollycommunion.blogspot.com/2007/09/gerald-nicosia-press-conference-speech.html
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After his Death’, http://www.geraldnicosia.com/html/geraldframeset2.html?kerouachtml/kerouacreport.html~content
Roadrat, ‘Fight over all things Kerouac’, http://www.roadratroberts1.bravepages.com/JACK%20KEROUAC%203.htm
Wills, D., ‘Beatdom in San Francisco’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)
I woke up about six and lay and waited for the sun to rise to signal the arrival of seven, when breakfast was available. It was my first night in the Adelaide, my first night in the city. I felt ok, despite not remembering going to bed, or even checking in. I had arrived in San Francisco at about half three the previous afternoon, and had gotten off the bus at Pier 39. Here, I had strolled about the gaudy and awful tourist trap for maybe twenty minutes, before seeking out the innards of the city – the real San Francisco. I wanted to see North Beach, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Haight… I wanted to experience San Francisco for real, and more importantly, I wanted to step in the footsteps of the Beats and hit the beaten streets with hip steps. Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti! All the great poets of the city had wandered back and forth along the North Beach and Haight areas and gained inspiration and dug the whole air of San Fran, and I wanted to follow them and learn. And so I got away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Piers and headed straight and unguided into the residential heart of the city, walking through the privileged streets with no maps, using their straight block formations as reference, knowing I wanted to find Union Square, South, from where I would head two blocks West to Isadora Duncan.
I found Bob Kaufman street near Telegraph Hill and dug them both and took innumerable photos with my digital camera – Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the sign that simply read ‘Bob Kaufman’. I walked about and hit dead ends and steep hills and felt safe and happy to be in the sun in a welcoming city, seeing sights left, right and centre, and climbing to every peak to look around and see every thing, and I did. I dug it all so fucking much it made my heart leap into my throat and choke me.
I found Washington Square and sat staring stupidly at the cathedral – Peter and Paul, people praying outside. I turned and faced that which I worshiped – chicks playing football (soccer) in little shorts and tight tops, coffee shops by the park, bars full of Italians and tourists drinking European beers, and I dug it all. I walked on, hungry and looking for a San Fran eatery. I thought maybe something Italian, or at least sold in an Italian place, and I found a café and bought an iced coffee and a bagel, and sat and ate them at the window, watching the chicks cut by in their mini skirts and little denim shorts. I looked around at all the pizzerias and delis and olde Italian businesses.
Then I continued on down towards the centre, hoping like hell to find the North Beach crossing that housed the Beat Museum, City Lights, Vesuvios, Toscas, Kerouac Alley… all the famous Beat locations. I passed through the streets and streets of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores and every sign and word was uttered and written in Chinese, not in English, like Asian places back in Britain. No, everything was owned and operated and marketed at the Chinese people living in the part of the city that was respectfully theirs. I walked on Southwards to that junction I sought, the meeting place of Little Italy and Chinatown and the Beats. It was somewhere around Broadway and Columbus, I recalled. So I did what I’d realised was a sensible thing to do in American cities and just head in one direction, because the streets just went East-to-West, North-to-South, and I’d cross either Columbus or Broadway somewhere. And I did. I found Broadway and turned left, sticking to Chinatown, and then found the red-and-black front of the Beat Museum and decided I’d see that on Sunday, it being Friday this now. Saturday would be spent in the Haight area of town, seeing the Kerouac Discussion at the Booksmith and digging all the West side had to offer. I turned right and crossed the big junction and found City Lights. City Lights- the haven of the Beat fan, where Ferlinghetti published the seminal works of the Generation and where all Beat books could now be found; a shop I had wanted to visit for years, and was now almost scared to go inside. But I did. I checked my backpack at the door and wandered on in, past all the first floor stuff you’d find in any decent bookstore and up the stairs to the poetry/ Beat section: a small room with two guys discussing Keats in a corner, and chairs littering the floor with signs inviting the customers to sit and read. The shelves were all old and second-hand-looking bookcases full of On the Road’s and Howl’s and Junky’s and collections of all great poets at the other side of the room, and there were posters and postcards of the Beat Generation figures I worshipped as gods, and photos of these legends for sale, but all priced too high for me to consider purchasing.
But I was frantically trying to see the city and keep to some kind of schedule. Part of me fell into my old philosophy of not needing to see everything, because anything is better than nothing, and part of me was captured in the thrills of being a lone traveller in a new city, on some mission to see the sights I deemed necessary to see, and write them up for my little magazine, Beatdom. I cared not for the usual tourist traps, but didn’t rule them out altogether. I wanted to see as much as possible and to move on, getting back to the organic farm, on which I was working, on Monday. Friday was for exploring and checking in, Saturday for seeing the Haight-Ashbury district and the West, and Sunday for thoroughly exploring North Beach – seeking out the Beats’ houses and haunts and living their life for a whole day in some little way.
So I looked around City Lights for half an hour and then skipped outside to Kerouac Alley and took a few photos of the store, and of Vesuvios and Toscas and the poetry and art in the alleyway, on the ground and on the walls, the works of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and a city ready eventually to embrace its cultural past like so few others. Then I went into Vesuvios and ordered a double rum, showed my Scottish driver’s licence as ID, and took the drink upstairs to sit by the windows and look out at the street I’d long wished to visit. I sat and drank and looked at the tourists being lectured of the significance of City Lights on literary history, and at the uncaring Asians that wandered by with some contempt for the tourist idiots, and then in at the bar and at the mini model of a sign saying, “Kerouac Alley-><-Columbus” and had a little nodding-head Beatnik beside it, and posters on the was of Burroughs and his guns, Ginsberg naked with Corso, Kerouac looking handsome… All of it was old and Beatnik, and there was baseball on the TV and the subtitles giving away the muted words of the commentators told me of the departure from the Giants of the only baseball played I knew – Barry Bonds. Down below, at the bar, the barman and bargirl were discussing Bonds’ departure and the end of a sporting era that I tried to comprehend but couldn’t, so I went back to sipping my rum and watching the streets. I explored the painting on the side of the City Lights building, connected to some kind of restaurant, which had been painted by a number of people, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Twenty-somethings kept coming along and taking photos in pairs and couples, and I watched as it became evident that in each pair or couple, only one of them would know about the Beats and the other would be totally ignorant, and I listened as one would explain to the other with glaring errors and omissions, the significance of City Lights. None got the significance of Vesuvios, such as it was.
The bargirl, blonde and skinny and tall and pretty, came by to pick up the glasses from the empty tables and asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said a Guinness, and I got it, paying five dollars and tipping her one dollar. I sipped the Guinness and tried to follow the baseball, and sat watching, not understanding for maybe an hour, until the jazz joint across the way opened and I sat and watched the folks arrive to go there, and I considered crossing the street and listening to the jazz. But nowadays jazz was the music of the middle-aged, and no longer the sound of youth and rebellion. Yes, it still was something one could dance vigorously to, but instead it was the cats that listened to it, but now were too old and mature and sensible to dance like crazed, sweaty beasts, and so sat in their sharp suits, sipping whiskey and wine at tables, and talking city banter and listening to the background music of black sax players and pianists, only really tapping their fingers, or if the sound really got going they might nod their heads and reference the music in conversation before moving on to the next suburban topic.
So I stayed in Vesuvios and tried to dig it. It probably never was a Beat haven, but rather an average bar frequented by the Beats and immortalised in Beat history by the scrawlings in the wall, long since painted over, that declared Kerouac and Cassady banned since having been thrown out for drunkenness. The owners had capitalised on Beat popularity by naming a drink after Kerouac and by covering the walls in Beat art and ads and references. And back in the day, they had hired people to dress in black, wear berets and play bongos in the window. It really was a cool little place, though. A few groups of middle-aged folks came and sat down at tables and I just sat there on my own, ordering another Guinness and watching the crowds, inside and out.
After an hour, I wandered downstairs to the bathroom, and then when I came out I sat at the bar to drink, trying to get more of a feel for the Vesuvios customers. I ordered another Guinness and drank it quickly, and then had a Jack Kerouac – a shot of tequila, a shot of rum and a dash of orange and cranberry. It tasted harsh with the first sip, but then sweet with the second, and after that it barely tasted of anything. I fired it away and had another. Then some old cat came and sat next to me – about sixty years old with a grey moustache and a face that was drawn and tired and experienced beyond any understanding of fairness. I bought him a Guinness and the old guy bought me another when I’d finished my own drink. We both were quickly drunk and talking about Vietnam and America and politics and family.
“I’m fifty-nine years old and I’ll never stop working,” he said. “I can’t. I can’t afford to. This country… I served in a war for this country, and worked from coast to coast, and at my age I know I’m going to have to keep on working ‘til I drop, for no one’ll take care of me. My daughter can’t afford to, though she’d try. The government won’t. They don’t treat their veterans well.”
“A third of all America’s homeless are war veterans,” I said, quoting an appeal advertisement I’d read in San Luis Obispo.
We kept on talking about the injustices and flaws of the American government, about the bullshit of the Christian religion for luring folks into this sense of hope that was utterly useless and no more than a method of social control, about the man’s family, who were all great kids but helpless in the face of a cruel world, about his working all over America… I could remember almost none of what was said the next day, except perhaps saying, “I’m going to have to go, I don’t have any money,” and the old guy replying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get your drinks.” I couldn’t remember leaving the bar or walking to the hostel, but the next morning I woke up where I’d intended to go.
I spent the day in Haight-Ashbury, terribly depressed from the booze and wandering confused through the Buena Vista and Golden Gate Parks, back and forth along the Haight and trying to figure what to do until the Jack Kerouac Conference at seven. It had been about seven in the morning that I’d left my hostel, and I tried and succeeded in killing almost twelve hours with wandering. But eventually I had to stop off at the Booksmith and buy a signed copy of Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way, just so I had something to sit and do. I also hit a half dozen coffee shops along the Haight, and got bored of the overwhelming procession of sixties throwback shops, retailing everything at extortionate prices.
Twenty past six came and I walked the five minute walk from Buena Vista Park to the All Saints Church, certain that the place would be closed, but that people connected to the event would be waiting, and so I’d be able to at least talk to someone, if only briefly, because when it came to Kerouac and literature, I often came out of my shell and faced the world, making friends and acquaintances. So I wandered along and found the place open and a few people inside, mostly setting up a stall selling books by Barry Gifford, Michael McClure, Edie Parker and Jack Kerouac. I spoke to the guy at the door who was there to meet and greet, and told him my name, and the guy went and found another, less timid, guy, who took me to one of three reserved seats right up front.
“You’re from Scotland,” the guy, who had presumably been the owner of the Booksmith, with whom I had spoken via e-mail weeks earlier, said.
“That’s right. I’m here on press duties. From Beatdom Magazine.” I tried my best to sound like Hunter S Thompson, but the owner just smiled, said “yes”, and walked back to his little social group by the book stall.
Now I was happy. Ok, so I’d been happy at times during the day, but now I could hardly wipe the smugness from my fact as I looked around the room, which was large and old and slowly filling up with folks who did not have reserved seats and were not sitting in the front row, and who did not own their own magazine, and were not with the press, and did not know the ins and outs of Jack Kerouac’s life and I did. I was sitting here in the church, early and awaiting the even, like I’d wanted to do since I first heard of the idea, months earlier, and I had arranged to find my way to an unexplored city, battled hellish depression, and managed to make here. I had my camera, too, and intended to take a few shots for the next issue and for the website. I sat and looked around, watching the crowd pour in, scanning the faces for any recognisable ones – Ferlinghetti, McClure, Gifford, even Russell Brand, who was reportedly in town, shooting a documentary about On the Road. But I recognised no one, so I just sat and held my head high, the journalist at the front, no one knowing how tough my day had been or how far into the gory depths of madness I’d fallen only a few hours earlier.
After a while Gifford and McClure appeared, alongside some girl called Suzanne, from City Lights, and the author of the new Kerouac biography, John Leland. They stood about and talked, the two old men, the new kid on the block, and the girl from the shop who’d been picked by her bosses, co-sponsors, to read from a book they had published, by the deceased Edie Parker. Suzanne sat with a crowd of artists and poets and new modern bohemian wannabe suburbanites, who sat behind me. They talked as though they knew what they were saying, but they made little or no sense, and were clearly just digging being there and didn’t really know shit all about Jack Kerouac or literature. Suzanne seemed nice, though, and very humble in spite of her privileged position as spokesperson for the women of the Beats, a group of chicks written out by history, but who were held in great regard by the Beat artists themselves back, back in the day… Leland sat on his own, an intelligent and well read fellow, awkward and shy and set apart from the more experienced old guard of Gifford and McClure, who both sat uncomfortably on the edge of the little stage, as a crowded hall of people leered at them and took photos, probably trying to figure out which one was which, or maybe not caring. They looked like the old traditional grandfathers – the grumpy old coot and the sweet old ditherer. McClure had the whiter hair, the constant smile, the twinkling blue eyes, the nervous shakes at the presence of a great crowd of young Beatnik devotees, spurred to attention by the half-century anniversary of a piece of literature of his contemporary. Gifford had the darker hair, slightly younger, looking older more likely because of frowning too much, with piercing dark eyes and a “don’t you dare fuck with me!” kind of stance, though he seemed to enjoy sharing a laugh with McClure.
The man I had talked to, the owner of the Booksmith, took the mike and introduced the speakers, who took their seats. McClure, the oldest, didn’t bother with stairs, but instead rolled on up the side of the stage and stumbled to his feet and sat down in the middle. Leland acted as moderator, and invited McClure to offer a presentation as a starting point, to which McClure responded by joking with the audience about having not known of such an arrangement, and consequently went rambling into some grandfather-like “Jack and me” type story, which had the folks in the crowd laughing, and brought a great grin to Gifford’s face. The whole time, however, McClure shook, and it appeared to me that the shakes came from nervousness and not some disease or illness. The three men then took it in turns to hammer out ideas about Kerouac and On the Road and reassessed ideas of searching for kicks and trips, instead suggesting that perhaps Kerouac and Cassady sought father figures, stability, experience, adulthood and responsibility. McClure kept cracking subtle jokes and Gifford kept name-dropping Hollywood and literary figures with whom he was friends and acquaintances, and Leland kept quoting himself and heaping praise upon his elders. Then Suzanne took her time to stutter her way through a passage, or rather, a series of oddly selected passages, from Edie Parker’s new book about her life with Jack. She kept hitting obvious references and then crowbarring laughter from sections of the audience by shrugging or winking or emphasising things like the notoriety of Burroughs killing Vollmer or Edie’s sexual attraction to Jack. And then she went on about stepping into the shoes of the great women who had been whitewashed over by history and literary critics, even though she was just a lucky random from City Lights picked to read ill-chosen and non-representative passages from what appeared to be a distinctively mediocre text. Gifford sat a grimaced and shook his head, and McClure politely stared into space. All the while, some student-jock type asshole kept whooping in the background, possibly emulating Kerouac himself, who’d get over-enthused at literary gatherings and “yes yes yes” along in the background.
Then came question time. The whooping asshole from the back, who turned out to be black, started jive-talking some typically ineloquently, barely comprehensive, sub-par English version of a half-question, getting at “Did Kerouac kill himself because of the Vietnam war?” to which Gifford practically spat on the table and coldly stated, “No! Next question!” and it looked as though he was ready to leave the whole damn place. A bunch of other inarticulate, border on idiotic, questions were asked, that McClure did his best to address. He basically just told stories about his experiences with Kerouac, weaving these magic old man tales of youth, using his beautiful and quiet old voice to spin a tale like a pro. The audience would shout out corrections regarding dates and times, to which Gifford sneered and McClure laughed, and told about how Kerouac would listen to the sea and write its voice, and then read its voice, for he had the most beautiful sounding voice imaginable and an unparalleled understanding of expression. Gifford name-dropped Francis Ford Copolla, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, and thoroughly drew a map of Beat studies with himself at the centre. Fuck it, I thought, that may not be true, and it may be downright egotistical, but the guy was an intelligent man and had certainly made great contributions to the world of Beatdom.
After getting my copy of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography signed by Gifford, and thanking him for doing an interview for Beatdom, to which Gifford suddenly smiled and stood up and shook my hand vigorously and said, “I remember that!” I left and went back out onto the streets of San Francisco, the time by then approaching ten. I walked out on to the street, smiling from ear to ear, having spoken briefly to each of the four speakers, even if only to say “Thanks for speaking… And oh, by the way, if you want to check out a magazine called Beatdom…” and then leaving. On my way out of the building I slyly grabbed one of the promotional posters as a souvenir. I had done what I’d come to do and I was happy. Saturday had been a hellish rough day, but it was now almost over. Time for bed, and then maybe I’d get a bus home on Sunday instead, or just kill the day away.
I braved the angry streets home to the hostel, standing out terrifyingly as the book-carrying white guy in the waistcoat, wading through the ghetto scum and bracing the shouts and screams.
Sunday morning I woke up and watched the Man Utd v Chelsea game on TV with another Scottish guy and a fat Brazilian dude. I didn’t really want to go out. My feet hurt from walking the city north to south and east to west, all alone and carrying my life on my back. I wanted to get a bus out of the city immediately. I wanted to be back on the farm, with people I knew.
But I had a job to do. I had to tour the Beat-hell out of San Fran before I could leave. I’d done a few things, and I knew I’d never do it all on foot with no money, but I could still see a little more…
I walked out and along Geary, onto Market and up Montgomery. First thing’s first, I thought: before the Beat Museum I would seek out a less easy to find piece of Beat history. I didn’t even know where to start in seeking Russell Street, where Kerouac and Cassady lived, and where On the Road was written. But I could see Montgomery on a map, and knew that I would be able to walk the length of it, which went on up to North Beach anyway, where the Beat Museum was located, and find number 1010, the apartment in which Ginsberg wrote part of Howl. So I walked all the way up, passing the Church of Scientology building, and damn near laughing my head off at a sign inviting randoms to walk inside and take the tour, and getting personality tests while doing so… And I continued up ‘til I crossed Broadway and found the inconspicuous property. There was nothing much to see – no plaque, nothing. So I took a photo of the door and walked back around the corner, onto Broadway, and along to the Beat Museum.
The Beat Museum is in the heart of the adult industry sector, opposite and beside sex shops, porno theatres and other such places that were probably there back when Kerouac and co. walked the streets. The front is a shop, and the museum upstairs, and it’s easy to see the place in spite of the trees outside, for there is a great black and red advertisement on the outside wall, with that famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, arms around one another. I went inside and looked around the shop, which doubled as a kind of art gallery for paintings and photos of Beat and counterculture figures. Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead seemed to take prominence, but from the conversations I overheard between staff and proprietors, it sounded as though the walls frequently changed their décor. There were hundreds of books and posters and movies that opened my eyes to the world of Beat studies of which I knew I should have been aware. Things existed and were sold openly that I had never heard of in spite of my studies into every facet of Beat culture. I looked around for a long time, waiting for the staff to stop discussing the positioning of a Bob Dylan print, and then approached the counter when the youngest guy left the two older ones and returned to his station.
“Hey, how’re you doing? Can I get a ticket for the museum, please?” I asked.
“Yeah, are you a student?”
“Not anymore, unfortunately. Just graduated.”
“Oh yeah? From where?”
“Dundee, Scotland. I’m over here doing the Beat tour for a magazine I own and edit: Beatdom.”
“Cool, cool. You know Russell Brand? He was in here the other night, doing some recording for this documentary about On the Road.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard he’s touring San Francisco. One step ahead of me, by the sound of it.”
“We went over the road for a drink after he did his recording.”
“Hey, if you want, we’ve got a bunch of DVD documentaries and stuff, and a TV through the back. I’ll put something on for you, if you want?”
“Yeah, cool. Now or after?”
“No problem, let’s go.”
The guy led me through to a room in the back, next to the stairway leading up to the museum. The room was small and smacked of disused boiler-room, but had a few comfortable-looking chairs and a widescreen TV with DVD player.
“How about The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?” he asked.
“Sounds great,” I replied. And it was. I sat and watched the film for ninety minutes until it ended, at which point I walked upstairs to check out the museum proper.
The stairs took me up and past the usual posters of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, plus a sign taken from Kerouac Alley, over the road. There was also a sign saying that the use of photography was allowed, which surprised and delighted me, as I was usually too shy to take photos indoors, in case someone told me I wasn’t meant to and I’d get all embarrassed. I walked through to the large room, which was the museum. It was basically just one room about the size of my parents’ living room, which bookcases, displays and a few partitions, which seemed to hide more displays under the guise of being separate rooms. To my left as I entered was a bookcase, protected by glass, of numerous Beat books, mostly first editions. To my right was a display case full of bits and pieces from and about Kerouac’s life – cheques made out to liquor stores, licence plates reading “KEROUAC”, guides to Lowell, newspaper cuttings announcing his death, a typewriter like the one he used… The walls were covered in blown up photos of him and Cassady, him and his parents, him and Carolyn. Around the corner there was a Bukowski section, comprising of photos and poems on the wall, and prints of the newspaper “Fuck Hate”. Around from that there was the Dharma Bums display, made up of Kerouac and Snyder stuff, photos of mountains, and a golden Buddha. In the corner was one of the more impressive exhibits – Allen Ginsberg’s organ. It was the one he used to write the awful album he made as a tribute to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. There was also a section devoted to the women of the Beat Generation, whom the men largely considered their equals, but to whom history has not been so kind. There was a little alcove next to that that seemed to house ‘the rest’ section, comprising of Kaufman, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure and all the great poets who were missing from the Kerouac dominated landscape of the Beat Museum’s primary displays. In a raised section of the room next to this was what appeared mostly to be the Ginsberg area: with a telling of the Six Gallery reading, the history of the publication of Howl! and photos of him, Orlovsky and Corso butt naked.
I left the Beat Museum and went for dinner in some coffee shop of little note. I was done with Frisco now and ready to leave. There was a bus out at six the next morning, and so I went back to the hostel and crashed ‘til then, not knowing that the next day would see me struggle with Bay Area transport systems for over seven hours before getting back into San Luis Obispo.