Archives For minor characters

Poetess and Patriarch

An exploration of female Beat writers and their involvement with the second-wave feminist movement

By Lee McRae

 

‘American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate… It is not surprising that in it the experience of being American is equated with the experience of being male.’

Judith Fetterley – The Resisting Reader (1978)

This introductory quote by Judith Fetterley has been chosen for its boldness and will hopefully set the pace for some of the topics I am going to cover in this article. Through much of the twentieth century, women – as academics, scholars, feminist theorists, leaders of political groups – have sought to challenge what it means to be female and to fundamentally confront the supposed innate and biological factions against those which are socially formed in a political spectrum that undervalues women as creative, artistic and intelligent members of the human race. So how do the women of the Beat Generation fit into this? Firstly, it has been suggested that women members of the Beat Generation lived an emancipated existence that found its routes within the Beat ideals themselves – the freedom of expression, the resistance to mundanity, the sexual freedom – all of which became adopted towards the end of the 1960s when the countercultural revolution and the feminist movement were in full-swing. Secondly, we can derive from the literature produced that the women Beats felt a strong sense of self, a sense of one’s own place within, what was mainly, a male-dominated, male-orientated body of commercial literature; as Ronna C. Johnson tells us; ‘all women Beat writers express a rebellious, anti-establishment critique of women’s assigned place and value in patriarchy, and this gendered emphasis is the radical distinction by which beat literature is amended by its female practitioners.’

Allen Ginsberg, on the topic of female writers within the Beat generation, was once quoted as saying, ‘Among the group of people we knew at the time, who were the [women] writers of such power as Kerouac or Burroughs? Were there any? I don’t think so.’ In this statement Ginsberg tells us how he failed to recognise the contribution of literature by women of the Beat generation that equalled in quality to that of its contemporaries.  Much has been said about this quote. From a feminist-literary perspective this quote embodies what many women feel as patriarchal hegemony, meaning that within the forces of the industry and in culture generally, women are considered the subaltern – the undervalued.  Later in this article I will discuss the writings of the women who contributed so greatly to the Beat Generation. But first I want to place feminism in its true historical context.

Being Beat and Being Woman

American feminism tends to be split into two categories; first-wave and second-wave movements. First wave, as Valarie Sanders tells us, began as early as 1848 with revolutionaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Early campaigns were an attempt mainly to change ‘divorce laws, married women’s property rights, and the vote.’ Despite motivated campaigns the ability to vote spread over several decades – firstly being lifted in Wyoming, in 1869, and then in Utah, in 1870. Almost five decades later, by the 1920s, most of the northern states had also abolished this out-dated exclusionary practice. The second- wave feminist movement, as Sue Thornham describes, is often associated with the 1960s countercultural revolutions. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded NOW (national organisation for women). This organisation arose out of the ineffectiveness of government bodies to promote equality within the work place. Also during this time the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ began; ‘Unlike NOW, these groups had no national organisation; instead they drew on the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities.’ An action which is often synonymous with feminists of the 1960s – the burning of the bra – was in fact true to a certain extent, in that at some demonstrations a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ was set alight, where women could dispose of items which oppressed them as women – ‘dishcloths, high-heels, bras and girdles.’

The counterculture itself – a period usually coupled with freedom and liberation – is often criticized for its attitudes towards women. Rochelle Gatlin, in her book American Women Since 1945, tells us how she feels the counterculture was a male led movement; ‘Men were willing to become more “feminised” but they did not encourage women to assume traditional masculine characteristics.’ She goes on to say, ‘The model for sexual liberation was a masculine one.’ Many women felt that the removal of ‘sex’ from ‘feeling’ was advantageous to men in that it led to sexual promiscuity. The media at this time only seemed to re-enforce the notion of women as objects for male attraction; the magazine Cosmopolitan, started in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown, was targeted commercially at the single girl, who took the pill and who lived alone. In the magazine emphasis was placed solely on fashion, beauty and sex serving only to place women into the category of ‘male-lust-objects’. In a similar way the magazine Seventeen, ‘designed for teenage girls, emphasised physical attractiveness. Advertising showed models in postures of sexual surrender to men and in competition with each other.’

The Beat Generation found itself in between the two periods of feminist discourse. The period prior to the second-wave movement is often termed ‘protofeminist’. Ronna C. Johnson tells us how female Beat writers were an integral element to this protofeminist period; their work tends to ‘challenge and interrogate assumptions about women, gender, and relations between the sexes, and asserts a corrected version.’ Sex for the Beats is commonly cited as one of the boundary-breaking taboos to which they discussed, admired and used in a multitude of ways (see: tantric sex). The idea was freedom and an expression of one’s true natural being (be it male or female); as Clinton Starr notes: ‘the Beat Generation was intricately intertwined, discursively but also materially, with sexuality, race relations, and gender roles in the post-war decades. The Beat lifestyle offered an escape from the sultry American role as homemaker; as Brenda Knight tells us; ‘Being beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.’ The conservatism of 1950s America aimed to instil a sense of national pride in a time fraught with cold-war panic, inadvertently placing women under the thumb of men and depicting them as either ‘wives…’ or ‘mothers…’ What is evident in the writing of female Beat writers is trueness to self and an accurate perception of the realities faced by women within the 1950s and 1960s. Beat poetess, Anne Waldman tells us how women were ‘driven, despite, fighting against the constraints of culture, family, education… often dwelling in the twilight of a “great” man’s personality or career.’

The Women of the Beat Generation

Anne Waldman, perhaps one of the most prolific of female beat writers, played a role in bringing the issues that women face into a public sphere – in both her essays and prose. The writings of Anne Waldman, as Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace tell us, ‘not only incorporate beat perspectives but [also] extend through and beyond beat into a women-centred, countercultural idiom.’ On the recovery of women Beat writers Anne Waldman tells us how ‘it is necessary to bring the female persona, the feminine principle, feminist concerns, the sense of the women’s struggle as wives, lovers, mothers, artists, breadwinners… into the whole macrocosm that is the beat literary movement.’

The Waldman poem Fast Speaking Woman, from the collection of the same name, is a chant-based mantra that’s primary focus is to speak to everywoman; she states, ‘I had in my head that I would do a list-chant telling all the kinds of women there are to be.’ The poem begins with the citation, ‘“I is another “- Rimbaud. The poem itself is an impassioned monologue using mainly the prefix ‘I am the/a…’ used to denote the different characters of women; ‘I’m the abandoned woman… the absinthe women… I’m the girl under an old fashioned duress.’ The Beat life she led inevitably led to her realisation of the issues faced by women. In an interview Waldman speaks about the many ‘interesting creative women’ she knew ‘who become junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions.’

Beat author Diane Di Prima was heavily involved with the iconic Beat figures. She first moved to the lower east side, New York in 1953 where she began a relationship with Ezra Pound. In 1957 she first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and other of Beat’s iconic figures. Memoirs of a Beatnik is a biographical novelette depicting a seventeen-year old Di Prima’s coming of age in the midst of the 1950s Beat revolution. In this account, emphasis is placed on the ever relinquishing sexual oppression that was felt by American youth. Di Prima discusses both sexual encounters with men and women; chapter two, for example, details how she came to lose her virginity on a one-night-stand. The novelette is written with coarse, descriptive sexual imagery; ‘afterwards there was blood on his cock, and when I could move again I licked it off, swallowing my childhood, entering the world of the living… He was on me now, bucking and straining like an animal. A faun. But it was too much. My small tight cunt couldn’t take in his huge cock.’ She also makes reference to sexual promiscuity; ‘I had forgotten the name of the man whose hand was in my cunt.’ Further in, and she describes to us her experience of lesbianism; ‘Five or six girls had gathered in one room. One had been chosen and ritually stripped, and the rest, posted at different parts of her anatomy, sought to arouse her while she lay naked on the bed.’ Di Prima here is confronting, within a literary exercise, her experiences as a young woman who fought for self-realisation and freedom; allowing herself to express and fulfil her sexual desires without fear of social persecution from an American mainstream based on oppression.

It is also worth mentioning Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson as two poets, who sought an ulterior existence in the Beat exterior; as Nancy M. Grace tells us, ‘As historians, Johnson and Jones embark on the formidable task of speaking as gendered beings, knowing full well that their lives in the Beat avant-garde broke many of the rules for “good girl” behaviour promulgated at mid-twentieth century.’ Johnson had a two year relationship with Kerouac. In her book Minor Characters, Johnson describes how she felt an otherness regarding her involvement in the Beat movement; ‘I ended up accidentally with Kerouac in the centre of the action, yet always felt myself on the periphery. I was much more of an observer than I wanted to be.’

The Power of the Pen

“When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject.’

Simone De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)

Writing seemed to be somewhat of a catalyst for the second-wave feminist movement. This form of expression was paramount to the success of women’s rights; writing (particularly scholarly), allowed women to create concise and politically armed pieces of literature that could function as biblical rhetoric; as Cora Kaplan wrote, ‘defiance is a component of the act of writing for women.’ Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is certainly considered a canonical piece of writing; the book deals principally with the ‘cultural construction of women as the Other,’ in similar ways in which Edward Said talks of the cultural construction of the Orient by the West in his book Orientalism (1978). Other works of interest through the 1960s/70s include Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970); (note: the publication of Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969)).

In the twentieth century much of the literary merit goes to the male writers. One possible reason for this, as Rita Felski points out, is the ‘many hurdles’ faced by women who wish to devote their lives to writing; ‘economic dependency, lack of time and space, the relentless intrusion of everyday life in the form of squalling infants or testy husbands [and] the disparagement faced by women who chose to remain single or childless.’ Women could not associate enough with the writings of men, and if they wished to read, they were expected to ‘read as men’. The problem was identity. A literature was required that related to women’s true sensibilities rather than those sensibilities being dramatised by male authors, as Judith Fetterley writes; ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness.’

I feel that within the female Beat canon this sensibility is realised. By not only living but exhibiting – within their writing – their lives, these women could reach out to those disillusioned by American values, the American dream and misogyny. The ambition and drive these women had personified a message that was to become all too clear within the feminist movement that proceeded; as Anne Waldman petitioned, ‘We no longer have to be fetched up.’ Feminism is a movement with labyrinthine academic possibilities. In this article, I realise I have only scratched the dirt-sodden surface of women’s politics. Without further in-depth analysis of the role of the female Beats within the feminist movement, little in the way of a conclusion can be given. I would suggest, however, to anyone who has an appetite for Beat literature to visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the works of its female practitioners. It is in these works where we find true Emersonian-reliance upon the self; where we find a disparagement between media-representations of women and the lives of women; and most important of all, where we find intelligent, creative and articulate pieces of fiction and prose.

Walking With the Barefoot Beat: Alene Lee

by Christina Diamente

 

No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering

And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell

And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her

The Subterraneans, p.50

 

Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of  his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.

However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half.  The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.

Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.

Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s.  However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”

Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life  Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.

As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.

While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and  the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.

It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.

Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.”  He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.

Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.

In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then  I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.

Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more.  In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.

To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their  “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.

One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.

But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg.  She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that  period.

This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.

Lady Beats

by Hannah Withrow

1

I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women.  My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica.  Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,

Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”

That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell.  What did such a woman have to say?  Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor.  Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day.  She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends.  But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself.  Hot, hot, hot!  A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.

Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator?  He can’t possibly understand.  It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.

Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.

This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that?  And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”

Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.

This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.

2

How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.

Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife.  But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion.  Do you see race in this?  Have you forgotten?  It would get worse.”  Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is.  And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.

Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art.  Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.

I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.

3

By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.

Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.

While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.

I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic.  Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.

What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.

Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able.  She writes,

The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means.  But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from.  The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.

I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,

And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’  He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience.  Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?

It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.

Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.

Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence.  At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.

Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.

4

I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters.  I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.

Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:

She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals.  Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.

Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.

When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.

Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.

The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.

5

In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,

He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.

Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:

Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues.  He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty.  I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day.  Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.

I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.

In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.

6

Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.

She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.

It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,

From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.

It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.

Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?

Death I’m coming

Wait for me

I know you’ll be

At the subway station

Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka

And your single simple answer

To every meaning

I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.

But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.

7

These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.

Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.”  Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.

Sources:

Bremser, Bonnie. Troia: Mexican Memoirs. New York: Croton Press, 1969.

Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.  New

York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

di Prima, Diane. Memoirs of a Beatnik. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San

Francisco, 1988.

—. Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. New York: Viking

Penguin, 2001.

Johnson, Joyce.  Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit

of Jack Kerouac. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing

the Beat Generation. Piscataway: Rutgers, The State University, 2002.

Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.

Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. New York:

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums.  New York: Signet, 1959.

Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the

Heart of a Revolution. New York: MJF Books, 1996.

Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation.

New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.

Helen Weaver Interview

Recent history has seen the women in the life of Jack Kerouac finally bring to public attention their side of the story. Portrayed in his work in what some deem a sexist manner, they have been releasing memoirs and telling the world about Kerouac.

In 1983, Joyce Johnson wrote Minor Characters; in 1990, Carolyn Cassady published Off the Road; and in 2000 there was Joan Haverty’s Nobody’s Wife, with a foreword by Jan Kerouac.

These books have added much to the world of Kerouac scholarship, providing both an intimate portrait of Kerouac, as well as offering counter-points to many of the claims he made in his books.

Now it’s Helen Weaver’s turn.

Weaver met Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1953 and was carried away by the Beats. She soon became Kerouac’s girlfriend, and in her book, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties, she offers a wonderful, personal picture of the Beat Generation and the 1950s Greenwich Village scene.

The Awakener is a story of spiritual and sexual awakening; a valuable insight to a special place in time that is of great interest to any reader of the Beat Generation.

David Wills: How did you feel about Kerouac’s depiction of you as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels?

Helen Weaver: I was and am very happy with it. I was touched by his portrait of me and honored to be a part of that book, which I think is one of his best. I was particularly moved that there was no bitterness in his portrayal of me. Jack was very hurt when I asked him to leave in January 1957 but by the time he finished writing Desolation Angels a few years later he had obviously forgiven me.

I’ve always been amused by the name he gave me. “Heaper” was a reference to a passage in The Song of Songs that he quoted to me the first time we made love: “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.” I never forgot that and obviously he didn’t either.

David Wills: What do you say to the critics who claim Kerouac was a sexist?

Helen Weaver: I’d have to agree with them–up to a point. It was the fifties! And Jack was capable of saying things like “women must be guided by men.” Yuk! But he was also capable of great sensitivity and empathy.

If the most important people in his life were mostly male (the big exception was his mother, who was the love of his life) I think that was because his mission in life was writing. Not that many women were writing in the fifties, so by definition his colleagues were mostly men. As Joyce Johnson so aptly put it, we would have been “excess baggage on the road.”

David Wills: You talk about Kerouac’s backpack full of manuscripts. Do you recall what he was working on or what he was carrying when he appeared on your doorstep?

Helen Weaver: Well, he had already started Desolation Angels so he had the first part of that, plus Tristessa and Mexico City Blues. He and Allen Ginsberg had just hitchhiked from Mexico, where he’d been working on those three books. I still have a Mexican coin (cinco centavos) Jack gave me that day on my bedside table, for luck.

David Wills: The first paragraph of your book really gives the reader an intimate portrait of the lives of the two Helens. This isn’t going to be a prudish, gloss-over-the-sensitive-parts kind of book, is it?

Helen Weaver: You got that right. I have to say, I just love that first sentence where I’m sitting on the john in my pajamas when the buzzer rings. It’s like, Here I am, world–get used to it!

It took me years to come up with that beginning. For a long time I was stuck on the idea that the book should begin in Grand Central Station, on the evening when I took Jack home to Scarsdale to meet my parents. You know, disreputable raggedy boyfriend vs. conservative parents in rich snooty suburb? But it just didn’t work. As soon as I decided to begin with the morning I met Jack, I knew I had it.

David Wills: In the book you talk about Kerouac’s insistence upon the fact that it’s “all a dream.” Why was he saying this and what problems did it cause?

Helen Weaver: That was Jack’s Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self.  When I met him, Jack had recently been introduced to Buddhism by Gary Snyder and he carried a copy of Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible in his rucksack. The first morning we spent together, as he was unpacking his rucksack, he read me a passage from that book:

All the mind’s arbitrary conceptions of matter, phenomena, and of all conditioning factors and all conceptions and ideas relating thereto are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, the evanescent dew, the lightning’s flash. Every true disciple should thus look upon all phenomena and upon all the activities of the mind, and keep his mind empty and self-less and tranquil.

I thought this was very eloquent but at age 25 the idea that the physical world is an illusion didn’t appeal to me. It was a world I was just beginning to make my peace with.

I soon discovered that Jack was very unreliable about time: he’d show up three hours late for dinner, or sometimes not at all until the next day. When I tried to discuss our “problems” with him his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me “Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real–it’s all a dream.” So early on, I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.

But as I got older the idea that the physical world is an illusion began to sound less strange, especially in the light of quantum physics. Jack’s mantra that “nothing is real, it’s all a dream” began to make perfect sense to me. In fact, it sounded like a pretty accurate description of the universe. Ultimately, I was drawn to Buddhism myself. But that was many years later, long after Jack died.

David Wills: How did you go about writing The Awakener? I mean, after half a century it must have been difficult to recall many relevant details.

Helen Weaver: The day I met him was etched into my mind in vivid detail. From almost the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew that one day I would have to write about him. Then when things started going south between us–his drinking was really bugging me, and the chaotic schedule–I began writing as a form of therapy. So I have the Jack Kerouac Journal.

When he went to Orlando for Christmas with his mother, his sister, and his nephew, we exchanged letters. I’m an obsessive archivist, and I kept everything–every letter and postcard he wrote me, every tiny little note he left on my door, every review, every newspaper or magazine clipping that had to do with him or Allen. I knew I would need all these things some day. It was just a matter of finding the right time to gather it all up and weave it together.

There were many false starts over the years. In the end, what I had to deal with was not so much a scarcity of material as an embarrassment of riches.

David Wills: How did you go about trying to publish the book? One would imagine that the story sells itself.

Helen Weaver: If only! It doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid.

I always knew that my book about Jack would be published, even if it wasn’t any good, just because of his status as an American icon. In a way that slowed me down, because I wanted it to be as good as possible. I couldn’t just dash it off. And a good thing I didn’t, because my feelings about Jack changed over the years. He died in 1969; I didn’t appreciate him fully as a writer until almost twenty years later.

I don’t have an agent, but I had a lot of help from my friends: Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties; Michael Korda, for whom I did a lot of translating work when he was editor in chief at Simon & Schuster; and Bob Gottlieb, who was editor in chief of Knopf and later of The New Yorker. They all went out of their way to open doors for me in the rather insular world of New York publishing.

I submitted the book seven or eight times and acquired some very enthusiastic rejection letters: You’re a good writer, you paint a vivid picture of the times, but it’s not quite right for our list, etc.

Through a writer and free lance editor named Deborah Straw (who had reviewed my 2001 book The Daisy Sutra for Publishers Weekly) I got a reading at Inner Traditions, a New Age publisher up in Vermont. The acquisitions editor there loved the book, but the contract they offered me was unacceptable, so it was back to the drawing board.

My friend (and former rival for Jack’s affections) Joyce Johnson kept telling me to try City Lights. I had actually written a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2007, but never got an answer (he was 88 and semi-retired). But Joyce urged me to contact her friend Nancy Phillips at City Lights. It turned out she was semi-retired too, but she put in a good word with senior editor Robert Sharrard. I took a chance and emailed him the first chapter. He asked to see the rest, and pretty soon he called me up and offered me a contract.

It was a good contract, and it got even better thanks to the free contract service at the National Writers Union, of which I am a member. I’m actually grateful to that recalcitrant contract person at Inner Traditions, because City Lights is the ideal publisher for this book. I mean, Ferlinghetti and City Lights are mentioned in the very first chapter, when Allen excitedly tells Helen and me about the forthcoming publication of Howl. For a book about Kerouac, City Lights is a no brainer.

David Wills: What did you learn from Kerouac when you knew him, and what of his wisdom have you come to appreciate with time?

Helen Weaver: Oh boy! I’m afraid when I knew him I didn’t learn much. I was a stubborn little intellectual. Well, I did learn – or maybe knowing him made me more conscious of–my own ambition to be a writer.

Our very first conversation was about writing. When he took a dogeared copy of The Town and the City out of his rucksack, he told me, “It’s like Thomas Wolfe.” I had read Look HomewardAngel in high school and fallen in love with it, but in college I discovered Henry James, and decided I had outgrown Wolfe.

I told Jack that Wolfe lacked discipline, and was lucky he had Maxwell Perkins for an editor. Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and the battle was joined. We debated the merits of Wolfe vs. James like two old friends.

I certainly learned what it was like to live with a genius. Frieda Lawrence wrote her friend Mabel Dodge, “Try it then yourself, living with a genius, see what it is like and how easy it is.” Not that this stopped me from being attracted to some very extreme types. But living with Jack was an education. I learned that I needed a more peaceful, organized existence. Perhaps that was when I learned that I am a solitary, that I love and need vast amounts of solitude, which goes very well with writing.

And with time I’ve come to embrace the very Buddhist philosophy that I originally dismissed.

Most of all, I’ve come to appreciate Kerouac as a writer.

When I read The Town and the City in 1956 I was in love with him, and I admired it very much. By the time On the Road came out in 1957 I had moved on, and I read that book through the eyes of the disappointed lover. The sexism blinded me to the poetry, and I didn’t understand or appreciate that book–again, until long after Jack had died.

I tell the story of how this came about in The Awakener:

“I was visiting my niece Annie and her boyfriend Nate up in Vermont, and we were talking about Kerouac. I had recently started reading all of his books in preparation for writing about him. I kept coming upon words I didn’t know, like prognathic (jutting-jawed) and hincty:that last one wasn’t in Webster’s Unabridged, and I wondered if he made it up.

“So Nate got out his Oxford English Dictionary. It said “hincty” was American slang and meant conceited, snobbish, stuck up, and it quoted On the Road: “Wetting their eyebrows with hincty fingertip.” The OED said it was on page 86 but we looked in Nate’s paperback copy of On the Road and we couldn’t find it.

“Just in case we missed it I read page 86 out loud. That page fell in the middle of the story about the little Mexican girl, with a great description of the streets of Hollywood.

“And that was when it happened. For the first time in my life, I heard the music of Kerouac’s words. For the first time in my life, I got it. And I remembered hearing somewhere that people who don’t think Kerouac is a great writer should try reading him aloud.

“That’s the secret, that’s the test of poetry. And that’s the reason On the Road has sold over three million copies. On the Road is a poem.”

Back in 1970 when I was working as an editor at Chelsea House Publishers, I rejected Visions of Cody. Right now, I’m rereading that book and discovering all the things I missed. So I’m still learning to appreciate Jack’s wisdom.

Too bad it took so many years; but in this I am like many of my contemporaries. It took America a long time to give Jack Kerouac the respect he deserves.

So writing this book has been, at least in part, an act of atonement.

Women of the Beat Generation

History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.

Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.

Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)

But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.

Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.

Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.

Carolyn Cassady

Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.

Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.

She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.

Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.

Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.

Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.

She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.

Joyce Johnson

Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.

Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.

According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”

She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.

She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.

Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.

Diane di Prima

Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”

Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.

She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.

Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.

Hettie Jones

It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.

While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.

She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.

Edie Parker

Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.

Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.

When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.

Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.

Joan Vollmer

Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.

Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.

In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.

Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.

Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.

Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.

Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.

Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Anne Waldman

 

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.

That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.

But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.

Elise Cowan

I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.

Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.

When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.

For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.