Archives For peter orlovsky

Ginsberg’s Gay Marriage

We at Beatdom would like to congratulate the people of the United States on an event of monumental importance. Today, the Supreme Court voted to make same-sex marriage a right across all states. It is truly a time for celebration. The Beat Generation was, of course, a movement concerned with love and acceptance, and as such I’m sure our readers will be delighted at this news.

Many of  you will know that Allen Ginsberg, who campaigned hard to bring gay rights to public attention, was “married” to Peter Orlovsky – his lover of about forty years. Of course, back 1955 gay marriage was not only illegal, but almost unimaginable in the public consciousness. Yet in February, 1955, at Forster’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, they took an informal set of marriage vows and considered themselves married until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

The key thing was when we decided on the terms of our marriage—I think it was in Foster’s cafeteria downtown about three in the morning. We were sitting and talking about each other, with each other, trying to figure out what we were going to do, who we were to each other, and what we wanted out of each other, how much I loved him, and how much did he love me. We arrived at what we both really desired. Continue Reading…

The Beat Generation at War


From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:

Full page macroThe Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius.

The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.

To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:


All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.

The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.


The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”

Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.

So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.



Jack Kerouac

Wars don’t advance mankind except materially


In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:


For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . .  I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.


However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.

Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.

The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.

His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.

After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”

But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:


I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.


Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.


In Vanity he described the experience:


Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.Jack Kerouac Merchant Marine Photo


On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.

During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.

Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.

During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:

“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:

“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”

Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”

Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.



“At Hiroshima all was lost.”


William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.

In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.

In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”

When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy.  He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.

In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:

the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.

However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:


In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.


The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.


Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.


Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.

In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.

Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”

War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:

This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.



Allen Ginsberg

“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”


When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.

Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.

He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.

In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:

I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.

Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”

After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.


There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.


It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.

Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.

Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”

For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.

For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.

As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.

In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.

In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.

But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.

Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer

Here at Beatdom we have always had a fondness for Peter Orlovsky, and were surprised and delighted to hear about this brand new – and overdue – publication, Peter Orlovsky: a a Life in Words.

Orlovsky is known as “Allen Ginsberg’s lover” or his husband, friend, life-partner, or whatever relationship is attributed to them by whatever scholar or journalist. But what we forget is that, while certainly no Ginsberg, he was a poet in his own right. He was a character but he was also a writer. He was not just a background to the Beat Generation, but part of it. And that this is the first major book about him is rather sad. But, better late than never.

And, also, what a cover. Two penises on one literary textbook cover. You have to admire that!


From the publishers (Paradigm):


“The Peter Orlovsky you will meet in this book has only a slight resemblance to the wacky kid immortalized in Kerouac’s sunny pages as ‘the greatest man in San Francisco’ or the silent companion in Ginsberg’s tender poetry. Here, for the first time, Bill Morgan has used Peter’s words to take us behind his handsome face. Orlovsky’s journals, letters, and poems offer us glimpses of his mind with and without Ginsberg.”
—from the Foreword by Ann Charters, editor of The Portable Beat Reader

Until now, the poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Allen Ginsberg’s lover for more than forty years, has been the neglected member of the Beat Generation. Because he lived in Ginsberg’s shadow, his achievements were seldom noted and his contributions to literature have not been fully recognized.

Now, this first collection of Orlovsky’s writings traces his fascinating life in his own words. It also tells, for the first time, the intimate story of his relationship with Ginsberg.

Drawn from previously unpublished journals, correspondence, photographs, and poems, Peter Ovlovsky, a Life in Words, begins just as Orlovsky is discharged from the Army, having declared that it was “an army without love.” The book follows the young man through years of self-doubt and details his first meeting with Ginsberg in San Francisco from his own perspective. During that same year, Peter, always acting as the caregiver in his relationships, adopted his teenage mentally impaired brother, and tried to help him make a life for himself.

In never-before-heard detail, Orlovsky describes his travels around the world with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Corso—whose writings so often benefited from knowing the highly creative and inspiring Orlovsky.

Orlovsky’s story is a refreshing departure from the established history of the Beats as depicted by his more famous companions. The reader will discover why Jack Kerouac described him as the saintly figure of Simon Darlovsky in Desolation Angels and why the elder poet William Carlos Williams praised his poetry as “pure American.” His was a complicated life, this book shows, filled with contradictions. Best known as Ginsberg’s lover, Orlovsky was heterosexual and always longed to be with women. Always humble, he became a teacher at a Buddhist college and taught a class that he entitled “Poetry for Dumb Students.” His spirit was prescient of the flower children of the sixties, especially his inclinations toward devotion and love. In the end Orlovsky’s use of drugs took its toll on his body and mind and he slipped into his own hell of addiction and mental illness, silencing one of the most original and inspiring voices of his generation.

  • This is the “Orlovsky Reader” (which Ginsberg always wanted to publish) offering poetry, prose, and journal entries, created by the man who was the muse of the Beat generation.
  • Reveals the nature of the Ginsberg and Orlovsky sexual relationship, which hasn’t been fully revealed before; Peter was never gay and didn’t find men sexually attractive.
  • Exhibits Orlovsky’s distinct style of writing, which wasn’t derived from the other writers living around him.
  • Includes many previously unpublished poems.

Pulling Our Daisy: The Illusion of Spontaneity

1959 was an important year in Beat Generation history. It was the year that William S. Burroughs published Naked Lunch from Paris’ Beat Hotel, that the Beats were first profiled in Life magazine, and the year the MGM released a sensationalist cinematic nightmare called The Beat Generation. In the previous three years, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had shattered the notion that young people must conform to strict social codes, and paved the way for further decades of rebellion, growth, and acceptance. The Beat movement was in full-swing and these once literary wannabes were now idols to an entire generation. But they were not stuffy and unreachable; they were literary bad boys in the vein of Rimbaud.

In 1959 Ginsberg was looking forward with visions of a new American voice, Kerouac was awkwardly attempting to live his life in the startling media spotlight, and Burroughs was overseas, a decade into his long exile from the United States. Back home, and even in newspapers around the world, they were known derisively as the “beatniks.” At a time when calling someone a Communist was about the greatest insult that could be uttered, Herb Caen had added “-nik” to Kerouac’s “Beat,” and suddenly what started as a literary movement was now tabloid fodder. The Beats were vilified as detrimental to the morality of the nation’s youth, and as such they were used as subject matter for Hollywood’s spectacularly vapid output.

In the coming years, the image of the Beatnik as a finger-snapping poseur or a drug-addled maniac would persist, yet in the world of reality – located far from Hollywood on any map – the Beats continued to develop upon their own ideas and literature. They continued to write, to read their poems aloud, to explore new avenues in publishing and in creating art. They even dabbled – to varying degrees – in filmmaking. One such example was Pull My Daisy, a short film that aimed to incorporate the sort of spontaneous, free-form, jazz-inspired principals that governed the Beats’ written work. Directed by photographer, Robert Frank, and painter, Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy began filming began on 2nd January and it premiered 11th November.

The film was based upon the third act of Jack Kerouac’s play, The Beat Generation, and it was supposed to share the same name, with Kerouac having coined the term about a decade earlier. However, in true Hollywood style, MGM had capitalized on the movement and copyrighted the title,[1] leaving the filmmakers to choose the title of a poem that was collaboratively written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in 1949. It didn’t hurt that the phrase “pull my daisy” was loaded with sexual innuendo, either.

The poem from which the movie took its title was written in the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist tradition, wherein various artists would take turns to add to a piece of work – whether a poem or painting or anything else. This fit in rather well with the spontaneous prose method and best “first thought best thought” notion that influenced the Beats, and was most noticeably espoused by Kerouac. Part of the poem is included below:


Rob my locker
lick my rocks
leap my cock in school
Rack my lacks
lark my looks
jump right up my hole
Whore my door
beat my door
eat my snake of fool
Craze my hair
bare my poor
asshole shorn of wool[2]


The purpose of this method of composition, later used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in their Cut-up Method, as well as numerous other artists before and after the Beats, was to create a more accurate picture of reality by not over-thinking, and perhaps, as Burroughs often claimed, to cut to the truth that your mind would otherwise hide.

Indeed, the film is best known for being narrated by Kerouac, who again supposedly improvised his lines rather than reading from script or memory. Critics have compared his reading to that of someone in a “trance,” furthering his reputation as a mystical and near mythical artist, while others have noted that he sounded exhausted and that he had lost his youthful playfulness. The film, as mentioned above, was adapted from his play, The Beat Generation, and yet he seems to spontaneously riff the lines rather than reading his pre-written dialogue. There is no sound, and Kerouac speaks the lines for each character, regardless of gender, and narrates everything seemingly as it happens, in his inimitable scat-style.


Come on, Milo. Here comes sweet Milo, beautiful Milo.

Hello, gang.

Da da da da da.

And they’re going dada da da dada da da da… Let’s go. ‘sgo. ‘sgo.


Listening to him speak, it’s as though he was watching the movie for the first time, just saying the things that came into his head, even if just filler. There are very few periods of silence, and so Kerouac – who does not appear on screen at any stage – dominates the film simply through his voice. This is an attempt to continue Kerouac’s sketching style of writing, wherein he would attempt to note down everything that was going on around him. As such, the camera frequently pans back and forth, attempting to catch all the action as it transpires, rather than take it moment by moment, focusing on one character or one action.

For these reasons, Pull My Daisy, unlike The Beat Generation, was lauded by critics for many years. Like the poem from which it took its name, Pull My Daisy was considered a masterpiece of ad-libbed, off-the-cuff acting and narration. In the movie, key members of the Beat Generation including Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, goof around, even smoking a joint at one stage. There are fewer hijinks than one might have imagined, and although the Beat characters’ antics result in comedy and farce, the action is toned down. Still, the legend goes that the actors simply did what they felt – being themselves, essentially – while Frank and Leslie recorded it all.

Yet Pull My Daisy, while certainly a Beat movie, and truer to the Beat ethos than the sensationalist attempts in 1959 and later years, was not as spontaneous as it was claimed to be. Nine years later, in 1968, Leslie revealed to the Village Voice that the movie was thoroughly scripted, with the implication being that the apparent improvisation was due to a lack of acting ability on the part of Ginsberg and the others. Later, both directors admitted that the movie had not – as was previously claimed – been shot in Leslie’s apartment, but had instead been filmed on a professional film set with a budget of $15,000. While not a large sum of money for a movie, it shows that the film was not quite what it appeared to be. Ultimately, while it had been implied that the film was just the poets goofing around as themselves, with hip artists filming and the hottest novelist around narrating, essentially gaining the best filmed record of the Beat Generation as it naturally existed, instead it was a carefully constructed piece of fiction. Many hours of film were shot and edited down into the twenty-eight minute film. Additionally, and most shockingly to fans of the movie, Kerouac’s lines had been recorded as many as four times as Amram tinkled on the piano and the movie played silently in front of him. While this is hardly a great crime, it certainly detracts from the movie’s reputation and Kerouac’s supposed adherence to spontaneous prose, and his depiction as the literary jazzman.

In the end, though, it is important to acknowledge that despite Kerouac’s advocacy of spontaneous prose – or even Burroughs’ automatic writing and routines, which are referenced in the film – the Beats were guilty of editing. Burroughs’ nearly unreadable texts were endlessly composed, Kerouac’s famous writing sessions that would end in a publishable book were often edited over many years, and Ginsberg, who tended to differ, only occasionally dabbled in unrevised poetry. It should be, therefore, no great surprise that Pull My Daisy – though it may appear to be entirely unrehearsed – was an answer to their critics. It was a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the notion of the Beats as unrestrained literary bad boys, and to hold their hands up and say that they are not ashamed, for this is their life and it how they wish to live. They considered themselves the Rimbauds of their age, and wanted the world to know. We should be thankful that it is this movie, and not the numerous Hollywood cash-ins, that is preserved, remembered, and freely disseminated online more than fifty years later.

[1] MGM would release The Beat Generation in 1959, the same year as Pull my Daisy. The movie was not based on any work by any Beat author, but rather was a sensationalist attempt to cash in on the Beat fad.

[2] The poem itself was set to music by legendary composer and Beat figure, David Amram. However, Ginsberg and Kerouac were reportedly displeased that when the lyrics were sung by Anita Ellis, certain words had been changed.

Exiled on Beat Street

In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso.

The rent at the 42 roomed hotel cost as little as 10 francs a night with the cheapest rooms containing a single bed that had two sheets and a army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chairs, and three hooks. The rooms and hallways were dimly lit and the bedrooms had a small window facing the stairwell. The other rooms that were slightly more pleasant then the cheaper ones included such commodities as a telephone and a gas cooker, but the hotel owner, Madame Rachou, was very particular about who stayed. She didn’t mind if they were gay or in interracial relationships and she particularly liked the open-minded creative sorts – she even allowed artists and writers to pay in the form of manuscripts and artwork and she would allow inventive artists to paint and decorate their rooms how ever so they wished.

Other people that also stayed at the 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur residence were the likes of prostitutes, erratic poets, oddball French folks, pimps and also policemen (certain police officers even had a secret mistress that stayed in the hotel).

Despite the owner’s well-wishes and good nature, the hotel was still known as a “Class 13” – meaning it was bottom of the heap, just a pure sight of decrepitude and disrepair. A minor bonus that the hotel did offer was the privilege of hot water which was offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as a bath in the only bathtub that was situated on the ground floor. The ground floor close to the lobby and near the bar was where the Beat writers spent most of their time drinking, smoking, eating, and conversing while Madame Rouche prepared sandwiches for the police and the officers in turn would pay no attention to the scent of hashish that drifted around the bar area.

Rue Gît-Le-Coeur on left bank in the 50s was a lively happening place that bustled with bohemian students, destitute winos, and ladies of the night as the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and Fontaine Saint-Michel provided a fine view in the backdrop. As the narrow streets housed the homeless sleeping wherever they could, the hotel accommodation that surrounded the pathways sheltered writers, musicians, artists, and models that came from the nearby school of fine arts known as the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It wasn’t only hotels in the district of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur. The tiny medieval region also had a vast array of dusty book shops, antiques shops, art galleries, avant-garde publishing houses and small presses, art cafes as well as drug dealers dealing in broad daylight in the cafes.

In 1956 William S. Burroughs attempted to cure his drug addiction with the help of London physician John Dent. After completion of the treatment he moved to the Beat Hotel to join his friends. Burroughs moved under the recommendation of Allen Ginsberg as Ginsberg thought it would help his friend escape the heroin scene. At the hotel Burroughs began writing patchy, disconnected, and hallucinatory manuscripts that would later become apart of his novel Naked Lunch. Although Burroughs had the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac to edit the novel it too fell to the same ill-fate of Ginsberg’s Howl as it was called upon by the US obscenity trials in the 60s.

He was also introduced to the Dada art technique of cut-up writing by English born artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin as Gysin stumbled upon the style by pure accident when the pair wrote together in room number fifteen in the spring of 1958. Burroughs took this method one step further and began cutting up photographs and artwork. This cut-up technique, which could be said to have been invented by Tristan Tzara in the late 1920s, involved cutting sections of writing out of newspaper then putting then them back together in new and creative ways. Whilst staying at the hotel from 1959 to 1963 Harold Norse also experimented with the cut-up style whilst he penned his 280 page novel called The Beat Hotel.

Brion Gysin moved to Paris in 1934 where he studied the open course La Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne University, an academy that wasn’t too far from the Beat Hotel. His most famous creation at the hotel was in the early 1960s with fellow creator Ian Somerville called the Dream Machine. The creation which was the only piece of art that can be viewed with your eyes closed and is meant to stimulate the brain’s alpha patterns with rhythmic strobing light effects thus producing a natural high. The device is a large piece of cardboard with slits down the side and spun on a gramophone turntable. In the middle a light bulb hangs down to the centre creating a flicker effect as the machine spins. The pair had calculated it to flicker at fifteen flickers per second resulting in a type of hypnotic trance-like state. The device seemed to take off as people began to take notice and the creators were due to market their work as a representative turned up at the hotel, but as luck would have it the rep ended up breaking his leg in the hallway which ended with the creation never seeing the light of day.

As the years passed the beats were beginning to be noticed on the international scene as word spread across the globe that the wonderful, tiny, wild, and heavily neglected hotel in France was the place to be and from the years 1957 to 1963 Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Burroughs, Corso, and Sommerville were joined by other imaginative creators from England and Europe. The Beat Generation had officially taken over the Latin Quarter of Paris, creating a symbolic freedom of mind, a simple atmosphere where they could escape the troubles of their homelands in a place that was much more tolerant of anything written or in the visual arts. France in that time was way ahead of up-tight countries like England and America. Although the Beats couldn’t actually speak a word of French they did have in their group the French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel who they would use as their go-between. Label also introduced the group to the Partisan art community that included the likes of Marcel Duchamp and André Breton.

Great works of poetic art was also being produced at the hotel as Ginsberg started work on his second poem Kaddish and Gregory Corso created some of his most famous works whilst living in the hotel’s attic like his controversial piece called Bomb that was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud.

English photographer Harold Chapman spent a year living in the attic with Corso, documenting photo-by-photo the scene that was happening around him. According to Ginsberg Chapman didn’t speak to anyone for two years because he wanted to be invisible – transcribing the environment without him in it. Chapman came up with the idea of making a photographic book called My Paris whilst working as a waiter in Soho. After hitchhiking to Paris a friend told him that he must see this crazy hotel in the area and was later introduced to Ginsberg and Orlovsky, the rest was to be photographic history.

By the time the trial for Naked Lunch ended in the early 60s (resulting with the novel being made example of and prosecuted for being too obscene by the state of Massachusetts followed by other states in the US and the rest of the world) the Beat Hotel ceased to be as Madame Rachou retired in 1963. Harold Chapman was the last person to leave.

Nowadays the tramps that covered the streets of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur are gone, the prostitutes that hung around the wine bars have moved on, and those bohemian types have been replaced with camera-snapping American, English, and other Western world tourists that have now taken over the place. Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is now a tourist destination and the time of the beat generation has long since died a creative death. ‘Ci-Gît’ is an old expression found on French graves meaning ‘here lies’ and Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is said to signify ‘here lies the heart’, yet all that stands at once the heart of the beat movements Beat hotel (which this isn’t even the Beat hotel, the original Beat hotel has been closed for decades the one that it’s actually placed against use to be an apartment building) is a bronze plaque with the words: B. Gysin, N. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville and W. Burroughs scrawled across it like some gravestone reminder of what was once a artistic environment.

Beat Hotel Plaque

Alt Lit as the New Beat Generation

Tao Lin and Jack Kerouac

“Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like blogniks to describe us?”


As a scholar of the Beat Generation, the recent public attention focused on the current phenomenon known as Alt Lit has inspired in me some observations of similarities between the two literary movements. Indeed, one could provide comparisons to other movements or “generations,” but for me the similarities between these two sets of urban hipsters, sixty years apart, seems interesting.

The above quote, from Tao Lin’s novel, Shoplifting From American Apparel, shows an apparent awareness that the group of people he describes will become subject to, in the near future, the same sort of media scrutiny that was foisted upon the Beat Generation, who were derided in the press as “beatniks.”[1] Indeed, Noah Cicero, another key member of the Alt Lit community, described as central to the Alt Lit movement “the idea of the return to the literary life.” He goes on:

The literary life is about ‘living,’ like Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, traveling, doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts, taking shits in gas stations in Nebraska at 4 in the morning, going to Asia to teach English, flying over from New Zealand or England just to get drunk with people who’ve met online. Staying up till 5 in the morning talking about philosophy and politics. Making a ten-minute long YouTube video about something you can’t get off your mind. It’s that kid walking down the street with headphones playing Ladytron, carrying a laptop, and a copy of The Stranger, who just feels like this is fucked.

In referencing Rimbaud, Whitman, and Celine he is acknowledging key influences on the Beats, and in mentioning Bukowski and Thompson he is talking about writers who’ve later been categorized as “Beat” or at least in the Beat vein. His language in the description, too, is Kerouacian and Ginsbergian. He is channeling On the Road and listing like Howl, yet applying these techniques to his own generation.[2] In a word, he is placing Alt Lit as the next step.

Like the Beats, there is no real unifying style in Alt Lit. There is certainly an influence taken from Lin’s own unique voice, but Alt Lit is as diverse as the massively varying approaches taken in the Beat classics. However, there are of course elements that unite these groups, not just into social networks but also a literary framework. The Beats were categorized by their confessional prose, their drug use, and their challenging of social and sexual norms. There is, in their work, the notion that nothing is too personal or sordid to tell the world. Likewise, in Alt Lit writers like Marie Calloway and Megan Boyle document the most intimate details of their own lives, treating sexuality in a manner that would not seem out of place in a poem by Ginsberg, while Lin depicts his own drug use as matter-of-factly as William S. Burroughs.

Moreover, there is also the breaking of grammatical rules and attempts to move away from literary convention. From Kerouac’s “automatic writing” and “spontaneous prose” it is hardly a great leap to the treatment of Twitter feeds as literature, and the inclusion of Gmail chats in novels. Where the Beats took liberties with run-on sentences and attempted to imbue their narratives with the jargon of their times, so too are Alt Lit writers willing to forgo capitalization, punctuation, and embrace internet vernacular into their own prose and poetry. Rather than look back and embrace their literary forbearers, both groups sought to immortalize their own generations. The Beats and Alt Lit are united by the documentation of their own times and their almost insular literature. The Beats wrote about each other, like the Alt Lit writers, and their works stand as a biography to their times. People like Neal Cassady have become virtually household names through their depictions as characters like Dean Moriarty, and in the future we will surely remember some of the less prolific Alt Lit writers as their published alter egos.

What readers of Beat Generation literature often failed to observe is that although the Beats became known as a literary force in the mid-fifties with the publication of On the Road and the Six Gallery reading, the Beat group that is described in these works existed ten years earlier. By the time the Beats were a cultural phenomenon, the Times Square hipsters and Columbia group that made up the core of the Beat legacy had largely disbanded, and were leading lives far apart from one another. Perhaps, had Kerouac had access to Createspace and Lulu, or even a Blogger or Tumblr account, it might not have taken so long. Ginsberg, certainly, would’ve enjoyed promoting his friends’ work via Twitter and Facebook.[3]

If this essay is descending into increasingly random observations, then I apologize for what is coming next: a far-fetched comparison of various Beat and Alt Lit figures.


Tao Lin = Jack Kerouac.


Kerouac was famously the “King of the Beats,” the man whose style and philosophies were adopted and mimicked by millions of young fans. His stories documented the lifestyle of his contemporaries, and his work influenced other writers and artists.

Lin is the father of Alt Lit, and writers considered “Alt Lit”, whether by their own admission or labeled by others, are either involved with Lin on a social level, or draw heavily from his stylistic and thematic innovations.

Both men have chronicled the lives of their fellow young hipsters and the times in which they lived, and utilized the patterns of speech of their generation in order to create the definitive novels of their day. Their work has garnered the most attention to their movements, and been viewed as inspirational to their followers and contemporaries


Noah Cicero = William S. Burroughs

Although his place in literature is as part of the Beat Generation, Burroughs was only briefly part of the Beat group, and largely took off on his own. He was older than the other Beats, and following a few arrests in New York City, he went off on a decades-long journey around the world. His style deviated tremendously from those of the other Beats, and he rejected the idea that he was a part of the movement, or indeed that it ever really existed.

Cicero, while only three years older than Lin, is also like an elder to his so-called generation. Like Burroughs, is prose bears little resemblance to that of his peers, and while they seem to have maintained a relatively tight social group, Cicero wanders off to far-flung locations.[4] In many regards, these men appear set apart from their literary labels, yet their associations appear cemented.


Megan Boyle = Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most important members of the Beat Generation, promoting the work of his contemporaries tirelessly, and later ensuring the continuation of certain Beat ideas in the cultural shift to the Hippies. His poetry was intensely open and confessional, and he sometimes appeared naked on stage.

Megan Boyle wrote an essay called “Everyone I’ve Ever Had Sex With,” and is in the process of liveblogging her life. These alone make her a unique and Ginsbergian genius. Her writing is as revolutionary as her better-recognized peers, but it is only a matter of time before she is considered one of the more important poets of her era.


Steve Roggenbuck = Peter Orlovsky

Peter Orlovsky was Allen Ginsberg’s long-time lover/boyfriend/husband/partner, and his fame was largely accredited to his association with Ginsberg. However, Orlovsky was a poet himself, yet even in that capacity he was derided for his inability to spell.

Roggenbuck has become a key member of the Alt Lit community, too, in spite of his apparently lacking literary credentials. Like Orlovsky, Roggenbuck can’t or won’t spell correctly, and his editors appear content with that, allowing spelling mistakes in the titles of his books, as did Orvlosky’s. Roggenbuck is better known for his YouTube videos, wherein he often appears manic, and also his status as an Alt Lit social butterfly. These traits also place him surprisingly close in stature to Orlovsky.

[1] The term Beat has a debatable history but was popularized by John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac. The suffix “-nik” was added by Herb Caen following the launch of Sputnik in order to associate the Beats with Communism.

[2] These phrasings are not arbitrary. Cicero is well-read in Beat literature, with a particular affinity for William S. Burroughs, whose work he says inspires “hope.”

[3] I’ve spoken with one of Ginsberg’s old assistants and he concurs with this notion, agreeing that Ginsberg would’ve made a thoroughly irritating Twitter-fiend.

[4] On the advice of this reporter, Cicero took a job in South Korea.

The First Fifty Years of City Lights

citylights 015

One of the many rewarding aspects of editing Beatdom is that of reading a fine new piece of writing or viewing a great new art submission. Sometimes readers send works which are not intended for publication but are wondrous and shared simply for the joy of creation and pride in one’s own fine efforts (a vanishing thrill in an increasingly capitalistic society).

The current buzz around Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of the famed City Lights Bookstore, brings to mind something we received at the end of last year and have been meaning to share(along with apologies for taking so long to post this).

Beatdom reader Donald A. Heneghan, Beat historian and literature-lover, contacted us in fall to order a copy of the latest issue. Taking up correspondence with Mr. Heneghan, we learned that his Beat book collection includes the complete output of Ferlinghetti’s distinctive Pocket Poets Series of books from 1955-2005. This includes each of the press’s fifty-seven volumes of poetry (actually fifty-six plus the only ‘out of series’ publication, Alain Jouffrey’s Declaration d’Independance, which bears an inscription from Jouffrey to Allen Ginsberg) as well as various translations, photographs and related ephemera.

As the cover shows, this is actually a exhibition catalogue. Heneghan showed his collection at NYC’s Grolier Club in Spring 2005. Inside, he provides more than just a convenient list of the volumes published by City Lights. “I tried to capture the story behind each book,” says Heneghan, “It was an extensive project but a lot of fun.”
Details of the books go beyond mere description and illustrate just how avid a collector he is. Most are first printings and many copies are inscribed by the authors. Some are inscribed by two, such as 1958’s Gasoline by Gregory Corso (Number Eight), which is signed by not only Corso, but also by Ginsberg, who wrote the Introduction.
Particularly poignant is the inscription in Book Number Fourteen, Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. As Heneghan writes, ‘ This first edition copy is inscribed from William Burroughs for Allen Ginsberg. The significance is that Burroughs signed his copy to Ginsberg prior to Ginsberg’s death in 1997 as Burroughs’ Kaddish to Ginsberg. Ironically, Burroughs died four months after Ginsberg in 1997.’
In his curation of the collection, he fastidiously included additional volumes to note the differences from one printing to the next. Book Number Twenty-seven, Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, for instance, appeared twice. ‘The copy displayed (sic) is inscribed on the title page with a drawing. The second copy displays the rear cover of this first printing,’ the catalogue notes. In the “Translations” section, we also find the first Dutch edition, Revolutionaire Brieven, translated by Simon Vinkenoog and published in 1979.
Other interesting inscriptions include one from Harold Norse to Gerard Malanga, along with Malanga’s inscription of ownership in Hotel Nirvana (Number Thirty-two). The following book in the series, Number Thirty-three, Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman, is inscribed to Amiri Baraka, and Number Thirty-Seven, Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs carries a note to Gotham Book Mart’s Mathew Monahan from it’s author, Peter Orlovsky.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, the 2013 theatrical release of the 2009 San Francisco Film Festival entry, Ferlinghetti: A City Light, has been getting a minor amount of press with it’s re-release about two weeks ago. It was directed by Christopher Felver

As the press release from First Run Features, the film’s distributor, notes: “Since its inception in 1953, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore quickly became an iconic literary institution that embodied social change and literary freedom. Continuing to thrive for over five decades, it is a cornerstone of America’s modern literary and cultural history.” Poetry lovers around the world can easily spot a copy of one of his black and white Pocket Poets Series books across a crowded library. The mini-formatting of the books probably reached the level of ‘Iconic’ when the fourth of the series, Ginsberg’s Howl, hit shelves to be confiscated by police in 1956 and finally released for public consumption with the landmark 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision by Judge Clayton W. Horn, who found the work to have artistic merit, thus setting in place the legal precedent that protects controversial works of literature which have ‘redeeming social importance.’

As you can see, Heneghan’s authentic replication of the Pocket Poets Series was an excellent choice for the catalogue’s format. The photo you see to the right of the cover is one side of the Exhibition Invitation. According to an blogged inteview we found with Paul Yamazaki of City Lights, “The photo of the store dates from the early 60s. If I remember correctly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao are in the mezzanine window. Under the awning are Kirby Ferlinghetti, Bob McBride and a person who I cannot identify.”
To get a better idea of how much time and effort Donald Heneghan put into preserving these gems, you can find copies of the Grolier Club Publication and get your own copy on

We thank Mr. Heneghan for taking the time to share this great accomplishment with us!

citylights 002

A Few Words From Patti Smith On Writing and Beats

On May 15, Patti Smith told us about her new record, Banga, and some of the source for the title track’s inspiration, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. We have been listening to the new music a lot, enjoying it immensely, and looking forward to seeing Patti perform on tour with Neil Young this fall. On the recording, she does a very nice version of Young’s “After The Gold Rush.”

At interview time, we were told by Columbia/Sony Entertainment that Patti could only speak about the new release and we had come prepared to ask her some ‘Beat’ questions. As you can see in the following exchange, the second part of our interview with the poet/writer/entertainer, she was gracious and more than happy to stray from the subject of the new music, which we had not had time to fully digest at the time of the talk. This is the second section of the interview. In the third, Patti tells us what she has been reading lately, what she suggests for others’ reading lists and who she would meet if allowed to travel through time. The complete interview will be printed in Beatdom, Issue Twelve – The Crime Issue.

They told me I could only ask you about your new album.

You don’t have to do that…ask what you want.

Thanks! Well, speaking of the album, you wrote the song “Nine” for Johnny Depp and I read interviews where you tell how he helped you by recording the title track, “Banga.” He was close to Allen Ginsberg, so we wondered if you met him through Ginsberg?

No…I knew Allen since I was quite young. I met Johnny when he came to one of my concerts a few years ago. We talked and then started off on Allen. We both love books and we spent a lot of time talking about [Jack] Kerouac and Dylan Thomas. Johnny has letters of [Antonin] Artaud and Dylan Thomas. We spoke a lot about literature and music and became very good friends.
A lot of our friendship is book-based.

So, about your writing process…

I am always writing…always…and always have two or three projects going simultaneously because my mind is so active…like I’m writing poems and writing little songs and am working on my detective story and some other things. So, writing is part of my daily discipline, whether it’s for my website ( or anything else I do…it’s the one consistent discipline I’ve had since I was thirteen years old that I continue to exercise every day.

I write by hand in my notebooks and on the computer. I don’t write so much on the typewriter anymore. I always loved the typewriter, but it’s so complicated to get ribbons and things, so I switched over to transcribing on computer — but I initially write in my notebooks.

Do you have favorite pens?

I have a very nice pen collection. I have been given beautiful pens by my son and daughter…I have a very nice, small white Montblanc and I have very nice old fountain pens and sometime’s it’s just a Bic. There is always some pen in my pocket but I sometimes get sentimental towards certain pens. Sometimes I just use a little Uni-Ball. It depends what’s in my pocket but I have very nice pens at home. I like those little Montblanc Mozarts. I think they are called the “Mozart Series.” They’re small, they’re a ballpoint and they have a really nice weight and you can put them in your pocket. That’s sort of my upscale pen of choice. I write with whatever’s there, though, you know?

Sometimes…if I’m on computer…well, I like to write fast and then go back and edit. I don’t like to edit as I am writing and sometimes I can get in a groove at night. When I’m writing late at night sometimes I sit at my computer and, if I’m like writing more of a rap, like if I’m doing something for my website. I usually do my website right on the computer…a lot of times it’s just sort of like rappin’ and if I’m working on a poem or something like that, I always write by hand.

Listening to “Rock N Roll Nigger,” the structure seems reminiscent of “Howl.” Was that by design?

It’s just what we did. I always acknowledge the people who influence me or inspire me but I’m not really conscious of exactly how. I just know that I’ve learned from them but I don’t consciously do a piece of work to mirror another piece – if it does, it’s just because someone else will usually pick up on it, probably subconsciously.

We read that Allen had a lot of influence on you coming out of retirement some years ago…

Allen was more influential to me when I was younger. He was just so vocal. He was so successful at marshaling people, at gathering large troops of people to speak out against the government, to strike…so that was his major influence on me.

I often talk about Allen. When you do a hundred interviews, it all depends on how they are edited. I’ve talked about Allen many times – about how, of course, he was instrumental. He called me up; called my house and inspired me. He said that I should come and let the people help me with my grieving process and let my Loved One go on his journey. I’ve talked about that on the liner notes of my record…many, many times. I’m always doing something for Allen, reading his poems…paying tribute. There is only so much you can say in one little interview but I am always grateful to Allen.

How about the other Beats?

I was very attached to William [Burroughs]. I knew Gregory, Gregory Corso, very well…and Peter Orlovsky. I met Hubert Huncke.
I was very privileged to know these people and I had different relationships with them all. Gregory was very, very important to me in my learning process of how to deliver poems live…and in my reading list.

But William was the one I was most attached to. I just adored him. I had sort of a crush on him when I was younger and he was very good to me. He really liked my singing and encouraged me to sing. He used to come to CBGB to see us and, of course, his work inspired me. Horses, the opening of Horses, with Johnny’s confrontation in the locker room, was very inspired by William’s The Wild Boys. In The Wild Boys there is also a ‘Johnny.’ My ‘Johnny’ is a continuation of William’s ‘Johnny.’

William really taught me a lot about how to conduct myself as a human being, you know? Not to compromise and to do things my way. What William always said was, “The most precious thing you ever have is your name so don’t taint it. Build your name and everything else will come. Keep your name clean.” I learned a lot from William.

Listen to Patti’s newest album “Banga” on Columbia Records and for more fun, visit her website,!

Hinduism: A Different Beat

from Beatdom Issue 10 (buy here)

by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra and Ravi Mishra


As a religion, Hinduism has been one of the most ancient and generational expressions. These expressions and beliefs are handed down from the past generation to the present. The Hindu religious thought is such that, on one hand it seeks to exclude life and its aspects in its entirety, and, on the other, its beauty is such that it radiates in the full expression of all forms of life…those that have been considered mainstream through the ages and those that have baffled the matrix of the mainstream.  Hinduism is naturalistic. A true Hindu does not believe in institutionalized religion; far from it, he/she inherits a doubt in all things institutional and becomes culturally inclined to observe society from a distance whenever he/she finds it imposing upon his spiritual and personal growth.

The Bhagvad Geeta or the Song of the Lord, the greatest-known book to guide conduct and human existence in Hinduism, expects one to play one’s role in the social and the worldly structure while keeping oneself at bay from expectations of societal and worldly gains. Then, there are the ‘Renunciates’ – those that feel that the world and society are obstacles in the way of realization of truth and that to realize truth one has to look beyond and out of the social structures. These men and women earn the distinction of being the ‘Sadhus’. They have held light to the Indian Civilisation from time immemorial. They are the wise. Once, they were also the erudite holders of the scales of moral and social justice in society, though they, themselves, were out of it.

It is a fairly well-documented fact that the Sadhus and Indian religions have cast an impression on the writers of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had travelled extensively across India in 1961-62 and stayed with some very prominent thinkers and writers of the period. One of them was the current president of India, Pratibha Patil (then a girl of nineteen), with whom Ginsberg stayed in Varanasi in 1962. Patil has been known later to have tried psychedelic drugs with the Indian Sadhus – Baba Neem Karoli, in particular. The Beats and the Sadhus meet in the context of Hinduism in many ways. They had very similar philosophies and aims, which in the context of Hinduism make them so akin to each other. They both seek advancement of their souls and spiritual elevation. They look for it beyond the frontiers of common humanity. The world beyond ours’ hosts the road to their ‘unworldly’ and asocial spiritual fulfillment.

In Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas, Sondra L. Hausner, writes that the Sadhus do not believe in following the constraints of space and time. They believe in being on the move – as staying in one place restricts their intellectual and spiritual growth. One almost wonders if On the Road could have been written had Kerouac not experienced these brilliant realisations which richen his plot? The knowledge that Hinduism advocates is the knowledge that Kerouac offers his readers in his defining work. It is also the same as what made the Sadhus so venerated and revered: the experience of what lies beyond the common boundaries of Humanity. Dissociation from fixities is not the only common feature among the holy men ofIndia and the Beats. In the context of Hinduism’s infinity, drug use and sex for salvation are other commonalities. Although the latter appears confined to some obscure and secret societies of Sadhus, the former remains readily seen among them.

Lord Shiva, the Supreme God in Hinduism, one of the forms of the Hindu trinity of Brahama, Vishnu and Shiva, is worshiped with the offerings of cannabis and other intoxicants. Considered to be the supreme consciousness who lies outside the human realm he is still found somewhere within each of us. It is He we seek to explore and His energy that we wish to obtain by meditation, prayers and other spiritual means. Having gained the enlightenment and full of benevolence for all, the Sadhu wishes to dispel spiritual strength in the world and guide mankind on the right course. Shiva, the manifestly terrible form of the supreme consciousness, has also been called the most merciful in the ancient Hindi scriptures. It is this secret that the Beats and Sadhus seek.  They care not how they appear and the impression that they make on others – as long as they gain the spiritual strength to hold light to a saddening, darkening world. The Beats and the Sadhus are alive in us, in each of us. We have only to explore them to be mature enough to make our lives more meaningful.

In what may be regarded as one of the biggest fares of humanity in the world, the ‘Kumbh’ in the holy town of Allahabad in India, thousands of Indian holy men descend from the Heavens to Earth, in the midst of mortals…to spend a month or thereabouts with them. They are very strange people, or so we think. Some of them exist in utter defiance of humanity, and we can only ask what it is that they hold to be true. Society, social strictures, codes, values, morals as we know them, do not hold with the Indian Sadhus. They epitomize the most truthful essence of one of the most ancient and theologically superior religions of the world.

The one aspect where Hinduism comes closest to the Beat philosophy is the element of queer sexuality prevalent in both. In the vastness of the great Hindu mythology, the queer elements seem to be interspersed through the many religious texts that Hindus follow to understand their philosophical and religious truths. Although the age-old Hindu literature appears, by and large, to be mute on same-sex love and physical attraction, slips in sexuality, erotic same-sex fascination, and intersex or third gender characters are not very infrequent in the religious narratives of the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas and lore of the regions of the ancient land. In the words of Devaddata Pattanaik, a prominent speaker on mythology: queer manifestations of sexuality, though repressed socially, squeeze their way into the myths, legends and lore of the land.

To begin with, the compendium of Hindu mythology refers extensively to change of gender in the deities and their embodiment of different genders at different times. It also alludes to the combining forms of androgynous or hermaphroditic beings. The Gods participate too. They change sex or manifest themselves as Avatars of the opposite sex to facilitate sexual congress. Their influence on humans is such that the mortals also undergo sex-change through their actions, fructifying the curses or blessings, or as the natural reincarnates.

In addition, it may be said noted that Hindu mythology delves deep into incidents where sexual interactions serve a non-sexual, divine purpose; in some cases, these are same-sex interactions. Ambiguity in judgment of the Gods is revealed when the Gods sometimes condemn these inter-actions, but on the other hand, they occur with their blessing. These mythological interactions have been expressions both of male and female characteristics in the Gods as well as the mortals. Not bound by time and place – they may occur at the same or at different times. They might also become manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’, the revered and widely worshipped figure created by the merging of Lord Shiva and his consort ‘Parvati’. The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘The Lord whose half is a woman’ which, in itself, creates sexual ambiguity. It is said that this form of Shiva represents the ‘totality that lies beyond duality’, and is studied in reference with the communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.

One of the most celebrated and written about examples of same-sex love and transgression of gender exists in the pages of the Bhagavata Purana. There, Lord Vishnu as an enchantress, ‘Mohini’ (a form he took in order to befuddle the demons into abandoning ‘amrita’, the elixir of life), charms Shiva, who is so drawn towards her that they have a relationship followed by the birth of a son. The Brahmanda Purana talks of Shiva’s wife Parvati, who ‘hangs her head in shame’ as she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. Some of the stories also mention Shiva asking Vishnu to appear in the Mohini form again so that he can witness the actual transformation for himself.

Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to ‘suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction.’ Philosophers  interpret the narrative more profoundly. Pattanaik declares that efforts to focus only on homoeroticism ignore the narrative’s profounder metaphysical significance – Mohini’s femininity stands for the material aspect of reality, and her seduction is another attempt of Vishnu to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Scholars point to other stories to show that it is only Vishnu’s charm that has the power to enchant Shiva. A demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in ‘his’ vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a ‘thunderbolt’ on his ‘manhood’ during their act of lovemaking.

The later Puranas talk of the origin of God ‘Ayyappa’ . Vishnu, as Mohini, is said to have conceived with the might of Shiva, and borne Ayyappa, whom he/she later abandons in shame. Some scholars dispute this version, arguing that Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which was ejaculated upon Shiva’s embrace of Mohini. There are many versions of the Mahabharata wherein Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, also took the form of Mohini and married ‘Aravan’. This was done to let Aravan be given the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed prior to the Kurukshetra War to ensure the Pandavas victory. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death.

It is more among the humans, particularly in the context of the narrative of the Mahabharata, that sexual changes and slips manifest themselves. One such character becomes ‘Shikhandi’, originally born as a girl named ‘Shikhandini’ to ‘Drupada’, the king of ‘Panchala’. The stories tell us that in her previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named ‘Amba’, whom the great and mighty ‘Bhishma’ had rendered unmarriageable. Having been humiliated, Amba moved in search of revenge, undertook great austerities, and the Gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death.

Another such story that talks about queer sexuality is the tale of ‘Ila’, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati to be a man one month and a woman the next, which appears in several traditional Hindu texts. After changing sex, Ila loses the memory of being the other gender. During one such period, Ila marries ‘Budha’ (the God of the planet Mercury). Although Budha knows of Ila’s alternating gender, he doesn’t enlighten the ‘male’ Ila, who remains unaware of his life as a woman. The two live together as man and wife only when Ila is female. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears Budha a son, although in the Mahabharata Ila is called both mother and father of the child. After this birth, the curse is lifted and Ila is totally changed into a man who goes on to father several children with his wife.

It may thus be seen that the Indian mythological world is replete with transgressions of sexuality to prove to man that sexuality is not constructed traditionally and historically – that same-sex love may be a yearning towards a greater fulfillment. In what may be regarded as the oldest surviving documents of man’s intellectual growth and religious stability, sex and its transgressions have only been the means to obtain the higher plane of human conscience, a life where even Gods desires change of form to demonstrate Nature’s instinct and unleashed, hidden desires.  Although the Beats and their thoughts did not spring directly from Hinduism, it is no less remarkable a coincidence that the two are so similar to each other. The Beats may be said to be the greater Hindu, a people who sought not institutions but individuals and looked for growth – not of restrictive notions but the advancement of the human soul.

Death Within a Chrysalis

by Nick Meador

At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties,[1] yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.

In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…”[2] Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams.[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).

On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.”[4] Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison.[5] After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”[6]) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.

But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”[7]

However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959,[8] and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…”[9] This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.

After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960.[10] Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.[11]

Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .”[12] That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.”[16] Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.

Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”[19]

During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.”[20] The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains.[21] Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.

On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…”[22] Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”[23]

This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene.[24] Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”[25]

The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.

Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…”[26] This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.

Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.”[27] Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“[28]

Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949[29]) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”[30]

There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.”[31] Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” [32]

In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment.[33] Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.

So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”[34] But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”[35]

It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…”[36] Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.”[37] We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.

In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island.[38] When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”[41]

Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.

When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine,[44] and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death.[45] In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”[46]

More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.”[47] This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.

In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.”[48] In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”[49]

But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…”[50] One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”[51]

There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother.[52] In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.”[53] Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.

Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out.[54] He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…”[55] Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”[56]

When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.”[57] One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…”[58] When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.

Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…”[59] Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography.[60] Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority­ and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.

All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…”[61] Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.

Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“[62] He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”[63]

In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”[64]

Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”[65] Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”

Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.

In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“[66] Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.

But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.”[67] It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).

This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans [68]). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“[69]

We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…”[70] So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.

Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011.

[16] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.

[17] An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011.

[18] Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011.

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.