I hopped the BART train for the short ride under the bay from Fremont to San Francisco. It was 1995 and the newest incarnation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had recently opened. I had heard that the masterwork of my former painting teacher was now on “permanent” display there. It was Jay DeFeo’s The Rose. Continue Reading…
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The world was a different place in post-war America. Suburbs were scant, malls were unheard of, and the nation was divided into either cities or farms. At that time, the group of writers known as the Beat Generation were just coalescing. They cavorted around the country in beat-up jalopies, smoking “tea” and getting drunk off of jazz and life. Although it may seem like an entirely different world, some of the establishments that birthed their creative spark are still in existence: Continue Reading…
October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
By Kurt Kline
In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to heal the wounds of racism, capitalist exploitation, and war. If Kaufman is, as many critics have suggested, a shaman, it is perhaps most properly in the tradition of Hoodoo, which employs music as a mode of otherworldly transport or to facilitate trance states. If Kaufman recuperates the bizarre dreamscape and linguistic paradox of the ancient shaman’s song, however, these elements have now been transplanted to alien, perhaps even hostile, Western cultural climes. I examine George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead to demonstrate more clearly Kaufman’s position as mispositioned shaman-healer of the postmodern age.
Although there is no single moment when modernism ended and postmodernism began, the period around WWII can be seen as a time of great transformation. The European avant-garde movement dispersed not only bodily to the far corners of the globe, but spiritually, as a functional vehicle of liberation. But after the war another generation arose. Allen Ginsberg seems to bridge the gaping chasm torn by the war in the middle of twentieth century American and European literature when he gives Ezra Pound a ritual spanking at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The Beats represented a new way of configuring self, art, and world. The postmodern artist was no longer a priest of culture, but an actual enemy of the state. Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce were brought to trial on obscenity charges; Carl Solomon was locked in a madhouse; Bob Kaufman was repeatedly jailed. Beat writers were fighting on the side of the imagination in a war that threatened to strip America of her soul. “The war that matters is the war against the imagination,” Diane Di Prima declares in her poem “Rant”: “All other wars are subsumed by it.” The artist became not a high priest but a culture worker, working within the mythos of the American legend to undermine its insistence on collective conformity, on homogenization of spiritual experience.
The Beats accomplish this in their poetry through the juxtaposition of elements of American mainstream popular culture (its film stars and political figures, its movies, popular myths, and songs) with elements which threatened to revolutionize and perhaps fundamentally undermine it: jazz, blues, Eastern and Western mysticism, Zen, and psychedelic drugs. When Bob Kaufman used the word Beat to describe the poetics that he and his friends were engaged in inventing, it may well have been in reference to the beat of the shaman’s drum, which propels its listeners into the Otherworld. Certainly the Beat poetics seems to recapitulate, within the changing landscape of American popular culture after WWII, the liminal poetics originating from the shaman’s song. Ginsberg writes of the madness and schizophrenia of the artist and of his country. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantra poems GRRRR and GRRRARH their way through a secret language of the animals, filling up the dadaspace of emptiness with new possibilities of meaning. In Bob Kaufman’s art, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to discover the source of and cure to the homicidal madness that Poe, the father of American culture, had intuited as somehow an inherent part of our national consciousness.
Jewish and Black, sane and insane, Kaufman inhabits liminal space in many ways. In the eyes of mainstream 1950’s culture he is criminal, schizophrenic, the rebel, the outsider. But from the point of view of the poets, the musicians, the artists of North Beach and Paris, Kaufman is unbelievably inside, inside inside, showing the workings of the creative mind as it contorts to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by consensus consciousness. Taking into account the ancient poetics of the shaman’s song we are in an excellent position to understand the precise relationship between the poetry of this “screamer on lonely poet corners” and modern culture.
There is in the first place an inherent connection between the shaman’s song and jazz. Jazz grows out of a cultural aesthetic which places a different valuation on shamanic experience than does the European model. The African slaves brought to the new world were only recently and perhaps dubiously converted to Christianity. They preserved their old gods and shamanic customs in folktales, music and art, and, as blues musician and author, Julio Finn observes, “the Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that the African slaves brought with them.” Elements of the Yoruba religion survived in Hoodoo and Voodoo on the bayou and elsewhere as the African witch doctor became the Root Doctor, Obi, Vodun, Wangaleur, the Hootchie-Cootchie Man or Woman. Although Kaufman did not, to the best of my knowledge, receive formal shamanic initiation at the crossroads, as perhaps was the case, as Finn demonstrates, with blues great Robert Johnson, the poet would nevertheless have been quite aware of the Hoodoo tradition, being raised in Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans. In the Hoodoo tradition, music is a key element of spirituality, and opens a channel of communication between man and loa. Kaufman writes about, as I fancy, his younger days in New Orleans, and some of the music that he heard there in the following terms:
Orleans… New Orleans… the bend in the river cleaves to the sky…
…the flowers are still up there on that wall, stem, petal, all,
Their roots playing the silences, between
Feeding pongee petals to soft breezes, flying in darting wonder.
Olatunji Babatunde is the Nigerian drummer whose 1960 album Drums of Passion was so influential on John Coltrane. “Babatunde’s drumbeats” are in clear reference to the African tribal tradition in which rhythm is the soul of life, the source of all human and universal action. Kaufman’s poetry grows out of be-bop, which is integrally linked to this intuition as well as to the struggle of African-Americans for individual and political liberation and the recovery of authentic spiritual experience. Kaufman’s improvisatory, spontaneous, oral poetics, like be-bop, is rooted in spiritual insights deriving from African tribal traditions.
…I DREAMED I DREAMED AN AFRICAN DREAM, MY HEAD WAS A
BONY GUITAR, STRUNG WITH TONGUES, & PLUCKED BY GOLD
FEATHERED WINGLESS MOONDRIPPED RITUALS UNDER A MIDNIGHT SUN, DRUMMING HUMAN BEATS FROM THE HEART OF AN EBONY GODDESS, HUMMING THE MELODIES OF BEING FROM STONE TO BONE AND FROM SAND ETERNAL…
Kaufman’s jazz rhythms set to words hurl the listener into the Otherworld even as does the shaman’s drum. His poetry is truly “Beat” in the sense that it is concerned with and expressive of the shaman’s primal rhythm.
In Kaufman’s poetry will be recognized features of the shaman’s song. The poet’s surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery call to mind the illogical, unnatural images of the shaman, expressive of the bizarre dreamscape of the shamanic Otherworld, a realm of impossible existences, of linguistic paradoxes. To express the liminal reality of the Otherworld the shaman employs a secret animal or nonsense language. Kaufman expresses the inexpressible through linguistic paradox and through the secret language of jazz. Kaufman’s poet moves across “AN UNIMAGINARY LANDSCAPE THAT EXISTS IN A REAL, UNREAL WORLD,” populated by strange “UNBEINGS.” The location of this liminal reality is somewhere, as Kaufman has written,
…BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR, MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF AN OTHER SIDE…
The shaman’s otherworldly journey is recapitulated by Kaufman both in terms of the underworld descent in “THE POET” and a flight into “crackling blueness” in “Ancient Rain.” Such shamanic visitations are common in Kaufman’s oeuvre. “I have walked on my walls each night/Through strange landscapes inside my head,” he writes in “Would You Wear My Eyes?” In “Slight Alterations” he writes:
I climb a red thread
To an unseen existence,
Broken free, somewhere,
Beyond the belts
The purpose of these otherworldly travels is always for Kaufman to redeem suffering through love. In “Plea” he enjoins the “Voyager, wanderer of the heart” to “Seek and find Hiroshima’s children/ Send them back, send them back.” The poet must retrieve the lost and mangled souls of the new atomic age. The poet is the shaman of the culture, who must remember the truth of the nearness of death to us all, and how interconnected our lives are with all the other beings on this planet.
Finally, Kaufman’s poetics conforms to that of the shaman’s song in situating itself as an instrument of healing. Kaufman sings the “song of the broken giraffe,” the “nail in the foot song,” to bring back as if from some quagmire of Hell America’s very soul, ripped from it by greed and warfare and held in thrall by a vast brainwashing apparatus. In “The Ancient Rain” Kaufman writes:
At the illusion world that has come into existence of world that exists secretly, as meanwhile the humorous Nazis on television will not be as laughable, but be replaced by silent and blank TV screens.
The poet exposes the hypocrisy around him and dispels the illusion that has been foisted on the populace, the false myth which asserts there is a single, unitary and unchanging truth. The Ancient Rain is coming to remind everyone of the necessity of change. “The Ancient Rain splits nations that have died in the Ancient Rain…so that they can see the culture of the living dead they have become.” But if everything falls apart it also comes back together again in the Ancient Rain. It falls like balm from the sky, and brings retribution.
The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. The Ancient Rain has moved me to another world, where the people stand still and the streets moved me to destination. I look down on the earth and I see myself wandering in the Ancient Rain, ecstatic, aware that the death I see around me is in the hands of the Ancient Rain and those who plan death for me and dreams are known to the Ancient Rain…silent, humming raindrops of the Ancient Rain.
Kaufman is a visionary in the sense implied by Jonathan Swift when he writes, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” But if Kaufman has a faith in his vision’s veracity and sagacity that rivals Blake’s, he nevertheless experiences vision in every bit the problematic manner of tortured Sioux shaman Black Elk. There is a burden to seeing for Kaufman, even as there was for the Sioux visionary. “I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet, spread-eagled on the bone of the world.” In “African Dream” he experiences as a sort of racial memory the pain of seeing the slave ships that ripped Africans from their homes. As he sees it, he lives through the horror of it: “Green screams enfold my night.” The source of the poet’s purity, his legacy, is his suffering. He sees more deeply because he has to. Suffering is transmuted through the magic of poetry into a medicine or sacred herb. In this, Kaufman closely follows Rimbaud’s seer in seeking alchemical refinement of the soul and distillation of a universal balm such as that sought by the Rosicrucians. Kaufman hails Rimbaud as “brilliant maniac,” and “desert turtle” – in an apparent reference to the hexagonal patterned tortoise backs upon which the I Ching is based – and describes the two writers – himself and the French seer-poet –as
Remnants of neo-classical witch doctors
hurling jagged missives of flame-sheeted bone,
affecting space cures, on curved people…
Implicit in seeing for Kaufman is a deeply rooted social conscience. The grim tattoo of the beat-walker’s nightstick on Kaufman’s body becomes a watchword for seekers of life’s mystery everywhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive, touching and absurd rendering of Kaufman’s poetic is his “Abomunist Manifesto.” In his Abomunist writings, Kaufman launches a humorous but at the same time radical critique of the mainstream American culture. Distorted scenes of American life as filtered through the media weave through Kaufman’s “Abomnewscast…On the Hour…”
America collides with iceberg piloted by Lindbergh baby… Aimee Semple Macpherson, former dictator of California, discovered in voodoo nunnery disguised as Moby Dick… New hit sweeping the country, the Leopold & Loeb Cha-cha-cha…
This is the real news, “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist,” a collaging of media items which reveals the absurdity and yet the morbidity of American life. “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV set off and get under it,” Kaufman’s Abomnewscaster advises us, juxtaposing the traditional healing, transformative, shamanic symbol of the mushroom with the destructive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Standing counter to the Puritan work ethic, the beatnik poet cultivates a Zen-inspired uselessness. “In times of national peril, Abomunists, as reality Americans, stand ready to drink themselves to death for their country,” Kaufman declares, only half-jokingly. In other words, the Abomunist opts out. “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” They will have nothing to do with the system. “Abomunists vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” The Abomunist philosophy is essentially rejectionary. “Abomunists reject everything except snowmen,” Kaufman writes, meaning presumably that the Beats reject a puritanical mindset that subjugates everything to the degree to which it can be exploited. The Abomunist refuses to grow up, to conform to societal expectations, and privileges a child’s sense of play which is painfully at odds with the suffering he sees around him. The Abomunist is further linked by pun to the Abominable Snowman, a dubious creature inhabiting precisely the liminal region between known and unknown, between the possible and the impossible. The fusing of wonder and horror, miracle and sham, are perfectly captured in the monster Yeti. The Abomunist suggests the possibility of seeing the sham and stepping away from the brainwashing machine at the same time as staying attuned to the miraculous. But here is the difficulty. The poet has seen too much of the world’s suffering. “Long forgotten Indian tribes fight battles” on his chest. As reportedly did the Buddha when he attained enlightenment, the poet feels the cut earthworm’s pain as his own. Like the shaman, the poet has journeyed to the source of the pain in order to affect a cure. But will he make it back in one piece?
In “Still Further Notes Dis- & Re- Garding Abomunism” Kaufman presents us with a curious document, supposedly a translation of the Live Sea Scrolls, “one of the oldest Abomunist documents yet discovered.” Kaufman’s story of a beatnik Jesus is perhaps, as Damon suggests, inspired by the Lord Buckley routine “The Naz.” For all its humor, however, its characterization of Jesus seems analogous to the Jesus in Gnostic workings of the Jesus myth found in Nag Hammadi Library. In “The Dialogue of the Savior,” for instance, Jesus says:
Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you be always above…time…
Like Kaufman’s Abomunist poet, Jesus is telling his disciples to opt out of the system. The Gnostic Jesus is more rebellious and more paradoxical than the Jesus presented in the canonized gospels. He’s more the rogue and scoundrel of Bruno’s estimation. Kaufman’s Jesus reports:
Nazareth getting too hot, fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night. Beat vagrancy charge by carrying my toolbox to court–carpenters O.K. Splitting to Jeru. as soon as I get wheels.
Kaufman’s satire of the last few days of Christ’s life imagines Christ as a poet at odds with the conventions of society. In identifying the poet with Christ, Kaufman demonstrates the shamanic impulse in the postmodern era. Christ is the archetypal symbol of the shaman, the healer of physical and spiritual pain, the mediator between worlds. Although Christ’s image is valorized, however, the actual point of his message is often lost, and many who claim to believe in him would still consider his philosophy and actions impractical. But the Abomunist is the very master of impracticality. The drag of the thing is if one wants to be Jesus, one sooner or later must get crucified. And so our beatnik poet does – but it’s out of the pain of this crucifixion that a beatification of the poetry occurs.
Kaufman continues the lineage of shaman-Gnostic visionaries we have been tracing. Gnostic philosophy is embedded in his work. The poet is nailed to the bone of the world – imprisoned in matter. He “HIDES IN A JUNGLE OF WRECKED CLOCKS” and asks, “What time is it going to be?” He rejects time altogether and lives instead among “days and weeks/ That cannot be found on any calendar” and “hours and minutes unknown to the clock.” The Gnostic call for freedom from the Demiurge and his minions becomes in Kaufman’s oeuvre a call for liberation for all sentient beings from the retrogressive spiritual, mental and political forces that bind them.
A significant feature of postmodernism, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, is its pastiche of and commentary upon the mediated world – the texts and sounds and pictures that make up the mythological life of our culture. But although Kaufman joins the offices of poet/culture worker with that of entertainer à la Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce, his attitude toward film has less the zaniness of John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” or the celebratory irony of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” but more of a problem that comes out of Kaufman’s understanding of the role of seeing for the poet. Although many of his poems make mention of movie stars and filmic characters, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Shirley Temple to the Wizard of Oz, Kaufman salutes Hollywood as the “artistic cancer of the universe” and holds the movie industry culpable for the brainwashing of America, to whom war is made a possibility and all record of genocide erased. On the other hand, he uses cinematic motifs and structures to re-write the brainwashing script, to reveal, by exaggerating the lie, the truth that lies behind it..
Kaufman’s filmic genre of preference seems to be the horror movie. He writes humorously of Dracula star Bela Lugosi and describes his Carl Chessman film script as “a horror movie to be shot with eyes.” That the horror movie has played such a pre-eminent role in defining the American cultural landscape says a lot about a tension that is held between us and the natural realm, especially as this is accessed through shamanic praxis. The lycanthropy and vampirism that are mainstays of horror cinema can be looked at as remnants – twisted recuperations – of the transformation into animals undergone by shamans in the séance setting. Dr. Frankenstein employs the theories of Mesmer –themselves thinly disguised recuperations of shamanic wisdom – to reanimate the dead. Poe invented American culture when he invented the horror story, the horror-madness of guilt over having gotten away with it. We got away with it. We slaughtered the American Indians. We enslaved Africans. We decimated Hiroshima. We conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve wreaked evo-havoc on the Black Lagoon in which, in sunnier days, that strange amphibious creature used to play – before a seemingly oblivious John Agar poisoned him, set him on fire, shot at, speared, and caged him before blowing up his lagoon entirely. But now we have the dues to pay, and we’re afraid, very, very afraid. What is the horror movie if not this primal fear – the fear of some lurking remnant of ourselves, still unresolved, that might intrude itself in all its hideousness upon our pleasantly numbed state? The murdered dead don’t stay buried, but have a way of turning into zombies, or ghosts, or ghouls.
In “THE POET” Kaufman describes his underworld journey as a passage through “THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING/DEAD” – an ironic reference both to the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, as Damon suggests, but also to the 1968 George Romero horror film in which a hapless band of humans battle a horde of flesh eating ghouls. Romero’s lampoon of racism and conventionality is quite an appropriate allusion for Kaufman to employ. The poet too, is holding out against hordes of mindless zombies, agents of lifelessness, shambling shades inhabiting this particular version of Hell.
In Romero’s film, the protagonist, Ben, is a young black man and this single fact ironically seems both his power and his curse. Like Kaufman, Ben comes from a culture more connected to tribal shamanic praxis than that of the white folks with whom he is unhappily marooned. Only he knows how to fight the ghouls, which he does, in fact, with the conventional tool of the shaman, fire. With fire he puts the ghouls to rout before taking a fortified position in a house, which now becomes a sort of shamanic tree, an axis between worlds, between the basement and attic, between the living and the dead. He prepares a safe retreat into the underworld of the cellar, but only withdraws there when there is absolutely no hope that any of his fellow humans will be able to extricate themselves.
In the final scene of the film, the zombies have been defeated by sheriff’s deputies armed with flame throwers and shotguns. Ben emerges cautiously from his subterranean retreat, and carefully climbs the stairs of the house, only to be shot in an upstairs window by a white deputy sheriff who mistakes him for one of the remaining walking dead. Who doesn’t see him. Who renders him invisible in order to kill him. Romero makes a sly comment here – reflected in the films stark black-and-white coloration – on the culture’s condemnation of shamanic praxis and its linkage to the blindness of racism.
Kaufman’s “THE POET” shows us the Hell that is imposed on us by our own symbology. The poem is “about” how this hell is created, and what role the poet plays in its creation. The poet is the master of the process of creation. He creates the poem, the world, life itself, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The poet and the poem are each described as “A FISH WITH FROG’S/ EYES.” This forms a haunting refrain:
A FISH WITH FROG’S
CREATION IS PERFECT.
The poet appears here as half-fish, half-amphibian. A frog is a more complex organism than a fish. It is a sort of super-fish able to do everything a fish does but much more. A fish can only see within its underwater domain, but an amphibian is master of water and surface realms. A fish sees what falls into the pond but no more. The fish has no communication with or effect upon the surface world. From its lily pad, the frog can observe and interact with what from the fish’s viewpoint are the sensible and super-sensible realms. A fish with frog’s eyes has a sort of super-vision that allows it to see what other fish would dismiss as beyond the spectrum of their finny experience.
Kaufman’s “FISH WITH FROG’S/EYES” is very much an image of the atomic age. Kaufman felt the Hiroshima bombing as a terrible psychic rift. This horrible power and the war machine which produced it were sanitized by the popular media, but Kaufman sees the glimmer of murder in the cold eye of conformity. He writes with fierce sarcasm:
Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning
Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,
And remember the stereophonic screaming
He wants America to realize what it has done. But meanwhile the Hollywood propaganda machine tries to make a killing at the box office with heroic portraits of men in uniform and their plucky women waiting at home. Even radioactivity was valorized in a special way.
The possibilities of mutation due to exposure to radioactivity were romanticized in science-fiction movies and comic books of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A strange radioactive mist causes the Incredible Shrinking Man (in the film of the same title) to shrink down into the very microcosm of the atom. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it’s a “mysterious high-level radiation” causing a mutation that reactivates the corpses’ brains. A fish with frog’s eyes, an atomic mutant, is the perfect symbol for the poet’s alchemical transformation of the stuff of the post-atomic world.
Kaufman’s poet must write what he sees. He must “WRITE THE TRUTH/EVEN IF HE IS/KILLED FOR IT,” and then he will be killed for it. The poem is that which cannot be denied and which cannot be explained. The poem is life. When death removes its cape from him, the poet understands what he has lived through, and he has no regrets. Although he has been “NAILED TO THE/BONE OF THE WORLD” the poet has at least lived. Like Rimbaud’s seer he will at least have seen. His poem, like Lorca’s, is “WOVEN INTO THE DEEPS/ OF LIFE.” Suffering is the poet’s legacy, but it is a suffering that has been transformed, redeemed. Meanwhile,
THE POET LIVES IN THE
MIDST OF DEATH
AND SEEKS THE MYSTERY OF
It is significant that the poet seeks not the answer to life’s mystery, but the mystery itself. The mystery is the enigma, the incertitude, the paradox, that is creation, that is the poem, that is “PERFECT.”
Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.
”An Anthology of New Poetics. Ed. Christopher Beach. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.
Di Prima, Diane. Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. Print.
Finn, Julio. The Bluesman. London: Quarter Books, 1986. Print.
Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain. New York: New Directions, 1981. Print.
—Golden Sardine. 1967. San Francisco: City Lights, 1976. Print.
—Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.
Romero, George, Dir. Night of the Living Dead. 1968. DVD.
The name Al Hinkle should be familiar to most readers of Beatdom, and if it isn’t then they’ll most likely know him by one of the names Jack Kerouac gave him in his novels: Big Ed Dunkel, Slim Buckle, or Ed Buckle. Hinkle and his wife, Helen were good friends of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and feature frequently as characters in a number of Beat Generation texts, including many of Kerouac’s, and also John Clellon Holmes’ Go.
Hinkle is known as the “Last Man Standing”, a reference to his position as the only male character from On the Road who remains alive today. In that novel he was Ed Dunkel, and his wife, Helen, was Galatea. In the original scroll, Hinkle is one of the people to whom Kerouac refers as “they” in his most famous quote, which begins, “they danced down the street like dingledodies…” He was one of the people who Kerouac followed, who inspired Kerouac, who taught Kerouac, and therefore a primary influences on the creation of one of the most significant pieces of mid-twentieth century American literature.
The Hinkles remained friends with Kerouac and Cassady until their short lives ended in the late sixties. Today, Al Hinkle maintains a website (www.alhinkle.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel), and speaks at events to help maintain the flow of information about the stories behind Kerouac’s classic novel.
He was kind enough to speak to Beatdom about his life, and also the forthcoming On the Road movie, with the assistance of his webmaster and biographer, Teri Davis.
How did you first meet Neal Cassady?
I first met Neal in 1939, when we were both 12. It was summertime, and I wanted to join the Denver YMCA. I didn’t have the money, but since hardly anyone did, they were pretty loose about membership. Both Neal and I spent a lot of time there, and we became good friends.
Neal and his father lived on Skid Row. Neal Sr. was an alcoholic, and spent a lot of time in the Denver jail as a trusty. The jailers would get his barber tools out of hock so he could give them, and the cons, free haircuts. Between Neal’s situation and my lousy home life, it was no wonder that we both wanted to be away from it as much as possible.
The Denver Y had a program come in called “Gym Circuses” that trained people to do circus acts. They chose Neal and me to participate, so we spent about 6 weeks practicing and tumbling. At age 12, I was almost 6 foot tall (I eventually ended up 6 foot 6), so I was the bottom man in the pyramids and the high wire act, and I was the catcher in the flying trapeze act. Neal was the flier; he would swing on the trapeze and do a somersault, and I would catch him. There was a net, but we hardly ever had to use it.
Life intruded after that summer, and we didn’t see each other again until a mutual friend reintroduced us when we were 19. Because of our shared experience, my little inside joke with Neal was that after all these years, I was still trying to keep him from falling!
An interesting side note: Recently Teri Davis, the woman helping me write my biography, was doing research on the Internet. She found a website – www.aerialartsfestdenver.com, which talked about the Denver Y’s trapeze and how it got there. Teri left a message on their site asking for more information and received this reply from Lynn Coleman, the founder of Aerial Fabric Acrobatics:
“My father was one of the trapeze flyers at the [Denver] YMCA when he was in college in the 1940’s. Our family learned circus skills and performed on the road as a result…
One reason that Kerouac came to Denver is that my Great Uncle Haldon Chase was from Denver. He is one of the characters in On the Road. He no longer is living…”
Isn’t that something? I never knew that our friend Hal Chase’s family got involved in those gym circuses too, and ended up becoming professionals. Small world, huh?
Tell us about Luanne Henderson.
Luanne! I fell in love with her the first time I met her. She was a beautiful, blonde 16 year old, outgoing and confident. She wasn’t forward with men, but she wasn’t shy, either. Luanne wasn’t a “quirky” girl; she was very down to earth and got along with everyone.
Neal had such complicated relationships. I remember us pulling in to the drive-in diner and being introduced to Neal’s beautiful little wife when she came out to take our order, then going to Pederson’s pool hall and meeting Jeanie, Neal’s girlfriend. It kinda shocked me.
I know Luanne was in love with Neal all her life. I could see that, even at 16, she felt that she was a married woman, not a child. She was the one that found the way to make all of Neal’s crazy plans work – she worked for money (or stole it), found rides, made sure she took care of her man. Even after he divorced her to marry Carolyn, Luanne made herself available to Neal whenever he asked, and I think she always felt that she was still his wife, even though they both remarried. When BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) first opened in the 70’s, I would take a ride from San Francisco to the last stop on the line – Daly City, and I would walk up this enormous hill to Luanne’s house and visit with her every week. I always had good feelings about her – she had earned her place in our gang and was fun to be with. I know she had gotten into heavy drug use later, in her 40’s, but she went to rehab in Colorado and came back to California clean and sober.
How did you first meet Jack Kerouac? What were your first impressions of him?
Jack was a friend of Neal’s, and one of the reasons for the “OTR” cross-country trip we took was to pick up Jack in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That was not the first time I met him, though. Jack had come to Denver a couple of years before that – in 1946. That was right about the time that my father, his wife and my grandparents took a two-week vacation to California, and we partied hard in their house while they were gone. We didn’t have permission, of course!
When my father returned, he found out about us using the house. He’d done a little investigating and he’d talked to several people, and some of those girls we’d been partying with at his place were underage. I was in deep shit as far as he was concerned. He decided to get me out of town. He said, “You are not going to stay here in Denver and maybe get sent to jail. You’re going to go to California and get a job on the railroad with your uncle.”
Obviously, there was a lot going on with me at that time, and I really didn’t have a chance to talk to Jack very much.
After we picked him up in Rocky Mount, I finally got the opportunity to know Jack a little better. I thought he was a true intellectual. He had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens. I felt that his friends were all intellectuals as well and, having dropped out of school in the 10th grade, that gave me the impetus to further my own education. We became lifelong friends, and I sure miss him.
How did you and Helen feel about her stay with the Burroughs family in New Orleans, 1949?
I think I’ve mentioned before that the Burroughses weren’t all too happy to have had Helen ‘dumped’ on them. As a matter of fact, when Helen first got there, Bill wasn’t happy and began writing letters to Allen (Ginsberg) in New York telling him to tell me to come and get her out of his house, it’s not a hotel! When we finally got to their house, which was actually in Algiers, LA (across the Mississippi River from New Orleans), Bill and Joan welcomed us. Helen had made herself indispensible in the three weeks she had been there, caring for both the Burroughs children (Joan’s three year old daughter Julie and William Jr., who was an infant at that time); she bathed them, fed them, and generally kept them out of their parents’ way. Bill and Joan actually asked Helen and I if we would stay with them – he had a room all ready to fix up for us! But Helen wanted out – she couldn’t believe how they lived, how little care they took of their children; never mind the house, which was dirty, with lizards running around everywhere.
Helen was appalled by Joan’s use of the Benzedrine inhalers – she would open them up and swallow the cotton. Joan would send Helen to buy an inhaler almost every day. Once Helen mentioned to Joan that the pharmacist told her he would happily sell her ten inhalers at a time because he knew she was not the type to abuse them, to which Joan replied, “So, where are they?” And Helen never figured out that Bill was using heroin – she just thought he was stoned on marijuana all the time (which he was, on top of the heroin). It was all just a little too crazy for Helen, and she was glad when we turned down their offer of a room and found ourselves a room in New Orleans, where we stayed for about six weeks. It was a low-budget adventure, but we did get our honeymoon and we enjoyed it immensely.
Those three weeks you spent in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others: How accurately were they depicted in On the Road and Go?
I would have to say that John’s account in GO! is probably the more accurate. Jack spent some of the time with us, but he also spent days at a time at his mother’s house in Queens, where he’d do all his heavy writing. Neal, Luanne and I went out every day and partied almost every night, and John was with us pretty much all of the time. We also spent a lot of time at John’s house, though we had to leave by 10PM because his wife, Maryanne, worked and needed to go to bed.
You know, Maryanne had worked and supported both of them while John went to college. She put up with a lot – John was out every night, or had people in the house all the time, partying and smoking marijuana – and I never saw her upset or complaining. But, once John got his $5,000 advance for GO!, Maryanne told him, “You have money now, you can stand on your own. I’m leaving.” And she filed for divorce. I guess all that partying got to her after all! Maryanne was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.
How did you feel when you first read On the Road?
My favorite book of Jack’s is On the Road. It was such a wonderful surprise to read! After reading The Town and the City, which was classic American literature, I read On the Road expecting more of the same, and instead it totally blew my mind. It was amazingly different, like nothing I had ever read before. It was brilliant.
Jack had just moved to Berkeley when On the Road came out in 1955. Neal, Luanne and I drove over to see him, and he had just received some advance copies of the book. He tried to hide them from us, but Neal grabbed a copy and started reading parts of the book aloud, whooping and jumping around with excitement. It was very exciting to read about our adventures, something written by our friend, something tangible that you could hold in your hand.
Jack was worried that we would be mad at his depictions of us, but we loved it. He was very relieved because, as he told us, “I have seven more books ready to go!”
In On the Road, Kerouac wrote, “and Al Hinkle would outlive us all telling stories to youngsters in front of the Silver Dollar.” How has your life played out since then?
I think that I have had an enjoyable life. I had a job that I loved, riding the rails; I would have done it for free. I achieved my goals, and despite being a high-school dropout, I graduated from San Francisco State with a Bachelor of Arts, and from Stanford with a Masters. I spent time as an Executive, and I worked for the Union as President of the San Francisco Region. I traveled to many places around this great world of ours, and I had 46 wonderful years with the love of my life…
I think the most important thing I’d like to let people know is that I’ve lived a grand and interesting life, full of good adventures, good times, good luck and wonderful people. I love having lived my life with liberty and freedom. I guess Jack was right; here I am today, 85 years old, the “last man standing” as they call me, only with my own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel) instead of a bench outside the Silver Dollar, telling my tales to a whole new generation of “youngsters” from all around the world who understand and respect what the Beats stood for. I am honored to be a part of it all.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie version of On the Road?
I think they stayed pretty true to the book and the message. I got to meet some of the young actors in San Francisco when they were shooting there, and later got to know them better at a party thrown for the cast. I fell in love with all of them! It was so satisfying to see how all of these young people took the story, which was written over half a century ago, to heart and showed it so much respect. They were all dedicated to doing the movie right. I just saw the trailer, and I’m really looking forward to the movie; I really think it’s got a shot at the Academy Award!
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
Today would’ve been Jack Kerouac’s 90th birthday. Although he’s been dead a long time, his legacy is stronger than ever. Each year new readers stumble upon and find inspiration in his work. This year more people than ever will surely celebrate his birthday because of the new movie, On The Road.
If you’re in San Francisco, you might want to pop along to the Beat Museum, where they’re holding a birthday party in honour of Kerouac. More details at their website.
On the other side of the country, in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, they celebrated the whole weekend with a Kerouac festival. Take a look here.
There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in the same way as the City Lights Bookstore. Situated in the heart of San Francisco and owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the most prolific Beat Generation poets there is, the City Lights Bookstore is a Mecca for all beatniks and book lovers. A visit to City Lights is enough to transport anyone back to simpler times where you can focus on words, lyrics and meanings rather than your groceries, prescriptions or health insurance renewal.
City Lights Background
The City Lights Bookstore champions independent publishers and first published a huge number of now legendary cult titles including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The store exudes warmth and despite its cramped interior, it’s easy to see that every spare space is filled with the books that make San Francisco famous. Of course, to remain afloat, you’ll find the main floor stacked out with modern and contemporary fiction but also an astonishingly large collection of translated works from around the world, an area the shop’s founder Ferlinghetti has been said to be particularly interested in. The area we’re looking for however is found on the top floor. Book after book of poetry is stored up there and you can peruse the titles of your favourites and also indulge in some newer contemporary writers.
The store itself was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a close friend and the publishing company, responsible for so many of the classic Beat generation texts, began at the same time. This combination of both a publishing company, a bookstore and of course the name of a cult legend above its door has meant that City Lights is one of the most successful independent bookstores worldwide. When visiting City Lights, many pilgrims have even had the great honour of meeting Ferlinghetti, who still uses the store to read, write and relax. Since 2001, the store has been recognised as an official historic landmark thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, due to its role in the literary history of the city.
City Lights Publishing House and the Pocket Poets Series
The publishing arm of the bookstore is also very popular. The instantly recognisable covers of the Pocket Poets Series included sixty books by Beat Generation poets as such as Kerouac, O’Hara, Levertov and of course, Ferlinghetti himself. The books were initially designed to make the poems of the Beats affordable and accessible to all and gave many people their first foray into an alternative, somewhat avant-garde area of poetry. Many of the collections originally published by City Lights Publishing in the Pocket Poets Series have gone on to be considered real classics such as Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. In the late sixties the publishing arm began to operate from a different location but was nevertheless successful, continuing to publish works by alternative, off-beat authors, branching out to specialise in world literature too. Recent developments in the non-fiction political arm of the publishing house has meant that City Lights can now include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among the authors they’ve published.
City Lights Foundation: giving something back to San Fran
The development of the City Lights Foundation is also a testament to the influence of the store. The foundation works with the aim of advancing deep literacy which roughly translates as their desire to strengthen literacy skills but also those essential elements of knowledge which enable people to develop and evolve as individuals and community members. This all sounds pretty deep and a lot of the works published via the Foundation are non-fiction dealing with very sensitive topics including homelessness, prison life and social justice.
The City Lights Bookstore describes itself as a specialist in world literature, the arts and progressive politics and hosts readings from modern day new generation Beat-style writers and pioneers the work of independently published authors.
Any self-respecting fan of the Beat Generation has the City Lights Bookstore among their top five places to visit before they die and in reality, it does not disappoint. On just entering the building you can begin to understand and immerse yourself in the world that your idols once inhabited. The City Lights Bookstore is a beacon for all beat pilgrims and somewhere which continually revolutionises and seeks to enhance the modern readers’ understanding of literature.
Article by Izzy Woods
Photo by David S. Wills
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, 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…” 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. 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.” 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. 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”) 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…”
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, 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…” 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. 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.
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 . . .” 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!”
In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,” a nickname for psilocybin. 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.” 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 floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”
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—”
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.” 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. 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!)…” 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…”
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. 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…”
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…” 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.” 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–––“
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) 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.”
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.” 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?’” 
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. 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.” 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…”
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…” 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.” 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. 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,” which today would be called “schizophrenia.” 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.”
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. “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.
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, 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. 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…”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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…” 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—”
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. 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.” 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. 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…” 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.”
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.” 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…” 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…” 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. 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…” 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–––“ 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…”
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]?”
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.” 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—“ 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.” 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 ). 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–––“
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…” 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.
 Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
 Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
 Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.
 Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
 Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
 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.
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
 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.
 “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml
 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.
 An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque
 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. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
 “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
 “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
 Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
 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. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece
 Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.
 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.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.
 Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.
 “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm
 “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.
 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.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.
 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.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
 Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.
 Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.
By Karen Baddeley
The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border
I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.
She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.
Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.
Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.
Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).
Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.
Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).
Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.
It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:
Fear making guilt making shame
making fantasy & logic & game &
elegance of covering splendor
emptying memory of event
She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.
While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.
She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.
Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).
Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:
Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
I love you
Oh I wish you body here
With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)
She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.
She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.
Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.
Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.
She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.
Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.
It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:
Twenty-seven years is enough
Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry
Daddy – What happened?
Allen – I’m sorry
Peter – Holy Rose Youth
Betty – Such womanly bravery
Keith – Thank you
Joyce – So girl beautiful
Howard – Baby take care
Leo – Open the windows and Shalom
Carol – Let it happen
Let me out now please –
Please let me in (Knight 165)
On October 2nd, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his Beat bookstore and publisher, City Lights, will receive Litquake’s 2010 Barbary Award at Herbst Theater.
The celebration will be attended by Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Winona Ryder, Michael McClure and Eric Drooker. Continue Reading…