Next month, Beatdom Books will release John Tytell’s collection of essays and letters, Beat Transnationalism. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle title, or directly from us via the button at the bottom of this link. Here are what some leading Beat scholars have had to say after reading it: Continue Reading…
Archives For travel
Allen Ginsberg was a true citizen of the world, at home wherever he travelled. Although he never actually left the United States – barely travelling more than a hundred miles from his place of birth – during his youth, in his early twenties he quickly learned the skills necessary to travel for long periods of time. He could be a typical tourist with guidebook in hand, buying souvenirs and clicking away with his camera, but he was also capable of journeying for years at a time, sleeping in fields, making friends with people from impossibly different backgrounds. He could communicate with people regardless of language and survive on little to no money. Everywhere he went, he brought his ideas to share, but also learned from all the people he met. Continue Reading…
World Citizen: How Politics Shaped the Travels of Allen Ginsberg, and How Travel Shaped his Politics
This essay first appeared in Beatdom #17, which you can find on Amazon.
As a child, Allen Ginsberg didn’t get to travel much; however, that wasn’t particularly unusual. Although the motorcar was becoming popular with the middle classes around the time he was born, and would boom in popularity during his childhood, most travel was still conducted within a relatively short distance of the family home. Route 66 was established five months after Ginsberg’s birth, connecting Chicago with California, and making it possible for Americans to drive across the continent, but due to the Great Depression and World War II, intercity car travel actually decreased between 1930 and 1944. Great leaps in transportation were making the world a smaller place, but young Allen only travelled as far as Belmar Beach, in New Jersey during his childhood. His father, Louis, didn’t travel abroad until 1967 – 19 years after his son’s first steps on foreign soil.
How, then, did he end up becoming such a renowned traveler, visiting almost 60 countries and visiting every continent except Antarctica? Continue Reading…
An interview with Bevin Richardson about his alternative The Dharma Bums book made from a seven 1.5 meter scroll painted in wine. Continue Reading…
In 1953, William S. Burroughs published his first novel, Junkie, which ended with the ominous line, “Yage may be the final fix.”
Burroughs had written the novel during his travels in 1950-52, when he was living in Mexico, as well as visiting Panama, Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. The line was meant to anticipate Junkie’s sequel, Queer, about his travels in South America, although the book wasn’t released released until 1985. Burroughs had been sending chapters from Junkie to Allen Ginsberg, who managed to have the “unpublishable” novel published by Ace Books, under the pseudonym ‘William Lee’ in 1952.
Also in 1952, he sent Ginsberg Queer, and in 1953 he sent In Search of Yage; when they lived together in New York later that year, they worked on editing In Search of Yage, which, when combined with some of their correspondence from the period, was published as The Yage Letters by City Lights in 1963.
Interestingly, when Burroughs wrote, “Yage may be the final fix,” and then, when he referenced it in correspondence in 1952, (a year after returning to Mexico from the Amazon) he had still failed in his search. “Did not score for Yage, Bannisteria caapi, Telepathine, Ayahuasca – all names for the same drug,” he wrote Ginsberg. Nonetheless, his curiosity grew thanks to his reading on the subject, and the great sense of mystery surrounding a drug of which Western science knew remarkably little.
It wasn’t until 1953 that he succeeded in finding the drug. The Yage Letters primarily concerns Burroughs trip to the Amazon in that year and Ginsberg’s own experiences Seven Years Later (the title of his story). The second line of In Search Of Yage, “Wouldn’t do to go back among the Indians with piles…”, references his unsuccessful earlier explorations and harkens back to the final line of Junkie.
Yet, back among the Indians he did go, and despite his lack of qualifications (Burroughs was educated to some degree in anthropology, archaeology and ethnology, but not in botany; he also never been on a field trip) he succeeded in tracking down the drug. It is important to note the timing in his expedition. In correspondence from the period, Burroughs seems obsessed with finding yage. He was fascinated with it for its qualities – namely its supposed ability to bestow upon the user the gift of telepathy, and its internal healing qualities, which Burroughs believed “could change fact.” Burroughs was interested in the drug as a possible cure for opiate addiction, but he also recovering from the accidental shooting of his wife, Joan. His life was a complete mess and a drug that could “change fact” was welcome.
How Burroughs came to be so obsessed with yage is a mystery. Ginsberg speculated that Burroughs had heard about yage “in some crime magazine or National Geographic or New York Enquirer or some goofy tabloid newspaper,” but at the time there was very little information about the drug anywhere. Western science knew little about it, and it’s unlikely that National Geographic or any other publication would’ve been aware of its existence. Oliver Harris, in his introduction to The Yage Letters Redux, speculates that Burroughs may have read Richard Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908) and Louis Lewin’s Phantasica (1924), both of which mention yage.
Yage is now quite well known, but back in 1951 it had only been known to the West for one hundred years, and not much progress had been made in understanding it for thirty years prior to Burroughs’ journey. Of course, it is significant to note that, although the West was thoroughly ignorant about yage, it had been used by natives of South America for thousands of years prior to Western discovery. Although Burroughs and Ginsberg both referred to it mostly commonly as ‘yage’, it is also known as ayahuasca, cipo, caapi, hoasca, santo daime, natem, shori, and telepathine across the continent.
Perhaps yage went so long without being understood because it is not a simple, naturally- occurring chemical from any one plant, like psilocybin or mescaline. Although ‘yage’ is often the name given to the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi, it is the drink made when extracts from Banisteriopsis Caapi are mixed with shrubs from the Psychotria genus – something both Burroughs and Ginsberg discovered before Western science
These days, yage tourism is common in South America. The drink has spread across the world, and anyone with access to the internet can easily study the plant, the drink and the History of Yage. However, when Burroughs first set out on his 1951 expedition, little was known. It was during his 1953 trip that Burroughs met Richard Evans Shultes, who is widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany. The two Harvard men could not have been more different. Shultes was on a serious twelve-year trip and, although he respected Burroughs’ courage in trying yage, did not take him seriously. Indeed, In Search of Yage is a chronicle of Burroughs’ misadventures, rather than a serious botanical study.
Shultes was present when Burroughs first tried yage near Mocoa, and Paul Holliday (a member of the group with whom Burroughs and Shultes were temporarily travelling) described the experience: “The old Ingana Indian gave him a wineglass full of the stuff… and within 15 min. it sent him almost completely off his rocker: violent vomiting every few minutes, feet almost numb & hands almost useless, unable to walk straight, liable to do anything one would not dream of doing in a normal state.” Although Shultes’ and Holliday’s statements suggest they thought Burroughs was more ballsy than informed, and although Shultes is considered the real expert on yage, it seems that Burroughs is due more credit than he was ever given for his expedition. At the time, yage was thought to be a plant that was made into a brew, and that the components of the hallucinogenic aspect came entirely from the one plant. Burroughs, however, deduced that it was only when two plants were mixed together (as detailed above, from much later research) that yage gained its unique and legendary qualities. It turned out that Burroughs was not quite the foolish, lost drug addict that he appeared…He had made the first major achievement in understanding yage since its ‘discovery’, over one hundred years earlier.
This essay was originally published in Beatdom #9
Words by Rory Feehan
Photos by David S. Wills
“My only faith in this country is rooted in such places as Colorado and Idaho and maybe Big Sur as it was before the war. The cities are greasepits and not worth blowing off the map.”
– Hunter S. Thompson (from a letter to Lionel Olay,February 16, 1962)
Hunter S. Thompson is a name that will always be associated with a variety of locations – from his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky, to his longstanding fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado; from San Juan in Puerto Rico, courtesy of The Rum Diary, to Las Vegas and his journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson was a seasoned traveller and indeed such was the extent of his time on the road in his early twenties that he once declared his wanderlust made “Kerouac look like a piker.” Although the natural environment has always played an integral role in the make-up of Thompson’s work, it remains an element of his writing that is all too often overlooked in favour of focusing on the more radical characteristics that have come to define both his literary persona and Gonzo Journalism. In order to fully understand and appreciate the various underlying principles that motivated Thompson and shaped his development as a writer, attention must be paid both to the manner in which he utilises the natural environment as a literary device and how the frontier as a concept lies at the heart of his literary oeuvre.
Interestingly, the very point in Thompson’s life where the aforementioned come into being, a time and place that could be considered the genesis of both the fictive persona of The Hunterfigure and Gonzo Journalism, is actually one of the most overlooked periods in his life. That place is none other than Big Sur, California. Thompson arrived there in November of 1960, in the hope of settling down to write what he called “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” inspired by his experiences living in San Juan. His journey from the Caribbean island to his new home on the west coast of America had been far from straightforward, with New York City being the first port of call in July, 1960, in what would become a westward voyage across the country that echoed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is important, however, to first examine how and why Thompson ended up in Big Sur from San Juan, as the journey itself reveals important details concerning Thompson’s motivations that ultimately find their ultimate expression through his writing.
The West Is The Best – Goodbye to the Rat Race
The catalyst that spurred Thompson on his travels echoed that of certain frontiersmen that first journeyed westward across the land in search of pastures new: they were both equally motivated by a desire stay one step ahead of the law. In the time-honoured tradition of the outlaw heroes that he so admired in his youth, Thompson had fled Puerto Rico whilst out on bail awaiting charges of breach of the peace and resisting arrest. Rather than await his fate, Thompson, as ever, opted to control his own destiny and thus returned to the familiar scene of New York. Though he had become disillusioned with journalism following his stint in Puerto Rico, he still had a strong desire to get his fiction published and whilst in New Yorkhe made one final pitch to Grove Press to garner interest in Prince Jellyfish, his first novel. Success, however, was far off, and upon receiving yet another rejection letter, Thompson decided to move on from the novel, declaring to William Kennedy that he would “chalk that year up to experience.” For Thompson, though, New York proved to be only a temporary stay. His focus quickly switched to the horizon and an escape route away from the big city. He was never comfortable living in a city the size of New York, though he did find it to be a never-ending source of intrigue. When he first arrived there on Christmas Eve, 1957, the towering skyscrapers made such an impression that he later wrote,
I’d never been there, never even seen it. I remember being stunned at the New York skyline as I drove over this big freeway, coming across the flats in Secaucus. All of a sudden it was looming up in front of me and I almost lost control of the car. I thought it was a vision.
However, the constant struggle to survive on a meagre wage in New York had been the principle reason for Thompson fleeing to Puerto Rico by January, 1960, and now, six months later, he had come full circle. The city had proven to be a rich learning experience in the past, from his stint working as a copyboy at Time, to the classes in “Literary Style & Structure” and “Short Story Writing” that he had taken at Columbia University. Living inNew York had also exposed him to the very epicentre of the Beat Generation universe, and their rise to literary prominence did not escape his attention. He was particularly taken by Jack Kerouac, whose “confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style,” according to Thompson’s literary executor, Douglas Brinkley. For Thompson, though, the negative aspects of living in New York far outweighed the positive to such an extent that he harboured a life-long aversion to the “rat-race” reality of big city life, a sentiment that was all too clear from even the earliest days of his time in New York, as illustrated in his letter to his former English teacher at Louisville Male High School, Arch Gerhart, dated January 29, 1958:
Anyone who could live in this huge reclaimed tenement called Manhattan for more than a year, without losing all vestiges of respect for everything that walks on two legs, would have to be either in love, or possessed of an almost divine understanding. The sight of eight million people struggling silently but desperately to merely stay alive is anything but inspiring. For my money, at least eight million people would be much better off if all five boroughs of New York should suddenly sink into the sea.
In the two years following that appraisal, Thompson had only found more reason to convince him that his time was best spent elsewhere. He had hoped that Puerto Rico would have been the solution to his problem, but even a supposed Caribbean paradise turned out to have a dark side. Thompson, however, had not entirely given up on the region and by August, 1960, he had another island in the Caribbean in his sights – Cuba.
As with all of his endeavours, the potential for excitement and adventure was always paramount and now Cuba was at the centre of attention, following the exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara a little over a year earlier. The image of the guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, greatly appealed to Thompson’s romantic sensibilities. There was also the Hemingway connection to contend with, which only served to heighten Thompson’s desire to travel to the country in search of work and indulge his fantasy of following in his literary heroes’ footsteps. The dream quickly fell by the wayside once Thompson realised that work opportunities on the island were scarce and his own financial situation had deteriorated to the point of making any return to the Caribbean impossible. Undaunted by this discovery, a new plan of action swung into gear by September, with Thompson and his friend Paul Semonin deciding to undertake the cross-country road trip that would culminate in his arrival at Big Sur.
The duo’s first destination was to be Seattle, which involved delivering the vehicle they were journeying in to a car dealer, after which they hoped to make their way down to San Francisco. Once they took to the highways, they quickly found themselves paying homage to Kerouac’s On the Road. As Paul Perry noted in Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson:
Their first rule of the road was to pick up every hitchhiker. In western Kansas, Semonin stopped for a man carrying a five-gallon gas can. When the hitchhiker got into the backseat, he flipped the latches on the can to reveal it was stuffed with clothes. “No one will pick you up if they think you’re a hitchhiker,” he explained. “You have to be a motorist in distress.” Hunter smelled a story and interviewed the man about the difficulty of getting rides. When they neared a signpost that proved they were in the middle of nowhere, Hunter made Semonin stop and take a picture of the interviewee with his thumb out, looking forlorn.
Given the nature of their expedition and literary sensibilities, the Beat Generation connotations are unsurprising. Thompson was particularly fixated on the image of the lone hitchhiker during this jaunt, with multiple photographs taken by both Thompson and Semonin along the way consisting of a solitary figure standing at the edge of an empty highway, awaiting the opportunity to catch a ride to the next town from a stranger that might never materialise. The sheer vastness of the landscape in the background creates an overwhelming sense of isolation but also raises the alluring prospect of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom. It was an intoxicating picture for Thompson but one that he felt was increasingly under threat, as is evident from his article “Low Octane for the Long Haul”…
Hitchhikers have fallen on bad times in recent years. The raised thumb, long a symbol of youthful adventure, suddenly took on a threatening aspect when both Hollywood and the Readers’ Digest decided the public would be better off if hitchhiking were a lost art. It almost is – and things have come to such a sad pass that only uniformed servicemen and Jack Kerouac seem to be able to move about the country with any ease. The others are having trouble. Most people are afraid of them, insurance regulations prevent truckers from picking them up, and a good many of those who still stop for the stranded thumb are often more dangerous than the hitchhikers themselves.
It was a doomed image that Thompson himself brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with his alter ego, Raoul Duke, and attorney Dr. Gonzo terrorizing a hitchhiker on the desert highway to Las Vegas, a place that we are ominously reminded as being the last known home of the Manson family.
In 1960, there was still a vestige of innocence and youthful optimism that had yet to be swept away by the tide of violence that would come to define the decade ahead. Upon his eventual arrival in San Francisco in October of that year, Thompson delighted in seeking out the North Beach haunts of the Beats, including the City Lights Bookshop owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the novelty of the city by the bay soon wore off and, once more, Thompson found himself cursing the pressures of city life. The task of finding accommodation was temporarily eased by his friend John Clancy offering him the use of his vacated apartment until the lease had expired. Clancy was moving across the bay to Berkeleyand so Thompson seized the opportunity with relish. Yet the perennial problem of employment once more reared its ugly head, with a soon-to-be despairing Thompson applying for everything from bartending to selling encyclopaedias. He was met with rejection across the board. When his application to the San Francisco Chronicle for work went completely unacknowledged, Thompson sent Editor Abe Mellinkoff an Orwellian put-down entitled “Down and Out in San Francisco”…
City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs – Republicans all…city of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window, and somehow it’s always enough – city, like all cities, of lonely women, lost souls, and people slowly going under. City of newspapers for Nixon (“careful now, don’t upset the balance of terror”)…where you talk with editors and news directors and creative directors and hear over and over again how easy and necessary it is to sell out…
There was now also a notable political edge seeping into Thompson’s writing, no doubt a reflection of the extraordinary political circus that was unfolding before an electrified nation – the first televised presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy.
Standing On the Edge of a New Frontier
With an average audience of some sixty million viewers, the four televised debates generated massive publicity and exposed the candidates to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. When the black and white images beamed across the country there was a stark contrast in appearance between the two contenders – Nixon was recovering from illness and appeared gaunt, not to mention ill at ease, while Kennedy was confident, energetic, and relaxed. It proved to be a pivotal moment in American politics that sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, culminating in Kennedy’s victory that November. Thompson would later point to the televised presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy as a moment of great importance in his political awakening:
That was when I first understood that the world of Ike and Nixon was vulnerable…and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten…and it had never occurred to me that politics in America had anything to do with human beings. It was Nixon’s game – a world of old hacks and legalized thievery, a never-ending drone of bad speeches and worse instincts…With Nixon as the only alternative, Kennedy was beautiful – whatever he was. It didn’t matter. The most important thing about Kennedy, to me and millions of others, was that his name wasn’t Nixon.
The power of television had permanently altered the nature of electoral campaigns, marking the end of the Eisenhower era, and ushering in the golden age of Kennedy’s Camelot. At the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles the previous July, where Kennedy had been formally selected as the presidential candidate, he delivered his acceptance speech from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where he first used the term “the New Frontier” to describe the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in the oncoming decade:
…I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free…Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment…we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s…The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.
In many ways, the 1960 presidential election was emblematic of an entire generational shift in the national psyche. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of his election as, “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” Indeed, this change would become a cultural tsunami that would sweep across the country over the coming decade, altering virtually every facet of the American way of life in the process. For many, the opening salvo in this transformation had actually been fired almost a year before Kennedy’s election. The incident in question occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College refused to leave a segregated lunch-counter in the local Woolworths store. The sit-in set off a wave of similar protests across the nation and became a defining moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Seemingly overnight, what had been bubbling underground for years, came rushing to the surface, but now the voice of protest, dissent, and rebellion had spread to form a multitude of different voices and groups, each with their own story and vision of change. In San Francisco that summer, protestors at City Hall adopted the sit-in as a non-violent approach to voicing their opposition to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but what started off as a peaceful event descended into a brutal confrontation with the police. Many of the attendees were students at nearby Berkeley University, which was becoming a hotbed of civil liberties activists, and such activism was rapidly spreading to other campuses. America was now bearing witness to the rise of what would become known as the New Left, whose underlying policy was to take to the streets and actively engage the opposition.
If action was the operating mantra, then no writer was more suitable to the call than Hunter S. Thompson, whose own work ethic operated on the same principle of shaping reality through action, and then writing about it. The road ahead for Thompson would prove to be as convoluted and challenging as that of the New Left, and while San Francisco would ultimately feature predominantly as a focal point for their respective endeavours, it had yet to deliver for Thompson as the year drew to a close. Tired of his fruitless quest for employment, his thoughts now rested solely on completing his Caribbean novel, but first he would have to settle on a suitable place that would facilitate such a commitment, and for a struggling writer in California there was really only one possible destination. Directly south of San Francisco, amidst the ancient redwood groves of the Santa Lucia Mountains and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lay a territory of legendary repute – Big Sur.
Fear and Loathing in the Garden of Agony
Thompson’s attraction to Big Sur was inevitable, given its hedonistic reputation as a haven for a motley crew of artists and social misfits. One name above all had become synonymous with the area and that was Henry Miller. Thompson had long been enthralled by the work of the notorious iconoclast, whose first published book, Tropic of Cancer, had been banned in the U.S. on the basis that its content was obscene and pornographic. Miller lived in Big Sur between 1944 and 1962, during which time he produced some of his most revered writing – including Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Unfortunately, Miller was absent for the entire duration of Thompson’s stay in Big Sur during 1961, having travelled to Europe for several months, leaving behind a notable void in the community. In the months that followed, that void was more than filled by Hunter S. Thompson, who made sure to leave behind an indelible mark as The Outlaw of Big Sur.
Thompson initially rented a small cabin, the kind of which were scattered all along the coastline, nestled in the shadows of Big Sur’s giant redwood forest. Here he was joined by girlfriend Sandy Conklin and, as usual, money was scarce. The couple survived on meagre supplies delivered on credit by the postman, as there was no accessible store within the vicinity. Never one to keep a low profile, Thompson was quick to reach out to the Big Surcommunity, in particular author Dennis Murphy, whose 1958 breakthrough novel The Sergeant had become an internationally acclaimed bestseller. Murphy was a native of Salinas, a small city just north of Big Sur and home to literary giant John Steinbeck, who had a close connection to the Murphy family. Steinbeck allegedly used Dennis and his brother, Michael, as the basis for Cal and Aron Trask in East of Eden. The Murphy family were prominent in Big Sur, where they operated a large retreat compound, famous for its natural hot spring steam baths. Here Dennis Murphy would play host to his friends, of whom several were prominent figures in the Beat movement. He was particularly close to Jack Kerouac, who lived for a period in nearby Bixby Canyon, in a small secluded cabin owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac was battling alcohol addiction at the time and recounted his experience in the autobiographical novel Big Sur. In many ways, the Murphy compound was the nerve centre for Big Sur’s artistic circle and Thompson’s inclusion in this scene was all but a matter of time.
In the end, it was actually Thompson’s financial situation that propelled him into the inner circle at thehot springs. Unable to afford the rent for his cabin, Thompson sought out cheaper accommodation, and was directed to the Murphy compound by Dick Rowan, a photographer friend that lived adjacent to the property. The compound itself was run by Dennis Murphy’s grandmother, who was looking to rent a small annex to the main ‘Big House,’ as the family home was known. At only $15 a month, it was ideal for Thompson, who was further delighted to be offered the position as caretaker to the entire property, with the main house being vacated by Mrs. Murphy periodically throughout the spring due to renovations being undertaken as part of an ambitious project to transform the compound. Thompson moved into the annex on February 1, 1961. Shortly thereafter, work began on what would become known as the Esalen Institute.
The brainchild of Michael Murphy and Dick Price, the Esalen Institute was envisaged as a centre “devoted to the exploration of human potential” where a select group of influential figures could “develop revolutionary ideas, transformative practices, and innovative art forms.” Focusing largely on the teachings of Eastern religions, philosophy, and psychology, notable participants included writers Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Ray Bradbury, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Campbell, the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesised LSD-25, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert. Throughout the sixties, Esalen would become a sort of countercultural Mecca, a focal point for the leading figures of the movement. Although Thompson’s arrival in Big Sur coincided with the genesis of Esalen, the spirit of personal growth and transformation had long been a feature of the community and it proved to be especially so for the burgeoning Gonzo Journalist.
Though he came to Big Sur to focus on writing “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” Thompson also continued to submit articles to newspapers and magazines in an effort to provide some form of income to support himself and Sandy for the duration of their stay. His big breakthrough came when he finally managed to break onto the national stage courtesy of Rogue magazine, who paid him $350 for his article entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,” a timely portrait of both Henry Miller’s life in Big Sur and the off-beat community that had built up around him. A month prior to the article’s publication, in September, 1961, a high profile obscenity trial had taken place surrounding the attempt by Grove Press to publish Tropic of Cancer for the first time in the United States. Anything connected to Miller, censorship, or pornography became a highly sensitive topic in a politically charged atmosphere across the nation. In light of this, it is ironic that not only was Thompson’s article published in a magazine that was a market rival of Playboy, but also that part of the article itself involved the disclosure of the somewhat controversial escapades of the Big Sur community.
In retrospect, the article is as illuminating of Thompson himself as it is of the subject matter. In many ways, Big Sur’s eccentric community and its enigmatic figurehead proved to be the ideal vehicle for Thompson, affording him the opportunity to exercise his flair for wild language, which melded seamlessly with the overall context of the piece itself – a perfect reflection of the spirit of anarchistic freedom that remained a constant association throughout Big Sur’s storied history, irrespective of the somewhat inflated truth:
If half the stories about Big Sur were true this place would long since have toppled into the sea, drowning enough madmen and degenerates to make a pontoon bridge of bodies all the way to Honolulu…The very earth itself would heave and retch in disgust – and down these long, rocky slopes would come a virtual cascade of nudists, queers, junkies, rapists, artists, fugitives, vagrants, thieves, lunatics, sadists, hermits and human chancres of every description.
Writing with absolutely unapologetic conviction, Thompson crafts a portrait of the Big Surway of life that zeroes in on the truth behind the myth, despite compromising his position in the community in the process. It was a dedication to the story that foreshadows much of his later work, particularly that of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and the manner in which he was unafraid to burn bridges in his pursuit of the real story hidden behind a web of political spin. In terms of the Big Sur myths, the first one that Thompson tackled was its reputation as a hell-raiser’s paradise, a wanton den of hedonistic pleasure straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thompson was unflinching in his appraisal that the reputation was not entirely unfair, though more likely as a result of the behaviour of the weekend visitor, pinpointing Murphy’s Hot Springs as being the central focus for thrill seekers of every persuasion:
During the day most people observe the partition that separates the men’s side from the women’s, but once the sun goes down the baths are as coeducational as a cathouse New Year’s Eve party, and often twice as wild. This is the glamorous side of Big Sur, the side that occasionally matches the myth – and none of it is hidden away in the hills, as a lot of people seem to think.
In his assessment of the long-term residents, he was even more provocative with his choice of words, describing the owner of the Big Sur Inn, Helmut Deetjan, as looking “more like a junkie than a lot of the hopheads who’ve been on the stuff for years.” Of Henry Miller’s personal secretary, Emil White, Thompson claimed that people frequently mistook him for “a hermit or a sex fiend.” Despite these inflammatory remarks, it is precisely these individuals who represent the otherBig Sur, a side that Thompson considered to be truly fascinating, particularly in relation to the almost pioneer-like sense of determination and independence that distinguished the long term residents from the ever-changing influx of tourists to the area. To reinforce this difference, he delves into the harsh reality of living in an isolated, lonely wilderness, which is so far removed from the norms of regular urban life that it takes a special kind of individual to truly tolerate Big Sur for any significant length of time. Having come toBig Sur and experienced this struggle for himself, Thompson made no attempt to gloss over the details, offering candid anecdotes that thoroughly dispel the romantic notion that life amongst the small bohemian colony served as an easy escape from the confines ofMiddle America. The majority of the individuals in this community were either artists or writers, who spent their time largely engrossed in their own work, unperturbed by the events of the outside world. Some even went so far as to be entirely self-sufficient, living off the land without so much as electricity. Having grown accustomed to living not only geographically, but also socially, apart from the rest of society, a tangible resistance to outsiders was prevalent amongst the group. Indeed, this is a sentiment to which Thompson repeatedly returned throughout the article, acknowledging the tension and distrust that existed between the community and uninvited visitors. In light of this observation, his decision to paint a thoroughly dysfunctional picture of Murphy’s Hot Springs in the closing paragraphs of the article proved to be a high risk manoeuvre. Not only was Thompson breaking the trust afforded to him by the community, but he was also undermining the Murphy family, who were in the process of launching the Esalen Institute. The image created by Thompson was precisely that which they had sought to leave behind:
This place is a real menagerie…There are only two legitimate wives on the property; the other females are either mistresses, “companions,” or hopeless losers…the late Dr. Murphy, conceived this place as a great health spa, a virtual bastion of decency and clean living. But something went wrong. During World War Two it became a haven for draft dodgers, and over the years it has evolved into a lonely campground for the morally deformed, a pandora’s box of human oddities, and a popular sinkhole of idle decadence.
The succinct but damning description firmly put Thompson on a collision course with his landlord, Vinnie Murphy, the matriarch of the Murphy family, which once more carried with it the inescapable sense that he was unable to exist harmoniously with any figure of authority. He did have a certain amount of breathing space before publication of the article, but his increasingly unpredictable and erratic behaviour in the intervening period ensured the prospect of a confrontation to be inevitable.
The Outlaw of Big Sur
The Big Sur article was a watershed moment for Thompson, revealing the changes developing within his writing, in conjunction with affording an insight into his ever-growing identification with individualist anarchism and the cult of personality. However, there is one particular statement from the article that is definitive in terms of illustrating the underlying reasoning behind the radical change in Thompson’s outward persona: “This place is a mythmaker’s paradise, so vast and so varied that the imagination is tempted to run wild at the sight of it.” Witnessing firsthand the fervour surrounding Henry Miller’s association with Big Sur was proof enough for Thompson that his statement was no simple theory. In writing of this phenomenon for Rogue magazine, Thompson creates a detailed portrait that illustrates the extent to which he understood the various factors that had elevated Miller from writer to icon. He had also witnessed the insatiable public appetite for more, with Big Sur constantly inundated by those who sought out the notorious writer, only to be met with something entirely unexpected:
They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.
None of this was lost on Thompson. Combined with the money and the confidence from successfully selling his article, he quickly embarked on his own relentless mythmaking strategy. To that end, the Big Sur wilderness proved to be the perfect setting for invoking the larger-than-life outlaw persona that would define his life and work.
The first to bear witness to this transformation in Thompson was the immediate community surrounding Murphy’s Hot Springs, where Thompson had embraced his role as caretaker with relish. Carrying a bullwhip and a truncheon as he patrolled the property, the darker confrontational aspect of his personality radiated an overt threat of violence that did not sit well with the more sedate, pacifist spirit of the larger community. One of the most notable figures that frowned upon his behaviour was Joan Baez, who had just released her self-titled debut album. In a way, the two figures represented the different sides to the Big Surenvironment, with Baez evoking the daytime tranquillity and peace amongst the towering Sequoia forest and Thompson representing the untamed violent underside of the night that ultimately governed survival in the wilderness. It was an opposition which ultimately proved to be the barrier that ensured that Thompson and Baez remained somewhat distant in their neighbourly relationship; the divide was far too ingrained for either of them to be able to bridge the gap. As Peter Whitmer noted in When the Going Gets Weird, Baez was “born into a legacy of pacifism in the same degree that Thompson was born into a legacy of Kentucky feudal violence.” It was also a division that would come to define the years ahead for both Thompson and his neighbour. Baez and many of the Big Sur community embraced that which would come to define the hippie generation – a peculiar smorgasbord of folk music, Eastern religion, psychedelic drugs, and non-violent protest. For Hunter S. Thompson it was a different path, one that would lead to riding with the Hell’s Angels and a trip to the very edge where the American Dream turned into the American Nightmare by way of the bomb and the bullet. That being the case, it was all too fitting that it was in Big Sur where he first seriously embraced what would become a lifelong obsession – guns.
Thompson liked nothing better than to punctuate the Big Sur serenity with drunken outbursts during the day and bouts of gunfire in the middle of the night, targeting raccoons with blasts from a twelve-gauge shotgun and simultaneously shattering his neighbours’ nerves in the process. The drunken antics were considered tolerable. The gunfire became a near constant in what was once a serene forest thanks to Thompson’s newest pastime, one that once more stemmed from his Hemingway fantasy – blood sport. Thompson’s accomplice, when it came to hunting down the game that inhabited the Big Sur wilderness, was a sculptor named Jo Hudson. Together, they soon acquired a less than flattering reputation. Whitmer explains,
The two men would pile into Jo’s car at night, stick a couple of beers between their legs, and load up the back with their dogs and go deer hunting. “The Senseless Killers Club” was what some called it – running down deer blinded by Hudson’s headlights on Route 1, or shooting wild boar that roamed the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Of course, making an impact, negative or otherwise, was what mattered, as was the feeling of not only matching his literary idols, but going one step further. Douglas Brinkley described Thompson’s tendency towards “sardonic one-upmanship,” and went on to add that “if Hemingway, rifle in hand, had hunted big game around Mt. Kilimanjaro, then Thompson would stalk wild boar with a Bowie knife in Big Sur.” To compound the distasteful manner in which their hunting sorties were viewed by the rest of the community, Thompson delighted in utilising various remnants from a wild boar kill for his own brand of practical joke. The severed heads of the animals turned up in a variety of locations, including the hot springs, much to the distress of the unfortunate victims of the act. Thompson never let an opportunity for street theatre to go to waste.
This impulse towards the theatrical is further evident in the manner in which Thompson began to mould his outlaw persona with a level of dedication befitting that of a method actor. With the money he received from Rogue magazine he immediately set about boosting his armoury, first by purchasing a .22 calibre pistol, followed swiftly by a .44 Magnum and a rifle. He said,
With the Rogue money I bought a pistol and a Doberman and a lot of whiskey, and now a man up the road has put the sheriff on me for shooting while drunk and keeping a vicious dog.
The .44 Magnum in particular would become an essential association for Thompson, remaining a constant part of the Hunterfigure image as renegade outlaw. Re-inforced through numerous references to it throughout his writing, it became a favoured prop when he was photographed. These new additions to his collection were not just for show. Thompson furthered his alienation from the community by first shooting out the windows of his own cabin and then using his neighbours’ windows as target practice. Twice he was spoken to by the sheriff about his violent behaviour, but it did little to alter his ways.
The most notable event during Thompson’s Big Sur tenure was undoubtedly his confrontation with a group of gay men who had made a habit of visiting Murphy’s Hot Springs on weekends. Soon their presence became a problem, with Michael Murphy and Dick Price wanting to put an end to the activity that was taking place there. They sought to establish the Esalen Institute, whose operating ethos did not include the use of the hot springs as an all-night party venue. As caretaker, it was Thompson’s duty to enforce the new rules and, in typical fashion, he set about doing so in a particularly over-the-top and menacingly theatrical manner. Whitmer explains,
“The Night of the Dobermans” is how locals recall it: a mad romp around the baths, maybe thirty or forty naked men doing whatever naked men who are willing to drive pink Cadillac’s all the way from L.A. or San Francisco to Big Sur are prone to do. Suddenly, above the boom of the surf, above the riot of their own partying, came the sound of pistol shots, the voice of Hunter Thompson, and enough canine snarling to ice their blood.
The following night, the group of men returned the favour. Thompson suffered a severe beating and only managed to escape being thrown off a cliff due to the intervention of his friend, Maxine Ambus. When Thompson retreated to the sanctuary of his cabin for the rest of the night, he made sure to voice his displeasure at the incident in his own particular manner of expression. Again, from Whitmer,
For the rest of the night he punctuated the silence of Big Sur with rifle shot fired through his unopened window. In the morning, Murphy looked out to find a horizontal line of bullet holes, and Thompson’s clothes hung on the line. “They were stiff as a board with blood,” Murphy said.
Thompson was quick to capitalise on the balance of terror that he maintained with the local community in Big Sur, regaling his friends with letters concerning his daily strife in a manner that not only bears many of the hallmarks of Gonzo Journalism, but also illustrates an effort to stage-manage his life in order to project the requisite image. Brinkley said,
It is clear from the letters that Thompson deliberately cultivated himself as the American Adam, a figure defined by critic R.W.B Lewis as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
This marriage between the image that he was fostering in his writing, one that both reflected and simultaneously informed his way of life, is also evident in his photography from this period. The central emphasis is, of course, that which was also conveyed throughout his writing, that of the Hunterfigure as an outlaw, the rugged individualist and writer juxtaposed with the frontier-like vast wilderness of Big Sur. The most powerful of these images captures Thompson, pipe in mouth, typing at a small table overlooking the plunging cliffs of the Big Sur coastline. Another shows him surveying the view with a telescope, with a rifle by his side, accompanied by Agar, his Doberman. Hunting is a prominent theme, with many photographs capturing his boar-hunting exploits. One particular photo of the hanging carcass of a boar features Thompson’s handwriting on the reverse. It simply states – “Joan Baez butchering hogs – Big Sur 1961.” When he submitted various photographs in conjunction with an article, Thompson provided various explanations for each image. For a group shot Thompson identifies Jo Hudson as “yachtsman and big-game hunter,” John Clancy, “now a SF lawyer,” with Sandy described as “then private secretary and constant companion to Big Sur’s most prominent thug.” Another similar image, this one actually including Thompson himself, is captioned – “More of same. Foreground is the thug – in this case, the author.” In retrospect, these are the first photographs of Thompson in the guise of his literary alter ego.
Though clearly happy to promote this image and, indeed, live up to the name, Thompson knew that he was making life difficult for himself in the community. It was a pattern that dominated his life ever since his youth in Louisville. A copy of Rogue magazine containing Thompson’s article on Big Sur had made its way to Vinnie Murphy, the eighty-nine year old matriarch of the family and owner of the hot springs. She did not appreciate Thompson’s description of the antics at the baths, particularly his disclosure of its popularity as a homosexual rendezvous point. Thompson was given one month to leave the property. Though hardly a stranger to receiving an eviction notice, in Big Sur it proved to be a particularly difficult problem for Thompson to resolve. The Rogue article mentioned a number of other members of the community, who were similarly none too pleased by the article’s content. Finding a new property to rent proved to be impossible. It was clear that Thompson’s time in Big Sur had come to an end in a manner that could only serve to highlight the extent of his outsider status. Whitmer explained,
In his expulsion from Big Sur, Thompson was cast out of a community of castaways; even with an international reputation as a pornographer, Henry Miller had been welcomed here with open arms. Thompson seemed to be taking iconoclasm to new heights.
Big Sur had more than lived up to its reputation as a place of personal growth and transformation. For Hunter S. Thompson the untamed wilderness and the inherent freedom that it afforded represented an America that was increasingly under threat. Though he left Big Sur for pastures new, it is no coincidence that Thompson eventually settled in Woody Creek, Colorado. His “fortified compound” in the Rocky Mountains spoke to his romantic sensibilities, fitting perfectly with his image of the outlaw individualist. Free from the constraints of city life, it was a place where he could be the master of his own domain. It was this same wild nature and inclination to challenge the dominant and established power structures that also enabled Thompson to break free from the existing literary rules and establish his own unique genre of Gonzo Journalism. Beyond this, it often boiled down to appreciating the simple things in life – like being able to walk outside, stark naked, to fire your .44 Magnum at targets on the hillside before loading up on mescaline and blasting “White Rabbit” at 110 decibels while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide – and not get arrested.
Perry, Paul (1992) Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S.
Thompson. New York: Avalon.
Thompson, Hunter S. (2001). Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey
of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 2]. London:
Thompson, Hunter S. (2006). Gonzo. Los Angeles: AMMO
Thompson, Hunter S. (1992). Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the
American Dream [Gonzo Papers, vol. 3]. London: Picador.
Thompson, Hunter S. (1997). The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern
Gentleman, 1955-1967 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 1]. New York: Villard.
Whitmer, Peter O. (2000) When The Going Gets Weird. Princeton: POW.
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 9
They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’. Continue Reading…
R. R. Reno
The road dominates the American imagination, from the Oregon Trail to Route 66. That strange, in-between time of escape, freedom, and adventure: On The Road, you leave behind all the ordinary routines and demands. Still, I was surprised when my daughter was assigned On The Road in her high-school English class. Kerouac’s frenetic novel seemed less obvious a choice than Moby Dick and less safe a choice than To Kill a Mockingbird.
But I soon discovered that daughter’s assignment reflects a new consensus about American literature. The Library of America series put out a Kerouac volume last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On The Road in 1957. A number of other books devoted to Kerouac and On The Road hit the shelves of the big bookstore chains. Literary journals published retrospectives. These signs point to a remarkable fact: Jack Kerouac’s evocation of the rag-tag beatnik culture of his day has entered the canon of Great American Novels.
On The Road is a thinly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s road trips in the late 1940s. A talented working-class kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was recruited to play football at Columbia University in 1941. After two years he dropped out to become a writer, living in New York as the proverbial struggling artist.
It was there he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and other poets, writers, and wandering souls. Kerouac dubbed his little group the Beats. The name came from a slang term for down and out, but, when applied to the literary crowd, it came to capture the ragged, free-spirited existence of those who live on the edges of society. After the traumas of the great Depression and World War II, the vast majority of Americans eagerly returned to the relative stability of middle-class life, now reaching outward to the newly emerging suburbs. The Beats were the first wave of rebellion against this larger trend. They self-consciously set themselves against the postwar push toward normalcy by surviving on odd jobs, G.I. benefits, and donations from friends and family.
On The Road opens in this New York scene of aspiring poets, writers and seekers. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is trying to make his way as a young writer. But life has become suffused with the “feeling that everything was dead.” (In real life, Kerouac’s father died in 1946). The would-be young sages have reached various dead ends. “All my New York friends,” Sal reports, “were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons.”
But a new possibility appears when there arrives in town a man named Dean Moriarty — based on Neal Cassady, a charismatic personality of great importance in the history of the Beats. Abandoned child of a drunk in Denver, sometime resident of reform schools, and con man, Dean is a man of unaccountable energies and appetites. The incarnation of pure American freedom, he casts his spell over Sal’s circle of friends. His zest of life galvanizes the seeking literary types living in dank walk-ups in Manhattan. But Dean leaves, and in leaving, he becomes the lure that draws Sal out of New York and onto the road.
The body of the novel is divided into four main road trips, three crossing and re-crossing the United Sates, and the fourth from Denver down to Mexico City. Sal narrates his adventures in the fast-paced fashion of this happened and then that happened. He meets oddball characters. There are numerous stops and side adventures. And yet, the story comes quickly to focus on Dean. No matter where the road leads, it inevitably involves finding Dean, being found by Dean, launching out on cross-country drives with Dean, partying all night with Dean, and finally, in Mexico City, being abandoned by Dean.
Kerouac is not subtle about Dean’s role. Although Dean steals without hesitation, cheats on his women, ignores his children, and abandons Sal when he is sick, Dean has “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.” “Behind him charred ruins smoked,” the narrator tells the reader, but Dean rises out of the chaos he creates with a “ragged W.C. Fields saintliness.” Soaked in sweat, muddy, and reeking of urine, Dean radiates “the purity of the road.” Despite Dean’s erratic, destructive, and selfish behavior, Kerouac describes his achievement with clarity: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness — everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” The quintessential free spirit, he has the power to turn his back on all the hindering limitation that ordinary folks feel so acutely, the most limiting of which are moral conventions. “The thing,” he preaches, “is not to get hung up.”
As Kerouac tells us in a moment of revelation, “I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint.” The rhetoric of holiness so closely combined with sordid behavior can outrage the pious reader of On The Road, but it should not surprise. Kerouac is following a long literary tradition of juxtaposing high and low, sacred and profane, noble and base. Sal writes in order to convey his “reverent mad feelings.” Dean is angelic in his “rages and furies,” and Sal records that, in a night of revelry, “Dean became frantically and demonically and seraphically drunk.” Dean is a con man and a wise man, a mystical lecher, a debauched embodiment of spiritual purity.
The problem of happiness is at once social and existential. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed early in the modern era, social expectations alienate. The examples are many. Good manners dictate saying “thank you” even when we are not truly grateful. Prudence and anxiety — about the dire consequences of poverty encourage us to save for the future and resist the temptation to spend for the pleasures of the moment. Conventional morality condemns as sinful those actions that are based on some of the immediate sexual desires of men and women. In each case, and in countless others, what we think and feel and want are at odds with what is expected.
Rousseau was a complicated thinker. His theory of the social contract can give the impression that he endorses the classical picture of happiness as socialization into a community of virtue. But in his influential dramatizations of the good life, Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise, he outlined a new approach. Those who wish to live well must break the charm of social conventions so that they can live according to their truest impulses and innermost desires.
The bohemians followed Rousseau’s advice in nineteenth-century Paris. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were New World bohemians, and in the twentieth century the tenements of Greenwich Village became an important center of American bohemian life. The personalities, motivations, and literary movements were different in each case, but they all viewed the rigid social and moral conventions of respectable society as impoverishing and unnecessary.
Rousseau’s counsel and the bohemian approach to life can seem an easy hedonism, but it never has been, or at least never merely. Rousseau knew that man is a social animal. We are hardwired to want to live in accord with social conventions. As a result, any sort of deviance that is intentional rather than pathological has a heroic magnificence — a status Rousseau proudly assigned to himself. Not surprisingly, then, one of the signal features of the bohemian project has been a celebration of transgression for its own sake. Those who break the rules — whether artistic, literary, or moral –gain the most admiration, because they have demonstrated their self-willed freedom from society.
The Beats were quintessential bohemians who felt the plain-Jane expectations of middle-class American life as an infecting, constraining force. Wife, career, mortgage, children, savings accounts, and quiet suburban streets: These were realities overlaid by the deadening expectations of conventional morality. Escape was essential, and, although Kerouac and the other Beats lacked Rousseau’s clarity about the constant impulse of human nature to accept and submit to social authority, they intuitively recognized the need for dramatic acts and symbols of transgression.
All of this makes it wrong to read On The Road as a story of adolescent self-indulgence and thrill-seeking. Just as St. Francis tore off his clothes in the city square and rejected life according to normal hopes and fears, so Dean is a man entirely outside society. His criminality is not motivated by a mean desire for money. He does not steal cars to sell them, for that would simply be a dishonest way of getting the equivalent of a regular paycheck. Dean commits crimes because it is in his nature to grab whatever is at hand to enjoy the moment. His transgressions, Kerouac tells us, were all part of “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy.”
Dean wants to live, and, as Jesus advises, he worries not about the morrow while he pops pills, smokes joints, and downs shots of whiskey. In his conscienceless carelessness, Dean is angelic. “He was BEAT — the root, the soul of Beatific,” living in the moment, one tap of the cymbal at a time.
In 1957, the New York Times review hailed the novel’s publication as “a historic occasion.” The review trumpeted that On The Road offers “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” Of course, as David Brooks so cleverly observed in Bobos in Paradise, we’re all weekend beatniks now. The counterculture of transgression that dominates On The Road has thoroughly colonized our middle-class world.
Transgression and marginality have become the new normalcy. The bohemian rejection of social convention was first theorized as a normal stage of psychological development (“adolescent rebellion”), and more recently it has been made into both commercial fashions and academic dogma. Aging rock musicians go on tours and play their songs of youthful lust and rebellion to graying Baby Boomers who need Viagra. College professors theorize transgression as an act of political freedom. It’s easy to see that Kerouac road that leads from the Beat fantasies of primal innocence to our own day, where white boys from the suburbs dress like drug dealers, girls like prostitutes, and millionaires like dock workers. Crotch-grabbing rap singers play the role of well-paid Dean Moriartys.
Perhaps that’s why some critics think of On The Road as simply early propaganda for our current culture. Writing in the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels argues that Kerouac “was a harbinger” of an age “in which every intelligent person was expected, and came himself to expect, to forge his own soul unguided by the wisdom of his ancestors.” We care about Kerouac, Daniels claims, only “because he was a prophet of immaturity.” “To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor,” Daniels adds. The book’s significance “is sociological rather than literary.” And then with a hauteur one expects from the New Criterion, he concludes, “The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.”
I don’t dispute that Kerouac’s accounts of beatnik life inspired the adolescent rebellion in the 1960s which eventually became the perpetual adolescence of our own times. But Daniels seems wrong, both about what On The Road says culturally and about what it achieves as a work of literature.
Kerouac was not a writer who anticipated the 1960s, which, in fact, he disliked and denounced before his premature death in 1969. He does not treat the road as a path into the supposedly real self, nor does it lead toward an imagined better society. On The Road disparages “the complacent Reichiananlyzed ecstasy” of progressive folks in San Francisco. It expresses no confidence that heroin or marijuana or whiskey bring us to some hidden truth about our souls. The novel is noticeably uninterested in social or economic utopias. There are no communes, no health-food cooperatives, no late-night meetings to talk about revolution.
On the contrary, Kerouac focuses on the disordered, episodic, and chaotic nature of his experiences. He seems less a prophet of any particular way of life than an observer of the inconclusive thrusts of bohemian desire for authentic life — and the counter-thrusts of reality. Sal despairs of “the senseless nightmare road.” Faced with embittered friends, Sal tells us, “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” The sentiment is resignation, not sybaritic self-indulgence. “Everything,” Sal recalls, “was collapsing” as Dean’s aimless antics lead to a dead end. Sal follows Dean, but the promises of the moment seem always broken soon after they are made. While traveling, Sal recalls a lonely song with a telling refrain: “Home I’ll never be.”
Kerouac ambivalence is not just a matter of clashing emotions that come from the highs and lows of life On The Road. The book is forever careening forward, and the story never rests in any particular observation or experience. Kerouac lists the towns that Dean drives through at high speeds —Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Pueblo, Walsenberg, Trinidad: Transition and movement agitate the novel and the reader.
Kerouac’s accounts of his experiences are either catalogues of indigestible detail or surreal sketches. On one page Sal is drunk in a San Francisco restaurant. A page or two later he is on a bus where he meets a Mexican girl and falls in love. Only a few pages further he abandons her to make his way back to New York. The novel does not develop. It tumbles. The rat-tat-tat of narration, the quick snapshots of local color, and the raw emotions recalled give the story a feeling of restless seeking rather than sustained introspection, philosophical coherence, or careful social analysis.
This overall literary effect was not accidental. Kerouac took his trips with the self-conscious goal of gathering material for a novel. For a couple of years he struggled with numerous drafts, always unsatisfied with the results. In April 1951, Kerouac decided to begin again. This time he taped together several twelve-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, trimmed to fit into his typewriter as a continuous roll. In three weeks he typed the entire story from beginning to end as one long paragraph on the single scroll of paper.
The marathon performance became something of a legend, and it was romanticized by Kerouac himself as part of his later theory of “spontaneous writing.” And yet, the approach was not a cheap publicity stunt. As Louis Menand has observed, the taped-together sheets of paper constrained and disciplined Kerouac. The scroll prevented the sort of deepening of theme, character, motive, and experience that comes with circling back to revise. Kerouac did revise later, but mainly to consolidate and simplify the various road trips into a more manageable form. He did not introduce layers of authorial reflection into the relentless flow of events and personalities.
As a result, On The Road does not emerge as a bohemian manifesto with a clear agenda or as an existentially deep reflection on the inner life of a counter-cultural hero. The Beat lingo is omnipresent, and its slogans, aspirations, and hopes are plainly in view. Dean Moriarty is certainly a high priest of transgression. But because all these elements of the narrative cascade through the pages, nothing stands out to sum up or interpret events. The details — and especially the dated existentialist slogans and Beat truisms — fall away because they fall behind. Prose racing forward, the road simply becomes a desperate, necessary, ancient quest for what Kerouac describes in a number of places as “the pearl.”
That feeling — of straining, desperate, and failed seeking — does not define the world we live in today. Our tattooed adolescents enjoy small pleasures of rebellion and collect the socially approved badges of nonconformity. Our literature is dominated by the languid Iowa Writers Workshop style: carefully wrought set pieces to accompany our studied and carefully constructed self-images. On The Road may have given us our clichés about authenticity, but not our quiescence — not our postmodern roles as managers of difference, not the temperate transgressions on which we insist as middle-class Americans.
The self-congratulation of the 1960s is entirely absent from On The Road. Kerouac does not compliment himself as a rebel after the fashion of Hunter S. Thompson. He is no Hugh Hefner posing as a heroic hedonist. Many scenes are debauched, but Kerouac does not tote up his demerits, like a high-school boy bragging about how many beers he drank. The book expresses hunger and never satisfaction, not even in its own countercultural image. “I had nothing to offer anyone,” Kerouac writes in a line that sums up the effect of the whole book, “but my own confusion.”
There is, however, an unexpected, subtle relevance, one that testifies to Kerouac’s achievement as a writer rather than his influence as a legendary member of the Beat generation. Sal consistently conveys notes of sadness that grow ever more palpable as the book draws to an end. One drunken episode brings not good times but instead memories of an earlier, urine-soaked and unconscious night on the floor of a men’s room. The road of transgressive freedom seems haunted by defilement. Sal’s final visions in Mexico City do not come from any high at all, but instead from fever-induced delusions as Dean leaves him. Sickness and abandonment take the place of the promised adventure and fellowship of the road.
Most poignantly of all, the novel opens with voluble talk about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Proust, but it concludes with Dean’s strange, incoherent effusions. By the end, Sal tells us, “He couldn’t talk any more. He hopped and laughed, he stuttered and fluttered his hands and said, ‘Ah–ha – you must listen to hear.’ We listened, all ears. But he forgot what he wanted to say.” Dean’s mind is so fried by drugs and alcohol that he can no longer carry on a conversation. The seraphic mystic of “pure love” becomes a mute oracle. The great bohemian guru can no longer offer guidance. One feels the need for the road in Kerouac’s forward-leaning prose. But the reader also feels the failure. “I think of Dean Moriarty,” Sal the narrator writes in his final line, “I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found.” Then, as if wishing to ward off the demons of emptiness and loss, Sal repeats, “I think of Dean Moriarty.”
The sad sense of failure and decay of On The Road strike me as far more contemporary than the revelry and debauchery of the novel. We have not inherited Dean’s “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy,” nor have we found our way to the “joy of pure being.” True enough, we smile and congratulate ourselves for our progressive attitudes as we accommodate ourselves to a society committed to embracing any number of strange “lifestyle choices.” But on the whole, our culture seems dominated by worries. The media lust for bad tidings, as if to insist that we must suffer for failing to find the pearl of great price. At leading universities, one can be forgiven for concluding that our academic leaders believe that Western culture does not deserve to thrive or even to survive — a thought held even as they ride along the surfaces of a remarkable social tolerance, born of our tacit affirmation of the transgressive beatitude of Dean Moriarty.
It is as if we very much want to believe in Dean, but, like Sal at the end of On The Road, we know we cannot rely on him to give us guidance. We want to believe the promises of bohemian life — to live according to our own innermost selves — but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive heroism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disappointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the countercultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions.
I do not claim that Jack Kerouac was a great writer, but Kerouac’s lasting achievement in On The Road is beyond doubt. The manic, forward-leaning rush of Kerouac prose drives his writerly ego to the margins of the narrative. This allows the novel to depict the bohemian project rather than offer a statement of its goals or summary of its philosophy or airbrushed picture of its heroism. Kerouac was a witness to the Beat generation, not its poet or spokesman or philosopher king.
It is stultifying to approach literature always expecting moral instruction in the form of ready and true principles for how to live. And it is absurd to reject Kerouac simply on the grounds that he fails to teach sound morals. Literature can instruct at a deeper level. Literature can show us how and where our human particularity overfloods our moral ideals.
And when it does, readers are left to navigate on their own — to test, as it were, the sufficiency of their own moral resources to make sense of the strange, pulsing, living, and almost always perverted and confused realities of human life.
So it was for me the first time I read On The Road more than twenty-five years ago. A bohemian fellow traveler of sorts, I had already been on my own road, hitchhiking many times across America. The book had a paradoxically sobering effect as I read it one day on the front porch of a hostel in France, outside of Chamonix, overlooking a meadow in late spring bloom. When I finished I felt a judgment on my Emersonian fantasies of originality. My small efforts to escape from the safe streets and calm kitchens of middle-class America were, I learned, part of an old story. I was going down an often-walked road with my emblematic backpack and blue jeans and torn T-shirt. I felt like a suburban explorer who suddenly realizes that the nearby forest is not the Amazonian jungle.
More slowly and more unconsciously, I also felt the sadness: the incoherent babbling of Dean Moriarty, the sulfurous red dawns that always seemed to follow the all-night reveries, the way in which what Sal wanted seemed to slip from his hands, the mute indifference of the great American landscape that Kerouac evokes so passionately, the hard asphalt of the road itself.
Kerouac’s manic rush of prose lays bare his own ambivalence and self-contradiction. He did not package the bohemian experience with a peace symbol and the earnest pose of a young revolutionary of high moral purpose. He told a story that forces us to consult our moral compass. He helps us see that Dean Moriarty, the antimomian shaman of the American imagination, achieves no beatitude and has no blessings to give.
You can reach Dr. Reno by email at Reno@Creighton.edu
This issue has a “travel” theme. We have a long essay examining the journeys taken by each member of the Beat generation, as well as special features on Tangier (a Beat travel hotspot!) and the roaming of Hunter S. Thompson.
We have some amazing short stories by Edaurdo Jones, Brin Friesen and Omar Zingaro Bhatia, as well as a special, world-premier of “SISTERS” – a never before seen short story by Alene Lee (Mardou Fox from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road).
Finally, as a lead-in to next month’s “music” special, we have an interview with the legendary British hip-hop star, Scroobius Pip.