I work a solitary Burroughs-type job where I don’t do anything much but look out a window. I can’t read or write there, so the only thing I do is think, think about people, and pray, pray for another job. I think about the Beats because I read a great deal of Beat literature. I’ve read so much that I feel I know each personally. Being it was All Saints Day and then All Souls Day, and I had nothing else to do, I prayed for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
Archives For William S. Burroughs
In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”
— William Burroughs,
William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self. Continue Reading…
The new issue of Beatdom is now on sale!!! You can buy it HERE.
The Burroughs Millions – David S. Wills
The Debt Collector – Neil Randall
Herbert Huncke Excerpt – Hilary Holladay
Finding Ferlinghetti – Calvin White
Ginsberg in the Underground: Whitman, Rimbaud and Visions of Blake – Delilah Gardner
Nothing is Perfect – Bob Pope
A Negative Score on the Happiness List: The Economics of Hustling in Bonnie Bremser’s For Love of Ray – Katie Stewart
The American Dreamer Goes the Way of the American Hobo – Gina Stritch
Telling All The Road – Max Bakke
Review: At the End of the Road
Beaten White – Alyssa Cokinis
The Surrealist – Brandon Lee
Review: The Whole Shot
Reconsidering Kerouac a Half-Century Later – Richard Kostelanetz
Cover by Waylon Bacon
“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history.
Last month, however, came the biggest event of them all. It was a shockwave that passed quickly through not only the Beat studies community, but the literary world as a whole. The fabled Joan Anderson Letter – thought to be the origin of Jack Kerouac’s bop spontaneous prose style, and until now considered lost at sea – was found and quickly put up for auction. The buzz spread far beyond the various online Kerouac communities to newspapers around the globe, and for seemingly good reason. It seemed hard to understate the importance of this letter in Beat history, but also, by proxy, its significance upon Western culture. It was considered the missing link, or even the Holy Grail, of Beat studies.
The story goes that the letter was a breakthrough for Jack Kerouac, who, when it was composed, was struggling with the genesis of what would become his most famous work, and one of the most important novels in American history, On the Road. On December 17th, 1950, Neal Cassady wrote Kerouac a letter that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would later refer to as “the Joan Anderson letter” due to a passage within that referred to a woman Cassady had slept with. The confessional style of Cassady’s writing was influential over the recipient, who would put down the “original scroll” version of On the Road only a few months later, in April, 1951. When, in 1965, he was asked about the origins of the book’s style, Kerouac explained, “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names.”
Kerouac, ever interested in mythologizing, and in creating and maintaining the image of Cassady as some immaculate saint, went on to call it “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.” Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.” Ginsberg was equally enthusiastic, writing to Cassady in March, 1951: “I am impressed and astonished at the magnitude of the work that you have done in the Joan Story, which seems to me an almost pure masterpiece.”
It would seem that On the Road couldn’t have been written without the Joan Anderson letter. Without On the Road, the face of Western culture – or at least counterculture – over the next half century would be staggeringly different. It changed everything, giving rise to the hitch-hiking, hedonistic youth of the sixties, and by consequence influencing so much of our literature, music, and film thereafter. And, according to Kerouac’s own claims, all that seemed to have stemmed from Cassady’s letter.
Although part of the letter was transcribed – possibly by Kerouac or Ginsberg – and published posthumously in Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third, the entire letter went missing and was presumed lost. Naturally, this added to its mystique. The sacred text that Kerouac claimed to have been the greatest thing ever written, and the central piece in the creation of one of the most important novels in recent history, was apparently – and befitting such an epic tale – lost at sea. The story goes that Kerouac leant the letter to Ginsberg, who gave it to the literary agent, Gerd Stern (who helped publish William S. Burroughs’ Junky) in 1955. Later they claimed that Stern had been reading it on a houseboat when it had gone overboard and into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, lost forever. The greatest words ever assembled on paper were washed away, never to be read by another soul. Kerouac chastised Ginsberg, and Ginsberg blamed Stern, and Stern insisted that he’d returned it to Ginsberg. According to Jerry Cimino, curator of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, Stern was pleading his innocence for decades, and claimed that Ginsberg admitted fault later in life.
However, as Stern always maintained, he had returned the letter to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg had sent it elsewhere. In fact, he had sent it to Richard Emerson at Golden Goose Press. The letter remained unread and, shortly after, Emerson closed the press and sent his archives to a friend. About two years ago, Jean Spinosa – the daughter of Emerson’s associate – found the letter in her father’s Oakland home, and last month she announced that it would go to auction through the Profiles in History auction house. The Holy Goof’s Holy Grail had been discovered.
Immediately there was a tremendous amount of speculation regarding its fate. The scroll version of On the Road was purchased by Jim Irsay in 2001 for $2.43 million, and so, given the perceived importance of the Joan Anderson Letter, it would surely fetch a sizeable sum. However, for most Beat fans, the greatest question lay in whether or not they would eventually get to read what Kerouac had claimed to be the best writing in American history – the magical 16,000 words that inspired On the Road. Cimino quickly started a crowdfunding venture in an attempt to secure its purchase for the Beat Museum. This move proved popular among online Beat communities, quickly raising more than $7,000 towards its $500,000 target, as it would place the artifact in trustworthy hands and ensure it was published rather than kept in a private collection.
Alas, perhaps predictably, both the Cassady and Kerouac estates entered into the fray and had the auction indefinitely postponed. The Kerouac estate claims ownership over the physical letter while the Cassady estate merely contends that they own the copyright to the words, while they would be content to allow Spinosa to continue with the auction. In any case, with such a large sum of money and such an important piece of literary history hanging in the balance, it is unclear what will happen. The legal situation is somewhat difficult to determine, too. Who exactly owns the letter? Cassady wrote it, but wrote it for Kerouac. It was sent to Kerouac, but Kerouac gave it away to Ginsberg. Ginsberg sent it to Golden Goose Press, and from there is ended up with Jean Spinosa… Surely, then even the Allen Ginsberg Estate has a claim for ownership of the letter!
In any case, the letter is now stuck in legal limbo until the lawyers have had their say, and we can all just hope that it is resolved amicably and with due consideration to its value as an historical document deserving of public display.
Regardless of the present situation, it would seem that the letter is invaluable, as a part of Beat history almost as important as the scroll itself. Yet Beat fans and scholars are often guilty of perpetuating myths, and in order to take the movement seriously, one needs to be critical and ask questions that are often unpleasant and now it is time that we ask whether the letter was as important as Kerouac claimed. We need to acknowledge that Kerouac’s obsession with Cassady often blinded him to his friend’s flaws, and that Cassady was far from a saint. Indeed, it hard to imagine the contents of the letter – once published – living up to the hype. After so many years and after such a staggering twist in the tale, it truly would need to be, as Kerouac claimed, one of the best pieces of writing in American history. Yet while Kerouac touted it as of unimaginable importance, he was unable to recall even its length – placing it at 40,000 words, rather than 16,000. This is indicative of his propensity to exaggeration, and we should not so readily fall into the trap of believe his every word. Too much of Beat biography already comes from Beat fiction.
Furthermore, as Ann Charters explained, firstly in Brother-Souls and later to the New York Times, Cassady had received a letter from John Clellon Holmes only ten days prior to writing the Joan Anderson Letter. This was known as the Fay Kenney Letter, and it elicited much the same response from Cassady as Kerouac displayed to Neal’s. “Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-EEEE, a real whiz of a letter!” Cassady replied to Holmes, before penning his own imitation. Indeed, Cassady’s was not only similar in terms of content, but also in regards its style. That would then take some of the burden of responsibility off Cassady and place it on another of Kerouac’s friend, Holmes, whose own novel on the Beat Generation, Go, was published in 1953. John Tytell, in The Beat Interviews, noted that Holmes had viewed the On the Road scroll in 1951 and more or less copied the content, minus the style, for his own book. It is bizarre to think, then, that Kerouac may have inadvertently copied Holmes’ style himself, before Holmes took Kerouac’s book and dropped the style that he created… In any case, in addition to the conflated lineage of style Holmes may also be partly responsible for Kerouac’s gushing praise over the letter, as Charters suggests that Holmes’ lack of enthusiasm for Cassady’s letter may have contributed to a childish defensiveness that pushed Kerouac further into his Cassasdy myth-making.
Joyce Johnson believes that there is altogether far too much importance placed upon the influence of Neal Cassady in Kerouac’s work – even if that largely stemmed from Kerouac’s own words. In her latest book, The Voice is All, and in an e-mail to Beatdom, she stated that Kerouac’s opus was the result of countless years of hard work, rather than simply an epiphany after reading Cassady’s letter. Such a view, she believes, is typical of a tendency to downplay Kerouac’s intelligence and ability, and she places the blame firmly at the feet of the Sampas family, whose reluctance to grant access to the archives for so many years resulted in sub-par scholarship based upon assumption and myth. She argues that Kerouac’s original versions of On the Road featured Cassady-like characters before he’d even met Cassady, and that these originated with his reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night in 1945. “While the Neal Cassady legend, along with the notion that Jack dashed off OTR in only three weeks, has always fascinated Jack’s fans, it has contributed to the lack of respect for Jack’s contribution to American literature,” she points out.
Regarding the letter, Johnson explains:
Unfortunately, what gets lost in all the discussion about the importance of the letter is the real story of the many years of grueling work and abandoned trial efforts that led the way to the writing of On the Road. While Cassady definitely deserves some credit, he is given far too much, and Kerouac, as usual, is given far too little for his artistry, imagination and dedication.
Until the spring of 1951, Jack resisted writing in the first-person. All the discarded versions of OTR had omniscient third–person narrators. When he received the Joan Anderson letter in December 1950, Jack immediately felt inspired to write Neal a series of memoir-like letters about the death of his brother Gerard. But the powerful voice he unleashed in those letters had appeared before in passages in his journals–Jack had been capable for years of writing that way but had held back in his fiction. This may have had a good deal to do with his ambivalent feelings about his Franco-American identity, his determination to master his second language, which was English, and to suppress the French in which he thought. Between the summer of 1950 and the spring of 1951, one abortive version of OTR followed another, and out of desperation Jack even attempted to write one in French. But then, in March 1951, he put OTR aside and wrote the novella La Nuit Est Ma Femme about an unsuccessful Franco-American writer named Michele Bretagne, who was never able to hold a job because of his need to write. Writing in French, in the first-person, Jack gave Bretagne a direct, conversational voice that was strikingly similar to the one he would give Sal Paradise. Having found the voice he was looking for, Jack was finally able to write OTR–a book that would incorporate some episodes and passages from discarded manuscripts.
Looking beyond its influence over Kerouac and to its importance as a piece of literature, we must also avoid being carried away by Kerouac’s enthusiasm, or Ginsberg’s, for that matter. While it was Ginsberg who leant the letter to Stern, and Ginsberg who sent it to Golden Goose, and who even called it a “masterpiece,” the poet was also of the opinion that it could not be published in its original state. It was, he believed, unfinished. He also had criticism about its use of language and sound, which he seemed to consider easily fixed. In any case, while the Beat Generation has long been associated with the notion of “first thought, best thought,” and their work characterized as hastily composed and unedited in its published form, this has been proven false, and had Ginsberg succeeded in finding a publisher for the letter, it surely would’ve been finished and fixed before going to print.
The Joan Anderson Letter is then hard to separate from the myth that has long-surrounded it. In books about the Beat Generation it is simply referred to as the letter that made everything fall into place for Kerouac, yet the scholars cannot place its word count, page count, or exact content – despite often writing as though they had studied the letter in detail. Even now that it has risen from its watery grave, it is in some ways a productive of the myth-making Beat Generation, and we need to examine it fairly and reasonably in order to give it any genuine sense of importance. From the stories Kerouac and Ginsberg spun about their friends and the hopeless praise they bestowed upon one another, to the persona Burroughs created for himself, it was a movement based upon legends which are freely parroted by biographers and journalists, and it has continued to hold sway over its readers largely for the same reason. Now that the story about its disappearance has been proven as a fiction, we must look carefully at the letter itself. Kerouac may be known as the great rememberer, but he was also rather loose with the truth, and it would be sensible to avoid further perpetuating myth by taking his words for granted. None of this means we should ignore the letter by any means, but rather that we should be skeptical and not be carried away by the excitement of its discovery.
 Over the years, Kerouac would compared Cassady’s writing, and in particular this letter, to Proust, Twain, Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Celine, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, and Dreiser.
 Carolyn Cassady, in a phrase that foreshadows the false story about the letter’s disappearance, observed that Kerouac had gone “overboard” in his praise for Cassady’s writing, and astutely observed that Kerouac simply could not see the flaws in his friend’s writing.
 It should be noted here, if not elsewhere, that both Kerouac and Ginsberg were tireless in heaping praise upon the work of their close friends, and terribly liberal in their use of grand comparisons to history’s finest writers.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
By Pat Thomas
“Black Power: Find out what they want and give it to them. All the signs that mean anything indicate that the blacks were the original inhabitants of this planet. So who has a better right to it?” William S. Burroughs
August 26 -29, 1968 – Turmoil is brewing throughout the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. Tired of defending a war he couldn’t win, but one that pride wouldn’t let him withdraw from; incumbent President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968 that he would not seek re-election. Senator Eugene McCarthy had thrown his hat into the ring the previous November as the antiwar candidate, with the support of many college kids. With Johnson out, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the de facto choice of old-school Democrats, and could secure delegates without campaigning in the primaries.
When Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, he became a spoiler for McCarthy, who had been unchallenged as the youth’s candidate of choice. After winning Indiana and Nebraska (although he lost the Oregon primary), Kennedy won California and looked like a sure bet to beat Humphrey when an assassin took him down. With Kennedy dead, Johnson refused to attend the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party was unclear on how to tackle the Vietnam issue, and was disintegrating from the inside out. Democrats would not put another President in the White House until Jimmy Carter prevailed in January 1977.
Meanwhile, the real shit storm was happening outside the Convention. Several miles away in Lincoln Park, mass demonstrations had been organized by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippies, the Students For A Democratic Society (the SDS were an activist group comprised mainly of white college students in support of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War), and MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), a short-lived coalition.
In the months leading up to the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Yippies, SDS, and MOBE had invited thousands of leftwing college students, hippies and outspoken radicals like poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Norman Mailer. Politically savvy musicians such as the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish were slated to play, but dropped out as rumors of impending violence began to spread. In the end, the only musicians brave enough to weather the storm were those madmen from Michigan, the MC5 (managed by John Sinclair of the White Panther Party) and folksinger Phil Ochs, who was more committed to the revolution than he was to his music career.
John Sinclair & Wayne Kramer of the MC5 still enjoy a friendship with Black Panther David Hilliard to this day. The White Panther Party, despite its naïve hippie drug-infused antics, was truly in awe of the Black Panther’s skills and philosophy. Musically, this was reflected in an eighteen-minute discourse entitled “I’m Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver” – which the MC5 performed at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom during 1968. The opening lines are, “I’m mad out on the street; I’m frothing at the mouth, pissed.” As the song builds, Tyner screams “I’m mad, I’m mad, like Eldridge Cleaver is mad!” It’s the sound of white hippies channeling the urban black man’s angst against the authoritarian system. While whites can never know the black man’s burden, the MC5 tried to empathize.
Since many books have documented the daily drama of the (mostly white middle class) protesters and their nightly skull bashing by the Chicago Police. I’ll focus instead on the handful of notable, overlooked blacks who participated in the proceedings.
Julian Bond was a co-founder of SNCC, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and became their communications director, overseeing the editing of its newsletter as well as working on voter registration drives throughout the rural Southeast. In 1965, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Other House members voted not to seat him because of his stance against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the Supreme Court declared the Georgia House had violated Bond’s rights by refusing him a seat and he was allowed to join the legislature.
Bond was a co-chairman of the Georgia Loyal National Delegation to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The Loyalists were an insurgent group that successfully unseated the regular handpicked delegates. During the Democratic Convention, Bond was nominated for Vice President (as an alternative to Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, chosen by Hubert Humphrey), becoming the first African American to be chosen by a major political party for that office. However, he had to withdraw, because at age 28, he was too young to serve under the constitutional minimum, 35 years of age.
Bond also made his presence known outside the Convention, when on Tuesday August 27, he spoke in Grant Park (near the Hilton Hotel where most of the delegates were staying) to 4,000 peaceful demonstrators who’d gathered to listen to him, along with MOBE’s Rennie Davis and SDS founding member Tom Hayden.
Comedian Dick Gregory paved the way for Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. And like Pryor and Rock, being a black comic brings the role of social commentator with monologues about race relations, use of the word “nigger” and the plight of Black America. Gregory’s 1964 autobiography Nigger sold one million copies.
Gregory (born in 1932) was a strong-minded activist, and throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s he not only used topical events and politicians for satire, but also for social commentary disguised as comedy. Gregory spent the early ‘60’s marching for civil rights and spent as much time in jail cells as he did onstage. As Black Power made its ascension, Gregory joined in with his routines, delivering anti-establishment messages as poignant as those being made by the radical political leaders. Besides attacking Richard Nixon, Gregory also did bits praising Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, ghetto life, and the movement. Two of Gregory’s more sublime moments can be found on the album Frankenstein recorded live at Bronx Community College on March 20, 1970. During the piece called “Black Power,” Gregory says:
White folks in this country dirtied up the word black, not us…white folks in America corrupted power, not us…then one day we come through with two innocent words, “Black Power,” and everybody go crazy…but if we had said “Brown Strength”…everybody would have accepted that…hell, we wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without white folks greeting us, “Brown Strength, my brother, Brown Strength”…black folks took two innocent words “Black Power” and everybody went crazy…we did not dirty up the world “Black”…angels food cake is white, devils food cake is dark…understand it good now, a little bitty lie, is a white lie…
Gregory and Chicago have enjoyed a mutual admiration since 1961, when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club gave Gregory one of his first major breaks by booking him into their primarily white establishment. According to the account given in Tom Brokaw’s book Boom! Voices Of The Sixties, the evening proceeded as follows:
The manager was nervous because the club had been reserved for a private party that included a lot of white Southern men. Gregory insisted on going onstage, and almost immediately, one of the white patrons stood up and called him a “nigger.” Gregory smiled and responded, “Hey I get fifty dollars here every time someone says that, so would you all stand up and call me ‘nigger?’
During the 1968 Democratic Convention, Dick Gregory was living in Chicago. He was on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket as their Presidential Candidate, and fronting marches by young white liberals who were attempting to take over Chicago’s streets and parks. On August 27th Gregory joined noted writers; Terry Southern, Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in giving speeches to 2,000 protesters at the Chicago Coliseum. The following day, Gregory spoke to 10,000 people gathered in Grant Park for an antiwar rally organized by MOBE. Writer and liberal icon Norman Mailer joined the fray, as did Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden. Also on the 27th, Bobby Seale, who’d flown into Chicago as a guest speaker, addressed a crowd in Lincoln Park. He suggested people defend themselves by any means necessary if attacked by the police. Seale left Chicago soon after his speech, but his brief visit would become more relevant later on.
Gregory’s finest moment that week is captured in Howard Alk’s 1969 documentary American Revolution 2. On the evening of August 29th, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Gregory addressed 5,000 people in Grant Park, including some of the delegates who’d strayed from the Convention hall to view the happenings in the outside world. The film crew followed Gregory, some 2,000 protesters, and the stray delegates, as they attempted to make their way back to the Convention being held at the International Amphitheater. When the National Guard stopped them, Gregory announced that he was merely leading everyone to his own home (which happened to be in the direction of the Amphitheater) and that he had invited all these people to his house for a private gathering. The National Guard didn’t buy it, arrested Gregory, and kept the marchers from reaching the convention site.
While Gregory’s actions had been captured on film for later viewing, the events of the previous evening, August 28th, had been captured by television cameras for the entire country to witness firsthand as it occurred. It remains not only the most tragic moment of that explosive week in Chicago, but also a monumental image of America’s turmoil during the 1960’s in general.
After the rally that Gregory and Norman Mailer had spoken at on the 28th, thousands moved towards the Hilton Hotel which the Democrats were using as its headquarters. Many delegates were staying there, and most importantly, several of the television crews were using it as home base.
The ultimate destination of the protesters was the Convention itself, and as the crowd began moving towards the Amphitheater, they encountered and began to follow the mule train of Ralph Abernathy’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had a permit to go the Convention. Ralph Abernathy had been MLK’s right hand as part of King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organization, and he had been in Memphis at the moment of King’s death, and in the week following, Abernathy assumed the leadership of SCLC.
As the mule train headed towards the Amphitheater, the marchers were halted from proceeding and gathered around the Hilton Hotel. For seventeen minutes, captured live on TV and rebroadcast many times since, the Chicago Police brutally beat, clubbed, maced and forcibly arrested hundreds of demonstrators (most of them white middle class college kids) and handfuls of bystanders.
As the demonstrators begin to fight back, the police violence escalated, with billy clubs cracking open the skulls of young students. Across America, their families and friends watched the bloodshed on TV as it was happening. In the midst of the chaos, the demonstrators being aware of the television crews broadcasting their beatings begin chanting, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” Finally, white Americans were witnessing what black Americans had experienced firsthand for years, police brutality in their own homes.
The demonstrations that week led to an infamous trial that began on September 24, 1969, and continued for the next five months. Originally it was called “The Chicago 8 Trial” after the eight defendants that were charged for conspiracy to start riots: Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The U.S government had hand-picked these defendants as a cross-representation of the subversive counterculture; the Yippies, SDS and MOBE leaders, antiwar activists, and a token representative of the Black Power movement.
Having Bobby Seale called as a defendant was beyond bullshit, as he was the one person out of the eight who didn’t personally know the others (Seale had met Tom Hayden earlier, but not in relation to the Chicago Convention), nor had he or any other Black Panthers been involved in any of the meetings planning the activist assault on Chicago. Not to mention that Seale’s time in Chicago had been brief. He’d arrived on Tuesday August 27th, given one speech in Lincoln Park around 7 pm, and left town later that evening. Hence, the Black Panthers weren’t part of any conspiracy. It’s been suggested that Seale wasn’t originally invited to speak, that Eldridge Cleaver had been asked first, but Eldridge had fled the country by August because of an April shootout with the Oakland Police.
It was apparent that Seale had only been brought up on charges because he was a prominent member of the Black Panthers, which the Nixon administration had declared Public Enemy #1. During the first week of the trial, Seale had asked the Chicago court that the trial be postponed, as Seale wanted to use for his defense San Francisco based Charles Garry, the Panthers’ lawyer of choice for all their high profile cases.
Charles Garry had represented Huey Newton during the “Free Huey” trial. As the Chicago trial began, Garry was in a hospital recovering from surgery. When Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) denied the postponement, Seale declared his constitutional right to act as his own defense. This request was also denied, and Judge Hoffman insisted that Seale use the other seven defendants’ lawyers Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler as his own. Seale refused.
Ultimately, Seale was accused of a conspiracy of which he was unaware, deprived of the counsel of his choice, deprived of the right to represent himself, deprived of the right to speak for himself, which led to his being publically humiliated in the courtroom; bound, gagged and chained to his chair as witnessed and reported by the national media.
As Dick Gregory perceptively pointed out on his Frankenstein album as part of a monologue titled “Chicago Trial”:
Bobby Seale walked into that courtroom in Chicago as meek and humble as a man can walk and said “Judge, your honor, my lawyer is out in San Francisco being operated on, would you postpone my trial?”…And the whole world knew his lawyer was being operated on. Everybody in the world had read that Attorney [Charles] Garry had been operated on. Judge said, “no boy, you go to trial today.” “Ok, your honor would it be ok if I acted as my own lawyer?” The Judge said, “no, you use their lawyer.” The trick behind that was Bobby Seale was indicted with seven other folks, five of whom he never met and didn’t know. Why would he use the lawyers of strangers? That’s why he was raising so much hell. You dig it?…Bobby Seale trying to defend himself, ended up shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped. In a courtroom where the worldwide press is watching. You dig?…If a man trying to defend himself in a courtroom where the world wide press is watching ends up getting shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped, what do you think is happening in these courtrooms in America where there ain’t nobody looking?
But on November 5th, a mistrial was declared for just Seale, and a new trial was proposed. The Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7. Seale was then sentenced to four years for contempt of court, a sentence that was eventually overturned, and he was never convicted of any conspiracy charges.
In terms of media coverage and notoriety, the Chicago 8 Trial had the profile and controversy of the 1992 trial of Rodney King. King’s trial charged four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force in the beating of an African American man, who they had pulled over for a traffic violation. All four were acquitted, despite clear video footage of the white officers beating the shit out of an unarmed black man. While the two trials were different in purpose and scope, the comparison rests in the national media coverage and mockery of justice in both cases.
The Chicago 8 Trial hasn’t been forgotten, as witnessed by the 2008 docudrama, Chicago 10. The name “Chicago 10” refers to the eight defendants plus their two defense attorneys, Weinglass and Kunstler, who were also unlawfully charged with contempt of court and later acquitted along with their clients. Hollywood gossip suggests that Steven Spielberg wants to direct his own docudrama about the trial, drafting in box office star Will Smith, playing the part of Bobby Seale.
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it.
Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. was born in the dilapidated Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York in 1928. He spent his formative years surrounded by petty thieves and delinquents, frequenting the local pool halls. After finishing ninth grade, Selby became a Merchant Marine and traveled the world, eventually being exposed to bad meat while at sea and contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis.
Selby returned to the United States to be hospitalized. The doctors told him that he had less than a year to live and he subsequently spent four years in and out of hospitals. He was the only survivor in his tuberculosis ward, most likely because his mom bought him an experimental drug treatment from the black market. Selby endured excruciating surgeries; at one point ten ribs were removed from his back to get to his collapsed lung and he developed chronic pulmonary problems.
During Selby’s many surgeries, he was given morphine to curb his pain. He fell in love with the opiate rush, which mutated into a nasty five year spell of heroin and alcohol dependencies. It was in the hospital that Hubert Selby Jr. had a spiritual awakening and epiphany, realizing that he didn’t want to die as a man without accomplishments. His life-long dream was to become a composer but he lacked the resources to attain a formal education in composing so he decided to become a writer because he “knew the alphabet.”
Selby developed an avant-garde style that ignored the conventions of traditional prose. He showed irreverence towards punctuation and grammar and often replaced apostrophes with slashes. He relied upon hard-hitting dialogue and a stream-of-consciousness style that was already being employed in Beat literature by Jack Kerouac.
Hubert Selby Jr. got two of his short stories published in the early sixties: “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” which were about drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and part of the seedy underbelly that Selby had been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. “Tralala” was the story of a young prostitute that ended with a brutal gang rape. It was celebrated for its rawness and its unorthodox stylistic choices. However, many critics attacked the story for its brutality and the journal’s editor was arrested for selling pornographic material to a minor.
Selby assembled six of his stories and submitted them as a novel to Jack Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord. In 1964 Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was released by the infamous Grove Press, the same publishing house that had published William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1959. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Last Exit to Brooklyn should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.
Last Exit to Brooklyn explored the great failure of the American Dream as it shriveled in the shadows of post-war Brooklyn. Like Selby’s first two stories, which were included in the novel, it dealt with subjects that were taboo in the American psyche of that time: rape, prostitution, homosexuality, violence, and sexual anguish. The stories were told with an objective and voyeuristic eye. Selby showed deplorable characters and examined their failures with compassion, whether the failures were monetary or emotional. He chose empathy as the device to fix where the American Dream had gone awry, suggesting that love could help us prevail no matter how cold or empty we had become.
Last Exit to Brooklyn became an international best seller and catapulted Hubert Selby Jr. to literary fame. He was still helplessly addicted to heroin so he decided to escape from the New York drug scene by moving to Los Angeles. He fell into his old habits out west and was quickly impoverished by his addiction, blowing all of his royalty earnings on drugs.
In 1967 Selby was busted for a possession of heroin in Los Angeles. He spent two months in the Los Angeles County Jail and ended up getting clean for good, eventually refusing morphine on his death bed despite his pain. It was during this time that Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Great Britain and banned in Italy, creating more notoriety for the book and helping to bump sales to over seven million.
Selby’s second novel, The Room, was published in 1971. The novel chronicled an insane man trapped in a prison cell as he fantasized about the revenge he would seek on the people that put him there. The Room examined the depths of the psyche and was Selby’s boldest statement on the human condition. The book received positive reviews and was commercially successful . Selby once stated that he could not read it for decades after writing it and that it was, “the most disturbing book ever written.”
The seventies were Selby’s most prolific writing period. In 1976 he published The Demon which examined the rise and fall of Harry White, a young and successful business man who had compulsive urges to sleep with married women. As his womanizing becomes blasé, Harry begins to delve into criminality and eventually murder to satisfy his relentless compulsion. This was yet another novel that explored the dark depths of the human psyche, while also latching onto themes of greed and obsession. The Demon received tepid success nationally earning greater appreciation abroad.
Requiem for a Dream was published in 1978 and is Selby’s most profound exemplification of the failure of the American Dream. Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it is the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb and her heroin addicted son Harry, as they enter ill-fated quests for better lives. Sarah is a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose weight so she can appear on a television game show. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to circumvent responsibilities and achieve their dreams by selling drugs. Shortcuts in life soon become the antagonist, as Sarah becomes emaciated and delusional from amphetamine-laced diet pills and Harry suffers his own unspeakable horrors of addiction.
Requiem tells the universal story of seeking improvement in an upgraded and techno-colored life. It is about what happens when we choose to take more than we give: the failure of the American Dream. The consequences lie in the destructiveness of the soul, something that can happen to a group of friends planning to get an ounce of pure heroin or to a blameless old woman, nestled alone in her apartment, obsessing about her chance to get on television.
Selby succeeds in showing the downward trajectory of these four central characters by writing with an unwavering sense of compassion. Although they fail in achieving what they believe to be their tickets to better futures, he teaches us that love and empathy are the only way to save their souls, that there is a discernable difference between selfish materialism and the American Dream.
In 1986 Selby published a collection of short stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow. The collection included fifteen stories and covered over two decades of writing. The stories were crafted with typical Selby compassion, exploring the mundane failures of American culture.
Selby spent the next decade in literary silence. In 1989 a film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was made by German film maker Uli Edel. Selby made a cameo as a taxi driver in the film which stared Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was successful both critically and commercially and once again boosted Hubert Selby’s popularity as a transgressive writer, finding him a new and younger audience. It was during this time that the punk rock-luminary Henry Rollins linked up with Selby and expanded his readership by setting up recording sessions and booking readings and appearances all around the world.
In 1998 Selby came out with his acclaimed comeback novel, The Willow Tree. The Willow Tree is considered the gentlest work in Selby’s catalog, a story that is filled with hope and forgiveness. It is the unlikely tale of a bond between a vengeful African-American teen and an older Jewish man, who becomes his pathway toward redemption. The novel was attacked by critics for being too derivative and lacking the rawness of his previous works. Fans celebrated The Willow Tree for Selby’s willingness to give light to his idiosyncratic dark style.
Requiem for a Dream was adapted to a film in 2000 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The film stared Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, and Ellen Burstyn. Hubert Selby Jr. again had a cameo as a trash talking prison guard and Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was during this time that Selby taught creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Waiting Period was Selby’s final novel and was published in 2002. It tells the story of a disgruntled war veteran who attempts to purchase a hand gun to commit suicide but is stopped due to a five day waiting period. In the time that it takes to get the gun he decides to go on a mass murder spree and kill people that finds despicable. The novel is laced with ambiguous voices that the protagonist hears that could be perceived as either God or the devil. Waiting Period was unsuccessful commercially and was brutally attacked by critics for lacking Selby’s signature naturalism.
Hubert Selby Jr. died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on April 26, 2004. The American Dream was a major fixture in all of Selby’s books. He wrote about the loss of opportunity and the failures committed by disdainful characters. This was all written with a great sense of love and empathy, no matter how low a person was in his stories, there was always a sense of hope because he sketched them with compassion. This was his antidote for the failure of the American Dream: that we must transcend failure by loving those around us. The American Dream failed in his stories because of greed, lack of love, selfishness, and materialism. Selby’s greatest gift was teaching us that if we just follow our hearts, if we stop taking shortcuts, It/ll be better tomorrow.
We are delighted to announce that John Tytell’s book, The Beat Interviews, will be released on October 18th by Beatdom Books.
About the Author:
John Tytell (born May 17, 1939) is an American writer and academic, whose works on such literary figures as Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs, have made him both a leading scholar of the Beat Generation, and a respected name in literature in general. He has been a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York since 1963. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987).
About the Book:
In The Beat Interviews, John Tytell speaks with Beat Generation luminaries Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg about their lives and the lives of their contemporaries. These groundbreaking interviews were conducted in the 1970s and are collected here together for the first time. In addition, the author has gathered essays giving insight into the style and philosophy of the Beats, elucidating upon the interviews to provide a unique comprehensive overview of the Beat movement.
About the Publisher:
Beatdom Books was founded in 2007. This small, independent press has published books about the Beat Generation, such as Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry (2012), David S. Wills’ Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, Philip Willey’s Naked Tea: The Burroughs Bits, and Marc Olmsted’s Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72-’97. It also publishes a small number of fiction and poetry titles, as well as the internationally acclaimed Beatdom literary journal.
Tytell is a great companion. Here at the top of his form he celebrates the Beats with his all-encompassing sensitivity to the major writers. Tytell’s deep commitment and warm personal insights shine through The Beat Interviews.
– Ann Charters, author of Kerouac: A Biography, and editor of Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.
Just when we thought there was nothing more to say about the Beat Generation, John Tytell’s new book is refreshing. At the heart of the book are his interviews, conducted when the key figures were alive and talking. The straightforward Q and A format allows us to hear their distinctive voices before they were edited and tidied up as literary history. It is rare to be able to enjoy the oral voice so clearly.
– Steven Watson, author of The Birth of the Beat Generation.
In addition to being one of the country’s leading scholars in the field of Beat Studies, John Tytell was intimate with most of the era’s major literary figures. That fact alone makes these interviews indispensable. He has interspersed insightful essays throughout this exceptional collection of interviews, to reveal each writer as a truly unique individual. Nevertheless they somehow merged to form one of America’s greatest generations of authors. Tytell’s enlightened and unsurpassed approach makes for worthwhile reading and is a researcher’s dream.
– Bill Morgan, author of The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Guide and editor of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.
It is wonderful to start the book with Huncke and so nice to also read and therefore be in the same room with Carl. And the second Chapter The COOL World sets up Holmes interview, and is really important stuff. And all the essays in the book are really well done and INTERESTING!! So if this new book can excite an 83 year old, imagine what a gift this book will be to younger folks!!
– David Amram, author of Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac.
If John Tytell’s new book were merely a re-visit to these stars of the Beat Generation from an earlier time, The Beat Interviews would be a valuable reminder of who they were to anyone interested in this unique counter cultural literati. But, this slim volume is so much more. Interwoven with the writers’ first hand accounts, Tytell’s sharp analysis, honed by decades-long scrutiny, updates the record and corrects the revisionism as time moves farther from the facts. The impulse to mythologize, inherent to the Beat movement, is busted here, and the truth is so much more exciting. Now that the beat writers have
entered history, this book is essential reading for understanding their lives and literature, from a critic who was there from the beginning.
– Regina Weinreich, author of Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics, editor of Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, and co-producer/director of the documentary, Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.
John Tytell’s The Beat Interviews, a rich collection of some of the raw material behind Professor Tytell’s considerable scholarship, offers a first-hand focus on significant Beat Generation figures Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, and Allen Ginsberg. Though several of them have taken on a larger-than-life status, their interviews offer an inescapable sense of their personal presence: Huncke talks to us with his “midnight mouth,” Burroughs gives us his unadorned Factualist truths, and Ginsberg shares personal recollections and literary insight on Burroughs himself…. A sixth “interviewee” is John Tytell, whose commentaries on each author are so conversationally written we’re certain he too is seated close, talking to us.
– Gordon Ball, author of East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg and Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness.
John Tytell’s Beat interviews are particularly illuminating because he has always known the right questions to ask. Like all his valuable work on the Beats, starting with the ground-breaking Naked Angels, this book reflects a profound and informed understanding of their place in American literature, their cultural importance and the tumultuous lives they lived.
– Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters and The Voice is All.
From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:
The Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius.
The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.
To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:
All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.
The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.
The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”
Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.
So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.
“Wars don’t advance mankind except materially”
In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:
For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . . I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.
However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.
Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.
The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.
His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.
After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”
But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:
I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.
Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.
In Vanity he described the experience:
Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.
On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.
During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.
Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.
During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:
“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:
“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”
Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”
Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.
“At Hiroshima all was lost.”
William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.
In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.
In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”
When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy. He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.
In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:
the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.
However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:
In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.
The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.
Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.
Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.
In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.
Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”
War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:
This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.
“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.
Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.
He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.
In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:
I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.
Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”
After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.
There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.
It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.
Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.
Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”
For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.
For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.
As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.
In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.
In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.
But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.