Women Writers of the Beat Era: A Review

In Women Writers of the Beat Era: Autobiography and Intertextuality, Mary Paniccia Carden argues that although the most famous writers of the Beat Generation rejected traditional values, they very much embraced the sexism that pervaded the wider culture. Her thesis is that women did in fact contribute greatly to the Beat movement (which she says is not a generation) but were marginalized and then later forgotten. In her new book, she seeks to address that, shining a light on several important women and their work.

First of all, it is tempting to say this is a book about “Beat women,” but Carden instead lobbies for the term, “Beat associated women writers”. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but her point is that the former is too close to the social construct that limited women to domestic roles, even within the Beat movement. Even progressive men seemed to view women as “Beat chicks,” she says, and while their contributions to art may have sometimes been valued, they were also very much expected to fulfill more socially convention roles as wives and mothers, while the men led their bohemian, wanderlust-filled lives.

women of the beat generation

Moreover, the women of the Beat Generation (excuse me, but I do personally prefer that term for reasons stated here) were not just limited by male expectations, and hampered by familial obligation, and later forgotten by the literary historians, but their roles were in fact written by their male counterparts:

Women Writers of the Beat Era: Autobiography and Intertextuality examiners strategies of self-expression crafted by self-conscious authors who engage with the overdetermined models of gendered Beat identity already-written in the published narratives of others and in ideals of Beatness and femininity circulating in literature and popular culture, in Beat and national discourses, in multiple and varied historical contexts. These deliberate forms of address often enfold less deliberate adaptations and improvisations that reveal ambivalent and ambiguous reformulations of Beat and female identity.

Thus the book aims to rewrite Beat history to some extent. And why not? Much of Beat history is myth anyway. It was largely written by men like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who were prone to artful exaggerations, and in Ginsberg’s case both bias towards his friends and a certain level of forgetfulness. It was not just the men, of course. Carden observes that autobiography is not always truthful, and borrows a term – oddly enough – from Stephen Colbert: truthiness. She analyzes Diane di Prima’s Memoirs of Beatnik using Colbert’s terminology. She looks at di Prima’s willingness to fictionalize her own life (in particular by adding lots of sex). Was it a parody of male Beat prose, or a cynical ploy to sell more books? Was she in fact inverting the male gaze and objectifying men as Kerouac and others did with their “Beat chicks”? In Carden’s view, di Prima’s two autobiographies indeed sought to subvert Beat mythos.

memoirs of a beatnik cover

Elsewhere, Carden looks at the life of Bonnie Bremser and her account of living in Mexico. She explores how different publishers presented the book through changing both the cover and title. Mexico was also of importance to ruth weiss, who is the subject of another chapter. weiss said she “dies[s] every time I get to MEXICO/ and return reborn”. Travel was incredibly important to weiss, as it was to so many of the more famous male Beat writers, but of course it was so much more difficult for a woman to live a life of journeying, and weiss is hardly remembered as a journeywoman in the same way Kerouac is venerated as a hitchhiking king of the road.

A chapter on Joanne Kyger looks at the Beats as exclusionary, exploring Kyger’s letters and journals to pick apart her frustration at how she is continually ignored during a famous trip to India with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. She portrays the male poets as self-centered and ridiculous, offering a very different perspective to that of Ginsberg’s own journals from the trip.

Women Writers of the Beat Era is an attempt to place women at the center of their own stories. These women led fascinating and productive lives, and contributed to American literature, but so often they have been marginalized. “So many texts by Beat men portray women as interchangeable and easily replaceable,” Carden observes. It is true. But now at least we have a book devoted to their lives and work.

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Find out more about the book at the publisher’s website.

David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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