We recently passed a watershed moment in modern American literature, as November, 2012, marked sixty years since John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine.
To many, this is the sum of all Holmes is known for.
His seminal Beat novel Go, also published sixty years ago (five years ahead of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road), still remains in the shadow of Kerouac’s first book about those times. As evidenced by one of the most popular social networking websites, the cult of celebrity embraces Kerouac. The various tribute pages devoted to Kerouac see traffic from over a quarter of a million people, while the single page dedicated to Holmes draws slightly more than three hundred followers.
Even people who knew him personally seem oblivious to the facts of his life.
In our last issue, Al Hinkle – who is portrayed as a character in both books – noted that Holmes’ version of the period “is probably the more accurate.” However, Hinkle goes on to speak of Holmes’ first wife, “Marian was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.” The fact is that after divorcing Marian, Holmes married Shirley Radulovich in September, 1953, and the couple remained together until 1988, dying within weeks of each other. Both were victims of cancers attributed to their heavy use of tobacco. These facts are found in the richly informative book Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi.
If not for the frequently-noted dates and fastidious footnotes, this work of non-fiction would read like a novel – a novel deserving space on the same shelf between Go and On the Road. While On the Road has its hero in the central figure of Cassady as Dean Moriarty, Go looks at the same period with its focus on Ginsberg as David Stofsky. It is at Ginsberg’s party at his apartment in Spanish Harlem where he, Holmes, and Kerouac initially met in July 1948.
Also in our last issue, Ann Charters mentioned that she and husband Samuel worked on Brother-Souls to “redress that wrong” done to Holmes by Kerouac, when he portrayed the former as “a wimpy rival.” She told us that “It was a difficult book to write but one of its pleasures was the opportunity to give back Holmes his voice as a writer who was an enormous influence on Kerouac.”
It can be argued that the first piece of what would become known as Beat Literature appeared in early 1948 when Holmes published his jazz/slang-infused short story, “Tea for Two,” in Jay Landesman’s magazine, Neurotica. The little magazine founded by St. Louis, Missouri, native Landesman, Neurotica became, in style and spirit, the first Beat-themed literary journal even before the term “Beat” was coined.
A few months earlier, at age twenty-two, he broke into the publishing world with a book review printed in the March, 1948, issue of Poetry magazine. The following year, he sent the first chapters of his novel to Landesman. about the colorful characters in burgeoning Bohemian scene, which flourished around him in New York’s Greenwich Village.
At roughly the same time, he heard stories about another young writer he referred to as “Karawak” in his journal, who had written a novel, The Town and The City. As yet unpublished, the only copy was the fat manuscript typed by Kerouac, which was being passed around and talked about in the literary circles of New York City’s young intellectuals, to which Holmes was privy. Both men met at the party and, after sizing each other up in their perspective journals, soon became fast friends and confidants.
Before reaching this point in the book, the Charters’ not only detail the childhoods of both men but trace their family trees, as well – on one side back to the 1736 death of Maurice-Louis Alexandre Le Bris de Kerouack, and on the other back to 1594, when George Holmes was born in England. Interestingly, Holmes’ family tree included not only one-time presidential candidate John McClellan Holmes, Sr., the celebrated Union general of the Civil War, and the renowned essayist and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also a male ancestor who married a woman from the family in which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born.
Ironies and similarities such as their same birthdate of March 12, (Kerouac was five years older) are recounted, as are vivid shared memories of the Flood of 1936, which Kerouac witnessed from the banks of the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. Eighty miles upstream, Holmes watched from the side of the Pemagawassett River, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, as it rose and flowed into the Merrimack, carrying the same waters and debris which neither of them would ever forget.
One early question left open is why they both decided to become writers. The closest thing to an answer may be the “On Spontaneous Prose” section of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters and published by Viking Penguin in 1995. Significantly, in that volume, she conceived the idea of tracing Kerouac’s life through a collection of his writings. When she mentioned the project to Holmes, he told her that he had the same idea in 1965. Not long before his death, Holmes suggested that he and Charters collaborate on it but as his health deteriorated, he passed it back to her with his blessings and an offer of help if she needed it.
In Brother-Souls, we have two scribes writing about two other writers. This unique circumstance makes for more than just a diligent study of two convergent writers; it gives insight into their individual writing processes and an insider’s look at the business of writing and publishing in America at that time.
Aside from the usual suspects, we meet Landesman and Gershon Legman. Legman would become editor of Neurotica and his influence on Holmes is noted. Ginsberg had his first “professional” poem published in the sixth issue of Neurotica in 1950. A collaboration written with Kerouac, who took no credit, “Song: Fie My Fum” was met with derision by Legman, who voiced his first impression of the poem by asking, “Did it take two of them to write that piece of shit?” Ginsberg rankled at the fact that Landesman required him to get down on his knees before accepting one of his poems. The poem was four stanzas culled from the poem “Pull My Daisy,” to which some accounts credit shared authorship to Cassady, as well.
Carl Solomon, recently released from New York State Psychiatric Institute where he met Ginsberg, had rented an apartment, and as suggested by former institute-roomie Ginsberg, threw a New Year’s party to usher in 1950. Landesman showed up with Holmes and was initially attracted by Solomon’s “certifiable” state of insanity and his experience with electroshock treatments but, when approached, Solomon steered him towards Ginsberg and Kerouac as being better choices for writers. Just before this scene, we are treated to a look at the meeting of Ginsberg and Solomon, for whom “Howl” was dedicated.
The Charters’ follow Ginsberg to his meeting with William Carlos Williams who advises him to, drop rhyming metric poetry, in favor of the “variable breath-stop length for metric measurement” as well as looking to his own experiences for the subject matter in his poems.
We see Holmes quickly establish himself as an “accepted” poet by 1950, with submissions published in Partisan Review and Harper’s magazines. However, in order to satisfy himself as being a real writer, he felt the novel was the form that he needed to master. To this end, he kept copious journals of the events of his life and of those around him. These were the source material for the chapters of Go which he sent to Landesman in 1949. Always generous with his friends, Holmes tried to help Ginsberg by sending his poems to his editor at Partisan Review. He also spent his time offering encouragement to Kerouac, who was also trying to find his voice in his “road novel” while trying to find a publisher for The Town and the City. During 1950-51, while Holmes wrote Go, Kerouac visited his apartment daily, to drink, talk, and – most importantly – read the novel page by page as it issued from Holmes’ typewriter. It is very likely, On the Road, given these circumstances, may never have found a form were it not for the encouragement and example given by the younger Holmes.
While this review/essay is not written to “kneecap” Kerouac, we have to wonder if (after all the ballyhoo, Gap adverts, Facebook pages, and movie treatments) the progression and continued adulation of the Beat Generation as we know it would even have been possible without Holmes. While Ginsberg is typically seen as the gadfly of the collected group of writers, throwing parties and initiating meetings, it was Holmes who opened the doors to Neurotica for them. Any writer knows the magnitude of the importance of publishing their first piece of work outside of school, and in a professional publication. Few things are more encouraging than seeing your own name in print for the first time.
To a group of writers who unashamedly pushed the limits of sanity, to whom mental instability actually became a badge of honor, the steep precipice of self-doubt reached by the constant rejection of one’s work could be the hardest hurdle to clear. By coincidentally meeting Landesman, Legman, Kerouac, and Ginsberg all in that same July weekend, could Holmes have been the spark that was necessary to set off the Beat firecracker? Perhaps the truest irony of his depiction as “wimpy” is that he is the most obvious catalyst which brought them all exposure.
Neal Cassady is most often seen as the touchstone at the center of the group, although it has been said that they all would have followed Burroughs anywhere he went. The more we unravel Cassady, the less grand of a person he becomes. Holmes mentions the black and blue marks left by Cassady, on LuAnne Henderson. His capacity for mental cruelty and abandoning wives and friends at crucial times most likely stems from his own abandonment by his father in Denver, Colorado. Holmes stayed steady in his support of Kerouac’s work, even as the latter heralded Cassady as the superior writer in the group and referred to him in a letter as his “only true friend.” Cassady responded in kind, in his usual manner, by abandoning him in Mexico City, sick with fever and dysentery.
In his moodiness, Kerouac’s misanthropy also got the best of him. Shouting matches between he and Holmes kept to an intellectual level. In barrooms, he was severely beaten more than once, thanks to his mouth and temper but especially as his alcoholic deterioration worsened. Holmes became hesitant to tell him about advances he got from publishers, for fear of setting him off. One point that Kerouac dwelt on during his struggles with On the Road was that Holmes “had no right to write a book about everyone’s private lives.” Both men were doing the same thing, writing about the same people and situations from different angles. Reading Go as it was written page by page kept him from duplicating scenes already covered by Holmes – but working around another serious writer could be enervating for anyone.
In all fairness to Kerouac, artists who show genius, often do so to express what they cannot in normal life and interpersonal relationships. As artists, writers may plumb themselves to reach those recesses and depths of feeling which are too painful or impossible to relate in any other way. In his essay “Are Writers Born or Made?” he distinguished between talent and genius, observing that many may show “talent” but genius is the rarity. “Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber,” he noted, “but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through – originality.”
While we appreciate the work they leave behind, the inner torment they endure is not a pretty thing – consider Van Gogh disfiguring himself, Rimbaud cultivating head lice “to throw on passing clergymen,” or Artaud’s claim to having been “suicided by society.” Holmes may have sealed his own fate by being too well-mannered. After all, we learn that Holmes was the only one of Kerouac’s friends that his mother Memère did not dislike.
Nonetheless, about three weeks after Holmes finished the last pages of Go, Kerouac became inspired by a letter from Cassady which turned into a rabid series of letters between them. The excitement of these exchanges prompted him to pull all of his notes together and unleash the torrent within upon the now-famous scroll he fed through his typewriter. It seems safe to say that while Cassady sparked him to action, Holmes laid the foundation during those daily visits. The resulting three-week period of speed, coffee, and typing which resulted in On the Road has since snowballed into an oft-told tale, but Brother-Souls reminds the reader that this was not all spontaneous prose. Kerouac’s fastidious habit of keeping notebooks provided for a vast amount of his material.
Between the five years, from the writing to its publication in 1957, the details and struggles of both men’s lives and work come to life in print. Meanwhile, other key events fall into place: Ginsberg meets his life-long companion, Peter Orlovsky; there is the first reading of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl for Carl Solomon” at 6 Gallery; Kerouac writes and details the remaining six books of the “Legend of Duluoz” along with three other volumes; the first complete reading of “Howl” takes place (and is attended by Samuel Charters); and the Beat Movement goes mainstream. While most of the key players became victims of the fame, Ginsberg used it to his advantage.
When City Lights got charged with obscenity for distributing Howl and Other Poems, more fuel was added to the fire – especially when presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled it to be not obscene. Curiously, Ginsberg slighted Holmes with the omission of his name from the dedication page. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady got a nod from the poet, placing them forever in the highest order of Beats. Holmes had gone out of his way to get Ginsberg published, sending his work to New Directions after his editor at Partisan Review passed on it, as well as paying the grand compliment of making him the central character in Go. The depiction of Ginsberg in the book posits a good theory as to why he was snubbed. Kerouac had called Holmes “savage” in his treatment of the people he wrote about. Ginsberg for his part, had been disappointed in the account of his Blakean vision but, at the same time admitted to the veracity of the portrayal of himself.
“You really haven’t caught the way it felt,” he told Holmes, “but you’ve caught something else. You’ve caught the solemn funny little kid I guess I must have been in those days.” It seems that no amount of speculation will ever get to the heart of it but the glaring fact of Holmes’ exclusion from the dedication and the hurtfulness of the action cannot be overlooked. The Charters’ attribute some of it to Holmes distancing himself by leaving New York to live in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, but Cassady and Burroughs were both much further removed geographically.
Six months after the appearance of On the Road, Kerouac published The Subterraneans (to be followed in another six months by The Dharma Bums), heightening his fame but not his luck. With money in his pocket for a change, he traveled out of the United States. As usual, he quickly returned to New York to stay close to his mother. One night, while trying to reach the proper degree of stupor in a local bar, he sustained a broken nose and arm from a beating by a homosexual professional boxer, who claimed he had slurred an insult at him. Later, the depiction of Cassady as pothead led to his arrest and imprisonment.
The whole Beat scene, which thrived in the underground, exploded across the media in 1958, meeting curiosity, admiration, and derision. The term “Beatnik” popped up – a poke in the eye, as it was spawned from the name “Sputnik,” the space craft launched by Russia. Nothing linked to Russia could be good in those days. To word irked both men, as they saw it as a symbol of the manipulation, commercialization, and degradation of their once-pure vision. Every critic, pundit, journalist, and magazine writer had something to say about the phenomenon, ranging from suspicions of dangerous revolutions and proliferation of juvenile delinquents to dismissals of idle young hipsters with nothing important to do in life. Holmes had left the United States with Shirley on December 12, 1957, to realize his dream of traveling in Europe for two months, funded by an advance he received for his “jazz” book, The Horn.
While working on Perfect Fools, his follow-up novel to Go, he published a short story which would become The Horn‘s first chapter in the August, 1953, issue of Discovery magazine. The second chapter appeared in Nugget, in October 1956. With the rejection Perfect Fools by Scribners’, his spirits sank. He put his energy into writing the “jazz novel,” writing the remainder between spring, 1956, and fall of 1957. Although relations between he and Kerouac were deteriorating, Kerouac kept a promise and wrote a letter praising the novel to Hiram Hayden at Random House two months after the release of On the Road.
Accepted immediately and published in July 1958, it sported a recommendation from Kerouac on the cover. Despite the ongoing “Beat frenzy,” sales were moderate, likely due to July traditionally being a slow month for sales or perhaps getting lost among the wave of second-rate, imitation Beat-themed books which flooded the market – potboilers written to cash in on the trend. Selling well enough to require a second printing, mainstream reviews failed to reach the depth of it but it was warmly embraced by the cognoscente, including Studs Terkel and Ralph Gleason. Landesman read it on radio in St. Louis for half an hour, showing how taken he was with it.
Perhaps the most ambitious and meticulously-constructed of all the Beat novels, The Horn fascinates, not just by intricacy, but in the marvel of a writer dreaming up such a concept. As for structure, it is the only “true novel” that either he or Kerouac ever produced, not being based on their real-life experiences. In fact, it cannot really be classified as “Beat.” As Holmes wrote, regarding the reviews, “The Beat Generation tag has been either ignored (it having nothing to do with the book), or mentioned only in passing, for which I am grateful.” Even attempting to describe it presents a daunting task, so here we rely on excerpts from Brother-Souls, first with this section from Holmes’ journals…
The real origin of the book…lay in my feeling that the jazz artist was the quintessential American artist – that is, that his work hang-ups, his personal neglect by his country, his continual struggle for money, the debasement of his vision by the mean streets, his oft times descent into drugs, liquor, and self-destructiveness – all this seemed to me to typify the experience of our great 19th Century American writers: Poe’s loneliness, drunkenness and obscurity; Melville’s half-of-life anonymity; Hawthorne’s hermit years; Emily Dickinson’s spinster-bedroom full of immortal poems; Mark Twain’s wastage of so much of his talent on get-rich-quick schemes; Whitman’s decision to stay with the trolley drivers and whores and good old boys from whom his work took so much sustenance. The novel as it evolved, then, was to be about the American-as-artist.
A month earlier, he explained in a letter:
“I was working on three levels at the same time. I wanted each of these characters to represent an American writer, which is the only reason why I put those two little epigraphs in front of each chapter. But I also wanted him to represent a particular kind of jazz musician, and I had to create a fictional character doing these things, so that Edgar Pool, for instance, is Edgar Allen Poe.”
Now we give part of the synopsis by Charters/Charters – but note that these are just mere snatches taken from the in-depth explanation they provide, much of what was missed by many initial reviews.
Holmes structured it:
As a kind of dual narrative, each of the narrative streams illustrating and complementing the other. Each of the major characters was introduced in chapters titled “Chorus,” and the choruses alternated with chapters titled “Riff,” which told the novel’s story…Holmes preceded each Chorus with a quotation from one of the nineteenth-century American writers who had given him the novel’s theme. With the quotations he was suggesting an identification in each chapter between the jazz musician and the individual writer, and he tied the substance of the quotation as closely as he could to the chapter itself…
The quotation for the first Chorus is from Thoreau, and the name of the musician is Walden Blue. “Walden” is an obvious allusion to Thoreau’s Walden and “Blue” as clearly identifies him as a musician…
The second Chorus introduces an alto saxophonist named Eddie Wingfield“Wings” Redburn. The quotation is taken from Melville, whose fourth novel was titled Redburn…
A quotation from Hawthorne introduces the Chorus representing the pianist Junious Priest…the musician who was the model for Junius was the avant-garde jazz pianist Thelonious Monk…
The central woman figure…is a singer named “Geordie Dickson,” who is locked in a despairing, unending relationship with the novel’s main protagonist, the tenor saxophonist Edgar Pool…a combination of singer Billie Holiday and Emily Dickinson…
The name of the trumpeter Curny Finnley is derived from the archetypal figure “Huckelberry Finn,” and the Chorus introducing him opens with a quotation from Finn’s creator, Mark Twain…Curny Finnley…was in part modeled on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie…
The Chorus introducing the tenor saxophonist Metro Myland opens with a quotation from Walt Whitman…”Myland” is an allusion to Whitman’s personal sense of his Americanism, of the nation as “My land”…Metro, for Holmes, was “just any great big yawping tenor sax player, but he’s also Walt Whitman”…
The final two Choruses portray Pool’s last hours…from the doomed, desperate Edgar Allen Poe. Holmes’ comment on the character of Pool was that his novelistic character was, of course, Lester Young, but also Poe…
As an aid to himself in clarifying the book’s structure, Holmes wrote the Choruses first, which described his principal figures. He then wrote the Riffs sections, creating the narrative around his fictitious characters…
Here, it is significant to note that tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Lester Young inspired Ginsberg’s creation of “Howl” when the poet wrote several verses in a vocal imitation of Young’s chorus-on-chorus jazz progression, the succession of verses building upon each other and raising the rhythmic energy to an ecstatic level. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg refers to one of the jazz man’s signature songs, “Lester Young was what I was thinking about… ‘Howl’ is all ‘Lester Leaps In.’”
The “jazz book” idea provided fodder for many of the vociferous conversations between Holmes and Kerouac. The recognition of its brilliance only grows with time, as will the brilliance of Brother-Souls.
In 1958, while Kerouac felt his first anxiety over waiting for royalties from the movie version of On the Road (a state of anxiety similarly affected Kerouac fans that waited impatiently until 2012 for its release), Holmes grew increasingly frustrated with the media attention and his realization that the movement they had created ultimately distanced the once close-knit pair. He also bristled at being used as a substitute spokesman for the Beat Generation and the perception of himself as a replacement for Kerouac when the latter could not be found. In spite of this they still kept in touch via letters, proving the true durability of their friendship.
In early February, Landesman sent a hundred dollars in a letter after hearing about their difficulties. These acts of kindness helped them through the winter, and in May, they were able to return to visit New York when Landesman staged the first and only Beat musical, The Nervous Set, and all performances sold-out. Kerouac showed up at the theater drunk and promptly fell asleep in his seat, vanishing during the intermission. The trip gave them some respite but in July a rush-hour accident on the New Jersey Turnpike put his father back in the hospital in Camden and one of his hands had to be amputated as a result. In the days that followed, a stroke paralyzed half of his father’s body.
Weeks spent keeping vigil at the bedside, trying to help nurse his father back to health led to exhaustion and near the end of August, John McClellan Holmes Sr., after weeks of suffering and staring at the stump of his hand, lost the will to live and passed away.
Although their relationship was frequently antagonistic, the event haunted the junior Holmes (who had taken “Clellon” as a pen-name to allay confusion with the well-known poet, John Holmes) for years. He wrote about the experience in the poem “Too-Late Words for My Father,” which he completed years later, in 1973. Old friend Alan Harrington, novelist and On the Road character, helped him with the hospital expenses. The chronic emotional devastation left him unable to write much outside of his journals and he slipped into one of the most unproductive periods of his life. Days spent drinking and arguing with Shirley exacerbated the situation. An unpaid electric bill for eight dollars forced him to hide upstairs when the electric company worker came to shut off his power in September of 1961 and the following month he was arrested for shoplifting a few dollars worth of groceries at a local market. The local press used the story to lampoon him with an embarrassing, supposedly-funny headline.
At this point something snapped inside him. A lesser man may have acted out against himself but in Holmes’ case, the situation forced him to pull himself together, deal with his creative block and begin writing again. As is often the case, a great man finds his true measure at the worst of times, not the best. It is also worth noting that through it all, Shirley stayed with him, working where she could to support them both. Holmes appears to have been one of the few of his peers to maintain a traditional “’til death do we part” relationship.
His turn back to the positive side spurred an equally positive reaction from magazines he submitted his work to, after braving it through a short period of rejected stories. Around the time he came to terms with the fact that his novels would never bring him as much fame as his poetry and non-fiction, he won Playboy magazine’s Best Non-Fiction award for 1964, with the essay, “Revolution Below the Belt.” This shows how deeply Legman had influenced him with his fixation on all things sexual years earlier.
His sister Liz, also a writer, made the acquaintance of Nelson Algren, author of the groundbreaking novels, A Walk on the Wild Side and The Man with the Golden Arm. During this period of regeneration, she introduced the pair. Once again, he enjoyed the luxury of intellectual stimulation that is peculiar to like-minded writers. For his part, Algren equally valued conversation with a mind sharp enough to write a book like The Horn.
Although he appeared the stronger of the two “brothers,” Kerouac never found his feet once he started balancing them on bottles. The sad facts of his self-immolation fill pages and support a variation on one of Legman’s favorite themes – that violence in modern society results directly from the repression of our sexuality. In his case, the violence turned inward and bespeaks the result of not being able to fully love a woman in a true manner. Sex is more than just a function of the genitalia. It is an outward expression of love and tenderness. He loved his mother, there is no doubting that, but his inability to correlate love and sex (the Cassadian logic of all people being apples and we just need to pick them and eat them as we will) may have been his undoing. This is not something Ann and Samuel Charters broach in the book but this writer’s attempt at explaining his trip from top of the heap to bottom of the glass.
Although we suggest that Holmes sparked the kindling that ignited the Beat fire, it is commonly accepted that Kerouac is responsible for the Beat Movement gaining the momentum to be a worldwide cultural revolution, these sixty years later. He is the primary visual symbol. He is the face of it today, not the angelic hipster Cassady, whose death from exposure in the Mexican night froze “blood on the tracks” after he bridged the generation gap between Beat and Hippie; not even Ginsberg who may have been the most prolific producer of the lot. His radicalism and homosexuality may have been off-putting to a straight society.
Kerouac – the older brother who died as the younger, the televised, the Adonis – he is the symbol who put a face on the new culture at the piano with Steve Allen speaking cool and hip and mellifluous.
The triumph of Holmes’ later years overshadows the misery of those when he was beaten-down Beat, in the truest sense of the word. The world of academia sought him out and he accepted residencies at several fine schools. Never giving up on the novel, he produced two more, Get Home Free in 1964 and Nothing More to Declare in 1967. More books appeared posthumously. He enjoyed the company of his old cronies when Ginsberg brought them together at Naropa Institute, for a celebration of Kerouac’s work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication, of On the Road in 1982. His dedication to his craft supplied him with purpose and a way to communicate while fighting a recurrent cancer when it robbed his frantic gift of speech.
He survived nineteen years after Kerouac and twenty after Cassady. In March, 1988, he died at age sixty-two, his beloved wife Shirley with him as ever. In death, as in life, she followed him just two weeks later, a common fate of couples who share a true love. Earlier in the year, he learned that three of his novels would soon be reprinted on Thunder Mouth Press. So with his once-greatest fear of vanishing “without leaving some trace,” this surely gave him strength even as mortality fleeted.
To paraphrase Kerouac’s paraphrasing in “Are Writers Born or Made?” – It ain’t whatcha live, it’s the way atcha live it.
This reviewer hopes the reader bears in mind that this piece may seem full of facts but it is only a fraction, less than even a fiftieth, of pages presented in Brother-Souls. In the entire canon of Beat books, it is arguably the single, most comprehensive view of the scene as it unfolded – and absolutely the most authoritative work on Holmes and Kerouac. It is the only book which comes to mind where the footnote pages themselves are a treat to read.
We come away from reading it with the feeling of just completing a course in history, absorbing enough to get an A+ on the subject. If some obvious facts are missing here, it is simply because we chose to focus primarily on Holmes, then Kerouac and the others.
We first became aware of Ann Charters in 1973, when her biography on Kerouac (with Samuel Charters) became widely celebrated and instantly considered as the definitive book on him. While relishing the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins since the 1970s and growing up with the music of Country Joe and the Fish even earlier on life’s soundtrack, we only recently discovered our ignorance of the fact that Samuel Charters had a hand in delivering these important sounds. A Grammy award winner, he produced five of the six Country Joe LPs. In 1959, with Ann in tow, he found Hopkins in Houston, Texas, and did field recordings of him. These were released on the Folkways label and led to a rediscovery by an appreciative new audience
At last count, eighteen books credit him as author. This is aside from collaborations listed in the thirty-book bibliography of Ann Charters, printed in our last issue. The count does not include Portents, the self-published small-press they ran in the 1960s. In literature and music the couple are a national treasure, both gifted individually and as a team. She is also an accomplished, recorded ragtime pianist. A recently-posted Youtube video (you can find it on www.beatdom.com) shows them working together, reading poetry at a Beat event in England earlier this year.
Ann Charters and Samuel Charters did more than write a large part of Brother-Souls, they lived it and witnessed it first-hand.
This review/essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. Find it on Amazon.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…