Essays

Cool Cats: Beat Poets and their Feline Friends

For some reason, if you look back through literary history, it seems most great authors had a fondness for cats. Purrrhaps* that’s because being a writer often requires a rather cat-like existence… but more likely it’s just a case of confirmation bias. The internet loves cats, therefore there will be enough photos of authors and cats circulating online to convince us that cats are somehow muses to the greats of literature. But whichever of those options is true, certainly enough of our great writers have had close relationships with felines to make it seem as though cat-ownership is somehow a pre-requisite for literary brilliance.

The writers of the Beat Generation were no strangers to this odd phenomenon, as I shall explore below:

Jack Kerouac

Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother

Jack Kerouac included the above quote in his novel, Big Sur, about the death of Tyke, his beloved cat. The passage in which he mourns the loss of his cat his heart-wrenching and shows the genuine love he had for the animal.

…he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand and with his little head hanging down, or just purring for hours… He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him around my wrist or drape him and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold that big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he’d just purr, he had complete confidence in me…

When Kerouac travelled Europe, evidently the cats he saw left a significant impression upon him:

What amazed me as much as anything were the fat calm tabby cats of London some of whom slept peacefully right in the doorway of butcher shops as people stepped over them carefully, right there in the sawdust sun but a nose away from the roaring traffic of trams and buses and cars. England must be the land of cats, they abide peacefully all over the back fences of St John’s Wood. Edlerly ladies feed them lovingly just like Ma feeds my cats. In Tangiers or Mexico City you hardly ever see a cat, if so late at night, because the poor often catch them and eat them. I felt London was blessed by its kind regard for cats.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs oddly became quite well-known among cat-loving types for his book, The Cat Inside, in which he tells bizarrely adorable stories about his precious kitties. For readers familiar with the author’s earlier works like Naked Lunch, this might have been a rather big surprise. Indeed, as a young man, Burroughs was more interested in torturing cats than cuddling them. Something changed in him late in life, and he became a convert to cats, claiming “My relationship with cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance.”

Yet aside from passages decrying dogs and musing on the nature of cuteness, Burroughs’ thoughts on cats aren’t entirely alien to his earlier writings. He argues that a cat’s role in the human world is, and always has been, as a “psychic companion” and that above all else they are “practical.”

Elsewhere, Burroughs spoke of the importance of cats in his life. When Allen Ginsberg asked him about love, he claimed that he only wanted to be loved by his cats. In his very last journal entry, he claimed love to be the most important thing in the world… and cited his love for his cats as an example of that sort of love.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was more inclined to use the word “cat” to refer to people than actual felines, and didn’t leave much of a written record of his relationship with the cats in his life. However, he owned a cat during his stay at the Beat Hotel in Paris, and upon returning to the U.S. after that trip he adopted another cat. Later in life, while living at East Hill Farm, he also owned cats.

That isn’t to say cats were entirely absent from his poetry. They pop up in little poems he noted down in his journals, with one of the better lines being:

Truth climbs upon the bed like a black cat purring

 

 

*Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself making just one stupid cat pun.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

Recent Posts

Review: The Beats, by Steven Belletto

In 2020, Cambridge University Press published The Beats: A Literary History, by Steven Belletto, author…

3 weeks ago

The Change: Allen Ginsberg, Reborn

This essay was originally published in Beatdom #21. On July 18th, 1963, Allen Ginsberg sat…

3 weeks ago

Beatdom #22 – The Jack Kerouac Centenary Edition

Every year, we pick a theme for the next installment of Beatdom. In the past,…

4 weeks ago

The Beats: A Teaching Companion

Clemson University and the Beat Studies Association have been working together on a series of…

1 month ago

Review: Ginsberg’s Karma

Ginsberg’s Karma is a short documentary about Allen Ginsberg’s trip through India between 1962 and…

2 months ago

Layover: An attempt to keep a journal |by Weldon Kees

In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…

2 months ago

This website uses cookies.