by Hannah Withrow
I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women. My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica. Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,
Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”
That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell. What did such a woman have to say? Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor. Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day. She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends. But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself. Hot, hot, hot! A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.
Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator? He can’t possibly understand. It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.
Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.
This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that? And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”
Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.
This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.
How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.
Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife. But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion. Do you see race in this? Have you forgotten? It would get worse.” Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is. And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.
Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art. Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.
I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.
By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.
Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.
While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.
I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic. Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.
What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.
Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able. She writes,
The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means. But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from. The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.
I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,
And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’ He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience. Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?
It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.
Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.
Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence. At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.
Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.
I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters. I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.
Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:
She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals. Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.
Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.
When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.
Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.
The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.
In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,
He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.
Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:
Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues. He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty. I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day. Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.
I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.
In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.
Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.
She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.
It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,
From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.
It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.
Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?
Death I’m coming
Wait for me
I know you’ll be
At the subway station
Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka
And your single simple answer
To every meaning
I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.
But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.
These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.
Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.” Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.
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Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit
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Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing
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Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.
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Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Signet, 1959.
Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the
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Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation.
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In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…