In 2020, Cambridge University Press published The Beats: A Literary History, by Steven Belletto, author of the 2017 volume The Cambridge Companion to the Beats. In this latest book, Belletto has attempted to construct a history of the Beat Generation that differs from others in that it is neither a complete history nor an examination of Beat literature, but rather a guide to the “Beat republic of letters, an informal association of writers and artists that germinated aesthetic innovations and encouraged considerations of once-taboo subjects.” It is an interesting way to tackle a notoriously difficult subject. Pinning down what Beat was and who was part of the Beat Generation has always been fraught with problems. “My basic assumption,” he goes on to explain, “is that the richest way to appreciate individual Beat texts is in relation to one another.”

And this is exactly what The Beats: A Literary History does. Belletto guides the reader through the tricky history of the Beats, discussing of course the most famous names but also the minor ones and the forgotten faces, all the while talking about how the Beats were perceived and how their writings developed over the years. It begins, of course, at Columbia, and starts with the murder of David Kammerer:

I begin with a murder, then, not because writers later celebrated were embroiled in scandal, but because it was the first event that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs collectively wrote about, which in turn made it a founding moment in and of Beat lore.

Here, Belletto notes that it is important to avoid looking at Beat literature as a faithful recounting of real events because they all, to some extent, “excelled at mythologizing.” This is an idea to which we return again and again throughout the book.

The fact that all three of the core Beats wrote about this murder is important and that Kerouac and Burroughs worked collaboratively on it, too. This book is largely about that community aspect of literature – the idea of “communal intimacy” that brought together the Beat writers and brought their readers into their circle through their writing. Belletto explores this and of course other, often overlapping movements like the Black Mountain poets. Here, we learn about Charles Olsen’s “projective voice” and the influence this had on the likes of Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, and Joanne Kyger. The Black Mountain Review also published a wide range of Beat poets.

We see not only the Beat and related countercultural movements from the inside but from the perspective of their critics, like Milton Klonsky and Anatole Broyard, and later Norman Podhoretz, who were dismissive of hipsters and bohemians, but Belletto points out rightly that too much was and is made of the rebellious aspects of the Beat Generation. It was not so much a group of angry young men and women with a loathing of society so much as it was a group of people interested in reshaping literature.

From there, we look at the Beat novel and its evolution. This was an interesting part of The Beats, which highlighted a few things that took me by surprise. I had somehow failed to notice that the three great Beat texts – On the Road, Naked Lunch, and “Howl” – all begin with “I.” It a telling link that unites these novels and poems in a personal perspective, and sets them apart from the likes of John Clellon Holmes’ Go, which was told in the third person and highlighted the consequences of a Beat lifestyle more so than, say, On the Road.

Belletto traces the Beat novel from Kerouac’s The Town and the City to On the Road and Visions of Cody, and Burroughs’ Junky to Queer and Naked Lunch. Viewed through this lens, it highlights marked shifts and liberations in terms of style and content as they became more experimental. He notes, however, that this is “not to suggest a clear line of development, but rather a constellation of overlapping characters, philosophical and political ideas, and aesthetic experimentations.” Also examined here are lesser-known early Beat novels (or at least Beat-affiliated) like Flee the Angry Strangers and Who Walk in Darkness. (“Flee,” Belletto writes, “is the straight version of the junk underground that Burroughs turns inside out in Junky, published a year later.”) In discussing Kerouac’s novels, Belletto highlights the conflation of myth and reality and the separation of Sal and Jack in On the Road, suggesting that readers are mistaken in thinking of author and narrator as the same person. He also ties Visions of Cody to Naked Lunch in that both are novels with no plot, but instead an author’s perspective as its replacement. “[T]he point,” Belletto explains, in reference to a specific passage from Cody, but which applies very much to the whole of both novels, “is not to get to the end, to find out what happens, but to be present in the moment.”

In transitioning from Beat novels to Beat poetry, Belletto takes us of course to Allen Ginsberg and his “first poem, ‘Fie my Fum’.” (Ginsberg’s first poem was in fact written long before that.) He is also keen to connect the early work “Green Automobile” with Kerouac, calling it “Ginsberg’s answer to the unpublished On the Road.” Also discussed here are Peter Orlovsky’s “pure American” poetry, which was highly regarded by other poets even though Orlovsky did not think of himself as a writer, and the work of Gregory Corso – although oddly his plays are discussed here as well as his poems.

Last month, in my review of the similarly titled The Beats: A Teaching Companion, I made note of Belletto’s contribution: an essay about the so-called “little magazines” that marked the mimeograph revolution and were so important to the Beat Generation and subsequent countercultural movements. This also marks a valuable section of this book, in which Belletto explores the anti-academic perspective, orality, in the incorporation of everyday speech, and even the size of Kerouac’s notebooks in forging a sort of Beat poetics that was spread and developed through these publications. We find out about the same magazines that we learned about in the other essay: Yugen, Floating Bear, Beatitude, and Big Table. Here we learn about Bob Kaufman, one of the brilliant but lesser-known Beats, and his Abomunism concept – “a surreal, Dadaesque anti-political, anti-social, political and social position.”  

In discussing Kaufman, we come to the issue of race. Belletto excerpts “West Coast Sounds – 1956” and then writes:

The first way one might read this poem is as yet another example of an author writing himself into a mythological inner circle by name-dropping all the famous people he knows, a circle that is then assailed by latecomers or tourists. But another way to read it is to notice that none of the figures named was originally from San Francisco, and all are white. In this reading, the well-known figures such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Cassady, and Ferlinghetti do not constitute an authentic hip coterie, but rather are interlopers themselves, white men who had come to San Francisco and worshipped black “Jazz sounds” which, thanks to their patronage and subsequent fame, have become synonymous with the “West Coast Sounds” of the poem’s title.

From here, we explore – in Belletto’s apt terminology – “the Opening of the Field” as we look at the work of those sometimes termed “Second Generation Beats” – di Prima, Snyder, Jones, Micheline, the Bremsers, and so on. There are many subsequent examinations of individual Beat or Beat-associated writers and their areas of interest, such as Gary Snyder and his ecological poetry, which toys with the meaning of words in the face of nature, or Lenore Kandel, whose “restless mind” produced far more than simply the explicit and controversial poems for which she was best known.

Later chapters tackle the politics of the Beats in the 1960s, mostly focused on feminist issues. Here, we see discussions of Joyce Johnson, Elise Cowen, Janine Pommy Vega, and more. Belletto then shows us how the Beat writers variously toyed with language, which of course dwells on Burroughs, who borrowed Brion Gysin’s cut-up “discovery and developed it into a whole theory of writing and representation. He recognized the generative potential of approaching the composition with a fundamentally different set of assumptions about what words are or can do.” This is rounded off with commentary on the Beats and the Vietnam War, where we see how Allen Ginsberg protested through poetry.

Altogether, Belletto has made another important contribution to Beat Studies. There are already many good books that explore the history or literature of the Beat Generation, yet this one is somehow unique. It is a different approach to a difficult topic, and it succeeds in its aim by winding in a loosely chronological sense from what could be termed the start to somewhere approximating the end of the Beat era, discussing the literature of Beat and Beat-associated writers through interesting interconnections in their works.