But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac
The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.
It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.
But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.
As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.
Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.
His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.
The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.
When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.
Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.
Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.
Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.
Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.
Burroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.
With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.
Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.
At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.
When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.
In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.
It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low. Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.
The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.
Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.
Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”
Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.
By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.
This essay first appeared in Beatdom #12. You can purchase it on Kindle or in paperback.
What a great site! I am putting together a Beat Generation Fact Sheet as an addendum for a high school – college curriculum to go along with our film ruth weiss: the Beat Goddess.
See: http://www.ruthweissfilm.com and ruthweissfoundation.org
Hello. Did you see our review of your film? It’s here: https://www.beatdom.com/ruth-weiss/