This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.




Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life.

The second-generation of Beats,[1] born in the 1930s, occupy a peculiar position in relation to the first-generation Beats – the celebrated male writers who met around the Columbia University campus in the early 1940s and would catalyze each other to literary breakthroughs. The second-generation, male and female authors alike, rejected or accepted the label “Beat” to differing degrees. The women stood on the edge of the Beat party, so to speak, due to the workings of socialised gender expectations of the time. The women who were of age with the Columbia group did not harbor literary ambitions – Carolyn Cassady identified as a painter rather than a writer at the time – or if they did show literary inclination it did not manifest into output; we can think of Joan Vollmer Burroughs’ self-destructive impulses.[2] In contrast, the second-generation created substantial bodies of work based on sustained imaginative investment in their inner lives – other names to note are Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel, Hettie Jones and Bonnie Bremser – with many beginning to write in the 1950s. Some of these writers later turned to autobiographic prose works which appeared in a flurry in and around the 1990s, and resonated with feminist studies’ critical excavations of women’s memoir writing as a whole; arguably with these Beat women empowering it by their maverick lifestyles.

This generation also occupied a particular position in relation to the Second World War. They were too young to understand what was occurring, and safe from blitzing and racial persecution.

In Diane de Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), a vast work of meditative autobiographical prose which portrays her early life growing up in Brooklyn, to her move to Manhattan where she lived as a poet and encountered the Beats, first through a correspondence with Ginsberg after Howl and Other Poems was brought to her attention. It then charts the trajectory of her writing, her work in publishing, which included The Floating Bear newsletter that was co-edited with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), the birth of her children, and her move to the west coast, with di Prima weaving personal, creative, political, and spiritual modalities seamlessly. Early in the text she describes a constant state of war, not only the “vast global entity” of the war in Europe, but the stultifying atmosphere in the home of her parents, who were both American-born children of Italian immigrants:


For me [the war] is everywhere: the War between my parents, the War between myself and the entity they are, the War between all the family and what I have gathered is a hostile world. My father goes out into it and returns discouraged. There is War upon war in my world, and they are all muted, hushed-my parents never argue.


One of her earliest memories was hearing her parents discussing the war in hushed tones while she sat unobserved in a corner of the kitchen in their Brooklyn brownstone. They speak in Italian, the language reserved for their private conversations. But the child understands, sensing the fear in her father’s voice as he states “We can’t get out of it now,” and in her mother’s “whimper of agreement.” This is after the United States entered the war, causing division in the Italian-American family, and threatening “the homeland” which eventuates in her paternal grandfather’s brother making the decision to “go home” to Sicily with his family, thus creating a “splitting of the tribe.” It speaks of both the fracturing war brings, and the split identity of Italian-Americans at the time, with di Prima describing further division for those of Sicilian origin, as a “Mediterranean, or North African ritual”: “Cousins wept, and wondered if they would next see each other across battle lines.”

The theoretical concept of “postmemory” from the cultural critic Marianne Hirsch helps elucidate the nature of the trauma the second-generation Beats inherited from both the parental generation and the European-born grandparental generation. Postmemory is “distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection,” and its “connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.” Such investment in imagination suits the poetic, reflective mode of these collective works in which there is a disconnection between family history and the secrets hidden there. Hirsch bases her work in the context of children of survivors of the Holocaust, but allows for other trauma such as migration to create postmemories across the generations. “Loss of family, home, of a sense of belonging and safety ‘bleed’ from one generation to the next,” she writes. Persecution, poverty, and geo-political shifts had been among the motivations for the waves of European emigration to America, and the Second World War came as a reminder and magnification of such old wounds, which did not end in 1945 as instead global hostility and threat switched gears into a Cold War context.

In another example from Recollections, di Prima presents the memory she inherited from her beloved grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi. He is presented as an idealized father figure, in contrast to her physically abusive father. Domenico was an atheist and anarchist who had known Carlo Tresca, the supporter of Italian radicals Sacco and Vanzetti, during their trial for murder. She would sit in his lap listening to stories, “sometimes facing the wall together as if to shut out distractions.” He would teach her the forbidden Italian, and conjure images of the old world, describing olive groves until the child “saw them blowing silver-green in the wind.” Although he promised to take her there after the war, he would die before the war ended; leaving di Prima with an embodied connection – postmemory – of a land she had never seen.

As well as providing a sense of Italian heritage, and a passion for knowledge and poetry, Domenico is valued for showing her a political consciousness grounded in love. In the poem “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” which serves as a preface for di Prima’s Vietnam War era collection, Revolutionary Letters, she aligns the memory of watching her grandfather address the crowd at a political rally prior to the outbreak of war with the current situation:


I embrace

strangers on the street, filled with their love and

mine, the love you told us had to come or we

die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in

spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars, so glorious

to me your white hair, your height your fierce

blue eyes, rare among italians


There is the sense that Mallozzi foresaw the defeat of his political ideals as war ensued, and anarchist love was replaced by mass slaughter and then amnesia in the postwar atomic age. It was also a love that di Prima did not experience from her parents, which she would search for through establishing a community of like-minded souls in the Beat era and thereafter.

Through the evocation of lost radical politics there is a connection to Allen Ginsberg’s depiction of his mother Naomi in his long narrative poem “Kaddish.” Ginsberg has a bridge status between the generations of Beats, and also in his reaching out to later generations of hippies and punks. Provoked by Naomi’s death in 1956, “Kaddish,” which stands as an imaginative offering of the traditional Kaddish prayer, was not read at her funeral because a “minyan” or quorum of ten Jewish men was not present. Ginsberg was on the west coast at the time of her death, and thus themes of guilt, grief, and remembrance inform the poem. It describes Naomi’s history of shifting mental states over the years, which included repeated breakdowns and paranoia concerning persecution from Hitler or her family members acting on his behalf. Naomi had moved to the United States as a child with her family in 1905 from the Vitebsk region in Russia’s Jewish Pale, now modern day Belarus. The first pogroms had begun in the territory that year, and later when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Vitebsk ghetto was created with its inhabitants liquidated. This sense of various trajectories of anti-Semitic persecution gives a context to “Kaddish,” along with Naomi’s incongruity as a Communist Party member in the new world. In Part IV of the poem the sense of breakdown and dislocation is staged on the mother’s body, with successive images building up with the cumulative effect of a litany:



with your sagging belly

with your fear of Hitler

with your mouth of bad short stories

with your fingers of rotten mandolins

with your arms of fat Paterson porches

with your belly of strikes and smokestacks

with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War

with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers

with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the

pickles of Newark

with your eyes

with your eyes of Russia


Ginsberg presents the body of the immigrant woman as metaphorically representative of the political and geographic dislocation of the twentieth century: the “vast global entity” is played out on her body, which is literally dissected in the lines breaking across the page. The poem bears witness to his mother’s life, acknowledging his European lineage and placing himself therein, with its legacy of trauma, failed hope, yet commitment to idealism, beauty, and humanity. Tenderly and brutally, he re-enacts the pain and shame in what amounts to a drag process as he speaks for Naomi, imaginatively investing in his postmemory.

The Jewish context connects the experiences of various Beat writers. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson is a memoir not only of her love affair with Kerouac, but of her bohemian youth, and the road away from home life with her assimilated parents. When she finds an apartment in the East Village, in the “sweet slums of Bohemia and beatnikdom,” she notes her mother’s incomprehension of her daughter’s move to slums her grandparents had struggled to avoid. She remembers journeys out on Jewish holidays from their comfortable Upper West Side home to visit cousins in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who were less assimilated, rougher in manner, and accumulated fat to crowd out the “specter of leaner days.” Johnson, née Glassman, chronicles a turbulent relationship with her mother, a common thematic strand of the women writers of the Beat generation. If Ginsberg’s ultimate horror is fucking his mother, as “Howl”’s expletives and “Kaddish”’s more graphic depictions suggest, the horror for the women writers is becoming their mothers.

A second memoir, Missing Men, follows Johnson’s discovery of the painful details of her Jewish heritage. After her grandmother had died and “the wall around the past briefly became permeable,” an aunt showed her a photograph of her grandfather, Samuel Rosenberg, a “poet and scholar, the descendant of a long line of eminent rabbis in Warsaw” who had sailed to America with his wife and youngest children in the 1890s. Up until that point, the sixteen-year old Johnson had been told that her grandfather had died when he was thirty-seven years old of some unmentioned illness. But her aunt reveals the truth, that after injuring his hands in a factory and having been unemployed for a while, he committed suicide. The skills for which Rosenberg had been regarded as a “promising young man in Warsaw had no negotiable value” in New York, “a world in which he could not find his bearings.” Johnson includes family photographs throughout Missing Men – recovered photographs of Rosenberg, her parents, aunts, and as the text develops into the next two sections, photographs of both of Johnson’s husbands. For Hirsch, photographs are the “medium connecting first- and second-generation remembrance, memory and postmemory”; they are “leftovers, the fragmentary sources and building blocks, shot through with holes […] affirm[ing] the past’s existence and, in their flat two-dimensionality, they signal its unbridgeable distance.” Johnson describes her own efforts at “resurrecting” the cultured man she never knew, searching for him in
“exiles, in artists who could not find acceptance, in the rage and sadness of these men that would make me fall in love with them and ultimately leave me alone again with my freedom.”

Di Prima’s Recollections gives a parallel account of a maddened American-born mother, Emma di Prima, who literally tries to scrub clean the past and assimilate into the American ideal she perceives. Long sections of the text are dedicated by the writer to cathartically encountering Emma’s ritualistic cleansing and dressing routines: recounting being scrubbed in the bath until her skin was raw; wearing dresses so stiffened with starch that they rubbed holes into her neck and waist; underwear elastic and patent leather shoes that dug into her flesh; heavy combs “with ‘unbreakable’ stamped across the top” which her mother would boast of breaking on her daughter’s thick, curly hair. Young di Prima’s skin was the “interface” between herself and her mother and it was “always red – from scrubbing, from battering, from starch, from shame.” Like Naomi’s, the body of the immigrant daughter is a contested site. The mother’s scrubbing of her child’s skin can be read as an extreme displacement of the immigrant’s desire to scrub clean the signs of racial difference, and its attendant traces of impoverished, troubled histories – a “whitening” of sorts.

Expanding on this theme, the critic Wini Breines has interpreted the “racial meanings” behind the “adult culture’s dualism of light and dark.” Whiteness was coded as the norm and ideal across American society, evident in pastel-colored clothing, light-colored, tidy hair, accompanied by good, clean personal hygiene. This all-American ideal dominated the cultural spectrum not only in “beauty standards” but in “mainstream movies, television, magazines, and advertising.” In contrast, darkness was coded as negative and seen in the black leather of real life “hoods” and on-screen delinquents, the dark clothes of black-clad beatniks with their unruly, long hair, and poor personal hygiene, with their alleged filthiness being another shading of darkness. Such delinquents sometimes “were dark” due to immigrant backgrounds. This resonates with the Italian and Jewish lineages discussed so far, and other Beats like Kerouac with his French-Canadian and Iroquois blood.[3] Breines explains that: “Difference was supposed to be invisible in postwar America. In this version, America was a welcoming melting pot into which everyone could and would be incorporated. Erasing one’s difference, assimilating, was a sign of Americanness. And assimilation meant passing for white.” (400)

She points to the invisibility of African-Americans in the mass media, quoting the writer Michelle Wallace, who “grew up watching a television on which I rarely saw a black face, reading Archie and Veronica comics, Oz and Nancy Drew stories and Seventeen magazine, in which ‘race’ was unmentionable.” In her analysis of the clothing choices of white American youths, the beat(nik)s included, Breines observes that wearing black conveyed “being unable to attain, or rejecting, prevailing values and standards of attractiveness, being an outsider.”

Alongside the erasure of the ethnic other in society’s images of itself, there often lurked shame in uneasily assimilated families, for example, di Prima’s father’s shame at his dark Sicilian lineage. She recalls the suspicion shared by her mother and aunts that his “genes [were] not okay,” and who by contrast, were proud of their blue-eyed “northern” father Domenico Mallozzi. Such racism in American immigrant communities can be seen as an extension of the eugenic concerns of the day, which simultaneously were being taken to genocidal extremes by Doctor Mengele and his Nazi cohorts across the Atlantic.

Unlike those who wished to scrub themselves clean in America in their pursuit of the American dream, the Beats mined the horror, eviscerated the broken hearts of the family tree, and portrayed their postmemory in autobiographic writing. They proclaimed themselves orphans, dirty and lost like their immigrant ancestors in a new world grown rich and fat on industry spawned from war technology and efficiency – high on Moloch, but low on soul. They sought out the slums of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and the Mexican borderlands. Secret heroes were not only the jazz musicians and hobos, but migrant family members like Naomi Ginsberg, Domenico Mallozzi, and Samuel Rosenberg. We can also think of Jack Kerouac’s French-Canadian grandfather Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, who he summons up in “The Origins of the Beat Generation.” He “used to go out on the porch in big thunderstorms and swing his kerosene lamp at the lightning and yell ‘Go ahead, go, if you’re more powerful than I am strike me and put the light out.’” For Kerouac this man was an antecedent of an America “invested with wild self-believing individuality” which “had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead.”

The second-generation Beats mine the inheritance of the daughter and son, revealing the complex layering of “war upon war” across the generations. A lasting image is of the young Diane di Prima eyeing a burning effigy of Hirohito as she questions an uneasy peace after V-J day: “It turned out to be as warlike as the rest. On Brooklyn sidewalks, kids ran by with dolls’ heads on broomsticks. Beheaded dolls with slanted eyes painted on. Norwegian kids, Italian kids, ran screaming. Japanese heads on sticks, or hung on the fences. I stood quiet inside our wrought iron gate and watched. Afraid to step into it. “



Works Cited:


Breines, Wini, ‘The “Other” Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls.’ Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple U P, 1994)p. 382-408.

Charters, Ann, The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1994)

Di Prima, Diane, Revolutionary Letters Etc. (San Francisco: City Lights , 1971).

Di Prima, Diane, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (New York: Viking, 2001).

Ginsberg, Allen, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960 (San Francisco: City Lights , 1961). Rpt. 2010.

Hirsch, Marianne, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MT: Harvard U P, 1997).

Hirsch, Marianne, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia U P, 2012).

Johnson, Joyce, Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983) Rpt. 1994. London: Virago.

Johnson, Joyce, Missing Men: A Memoir (New York: Penguin, 2004) Rpt. 2005.

Johnson, Joyce, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (New York: Viking, 2012).

Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy M. Grace, Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation (New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 2002).

Kerouac, Jack, ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’ Playboy (June, 1959). Rpt. 1998. Good Blonde and Others (San Francisco: Grey Fox) p. 55-65.

Knight, Brenda, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley: Conari, 1996).

Miles, Barry, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin, 2002).



[1] In her Portable Beat Reader, Ann Charters posited two generations of Beat writers: firstly, those associated with the East Coast Beats, and secondly those “fellow travelers” who were influenced by the breakthroughs of the first generation. Joyce Johnson and Nancy Grace, however, suggest a three generational model to accommodate the range of women Beat writers they discuss in Girls Who Wore Black.

[2] Edie Kerouac-Parker’s You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007) can be placed alongside Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg (London: Black Spring, 1990) as narratives with a speaker who exists, first and foremost, “in relation to” the famous Beat figures, and written in conventional mimetic styles.

[3] Johnson notes that the minority populations of French-Canadians in New England were referred to as “white niggers.”