History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. During the Beat era, they were largely ignored by their male Beat peers, at least in terms of their literary abilities. Despite progressive attitudes in other areas, the male Beats writers often had a shocking propensity for sexism.
There is also the tragic fact that women who broke the rules and lived lives outside of regular society faced greater consequences than their male peers. It was not easy for a man to live the Bohemian existence of a starving artist, but for a woman, it was an order of magnitude harder. Men faced difficulties but women were likely to be institutionalised or worse. Women of course faced the possibility of sexual assault, pregnancy, and domestic violence.
And what was the payoff? What was the reward from this risky choice to live an outsider existence?
Although the Beat writers generally weren’t in search of fame and fortune (at least that wasn’t their primary goal), some of the male writers certainly achieved respect and a degree of success. Kerouac died unhappy but at least he was admired. Ginsberg and Burroughs were widely revered in later years. Female Beat writers, however, were to a huge extent ignored.
Even as the Beats became an area of focus for scholars and began to reach a wider audience, the women of the Beat Generation were not taken quite as seriously and tended to receive a lot less focus than the men. It has only really been in the past few decades that they have been given their due. Thankfully, there is a growing interest and many valuable books and documentaries have been produced that have looked in more depth at these pioneering women.
What little emphasis has been placed on the women of the Beat Generation has tended to place them in the roles of muses and girlfriends. They are framed as hangers-on, not really contributing to the movement. (How many female Beats are known as “Kerouac’s girlfriend”?)
Whether or not the female Beat writers possessed the genius of their most famous male peers is debatable but certainly there were enough talented women in this movement to warrant serious consideration and some of them were tremendously creative, brave, and important artists whose lives and work should be held up for examination alongside the men.
This article, then, will look at some of these women. It is just an overview, so it will not go into great detail. For that, I recommend reading Brenda Knight’s book, Women of the Beat Generation (1996). I also suggest finding specific books on the lives of these women and – it goes without saying – to find their own work and read that.
Let’s first look at one of the more famous female Beats, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Carolyn Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich and famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.
Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of the areas her parents would have preferred. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.
She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.
Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.
Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952 when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.
Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.
She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.
You can learn more about Carolyn Cassady at the Cassady Estate website.
Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac and co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, remembered in popular memory for her memoirs, Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.
Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, whom Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.
According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept your mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”
She dated Kerouac for around two years but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.
She won the National Book Circle Critics award for Minor Characters, a memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.
Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s girlfriend, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post. She has also written for Beatdom.
Diane di Prima
Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”
Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.
She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between the Beat and hippie movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.
She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. With Amiri Baraka, she edited Floating Bear. Di Prima worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and taught at Naropa and the New College of California.
Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of her generation and became a valuable contributor not just to the Beats, but to American literature.
It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she was most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.
While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem Press, an important Beat publisher.
She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.
But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, was published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.
Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.
Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.
When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.
Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.
Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female participant in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was Vollmer who spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them. William S Burroughs was her second husband.
Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that tore her away from her mother and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women. She was rare among women in that her intellect was respected by her male Beat peers.
In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug use caused them.
Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.
Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug use, legal troubles, unpredictable self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young men, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.
Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:
Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.
Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.
weiss, who passed away in 2020, was one of the most fascinating female Beat poets. Born in Germany, she fled the Nazis in the late 1930s and moved to the United States. In the late forties and early fifties she moved around the United States. She settled in San Francisco and worked on her poetry, then spent time in Big Sur, which was then mostly known as a hang-out for artists.
A major figure in jazz poetry, weiss moved closer to Beat circles and was frequently published in Beatitude. A rebel to the core, weiss began using lowercase letters to spell her name during the 1960s. She shunned convention throughout her life and remained bold, brave, and creative well into old age.
Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.
She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principles and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.
Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.
That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.
But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken on social issues.
I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources. Elise Cowan’s story perhaps explains why it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in literary anthologies, but rather that there just weren’t that many female Beats.
Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.
When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.