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The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation

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Published by Six minutes
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Published by: Six minutes on May 12, 2010
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THE BEAT GENERATIONThe canonical beat generation authors met in New York: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg,William Burroughs, (in the 1940s) and later (in 1950) Gregory Corso. In the mid-1950s thisgroup expanded to include figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance such asKenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen,Lew Welch and Kirby Doyle.Perhaps equally important were the less obviously creativemembers of the scene, who helped form their intellectual environment and provided thewriters with much of their subject material: There was Herbert Huncke, a drug addict and petty thief met by Burroughs in 1946; and Hal Chase, an anthropologist from Denver who in1947 introduced into the group Neal Cassady.Also important were the oft-neglected women inthe original circle, including Joan Vollmer and Edie Parker. Their apartment in the upper westside of Manhattan often functioned as a salon (or as Ted Morgan puts it, a "pre-sixtiescommune") and Joan Vollmer in particular was a serious participant in the marathondiscussion sessions.William Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1914; making himroughly ten years older than most of the other original beats. While still living in St. Louis,Burroughs met David Kammerer, presumbably an association based on their sharedhomosexual orientation. David Kammerer was a homosexual intellectual. As a boys' youth-group leader in the mid-1930s, he became infatuated with Lucien Carr, a rich teenager in thegroup. They developed a friendship. Although Carr was not gay, he apparently enjoyed theattention of the older man and let Kammerer follow him to the various schools he wasexpelled from, Andower, then Bowdoin, and then (in the fall of 1942) the University of Chicago. That's where Kammerer introduced 17-year-old Lucien Carr to his old St. Louisfriend William S. Burroughs.Burroughs was a Harvard-graduate who had been around theworld and pretty much lived off his family, his grandfather having invented the BurroughsAdding Machine. After reading a book called You Can't Win, Burroughs was fascinated withthe criminal underworld and in Chicago assosiated with thieves and the like, plotting to stick up a Turkish bath and rob an armored car. Nothing ever went past the planning stage.Thethree became good friends and madcap companions. Their pranks and escapades gotBurroughs kicked out of his rooming house and culminated in an ambiguous suicide by Carr,which got him sent home to St. Louis.Soon, however, he moved on to Columbia University,where Kammerer followed, and shortly after (summer 1943), Burroughs as well. They became two dignified, respected elders of the Columbia group of friends Carr developed. Onesuch friend was freshman Allen Ginsberg, whom Carr met in late 1943 and introduced toBurroughs and Kammerer. Edie Parker, another member of the crowd, introduced Carr to her  boyfriend Jack Kerouac once he came back from his stint as a merchant marine. They becameextremely close friends fast. In 1944 Carr introduced Kerouac and Burroughs, who also became good friends, though he was not quite a part of the Columbia student scene.The center of the attention was on the strange relationship between Kemmerer and Carr. Kammerer'sfixation was becoming out of control, and in mid-August, 1944, Lucien Carr killed him with a boyscout knife in self defense after Kammerer allegedly claimed he'd kill Carr if they didn'tmake love immediately. The crime took place in a park on the Hudson River. Carr draggedthe body into the river. He first went to Burroughs for advice, who told him to contact the police and his family immediately, and not to talk to anyone else. Instead, Carr went toKerouac and told him about the murder. The two of them threw the knife into a drain, wentdrinking, and saw a movie. Carr turned himself in the next morning and Kerouac and
 
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Burroughs were both charged as accessories to the crime. Burrouyghs quickly got the moneyfor bail, but Kerouac's parents refused to post it for him. Edie Parker and her family camethrough, with the condition that they be married immediately.While Carr was in prison, Kerouac and Ginsberg began a close friendship, and soon the twoof them and Burroughs formed a trinity.Burroughs had long had an interest in experimentingwith criminal behavior, and gradually made contacts in the criminal underground of NewYork, becoming involved with dealing in stolen goods and narcotics and developing adecades long addiction to opiates. Burroughs met Herbert Huncke, a small-time criminal anddrug addict who often hung around the Times Square area.The beats found Huncke afascinating character. As Ginsberg put it, they were on a quest for "supreme reality", andsomehow felt that Huncke, as a member of the underclass had learned things they weresheltered from in their middle/upper-middle class lives.Various problems resulted from thisassociation: In 1949 Ginsberg was in trouble with the law (his apartment was packed withstolen goods, he had been riding in a car full of stolen goods, and so on). He pleaded insanityand was briefly committed to Bellevue, where he met Carl Solomon. When committed CarlSolomon was more eccentric than psychotic — a fan of Antonin Artaud, he indulged in someself-consciously "crazy" behavior: he stole a peanut butter sandwich in a cafeteria, andshowed it to a security guard. If not crazy when he was admitted, he was arguably driven mad by the insulin shock treatments applied at Bellevue, and this is one of the things referred to inGinsberg's poem "Howl" (which was dedicated to Carl Solomon). After his release, Solomon became the publishing contact that agreed to publish Burroughs first novel "Junky" (1953)shortly before another serious psychotic episode resulted in him being committed again.Theintroduction of Neal Cassady into the scene in 1947 had a number of effects. A number of the beats were enthralled with Cassady — Ginsberg had an affair with him; and Kerouac's roadtrips with him in the late 40s became a focus of his second novel, On the Road. Cassady ismost likely the source of "rapping" the loose spontaneous babble that later became associatedwith "beatniks". He was not much of a writer himself, though the core writers of the groupwere impressed with the free-flowing style of some of his letters, and Kerouac cited this as akey influence on his invention of the spontaneous prose style/technique that he used in On theRoad (the other obvious influence being the improvised solos of Jazz music). This novel(when it eventually appeared in 1957) transformed Cassady (under the name "DeanMoriarty") into a cultural icon: a hyper wildman, frequently broke, largely amoral, butfrantically engaged with life.The time lags involved in the publication of Kerouac's On theRoad often creates confusion: It was written in 1952 — around the time that John ClellonHolmes published "Go", and the article "This is the beat generation" — and it covered eventsthat took place much earlier, beginning in the late 40s. Since the book was not published until1957, many people received the impression that it was describing the late '50s era, though itwas actually a document of a time ten years earlier. The legend of how "On the Road" waswritten was as influential as the book itself: high on speed, Kerouac typed rapidly on acontinuous scroll of telegraph paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac's dictum was that "the first thought is best thought", and insistedthat you should never revise text after it is written — though there remains some questionabout how carefully Kerouac observed this rule.In 1950 Gregory Corso met Ginsberg, who
 
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was impressed by the poetry Corso had written while incarcerated for burglary. GregoryCorso was the young d'Artagnan added to the original three of the core beat writers, and for decades the four were often spoken of together; though later critical attention for Corso (theleast proflific of the four) waned. Corso's first book The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems appeared in 1955.Then during the 1950s there was much cross-pollination with SanFrancisco area writers (Ginsberg, Corso, Cassady and Kerouac all moved there for a time).Ferlinghetti (one of the partners who ran the City Lights press and bookstore) became a focusof the scene as well as the older poet Rexroth, whose apartment became a Friday night literarysalon. Rexroth organized the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, the first public appearanceof Ginsberg's poem Howl.An account of the Six Gallery reading forms the second chapter of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, a novel about another poet that read at theevent: Gary Snyder (written about under the name of "Japhy Ryder"). Most of the people inthe Beat movement had urban backgrounds and they found Snyder to be an almost exoticindividual, with his backcountry and rural experience, and his education in culturalanthropology and Oriental languages. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has referred to him as 'theThoreau of the Beat Generation". One of the primary subjects of The Dharma Bums isBuddhism, and the different attitudes that Kerouac and Snyder have towards it. The DharmaBums undoubtably helped to popularize Buddhism in the West.
Women of the Beat Generation
There is typically very little mention of women in a history of the early Beat Generation, anda strong argument can be made that this omission is largely a reflection of the sexism of thetime rather than a reflection of the actual state of affairs. The poet and anarchist Elsa Gidlow,who hitchiked from New York (where she had lived in Greenwich Village) to the SanFrancisco area in 1940, is representative of independent-minded women in the 'bohemian background' of the popularly recognized Beat Generation. Gidlow later became an integralmember of the West Coast circle that included philosopher Alan Watts.Joan Vollmer (later, Joan Vollmer Burroughs) was clearly there at the beginning of the BeatGeneration, and all accounts describe her as a very intelligent and interesting woman. But shedid not herself write and publish, and unlike Neal Cassady, no one chose to write a book about her; she has gone down in history as the wife of William Burroughs, killed in anaccidental (or perhaps "accidental") shooting. Gregory Corso insisted that there were manyfemale beats, in particular, he claimed that a young woman he met in mid-1955 (HopeSavage, also called "Sura") introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to subjects such as Li Po andwas in fact their original teacher regarding eastern religion (this claim must be anexaggeration, however: a letter from Kerouac to Ginsberg in 1954 recommended a number of works about Buddhism). Corso insisted that it was hard for women to get away with aBohemian existence in that era: they were regarded as crazy, and removed from the scene byforce (e.g. by being subjected to electroshock). This is confirmed by Diane di Prima (in a1978 interview collected in The Beat Vision): I can't say a lot of really great women writerswere ignored in my time, but I can say a lot of potentially great women writers wound updead or crazy. I think of the women on the Beat scene with me in the early '50s, where arethey now? I know Barbara Moraff is a potter and does some writing in Vermont, and that's

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