COLUMN TWENTY-ONE, MAY 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
PART 1: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
CHAPTER ONE: BEAT
(Photo courtesty of Carolyn Cassady)
Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, inspirations of "Beat"
In Los Angeles, a zoot-suited hipster who has been thrown out of school after spending ten years in almost as many grades suddenly, in the midst of his twenty-first year and a prolonged period without heroin, has visions from God. He quits work, which happens to be shooting dice and playing cards, goes to a library and decides, while reading a book of metaphysical verse, to become a sculptor.
"Well like," he explains, from behind his newly cultivated beard, "down was up."
In a Mexico City apartment, an author, a millionaire's grandson, blessed monthly with an inheritance check and daily with a narcotics habit, entertains guests at a cocktail party by trying to shoot a glass of gin off his wife's head. The gun fires low.
"It was purely accidental," he tells the police in Harvard tones. "It was purely accidental."
In a second-floor New York gallery, a convicted bandit who would rather write than rob stands up to read a poem honoring a friend's one-man art show. Somebody laughs at the poetry and whispers remarks. Immediately, two bearded men approach the somebody and ask, with a few punches, that he shut up. Then they throw him down the stairs.
"He was a nebbish from the Bronx," one of the bearded men explains.
In Venice West, a young poet hitch-hiking south to visit a friend stops en route to read his writings before a group of political do-gooders, including at least a few flower-hatted ladies who really are more interested in verse that rhymes.
"What are you trying to prove?" asks a man in the audience, interrupting the poet. "What are you trying to prove, anyway?"
"Nakedness", the poet answers.
"What do you mean by nakedness?" the man asks, "Huh? What do you mean by nakedness?"
The poet lays aside his manuscripts, unzips his pants, and takes off, amid some screams and a few gasps, all his clothes. Then he retrieves his manuscripts and resumes reading.
In San Francisco, where only the cops and the bankers speak prose, a seventy-five-dollar-a-week postal clerk skips meals, walks to work, pinches pennies and forgets about girls just so he can spend almost his entire weekly paycheck to publish books of poetry written by friends.
"I once tried to write myself," he says, "But this is what I do best."
In a New York coffee shop, which, somehow, has found its way into Hell's Kitchen, a girl reads poetry before a two a.m. audience that includes, among an excess of standees, a three-year old boy asleep in his father's arms. Suddenly, a heckler finds fault with the girl's message. There is an exchange of words.
"You never sucked a cock," the heckler shouts at her. "You never sucked a cock kin your life!"
Unperturbed from the tip of her toes to the top of her voice, she shouts back:
"I'd rather suck a cock than kiss an ass!"
High on the San Francisco slope that contributes uplift to the city's North Beach district, a boy, fifteen, his legs in pain from pedaling all the way from Los Angeles, his stomach in agony from starving all the way as well, dismounts a bicycle in front of a Congregationalist mission, sits down on the curb and cries.
"Why did you come here?" asks the minister.
"To find the Beat Generation." answers the boy.
"But why?" asks the minister.
"I want to become a beatnik." answers the boy.
In a small Pennsylvania college town, an instructor of English, flushed with the discovery of a new American literature, puzzled at the thought which nurtures it, uncomfortable at the sensation that it actually is a massive assault on him, but engrossed, nevertheless, with the idea that it may well be the voice of the nineteen fifties, addresses a letter to an author in New York.
"I wonder if you can tell me, for the benefit of my students, where the term 'Beat Generation' derives and what you mean by it. How do you define beat"..."
It happened in New York in the fall of 1948. It happened in a small apartment at 681 Lexington Avenue, five flights up. There were only two witnesses - - a fact which tends to lessen contradiction, of course, but which doesn't entirely eliminate it.
"We were talking about the Lost Generation and what this generation would be called," remembers one of the witnesses, a writer, twenty-six then, working on his first novel. His name was Jack Kerouac.
"Jack and I never talked about the Lost Generation particularly," recalls the other witness, also a writer, twenty-two then, and also working on his first novel. His name was John Clellon Holmes.
"...And we thought of various names and I said, 'Ah, this is really a Beat Generation!'---and he leaped up and said, 'You've got it!'---see, just like that, " remembers Kerouac.
"...You see, when Jack used that phrase, we certainly didn't say, 'That's it! That's it!' and make a big issue out of it." recalls Holmes.
There have been other differences between the two men in the past eleven years. But there also has remained one similarity. However the words, "Beat Generation," first came to be uttered, both of them are part of it.
"In those days we were excited about everything and interested in everything," explains Holmes. "We were talking about where literature was going, but more important we were talking about what everybody was feeling. Jack used to come over to my place on Lexington Avenue in the afternoon---he'd sleep there at night if he'd be in New York and we would just talk. We would have some beers and we would play jazz records and we would talk all night. We talked for hours and hours and hours---I shudder to think of all the time we spent simply talking, not intellectual talk, but exciting talk. As I said, we were very excited about life then."
"Jack knew a lot of different kinds of people that I didn't know, and this excitement was one thing they had in common---a real hunger for life that had nothing to do with ideas necessarily or education or intellectual trends, but just with life itself. I felt that there was a great sense of identity, and at this time we were all trying to put it into words, to label it, not just in terms of a generation---that came out accidentally. But because we did feel that people of our age had a common experience, we felt that thus it was worthwhile thinking about toward which might sum it up. But Jack didn't stop to say, 'Gee, it's a Beat Generation'. And it wasn't about a group of writers because there wasn't any group of writers in those days. I hadn't been publishing anything and Jack's first novel wasn't even sold yet. And it wasn't any question of a new direction in literature, either. It was, again, a post-war generation, a generation which has had such a pervasive experience in common that you feel a sense of identity which even transcends completely lines of education and all the other things that separate people.
"Actually, what Jack said was, 'Everybody I know is furtive. They have a kind of furtiveness to them. They go along the street with a kind of interior knowledge on their faces which they're not admitting to. And although they're reacting just like everybody else, inside they've got something new.' So, for a long time, I thought about this, and he did, too, not with any plan in mind. And then one day, he said, "You know, everybody I know is kind of beat.' And that, as I recall, is the first time he used it in those days and just about the only time---oh, he'd use it in fun after that..."
Holmes, of course, didn't use it in fun after that. He used it in Go , a novel which he wrote a year later, which described all the people Kerouac knew and even Kerouac himself, and which, when published in 1952, attracted the immediate attention of a newspaperman, Gilbert Millstein, who reviewed the book for the New York Times .
"Millstein called me up and said, "What the hell is this?" Holmes recalls. "He said, 'What do you mean by 'Beat Generation?' Do you want to do an article on it?"
Holmes did want to do an article---he had been doing articles ever since---and the first one appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of November 16, 1952, under the title, This is The Beat Generation. It began by describing the face of an eighteen-year-old girl arrested for smoking marijuana...
"...It was a face which could only be deemed criminal through an enormous effort of righteousness. Its only complaint seemed to be 'Why don't people leave us alone?' It was the face of a Beat Generation..."
Both Go and the New York Times article created somewhat of a stir, especially in California, where friends recall Kerouac prancing up and down shouting, with appropriate expressions of annoyance, "That's my term! That's my term!" Actually, Holmes had acknowledged Kerouac as the originator of the phrase, not in his novel but in his article, and when Kerouac's second book, On the Road , came off the presses in September, 1957, controversy was prepared and waiting. So was Millstein.
"Actually," Millstein recalls, "I had been curious to know exactly what Holmes thought he meant by the term, 'Beat Generation' and it had occurred to me that it was the first time in I suppose a generation or two that a name had been coined for a generation, similar to the 'Lost Generation' of the Twenties. And since such a term had been coined and since we were always on the lookout for an explanation or interpretation of our times, I had
Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times called publication of the book an 'historic occasion'
suggested to the editors that we ask Holmes whether he would do the article. And let me say that when it came in it was both beautifully written and beautifully expository. Now when On the Road came out, I read it even before I knew I was going to review it, and I was very moved by it. It was a beautiful, beautiful book. But then everything I felt about it, I said in my review."
What Millstein felt, according to his review, was that the publication of On the Road was an "historic occasion insofar as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a million-fold by the speed and pound of communication.)...Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of 'The Lost Generation', so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the 'Beat Generation' ... On the Road is a major novel."
Although its style, far over the center line of literary tradition, was more "gone" than Go , On the Road dealt with the same years, described many of the same persons, recorded a few of the same events and included two of the same words found in Go . The words, of course, were "beat generation," and Kerouac even wanted to use them as the title of his book. He had written it, on a roll of what he called "canister" paper, during a siege at the typewriter which took only twenty-one days. [At the time, it sounded like "cannister" to me. Actually, Jack was referring to Bill Cannestra, a member of his circle at that time, who lost his head when, as a joke, he stuck it out the window of a moving New York subway car. What Jack did was to turn Cannestra's roll of paper into the equivalent of a new torah or some such sacred scroll] Kerouac's siege at the publishing houses, however, took somewhat longer. It took seven years, something like two thousand five hundred fifty-five days, before one of them, Viking Press, decided that On the Road was printable. Almost immediately, the book joined the best-sellers but it wasn't until several months later, when television interviewer John Wingate put Kerouac before a TV camera, that the non-reading public was introduced to the term, Beat Generation. By then, however, or at least according to Kerouac, Beat had come to mean beat , as in beatific.
"Beat?" Holmes says today. "The word didn't give me any trouble at the time. I must say it struck me as being absolutely apt. I felt that way---beat. I didn't even wonder at that point what the word meant---I think everybody really knows. But since then it's been used in so many different contexts that now nobody seems to know what it means. To me, beat doesn't mean you're defeated. It merely means you're exhausted, raw...
"You see everybody had hoped there would be a brave, new world after the war, but it didn't work out that way. There wasn't even the decade of peace we had after the first world war. The second war ended in 1945 and by 1947 everybody was talking about the next one. By 1948, who could believe that any international organization would be able to work this thing out? So that thrust you right back on yourself. What you felt yourself, your eagerness for life, that was the important thing and that meant jazz, liquor and fun. Jack and I were constantly meeting people like this, and then Jack would go off across the country and come back and say, 'It's everywhere, you know, people, wherever I go, there are people like this---and along the highway and in little boroughs, they're all the same, everybody's the same, they're irritated or bored with political panaceas and with issues ---Jack always used to call them issues . He would come back and say that the people feel something inside themselves which is more important---lust for life, excitement, joy.
"As for Beat Generation, the phrase just slipped into my book, I don't know, maybe I just remembered it and used it because it struck me as apt. But it described these people who felt such a lust for life, an excitement, a joy. In those days, it was joy, it was celebration, it was let's stay up all night, let's drink, let's turn the volume louder, let's talk, talk, talk. Jack used to talk of a Decade of Parties---he's a tremendously fertile guy, he throws out a dozen phrases. He used to say, 'Let's you and I and some other people rent a loft down on Williams Street, down by the Brooklyn Bridge, you can get one at fourteen bucks a month, and it'll always be there and we'll always have a party the whole time.' That was about Christmas or New Year's in 1950 and Jack said from now on the next decade is going to be a Decade of Parties, and I must say it felt like that. Basically, that's what this whole thing was, it was a celebration of life on a very normal level, because that's all that was left. Now, you see, the Beat Generation doesn't mean that any more. Today, it's just a bunch of nihilists sitting around being depressed."
Everybody, as Holmes says, may really know what beat means, but everybody doesn't necessarily agree with his evaluation of the word, and especially not his good friend, Allen Ginsberg, who is a character in both Go and On the Road , and who often is accused of being a character in real life. A poet and a good friend, too, of Kerouac, Ginsberg finds other nuances and other nuisances in Beat Generation. As for beat , he didn't invent the word, but there are many who regard him as its meaning. Even so, beat , Ginsberg says, is a "hip" word introduced to both Kerouac and himself by a hipster named Herbert Huncke, who was also in Go but who now is in Sing Sing.
"Huncke was a hipster, a thief, a junkie, but also a very romantic and Dostoevskian character," recalls Ginsberg, who adds, by the way, that he often is depressed but never sits around being a nihilist. "I'm sure that if you asked Jack about it he would say that he associates the word with Huncke, who was sort of a great visionary, too.
"Because the point of beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you are actually able to see the world in a visionary way, which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul. If you want to understand the word beat as it is used by metaphysical hipsters, you have to look at St. John of the Cross in his conception of the dark night of the soul. It's exactly the same thing as beat as it is used or as it can be used. I'd say that the primary fact of any beat writer of any interest is that each of them has individually had some kind of Kafkan experience of what would ordinarily be called the supernatural---but which is not supernatural, really, it's right there at the bottom of the universe. But that's what gives the power to the poetry or to the prose and that's what the whole concept of beat rises from. That is to say, as in the experience of almost all people who have had mystical experiences, there is a period of what's called the dark night of the soul, a period when the selfhood is broken down, when there is no longer any artificial regulation imposed from without or from within, where the soul is open and naked for God to enter in...
"You see, we're not interested in the sociology of it, although sometimes I am. The Beat Generation is a literary movement, and if the public associates it with violence or juvenile delinquency, it's the fault of the critics. It is they who have put the worst kind of violence to our poetry, in such a way that they have betrayed the muse. The violence in my poetry and in Kerouac's poetry is no greater than that in Rabelais or Shakespeare. All the creeps who come on with violence, with hatred, calling themselves Beat Generation types, are robots made by the mass media in their image of what the Beat Generation is. And the mass media are responsible for all the violence in what they call the Beat Generation because they've caused it..."
In Hollywood, Albert Zugsmith, a movie producer, didn't know what Ginsberg was talking about, but he did know about The Beat Generation. HE was bringing out a movie with just that title.
"The story," Zugsmith said, "is about a group of so-called beatniks in Los Angeles who frequent the coffee houses, and we don't actually show them smoking tea---that's marijuana---but they act like typical beatniks. There's very little conversation and they're listening to the type of music and poetry that these people seem to affect and one of their number is posing as a beatnik to please himself.
"You see, he has an obsession---he's a psychopath, and he perpetrates criminal rapes, and the victim he selects becomes pregnant, and it becomes a problem as to whether or not the victim should have an abortion, and she finds out that abortion is illegal regardless and she decides to have a talk with a priest...
"Fay Spain from God's Little Acre plays the wife who is raped, Maggie Hayes of Blackboard Jungle plays the previous wife who was raped, Mamie Van Doren plays a divorced woman who leads the detectives to the beatniks, Jim Mitchum, Bob Mitchum's son, plays the second beatnik, Jackie Coogan plays a detective, Irish McCullough plays his wife, Louis Armstrong plays himself, in one of the larger Beatnik joints, Vampira, who is sort of a beatnik herself, does the Beat Generation poem, Dick Contino plays a singing beatnik, Maxie Rosenblum plays the inevitable older man who becomes a beatnik, Charlie Chaplin Jr. plays a beatnik on the make with dames all the time, and most of the other beatniks in the picture actually are beatniks who we have recruited from the various coffee shops. In the end, they have a big hootenanny with singing and dancing and all sorts of things they do...
Kerouac? What does he have to do with it? I own a copyrighted title on The Beat Generation and a copyrighted book. I wrote it two years ago. We were well launched on this beat thing before I ever heard of the name Jack Kerouac..."
Whatever definition of beat Zugsmith may eventually write into his bankbook, the word, along with Beat Generation, has come to mean many other things.
"It's depressing," says poet William Carlos Williams, paralytic from successive strokes, hoping that some day he will be able to read again, his home still a mecca for all poets, "...young men beaten down..."
"Beat," says Joel Morwood, 16, high school, "expresses the general feeling of being fed up, fed up with society. We're in a cultural slump. I'm beat in the sense that I'm unconventional...I'm sort of fed up with Time Magazine."
"Beat Generation?---What do I know about the Beat Generation?" says Mike Canterino, twenty-five, owner of the Half Note, a jazz joint that also serves poetry and spaghetti. " I might even be beat for all I know. I live in the Village, I sit in coffee shops, I wear a dirty sweater. As a person I dig it---but as a business man I have to pay for my music."
"Well," says Herb Caen, newspaper columnist, sitting in his office in San Francisco, eyeing the clock and his deadline, "I don't know anything about the origins of the word beat, but I know about the origins of the word beatnik. I made it up. I put it in my column at about the time of all this sputnik excitement. I figured that both these people and sputnik were
Oh, he's a writer,
pretty far out. It just kind of fell out of my typewriter. There wasn't much thought behind it, but it stuck. Well, the beatniks didn't like it. They had poems about me on the Bagel Shop wall---'Herb Caen, Go Home!' I was just kidding, but they had no ability to laugh at themselves. Then there was a beatnik murder that got into the headlines and beatnik was here to stay."
"Of course I'm a member of the Beat Generation---or almost," says Alice Fishman, nineteen, clerk, dressed in a turtleneck sweater, wearing dark stockings, sitting alone at a table in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, reading a book. "I am a non-conformist, most definitely. I live in the Bronx but I just don't think like the others do on the Concourse. Ginsberg? Who? Kerouac? Oh, he's a writer, isn't he?"
"It means," says Howard Shulman, twenty-three, another poet, beating out a rhythm on a table top in a New York artists' hang-out called the Cedar Street Bar, "it means fucked out! I'm fucked out, you're fucked out, she's fucked out!" and he motions toward the girl sitting opposite him. "No," he corrects himself, addressing her. "You're too young to be fucked out. Would you like me to help you become fucked out?"
"We don't know what it means," says Alan Dienstag, twenty-eight, a novelist and a writer of children's books in his native San Francisco. "And we won't know what it means for ten years. Who's to say? It's like trying to judge the Lost Generation in the middle of the twenties, when all these people were going back to Paris by the boatload, disillusioned with what they found back home in America. The voices that are heard now in San Francisco may not even be remembered in ten years. Who do we remember from the Lost Generation? Wolf, Cummings, Hemingway"...
And in Ketchum, Idaho, a man with a beard, but with no amount of beatness, emits a guffaw.
"I never believed in any of these generation labels at all, and I never threw in with any generation," says Ernest Hemingway. "I've been writing since 1921 and it's now 1959 and I don't belong to any generation. I used a phrase by one writer, Gertrude Stein who was complaining about the generation of the lost. I didn't believe it was lost at all, and i countered that with a phrase out of Ecclesiastes. One is the opinion of a woman. The other is the opinion of a man.
"The difference between the alleged, so-called Lost Generation and this one, as I see it, is that this one promotes itself by publicity and makes a movement. At the time there was no movement at all. there was simply a lot of people who were writing, who were more or less the same age, and who had been through the war--- and others who had not been through the war and who wished they had been or were delighted they hadn't.
"There was not a promotion of a generation by the people who were involved. Nobody gave lectures. Nobody said we were such-and-such a generation. Nobody did a damn thing about it except that I put two quotations opposite each other in the front of a book, The Sun Also Rises . Nobody sang to guitars and, as far as I know, no one who was at that time in what they called the Lost Generation had any consciousness of being a member of it.
"Times now are either harder or easier, I don't know which. I had more net money then, more gross money now, and so now maybe it's necessary for people to advertise themselves. In those days it came to you. Now you have to go out and get it. I think that may be one of the fundamental differences. This does not mean that because we worked another side of the street we have anything against those who are working this side. They have no new technique in what they've shown, except the anger, but I think the guys have lots of talent and I wish them all the luck they can have.
"Is there a chance they'll be the voice of the nineteen fifties? I hope so. If the books are good enough, then they're read. If they're not, no amount of publicity will help---except that people will make some money."
In the spring of 1959, Random House, publishers of the American College Dictionary, sent a letter to Jack Kerouac at his home in Northport, Long Island, telling him that they were going to include the term Beat Generation in their revised editions and asking him if he would like to add to their definition, which was: "Certain members of the generation that came of age after World War II who affect detachment from moral and social forms and responsibilities, supposedly the result of disillusionment. Coined by Jack Kerouac."
"I sent them a long letter," says Kerouac, with hidden whimsy in his voice, "and told them to go back and read about what Dr. Johnson had to say about lexicography and I sent them this definition:
"Members of the generation that came of age after World War II-Korean War who join in a relaxation of social and sexual tensions, and who espouse anti-regimentation, mystic-disaffiliation, and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of cold-war disillusionment. Coined by Jack Kerouac."
"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever....The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose...the wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits...All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."-
NEXT: PART 2: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ. CHAPTER TWO: ST. JACK (ANNOTATED BY JACK KEROUAC) ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN TWENTY-ONE
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ