Geniuses All the Time

The Portable Beat Reader

Ed. by Anne Charters.


What was the Beat Generation all about, anyway? Here’s Jack Kerouac’s answer, as quoted by fellow beatnik John Clellon Holmes: “It’s a kind of furtiveness… . Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there’s no use flaunting on that level, the level of the ‘public,’ a kind of beatness—I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves, because we all really know where we are—and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world… . So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”

Got that? For further illumination, there’s this from Gregory Corso:

What we are witnessing is a delicate shift of total consciousness in America—It won’t be done through publicity or propaganda, articles or any form of—brainwashing persuasion—it will occur as response to altered history scene. … The shift and new recognition can only be incarnated and commenced thru great works of Art (as Whitman rightly demanded from poets to come)—Art to stand beacon like Statue naked and courageous, individual statement of private actual, uncensored individual perception… . Therefore a new art whose objectivity will be the accuracy of its introspection—the bringing forth of heretofore hidden materials, lusts, spiritual ambitions, experiences—in the new forms in which they will necessarily arrive—rather than the cringing self-consciousness of the psyche whose individuality has been so thwarted—that it masks itself and deceives others—under a guise of a received system of thought, of a system of thought at all, a received mode of feeling (which is never received but constantly occurs on its own) (when true) (when at all) or measure, stanzaic or structural, as far as its poesy is concerned. O fear of the fury of subjective revolution, death and new beat insight!—

And here, for good measure, is Michael McClure on the same subject:

We were locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle—the Korean War… . We hated the war and the inhumanity and the coldness. The country had the feeling of martial law. An undeclared military state had leapt out of Daddy Warbucks’ tanks and sprawled over the landscape. As artists we were oppressed and indeed the people of the nation were oppressed… . We knew we were poets and we had to speak out as poets. We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead—killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest [sic]. We knew we could bring it back to life… . We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.

When Allen Ginsberg introduced the world to “Howl” at a now-fabled 1955 reading in San Francisco’s Six Gallery, everyone present knew “at the deepest level,” declares McClure, “that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.”

Reading such slovenly, overheated prose in The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, one hardly knows which is more astonishing: that these men and their cohorts could ever have acquired significant literary reputations in the first place, or that, more than thirty years later, when many of their far more gifted contemporaries are virtually forgotten, every last member of the Beat fraternity who ever picked up a pencil (or, in the case of Neal Cassady, stole a typewriter) has been accorded an honored place in the history of American letters.[1]  Few have played so industrious a part in this enterprise as Charters, who has for three decades been what one must, I suppose, call a “Beat scholar”; the biographer of Kerouac and editor of a two-volume encyclopedia entitled The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, Charters functions in the present Reader as an utterly uncritical tour guide, a literary version of the cordial, discreet lady from the PR office who shows you around corporate headquarters. Moreover, if in one sense Charters is the literary antithesis of the Beats—her prose as orthodox of syntax and as wearisomely academic in tone as theirs is frenzied and ungrammatical—in another sense she is their true compeer, for her writing evinces a thoroughly Beat-like ungainliness. “As a facet of our country’s cultural history,” reads a typical sentence in her introduction, “clusters [i.e., literary cliques] have been an outstanding feature of our literature… . The discovery of the word ‘beat’ was essential to the formation of a sense of self-definition among the earliest writers making up the cluster that would later call itself members of a ‘Beat Generation.’” By the time one has reached the end of the introduction (in which she identifies one of Burroughs’s favorite books as “Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West”), one knows better than to expect from Charters anything resembling literary taste or critical intelligence.

Indeed, she toes the entire Beat line, celebrating the writers’ “attack on such cherished institutions as capitalism, consumerism, the military-industrial complex, racism, and ecological destruction” and explaining that while “[e]arlier modernist poets like Ezra Pound or Lost Generation writers like Ernest Hemingway had attacked the system from the safeguard of their life abroad as expatriates, … the Beat Generation writers protested their country’s excesses on the front lines.” The front lines! To speak in this way of the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac is to insult anyone who ever engaged in selfless, perilous struggle against a perceived wrong. The Beats didn’t know what it meant to commit oneself, heart and soul, to real political action (nor, McClure to the contrary, did they have a clue how it might feel to be oppressed or to live under martial law); what Charters chooses to deem their “protest” consisted, in the years before they became famous, of hanging out, taking drugs, having indiscriminate sex, and living off money stolen from acquaintances or cadged from friends and family. Once they’d achieved celebrity status, moreover, they were too busy making the front pages to put themselves on any front line; far from hurling “Howl” against a harsh wall, Ginsberg lobbed it into the appreciative arms of newspaper reporters and magazine editors who were eager for some sign of sensational dissent in America—and into the arms, as well, of a growing population of young people in search of an image to suit their notion that they were a special generation.

For the Beats came along at a time when hardly anyone in America was rebelling (and when, for a middle-class white American man, there was hardly any reason to rebel); indeed, an early Life magazine article on the Beats was entitled “The Only Rebellion Around.” (One of the more amusing ironies of Beat history is that while Time and Life were among the Beat writers’ favorite targets, those trend-happy periodicals played a big part in making them famous.) For America, it was a time of peace and freedom and unparalleled affluence; but it was also a time when many Americans were buying simple-minded self-help books that told them how to win friends and influence people, how to improve their lives through positive thinking, and so forth. The Beats appealed to the underside of this trend: what they peddled to young people, essentially, was a look, an attitude, a strategy for self-redefinition. It was every bit as crude a strategy as those peddled by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale; the difference, of course, was that the aim was not to become a more happy and successful member of American society but to become a misfit. If, like Carnegie and Peale, the Beats and their Weltanschauung hit it big, the ultimate reason, ironically, lay in the tolerance and prosperity of 1950s America: youngsters became beatniks, in other words, only because they knew that the society they lived in was tolerant enough to let them get away with it and that their parents were affluent and indulgent enough to bankroll them.

The Beats were hardly, then, true stormers of barricades. (To be sure, in later years Ginsberg and others were happy to associate their names with various movements, including those for black and gay rights, but those causes owed nothing to the Beats, who were patently vexed less by the shortcomings of American society than by the inherent burdens, limitations, and responsibilities of adult life itself, and who were, in this regard, precursors of the Sixties at their most juvenile.) Indeed, their notions of sex roles were as traditional as those of any Rotarian. Charters doesn’t face up to this; she even manages to blame the Beats’ adherence to the double standard on “the sexism of the times,” without explaining how this jibes with their supposedly wholesale rejection of “the times.” Why doesn’t the fact that the Beats conformed perfectly, in this regard, to middle-class practices communicate something to Charters about the shallowness of their so-called revolt?

This shallowness is in evidence from the opening pages of The Portable Beat Reader, the first of whose six parts, entitled “The Best Minds of a Generation,” begins with the principal texts of the movement: fifty-odd pages apiece by Kerouac (mostly from On the Road, whose first chapter is reprinted in toto), Ginsberg (mostly “Howl” and “Kaddish,” both presented in their entirety), and Burroughs (roughly equal-length bits from Junky, The Yage Letters, Naked Lunch, and “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”). These are followed by a brief passage from John Clellon Holmes’s novel Go (in which the Kerouac character borrows some money, saying “My mother gets paid on Friday, so we can get it back to you by then”) and a few short poems by Gregory Corso, as well as works by two Beat figures whom one does not ordinarily think of as writers: Herbert Huncke, the thug who turned Burroughs on to heroin and introduced the Beats to the word “beat,” is represented by a couple of clumsy vignettes that might well be the work of an eighth grader; Carl Solomon, the mental patient to whom Ginsberg dedicated “Howl,” weighs in with three scraps, part memoir and part musing, from his collection Mishaps, Perhaps. (If Charters’s motive, in including Huncke and Solomon, was to make the selections by the big names look stronger by comparison, she has succeeded: Huncke and Solomon prove that prose can be even more dopey and disjointed than in Kerouac and Burroughs.)

What is left to say about the Beat movement’s chief monuments? To reread On the Road is to be reminded why its romanticism and energy appeal to many high-school and college students. For all its repetitiousness (and, ultimately, tedium), there are moments of dizzy lyricism in this book, and Kerouac does capture something of the restlessness that motivates his characters to ramble back and forth across the United States; he evokes something, too, of the rural highways and mean streets, and of the pathetic desperation with which his overgrown adolescents watch time—and their youth—passing them by. But the book’s first chapter doesn’t stand up very well on its own; and from the perspective of 1992, the whole thing feels terribly dated—it’s a fading relic, not an enduring artwork. Of the other Kerouac excerpts, the five choruses culled from “Mexico City Blues” read like old TV-sitcom parodies of beatnik verse (sample: “All the endless conception of living beings / Gnashing everywhere in Consciousness / Throughout the ten directions of space”); the two-page list of “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” which was presented to this critic in graduate school as a key document in the history of American literature, is staggeringly vapid; and even sillier is “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” which consists of a numbered “List of Essentials” for the modern prose writer. These “essentials” range from relatively lucid fortune-cookie mandates (“Accept loss forever”; “Be in love with yr life”) to bemusing and/or dubious vatic assertions (“Visionary tics shivering in the chest”; “You’re a Genius all the time”). The recurring idea is that insanity is a literary asset: “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind”; “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.”

As for Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it seems more heavy-handed and fraudulent than ever. Ginsberg has so often endorsed the “crazier the better” philosophy (“I’m so lucky to be nutty,” he wrote in “Bop Lyrics”) that his implied anguish over the destruction by madness of “the best minds of his generation” seems unconvincing—as, of course, does the idea that the people he’s writing about could be the best minds on the block, let alone of their generation. In “America,” his Stalin-era sarcasm about his countrymen’s posture toward “them bad Russians” strikes a Yeltsin-era reader as particularly repugnant; and one finds oneself more irked than ever by his self-dramatization (“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”). At least the Burroughs selections are evocative and of documentary interest: in the pages from Junky, for instance, he takes the reader on an expedition into the lower depths of wartime Manhattan and explains the difference between “tea heads” and “junkies.”

But one can’t pretend to be very impressed by any of these Beat artifacts. On the contrary, one waits in vain for a clever or felicitous turn of phrase or a single coherently expressed idea. Bad as the Beat corpus is, moreover, it is at a special disadvantage when read in excerpts. These writers, to the extent that they shine at all, don’t shine sentence by sentence or even page by page; the strength, if one can call it that, of a Kerouac or Burroughs lies not in a knack for the beautifully shaped vignette but in an ability to capture, over a long stretch, and with all the clunkiness, if you will, of a modern (if lesser) Melville or Dreiser, the mood and rhythm and moral vacuity of a certain kind of bohemian life. In fact, the very notion of an anthology would appear to contradict Kerouac’s credos about “Deep Form,” “undisturbed flow,” “the holy contour of life,” etc.: a true Beat acolyte, one should think, would no more read Beatlit piecemeal than a jazz aficionado would buy an album consisting of thirty-second cuts of Charlie Parker.

To one’s surprise, Part One proves to be the most substantial section of the Reader; almost everything that follows feels like filler, marginalia, afterthoughts. Part Two is taken up entirely by letters between Kerouac and Neal Cassady (the prototype of On the Road’s Dean Moriarty) and by excerpts from Cassady’s autobiography and from Kerouac’s second book about him, Visions of Cody. In a typical missive, Cassady recounts in painfully illiterate prose how he met a virgin on a bus ride from Saint Louis to Kansas City and

decided to … seduce her, from 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM I talked. When I was done, she (confused, her entire life upset, metaphysically amazed at me, passionate in her immaturity) called her folks in Kansas City, & went with me to a park (it was just getting dark) & I banged her; I screwed as never before; all my pent up emotion finding release in this young virgin (& she was) who is, by the by, a school teacher!

All the excerpts in this section have manifestly been chosen for their elucidation of the temperament and life style of Cassady, who for his fellow Beats personified the Beat ethos. Yet readers may be excused for being loath to slog through these slipshod accounts of his grubby life.

In Part Three, Charters surveys eight poets of the “San Francisco Renaissance,” among them Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Whalen, Charters tells us, “broke free from his obsession with imagist poetry and the formal academic poetry of T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens after taking peyote in 1955: ‘all my dopey theories and hangups and things about writing … suddenly disappeared.’” (Yes, that would do it, wouldn’t it?) As for Rexroth, his longest contribution here is his notorious poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which is dedicated to Dylan Thomas and which, as he explains in an author’s note, “was written in one sitting, a few hours after a phone call came from New York with the news that Dylan had died.” The poem is a standard Beat harangue about America, capitalism, the System. “They are murdering all the young men,” Rexroth insists, and goes on to compare Thomas’s death to the stoning of Stephen. After naming many dead and broken poets—the ragtag roster includes Edwin Arlington Robinson, Hart Crane, and Sara Teasdale —Rexroth focuses again on “the sparrow of Cardiff,” blaming his demise on “[Robert] Oppenheimer the Million-Killer,” “Einstein the Grey Eminence,” and, in effect, every other true-blue American, including the reader of the poem:

Who killed him?
Who killed the bright-headed bird?
You did, you son of a bitch.
You drowned him in your cocktail brain.
He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.

He was found dead at a liberal weekly luncheon.
He was found dead on the cutting room floor.
He was found dead at a Time policy conference.
Henry Luce killed him with a telegram to the Pope.
Mademoiselle strangled him with a padded brassiere.
Old Possum sprinkled him with a tea ball.
After the wolves were done, the vaticides
Crawled off with his bowels to their classrooms and quarterlies.

I want to run into the street,
Shouting, “Remember Vanzetti!”
… And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
“You killed him! You killed him.
In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.”

Its lack of literary merit aside, what, one wonders, does any of this have to do with Dylan Thomas, who died of alcoholism, pneumonia, and a collapsed ego after living a “naked-nerved and blood timid” life mostly in Wales and London? Far from constituting a tribute to Thomas, this poem, with its inane attempts to attribute the Welshman’s death to Time magazine, to various elements of the military-industrial complex, and to patrons of Brooks Brothers, represents an insult to the poet’s memory; Thomas serves as a cudgel with which Rexroth clubs his own enemies for his own reasons. If there is anything resembling a clear motive here, it is not righteous indignation but a powerful resentment with which the poet seems not to have come to terms—resentment not only toward the sort of people who can afford to shop at Brooks Brothers but also toward a recently deceased foreign poet whose verses had, if the truth be told, received far more attention on these shores than Rexroth’s.

From Rexroth and friends we proceed to Part Four, a grab-bag of work by thirteen “Other Fellow Travelers” who might be described as marginal Beats at best. These range from Bob Dylan (Charters actually includes the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) to Tuli Kupferberg (who is represented by an excerpt from his college-humor-magazine-style inventory of 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft) to Peter Orlovsky (a high-school dropout whose chief claim to fame is his unenviable thirty-year stint as Ginsberg’s significant other). Charters dutifully reproduces Orlovsky’s witless description of his method of “spontaneous prose”: “Just follow the mind out like this, when you have a hunch working in your mind or see a picture that has already expressed its self in the mind, then let that come out and not some other fast thought or idea that just jumped into the main one—but just write out what you feel the most at one moment and you can’t go wrong for you can just write out forever—the pen knows its job—.” The section also includes the longtime anthology standbys “In Memory of Radio” by Amiri Baraka and “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, neither of whom one would classify as a Beat poet—though both at least provide the book with some desperately needed variety in style and theme.

One thing that the Reader’s first four sections underscore is that the great majority of Beat writing, whether prose or verse, is highly autobiographical, drawn directly from the real-life adventures of the Beats and their womenfolk. (In an excerpt from Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, Charters even puts the characters’ “real” names in brackets, as if to acknowledge that this stuff is meant to be read not as literature but as gossip.) Over and over, one encounters the same historical tidbits—first in Charters’s introduction, then in the biographical notes that precede the selections, and then in the selections themselves. For this reason, it is hard not to turn to Part Five, “Tales of Beatnik Glory: Memoirs and Posthumous Tributes,” without feeling that one has already had quite enough of memoirs and tributes. The curious thing about these pieces—whose authors include Kerouac’s wife, Jan; Cassady’s wife, Carolyn; and Burroughs’s son, William, Jr.—is that they evince remarkably little variation in manner and sensibility; after a while, the anecdotes all blend together into a single sad story from which nobody involved seems to have learned a thing. That includes Charters, whose title for this section would appear not to be ironic: to her, one gathers, the story of the Beats is a tale of glory.

It was also—to the Beats themselves, if not to many discriminating readers—a tale of holiness. As Charters explains, to Kerouac “the linguistic root of the word ‘beat’ also carried the connotations of beatitute or beatific.” Throughout the Reader, sprinkled about like so much salt or pepper, one finds words suggestive of the sacred. In a postscript to “Poet of the Streets,” Jack Michelene notes that the poem was “written on First Avenue off the Bowery in an alley of great souls.” Philip Lamantia writes that “In the silence of holy darkness I’m eating a tomato” and finds “everywhere immanence of the presence of God.” Ginsberg speaks of Huncke’s “holy Creephood in New York,” and in “America” asks: “America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?” Then, of course, there is his “Footnote to Howl,” whose first line consists of the word “holy” repeated fifteen times, and whose next few lines make up a would-be Whitmanian catalogue: “The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” If this litany is less than convincing, it’s because one finds here no sense of awe or wonder in the presence of the things of this world and not the slightest hint of humility before the idea of Godhead. For all the renown of “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl,” it seems to this reader that only in a spiritually destitute era could so many intelligent people accept the idea that an Allen Ginsberg understands the first thing about what it means to be holy.

But then such is the Beat mystique, which will, alas, doubtless be with us as long as we live in an age that prizes personality over character, display over discipline, superficial vigor and provocativeness over intellectual and emotional depth, and sensational self- indulgence over unspectacular self-sacrifice. For a generation, people who pride themselves on not falling for a television ad for Dow Chemical or Archer Daniels Midland have allowed themselves to be taken in by the Beats’ slickly marketed corporate image; people who recognize a cynical act by a mainstream politician at a hundred paces have chosen not to notice the calculatedness with which the Beats have manipulated the news media and the literary world to their own ends; and people who sneer at the conceit of movie stars have preferred to overlook the appalling narcissism with which Ginsberg, on many a public occasion, has attracted notice by disrobing. (Well, it’s easier than writing a good poem.)

If readers have refused to see the Beats for what they are, however, so, it would appear, have the Beats. For all their blanket maledictions, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and company could never be faulted for being excessively humble or self-critical (Charters notes that Ginsberg was so irate at Holmes for his less than reverential rendering of him in Go that “The publisher withheld the paperback, fearing legal action”); they have rarely exhibited any irony or sense of humor about themselves; and though they vilify society for exploiting them in every conceivable (and, for that matter, inconceivable) way, there is nothing in their oeuvres to suggest that any of them has ever felt remorse over the very real ways in which they have used others—e.g., Ginsberg’s sexual exploitation of minors, Kerouac’s scrounging off his mother, and Burroughs’s trolling of his fourteen-year-old son past his pederast drinking buddies in Tangier. Reaching the end of this disgraceful volume—which closes with a section of post-Fifties work by Ginsberg and others and an appendix that includes Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro”— one cannot help feeling that Charters would have rendered American letters a far more valuable service had she dropped this project and instead done a study of Beat self-promotion, complete with reprints of the Sunday-supplement profiles and newsmagazine features that brought the Beats fame and, eventually, transformed them into legends; for it is in the realm of publicity, and none other, that the Beats have demonstrated their much-vaunted genius.

  1. The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters; Viking, 642 pages, $25.