The Beat Generation in the rearview mirror
A.G. Mojtabai | July 11, 2008
Even from a distance, it was easy to guess that the clerk with the
bowed head at BookPeople was reading behind the counter. Face to
face, she was eager to share the title: Poetry As Insurgent Art by
Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Had I seen the Ransom exhibit on the Beats?
she asked. Wasn't it "awesome?"
A chorus of "awesome ... simply awesome" greeted me from the visitors
book at the entrance to the Ransom exhibit, but also a scattering of
distinctly dissonant notes (on behalf of the Beats' abandoned wives
and children), along with a murmur of bemused bewilderment: "Yes ...
But is it Art?" and "Funny stuff."
My own feeling turned out to be a mix of all of the above, although
proportioned differently and differently named. People of my
generation use "awesome" sparingly, if at all, the word reserved to
signify epic magnitudes or profoundest depthsnot what we find here.
Such an inflation of message and response strikes me as typical of
the Beat phenomenon, though.
"On the Road with the Beats" has been on exhibit at the Harry Ransom
Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin since
February and will continue to August 3. The scroll manuscript of Jack
Kerouac's On the Road, on loan from March until June 1, will have
departed by the time of this printing. The occasion for the exhibit
is the recently celebrated 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road.
"A generation in motion" is the exhibit's organizing theme. According
to the brochure:
"Pilgrims in search of a destination, [the Beats] crisscrossed the
globe, from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Mexico City,
Tangier to Paris, Calcutta to London. ... Motion, improvisation, and
process are driving concepts ... Experimental jazz and bebop prompted
writers to stretch prose and the poetic line to rhythmic extremes.
... The painters known as the New York School inspired influential
Originally a junkie term, "Beat" meant many things: desperate,
wasted, down-and-out (beaten-down)to which Kerouac added "beatific,"
which he defined as being subject to bursts of "ragged and ecstatic
joy." To most people, mention of the Beats conjures up the small
founding group of friends: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal
Cassady (better known as the fictional Dean Moriarty in On the Road),
and Allen Ginsberg.
Much on the model of Ezra Pound's relationship with the early
modernist writers, Ginsberg served as editor, literary agent, and
promoter for his friends. Ginsberg's letters provide a guiding thread
through their lives and the exhibit. The far fewer letters of Cassady
are no less valuable. As love-focus and muse for both Kerouac and
Ginsberg, Cassady was a pivotal figure in the movement. His letters
were the inspiration for what Kerouac called "bop prosody"his
signature extemporaneous style.
Nowhere is the Beats' self-mythologizing more blatant than in their
depictions of Cassady. For Kerouac, his friend's energies were beyond
the natural, his countless transgressions proof of his superabundant
life, "everything about him larger than life," Kerouac wrote in one
of his journals, published in Road Novels 1957-1960. Through
Kerouac's eyes, Cassady became saint, angel, archangel, "the holy
con-man with the shining mind. ... the Holy Goof." When Cassady stole
a tankful of gas they needed to move on, it was a theft "that saved
us, a divine theft ... Prometheus at least," according to Kerouac's
journal entry. And, as Kerouac confessed, he always "shambled after
[Cassady] as I've been doing all my life after people who interest
me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are
mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at
the same time."
Ginsberg added to this aggrandizement: "I have finally taught Neal,"
Ginsberg wrote, "that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of
Denver, marry a millionaire or become the greatest poet since
Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races."
Cassady, however, was not unanimously liked or trusted by the other
Beats. Having graduated from reform school into the streets, he was a
consummate con-man, hustler, druggie, drunk, car thief (but only for
joy rides and "kicks"), petty thief, and a sometimes-violent,
indefatigable sexual adventurer with both men and women. Abandoned by
his alcoholic father as a youngster, he had a sad start in life. On
the Road repeatedly reminds the reader that the narrative is an
account of the search for Neal's lost fathera would-be archetypal
quest for "the father we never found." In point of fact, it does not
seem that they searched very hard. Perhaps the father did not want to be found.
I visited the Ransom exhibit in April. Upon entering, I was
immediately confronted with Kerouac's famous scroll manuscript of On
the Road lying in state. It was an attention-grabber"This is the
longest book I have ever seen," in the words of an awed
fifth-graderand a visually arresting artifact in an exhibit that
skillfully blends textual, visual, and aural elements. Sepia-toned
and crumbling, venerable in its decrepitude and in the care expended
on its preservation, it reminded more than one visitor of one of
those ancient Dead Sea Scrolls.
A continuous stream of paper nearly 120 feet in length (the first 48
feet are unfurled in the Ransom display), the scroll was formed by
taping pieces of tracing paper together. The idea was to facilitate
continuous motion on the part of the writer. Typed at white heat
speed during three weeks in 1951, the scroll offered Kerouac (stoked
on massive doses of caffeine) a way to get the story out with maximum
speed and without overmuch reflection. The tail end of the scroll
manuscript was allegedly eaten by a friend's dog, but it is possible
that the scroll lacked an ending at the time. There was a long trek
yet to come: The book as we know it took more than 10 years, counting
Kerouac's note-taking before hitting upon the scroll method, and six
years of revision afterward as he struggled to get it published.
The scroll is a nonfictional account of five road trips taken by
Kerouac with Cassady from 1947 to 1951. Real names are used. In the
finally published novel, names are changed, sexual exploits are toned
down, and some self-conscious flourishes are added.
"First thought, best thought" was Kerouac's credo in creating the
scroll. To which the answer must be: Well, sometimes ...
And sometimes not. I have trudged through the scroll, word after
word, in a recently published book transcription. Although writing
nonstop must have been a liberating breakthrough for the author, it
presented a rather different experience for this reader. All five
books, five journeys, are jammed together into a seemingly
interminable single paragraph. Far from suggesting an open road or
flowing river, the scroll creates a clotted, even static, feelinga
sense of congealed motion. Free of later embellishment for literary
effect, some passages in the raw scroll version are stronger than in
the final book version, though.
The most interesting artifact in the exhibit, to my mind, is a cheap,
lined, spiral-bound notebook, one of Kerouac's travel journals from
1949. It had been sold for $1,000 to a rare book dealer by the Beat
poet Gregory Corso, who needed the money for heroin. The notebook can
be leafed through in digital facsimile. What caught my eye were the
intense reading lists, and a prayer for good times and bad, composed
by Kerouac (a cradle Catholic) upon learning that his first book, The
Town and the City, had been accepted for publication. The last page
is filled with lists of crops for a farm Kerouac hoped to start up
with Cassady, thinking it would provide a source of steady income and
a healthful way of life.
On the whole, the exhibit struck me as long on literary developments
arising from the Beat movement and wide in its exploration of
outreach to other arts, but short on backstory. The Beats did not
spring unaided from the ear of Zeus. True enough, as the Ransom's
narrative has it, the Beat movement was reactive to the repressive
conformism and complacency of Cold War America. But it was also, and
as truly, a continuation of long-standing American tradition. In the
case of On the Road, arguably the iconic document of the Beat
movement, the continuities are glaring. The open road, and before
that the open frontier, had long been part of the American romance.
The expansive thrust into unknown territory, adventure, the
camaraderie of the open road, wereand arecherished features of our
nation's traditional vision of itself.
The ancestors of On the Road are legion: Walt Whitman wrote the
enabling charter. Twain sent Huck and Jim on a raft down a watery
road. Melville had Ishmael and Queequeg light out for the open sea.
Emerson counseled self-reliance; Thoreau, marching to a different
drummer. And there is the long tradition of the picaresque in world literature.
From Beat to Beatnik to Hippie to Punk. Although the Beats are often
conflated with the later hippies and thought of as political, they
tended to be apolitical in the '40s and '50s. (During the '60s, the
activism of Ginsberg and others made for a somewhat different story.)
Far from engaging the world, and despite all their world travel, the
Beats remained largely cluelessnot simply incurious and insensitive,
but insensible: blind to the variety and complexity of lives other
than their own. In an instant judgment that was really a prejudgment,
Kerouac saw, and admired, Mexicans as "Fellahin ... the essential
strain of the basic primitive," brown toilers in the brown earth,
"pure and ancient" earth figures, with "slanted eyes and soft ways."
Even Mexico City was "one vast Bohemian camp. ... This was the great
and final wild uninhibited Fellahin-childlike city that we knew we
would find at the end of the road."
In a missive to Cassady in 1957, Kerouac wrote of the locals in
Tangier: "They are all hi, all wild, hep, cool, great kids, they talk
like spitting from inside the throat Arabic arguments."
This is sheer projection, of course, sweeping generalization that all
but obliterates the individuals standing before him, professed
admiration bordering on contempt.
A similar incomprehension is found in the Beats' treatment of women.
Women are perks of the road, ripe for the picking, thrilling for the
moment, but afterward all too often bitter or clinging. Marriages are
contracted, children conceived, and the boys in the club are off to
their next great adventure. Escape from the complexities and
responsibilities of the adult world, as much as anything else, seems
to be the animating force of On the Road. Here are a few of many
tip-offs: "Bitterness, recrimination, advice, morality, sadness, it
was all behind him..." "Goodbye, goodbye. We roared off..." "Nothing
behind, everything ahead..." To which Cassady characteristically
added: "Wow! Damn! Whoopee! ... Less go, lessgo!"
At one point, even Burroughs was moved to write Ginsberg and explain
why he had advised Kerouac against leaving on another jaunt with
Cassady. His letter is cited in Jack Kerouac's American Journey:
"Obviously the 'purpose' of the trip is carefully selected to
symbolize the basic fact of purposelessness. ... To cross the
continent for the purpose of transporting Jack to Frisco where he
intends to remain for 3 days before starting back to N.Y. [is] a
voyage which for sheer compulsive pointlessness compares favorably
with the mass migrations of the Mayans ... [a] voyage into pure,
abstract, meaningless motion ..."
Kerouac had a dream, and it surfaced from time to time, of having a
home and a stable marriage. "I want to marry a girl," he wrote, "so I
can rest my soul with her till we both get old. This can't go on all
the time ... all the franticness and jumping around." Instead, his
marriages quickly dissolved, and he returned repeatedly to his
mother's house (which he disguised as his "aunt's" house in his
fiction). This was the only home he would ever know. He died in 1968
at age 47 from complications of alcoholism. By the late '60s, the
original friends had drifted apart, and Kerouac had dissociated
himself from many of his followers.
The social norms that had so constricted the Beats had already begun
to change in the '50s in the aftermath of the Kinsey Reports. The
novel Peyton Place was published and reviewed at pretty much the same
time as On the Road. The doors to the counterculture had been opened.
The Beats were the heralds of change, though, and loud about it,
refusing to lead Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" or, in
Kerouac's words, to "go mad in recognized sanity."
A Ransom visitor signed "Lady Mariposa" wrote this tribute to
Kerouac: "Because of you I can be... Besos, mi Jack." Today, in large
measure because of the Beats, homoerotic love dares to speak its
name. Along with all the writers who come after them, I am indebted
to the Beats for their invigoration of the arts, for shattering the
molds and enlarging the realm of what can be printed, sung, painted,
and said. There has been a progression since then, however. Think of
gangsta rap, of Bret Easton Ellis and the "brat-pack" writers of the
late '80s and the '90s; think of Andres Serrano's crucifix submerged
in urine. "Transgression," sometimes billed as the obligation of a
true artist in the contemporary world, has become so widespread and
predictable that it seems almost tametrendy transgressive, if you will.
There is a muted undercurrent running through Kerouac's writing. It
is discernible in the travel notebook of 1949, where he recorded his
plans for buying a farm and growing "sturdy" as well as "seasonal"
crops, and in his recurrent daydream of finding the right girl,
settling down, and resting his soul. It becomes impossible to ignore
in the coda to On the Road, a passage so poignant and lyrical that it
seems more sung than said:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down
river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense
all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to
the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in
the immensity of it ... the evening star must be drooping and
shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the
coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers,
cups the peaks, and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody
knows what's going to happen besides the forlorn rags of growing old,
I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty, the
father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
Blesses ... darkens ... cups ... and folds in. The prose slows down.
After all that frantic rushing around, all that road going, the
completion of Kerouac's journey comes at a broken-down pier in
Hoboken, near where he first set out, where he offers up this hymn to
night, friendship, remembrance, and rest.
A.G. Mojtabai is the author of nine books, including the new All That
excerpted on page 5. She lives in Amarillo.