By Mary Pannicia Carden

University of Virginia Press. 227 pages. £30.50/$29.50.  ISBN 978-08139-4122-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The title of this book is tricky. It doesn’t say that the women to be dealt with are “Beat writers”, though the inference is there. The difficulty is that “Beat” has become almost a catch-all term that can include any number of poets and prose writers who happened to be around during the “Beat Era” (another term that isn’t always easy to pin down) and perhaps appeared in magazines and anthologies that may have applied a flexible definition to the idea of Beat. I don’t want to spend too much time on this subject, but have a look at a couple of popular anthologies that appeared in 1960 – The Beat Scene and The Beats – and it’s easy to see that many of the writers in them were definitely not Beat, no matter how far you stretch the description of what constitutes Beat.

Mary Pannicia Carden quotes Diane di Prima as saying, “I don’t think women are ever going to be identified as Beat”, to which some people might ask, “Why would they want to be?” Di Prima, for example, always struck me as a talented-enough writer to succeed without the prop of being associated with a movement. But, to be fair, I suppose it does help if one is linked to a group that has some sort of status or notoriety. Editors compiling anthologies find it useful, and journalists do like to deal with writers they can slot into categories. It’s also a fact that there is now something of a mini-industry in Beat studies, and being identified with the group might be handy in terms of  encouraging academics to look at one’s work. So, let’s accept that there was a Beat movement and that some women were an integral part of it.

If we go back to what might be called the origins of the Beat Generation in New York in the 1940s we can see that there were women present alongside Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Lucien Carr, and the others who were part of the then-unlabelled Beat clique. But they were there as wives, bed-partners, or whatever, and had no status as budding writers. One or two of them may have written memoirs of their youthful experiences in later years, and they are named in biographies and books that provide general histories of the Beats, but beyond that they mostly didn’t achieve any permanency. If one looks at the novels that deal with those early days – John Clellon Holmes’s Go and Kerouac’s The Town and the City and On the Road – it’s easy to see that what is being dealt with is essentially a male-dominated society in which women played the part of providers of whatever comforts the men required.

I don’t think the situation changed radically once what might be termed the publicised Beat Era got under way. I’m thinking of the years following the publication of Howl and particularly On the Road, when would-be writers, both male and female, flocked to Greenwich Village and San Francisco to “join the dance”, to use part of the title of one of Joyce Johnson’s novels. It’s true that there were more women writers around, but I think it’s also accurate to say that they still weren’t accorded the respect and serious attention that men might have expected. The Beat image tended to be one of a “boy’s club”, with its members either criss-crossing the country in search of “kicks”, or crowding the bars in big cities while their female companions sat quietly and listened to whatever words of wisdom, if any, that the men might come up with. Joyce Johnson described it all wonderfully in her Minor Characters:

“As a female, she’s not quite part of the convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises towards the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being awakened”.

Diane di Prima had turned up in Greenwich Village before the Beats became famous, and perhaps had a less romantic notion of them than some later arrivals. I wonder if she sat quietly while the men hogged the conversation?  Carden provides a close examination of di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, and demonstrates how both probably exaggerate or alter what she did in order to make her seem a “uniquely iconoclastic woman”, and someone who could hold her own when it came to mixing with the men. I have to say that I read Memoirs of a Beatnik when it first came out in 1969, and I never could take it all that seriously.

It was published by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, and anyone familiar with his Paris productions will know that pornography was his main interest, even if he did also bring out books that had literary value. I certainly wouldn’t ever think it worthwhile using it for any sort of accurate guide to parts of di Prima’s life. It’s true that, as Carden points out, “Submerged under the sexual details, literary and artistic experimentation abound in Memoirs of a Beatnik”, and there are “tantalising glimpses of a bohemian environment imbued with creative energy”, but it’s the sex that dominates and most likely persuaded general readers that it was what the Beat life was really all about.

Carden also has her doubts about Recollections of My Life as a Woman, and uses a couple of coined  words – “truthy” and “truthiness” (both seem clumsy to me) -  to describe how di Prima’s accounts of what happened might not always bear close scrutiny. It isn’t that she tells lies, but rather that there is the impulse to point to her not being as much of a victim of male dominance as other women were at the time. She naturally wants to correct the record and show how she was just as important to the publication and distribution of The Floating Bear as Leroi Jones, who tended to get all the credit for its existence. She likewise felt aggrieved about being overlooked when the influential The New American Poetry 1945-1960 anthology appeared in 1960. I suppose it could be asked if she would have had sufficient work of quality at that time to warrant inclusion? And there were probably more than a few male poets who also thought they ought to be there.

Hettie Jones was another woman who was involved with Leroi Jones and became his wife, as her name implies. She assisted her husband with the magazine, Yugen, one of the key publications of the period, and with Totem Press, which published books by Paul Blackburn, Diane di Prima, Max Finstein, and others. It’s perhaps significant that di Prima seems to be one of the few women in the series, and that she’s one of the handful to appear in Yugen. Others were Rochelle Owens, Barbara Guest, and Barbara Moraff. The rather quaintly-titled Four Young Lady Poets, published by Totem, featured Owens and Moraff, along with Carol Bergé and Diane Wakoski.

The fact is, however, that Yugen was dominated by male contributors. I had a look at the copies I have and the presence of only a few females in the contents lists is noticeable. I don’t think Carden sufficiently explores the reasons for this. Were their sufficient women poets of any consequence in the Beat community at that time? Did women submit work for consideration, only to be rejected? If there were women poets who saw the magazine were they writing the kind of poetry its editor was likely to be interested in? Anyone who has edited a little magazine will know that a lot of the material sent to it simply isn’t suitable, and rejecting it has nothing to do with the gender of the poet.

It’s a fact that Hettie Jones didn’t get credit for her work with Yugen. And Leroi Jones often tended to take off on trips here and there, have affairs, and generally do what he wanted. She, on the other hand, was “increasingly overwhelmed by caretaking duties” connected to their home, child, and the magazine and press. When Leroi Jones published The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, he painted “a trivialising portrait of her”, and by that time, of course, had abandoned his previous commitments to Beat poetry, along with his marriage to Hettie, and moved to a radical role in the Black Power movement. It perhaps seemed essential to him that he reject the past by playing down parts of it. He even re-named Hettie, calling her Nellie Kohn, whereas other people are given their real names. Was it a way of belittling her? Or done for legal reasons?

The fact that Diane di Prima and Hettie Jones went on to assert themselves as writers is in contrast to Bonnie Bremser, whose Troia: Mexican Memoirs (later retitled, For Love of Ray) was the only book she published, though excerpts from another she was working on, but which doesn’t appear to have been completed, or at least published, were printed in magazines and anthologies. From the account Carden provides, it would seem that For Love of Ray was shaped into its published form by Michael Perkins who took Bonnie Bremser’s letters and edited and re-organised them to construct a narrative flow, What it amounts to is essentially the story of how she almost enslaved herself to her husband, Ray Bremser, a one-time criminal, and a minor poet on the Beat scene.

He persuaded her to turn to prostitution to get the money they needed to survive, and that he mostly spent, and didn’t think twice about leaving her stranded in Mexico when he felt it time to move on. It’s a shocking story, and would be in any context, and it may be that the Beat association is somewhat irrelevant, or at least not as important as the personal relationship concerned.

Possibly the best-known of the women who have written about their involvement with the Beat movement, and its predominantly male writers, is Joyce Johnson, whose Minor Characters I’ve already referred to. I think she would have established herself as a successful author regardless of the Beat connection, but it is a fact that she had an affair with Jack Kerouac. Like any writer, she then used the experience to create literature. Aside from the memoir mentioned, she wrote several  novels, including Come Join the Dance and In the Night Café.  And she produced a book called Door Wide Open: Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-58, which is a valuable contribution to understanding the atmosphere of the time, and not just the relationship between the two protagonists.

Reading Johnson I never have the feeling that she suffered deeply, or had her talents overwhelmed by the presence of Kerouac in her life. She was fully aware of her “secondary (at best) status in the Beat pantheon”, but still managed to survive and create a life of her own and a career as a writer. It’s perhaps typical of the sound common-sense that enabled her to come out on top of her experiences that she could question the male inclination to go “on the road” in search of “visions”: “It’s strange to go looking for visions. It seems more in the nature of visions to come upon you, seizing you unawares”. She also recognised that Kerouac’s ties to his mother “were like iron in his soul”.

Carden deals with some other Beat-associated women writers, in particular ruth weiss and Joanne Kyger. Jt may be that weiss is best seen in a broad bohemian context rather than just a Beat one. She had been around bohemian communities for some time before settling in San Francisco and getting involved with poets and their activities. Carden notes that she only started referring to herself in Beat terms in the 1960s, which some might see as a means of benefiting from the publicity that the Beats were attracting. It’s probably not that simple. The term bohemian had more or less slipped from general use, and Beat had taken over to describe a wide range of non-establishment writers, and not just those linked to Kerouac and company.

Joanne Kyger often felt that she was, in many ways, overshadowed by her husband, Gary Snyder, and that, during her time in Japan, she was expected to keep house for him, whatever else she did. Her journals of travels in India with Snyder, Orlovsky, and Ginsberg are instructive about their attitudes towards her. She certainly wasn’t impressed by Ginsberg, and described him as “self-important and selfish” and with “a giant inflated ego.” She seems to have tangled with him verbally on more than one occasion. There was an incident involving Snyder when she fell and had to be taken to hospital with a gash in her forehead. An accident? Life wasn’t easy for a woman in close contact with the Beat boys.

Carolyn Cassady, the ill-fated Elise Cowen, and Denise Levertov are other women writers who are  mentioned, though they’re not dealt with in any detail. I doubt that Levertov can be described as Beat, either in terms of her life-style or her poetry. Elise Cowan was a tragic figure on the bohemian scene and what I’ve seen of her work, which tends to the fragmentary, doesn’t convince me that she had a great deal to offer. But we can never know for sure when someone commits suicide just what they may have achieved if the circumstances had been different. Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg is a well-written account of their relationship. I got to know her when she lived in England and she was a sophisticated, educated lady with a love of the theatre. I once asked her how someone like her had connected with someone like Neal Cassady, and she smiled, and said, “Who can explain the workings of the heart?”

Women Writers of the Beat Era is a valuable survey of its subject, and a useful addition to the library of works by and about women and their involvements with Beat men and the Beat literary movement. It seems a long time since I wrote an article called “Beat Women” which attempted to provide some sort of a guide to the subject (see Beat Scene 16, 1993 and Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals, Trent Books, 2000) and my efforts have long since been outstripped by various biographies, histories, and anthologies, not to mention numerous magazine articles. Mary Pannicia Carden’s book can be added to the list.