WRITING BEAT AND OTHER OCCASIONS OF LITERARY MAYHEM
Vanderbilt University Press. 237 pages. £19.95. ISBN 978-0-8265-2015-9
THE BEAT INTERVIEWS
Beatdom Books. 174 pages. £10.00. ISBN 978-0-9569525-9-2
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Books about the Beats continue to appear regularly, though many of them these days tend to come from university presses. And I have to admit that my spirits sag a little when I see another serious tome that aims to tell us how and why the Beats were born, blossomed, and didn’t die, certainly not in terms of the amount of attention they attract from academics anxious to have a book, or an essay in a prestigious publication, to add to their CVs. It was inevitable that this would happen. But as someone who first read the Beats, rather than reading about them, in the late-1950s, I prefer to dig out the books and the old anthologies and magazines, and recall how exciting all the activity seemed to be. It wasn’t that the work was necessarily all that good. A lot of it wasn’t and many of the minor poets, in particular, soon slid from sight. Most poetry doesn’t last very long. But when it was new it did appear to be interesting and it was often fun to read. Looking through those forgotten little magazines does sometimes bring back the sense of adventure I felt at the time. And that’s not something I can say regarding quite a few of the books about the Beats that I’ve encountered in recent years.
If I seem suspicious about the motives and achievements of certain academics I will make an exception in the case of John Tytell. I read his Naked Angels: the Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1976) when it was first published, and recognised that he seemed to have not only studied the literature but had also tried to get to know the people (those who were still around and approachable) and understand what had made them the writers they were. He focused on William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and placed them in context, which tended to be New York. In this connection it might be worth referring to the anthology, Reading New York (Knopf, New York, 2003) which attractively combines his own experiences with excerpts from a variety of writers, including, of course, the Beats.
Tytell continued with his interest in the Beats alongside writing a book about Ezra Pound, developing a successful academic career during which he had to face some opposition to his advocacy of poets who weren’t in the canon, and getting involved in other activities. The two books I’m reviewing are almost summaries of his Beat involvements. They combine critical assessments with personal experiences as he encountered Burroughs, Ginsberg, and some lesser-known figures like Carl Solomon and Herbert Huncke. I have the feeling that Tytell rather wishes he could have been around earlier, and one of the gang, instead of arriving a bit later and interviewing them. I wonder if he would have fitted in with their often chaotic lives? He has the honesty to admit that he sometimes felt intimidated in their presence. An interview with a minor poet, Ray Bremser, who had served time in prison for armed robbery, was hastily terminated when he produced a stick of dynamite and waved it around. And an attempt to talk to Lucien Carr left Tytell holding on to the rail of the bar they were in as the flow of drinks got the better of him. Allen Ginsberg seems to have been the most accommodating of the Beats, which may point to his friendlier character, but could also have something to do with the fact that he was well aware of needing to create a literary reputation.
I think what has distinguished Tytell from many other academics is that he’s always been conscious of the requirement to hold the reader’s attention. There’s a quote in Writing Beat which neatly sums up his approach: “What is crucial is that one sentence should lead to another if you have a story to tell, and narrative is a key element no matter whether the genre you have chosen is fiction or non-fiction.” For me, this has meant that his writing about the Beats has never seemed forced. He’s telling their stories and does it in the way he describes, letting one sentence to lead to another, one experience to another. It’s what he seems to do well. Some sections of Writing Beat are not strictly about the Beats and he might not be as successful with them. In a piece called “How to Write an Essay,” he unblushingly admits that it was rejected by thirty editors of magazines before it finally found a home thanks to “an angelic editor in South Carolina” who offered to publish it. On the other hand, when he’s writing about academic life, experiences with editors, and problems getting published, he’s usually able to throw in entertaining stories about encounters with Anais Nin, Olga Rudge, Leon Edel, Peter Orlovsky and some less-famous characters. In Holland, leaving a church in Antwerp (he was born there but left to move to America as a child), he was surprised to see two semi-naked women beckoning to him. He quickly left the area. At a party in New York he had to leave suddenly when Anais Nin, noted for her “sexual voracity,” climbed into his lap at the end of the evening. Tytell is, as he makes clear quite a few times, a happily-married man and obviously didn’t think that it was necessary to extend these experiences in the interests of academic research.
One of the people Tytell interviewed and also wrote about was Herbert Huncke, a drug-addict, thief, occasional writer, and jailbird, who, according to Tytell, “introduced Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg to morphine” injected into their arms. That happened in 1944, so it was early in the Beat story, and only Burroughs went on to become seriously addicted. Tytell looks at the origin of the word “beat,” as used by Kerouac and others, and locates it in Huncke’s references to “exhaustion, being beaten down, burdened and crushed by the weight of the world.” And in “that exposed, defeated, vagrant state, an individual could afford to be extremely open and candid because there was nothing to lose.” According to Allen Ginsberg this state could lead to “a kind of religious illumination.” Jack Kerouac later also suggested that there was a religious aspect to “beat,” though he additionally brought in the beat in jazz and other factors. It’s interesting to note that in the interview Huncke never refers to any of this and instead sticks to facts about when and how he got to know the core element of the early Beat movement. But when asked about a “Beat movement,” he replies: “About movements, I don’t know. What’s a movement?” Tytell tells him: “A few people who say something in a similar way and live in a similar way?” A lot of people, myself included, would probably want to point out that, in fact, the Beats were quite different from each other in both their writings and their lives.” I think Huncke cleverly avoids getting pinned down in a discussion about a movement when he replies: “You know all those people sort of jacked up an interest in literature and poetry, something that had been sorely lacking. I guess there’s always been such a group. Bohemians, is that what they’re called?”
Tytell’s interview with William Burroughs, a man who “had little patience for small talk” and caused Tytell to get the impression of a “crusty brittleness,” is informative, though Burroughs, like Huncke, clearly has little time for any sort of philosophising about the Beats and confines his responses to questions to purely factual matters. Tytell records: “To my consternation, Burroughs insisted that because of stylistic differences he should not be identified with the Beat movement.” According to Tytell, Burroughs “was an iconoclastic, an extreme individualist who lacked the qualities of sympathy so prevalent in almost all the other Beats, but the evidence of his participation in Beat history was overwhelming.” True enough, but I’m surprised that Tytell was surprised that Burroughs denied being part of the Beat movement. So did Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, though both were admittedly never part of the New York 1940s activity and saw themselves as coming from different traditions. They had their own reasons for being reluctant to be too identified with the Beats, despite their close relationships with people like Ginsberg and Kerouac. Ferlinghetti had experience of European bohemian-anarchist traditions, which is not to deny his knowledge of American dissenters, and Snyder had some West Coast radical roots to draw on as well as his deep involvements with Buddhism.
The question of a movement crops up again in the interview with Carl Solomon which I recall reading with interest many years ago in The Beat Book, one of a series of brilliant anthologies edited by Arthur and Kit Knight. It’s a pleasure to see it in print again. Solomon, whose literary achievements tended to be limited to short prose pieces and occasional reviews, always fascinated me with his often quirky views and reminiscences. When the question of feeling if he had belonged to a movement was raised in his interview, he replied: “As a matter of fact, I hadn’t felt that. I had just been through with a movement and I had an aversion to movements – after all, I had finished with the Communists. I was living on 113th Street, and I knew this guy Don Cook, and he first mentioned the idea of a movement in reference to the Beats, and I was shocked – here I was trapped by something I had been trying to get away from!” Some earlier comments by Solomon show how closely he was involved with the Communist Party at one time. Later, he recounts how he “broke with my CP friends that I had made at CCNY and I moved down to the Village and became interested in avant-garde art and existentialism with a circle of people disillusioned with the left, ex-liberals and progressives, I should say.” And he had briefly visited Paris and encountered the lettrists and Antonin Artaud. Solomon did feel that, by using his experiences in Howl, Ginsberg had exploited him, just as Neal Cassady felt that Kerouac had exploited him when he wrote On the Road.
Another writer who probably now doesn’t get the attention he deserves is John Clellon Holmes and it’s perhaps unfortunate that Tytell’s interview (another that originally appeared in one of the Knight’s anthologies) mostly focused on his relationship with Kerouac, though what he has to say is of value. Holmes was always perceptive and generous in his comments on his fellow-Beat, despite the strains in their friendship. These often occurred because Kerouac resented the fact that Holmes seemed to be consulted as an authority on the Beat Generation after his novel Go, which documents life among the Beats in late-1940s New York, had been published. Kerouac was also suspicious when he heard that Holmes was working on a jazz novel, something that Kerouac himself was keen to produce. He never did, but Holmes later published the Horn. At one point in the interview, Tytell asks Holmes about the role that music played in their lives, and he replies: “Well, young people in America, at least in the last three generations, have felt music as a very important part of their lives: In the thirties it was swing, in the late forties it was bop, then rock.” I wonder if bop was ever popular in the way that swing had been and rock music was later? I don’t doubt that bop was known and liked by the kind of people Holmes mixed with – writers, artists, intellectuals in New York and a few other cities – but it never seemed to me to have a wide circulation outside those places. Most blacks preferred rhythm’n’blues, and most whites, depending on where they lived, probably went for country-and-western sounds or the kind of pop music that got into the charts. Adventurous individuals in both groups did search for more-demanding music and listened to bop, but “individuals” is the key word. I think we have to be careful about accepting the personal experiences of writers as typical of whole generations.
There is so much of interest in these two books, both in the interviews and Tytell’s own words, that I could carry on quoting and excerpting much more than I have done. Tytell says that Burroughs’ view of creative writing courses was that they were “just a faddish university scam.” There is some irony to be registered here as Burroughs himself was then teaching a creative writing course at a college in New York. It’s informative to note how quite a few of the Beats found themselves incorporated into the academy they’d set out to challenge. John Clellon Holmes went into teaching, as did Ginsberg in due course. I’m not condemning them. Very few writers ever make enough money to support themselves and their families, if they have them. Teaching, especially creative writing, is a way to bring in some sort of a steady income. Ginsberg, in particular, was able to command quite high payments, if an account I recently read is anything to go by. The poet Ron Loewinsohn, who had known him in the 1950s, in 1996 met up again with Ginsberg, who asked him how much he was paid at UC Berkeley, and then said, “Well, I’m teaching too. They pay me a hundred grand just come in and teach one course a year.” Loewinsohn said that he was taken aback: “Here was Allen Ginsberg, iconic figure of the Beat Generation, champion of spirit and compassion, playing a game of `Who’s got the bigger paycheck stub.’ I didn’t want to believe that Allen had succumbed at last to Moloch, `whose blood is running money.’ “ Had Loewinsohn misread the situation? I’ve read elsewhere that Ginsberg was generous about supporting poets and others who were down on their luck. The Loewinsohn comments are in “This is Nothing but a Lot of Poetry: A Memoir of North Beach” in Beat Scene 75 (Coventry, Winter, 2014).
One or two things bothered me. Tytell refers to “the Welsh novelist D.H.Lawrence,” something that will puzzle the people of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where Lawrence was born. He also mentions “the quiet college town of Lawrence, Kansas, a place once pillaged and burned by the notorious James gang.” It was actually Quantrill’s band of guerrilla fighters for the Confederacy who raided Lawrence in 1863, well before the James gang existed. It’s likely that Frank James was one of Quantrill’s outfit, but just among the rank-and-file. Tytell describes Lester Young as Kerouac’s “friend,” but I wonder if that was really the case? Kerouac did meet him (it’s mentioned in Maggie Cassidy, for example) but is there evidence of an actual friendship? Elsewhere, when talking about Young, Tytell describes his ”seething restless experimentalism.” I don’t think any jazz critic of repute has ever thought of Young as “seething” or radically experimental . The noted British musician and writer, Benny Green, summed up Young’s music: “Lester Young did not in fact bring about very many or far-reaching harmonic amendments in the art of improvisation.” It was Young’s relaxed style, his sound, and his melodic phrasing, that had an effect on other musicians. Another point in connection with Kerouac’s jazz interests (and they were sincere) relates to the tune “Kerouac,” which cropped up on LPs of material recorded at Minton’s in 1941. Tytell claims that it was Dizzy Gillespie who named the track concerned, but that’s unlikely. Jerry Newman, who recorded it, only released the Minton’s items some years later, and he came up with titles for what were, in many cases, previously untitled tunes.
I don’t want to end by giving the impression that Tytell’s books are full of questionable statements like those I’ve listed. They’re not, and I’d suggest that anyone with a serious interest in the Beats should read them. I didn’t agree with everything he says, and I’m not sure that his enthusiasm is always well-placed. Not all Beat writing was good. Likewise, not all Beat behaviour was admirable. To be fair to Tytell, he does raise questions about what really did happen when William Burroughs killed his wife in Mexico. And he seems to have wisely steered clear of Gregory Corso much of the time. But he’s an engaging writer and he tells his stories clearly and with a minimum of academic jargon.