By A. Robert Lee

Edinburgh University Press. 239 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-4744-0397-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

And the Beat goes on. It’s now over sixty years since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road started it all rolling merrily along. There had been intimations of it before that, but not to the point where it became the object of wide scrutiny by both literary critics and some sections of the general public. I think 1957 may be the year when things began to take on additional speed. As it happened, it was also the year when I finished three years of military service, so returning to civilian life I could observe the growing interest in what the Beats were promoting. Inevitably, a lot of the attention, as expressed in the popular press, focused on the supposed life-styles of the key activists. “Blame these 4 men for the beatnik horror” screamed a headline in The People one Sunday in 1960, and beneath it were photos of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso. The accompanying article had much to say about drugs and other matters likely to arouse the prurient or enrage the moralists.

Reception in intellectual circles was generally hostile. “Know-nothing bohemians”, sneered Norman Podhoretz in Partisan Review, and not many academics seemed sympathetic to Beat writing. Thomas Parkinson was an exception in the USA, and Eric Mottram in England and Edwin Morgan in Scotland were less inclined to dismiss Kerouac and company out-of-hand. On the whole, though, I can’t recall much, if any, positive curiosity being evident in academic circles. Bernard Bergonzi said,  “I don’t think the reader who is concerned with literary values will want to spend much time on them” when reviewing a selection of works by Kerouac, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara, and others for The Guardian.

Nor was the literary establishment enthusiastic about the arrival of the Beats. Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee both wrote dismissive reviews of Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians, though it was admittedly a book that easily lent itself to being ridiculed because of its outlandish claims about Beat aims and achievements. And A.Alvarez was always more than happy to attack Ginsberg and the others for allegedly clinging together for companionship because their work had little credibility otherwise. And that may have been the least of their many sins in his eyes. I’ve used a few British examples, but there’s no reason to think that the situation was essentially any different in the United States.  

How things have changed. There is now something of a mini-industry in Beat studies, with journals devoted to examining the poems and novels, degrees to be earned with earnest dissertations, and local and international conferences at which the dedicated gather to exchange information and ideas. I’m not dismissing such endeavours. As a non-academic with a long-standing involvement in writing about specific aspects of the Beat experience, I’ve hovered around the fringes of this world without wanting to be overwhelmed by it. Still, I can’t help thinking that there is a certain amount of amusement (or is it bemusement?) to be had in recalling all those little magazines and small-press publications that we struggled to obtain (and sell, if one was involved in their production) currently being traded at high prices or preserved in special collections.

I have to admit that I now back away from many books about the Beats. They simply can’t re-create how exciting it was to wait for the latest issue of Evergreen Review or Big Table or The Outsider to flop through the letterbox, or to get new books from Totem Press, Auerhahn Press, and City Lights, And to receive letters from the poet and novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, the poet and editor Paul Carroll, and the essayist and anthologist Seymour Krim. They were all friendly and informative when I got in touch with them, perhaps because it seemed essential then for people to make contact.  And it wasn’t for the purpose of furthering academic careers. We just wanted to know what was going on. The Beats weren’t the only game in town, and there was a lot of mixing among the players. The whole range of what was referred to as The New American Writing was worth looking into, even if it didn’t always in the end appeal. I never could get to grips wIth Charles Olson, John Ashbery, or Michael McClure.

The thoughts expressed above were triggered by reading A Robert Lee’s informative The Beats: Authorships, Legacies, which displays an enthusiasm for its subject that is not always found in academic surveys. He seems to genuinely like the work of most of the writers he discusses, and he doesn’t restrict himself to a handful of familiar names, or a few well-known books. He usefully roams around the world of the Beats and demonstrates how varied it was. It can’t be reduced to a limited area of activity.

Lee’s opening chapter, in which he races through “Beat Origins and Circuits, 1940s to 1960s”, offers a wide-ranging survey of how the Beats, the major names at least, came together, what their ideas were, and where they met up in print. Little magazines and small presses were of key importance in disseminating work by Beat writers, and they began to flourish in the late-1950s and early-1960s, not only in New York and San Francisco but also in Chicago, New Orleans, and other locations. Lee does mention some of them, and it would be unfair to take him to task for not referring to others. It would need a separate chapter, perhaps even a separate book, to do justice to them, and even then they probably couldn’t all be included with their background stories which, as in the cases of Big Table and The Provincetown Review, included being taken to court on obscenity charges. The trials and travails of little magazine publishing and distribution involve numerous stories of unsung heroes who wanted to circulate work they thought ought to be read.

Lee also has notes on several anthologies which, he suggests, had important roles to play in drawing attention to the Beats. One of them, The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, certainly had an influence in terms of giving some people a taste for the Beats, though retrospective views tended to distance them from what were claimed  to be dissident voices in Britain. It was hard to see what conventional wrters like Kingsley Amis and John Braine had in common with Kerouac and Carl Solomon. And even in the American section, some of the writers were quick to disown Beat connections.

Chandler Brossard’s Who Walk in Darkness is sometimes said to be an early Beat novel, but has more to do with 1940s Greenwich Village intellectuals. He was never all that complimentary about the Beats, and wrote an article for Dude magazine in 1958 entitled “The Dead Beat Generation”. Anatole Broyard was likewise suspicious, and his New York Times review of Visions of Cody took both Ginsberg and Kerouac to task for inferior writing and more. George Mandel was a talented cartoonist as well as a novelist, and his little book, BeatVille USA, neatly satirised the Beats.  As for R.V. Cassill, he produced a 1963 article about Greenwich Village for Cavalier and spoke of the old bohemian, Maxwell Bodenheim, as writing poetry “worse than Ginsberg’s”.

I think it’s worth stressing that, as Lee points out, most of the Beats, if asked, declined to think of themselves as Beats. They always spoke well of their fellow-poets and novelists, but Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Burroughs were quick to deny the Beat label. Gregory Corso almost laughed it away. The poet Jack Micheline was often linked to the Beats, but identified more with an older bohemian tradition, as exemplified by the likes of Vachel Lindsay and Maxwell Bodenheim. It was one reason why I was drawn to his work. In general, it’s only necessary to briefly scan the work of the Beat writers to realise that they differed widely in how they wrote.

1960 was a key year for anthologies, with The New American Poetry, Beat Coast East, Beatitude Anthology, The Beat Scene, and The Beats all being in the bookshops. I always liked these collections because they didn’t only feature Beats even when that word was in their titles, so it was possible to pick up on some interesting writers generally from their contents. Lee says that Beatitude Anthology was one of those that “helped point Beat towards canonisation and classroom”, but I hope it’s stressed in the classroom that a lot of the poems in it were not very noteworthy.  I don’t think most poems in any context (magazine, anthology, individual collection) are all that wonderful. You need to be dedicated to keep reading them.  Poems like “Mexico 5 ‘59” by Marc, and “Lover” by Jo, both in the Beatitude Anthology,  might have some sociological interest, and are useful as examples of what minor Beats got up to, but they don’t have a great deal else to recommend them.

It may not be strictly related to Beat literature, but then again it perhaps is, when Lee says that “the original 1920s meaning of hipster was one who carried a hip flask of booze”. I’ve come across a few definitions of hip and hipster over the years, though not that one. There used to be a suggestion (stemming from a 1930s Cab Calloway record) that it derived from the practice of lying on one’s hip when smoking opium. The most likely explanation, however, emanates from research by David Dalby who found that the Wolof tribe of Senegambia had a word, "“hipi”, meaning to “to open one’s eyes”, so in Wolof “hipi-kat” means “a person who has opened his eyes”. A hep cat. A hipster. West Africa was the area where many blacks in America came from as slaves, and where there were close musical parallels to jazz and blues.

Lee proceeds to deal with the leading Beat writers – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Herbert Huncke (a curious inclusion, and perhaps there because of his influence on some of the others rather than his literary talents). His comments on their work are brisk and astute, though he rarely raises questions about its quality. How much of Ginsberg’s poetry after the 1950s and into the early-1960s was really good? And wasn’t it sometimes true that Burroughs could be repetitive and a little bit of his writing was often preferable to reading it in bulk? Isn’t Corso likely to be best-remembered for his fine poem, “Marriage” and a few like “Poets Hitch-hiking on the Highway” and “Birthplace Revisited”, rather than those where he adopted a lofty tone and tried to seem significant? And has John Clellon Holmes’s jazz novel, The Horn, retained the qualities some people initially thought it had? What about Kerouac, whose writing could be variable? He wasn’t always a pleasure to read. Old Angel Midnight is just hard work.

It might just come down to personal preferences, but it’s worth asking the questions. Incidentally, Lee refers to an article called “West Coast Rhythms” by Richard Eberhart that he says appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1956. But that publication only started in the 1960s, and the piece in question appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Lee gets it right in his notes for the Ginsberg chapter.

There are useful observations on women writers who qualify for an appearance in the Beat category, and it’s good to see Diane di Prima receiving attention. It could have been pointed out that memoirs of life among the Beats by Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, Bonnie Bremser, Hettie Jones, and others often give a truer account of what it was like than most of those we had, whether in fact or fiction, from their male companions. A minor novel like Mimi Albert’s The Second Story Man also provides a picture of how women were treated by male bohemians. The men were usually concerned to create myths about their personalities and activities, but the women, on the whole, told it as it was. I’ve never been sure about di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik, but it was written for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, so allowances should be made for its sexual confessions and their truthfulness. It’s a personal memory, but I met Carolyn Cassady a few times and corresponded with her. She was a lady with sophisticated tastes, and told me that she didn’t particularly care for most Beat writing.

Black Beats are dealt with in the lives and publications of Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka as he later became), Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman. I think with Leroi Jones the Beat aspect is best covered in his earlier poems, and his activities, shared with Hettie Jones and Diane di Prima, with the publications, Yugen and The Floating Bear. Ted Joans was a livewire who I came across in Berlin and Paris, and seemed to crop up everywhere with his energetic poems that quickly demonstrated their influences drawn from jazz and surrealism. Bob Kaufman had a chequered career, marred by various problems, but his best poems retain their power. And his Abomunist Manifesto deserves to be remembered as a witty exposition of Beat disaffiliation. Sadly, he became something of a tragic figure.

Mentioning Kaufman makes me think that one aspect of the lives of some of the Beats that isn’t often looked at is their early involvement in forms of radical politics. Kaufman had been an activist in the National Maritime Union which, in the 1940s, had a largely communist leadership. Gary Snyder had a background influenced to a degree by IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) legends, John Clellon Holmes admitted to Marxist-leanings in the 1940s, Carl Solomon had joined the Communist Political Association (the American Communist Party under a different name), Lawrence Ferlinghetti was interested in European anarchist-bohemian traditions, Jack Micheline, who could come across like a proletarian poet in the 1930s style, involved himself in a small radical group for a time, and Stuart Perkoff (based in Venice West, Los Angeles, and not mentioned by Lee) had flirted with communism at one stage. Even the conservative Kerouac had edged around left-wing ideas, as he owned up to in his idiosyncratic way in Vanity of Dulouz: “It was great. In those days we were all pro-Lenin, or pro-whatever, Communists”. The point I’m making is that when they drifted away from formal politics they moved to bohemia and the Beat and not to middle-class conformity.

I quite admired Lee’s book, and I should add that he performs a handy service in attempting to show how the Beat influence carries on through writers who came along later, and in popular music. It does occur to me to wonder what Kerouac would have made of the music that younger Beat enthusiasts enjoy? Lee mentions some little-known figures, such as Martin Matz. His book, In the Seasons of My Eye: Selected Writings 1953-2001 is of interest not so much for its literary qualities, but for indicating how someone on the fringes of the Beat movement lived and wrote. I do think that characters like Matz would have been around, anyway, Beat or no Beat, and would have just been described as bohemians. There are a few books that I wish Lee had looked into: Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy,  Holmes’s Get Home Free, and Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971 are among them. Maggie Cassidy is mentioned, but only in passing.  But this is not a complaint and I suppose everyone has fond memories of reading books they would like to see better-acknowledged.  

The Beats: Authorships, Legacies is extremely useful from the point of view of not only delivering a swift summation of Beat writing in general, but also for providing a great deal of information about a wide variety of publications relating to the Beats. It has much to offer both for its commentary and its factual details.