“Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (1959) [pdf version: kerouac-essentials]
by Jack Kerouac
SET-UP The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a
landscape or teacup or old face) or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from
memory of a definite image-object.
One of analepsis’s southern operatives has drawn our attention to an early “Beatsploitation” film directed by Roger Corman, Bucket of Blood. Here it is, in its entirety. Go, man, go!
Here is the post that I based my lecture on today:
Go to this link to acquire some context for our next reading, The Suberraneans.
We Won! The War’s Over! Now For Your Rewards:
1) A car that looks like a toaster
3) A soothing cream for your hemorrhoids
4) The promise that hierarchical gender roles will remain intact
“America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”
— Allen Ginsberg
“After dinner, drinking coffee, smoking grass, we’d act this stuff out. We all had different characteristic roles: the well groomed Hungarian – that was me. The naive American in Paris with a straw hat – Kerouac. Bill dressed up as a shifty vicious governess. Bill would end up creased up laughing on the floor. I think the key to the Beat Generation was spiritual liberation. Then media liberation of the word; the battle with censorship, sexual liberation. It ricochets out, but it started with a spiritual liberation. I always thought that Howl was a very exuberant and positive and funny poem. But at the time it was taken to be the ravings of this angry, rebellious jerk.”
— Allen Ginsberg
“[T]he 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, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”.
— Jack Kerouac
My own poetic tradition is Fred Douglass, The Sorrow Songs, David Walker, The Shouts and The Hollers, Work Songs, Arwhoolies, Prison House moans, Tubman and Nat Turner. Vesey and Prosser and John Brown and Melville and Harper and Du Bois, Twain, Truth and Linda Brent and Box Brown. Whitman (except for his American Destiny) Brecht, Mayakovsy, Sembene Ousman, Lu Shun, Baldwin, Hansberry, Margaret Walker Mao, Ho, Guillen, Lorca, Roque Dalton, Otto Rene Castillo, Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, Neruda, Louis Armstrong, Babs Gonzalez, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Ellington, Sassy and Billie, The Ginsberg who proselytized for American speech, the breath phrase and Bop Prosody and the exposure of the Moloch of US imperialism, Sterling Brown, Aime Cesaire, Olson, The Black Church, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson.
— LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
“The first time I heard Bop I knew it was my sound.”
— ruth weiss
“[Charlie “Bird”] Parker operated in the underworld of American culture, on that turbulent level where human instincts conflict with social institutions; where contemporary civilized values and hypocrisies are challenged by the Dionysian urges of a between-wars youth born to prosperity, conditioned by the threat of world destruction, and inspired– when not seeking total anarchy– by a need to bring social reality and our social pretensions into a more meaningful balance.”
— Ralph Ellison
“In the 1950s African American style was in the nascent stage of its mass commodification. Then, mostly white entrepreneurs and institutions took ownership of the style, its simulacra, and its means of production, promotion, and distribution; they appropriated it. The Beats did something different…. they did not appropriate African American style, they consumed it just as it seized upon their desires. Then they enacted its influence through their art.”
— Preston Whaley, Jr.
“You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away. I don’t know what you’re going to do about it, but I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just going to walk away from it. Maybe a small part of it will die if I’m not around feeding it anymore.” – Lew Welch
“ABOMUNISTS REJECT EVERYTHING EXCEPT SNOWMEN.”
— Bob Kaufman
I. Beat Foundations
Given the fact that the Beats even now remain on the fringes of critical discourse, often mischaracterized as an insular, monochrome, hyper-masculinist literary grouping that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a movement or school– one which in any case was all too easily co-opted by an increasingly rapacious and trivializing Culture Industry– I’ve decided to lecture in only a semi-academic fashion today. I will tell you about the Beats and their socio-historical context– the Cold War and what ought to be acknowledged as a Golden Age of US capitalism– autobiographically, linking the works, values, and events characterizing this cultural tendency to my own development. If that seems narcissistic consider that most if not all of the poems, novels, essays, films, music, paintings, and other artifacts produced by the Beats and their fellow travelers were to some degree self-referential, reflecting on what it meant to live in a society that held the power to obliterate all human life, a culture that was so massively regimented and conformist eccentricity could be punished with electro-shock therapy or lobotomy, a civilization which had demonstrated with absolute clarity that barbarism, though it had been Fordized and rationalized, continued to haunt the motives and methods of the western world. It followed that the newly-minted National Security State (remember NSC-68?) produced a culture in which security itself and all that it might depend upon– home-owner’s insurance; a steady paycheck; political continuity; soothing, comfortable art– trumped aesthetic exhiliration or social risk-taking. This is the meaning, after all, of “Risk Society”: a social apparatus designed to calculate cost/benefit and minimize the possibility of radical freedom.
Above: Poet/Memoirist Diane Di Prima
The three key, even canonical, figures of the Beat Movement– at least those who got the most press and produced some truly game-changing literary texts– were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Jr. As your readings from the Heath Anthology indicate, however, this rather narrow pantheon of counterculture heroes has broadened considerably in the last several decades to include different culture workers who in many cases remained on the edges of recognition in spite of the quality of their output. One of the most interesting of these figures, Bob Kaufman, a street poet born of a German father and a Martiniquean mother in New Orleans who lived in San Francisco, doesn’t even rate a mention in our book. (Nor, apparently, does WSB). This omission is all the more striking because he was one of the most inventive– possibly even brilliant– poets on the scene in what has been called The San Francisco Renaissance, though perhaps his most dazzling work was never set down on paper. In the manner of the Taoist monk Han Shan– an important influence and symbol for the poetry of Gary Snyder and Kerouac– Kaufman often extemporized, verbalizing his insights on the spot: at a coffee house, in a bar, on the sidewalk, at a party, etc. What we do have access to are a few slim books of poetry such as Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness and a strange document called The Abomunist Manifesto. Both of these works– like the works of many Beats– have a responsive, intimate, loving connection to Jazz.
Above: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play Hot House in the first television performance of Be Bop.
Now I don’t really know if anyone of college age listens to Jazz anymore. If you don’t then that’s a great shame because Jazz was easily the most audacious, intrepid, modern form of culture produced in the post-war era, and arguably all of the music that college students listen to today– with the possible exception of Country Western– is influenced by it. In the 1940s a new sound began to be played in the US, generated by the alienations of Jim Crow and the distortions and excitements of urban life called Be Bop. Be Bop was in large part a response to the easily-digested repertoire of Swing– essentially the soundtrack for WWII– a music whose broad syncopations even the most timid and stilted sensibilities could track. Swing was the music my grandfather listened to between bombing runs over Germany. It has featured as the incidental music for countless films about WWII, a conflict most Americans never tire of revisiting because their culture has sacralized it as a Manichean battle between absolute dark and light. Swing, also sometimes referred to as Big Band, was pop music with a verve that appealed to young people, an energy that for the most part couldn’t be found in what, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call White Music. Even Dixieland, which had germinated in the bordellos and alleys of Storeyville in New Orleans, lacked the sinuousness of Swing. “Good” Swing was sexy, rife with innuendoes, and it swung provocatively like the hips of a lovestruck dancer. But in the process of becoming popular, as the sound was mainstreamed into USOs and radio studios and the living rooms of middle-class kids, some Swing seemed to increase in polish with an inverse loss of substance. The finish of Swing achieved a high gloss, its patterns becoming predictable and its production values emphasizing an expected, familiar flash of canned heat. Our old friend Theodor Adorno– who, as you know, was also an accomplished musician and exacting music critic in addition to being a philosopher– called attention to what he perceived to be popular music’s standardization of sound, its mechanical flourishes and sonic banalities. In a sense, the progenitors of Be Bop– Charley Parker, Prez Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro– made the same assessment, and their response to this intolerable musical situation was Be Bop, an aggressive, adept and impatient assault on Pop which has often been described as “telegraphic,” “frenzied,” “rapid-fire,” “nervous,” etc. Finally, Be Bop, as has been said many times, is a democratic art by virtue of its structure: the soloist steps up and plays his or her bit, supported and counterpointed by the other musicians before ceding place to the next performer. The principle of antiphony– call and response, a kind of musical dialog– emphasizes the player’s individual liberty, so to speak, while simultaneously embedding it into a sonic community.
Above: Bob Kaufman.
The point here, which I’m making in roundabout way, is that we can’t really understand what The Beats brought unless we acknowledge their profound engagement with elements of African American culture. Jack Kerouac was a jazz aficionado, not so much mesmerized by Be Bop as intoxicated by it, and he saw in that artistic form an answer to the problems confronting modern American writers. The key here– a key, one key– was spontaneity, which is a very different matter than making it up as you go along. Improvisation requires deep knowledge and immaculate chops, the outcome of long study and practice, of protracted periods of what some musicians still call “wood-shedding.” Charley Parker, it is said, in recording “A Night in Tunisia,” spat out a break with his saxophone he knew he’d never be able to repeat. That wasn’t the product of blind luck but of acutely trained reflexes and intuitions. Kerouac, who described his own work, his best work, as “bop prosody,” understood that the spark of creativity had to be nurtured and groomed, and he wrote accordingly, completing roughly a dozen novels and collections of poetry in 7 years, from his first published text The Town and the City until he broke the bank with a book called On The Road in 1957.
Above: Jackson Pollock’s Number 8.
I read OTR for the first time (I’ve read it probably 6 or 7 times since then) when I was visiting my sister at college. I was 15 years old, and my father and I went to the campus bookstore. Browsing the shelves, he came across the novel and picked it up, saying he thought I’d like it. What I didn’t know then nor even after I’d read several of his other books was that Kerouac’s writing breaks with the classical conception of mimesis, of art as a mirror to nature. Indeed there is a sense in much of Kerouac’s work, and the texts of other Beats, that the bromide “art imitates life” has been flipped, so that for the Beats life imitates art. Novels such as The Subterraneans pose questions of narrative order, of the role of space and time in representation, and in doing so undermine the distinction between the external world and the internal mind. Certainly abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who influenced the Beats enormously, refused to follow traditional models– for instance the convention of giving the illusion that 2 dimensional surfaces, their canvases, possessed 3 dimensions. Part of the gambit here in breaking with hallowed artistic methods is the proposition that culture ought to be more than leisure and entertainment, that art doesn’t represent simply another ephemeral moment to be consumed distractedly the way we chew gum or talk over the music, that– on the contrary– it is important and possesses the power to move us and transform our thinking and feeling without trafficking in cheap sentimentalism. The Subterraneans, written in 3 benzedrine-fueled nights, is, again, an exemplar of this aesthetic: it dispensed with a principle of Elizabethan comedy which dictated that disorder must safely resolve into order. Indeed, for many works of Beat fiction there is, in the end, no resolution, no Shakespearean “all’s well that ends well.”
Above: Kerouac reads from Desolation Angels.
Above: Beatsploitation film The Beat Generation (1959).
The world of OTR (its mise-en-scene) is one of motion– cars hurtle down highways; fingers diddle saxophone keys; hands gesticulate, punctuating passionate replies and affirmations. It is a world of departures and arrivals. Space opens up and the book’s characters plunge ahead, beckoned by the next vista, streetlight, house party. OTR is above all concerned with connections and friendships, the affinities between people who recognize that the massified experience of Cold War modernity– the “straight” life of habit and conformity– is with unexpected exceptions vacuous and even deadly. Life worth living is to be found among the Beat, those people who have lost some of their illusions in order to attain a sensibility Kerouac once described as “sympathetic.” The Beat are in one sense beaten– stripped of pretension and the wrong kinds of bullshit– though not defeated. Beat could also mean beatific– a theological term applied to the saintly– and indeed many angels, prophets, martyrs and holy fools (“goofs” Kerouac said) populate Beat literature. To be Beat was to operate with the working hypothesis that the American Dream was a soul-snuffing irrelevance, one that must at all costs be transcended. Like many bohemians before and after them, the Beats turned to poetry, booze, dope, nature, nightlife, philosophy, sex and conversation as paths into that good night. What was on offer, then, was ultimately another order of truth: not the ‘truth’ of facticity, of pie charts and statistics or the official stories of Cold War politics (after all, the postwar years witnessed the invention of the concept of “plausible deniability”) but truth as felt and cogitated-upon experience– the mix and flow of perception and language– which doesn’t always accord with ‘the facts.’
II. Detour: Allen Takes Drugs
“the whole fucking cosmos broke loose around me, I think the strongest and worst I’ve ever had it….I felt faced by death…got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe– or a Jivaro in head-dress with fangs vomiting up in realization of the murder of the Universe– my death come– everyone’s death come– all unready– I unready.”
Allen’s travels to South America in 1951 were productive. He experimented with an Amazonian vine called Yage that was reputed to have great visionary powers (Wm. S. Burroughs thought yage might enable mental telepathy). His experiences helped him to imagine Howl’s urban dystopia, one determined by a Cold War death principle embodied in the monster deity Moloch and a lanscape of stark institutional halls, the antennaed skyline of the city, etc. The culprit here seems to be modernity’s deadlier mechanisms: rationalizing procedures, the impersonality of mass production and consumption, the necessities of capital and the effect of this upon those deemed unfit or outside– the psychotic, the delinquent, the closeted, the jim-crowed.
From Kim Hewitt (UT-Austin):
“The Beat writers explored altered states of consciousness as a pathway to self-understanding and as a way to break into new realms of creativity. Although their use of psychedelic drugs was not frequent, their experiences did help shape their views. The Beats in turn forced society to re-evaluate its definition of madness. I will focus on William Burroughs’ search for ayahuasca (also called yagé) beginning in 1951 and his experiences as he chronicled them in The Yage Letters and in his correspondence.Ayahuasca and heroin use prompted Burroughs to believe that schizophrenia must be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body similar to a drug-induced psychosis. Although Burroughs’ theory did not make a cultural impact, his subsequent art and influence on Allen Ginsberg did.
“Allen Ginsberg credits William and Joan Burroughs for almost single-handedly changing his “cold war mind” and I will discuss the relationship between Burroughs and Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s psychedelic experiences. His experiences provoked self-insight, guided his artistic muse as he wrote poetry, including “Howl,” and led him to testify before the Senate subcommittee that was investigating LSD in 1966. Due in part to their intense drug experiences, both Burroughs and Ginsberg rejected society’s requirement to conform, and pursued their own goals. Since the 1950s both of these writers have confronted society with the need to re-evaluate cultural definitions of deviance. These writers began a cultural move away from the idea that nonconformity is a form of madness.”
Above: An image I remember seeing at my grandparents’ house in Orlando when I was about 9 or 10 from a book called The Best of Life. I didn’t really know what to make of it. Who was this grotesque person? Later I decided that this was, in fact Life Magazine’s intent: to deform Allen. Still later, I realized the joke was on Life Magazine. In this photo Allen represents a Blakean poet-Beelzebub, cast out of heaven for rebellion, smoking in the Stygian abyss.
Above: Which part exactly is copyrighted?
In 1957 Allen would trigger the tripflare of American consciousness, starring in an international media event when his first book of poetry, Howl and Other Poems, was seized by Customs officials for obscenity. In a sense, this act of state repression was an honor– what better compliment can any poet be paid than the charge that his or her work constitutes a threat against the moral or political fiber of society? Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlenghetti– a poet himself, raised in an orphanage, who only a few years before had waded out of the breakers of Normandy– was up for the challenge and sent out a call for support. Immediately free speech fighters, artists, lefties, librarians and proto-freaks offered help. City Lights Books couldn’t print copies of Howl fast enough. Allen– I call him Allen because though I only saw him in person once and had absolutely no speaking acquaintanceship with him the poetry he wrote has given me, one of his readers, that right– was by all accounts a fireball in those days. Heckled at a poetry reading in Los Angeles some months later he responded by disrobing and inviting his antagonists to join him onstage, nude, because “the poet is always naked before the world.” Now this is not exactly the sort of behavior one can easily imagine today’s establishment poets undertaking. There is a willingness in Allen’s actions to really put it all on the line. Not in the name of political ideology or any religious conviction but in the name of Art and Humanity, which in any case are more important. Here was a fuzzy, queer, bespectacled, reckless young Jewish boy with terrible posture and a high voice playing with gestural-symbolic dynamite. Forget about communists– just what sort of unwholesome and bizarre subversion was this?
Above: From Mad Magazine’s Beatnik issue.
We live in an age when subcultural art is permitted only the narrowest gap between its expression and commodification. American capitalism– here is what I believe to be an indispensable insight into the contemporary moment– in the years after WWII began with increasing speed to turn to culture itself as a means of accumulation. “The cultural” became another source of income, investment and capitalization. This trend was full-blown by the 1960s, producing what Guy Debord then called “the society of the spectacle” and what we today perceive in moments of clarity to be a kind of virtuality consuming our real lives (thus the success of films like The Matrix), what another French guy, Jean Baudrillard, termed “the Simulacrum.” In the 1950s, this process was still in its earlier stages (though– yes, you’re right, Adorno had already indicated the totalizing, which is to say falsifying, function of the Culture Industry). In one sense the Beats were already adapted to this emerging environment because while they eschewed some of Cold War America’s cultural detritus– the suburban dystopia of consumer durables and Rotary Club meetings, for example– they reveled in and appropriated with glee select Culture Industry paraphernalia. The 3 Stooges, for instance, whom Adorno would likely judge a brutalization of their audience, occupies a place of prominence in Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, as does Harpo Marx and Joan Crawford. Ginsberg himself could look across a landscape of stoplights and gas station signs and see something human, perhaps even redeemable (if not redemptive) there. Amiri Baraka, whose position as an African American artist was vexed by the social toxins of Jim Crow, found power in working-class vernacular and the folk-root of the Blues. He could even wring poetry out of the abjection of other Black men such as Willie Best (stage name: Stepin Fetchit). [Baraka is an interesting case of Beat influence. Reading Howl for the first time while in the Air Force he was surprised enough by the poem to write Ginsberg a letter on toilet paper, asking him if he was for real. Ginsberg replied using the same medium and a friendship of sorts began. Baraka would go on to help found the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, and his political and artistic development is useful for understanding the social changes in the US, particularly among African American artists and intellectuals.]
At issue in this instance then are the ways The Beats navigated the larger, popular cultural terrain. Because the Beat critique of US society was linked– dialectically, it is tempting to say– to a shocking, even sweet, love of country. Kerouac studied the occupants of a bus depot waiting room and discovered something authentic and real and rooted in their faces and speech and attitudes. Ginsberg’s “Howl,” on the other hand, is clearly an indictment of US militarism and imperialism– the human cost of their institutions– as when he writes of “angel-headed hipsters…. who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic/ tobacco haze of Capitalism/ [and] distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square/ weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed/ them down, and wailed down Wall [Street] and the Staten Island/ ferry also wailed/ [and] who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons.”
These lines speak to the unreality of postwar capitalism, though the critics of that nightmare, as Ginsberg writes, “wail” and “cry”– an emotional, even irrational, outburst against inhuman rationality. The invocation of Golgotha– as you know, the scene of Christ’s crucifixion– emphasizes the potency of this murderous logic. Jesus was executed only after he had been, after a fashion, convicted, which is to say that the legal system– as do all other systems– accords itself a legitimacy which its monstrous actions undermine. Part II of the poem, the “Moloch” section, is perhaps even more damning, indicting society as a demon who consumes the young, offering them only “ashcans and unobtainable dollars,” a landscape of skeletal remains (the literal meaning of Golgotha, field of bones) and an infernal horizon of antennae (evoking that least human of all creatures, the insect) and smokestacks. The criticism Ginsberg makes here will be familiar to readers of 18th and 19th century Romantic poetry: social life has denaturalized humanity, depriving us of our “natural ecstacy.”
Section III of Howl is written to Carl Solomon, a friend of Ginsberg’s who met him in a mental hospital where Ginsberg was sent after a brush with the law. To give you an idea of the importance of literature for the Beats, when the two men first encountered each other Solomon identified himself as a character– Kirilov the madman– from Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed to which Ginsberg responded that he was Prince Myshkin (from another novel, The Idiot). A code was thereby established– both men immediately knew something about one another based on their choice of names– and with it a sense of affinity.
I first read “Howl” a few months after I was expelled from high school. I was living in a small Florida town and had taken a GED and entered community college. I didn’t want to be in school– 12 years of institutionalization seemed more than enough– but was at a loss as to what else to do. I remember checking Howl out of the library and reading it on the steps. I won’t say it was a revelation, because that sort of cliche doesn’t do justice to my experience. Instead, I felt the way I do whenever I meet someone with whom I have an instant rapport: here was someone familiar, in Kerouac’s phrasing “sympathetic,” what Beat antecedents Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman called “simpatico.” Shortly thereafter I met one of my oldest friends, someone who was learned in the lore of the Beats who introduced me to other books and opened my eyes to some of the things I still consider cool: William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, punk rock, the films of George Romero, etc. The town I lived in would have fit easily with HL Mencken’s description of the South as a “cultural Sahara”– we lived in a state of suspended animation, as if the Civil Rights Movement had never occurred (there was a separate town for African Americans and white people usually only went there to score drugs), and the average age of the citizenry was somewhere in the lower 60s. That situation was the obverse of Wordsworth’s famous line about the French Revolution: “to be young was very Hell.” So for me the work of the Beats was confirmation that, at bottom, the problem wasn’t so much myself but the world in which I lived. And having drunk from that well there could be no question of leaving this cataleptic scene behind.
The Beats experienced their own versions of alienation– a word that will be useful in thinking about the 1960s– a sense of displacement or disjointedness which could take different forms, from the legally sanctioned violence and disrespect directed against African Americans under the US apartheid system– a social regimentation that damaged the lives of white people as well by cutting them off from the fertile possibilities of cross-cultural contact– to the middle-class malaise suffered by predominantly white youth, who saw a staid, predictable future of TV dinners and PTA meetings ahead of them and shuddered.
Over the next several years I moved to California and discovered that there were places in the United States where acting strangely or wearing odd clothes didn’t mean an inevitable beating at the hands of crypto-Brown Shirt rednecks. Equally as important, my reading of the Beats led me, in true autodidact fashion, to other authors, cultural forms, and ideas. From Burroughs I learned about the French novelist Celine, from Kerouac Dostoevsky, from Ginsberg Rimbaud and Blake. Following the threads laid down in those works my understanding of reality expanded. Along the way I had many teachers, most of whom were roughly my own age. After a shift washing dishes at a diner I’d go about the business of reading, writing, and socializing. What’s important to note here is another key feature of Beat Culture, a literary-critical concept called inter-textuality, or the writerly practice of referencing other works. This aesthetic value has become so pervasive in recent years that it’s virtually invisible. Take, for instance, rap: a group like Wu-Tang Clan will sift through the music of the Soul era and find a break (for example The Charmel’s “I’ll Never Grow Old”) in order to texture their own track. Sampling is an extreme form of inter-textuality, but it operates according to a principle consonant with the methods of the Beats. In contrast to some of the “straight” Realism and Naturalism of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, modernist fiction (and music, painting, film, etc.) generates new resonances by invoking other texts or techniques. Jazz poetry of the sort Kerouac wrote in Mexico City Blues or ruth weiss– an early practicioner– produced takes idiomatic or structural features of Be Bop and attempts to employ them– a highly risky process which always transforms the formal aspects of the borrowed work– verbally.
IV. Co-optation and Creation
Above: More Beat co-optation. A clip from High School Confidential (1958).
Love and satire: Mike Myers goes Beat in So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993).
The argument can be made that the Beat Movement was the first subculture to go national in the United States. It became a media sensation such that by 1958 Life Magazine printed a notorious and derisive expose on the Beats and Herb Caen had coined the word “Beatnik,” a condescending epithet intended to invoke the Soviet space ship Sputnik (“little traveler”) and thus indicate the un-Americanness of the Beats. Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of American neoconservatism (the folks who brought us the 2003 invasion of Iraq), slandered the Beats as anti-intellectual Barbarians– a remarkable claim given the almost absurd degree of hyper-literacy of Beat Culture. The Culture Industry saw grist for its mill, a way to make a profit and reassert the hegemony of what I suppose we’ll be forced to call “mainstream” culture. This idea bears repeating: the commodification of Beat culture– its trivialization and disparagement– was, in the end, an effort at containment (containment: ring any bells?) of squelching subcultural rebellion in order to re-instate cultural consensus. (And, looking back through a presentist lens, it must be said that the Beats did fail on some fronts, notably in terms of the difficult position inhabited by many Beat women, whose male counterparts often treated them as amanuenses, cooks, child care providers, and maids– i.e., if there’s nothing else to do, honey, sure you can work on your art. To this extent many Beat men retained their social training, exhibiting chauvinist expectations of women and clinging to patriarchal prerogatives.) Yet in spite of the hostility of these responses, young people around the world saw in the Beats and their ideas something both exciting and attractive. (Also, let’s think it through, the fact that the Culture Industry wanted to co-opt the Beats at all is evidence of the latter’s “original charisma”.) They looked around and realized that the best society had to offer really wasn’t enough: for the fortunate few an education followed by a desk job, a marriage, a mortgage, and the long, slow slide into senescence. It is to the credit of Capitalism that it was able to take those sentiments and convert them to the further accumulation of Capital. If the “Organization Man” and social consensus were attacked as stultifying and inauthentic by various subcultures in the 50s and 60s– rejected outright by successive cohorts of malcontents who aspired to a better, more meaningful life– then by oh, let’s say 1967– as the Golden Age receded, the 2nd Cold War commenced, the Fordist model began to break down– Capital had managed to incorporate dissent against it even while something worthwhile– an idiom, a style, a sentiment, the ghost of a critique– slipped through, resisting pasteurization. That is where we are now.
Recommended Reading (a very partial list)
Beat and Beat Contemporaries
Kerouac, Jack. “October in the Rail Road Earth”, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”, On the Road
Ginsberg, Allen. The Fall of America.
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch
Jones, LeRoi (Amiri Baraka). The Dead Lecturer, Dutchman, “In the Tradition”
DiPrima, Diane. Memoirs of a Beatnik.
Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold.
Corso, Gregory. “Bomb”.
Brautigan, Richard. Trout Fishing in America.
Waldman, Anne. Fast Talking Woman.
Frasier, Bonnie. Troia.
Kaufman, Bob. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness.
Ferlenghetti, Lawrence. A Coney Island of the Mind.
Poetry by Jack Spicer, Kenneth Rexeroth, Bob Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, Lenore Kandel, Robert Duncan, et al.
Carroll, Jim. The Basketball Diaries.
Pynchon, Thomas. V.
Waits, Tom. Nighthawks at the Diner.
Springsteen, Bruce. Nebraska.
Chin, Frank. The Chickencoop Chinaman.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. Tripmaster Monkey.
Smith, Patti. Horses.
Shepard, Sam. The Tooth of Crime, Buried Child, True West.
Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer.
Celine, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of Night.
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood.
Williams, William Carlos. Patterson.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot, Notes from Underground.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.
Stein, Gertrude. 3 Women.
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way.
Nin, Anais. Delta of Venus.
McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem.
Baudelaire, Charles. Flowers of Evil.
Rimbaud, Arthur. “The Drunken Boat”, Illuminations, A Season in Hell.
Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again.
Hamsun, Knut. Hunger.