The Beats: A Literary History
(Cambridge University Press (UK), 2020)
Back in the pioneering days of Beat criticism, all a scholar had to do was prove the seminal figures, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, were worthy of serious critical attention. Primary texts, out of print, if available, might be purchased from antiquarian shops at exorbitant prices. (My reading copy of Big Sur (1962). Don’t ask!) Now, decades later, witness the flow of reissues of all Beat titles, and a mountain of material attesting to their place in literary history. Few literati have such legs. As the Beat era essayist Seymour Krim used to say when the Kerouac biography count got to a dozen, it is a testament to his talents, no book duplicates another. Critical studies, though, have reached critical mass. Happily, Steven Belletto’s overview, The Beats: A Literary History, has much to offer. Fresh on the scene with outstanding readings of key work, and valuable inclusion of an army of poets and marginalized, artsy types associated with the beat movement—it’s great to be reminded of Ted Joans, Alan Ansen, Tuli Kupferberg, Harold Norse, poets and wonderful “characters”—Belletto makes a good case for why Beat writing remains relevant, vital. Yet, while becoming a rogue’s gallery to illuminate “Beat,” The Beats begs the question: OMG, who isn’t Beat?
When he stays close to the core, my favorite parts of The Beats illustrate Belletto’s genuine feel for this material, best shown in his analysis of the development of the Beat novel within the context of literary communities such as Black Mountain, and the important small press publications, Yugen, Floating Bear, etc. With so many more texts available, such as And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a 1945 Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration first published in 2008, Belletto limns the real-life scandals and their fictive representation, revealing how the killing of Dave Kammerer by Lucien Carr made a big impression on the creativity of their circle: Town and the City (1950) to On the Road (1957) to Visions of Cody (1972) and Vanity of Duluoz (1968), Junkie (1953) to Queer (1985) to Interzone (1989) to Naked Lunch (1959), stopping along the way to bring in books by John Clellon Holmes and Chandler Brossard. He strategically does not get into later work, or the most current critical trends such as tracing the influence of French-Canadian language and culture on Kerouac. Smooth and smart, he wears his erudition well. A first-rate chapter, “Liberating Language” groups four rarely discussed works, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s novel Her (1960), Gregory Corso’s novel, The American Express (1961), Ted Joans’s The Hipsters (1961), and the Brion Gysin-Burroughs cut-up collaboration, Minutes to Go (1961), analyzing their linguistic innovation and influence. Here Belletto’s criticism rises to the level of its own art.
By 1959, weary of the classification, Gregory Corso ranted, “The Beat Generation is now about everything,” (“Variations of a Generation” (1959)), declaring it done. Belletto goes into this fatigue, delineating Beat from its cartoon characterization, Beatnik—think berets and bongos, and television’s Maynard G. Krebs. He explains how self-consciousness resulting from a media slur played into the writers’ production, informing their very verse, as they talked “back at Beatnik caricatures.”
On the classic Kerouac-Robert Frank-Alfred Leslie film collaboration, Pull My Daisy (1959), Belletto explores a “voyeuristic quality.” While seeming to offer viewers an authentic glimpse into a Beat pad, and an encounter with straight society represented by the bishop and his family, the film teases with images well worn by the late ’50’s: “hot jazz, Buddhism, and shocking the bourgeoisie,” as Peter Orlovsky (“the Russian poet”) baits the bishop, “Is everything holy, is alligators holy, is the world holy? Is the basketball holy?” Authenticity or performance or both, asks Belletto, emphasizing the put on within the put on.
Beatnik stereotypes begot publicity, the wrong kind; the Beat artists wanted recognition for their art. Belletto’s cringe-worthy over-use of the term beatnik reminded me of Allen Ginsberg’s revulsion at this characterization. Belletto repeats it to mark a turning point. But Kerouac’s death in 1969 was more profound, resulting in a new look at “the king of the Beats,” and serious attention was paid, far too late. You could say he died of despair, wanting readers to see him as he saw himself, in the main tradition of American letters, Melville to London and Hemingway.
For those of us acquainted with the central figures, Kerouac’s death also occasioned a jumping aboard of many hangers on; first wife Edie Parker suddenly took interest and started selling souvenir photos of her ex at gatherings, hungry for this recognition. Others hated the Beat brand. Paul Bowles was no fan, even though he, like many mentioned in The Beats, knew them well. When asked, for a 1994 documentary, The Complete Outsider, if Paul Bowles was beat, Allen Ginsberg answered, “No, but there’s guilt by association.” As the names pile up in The Beats, Beat becomes diffuse; if you partied till dawn, wore black, smoked a joint, bed them, you too could be Beat.
Keenly aware of a hot topic, Belletto’s treatment of the women writers in particular is one he has to justify. He cites editor/critic Bill Morgan in asserting that we should think of the Beat Generation as a social circle created by Allen Ginsberg and his friends instead of as a literary movement. Seeing women as sex objects, providers, mothers, many of the men did not think the women, except for Diane DiPrima, could write as well as the men could. Writes Belletto, “This might encourage us to be more capacious is considering who or what might fly under the beat banner.” The assumption here is that everyone wanted to be beat. In actual fact, Kerouac and Burroughs were ambivalent, thinking the label diminished their careers.
And so did Joyce Johnson. While setting her up, citing an early dumb critique that she never calls attention to the beat milieu even as she describes it, Belletto shifts focus to her art. His analysis of Joyce Johnson’s 1962 novel, Come and Join the Dance, in tandem with her 1983 memoir Minor Characters regards her writerly strategies, as he did for the men: what are the challenges of representation, of making art of one’s own life and experience.
As the list of women artists grows, Belletto defends his choices, asking the reader to view the book as part of “a matrix of avant-garde writing in the ’60s,” not necessarily limited to the Beats. He goes beyond discussing the work of Bonnie Bremser, Diane DiPrima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Elise Cowan and the most recent it-poet, Ruth Weiss, with a few new additions: Barbara Moraff, Carolyn Bergé, Kay Johnson, for various reasons. Was sleeping with say Kerouac Beat by association? Are they women writers? Beat writers? Artists at all? Original voices? Belletto makes compelling cases for each one, and maybe the point is, you be the judge.
Belletto extends the Beat period way beyond its artistic origins, beyond his designated Beatnik period, politics, Vietnam, Bob Dylan, into an ambiguous present where they still enjoy cult status vs. the many undergraduates who have never even heard of them. I am sure young readers will turn on to this literature, will do well to encounter the work in The Beats, will see themselves as their heirs—as long as they call themselves anything but Beat.