At what point did the cool jazz of the Beat Generation curdle into the technicolor dissonance of the hippies? Was this an inevitable progression, as many believe, or did someone take a wrong turn somewhere?
San Francisco–which served as the launching pad for both movements–yields some clues. At City Lights bookstore, the floor-to-ceiling shelves full of meticulously organized, attractive books by Beat authors impresses upon the visitor the sheer volume of this group’s contribution to the literary landscape. Contrary to what some critics might have you believe, these were no mere dilettantes; they were serious, hard-working, and extremely prolific writers.
Take a bus to Haight-Ashbury and you’ll see where it all ended up. On every corner residents and homeless people stagger around, indistinguishable from each other. And everyone–I mean everyone–reeks. I don’t know if there’s been a neighborhood boycott of deodorant, or if they all just use the organic stuff (which anyone will tell you is about as effective as rubbing oatmeal into your underarms). George Harrison made his first visit here in 1967, and the experience so unnerved him that he gave up taking acid–at the height of the Summer of Love, no less.
As it turns out, none of this was what Jack Kerouac envisioned when he was writing books like On the Road and The Dharma Bums in the 1940s and 50s. His stated intention was to celebrate life, youth, and the wide-open spaces of America through “spontaneous prose.” The stream-of-consciousness narratives of Thomas Wolf and the free-form melodies of saxophonist Charlie Parker served as inspiration. While often shining a sympathetic light on drug addicts, homosexuals, minorities, and other marginalized groups, Kerouac’s writing remained resolutely apolitical–the reason for which became clear in 1968 when he drunkenly outed himself as a lifelong Republican on William Buckley’s Firing Line. In the recently published The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, author Bill Morgan elaborates further on this oft-ignored facet of Kerouac’s personality:
“Many literary historians have suggested that Jack became more conservative as he grew older, but he had never been a liberal and really didn’t shift to the right. It was the shift of his friends to the left that made Jack appear more reactionary. To others who misinterpreted his politics, he appeared to have become radically more conservative.”
Elsewhere, Morgan quotes Kerouac’s response to a letter from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti extolling the virtues of post-revolution Cuba: “I got my own revolution out here in Northport: the American Revolution.”
Why is this aspect of Kerouac not more widely known? Perhaps it is because he did few interviews, preferring to communicate primarily through his novels. Add to that his predilection for befriending eccentrics like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and it’s easy to forget what lever Kerouac pulled every four years.
Jack’s political orientation is not the only surprising detail to surface in Morgan’s history. The book also makes it clear that Allen Ginsberg was the most enterprising and levelheaded member of the group. It was Ginsberg who recognized the marketing potential of the “Beat” label and, apart from Ferlinghetti, he was the only Beat writer to not develop a dependency on alcohol or drugs. During their diaspora, as the once tight-knit group of East Coast friends scattered across the globe in search of adventure and opportunity, Ginsberg kept in contact with everybody and arranged frequent reunions in locations as disparate as Tangier, Paris, Vancouver, and Boulder. Furthermore, whenever Ginsberg got a foothold in the publishing industry–first at Ace Books and later with Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint, he seized the opportunity to pitch the work of his talented friends, often landing book deals for them. This honorable trait continued well into old age; upon being elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters in the 1980s, he immediately began lobbying for Burroughs’ induction as well. Quite simply put, without Allen Ginsberg there would have been no Beat Generation, just a few writers here and there, toiling away in obscurity.
The third member of what is now regarded as the Beat Trinity was, of course, the aforementioned William S. Burroughs, immortalized as “Old Bull Lee” in On the Road and author of his own series of iconoclastic novels. Here Morgan is on shakier ground but, to be fair, distilling an authentic portrait of “Bill” is a slippery prospect at best. Perhaps aspiring biographers should be judged not in terms of success but in how gracefully they fail. In this regard, Bill Morgan falls well behind Ted Morgan (author of Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs) who at least attempted to understand Burroughs’s jigsaw mind on its own terms. Bill Morgan opts instead to simply present the facts. He does a serviceable job of this, but the resulting portrait is bound to leave many readers wondering why they should care about this emotionally remote drug addict who shot his wife in Mexico and all but abandoned his son. The “William Tell” incident that resulted in Joan Burroughs’s death ought to engender some reflection and analysis. Was it a drunken accident? (the official version has Bill attempting to shoot a glass off Joan’s head) or could there have been deeper psychological factors at work? At the very least, Morgan owes it to the reader to give a more thorough summary of Burroughs’s own thoughts on the matter. Joan was a pivotal figure; her Brooklyn apartment had functioned as a home and/or safehouse for Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. So in reading about “the incident,” I am left wondering, what was Jack’s reaction? Did this cause Jack and Allen to re-evaluate their friendship with Burroughs? That information is surely available in the many letters and journals the writers left behind, but unfortunately it is not distilled here.
This lack of insight is my chief criticism of The Typewriter is Holy. Morgan takes the “uncensored” part of his mandate seriously–refusing to gloss over the misogyny, drug abuse, and violent tendencies of his subjects. But he falls woefully short of the stated goal of providing a “complete” history. For starters, we’d need a fuller accounting of the Beats’ inner landscape: Kerouac’s waterfall of rhapsodic language; Allen Ginsberg’s righteous indignation; Burroughs’s alternate realities and pervasive paranoia. Morgan is obviously a brilliant researcher and synthesizer, but he seems to lack the ability to capture the souls of these men who were so in thrall to the written word, and who offered America its final literary movement. Good writing did not perish with the end of the Beats, but this was the last time in American history that a group of authors, rather than musicians, athletes, movie actors, or rap stars, would have a widespread impact on the mind of a generation. It was the last time that the great mass of American youth would take its cue from books. Sure, we still see occasional literary successes like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code wrest people away from their iPods, but those are simply the parting shots from a ship that began sinking in the mid-1950s.
So what happened to the Beats? Television happened. LSD happened. Vietnam happened. Black and white exploded into riotous color, burning away, in its brightness, those few intangible cobwebs of imagination that remained.
None of this is covered in The Typewriter is Holy. Nevertheless, this slim volume functions as the definitive timeline of the Beat writers’ intersecting lives and careers, telling us the who, what, when, where and how of this important story. As to the why, that remains buried in the primary sources.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church