1993-06-04: Kerouac and the Beats

Kerouac and the Beats (1988)

edited by Arthur and Kit Knight

This is a collection of interviews, essays, letters and journals about various Beats, focusing especially on Jack Kerouac.  I read it in the hope of learning what values formed the core of this influential group’s culture.  I feel this is a crucial link in the memetic web of the twentieth century, part of a transition in generally accepted values that began around 1920 and was largely completed in the 1970s.

I have found the Beats frustrating, because I don’t see in the (few) writings I have read a clear way to characterize the values of the writers.  Partly this is due to my ignorance of the general literature of the 1930s and 1940s to which they were reacting.  But the little I have gleaned seems insufficient to account for the effects that followed in the 1960s.

This book should be useful, since it doesn’t contain the literature, but the meta-literature.  It is not about the works, but about the workers.  Nonetheless, I still found it hard to get a clear picture.  A great deal seems to be about an endless search for sensation (booze, drugs, sex), with little regard for character or the values that motivate their behavior.  I get some dim idea from the people who are admired, and the things they are admired for, but much of it seems to be in a kind of in-group code.  There is a lot of loose talk about Buddhism and jazz, but without explicitly connecting anything to anything else.  I have read criticism that called the Beats nihilistic, and it is easy to see why; but I’m sure there is more than that.

This book contains an article about Neal Cassady by Carolyn Cassady.  He was evidently a ‘character’ for many of the Beats, with characteristics they admired.  But he was so far from mainstream American values that is hard to know which of his were admired and which were part of the sideshow.

There are interviews with William S. Burroughs, Philip Whalen, Jan Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg; letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg, Holmes and Cassady; extracts from works by Herbert Huncke, Holmes, and Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker; and a bibliography.

Some description of Beat values appears in part of the interview with Holmes, by John Tytell in 1974:

JT: Even though Kerouac writes about working-class characters like Neal, exulting, for example, in the power with which Neal could change tires, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of class conflict or awareness in his fiction such as you might find in a more political writer like Dos Passos.  He goes right to the man because of something central in his subject’s experience.

JCH: Still, there was a definite class feeling in Jack, although it was almost always on the surface.  Show him the human situation and if it was clear enough to him, that’s what he would reach for. That’s really what the whole Beat thing was about.  It was a kind of American existentialism – it said don’t talk to me about essence but show me what’s happening.

JT: How does that work in with class though?

JCH: It doesn’t, of course.  But what I’m trying to say is that Jack, when he was not creatively engaged, thought very much about class – not intelligently, he didn’t write much about it, but he was full of class resentment.  He who seemed to me to be so brilliant, nevertheless resented people who had more education, than he did, more privilege, more money.

JT: Do you think this might have had its origin in the experience of attending Horace Mann, and then Columbia, as a young man from a provincial town without any kind of support?

JCH: Undoubtedly.  That must have been a factor.  It always seemed to me, knowing Jack, and even more in reading his work, that he always felt separate, he even felt separate from his family and the immediate background which gave him his material.  He felt special, isolated, lonely, and this never changed.

JT: The feeling I have about all of these figures is the spiritual state of exile, not that one has to – like Burroughs – leave the country or expatriate, but in the sense of Stephen Dedaelus’ exile which is all the more profound for being within one’s own family and country.

JCH: Well, the Beat thing begins with the feeling of difference.

JT: And outcast, or self-outcast as a result?

JCH: Well, at first Jack wanted to be like his father.  He started being nostalgic about his life in Lowell when he was seventeen, perhaps even earlier.  But he never felt part of it.  He was like Rimbaud.

JT: His poem on Rimbaud is probably the best place to begin when looking for what motivated the Beat experience.  In The Town and The City, when Levinsky first appears, he is carrying a volume of Rimbaud.

JCH: It is so difficult to speak about it sociologically, but what had happened in the late thirties and early forties was a kind of uprootedness in terms of family relationships, the whole society was changing, and a major event was about to happen, and everybody knew it, particularly young men.  And it was also clear that all the ways by which people had understood an event like this in the past were inadequate.

JT: And isn’t what you are attempting to describe exactly the context of The Town and The City where both family ties and community allegiance lose their validity in the face of some looming threat?  The sense of imminent devastation for young men – almost Hemingway’s theme.

JCH: Right, but what it did for Jack and all of us to some degree was to make more poignant the things that had been lost.  You allude to this in one of your essays when you refer to the deep conservative element in all this.  It set Jack thinking about families, it set me thinking about marriage, love, cohesiveness, and more than that –  continuity.  Ginsberg is relentlessly writing about continuity, or its absence, but what nerves all of Allen’s work is the broken circuit, and the broken circuit is in Jack’s work all the way.

JT: That’s a good image.

JCH: So we issued out of the war into a cultural scene, the dominant tone of which was irony and craft, Henry James and Auden.

JT: Containment and form.

JCH: And caution.  Don’t spit it out.  And this is what made Allen erupt, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” which he has been laughed at for writing, but which is so true, and this is what made Jack write, “The only people for me are the mad ones” in On the Road.  And what moves both passages is that they were both saying there’s a break, there’s a terrible break that has occurred: I have known those who have been destroyed by it, I believe in people who are trying to mend.  Now these lines were done independently of each other, but they really epitomize what this whole thing was about.

JT: Last night we were talking about the importance of madness as motivation in Ginsberg’s work, and in Kerouac’s work, and the fact that from their point of view the madness that they pursued was not madness but the only way to move, to see the society and deal with it, and that stance leading to a whole reinterpretation of the relativity of madness.

JCH: Yes.  If you accept the modern world on its terms, and are content with it, then anyone who can’t function in it is strange, bent, twisted, etc., but one of the qualities in the Beat movement was the recognition that madness was a kind of retreat for those who wanted to stay privately sane.  We understood that madness meant pain, as any withdrawal does, but the idea that there was any way to formulate social sanity was one of the things that we tried to give up, just as we tried to give up Freudianism, Marxism, and all determinisms.  And everyone knew people who went mad, or felt themselves going mad sometimes –  that is, getting psychically out of step with the world – and all too often it was because of a different standard that the world continually abused.  So people broke down because of this dichotomy; in other words, it’s early Laing.  This was certainly true of Allen who was put in Columbia Psychiatric Institute because of things completely outside him.  His apartment was full of stolen goods brought there by Huncke and the two others living there.

JT: Lionel Trilling explained to me that Allen went to P.I. as a result of a deal with the District Attorney, Frank Hogan, who was a Columbia University graduate, and who agreed to allow Allen to serve time in a psychiatric ward rather than a penal ward.  Actually, as Laing and Thomas Szasz have argued, it is much the same thing though.

JCH: But what happened with Allen while he was there was interesting – since he ultimately confused the analysts by being saner than they were.  He was more honest for one thing, so they said they couldn’t do anything for him.

JT: That’s another aspect of something Carl Solomon told me – that he felt in his life there was a danger of talking his way into the institution.  So honesty is a twisting key itself.  But in the culture of the late forties and early fifties, the nature of madness was almost an idea that Norman O. Brown discusses in Life Against Death, that the greatest madness lies in resisting one’s natural inclinations to madness, so that from that point of view you can see the sense of control of a Nixon as being the archetype of madness in our day.  Maybe that’s what leads to war.

JCH: Allen would say, and I would agree with him, as Blake said, that anything that comes directly from the inner self is good, it sweats, it’s real.  Being disembodied is really being mad.

JT: Not being in touch with oneself – what Laing calls “ontological insecurity”?

JCH: Talking like a grammaphone like Nixon talks, simply mouthing things, talking out of a dream, an MGM fantasy.

JT: Yes, like the time he reputedly appeared at the Washington Monument before a peace rally at 5:00 am and addressed a small group as if he were in a trance.

JCH: Certain kinds of clichés are the narcotics of the middle class, and Nixon plays on these automatically.  I think he really believes these things so I can’t hate him.  He’s so removed that he is sad to me, not loathsome.  But he is everything that we have to recoil from, and I mean spiritually, not politically.

JT: Was there any general attitude among the Beats toward psychoanalysis?  I know Burroughs went through it, and disdains it now.  How did Kerouac feel about it?

JCH: Well, Jack had an experience in the Navy where he was discharged, I forget the phrase they used . . .

JT: “Paranoid schizophrenic.”  In one of his letters he says they added paranoid to his diagnosis because he was intelligent.

JCH: Well, that about sums it up.  In other words, we all felt that psychoanalysis was an inadequate description of human activity.  It just couldn’t go far enough, the way sociology failed to include the spirit or mystery, and that’s what we were after.  It really didn’t help to know that you had a father complex or a mother complex.  Life amounted to more than that.  We felt that this approach was as oversimplified as Marx’s understanding of class relations.  The Beat attitude, to call it that, was protesting against what we felt was an inadequate conception of the nature of man.  In 1945, man was seen as a victim, either of toilet training or his place in society, but he was determined from the outside.  That conception of man we all found, quite independently because we all have different backgrounds, to be increasingly inadequate.  We felt there had to be something more.  Thoreau talks about it, and Emerson, and we found the deepest strain in American politics and poetry to be metaphysical.  The American Constitution starts out by enunciating certain inalienable rights; no European had ever conceived of that – that certain rights are innate!  When the French began talking about the rights of man it led to the rolling of heads.  But we began by defining man as free, and our experiment worked because our variety, our difference, our lack of homogeneity meant that every one of us had to become Americans, which meant becoming new men –  it was no birthright, everyone except the Indians came from somewhere else.  So primarily we are a passionately political people and politics is our church, the thing that holds us together as both Whitman and Lincoln used to say.  Well, we wandered a bit afield.

JT: I’d like to wander in another direction – the importance of jazz music to the Beats.  For example, Allen today writing and singing a poetic based on blues, or earlier this afternoon, I was reading in your journals an entry describing a party in 1951 where Allen was singing blues, improvising rhymes to fit the people present at the party.  The same interest is certainly evident in Kerouac’s work, and in your novel, The Horn.  What do you think caused this general interest?

JCH: 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.  American music – jazz, blues, it all comes from a black base – has in our century seemed to young people to express all sorts of inexpressible exuberance and energy.  Now with jack and me and Allen and others of that time I suppose jazz meant more than that.  Fed up as we were with trite explanations of why things happened and with an attitude towards the world that seemed inadequate, jazz was a call from the dark, it was the euphoria of joy, dance, let loose.  Also, everyone at that time believed that blacks knew something that we didn’t know, only because they appeared less surface-worried than we were.

This tells less than I’d hoped to learn about the Beats, but indicates the (probably obvious) idea that the Beat movement was a rekindling of the Romantic movement, or what has survived of it.

 

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