Ginsberg-Kerouac letters best of two books on fabled 'Generation'
In a footnote to the printed version of his mind-bending performance piece, "Howl," Allen Ginsberg wrote in his rushed unpunctuated style, "The typewriter is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!"
About a year later, in 1957, when Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was published, Truman Capote offered his famous one-line dismissal of the Kerouac road novel:
"That's not writing, that's typing."
How one views the accomplishments of the Beat Generation and two of its central figures, Ginsberg and Kerouac, depends a lot on how one looks at "The New" whenever it appears in culture. It is rarely welcomed.
Capote, every bit as inventive as those he criticized, nonetheless preferred to extend traditions rather than leapfrog them. And when one looks at the inventions of The Beats, typing has a lot to do with their achievements.
What gets called the Beat Generation, a literary counter force to the postwar Eisenhower 1950s, harks back in shape and frame to the Lost Generation of American writers in Paris in the 1920s, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who came of age after World War I.
Then, Ezra Pound maintained that there is a 20-year lag between the pronouncement of fresh artistic ideas and their acceptance. When Picasso showed Gertrude Stein his portrait of her in Paris in 1906 she said, "It doesn't look like me." Picasso replied, "It will."
In 1946 she bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum, having long considered it her best likeness.
That year and the decade following saw the iconic emergence of The Bomb and The Cold War. Their power created institutionalized cultural anxieties, similar to ones contemporary readers have experienced, post 9/11. The sheer weight of it all launched an understandable cultural depression and, for some, opened a raw spirit seeking something new.
Though Kerouac and Ginsberg each sought to elevate the term "Beat Generation" into something "beatific," John Clellon Holmes, who gave the term currency in a 1952 article, paraphrased Kerouac saying, "It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately, of soul," a feeling of being beaten down to the bedrock of consciousness.
What was "beat" became a touchstone of cultural resilience, akin to Huck Finn's plan to "light out for the Territory," Mark Twain's heraldic charge to American literature. Kerouac's whip-cracking "On the Road" inspired a rebellious spirit equal to Twain's, and perhaps greater than J.D. Salinger's tradition-extending "The Catcher in the Rye," whose 1951 publication saw the Beats already approaching their own escape velocity, with no room aboard for time-bound New Yorkers.
The Beat Generation was shaped by a number of confluences, among them an essential disconnect between public discourse and socially disenfranchised youth; oddly enough that confluence involved one of the greatest cultural inclusions of the 20th century -- the GI Bill, the free ticket to college that allowed young men to study engineering but also to restlessly read Blake and Nietzsche and Marx and, later, Sartre at universities like Columbia that had rarely opened their doors to commoners.
These men, and they were mostly men, learned what they could, and they became enjoined with the hungry-for-something to whom Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their cohorts unwittingly preached.
The principals were clueless as to their impact; they were, as Bill Morgan's "The Typewriter Is Holy" suggests, much more concerned with the web of encounters, relationships, betrayals and incitements than with any literary legacy. Mr Morgan's Beat characters are a tawdry bunch, proffered in a blow-by-blow fashion, early and often manipulated by William S. Burroughs, author of "Naked Lunch" and one of America's remarkably nihilistic writers.
Burroughs' puzzling sexuality and power plays confused Ginsberg's world view for decades. Kerouac, in Mr. Morgan's earnest attempt to provide a narrative of the life and times of the Beat Generation, comes across as more than petulant about his publishing profile.
The Beat Generation, as the author would have us believe, was co-founded by "Allen and Jack," and that just doesn't wash. There were many people equally significant; time, remembrance and scholarship will show this. Indeed, Mr. Morgan's whole book is a hash, a chronicler's notes without literary evaluation, and it's that literary evaluation we most need when walking through the circumstances of the creation of the signal Beat writings.
But then we turn to the book it is an unplanned footnote for: "Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters" and we "get it" with an intimate sense of "A-ha!"
The book of letters is edited by Mr. Morgan, with the sterling assistance of David Stanford.
I'll be frank. I came to the "Typewriter" book first and was disappointed. There is very little reference in it to an artistic cultural achievement. It is a book for the Beat-cognoscenti, and for those it may have some limited value. Come back to it if you'd like.
The Kerouac-Ginsberg letters are by comparison marvelous and lively. The exchange ranks among the best examples of completely engaged literary correspondence we know of in the past 50 years.
Who cares whether they co-founded the Beat Generation? These are two electric and electrifying writers who are displayed at the brink of cultural awareness and then beyond, at the vanguard of the culture.
And thank God for the typewriter -- Kerouac and Ginsberg consistently write as though there's no tomorrow. Their insouciance and frequency of posting anticipate the heyday of e-mail's instant reply and response -- no Twitters here.
In the process we see Kerouac's and Ginsberg's naivete, their bull-headed stupidity, and their remarkable sense of self-actualization. Amazingly they are driven by a joy antithetical to the world about them.
This is the best example of how the letters between two writers transcends biography. People seldom want to read literary correspondence; they think it's too obscure. Look at these epistles. They're cock-eyed, insightful and goofy, often at the same time. Perhaps the Morgan "Typewriter" book can fill in some biographical gaps, but when we read Ginsberg, in anticipation of his mad "Howl," writing as an anxiety-driven scholar protesting to Jack Kerouac in 1949, "[Understand] I did not deliver myself to an actual bughouse to see what it was like ..." and then find him later, free, liberated and unfettered, writing to Kerouac in early 1954:
"[I] have a beard, a goatee, black and mustachio, long hair, heavy shoes ... [I] go walking midday naked up a rocky clear stream, bluey sky ... and sit and idle with my drums ... I break out in African reverberations which can be heard for miles around," we can look at this boundless enthusiasm, see it as a beatific spirit, recognize it as a primary force for a literary generation, and understand why Ginsberg would for an era trumpet, and why Kerouac would agree, "the weight of the world is love."
First Published July 25, 2010 12:00 am