This short anthology of prose and poetry, which marks and complements Plymouth Arts Centre's 'Beat Generation Weekend' (6 & 7 June 1987). is also intended as a publication independent of this particular event. Reminiscing and celebratory it certainly is and. inevitably (and in both senses) partial.
On The Road, Howl and The Naked Lunch, all first published in the Fifties, have lasted indeed outlasted, most of their fiercest denigrators while Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, who spearheaded that 'movement' the literary critics saddled them with, have had the last laugh. Those critics (and critics, concerned as they are with creating or sustaining hierarchies, generally tend towards elitism) who disliked the democratic openness of the Beats, initially found it easy to heap abuse upon writers whose styles both written and lived so differed from their own. The Beats' classlessness derided as ignorance or facile anarchy, their frankness condemned as obscenity, their freshness and pace mistaken for illiteracy, and their self-explorations and autobiographical approach labelled 'indulgence', these writers had much to contend with and the casualty lists (also true of the modern jazz musicians) were inevitably heavy. Indifference, hostility, ridicule in some cases, belated fame and notoriety in others, claimed all too many victims.
Chief among them was the Beat Generation's most important figure and (in the UK at least) the most misunderstood and undervalued Jack Kerouac. If this book, like the events of the Weekend, emphasises his particular influence or constantly refers back to Kerouac's contribution to post-War writing, that seems only fitting. And it should be stressed that Kerouac and many of his friends and fellow-writers. University-educated or not, were very literate men who read widely and deeply. Kerouac knew and loved his Shakespeare, Blake, Joyce and Proust. And for that matter Melville, Rimbaud and the many ancestors and influences he acknowledged, from classics to contemporary masters. (These include Thoreau, Whitman, London, Hamsun, Wolfe, Cιline, Saroyan, Algren and the ever-controversial Henry Miller, then in his sixties, who enjoyed much of what Kerouac was writing and said so.)
No artist, however original, can afford not to learn from the chain of tradition. This the wonderful Dexter Gordon, trailblazer and survivor, whom Kerouac listened to and admired, knows well. Gordon, now in old age receiving his true measure of applause, reaching via Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight and those superb Blue Note reissues a larger, younger audience than ever before, tells a story about himself aged 13:
"I didn't know anything about making music, but the knowledge I had in my head was really broad; my thing was already forming. I was listening to all the bands, everybody I could, and I'd go around where the cats were, when the bands came into town, and I'd carry someone's horn into the dance. Later on, I would let Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean do the same for me, when they were kids. I knew where they were, 'cause I'd done the same thing myself."
A generous openness of spirit, along with that sense of continuity expressed by all genuine artists even as they affirm their own individuality such emotional links are manifest in the best Beat writing: that's what should be celebrated and what new, younger generations are now enthusiastically discovering for themselves. And a perceptive British literary historian like Jim Burns is here, and has been for years, pointing out such things. We shouldn't, for instance, be fooled by recent fashionable bits of bookmaking like The Hip, a coffee-table volume, albeit with some nice pictures and subtitled "Hipsters, Jazz and The Beat Generation". For how can such a concoction omit the likes of Terry Southern, Burroughs, Gysin, Brossard, the Landesmans, R. Crumb, Huncke and so many others who helped shape or contributed to the Hip sensibility as those upon whom space is squandered (e.g. Sade singer not Marquis, Kid Creole, Tom Waits, Paul Weller et al) did not? And I wish the British public would read all those excellent American authors whose works and lives have had much to do with the Hip and the Beat, loners though they may be and categories though they may resist: John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Chandler Brossard. John Clellon Holmes, Alan Harrington, Paul Bowles, Hubert Selby.
If the names mentioned seem to imply predominantly male preserves (though not necessarily with homosexual or chauvinist connotations), it must be admitted, feminism aside, that those women poets of the time characterized as 'Beat' were none too memorable. Perhaps only Denise Levertov and Fran Landesman, the poet-lyricist who wrote some much-recorded standards (Ballad of the Sad Young Men; Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, etc) still deserve wider recognition. Many years later, however, the women prose-writers have been producing fascinating and highly readable memoirs and autobiographical fiction by way of setting the record straight. Try, for example, Heart Beat by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, Common Soldiers by Janet Richards. Or Bonnie Bremser's For Love Of Ray, Diane di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik and Jan Kerouac's Baby Driver. (Edie Kerouac, too, is now at work on a memoir. You'll Be Okay.) Illuminating, honest and worth anyone's time. Students of the era will also find such books full of courage, humour and perception rare enough qualities in our new Cold War epoch.
So much Beat writing sprang from reaction against insensitivity and materialism whether rooted in politics, literature or within individuals. Creating any art-form involves communicating and surviving, searching for an impossible permanence in a very brief human span. A most eloquent and enduring survivor, one late great jazz legend now no longer with us in the flesh, movingly closed his own book. He summed up the spirit of what Kerouac too might have expressed were he himself here today:
"As for the future physically, emotionally, I can't work very much. I can't take much pressure, but I do have to survive, and I do still want to play. I do still need to be accepted as an artist. But I want to be more than just a 'jazz player' playing. I want to make the people forget the categories and hear what's really happening. I want to make them feel the joy or sadness. I want to make them open up and listen. That's what I've always wanted. I'll do the best I can." (Art Pepper: Straight Life, Schirmer Books USA. 1979)