The Beats A Problematic Canon

Writers commonly dislike group labels, feeling that their works are being cruelly amputated - an arm off here, a leg there ('the work bleeds', D. H. Lawrence protested) - to fit a communal box. Yet, as David Lodge has pointed out, no text can generate meaning in a vacuum. The meaning of a book is in large part a product of its differences from and similarities to other books. If, say, a novel did not bear some resemblance to other novels, we should not know how to read it, and if it was not different from all other novels we should not want to read it. Any adequate reading of a text, therefore, involves identifying and classifying it in relation to other texts, according to content, genre, mode, period, language, nationality, and so on. Granted the comparative imprecision of literary categories, there is a special onus upon any critic using a group designation to limit the capacity for slither by lending that term a utile definition (though one that must always be held under potential cancellation). And, certainly, of all such terms bandied about in recent decades, the Beat label is one of the oftenest used but least defined.

The source of most of the confusion bedevilling discussion of the Beats is a critical obsession with their lifestyle rather than their literary aesthetic. Emerging in the culturally repressive America of the Cold War era, the Beats sought to counteract a philistine and inhibitive society by exploring the most extreme, potentially ecstatic areas of the self. Characteristic preoccupations of those engaged in this quest were art (Abstract Expressionist painting was especially admired); jazz in its 'Bebop' and 'Cool' phases; drugs (from alcohol to heroin); sex (in Ginsberg's words, with 'whomever come who may'); communal living; frenetic travel; anarchistic drop-out politics; religious experimentation (with various forms of Buddhism, for example); the espousal of an anti-materialist ascetic lifestyle; an infatuation, sometimes consummated, with criminality (archetypal Beat heroes include the murderer Lucien Carr, William Burroughs who 'accidentally' killed his wife, the thief and heroin addict Herbert Huncke, and the car thief and sometime homosexual prostitute Neal Cassady); and, when on the offensive against society, a policy of bugging the squares — or, as it would become known in the 1960s, 'freaking the straights' (a revival of the time-honoured avantgarde tactic of épater les bourgeois).

That many Beat authors not only adopted this lifestyle, but also used it as the subject matter of their art is indisputable. Kerouac's novels are heavily fictionalized chronicles of the antics of him and his pals, Allen Ginsberg becoming the Alvah Goldbook of The Dharma Bums, Lawrence Ferlinghetti becoming the Lorenzo Monsanto of Big Sur, William Burroughs being pseudonymized as Old Bull Lee in On the Road, Gregory Corso appearing as Raphael Urso in Desolation Angels, and so on, thereby creating the misleading impression that the reader might pierce the text in order to grasp an originatory autobiographical 'truth'. Another problem is that many non-writers adopted the lifestyle, with the result that even the more useful studies of the Beats are apt to be gossipy, sociological tours of one or another of their bohemian haunts with no attempt being made to discriminate the literary praxis from the general behavioural code. Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians (concentrating on Venice West, Los Angeles), The Real Bohemia by Francis J. Rigney and L. Douglas Smith (San Francisco), Ned Polsky's Hustlers, Beats and Others (Greenwich Village, New York) and Iain Finlayson's Tangier: City of the Dream, are examples of this mode. Elsewhere, Jane Kramer's Paterfamilias, an account of Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s, sycophantically forebore to comment that his poetic talent was depreciating in inverse ratio to his accession to 'guru' status; Ann Charters and Dennis McNally have written biographies of Kerouac that preposterously assume his novels to be an unmediated transcription of actual events; while major Beat writers have themselves sought to include amongst their number certain friends whose lifestyles they admired, but whose literary talents are irredeemably minor (Herbert Huncke, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky and Neal Cassady are but the most conspicuous instances).

Fifty years after the events, the time has come to set a new agenda for the Beats, and one not based on any of these irresponsible meldings of the biography and the art, the lifestyle and the literature. Alas, this process can hardly be said to be underway, the best recent books in the field still being biographies; especially, perhaps, Gerald Nicosia's Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983), Barry Miles's Ginsberg: A Biography (1989) and Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1991). The most widely available anthology, The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992) edited by Ann Charters, is organized on a New York—San Francisco axis based on the personal friendships of Kerouac and Ginsberg. The most recent critical symposium, The Beat Generation Writers (1996) edited by A. Robert Lee, contradicts its own title by devoting its longest essay to Huncke and Cassady. And even James Campbell's splendidly ascerbic and unde-luded monograph, This Is The Beat Generation (1999), crosses the threshold between biography and literary criticism so freely as to blur the distinction between the two. Whatever their virtues, and there are plenty of them, these are not the revisionist studies we so badly need.

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