In Search of Bohemia

A worn gray tepee sits at the edge of the city’s oldest shantytown, just yards from where Manhattan Bridge traffic hits Canal Street. But it also sits in terra incognita. The two artists who’ve lived in the tepee since Thanksgiving 1990 admit to feeling “muddled” at times about what they’re even doing there.

Seated in the dim interior on foam pads, Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer began to explain. For years, they’ve collaborated as Thieves’ Theatre, trying to “embody and articulate” the voice of the disenfranchised. Doing Genet’s Deathwatch with prisoners in Illinois. Doing Marat/Sade with punks and ex-mental patients in Toronto. Trying to work with the homeless in the city’s shelters, but rejecting it as an “us/them” experience. That propelled them into the shantytown, where they decided to stage Heiner Müller’s Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts in the teepee.

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As the artists struggled to explain their mission, I got the impression that they’d spent hours, days, months trying to unravel the koans presented by their new life. How to do theater in the shantytown without being elitist. How to go public without being consumed. How to determine who the audience would be, could be, should be. Such questions become inevitable to artists without a community. I mean — apart from one’s own circle of friends, is there such a thing anymore as an artist with a community?

Schafer and Fracaro had settled in among the alienated, but homeless people aren’t necessarily bohemians. Most of them share the values of the larger world, and other residents of the Hill (as those who live there call it) saw the artists as the outsiders they really are.

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

Several times someone called in through the tent flap, “Hey, Chief,” and Fracaro would ease himself out to talk to a neighbor. The Hill is clearly a man’s world. Schafer is known there as “Mrs. Chief.” She made the tepee last fall out of 78 U.S. mailbags while Fracaro spent weeks getting acquainted. The artists did not want to move in without the other residents’ permission. (And after much discussion, they decided not to give up their Brooklyn apartment.) They share a job at a movie production warehouse and live sparely. A few tools. A few books. They dubbed the tepee the Living Museum of the Nomad Monad. They’ve kept it drug-and-alcohol-free, providing coffee to their neighbors in the morning. Fracaro and Schafer say the others accept them now, but still regard them as odd.

The artists call the shantytown a “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” They had come across this phrase in an obscure text called T.A.Z. [The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism] by an arcane anarchist who calls himself Hakim Bey. I’d read the book myself, since I’m interested in what’s passing for autonomy these days, when a New World Order seems to permeate even our attempts at disorder or dissent. “Realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution’ but also that we give up wanting it,” writes Bey. “In most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.” The artists in the tepee had managed to disappear by refusing to speak to reporters. (“As soon as the TAZ is named [represented, mediated] it must vanish, it will vanish …”) Only now, as they intuit that their days on the Hill are numbered, are they willing to talk to me.

I was reminded of other art satellites I’ve encountered over the last few years — the Neoist rituals in Tompkins Square, the Sideshows by the Seashore on Coney Island’s boardwalk, the Festival of the Swamps beneath the Williamsburg Bridge — all of it unfolding far from the grant-getting vortex, part of no movement, isolated from any larger context.

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Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those “autonomous zones” seemed irreparable. That historic institution once called “bohemia” has been so intensively exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture — more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Now — relentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thing — the media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830-1930) to New Bohemia (the ’60s) to Faux Bohemia (the ’80s) has atomized now into trails that can’t be followed: the ‘zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.

They’re all part of the bohemian diaspora.

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One winter night in 1916, Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and several other artists made their way to the top of the Washington Square arch, where they built a bonfire, ate a picnic, shot off some cap guns, and declared Greenwich Village an independent republic. And why not? Home to the wild advocates of socialism and anarchism, free love and free verse, the Village was a place out of sync with puritan America. Here, a left-wing monthly called The Masses actually opposed the Great War (for which the federal government effectively censored it). Here in 1918, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap began serializing the banned Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review (for which they were charged with pandering obscenity). Here, at a time when women in American did not even have the right to vote, some were joining together to form the Heterodoxy Club for “unorthodox women” — which included feminists, several “out” lesbians, and one black woman.

They were bohemians in the classic sense — people alienated from middle-class values (artistic, sexual, political) who knew where to find a community of like minds. The word came from bohémien, the common French term for gypsy, a people defined in the popular mind as social outcasts. By now, “bohemian” has been recycled so endlessly it has no precise meaning — though it continues to evoke an image: the Rebel With an Aesthetic. “The bohemian spirit. Not too hard to spot,” says a current ad for Bohemia beer, beneath a photo of a man in a leather jacket repairing a motorcyle in his perfect white-walled loft, while a draped and available woman sits on his bed.

Even though it originated in 1830s Paris, the whole notion of a bohemia seems so American (Dream) to me, so much about “lightin’ out” for the frontier. Bohemia still plays a role in bourgeois fantasy as the road not taken, where you could’ve would’ve done your own thing, free from the yoke of work and family. This quest for breathing space was always less about art than about capitalism, an escape from the rat race and the cultural cookie cutter. In this fluid zone, someone from the lower class could slip in and someone from the upper class could opt out. Certainly, a revolt against capitalism is something few people — and few artists — are interested in these days.

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In 1991, it’s becoming something of a cliché to describe Western culture as a flattened landscape where the boundary between margin and mainstream has eroded. As critic Hal Foster put it, in his book Recordings: “the center has invaded the periphery and vice versa.” It’s the media spotlight that erases the line between them.

The demimonde, for example, revolved around its “third spaces” (not home, not work), the now-legendary cafes and clubs: Toulouse-Lautrec at the Chat Noir, Pollock at the Cedar Tavern, every East Village artist at 8BC. Expatriate Paris flocked to Gertrude Stein’s salon, while the Harlem Renaissance had A’Lelia Walker’s. But there are no equivalent hangouts now, because once they’re discovered by the media, they disappear. (The night I spotted Jerzy Kosinski and David Lee Roth at 8BC, I knew the end was near.) Compound that with the problem of finding any affordable downtown space at all, and it’s no accident that most of the boho energy I’ve encountered in Manhattan in the last couple years radiated out of a squat (Bullet Space) or someone’s living room (Gargoyle Mechanique, Gusto House). An exception like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe — holdout from an older era — simply proves the rule.

Of course, bohemia was something of a media invention right from the start. The first stories about it, written by Henry Mürger and based on himself and his friends, appeared in a small Paris newspaper in 1845-46. They were adapted for the musical stage in 1849, collected in Scenes of Bohemian Life in 1851, and immortalized in Puccini’s La Bohème in 1986, romanticizing what some still romanticize: the garret, the bonhomie, the “sacrifice for art.”

But the lore of the starving artist changed with mass media, till image was everything. The artist became the emblematic chic figure of the ’80s — the rebel fit for a beer ad. The media feeding frenzy around “East Village art” developed in part because those promoting this scene used its marginality as a marketing ploy. The ensuing spotlight quickly corrupted the playful impulses behind the original galleries and inflated the relatively modest accomplishments of many of the artists. Such inflation of reputations, of expectations, of the very idea of what it means to succeed as an artist — distorted the ’80s art world. Made it a bottomless pit of neo-celebs. And of course, it inflated rents as well. Now, even the faux bohemia once known as the East Village Scene is gone, replaced by the usual Manhattan real estate protectorate where the extremes of capitalist life coexist like two sides of a knife.

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By the late ’80s, more and more artists had decided to leave what some of them now called the Beast Village. For the most part, they were moving directly across the river to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, just one subway stop into another space-time continuum. This is the newest artists’ neighborhood, and a quiet one, barely visible in the working-class nabe around the L train or the barrio-near-the-bridge fed by the J and M. A few “spaces” are open, like Minor Injury and Brand Name Damages. (What could such names portend?)

But in contrast to the publicity-mad East Villagers, many artists in Greenpoint don’t seem to want their neighborhood publicized. As a friend who’s lived there for years put it, “We don’t care about getting validated by people from Manhattan.” There’s nothing for the hype to stick to, anyway. No trendy new ism. No glamour. No “No Wave.” Just cheap rent. But the artists find one another. There’s a knot of community. For example, Mike Ballou and Adam Simon run a symposium called Four Walls out of Ballou’s home. (“Don’t print my address.”) Simon started Four Walls in Hoboken a few years ago, so its move to Brooklyn follows the trail of cheap loft space. Once a month now, guest curators hang a show in Ballou’s studio for a day; it ends with a discussion of the work among the exhibitors and artists from the neighborhood. It’s always crowded.

But there are crowds and then there’s the Crowd. Last June, intrigued by flyers wheat-pasted all over the East Village, I made my way to an abandoned warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront for a one-night-only art extravaganza called the Fly Trap. I’d heard good things about an earlier event called the Cat’s Head, and so had everyone else, apparently. By midnight, the line waiting in the rutted dirt road to the warehouse was two blocks long, complete with the old buzz surrounding the place-to-be. Inside, I found 20,000 square feet of huge and uninspired installations, live bands, and beer — club fun, a contrived atmosphere of outlaw revelry. Hanging art in some decrepit quasi-forbidden old building? A veritable tradition — and we did it better in the ’70s (Times Square Show). Then we did it better in the ’80s (Real Estate Show, Warren Street Pier).

Artists who fled to Williamsburg precisely to escape trendification are horrified to find it following them. Painter Amy Silliman, a longtime resident of the area, said of the Fly Trap: “Don’t assume that this is a summary of the neighborhood. It’s just the bad old East Village come to haunt me.”

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Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth played MC for the five young poets who would all go on to achieve some measure of poetry-fame — Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen — while an unpublished and unknown Jack Kerouac, too shy to read, passed jugs of wine through the packed gallery. But this became a legendary evening on the strength of the one poem, still unfinished, read by Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked …”

As his biographer Barry Miles reports it, Ginsberg was “transported … arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words” while Rexroth listened with tears in his eyes and the audience yelled “Go!” at the end of each line. “Howl” was an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, the collective howl reverberating through every outsider enduring the lonely-crowd ’50s. This was poetry that changed people’s lives.

In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima describes the electrifying moment when she first encountered the poem and sensed that, for better or for worse, her isolation was over. Someone had brought Ginsberg’s now-familiar little square book to a dinner party at her “pad.” Scanning the first lines, she immediately left her own party to read the whole thing, then returned to read it out loud to everyone. “Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends — and even those friends claiming it ‘couldn’t be published’ … all these would now step forward and say their piece … I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.”

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It’s hard to imagine anything with “Howl”‘s impact emanating from “high culture” now. The breakthroughs, such as they are, seem to come from the “low” — the first Sex Pistols record, for example, which rewrote every rule about what music could be or say or spit on. It was during the ’50s that the spite of “danger” and “rebellion” began to shift from the art world to mass culture. The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of the mass media. Ginsberg’s biography notes that “he took pains to show the difference between the Beat Generation … and the beatniks.” But the media didn’t observe the distinction, “and the public perception was that Allen was the progenitor of all the bearded young men who wandered around Greenwich Village in handmade leather sandals.” The Beats thought they could inject their vision into mass culture, but what the “bearded young men” really signaled was the beginning of the community as artifact.

In the ’50s, the media image of the beatnik became a corollary to masscult images of rebellious teens. James Dean, that icon of Misunderstood Youth — wasn’t he also the Tortured Artist? As for Elvis Presley — wasn’t the emblematic scene in each movie the one where he dropped the dumb ballad and learned to rock, blow, go-man-go? Today it’s easy to forget how two people as different from each other as Presley and Ginsberg would have grated against the status quo in the Eisenhower years.

If this didn’t quite make for a mass Bohemia — yet — Kerouac could still complain that the Beats were nothing but “a fad.” His own overnight transition from vision-seeking subterranean to flavor-of-the-month celebrity was a painful one. When On the Road appeared in 1957, he’d been trying to get the book published for six years. Suddenly The New York Times declared it the testament of a new generation, and one day later, the interviewers began to arrive. What was it really like to be Beat? they wanted to know. Soon Kerouac was appearing on talk shows spouting metaphysics to the likes of Mike Wallace (“we are great empty space … an empty vision in one mind”). He never seemed to understand that the press wanted hot copy, not enlightenment. It was a San Francisco journalist who invented the word beatnik (after Sputnik), and soon the media had the movement boiled down to jive talk and a set of bongo drums. By 1959, the most famous beatnik in America was Maynard G. Krebs.

Back in 1957, while the brand-new Village Voice covered a few Beat moments like Kerouac’s appearance at the Village Vanguard, it featured much longer pieces on old Bohemians — infamous Village characters like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim, who were virtually unknown outside the neighborhood. Fierce rivals, these two impoverished writers were reportedly fed and given drinks at one Village bar for awhile “so customers would come to watch the hostilities.”

Bohemia itself was moving from West Village to East at the end of the ’50s, and would house a very different sort of “freak.” There would be no more Goulds. The Voice piece on his funeral speculates on the whereabouts of Gould’s lifework, The Oral History of Our Time — 11 million words written in dime-store notebooks as he sat in Goody’s Bar on the Minetta Tavern. (Oral History remains a lost work.) Today, Gould’s portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern, but surely someone so unkempt, ornery, and wild-eyed would no longer, uh, suit the decor. This was the boho as hobo: the rebel who could not be televised.

What the full flowering of electronic media made possible was alienation as a growth industry rather than an emblem of community. Malcolm Cowley, part of the so-called Lost Generation, describes in Exile’s Return how the First World War and a new set of values set his generation irrevocably apart from the one before it. In the ’60s, of course, this feeling infected mass culture, creating the infamous “generation gap” — for it took no more than loving the Beatles, the world’s most popular group, to set one apart from one’s parents. While “do your own thing” was the notion at the heart of the old bohemia, during the ’60s it found a place in the heart of every teen consumer. Nonconformity, transgression, risk — adjectives once associated with bohemian values and avant-garde art — suddenly described superstars whose hits played in Peoria. And Jimi Hendrix became a Fluxus artist when he burned his guitar.

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On February 9, 1967, 16 patrol cars pulled up around the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque on West 41st Street. Helmeted police converged on the stage inside and arrested artist Charlotte Moorman during a performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Moorman had been playing the cello topless. The Brahms Lullaby. A “lewd act.”

Three months later, a Manhattan criminal court judge convicted her of indecent exposure. Moorman faced one to three years in prison. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended the sentence, however, calling the cellist “weak and immature.” His 29-page opinion is a classic artifact of official contempt for the avant-garde, with its references to “bearded, bathless Beats” and “those ‘happeners’ whose belief it is that art is ‘supposed to change life’ as most of us know it.” There the judge had a glimmer of art’s true potential for transgression. It could change life.

And that never seemed more possible than it did in the ’60s, when every art form broke apart into something rich and strange. Remember cynaesthetic cinema? Cybernetic sculpture? Intermedia? Destruction art? Underground film? The death of painting? The death of the novel? The death of the theater? One could make a case for the ’60s as “the end of the avant-garde.” But the media gravitated to Warhol and Ginsberg and the other supernovas of an official demimonde, ignoring the aesthetic ferment behind the personalities. It was up to critic/advocates like Jill Johnston (performance) and Jonas Mekas (film) to witness the revolution. Certainly Charlotte Moorman, an emblematic figure in the ’60s avant-garde, could not expect a Times review. Nor a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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To be part of the art netherworld then was to be part of something suspect, outré, and perhaps even illegal. Moorman’s arrest was no anomaly. In 1961, postal inspectors busted LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima for sending obscenity through the mail — their literary magazine, Floating Bear. (A grand jury failed to return indictments.) In 1964, Lenny Bruce got a one-year sentence for using words like fuck and cocksucker onstage at the Cafe Au Go Go. (It was overturned on appeal after Bruce’s death.) That same year, two detectives broke up an East Village screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, arresting Jonas Mekas, who had programmed the film. (Mekas got a six-month suspended sentence, and Smith’s film was banned in the state of New York until 1970.) These were people who’d chosen a life in art that would keep them impoverished, marginal, embattled. They were “don’t-wannabes.” Bohemians.

The difference between censored artists in the ’60s and the ’90s goes to the heart of how things have changed in the bohemian margin. Artists like the so-called Defunded Four — Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller — have now been catapulted out of their contexts on the backs of the media. All the publicity did was expose them to an audience guaranteed to find them intolerable, while artists of the “any-ink-is-good-ink” school looked on with envy. But none of the four have ever done work for a mass audience, nor have they wanted to. These days, however, transgression is just one more sluiceway into the undifferentiating whirlpool of media attention.

Censorship used to mean arrest; now it means publicity. That’s the superficial observation. Imagine Jack Smith’s fate if Flaming Creatures had been targeted by the religious right, discussed on Good Morning America, and televised across the country on CNN. As it was, Smith found the exploitation of his movie so unbearable he withdrew it from circulation, at one point declaring it “lost.” He never completely finished another film.

As Smith once said of his own work in Semiotext(e), “Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do.” His was never work intended for mass audiences, but for kindred souls. And such work is valued less and less. Such work was the demimonde’s raison d’être.

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Bohemia has always been an official margin, the dominant culture’s test site for new isms, its holding pen for “different drummers.” And from its funky confines, certain artists have been able to launch themselves into the mainstream. Such outsiders-turned-insiders fill the pages of 20th century cultural history. But from Rimbaud to Kerouac, they’ve been mostly of the whiteboy persuasion.

While there have always been significant Others in bohemia, they’ve rarely articulated their own cultural realities — in part because their audience, though unconventional, has always been, for the most part, straight, white, and male. If key figures in the Beat movement were bi-or homosexual, they didn’t consider that an identity with its own potential for radicalism; like their straight buddies, they worshiped masculinity, despised effeminacy, and shafted women. And gay men were the most likely Others to cross over. As for women, writer Joyce Johnson, one of Kerouac’s girlfriends, would write years later of being a “minor character” in the Beat Scene. And as for people of color, bohemia American-style has always included folks like LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Ralph [Rafael Montanez] Ortiz, and Yoko Ono — to name just a few. But people of color and women in general remained outside the canon long after Ginsberg and Burroughs had become the stuff of Hollywood films and Nova conventions and papers presented to the Modern Language Association.

There has always been a single bohemian tradition — and it didn’t include something like the Harlem Renaissance, still the demimonde most bohemians know least about. (It’s barely mentioned in most boho histories.) Of course, Harlem in the ’20s was different from the Village. Reacting to life in a racist nation, writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston struggled to give voice to the voiceless African American, and so were less alienated from a larger community. They sought their roots, while white artists fled from theirs. But like any other demimonde, the Harlem Renaissance had its salons and soirees, little magazines, quarrels, cranks, and utopian political ideals. Its artists and writers occasionally crossed paths with their Village counterparts at, say, Mabel Dodge’s salon on Lower Fifth Avenue. But Harlem’s so-called Talented Tenth made few inroads into white America. Their particular margin — being unofficial, thus invisible — couldn’t launch them into the big time.

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These days the whole concept of marginality is in flux, thanks to the advent of multiculturalism. No, that’s not a code word for “minority representation,” but a movement that would have recognized both Harlem and the Village; a movement in which every margin is visible; a movement that would redraw the map of the art world to make it more like the real world.

Much more is at stake in the margins now than there was during, say, some style war leading to the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout modernism, the demimonde had a worthy but narrow function as an official periphery. In that milieu, artists defied the official center, some crossed over and the art world got a steady flow of new product — but never a challenge to its basic assumptions. Now, however, multiculturalism is exposing art history as exclusionary, art theory as incomplete, and bohemia as one margin among many.

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has played a major role in shaping multicultural debate in the art world, invoked the image of Columbus when he spoke of the Latino Boom and the margins from which he emerged: “The model of discovery is in place. Going into the territory of the Other, discovering the Other, bringing the Other back into the mainstream. The big question of the ’90s for the Chicano movement is, can we be in control of our context? Will we be able to keep our negotiating powers, or will we just die on display like the Arawak [the native people Columbus sent back to the Spanish court]?”

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Now the shifts and schisms in the margins reflect the tug-of-war going on throughout the world: the trend towards globalization versus the trend towards community. The pressure to assimilate versus the urge to segregate.

Traditionally, an artist like Gómez-Peña would be seen as culturally specific, not universal. In fact, he is both, though his universalism is lost on those who see only Otherness. “Our generation belongs to the world’s biggest floating population,” he once wrote in one of his manifestos. And he’s not just referring to an ethnic group. He means all of us — “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those who left because we didn’t fit anymore, those who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss.” This perfectly describes the bohemian diaspora: an autonomous zone of the mind.

We’ve come full circle, back to the original meaning of the word bohémien: “gypsy.” Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared. ❖

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia


Huncke the Junkie: Godfather to Naked Lunch

My phone rang on a hot morning in July a year ago and it as Allen Ginsberg.

“Do you know Herbert Huncke?” Ginsberg asked. “Have you ever met Huncke?” I said that I hadn’t.

“He’s the oldest living junkie in New York,” Ginsberg said, “and an old sidekick of Burroughs and Kerouac. He turned Burroughs on to junk and he’s waiting in line at Manhattan General to get in so he can cut down on his habit. He’s been waiting for four days and he thinks he can get in in about 20 minutes, and he needs his suitcase which is in his hotel room, so can you go up to the hospital and get his key, and go to the hotel and get his suitcase and take it to him? He’s wearing a white sweater. Hurry!”

I threw on some clothes and rushed to the subway, and in maybe 19 minutes was running down 21st Street to the back door of Manhattan General where the junkies wait in line to save their lives. Huncke met me in the middle of the block. His white cardigan sweater was unmistakable, but so was his face, which was fragile testimony to 30 years on heroin.

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Huncke had decided to save Manhattan General for another day, but he insisted on showing me the junkie’s lobby. The floor behind the door was strewn with cigarette butts, and the air was a dense fog. They leaned against the wall — men, women, white, Puerto Rican, black — and sat on the benches. All the openings, the sign-in windows and such, were caged. It was as hard to get in as it was to get out.

And then as we walked over to Ginsberg’s, Huncke began to rap. Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice — all that seems intact in his devastated body — as tantalizing as the content. He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week. It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them. It is not quite enough, but he gets by.

When he arrived, Ginsberg took me aside. “Whatever you do,” he said sternly, “don’t give him money! I’m not kidding. Be careful. He’s very persuasive.”

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And then he took Huncke aside, and asked him to spare me his touch. “He’s just a kid,” he said, “and he doesn’t have very much money.” And then Huncke hit Ginsberg for ten bucks.

Huncke is a master of the touch. It’s his livelihood, and as I walked with him back to the West Side I braced myself to follow Ginsberg’s orders and resist the inevitable climax of the conversation. It never came. Huncke spared me the first time — it would be the last — waved good-bye, and promised to stop by and visit.

And he did stop by, roughly once a week at a punctual nine o’clock in the morning, at an old loft I had on Prince Street that summer. I would try to wake up and make some coffee and we would sit and talk for three hours or so, the same glorious rap, and then he would hit me for $5 or so, always, he said, for a hotel or some other non-narcotic necessity of life. And I would give it to him, because he had earned it.

Toward the end of summer he passed a bad check on me and disappeared. I was sad that he never came back, and, in lieu of an autograph, pasted the check, which he had endorsed in various styles of script, on the title page of his “Journals,” a rambling collection of recollections that had been published by the Poet’s Press. A little while later I heard he was in jail.

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After he had finished six months in jail, he drove to San Francisco with a friend. I suspected that he was intrigued by the talk about a “Love Community” in Haight-Ashbury and the Diggers’ free money.

He liked the city, but was disappointed by the people, and a few weeks ago he was back in New York, but he didn’t get much of a homecoming. Ginsberg was in Italy and Panna Grady, a long-time patron, was in London and Peter Orlovsky was in a surly mood. He had spent the money Ginsberg had left to get him to London, and again, the line at Manhattan General proved to be too long for his patience. He stooped to selling salt pills as Owsley acid. And all the people he supposedly burned were rumored to be waiting for his upcoming reading at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. It seemed that, for once, the audience would be taking the collection. But, deft as ever, Huncke survived the reading and went off to rap with Neal Cassady.

The other day he came by to visit again, and we sat in a bar on Seventh Avenue and talked. Huncke had a coke — he is repulsed by liquor — and I asked him to recall again how he came to meet William Burroughs.

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“I met Bill in 1944,” he said. “I had just come back from a trip to South America. Bill had met a friend of mine from Cleveland, a guy like something from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with padded shoulders, a felt hat and a flashy tie. He had a job as a soda jerk around Columbia. I think his intention was to case the neighborhood. And Burroughs approached him and asked if he could get rid of a sawed-off shotgun. Burroughs always had a sort of interest in the underworld. So this friend brought Burroughs down to my apartment, with the gun and several gross of morphine Syrettes. When I first saw Burroughs I thought he was a Treasury agent.

“He thought he’d like to try the morphine just once. We turned him on. He was a natural. The next thing we knew he joined forces with us.”

Burroughs was then at Columbia where he had, Huncke recalled, “a coterie which included Kerouac and Allen, who idolized him, and myself. I was sort of introduced as an oddity that should be observed.

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“At this same time, the Kinsey report was taking shape. I had met Dr. Kinsey in Times Square, and I introduced him to Allen and others. We used to get together in the Angler Bar, which was off 42nd Street. We’d sit there and talk and eat and drink. Bill was interested in karate. One of the most interesting things I ever witnessed was Bill trying to give a knockout blow with three fingers to break up a fight. He had gathered his coat around him elegantly, with all the dignity and reserved demeanor he had, and he was trying to reach over the heads in the brawl to hit the guy.”

In 1947, Huncke and Burroughs went to Texas. “It was a beautiful year,” Huncke said. “Just Bill, myself, his wife, and young Bill was born in July. We lived in a little weatherbeaten cabin on the edge of the bayou, and we raised a crop of pot. We were going to try to raise oriental poppies in a hothouse.

“Bill had his pistols and did target practice. He used to stand out there and draw with his pistols strapped to his side and shoot at the barn. Then Neal Cassady and Allen drove down from San Francisco. Neal and Bill and I drove back to New York in a jeep with the pot, and Allen took the train.

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“I didn’t see too much of Burroughs after that. Then Bill went to Tangiers, and I just hung around, hooked all the time, using junk, junk, junk. I’ve been using junk for more than 30 years. I can’t write without it. I can’t live without it.”

He can’t live without it. Herbert Huncke, apostle of junk, immortalized in more than one Kerouac novel, eulogized in Ginsberg’s ravings, godfather to “Naked Lunch.” As he fumbled for a match in the bar on Seventh Avenue, I could see that it was time for him to go again in search of that small bag that holds his bones together.

I gave him the money to buy it, and I hoped that he would find it. ❖

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie


The Beats: Mailer Vs. Kerouac

Books: The Beats

The idea that Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer are mutually excludable from each other’s Beat Generation is, of course, one that is engendered by and subject to many doubts. Now, however, Seymour Krim dispels the idea entirely. At least, he finds both Kerouac and Mailer mutually includable in his Beat Generation, which he defines in broad proportions in his new anthology, “The Beats.” But actually Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics. Kerouac named it Beat and Mailer calls it Hip, but both have been equally perceptive and outspoken in their presagement, reporting, and defense of it, if not equally maligned.

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Mountains of Abuse

One has only to read the reviews of Kerouac’s works to see the mountain of abuse heaped on him. But one also has only to read his works to see the capability his soul has for suffering such abuse. “Kerouac is beautiful! Don’t you see that?” asks Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s close friend. “… I mean he has a real quality of soulful magician and artful kindness, a willingness to be talked to and communicate, even drunk, knowing the lie of fate — he comes through anyway — ” And it’s true. Despite a sensitivity of criticism which is painfully manifest, Kerouac continues to stand, unhidden, as he really is, in his writing and in his person, the butt of derision which comes from deep and rigid misunderstanding. Even in the face of the most hopeless and intransigent laughter, he presents his own true face, inviting more.

Mailer, although his own suffering is no less apparent, has the lingering reputation of a more traditional success to buffer him. Not that he is any less outspoken.

A Trend

In any event, Kerouac went on the road to discover that the Beatness he had encountered in New York has what the less ethereally inclined would call a trend. He found it everywhere that his thumb and various other vehicles would take him, and the distances he traveled are well documented. Kerouac’s discovery of the Beat Generation was at a grass-roots level, a term that seems strangely compatible with trend.

As for Mailer, although his research probably was no less empirical, it seems to have been at other levels. Perhaps it might be concluded that, in one way, Mailer found in his own mind what Kerouac found throughout America.

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First Wind

This does not detract from the value of either Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Mailer’s “The White Negro,” both of which were the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more rational equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy,” to borrow a phrase from Mailer. With due consideration given to John Clellon Holmes’ novel, “Go,” and his subsequent article, “This is the Beat Generation,” printed in the New York Times as long ago as 1952, it was these two works, “On the Road” and “The White Negro,” which were the first cogent explanations of the strange new Hip mysticism of the Beat Generation of any length and of any significant audience, (Ginsberg’s “Howl,” more of a manifesto, was something else again.) So close, in fact, were Kerouac and Mailer in their thinking that Kerouac, until he learned “The White Negro” was published prior to “On the Road,” considered Mailer’s work a precis of his own. But then Kerouac has had good reason for his anxiety over the proprietorship of his ideas. One of his most bitter complaints is that not only has his meaning of Beat been corrupted but his authorship of the term has even been challenged.

Kerouac and Mailer, of course, have been between the same sheets before. They appeared together in another anthology, “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men,” edited by Gene Fledman and Max Gartenberg, which included “The White Negro” and selections from “On the Road.” Unhappily, but probably necessarily, “The Beats” doesn’t include “The White Negro.” Instead it includes a piece from “The Deer Park,” which is somewhat less than Beat in its message and much less in its style, but which is from a body of writing upon which Mailer is willing to stake his reputation with prosperity. (This seems to be a good point to note that “On the Road,” if it hasn’t already been recognized as a literary landmark, soon will. It is the turning point of the 1960’s.)

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The chief complaint against the Feldman and Gartenberg anthology was from the Beats themselves, who insisted that the selections were not entirely representative of them and, in some cases, misrepresentative. The same criticism might apply to Krim’s anthology. But then, one of the selections under attack is “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Man” was that of Mailer.

The difficulty is that there are many who claim that they are Beat and many who claim they are not with equal emptiness. And then there are those like Chandler Brossard and Anatole Broyard who are neither Beat nor claim to be and who were included first in Feldman’s and Gartenberg’s book and who now are included in Krim’s. Brossard may have, as Krim says he has, “a cool eye.” Broyard may be, as Krim says, “a white-collar Beat.” They may both even be Hip. Certainly their writing make them see so. But the same might be said for J.D. Salinger and he’s printed in the New Yorker. 

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Best and Worst

Otherwise Krim presents some of the Beat writing such as selections from Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody,” and some of the worst, such as Dan Propper’s “The Fable of the Final Hour.” It is “Visions of Cody” alone that might make the book worth its 35 cents, although “Cody” will soon be out in its entirety, as all of Kerouac eventually will. “Visions of Cody” is his greatest book, according to his own opinion, and its music is testimony to the verbal inventiveness and virtuosity of Kerouac, which all too few among Kerouac’s all too many readers seem willing to acknowledge. In the circles of reviewmanship, Kerouac is continually compared to hashed Wolfe or reheated Faulkner, and yet the range and variation of style within his remarkably growing bookshelf is just as remarkable. (It would seem that the differences among, say, “On the Road,” and “The Subterraneans,” “Dr. Sax,” and now “Visions of Cody” are even more obvious than the similarities.) Not only that, but there is a grace, a majesty, and a tenderness to his language, even in Hip talk, that is abjectly lacking among many of the younger Beat emulators, such as Propper. Kerouac is not along in his command of words; Ginsberg and Corso are similarly commanding. Even Burroughs, with his unredeemed style, is, too. It makes no difference that both the inspiration and the content of this literature is of an intuitive, emotional, and mystical nature. For these who love language, it is still literature.

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There are other portions of “The Beats” which in themselves are well worth the book’s 35 cents. (My God! For 35 cents, how could you go wrong!) Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes, Lamantia, Bremser, Snyder would be more than worth the price even without covers. And Diane Di Prima’s contribution is especially overwhelming. (The selections from Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, however, seem somewhat random.) And Krim provides a new eye. There has been some comment about his own comments, offered at the beginning of each selection. But those are short notes written by a man who says that Beatness has liberated him from himself, or at least from his psychoanalysts, and he proves this freedom with his language. Why should he be denied his own vision? ■

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers


Jack Kerouac’s Long and Winding Road

April 1995

“Yes boy got your big letter and in the midst of big wild mad events too so that I haven’t had time to answer it as immediate­ly as I’d might want to (sic)… a good great raving letter full of snowballs snowbells flowers, boles of flowers, love, life, Charley Parker, you’re alright.”
— To John Clellon Holmes, October 1955

And so strange it is to finally be reading these letters, even attempting to write about them, almost four decades after I first tried imitating them without even hav­ing read them, inspired wholly by that first reception of On the Road 1957. Reading Kerouac it’s easy to imagine you’re in the writing chair. In that racing Road book there are these guys writing long letters full of detail to their friends in the night (“fam­ous of self,” as Kerouac once said). Up late to cop the scoop on what just happened, was still to happen, jumping through all the embroiled participants. Made sense to me. I was hooked on the mutual jazz connection. Little did I know what kind of new being I was becoming, exactly how he was hatching me as a writer. And sometime later a bass player friend would always say before the gig, “Let’s go into that Great American Bop Night!” and howl with maniacal glee. Yes.

Kerouac’s books are so close to letter form anyway, even if not usually expressed in the I-to-you mode of Vanity of Duluoz. The first person seems already a form of address, the I needing a you, if only imagi­nary, to tell it all out to, complete the ener­gy jump. Letters, novels, poems, all of a piece in the fairly seamless pattern, a pro­cessing of the daily jot. In a letter to John Clellon Holmes (1952) he says, “don’t you ever dare think I would ‘put off’ writing to you when what I actually do is practice… my letters to you.” We now know that he kept carbons of many of his letters, use­ful later as memory banks for his writings.

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Kerouac’s is not a style. It is a practice. So it has to do with, and must be discussed in terms of, the momentary. Fleets of the passing, speed and its velocities, Thelonious Monk’s “I laid it down, you got to pick it up,” the use of peripheries and the parenthetical in its leaps. He made me realize how fully temporal the act of writing must be. Kerouac is a go-for-it writer, not a puz­zle-paster. He’s from the wrong class, too working-folk to be smoothly admitted to the elites of academy and prize, no careerist of any planned or practical sort. He doesn’t fit and he never will. Here (U.S.A.) he’s thought of, if at all, as a sort of naive con­fessor or sociological curiosity, elsewhere (say, France) he’s not even taken seriously as an artist (a sort of latter-day “Red Indi­an”). To me, he contains or at least suggests everything I would ever want of, or think to do in, a book. For, isn’t it all about freedom finally anyway?

Over 600 pages one has the pleasure of stretching out through all the broodings, reactions, angers, and glees of those years, the embodied meditations and exaspera­tions of bared spirit, mind-flashes there’s no time to say any other way. Book access at such length now places Kerouac in the company of those writers whose volumes of letters may be read straight through with profit as complete works in themselves. Flaubert, Rilke, Beckett (as will no doubt be shown when his letters to Thomas McGreevey are published at last), H.P. Lovecraft, and most recently William Burroughs come easily to mind.

The bulk of the letters in this first of two volumes comes from the period: late ’40s to mid ’50s, his most intense writing years, about three-fourths of his major books com­posed then. The main correspondents here being Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Carolyn Cassady, his edi­tor Malcolm Cowley and literary agent Ster­ling Lord. Unfortunately missing are the let­ters to Ed White, his Denver architect friend (only one, previously published, is includ­ed), a correspondence starting in the late ’40s and continuing to the end of Kerouac’s life. I recall White saying, at the On the Road Conference in Boulder, 1982, that he had a big book of letters from Jack all ready to go but so far couldn’t get the nod from Jack’s widow to proceed (a 50-page selec­tion of these letters has just appeared in the current issue of The Missouri Review).

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Here he is in some of the earliest letters (1941) arguing his serious youngman self of idealism and plan, his steadfast lifelong holding to youthful dreams (later, in 1955, to Ginsberg, “Don’t you remember your babyhood concerns any more?”). “I’m hitch­hiking home Thursday (6th) casually and poetically” with “no trees to sing for me.” And in 1943, “I have devised new plans for my life” (so many plans throughout these writings). And already, “I have grown to hate rhetoric — or attempts at it — why don’t men devise new ways of communication?”

In the summer of 1949 (after finishing his Wolfean investigations of The Town and the City) he writes from Denver the full­-blown letter to Holmes which ranges from reports on how cowboy families view all the class-C westerns and “in their conversations they continually make allusions to ‘Roy’ and ‘Dale Evans’… just as we make allusions to Dostoevsky and Whittaker Chambers,” to his belief in the “Rattling Trucks, where I don’t have to explain any­thing, and where nothing is explained, only real, REAL REAL, see?,” eventually com­ing to the buddyhood Lowell staging of a kiddie boxing match where a voice imitation (B-a-a-a-a-a!) of the preround buzzer proves the complete irrationality of every­thing from Shakespeare and Celine to “all my serious passages in On the Road.” This is essential text time here! In fact there’s a Melvillean elaboration of On the Road (one of his many Road versions) quoted in a letter to his New School professor Elbert Lenrow, same year, full of lines like “of course men in bed do grow tender and full of wonder, some child-comprehension steals their hammered iron wits,” “quiver­ing with the quivering motion of the earth they could feel spite of steel and shelved suspension” (the men are in jail). And all throughout the late red afternoon light “al­ways a symbol to me of my childhood soli­tariness” and of his very birth, which even­tuates into the red neons of saturday citynight source of mystery and maturity, so central to his visions.

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From November 1950 to January 1951 there’s a run of letters to Neal Cassady which comprise almost a whole 60-page no­vella wherein you see him rehearsing out of childhood memory in Lowell time, and of course with extensions to the present religious and sexual, so much of the writing to come. The book is worthwhile just for the ur-workings of these.

Through all these letters he’s battling out just what is “Fiction” and what it might be simply to “tell,” and how much of all that is dream or is it reality-remembered? His breakthroughs in memory-writing will eventually lead to the use of a line so tensile it can react at speed to the slightest varia­tion in the memory-chords he’s blowing his present-time melodies over. He’ll develop an instinct for just which words sink into the furthest backgrounds and which ones bring the writing right up to the surface present. “Like Proust,” but American, so quicker, “more instant and interesting.” And overall the writing has a “real-time” feel I sometimes think only the gonzo writ­ers (R. Meltzer at his Gulcher peak, Hunter Thompson on the Nixon trail) really picked up on. The sense too that you could write about anything, doesn’t matter what, with the expansiveness of Kerouac’s unceasing line. Something all poets speeding across time’s drop-offs well know.

The angry rant letter to Ginsberg, but really to everybody in Kerouac’s writing arena at the time (October 8, 1952), has to be one of the exemplary outbursts of writ­er’s pain in the literature. He is so like the Céline he loved here. No matter the disturbance of mental surface, his spirit remains bright. The explosion happens, then clears. It had been, as Holmes says, “an expression of localized pain,” and “there was no mean­ness in him.” A month later he is writing to Allen, “you are very nice to understand my writings. I felt honored.” And, speaking of John Holmes, there’s a special feeling in Jack’s letters to him, of a tender eloquence, shared jazz and bookly concern, and writ­ing-buddy regard. From the letter (sadly not included in this collection) to Holmes (June 1952) which moves from musings on the mysteries of the Doctor Sax universe through exigency woes of the writer’s life and concludes paralleling his with Wilhelm Reich’s fate (“he will die in disgrace, pover­ty and loneliness. It will happen to me.”) to a later letter where he concludes “John­ — Please stay my friend thru life, it’ll be long and dark,” you feel the strong emotion of comradely stability (also found in his friendship with Ed White in the West).

In January of 1953 he announces to Neal Cassady, “In Mexico, after you left, I in 5 days wrote, in French, a novel about me and you when we was kids in 1935” — “it’s the solution to the On the Road plots, all of em.” I must have this book! Occasionally in these letters Kerouac will reveal the name of a previously unknown work (like “The Long Night of Life,” The Imbecile’s Christmas, or Hold Your Horn High), making you wonder and wait. Did these remain separate works, completed or no, or were they sub­sumed into the later books that we know? I wish Charters had annotated some of these mysterious but practical matters.

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Shakespeare arrives as well, he lurks in the Kerouac line over the time of his books anyhow, a quality little noticed by critics of the nod. A 1956 letter to poet Philip Wha­len, “in Shakespeare’s time they didnt know what autobiographical naturalism was, and well for us, we dont know what spontaneous writing is… How else can you spit forth yr. intelligence? In meats, in par­cels of meats? In wrappings? in hesitations, in bean-pots, in hooks and hams and ahems and holes of thought? in hems and haws?” Here he’s been reading the Bard while writ­ing Visions of Gerard, an influence particu­larly noticeable there. Was it especially Henry V? In an earlier letter to Ginsberg he had quoted from the play, “[w]hose blood is fet from fathers of war-/proof!” and then commented, “wottaline!” His great essay, “Shakespeare and the Outsider” (included in Good Blonde & Others), makes plain their kinship in lines like “wrote in an in­spired hurry what he immediately heard sound-wise while his steeltrap brain kept shutting down on the exigencies of plot and character in that sea of ravening English that came out of him.” Eloquence. And, to Ginsberg re Howl, “the first spout is the only spout, the rest is time’s tired faucet.”

It becomes sorely apparent as these let­ters progress through the many stages of On the Road revision that this book became in many hard-born ways his cross to bear. Forced, either by his own lights or the pres­suring of his book-mill editors, to rewrite it so many times, he had to create Visions of Cody (using much of the same material) to get some of his own back, to get back into his own stream of developing writing safe­ly away from the cookie cutters of the indus­try. All through the early ’50s you see them pestering him to tangle his perfect books together and make up a “seller” he rightly rejects (“I dont care”). To Sterling Lord, January 1955, “publishing to me (the big kind like Town & City) is like a threat over my head.” April 15, 1955, to Neal Cassady, “for the rest of my life, I’m dedicating my­self to enormous artistic labors, for better or worse, I dont give a fuck whether it brings me riches or nothin… it’s the work itself, I want, want to see the ordered sen­tences typed up neat on perfect pages under a soft lamp, wild prose describing the world as it raced through my brain and cock once…” But they keep pressing and prodding, making him rush around gath­ering permission signatures from all the persons in Road, even though he’d long since changed all their names (was libel so much easier to prove in those years?). Then in a letter to Sterling Lord (October 1956) re a request that he make “minor changes throughout” (what a hideous threat phrase!), this time in The Subterraneans, he says, “I only want to stress, however, that… we do not dare touch the rhythm of that prose and those sentences; I assume they want to remove objectionable words, I will replace them with words of similar sonic rhythm. I don’t want a repetition of, as in the case of ‘The Town and The City,’ letting an editor change a good big book into a mediocre shorter book.” “Tell Don Allen ‘Doctor Sax’ is a master-piece as it stands, and ‘Visions of Gerard’ suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” “I’ve been through every conceivable disgrace now and no rejection or acceptance by pub­lishers can alter that awful final feeling of death — of-life-which-is-death.” How like a stab to the heart then his final comment of that letter: “Dear Sterling, excuse me my convictions.”

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But he was so aware of his abilities and accomplishments always. Even as his clos­est friends quibbled over his every advance: “A lot of people say I don’t know what I’m doing, but of course, I do.” Every time he comes up with a new book “they revert & start in, re-saying, ‘He doesn’t know,’ but then it will be proven all over again with disastrous boring regularity, of course I know what I’m doing.” It’s painful to realize that as Jack hung out through the early ’50s in the literary bars of New York City with writers who regularly abused him for non-­accomplishment, maybe half a dozen people had so far read the beauties he’d already written but not yet published, and so were able to see him in his true light. To Philip Whalen, March 1956, “I’m amazed you dont seem to realize that I’ve already writ­ten so much I’m afraid to go on for fear of being a windbag” — “a huge lifework already accomplished” — “so that I’m really a weary old writer now and I’m amazed that nobody knows it, except possibly Allen and Will Lee and Cowley and Giroux.” And the same year to Sterling Lord, “I just keep turning out manuscripts like a machine/ and they just keep flying away into the void…/what other writer can keep this up and not go crazy/like I’m about to do?/It’s been going on such a long time/it doesn’t seem like/accidental neglect anymore.” How terrible that he knew this.

The collection ends on the hinge of 1957, the year of On the Road’s publication and submission to America’s most mad commercial judgments, making me ponder the eve of its first review when, as Joyce John­son so perfectly and terrifyingly puts it in Minor Characters, “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” The next volume of Kerouac letters will show how he went on, neverthe­less, into the shock and the blear.

There are some problems with this edi­tion that I have to mention, many having to do with just what Ann Charters chose to remove from these letters. There are, by my count, 171 deletions over 600 pages of text, and as these gaps mounted up over my reading through the book, I began to wish that Charters had given the reader some indication as to the nature of her pruning. In fact I think she owes the reader such an explanation. As several of the letters have appeared previously, apparently in their en­tirety (or at least more completely), I was able to compare the texts and could see the little consistency or reason in her deletions. Sometimes what she might have considered a gratuitous insult to a perhaps still living person has been removed, while another such remark has been left to stand, some­times later on in the same letter and even referring to the same person (!). Then there are senselessly annoying gaps, as in the let­ter to Ginsberg concerning a visit to poet Philip Lamantia, “but I was disappointed in Neal that night for not at least digging (…).” Much less frustrating if she had left the whole passage out? She has torn great rents in the “Rattling Trucks” letter to Holmes, leaving out the whole marvelous “America is an Egyptian land” section, and others including his great comment about how “the dividing line between seriousness and unseriousness is almost unknown, and is where our best knowledges take flower.” In the big Buddhist instructional letter to Ginsberg, a passage of several pages of great interest regarding Kerouac’s juggling of Christianity and Buddhism is missing, a removal seemingly with an eye to little more than space limitations. This sort of surgery (combined with notational errors like Charters’s misplacement of his “Satur­day Night Red Neons Making Me Think of Chocolate Candy Boxes in Drugstores” in the early cafeteria-sketches section of Vi­sions of Cody rather than where it belongs in the later “Neon Heart of Saturday Night” section, one of the wellsprings of his work), all this, as I say, becomes even more troubling in light of rumors that the Sam­pas family has dictated considerable cen­sorship of the letters prior to publication. Whether this be true or not, the book as it stands betrays shoddy treatment of a man who believed in hiding nothing, and whose statement “What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for” graces the jacket copy of this very volume.

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Viking Portables… My image is of Frank Sinatra just off the bus home from the war in Some Came Running; he takes them out of his duffel bag and in his fur­nished room and places them in a line on the dresser top, Hemingway Faulkner Dos Passos Wolfe, he’s going to be a big novelist and show everybody. So it is some justice that Jack Kerouac is finally being included in such company, only sad that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, a chance to external­ize his pride. Charters has chosen perhaps the more popular of the two obvious schemes for organizing such a reader, a chronological series of excerpts from his life story as fictionalized in the books. While this may go easier on the reader, I don’t think it serves Kerouac’s work as well as a trip through the changes in his writing life, the lifeline of a writer thus showing forth as the history of a mind. The late John Clellon Holmes, to whom this volume is dedicated and who gets the credit for originating the idea of a Kerouac reader (with Jack’s ap­proval), seems to have leaned toward this second organizational method. At the On the Road Conference in 1982, he said: “If you read the books in the sequence in which they were written, then you are watching the evolution of the writer’s consciousness as it changes in real time.” It seems to me (maybe my bias as a writer?) that there is a richer focus provided in looking at the life detail through a succession of writing acts, the movements of a delving consciousness, rather than by the opposite method of see­ing the writing always in terms of the more “reader-friendly” life-story approach. It’s as if Charters has tried to tweak Kerouac into at last becoming the plot-driven writer that the critics of his time disparaged him for not being, to the detriment of the more complex and strange Jack Kerouac visible in the orders of his writing life. Plot, after all, was not central to his purpose, but memories of character and place and thing were. It’s entirely too simple to conclude, as Charters does, that “he considered him­self an old-fashioned storyteller.” See the 1954 letter to his editor Robert Giroux: “I’m now going to endeavor to write pure narrative… but new narrative, unplanned, ored up from the bottom of the mind, orgas­mically rushing from the center out.” That ellipsis is not only his own but it strongly illustrates (in real time) how his mind’s complexities would never let him settle for “story.”

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An alternative arrangement according to the order of writing would also avoid the awkward back-of-the-bus sections here labeled “On Buddhism,” “On Bop and the Beat Generation,” or “Poetry.” (Come on! His whole project was poetry.) How much more magnificent an architecture might ap­pear, starting with a section from his earli­est novel, The Sea Is My Brother (does the manuscript still exist?), and moving through some of his vast Wolfean sound­ings of the Martin family, then on to a selection from the early On the Road manu­scripts (why are unpublished sources not brought to bear here? Would not the estate permit?). A succession of Road changes might have shown some considerable writ­ing differences: the Melvillean version cited above, etc. (In fact a collection of all the On the Road manuscripts in the order of their writing would make a useful study volume à la The Waste Land or Howl.) Then on into Visions of Cody and Doctor Sax practically simultaneously (the red sun of his birth memories leading seamlessly to the red neon heart of his adult adventures), “The Railroad Earth” in its entirety, and on through the third-person framings of the Maggie book, the Dostoyevskian explora­tions of The Subterraneans, and the begin­ning of the “Blues” sequences (“San Fran­cisco Blues,” Mexico City Blues, and beyond). Why not include also parts of Some of the Dharma in illustration of his serious Buddhist interests? Then some chapters from Visions of Gerard placed next to his “Shakespeare and the Outsider” essay, to show Shakespearean language ef­fect on the writing of Gerard. Then how about some of “Berkeley Blues” standing next to the Berkeley section of Desolation Angels featuring Jack’s mother and Philip Whalen? Plus Old Angel Midnight next to “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” (both written in the same notebook). Then perhaps the full Pull My Daisy narration, followed by some “Big Trip to Europe” sad­nesses leading into the crack-up writing of Big Sur, the later genealogical concerns of Satori in Paris and “Among the Iroquois,” and concluding in the “nothing ever came of it” darknesses of Vanity of Duluoz. All with the pertinent letters, shorter poems, and notebook entries interspersed. Not too spare an alternative design?

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Again, there are enough sloppy errors throughout her commentary to raise severe doubts as to the degree of Charters’s commitment to a full realization of Kerouac’s genius. But what really got to me was a passage in the “Editor’s Introduction” where­in she manages somehow to casually insult both Kerouac and his readers. Here’s what I mean: “Perhaps it is poetic justice that few of Kerouac’s readers can claim to have finished all the books making up his Duluoz Legend.” (She’s previously cited Philip Whalen as saying that Jack never finished reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but how can she possibly know or claim such a failure on the part of Kerou­ac’s readers?) “As with Proust, there are just too many words” (in Joyce too, right? And didn’t Coltrane play those overly long solos? etc., etc., etc.). “Who has the time to sit down and plow through [my emphasis] the dozen books comprising Kerouac’s saga?” Who, you have to ask? Only those of us who couldn’t wait upon reading On the Road to go on and read all of his work (and each book many times) and still can’t wait for the unpublished rest of it all to be re­leased to us, who will always treasure our fascination with all facets Kerouac, whose lives and senses and works have been trans­formed by his brilliance and so don’t need it reduced by explication or framed in disin­terest, who read anyway to attain the direct ecstatic connection and not to occupy some backseat of abstraction, who love and re­vere him with no reservation, no need to meddle or to judge, and who take him seri­ously entire, as the magnificent artist that he will remain.

“Ah me, John, but, but, but — it will all end in love I promise you. Another letter follows. Because I am thoroughly exhaust­ed. Sweet John. Soon. Wait for my next letter… Write. Forgive — give — cry­ — wait — Jack.” ■

Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $29.95

Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $27.95


Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night and What It Does to You’

Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night And What It Does to You’

October 30, 1969

LOWELL, Massachusetts­ — Jack Kerouac, the man who unwillingly named a generational sensibility and wrote an American classic, died on Tuesday, October 21. He was buried here on Friday, October 24, and I went up with mingled feelings (warmth, regret, a patronizing curiosity, an obscure kind of longing to pay homage) to witness his funeral.

I traveled by plane to Boston, and then by a commuters’ train the 26 miles to the small manufacturing town of Lowell where Kerouac grew up, and from which he continually, repeatedly bolted for the whole of his life. I decided to walk the mile or so from the station to the Church of St. Jean-Baptiste where Kerouac was to be buried. I wanted to look the town over and think a bit about what he might have seen on these streets.

It was a brilliant, very cold, very clear day, and the four and five-story buildings of brick or stone that lined Lowell’s narrow streets looked cut out against the cloudless blue sky; the sun danced, the air sparkled, the distant trees tossed their yellow and red and brown leaves and it seemed especially indecent that Jack Kerouac lay dead 10 or 20 blocks from where I now walked. What I found most remarkable in the town was the friendliness of the people. The garbage man said “Good morning, dear” and didn’t ogle me; a grocery delivery man said: “Oh, it’s a day for your mittens, dearie!” and laughed in the sun; a waitress in a diner gave me coffee and we talked for 10 minutes about how we were both getting colds, the weather was changing so suddenly; the counterman strained to give me exact directions to the church and in the end offered to take me over there himself.

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The church, on Merrimack Street, one of the large arterial streets of the town, was enormous, a testament to the position and prosperity of the French Canadian Catholics of Lowell, among whom Kerouac came of age: massive gray stone, lots of stained glass, statues in carved draperies, steep steps. I was early, the church was locked; but the rectory next door was open and I was made welcome there by Father Armand Morissette, the priest who would later deliver the eulogizing mass. He offered me coffee and proceeded to talk briskly and smilingly about Kerouac.

“Yes, Jack grew up in this church; he always came back here, always. He called me Father Spike; he said one day he would write a book named ‘Father Spike.’ But he never did. You know he used to come here often for comfort and for consolation and yes, we had many, many fine talks, Jack and I. You know, he had a real spirit, Jack did. He had such a zest for life; he understood that the universe belongs to each of us, not all of us, but each of us. And after all, that’s what Jesus Christ was all about, wasn’t He? Yes, Jack and I had lots of talks, lots of talks. Right here in this room.” I listened silently to the good father and noticed, curiously, that he wore a toupee.

In the rectory hall stood a man with a red face, a bulbous nose, a raincoat, a pad of lined paper, and a pencil. I introduced myself and he said he was from the Boston Globe. “Say, kid, what the hell is this all about? I mean, you know who any of these famous writers are who are supposed to show up? Can you point them out to me? I mean, I’m strictly a cops-and-robbers reporter myself.” I said sure, I’d point them out to him, and he agreed to drive me over to the funeral home where Kerouac’s body was laid out, and where the mourners were now all gathered.

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The funeral home was named Archambault and the street was Pawtucket. It was interesting and, of course, ironic that Kerouac had written of this street often; it had been the center of the distant and wealthy “town” he had had no part of and had resented so heartily and so complexly; now the street’s aloof mansions had been turned into French-Canadian and Irish funeral parlors and he was being buried out of one of them. I walked under a canopy extending from the curb to the door, up wooden steps, and onto silent, heavily carpeted floors filled with standing wreaths and standing mourners. At the end of the double room in which we all stood the open casket containing Kerouac’s body was placed, with two carpeted steps for kneeling in front of it. Couches and chairs were scattered, with people sitting on them, and others milling all around before them. The crowd was almost entirely composed of family and friends from Lowell. I realized there were two distinctive kinds of faces there: sharp-featured Northern faces, and sallow, drooping-eyed faces; I remembered then that Kerouac’s last wife was a Greek woman from Lowell, and realized that many of these people must be her relatives, as well as Kerouac’s. What was most interesting, however, was the resemblances rather than the differences among the people present. Nearly everyone there looked so well-fed. They generated the atmosphere of neat, decent, fairly prosperous burghers who have worked hard and steadily for what they have and whose lives are now in order. I was reminded, irresistibly, of the democratic and impersonal friendliness I had found in the town’s streets; I felt it everywhere in this room. It was hard to imagine, with all this composure, that these people had really known Kerouac; but then I remembered the funerals of my own family and I realized, resignedly, that of course they were probably all intimate relations.

Only one person in that room had upon her face that terrible, unmistakable confusion that deep and genuine grief causes. She was a middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in the seat nearest the casket. Her face, utterly void of makeup, was worn and sallow; behind rimless glasses her eyes were terribly anxious; her hair was short and gray, her dress black and long; she sat sort of hunched forward, responding distractedly to the procession of faces that bent, one after another, over her. At first I thought it was Kerouac’s mother, but quickly changed my mind; his mother was supposed to be really old. (I learned later that hie mother was hopelessly bedridden in St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been utterly out of the question, her coming up to Lowell to help bury her devoted son.) Was this woman a relative of his wife? Which one was his wife, anyway? Well, whoever she was, there was no doubt that she had loved Kerouac, and felt his loss keenly.

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On the other side of the room, and at the other end of the casket, were two chairs together, separated from the rest. On them sat Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, hands folded quietly on their laps, gazing intently at the casket. They looked calm and good, as though their emotions were in order, and they at peace; I had been told by Father Morissette that the night before they had placed a wreath of flowers upon Kerouac’s body, and that they had knelt and wept. Ginsberg’s long hair and beard were pressed neatly down; he wore a pair of chinos and a navy blue nylon parka and clasped a worn-looking woven Greek bag. Neither he nor Orlovsky appeared to have aged much in the last 10 years.

And then there was the casket. And in the casket Jack Kerouac. I walked across the room, took a deep breath, and stood beside the open box. Kerouac lay there, hands folded, eyes closed, dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, a hound’s-tooth jacket. His black hair was cut short and neatly combed aside. His face was a waxen cosmetic mask that bore no resemblance whatever to the appearance of a human face; in fact, it looked as though beneath the makeup and the rouged lips and cheeks there was surely some plastic composition, such as a mannequin in a window display might be made of. What can I say? He was hideous to look upon. He had been stripped of all his ravaging joy. They had turned him into what they probably thought he should have been all along: a decent, properly dead Lowell businessman.

I retreated into the open hallway and stood looking at the big guest book propped on a lectern; a man beside me began to talk to me; he was Joe Chaput, a proofreader for the Lowell Courier and an old, old friend of Kerouac’s; in fact, it was Chaput who had driven Kerouac and his wife and mother down to St. Petersburg the year before.

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“That was some trip,” Chaput said, “I drove all the way; Jack used to say there was only one driver in the world better than me, and that was Neal Cassady. We spread mattresses across the back of this station wagon and Jack’s mother and his wife spread out on them; and me and Jack in front. He talked and drank all the way down. Talked and drank. Never stopped. God, he was great.”

Chaput turned and introduced me to a large crowd of neat Northern faces over big bellies inside tweed overcoats; they were all Kerouac cousins; they shook my hand vigorously and smiled warmly. And then, suddenly, there was John Clellon Holmes in the crowd. Holmes had known Kerouac for more than 20 years.

“Were you shocked by Kerouac’s death?” I asked him.

“God, yes,” he said.


“No. Not really. The man drank so damn much. He’d get lonely. He was always living where nothing was happening, no one to talk to. But then, he seemed to want to be alone … ”

Gregory Corso appeared, in a long black coat and a black Indian headband around his black black hair, and threaded his way through the relatives, his eye pressed to one end of a big black camera with a snout a foot long. He moved in and out, he knelt, he hovered, he leaped back and forth, getting old Jack’s funeral responsibly on film.

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After a while, Ginsberg was sitting alone. I went over to him, introduced myself, and sat down next to him. He said to me:

“Have you talked to Mrs. Kerouac?”

“No. I don’t even know who she is.” He pointed to the grieving middle-aged lady I’d been watching. “That’s her,” he said.

“Oh!” I said. “Oh, no. I couldn’t go over to her.”

“Why not?” he eyed me coolly. “You’re a reporter, aren’t you? Well, that’s your job. Go over to her. Ask her about him, ask her what he’d been thinking about in the last month, what he’d been talking about. Other­wise you’ll have nothing but your own subjective impressions.”

I felt a sudden astonishing warmth toward him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and feel his blue nylon back cupped within my arm, so firmly, so neutrally, so decently, did I feel him to be instructing me. But I did neither: I did not embrace Ginsberg and I did not disturb Mrs. Kerouac, although I did say hello to her. But when I looked into her miseried eyes I thought: O God, what could she possibly tell me? What correcting truth could she bestow on me?

And then suddenly everyone was leaving; it was time to bear the body to the church and begin the high Catholic mass celebrating the salvation of Jack Kerouac’s eternal soul. Ginsberg, one of the pallbearers, remained behind. Outside, I looked around for a ride, and entered one of the black limousines when the driver beckoned me forward. It turned out to be the family limousine, and I was wedged in between the driver and Mrs. Kerouac’s brother, while in back of us sat Mrs. Kerouac, her sister-in-law, and three Kerouac cousins. Mrs. Kerouac’s brother spoke dolefully and sincerely of Kerouac all the way to the church; he spoke of how Kerouac had been Lowell’s true biographer, of how every street in the town had had meaning for him, of how Kerouac’s life crossed the three main cultural strands of Lowell: he had been French-Canadian himself and had loved Irish Maggie Cassidy as a young man and then had married Greek Stella Sampas, this man’s sister. Behind us, his wife kept nodding eagerly at nearly every sentence; she was a well-endowed brunette in her middle 40s with a black pillbox on her head and a mink collar on her coat. She spoke smilingly of how crowded the town had become and how she had written something about it, and then one of the Kerouac cousins said: “You write too, don’t you?” and very quickly she said: “Yes, I do.”

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I heard her speaking for a few furiously fast seconds to Mrs. Kerouac, saying something like: “She’s going to write it … ,” then silence. I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. Finally, I twisted around in my seat and said miserably: “Mrs. Kerouac, is there something you’d like to say to me?”

She looked so startled, the wretched woman. “No,” she said softly, bitterly. “There’s nothing I want to say.” And she stared relentlessly at the floor of the car until we pulled up to the church.

Inside, the 200 or so of us were scattered throughout the cavernous church. I sat down between the two Boston reporters there, and noticed Jimmy Breslin, looking burly and penitent, sitting directly in front of me. The priest began his mass. He read from St. John the Blessed in the Book of the Apocalypse: “They shall rest from their labors for they shall take their works with them.” And the mass went on and on; and they shook incense out of ornamental gold shakers; and then the lovely aching sound of Catholic voices raised in the sweetness of pure lament; and then the priest spoke again, this time in English; and then, again, the healing singing. And suddenly in the midst of the whole thing I had the unmistakable feeling that Kerouac was hovering somewhere, in the air above our heads looking down on all of us, sort of embarrassed, sort of bewildered, and saying: Jeezus, what’s all this got to do with  me? And I thought: God, yes! Where are you, Kerouac, in all this? What are you doing here among middle-class businessmen and pontificating priests and Jewish gurus and patronizing intellectuals and cops-and-robbers reporters? Where are you, you poor dislocated bastard, in this elaborate appropriation of Jack Kerouac: the Man and the Myth?

And Kerouac answered me sadly: Oh, I’m a little here. That’s the whole trouble. I’m a little here.

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* * *

In “On the Road” Kerouac’s narrator, Sal, explains why an affair he’s having is bound to end: “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer except my own confusion.”

Sitting there in that church I remembered the passage and I felt then that that was what Kerouac was all about until the last day of his 47 years. And that, also, was why he was a “little here,” and why all these people could claim him in death as they had claimed him in life, and why he stood still and smiled, and let everyone pick at him for a while, and he even feebly picked back, because it gets so lonely, so damn lonely out there with the falling stars and the confusion, and a man needs to feel a part of things; but ah, then it would be no good at all, and he’d get off by himself and go leaping across the continent and get roaring drunk and those fabulous yellow Roman candles would burst again and then he’d come back, always back. And that compulsive lusting after life went restlessly on and on and on, and when he lost the will or the strength or the taste for it, he lost everything, because Kerouac was one of those men in whom the proportions are mixed just a bit differently than in the rest of us. In him that youthful lunging after sensation was wider, deeper, fuller than in most men; it filled him up and left no room for aging and for moderation; as a result, his youngmanhood was a metaphor for the entire adolescent sharpness of response; all that he had in the way of courage and conviction and sweetness and clarity and ripping urgency and glorious lunging was dumped onto that narrow ribbon of road, and on the pages of his books there is captured, for all of us, those amazing rhythms that sing in the blood and wash through the head and gratify the belly when one lives through the senses. At his best, Kerouac is a man strapped to the globe, first on his back and then on his belly, gulping and hugging, gulping and hugging.

Kerouac was a true American original, in the direct line of men like Jack London and Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and Norman Mailer; men not of exquisite European sensibility or tragic Russian depths but of enormous American appetite; men who understood appetite in their brains and in their balls and in their inflamed nerve endings; in their wet dreams and egalitarian surroundings, and in their amazing grasp of the raw sweep of this country; men who not only understood appetite, but also that appetite was what America was all about, and that America, like most of them, would die forever young.

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Kerouac, like all the rest before him, was powerfully dislocated by his appetite, and bewildered by what it brought him. He was bewildered by his fame, bewildered by being told he was a founder of the Beat Generation, bewildered, I am willing to bet, as much by the New York poets and intellectuals as he was, ultimately, by the good folk from Lowell whom he increasingly could not return to. For what he had, he had full strength, and to have anything full strength (especially something which outlives itself) is to insure increasing isolation; and isolation is an outrage to the emotions and a bewilderment to the soul. Lonely is hardly the word for what the inside of Jack Kerouac’s later life must have been like …

I took my place in the procession to a charming cemetery filled with sunlight and crunching leaves and tossing colored trees and we gathered around that meaningless box once more and listened to some more mumbo-jumbo for a while and then we all went away, and Kerouac was left alone to transcend it all, and I hoped that he could know that at any minute now another one, just like him, was getting ready to surface into American life.


Beat Streets: The War Between the Prophets and the Profs

Kerouac & Friends assembles Fred McDarrah’s famous hipster photographs with 30 prose pieces of the time by various beats, journalists, and critics. It’s a splendid memoir-montage, not so much about Kerouac as about the Village beat milieu. Ker­ouac had a strong New York presence even when he wasn’t in town; one of the most evocative essays here, “The Roaming Beat­niks,” is his ramble through beat Manhat­tan after dark, an ode to simple postwar urban pleasures. But he wasn’t an integral part of everyday New York beat life, at least after On the Road was finally pub­lished in 1957. Young McDarrah, a self-­confessed beatnik groupie, mainly recorded that late-’50s Village scene — drinks at the Cedar, openings at the Hansa Gallery and the Living Theater, quiet times in Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen.

The book offers some long glimpses at Kerouac; the most striking appear in How­ard Smith’s and Dan Wakefield’s separate accounts of Christmas, 1957, at the Village Vanguard, with a sweaty, juiced-up Kerou­ac reading to the jazz buffs and his faithful flock. But these snippets reveal little that isn’t familiar from Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters or from McDarrah’s contribu­tions to The Beat Scene (1960; edited by my father, Eli Wilentz of 8th Street Book­shop fame). The real treat is getting to rub elbows with an enormous cavalcade of oth­ers, some long gone, some now well-estab­lished (William Styron!), and some, like McDarrah himself, who still figure mightily at places like The Voice (my favorite: Joel Oppenheimer looking dapper in his 1959 crewcut).

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The only disappointment is the uneven quality of the photo reproductions. McDar­rah was a beginner in the late 1950s, shoot­ing with an old Rolleicord and a beat-up Nikon. His pictures had none of the sharp­-edged contrasts and meticulous composi­tion of his present work. Still, despite the occasional gaffe, he took some wonderful photographs, and Morrow doesn’t do them justice. Some of the best — a beat party un­der a scrawled graffito, “Le Sang des Poetes”; Tuli Kupferberg grinning outside the Gaslight — look muddy and overexposed compared to other versions I’ve seen. One picture, of Ginsberg and Corso at the Art­ist’s Club, looks murky enough to have been shot in a mine shaft. McDarrah deserves better; luckily, enough of the pictures are clear, and enough of McDarrah’s style shows through, that the clinkers are at worst an annoyance.

The book’s mood is nostalgic in the proper sense, a longing for home, for a Vil­lage half-remembered and half-invented. Its sense of place is rhapsodic, recalling the lost landmarks of youthful fantasy, the San Remo (sigh!), the 8th Street Deli (ditto!), the original 8th Street Bookshop on Mac­Dougal Street (mixed feelings, personally, about that one). Even more touching is the human congeries, the writers, artists, and hangers-on, populating a world where cheap rents, greasy spoons, and literary enterprise brought people together, to bohemia. It’s remarkable how many of McDarrah’s pho­tographs are of crowds — in cafés and bars, in galleries, in Washington Square on weekend. “The night people,” Jean Shepherd used to call them, those who forswore the 9 to 5 grind, spent afternoons and evenings in palatable jobs or solitary artistic work, and then came out at night for barroom conviviality and incessant party-going. Manhattan still has crowds; pockets of bohemia survive here and there. But nothing quite like the beat demimonde exists anymore, not with the same literary élan, the same desperate vitality. Being a poor New York writer or painter has become too expensive — or too crushing — to permit such animated congregation.

And animated it was. Long before anyone thought up a happening or a be-in, the beats mastered public showmanship, blur­ring the lines between art and the everyday, playing tricks with their own personae and the mythic “beatnik” invented by Time. Some beats called their hijinks a way to get attention and make some bread: Ted Joans, the Afro-surrealist painter, poet, and impresario, once remarked of his show-off stunts, “Well hell, that’s just part of the job of making a living.” But the beats’ irreverent aesthetic made even their wildest ploys more than a job. Joans himself took part in one caper, the Rent-a-Beatnik business that McDarrah started in 1959. Time had just publicized the Village scene as an abomina­tion, a titillating but unholy world of beard­ed sex perverts in berets and their emaciat­ed chicks. McDarrah, seizing on the stereotype, decided to give the suburban public the real thing. In the first beatnik rental, Joans, replete with beret and torn sweater, traveled to a Scarsdale party, McDarrah in tow, and mingled with the gentry. The photograph from that party is hilarious. Joans is earnest; his audience, decked out in its own weird idea of beat garb, looks just as well-meaning. The host had a great time (“People in Westchester are still talking about it,” he later enthused to a reporter); we can imagine Joans and McDarrah’s rollicking trip home.

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The scene flourished only a short time, from about 1957 to about 1961 (the year some leading Village lights met at director Robert Cordier’s flat to contemplate the beat generation’s funeral). Kerouac & Friends offers several explanations why — ­the publicity was too much, one critic writes; the folk song crowd pushed the beats aside, another suggests. But even if the beats had stuck it out, beatdom could never have survived the politics of the ’60s. A personal recollection brings that home. Ex­actly 20 years ago, my family moved the bookshop across the street from its old spot on MacDougal. Some of the remaining beats in town helped with the lifting and unpacking (I especially remember Peter Or­lovsky, with his mottled tam o’shanter, and how he was so physically strong for one so skinny). When it was done, there was a grand party, a gathering of old friends, writ­ers, and beats. All went swimmingly until midday, when news arrived from Harlem that Malcolm X had just been murdered. Bewilderment, then tension, hit the room. My clearest memory is of LeRoi Jones im­mediately leaving the proceedings. I sensed that the Village would never be the same. The next time I saw Jones in the shop, his name was Baraka.

Despite its evanescence, the beat scene marked an important cultural and literary break, one that still affects those who passed through it and those of us born a bit too late. A great deal has been written about the beats’ long-term cultural signifi­cance; much of it has focused on their sexu­al style, on what Barbara Ehrenreich appre­ciates as their pre-feminist flight from gray-flanneled manhood and what Norman Podhoretz despises as their portentous re­nunciation of middle-class norms. Kerouac & Friends touches on these matters, with opinions from all sides, Podhoretz included. But its photos and reviews also place the New York beats more exactly in their liter­ary context. The beats’ disaffiliation from ’50s mainstream America was in large mea­sure a revolt against the prevailing arbiters of literary taste and manners — specifically, the New York intellectuals of Partisan Re­view and Commentary and their provincial admirers and imitators. From the start, the beats took the intellectuals — those Kenneth Rexroth called “the general staff of the En­emy” — as their chief objects of negative ref­erence. Thereafter, the passionate, ambivalent argument between Beat and Intellectual helped sharpen their respective identities, in creative and destructive ways. American literary culture hasn’t been the same since.

It began at Columbia in the late ’40s­ — years before anyone talked of a beat genera­tion — when Allen Ginsberg sought out his literature professors, especially Lionel Trill­ing. “In the early years, I tried to be open with him,” Ginsberg tells Al Aronowitz in a 1960 piece included here, “and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack­ — stories about them, hoping he would be in­terested or see some freshness or light, but all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship, or whatever they have been conditioned to think in terms of.” Diana Trilling’s notori­ous, motherly “The Other Night at Colum­bia” (also in the book) shows that this was exactly what the Morningside Lions thought then and continued to think later: she recalls that when pressed about why he didn’t correct his young pupil, Lionel Trill­ing would exclaim, “I’m not his father.” From these testy, stumbling encounters came the first clues that Ginsberg’s struggle with his teacher-critics ran far deeper than literary disagreement; the young trouble­maker and his oddball friends had hit a nerve in some of the most Olympian New York critics, and vice versa. Once the New York beats expanded their number, hooked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, and took to mocking the uptown eminences, the wrangling began to turn nasty.

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The antagonism was mutually reinforc­ing, establishing Intellectual and Beat as opposites in their own minds. There were, to be sure, a few powerful critics — very few — who greeted the beats with bemused curiosity. William Phillips recalls in his memoirs how he listened to Ginsberg hold forth persuasively one day at the Partisan Review office; poetry by Ginsberg and Corso actually made it into PR. Far more typical was the response of Phillips’s coedi­tor, Philip Rahv: “I have looked over the stuff and it seems pretty vacuous to me.” To be an intellectual, especially on the Up­per West Side, meant cultivating a world-­weary, epigrammatic civility, even (espe­cially?) when cutting your rivals to ribbons. To be a beat meant finding sweetness, freshness, and light in elegiac, angelic bar­barism. The intellectuals, most of them products of the radical ’30s, had for the most part retreated from serious criticism of American capitalism, but they still saw literature politically, as the proving ground of the liberal imagination. The beats, chil­dren of the ’40s and Cold War stalemate, abhorred capitalism and communism, and retained at least some sense of political commitment — “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Ginsberg declared — but their poetry always vaunted the personal, the existential, the religious above politics. The intellectuals were al­most exclusively critics and essayists who devoted the better part of every day to tak­ing positions. The beats wrote poems and novels and very little criticism; they thought position-taking was absurd. The in­tellectuals cherished complexity, ambiguity, and Niebuhrian paradox. The beats sought simplicity, ecstasy, and Blakean transcen­dence. And yet, irreconcilable as they were, Intellectual and Beat shared an ambiva­lence about each other, born of an often unacknowledged awareness that they had each other’s number.

The beats’ ambivalence concerned fame: though they rejected the intellectuals, they still wanted to be known as the great artists of their time, the best minds of their gener­ation — laurels the intellectuals weren’t about to bestow. Ginsberg’s touching “Ego Confession” speaks to the beats’ anxiety about literary success; so, in a sadder, more destructive sense, does an anecdote Podhoretz tells in Al Aronowitz’s piece about Gins­berg, about an occasion McDarrah must have kicked himself for missing. One night, Podhoretz (then a Trilling protégé and pre­eminent aspiring New York Intellectual) got a phone call from his old Columbia ac­quaintance, Ginsberg, inviting him to a downtown party. Podhoretz went, only to discover that the party consisted of Gins­berg, Kerouac, and Peter Orlovsky, sitting in wait. Kerouac’s fury at Podhoretz crept through his charming wisecracks: “Why is it,” he fumed, “that all the biggest young critics… Why are you against us? Why aren’t you for the best talent of your generation?” Podhoretz replied that he didn’t think them the best talent; Kerouac became indignant. The indignation grew over the coming years — the years when Podhoretz really “made it” — as Kerouac fell apart and wound up an embittered paranoid, holed up in St. Petersburg (Florida), knocking back the boilermakers that finally killed him. At the very end, he declaimed against the Communists and the Jews, and especially against the Jewish literary mafia he swore had done him in.

The intellectuals’ ambivalence had to do with a nagging sense of vacancy about their own decorous, well-heeled academic lives. This was the nerve the beats hit. In characteristic form, the intellectuals responded by taking a position, but this time some of them lost their cool; Kerouac & Friends, with its reprints of reviews of the beats, invites us to contrast beat realities with the critics’ caricatures and see just how over­heated some of the intellectuals became. The beats, here, look genial enough — ­scruffy by ’50s standards, certainly frivo­lous, at times wild-eyed, but hardly menac­ing. They speak plainly of their basically religious faith, well summarized by Ted Joans: “We’re the richest people in the world and yet we don’t have truth and love. It’s not what’s up front that counts, it’s what’s in your heart and brain. There’s nothing wrong with material possessions. But you should use them and not let them use you.”

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Yet to the intellectuals — many of them immigrant offspring who had won the re­spect of the goyim — the beat scene was both a cultural blasphemy and a kind of personal affront, an abandonment of cultur­al obligations and the hard-won refine­ments of Claremont Avenue, a regression to a confused and dangerous state of self-in­dulgent juvenile delinquency. The beats­ — bright students many of them — had refused the only world that mattered. With their rumpled clothes and zany non sequiturs, they challenged the intellectuals’ victory as a sellout. Worse than that, they got atten­tion with their ravings about transcen­dence; they had followers (“so many young girls, so few of them pretty,” Diana Trilling harrumphed about the audience at a Co­lumbia beat poetry reading). No problem taking a position on these miscreants.

Kerouac & Friends provides a survey of the critics’ escalating rage. Thus Trilling, commenting on the Columbia reading: “Maybe Ginsberg says he doesn’t bathe or shave… But for this occasion, at any rate, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky were all beautifully clean and shaven… Certainly there’s nothing dirty about a checked shirt or a lumberjacket and blue jeans; they’re standard uniform in the best nursery schools. Ginsberg has his price, as do his friends, however much they may dissem­ble.” Thus Podhoretz: “Isn’t the beat gener­ation a conspiracy to overthrow civilization (which is created by men, not boys) and to replace it not by the State of Nature where we can all romp around in a free-and-easy nakedness, but by the world of the adoles­cent street gang?” Thus Boston’s John Ciardi in the Saturday Review: “I hope the next time the young go out for an intellectu­al rebellion, they will think to try the li­brary. It’s still the most subversive building in town, and it’s still human headquarters. And even rebels can find it useful to know something, if only to learn to sit still with a book in hand.”

Beneath all this bluster, rumbling like a runaway Broadway local below ground, was the intellectuals’ suspicion that maybe the mannered academia of the age of anxiety wasn’t all they cracked it up to be. For the older heads, there was the creeping sensa­tion that they had lost something valuable in their adaptation, that their well-wrought existence demanded they suppress the unorthodoxy and high spirits of the rip-roar­ing ’30s: nights of debate and spritzing in Stewart’s Cafeteria, days in the left-wing alcoves and meeting halls, singing their lungs out, “A SOCialist union is a NO good union, is a COM-pan-y union of the bosses.” For the young men, like Podhoretz, there was an eerie feeling that they had grown prematurely stodgy and safe, apolo­gists for caution.

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Not that the intellectuals were entirely wrong about the beats, their criticisms mere angry projection. When it came to self-­promotion — making it — there was method to the beats’ craziness; the intellectuals knew it. With their memories of Hitler and Stalin, they were entitled to be nervous about those beats who dipped into Céline and Gide and Hesse and celebrated the cult of experience. And there’s no denying that some of the prose and poetry written in the spontaneous bop mode was quite simply godawful.

But what made the beats so compelling — ­and, in retrospect, makes them even more so — was that they had their antagonists figured out so well, and so early on. A decade and more before the intellectuals suffered through the late ’60s and early ’70s, the beats smelled the staleness of an existence consecrated entirely to criticism, urbanity, and infighting, without much hope of transcendence, personal or political. A glance through the recent spate of New York Intellectuals’ memoirs exposes, with gloomy regularity, the phenomenon of lives unlived (or at least unremembered) outside the suffocating trenches of intellectual combat. These were lives of scholarship — ideally among the highest forms of spiritual endeavor — blighted by an unending search for correctness, a corrupting form of liberal anticommunism, and the conventions of a West Side literary career. Their self-importance bred a profound sadness and a paranoia as crippling in its way as Kerouac’s. The great crack-up really hit about ’67 or ’68. The CIA-Congress for Cultural Freedom exposé and the Columbia upheaval were especially upsetting episodes; the intellectuals’ imagination was slow to grasp that the liberal academy had shamelessly debased its honor and then lied about it. But the first shock was the sight of the beats chucking Matthew Arnold and lighting out for North Beach and the Village when they should have been knotting their ties, getting on with their dissertations, and earning their instructorships.

Nowadays the beats, with their wild dreams and ecstatic chatter, seem part of a distant pre-’60s past. Most of them made it through the storm and live on; Ginsberg, for one, having tamed his anguish in Buddha, is regarded in some circles as our national poet. But the beat scene itself is dead, its leaders scattered, its supposed armies of legatees lost to law school, the academy, the day-people’s world. Many of the surviving intellectuals, meanwhile, have grown smug­ger, plumper than ever with success. Since lurching into neoconservatism in the 1970s, they’ve banished any doubts they might have had about the wholesomeness of middle-class stolidity, and are now in the pro­cess of regaining their authority. Though they hold little political power — Jeane Kirkpatrick aside, the Reaganites couldn’t care less for the Commentary crowd — they are in charge of some important cultural precincts all down the line. And from their squad rooms they are doing their best to police American arts and letters and revive their own sort of intellectual as culture hero.

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All of which makes Kerouac & Friends — ­and more generally the literary history of the beats and the ’50s — enormously instructive. The neocons certainly haven’t forgotten the beat scene. In their revisions of history, the beats were the advance guard of the 1960s cultural vandals; accordingly, the police actions of the 1980s are an at­tempt to restore all that was good and true about American culture before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and friends unleashed their beast­ly barrage. It’s a dreary moment indeed these neocons are sponsoring, less a reprise of their earlier anti-bohemian outbursts than a desecration of history — their own included — to justify their subsequent odys­sey and their current project. Bad enough they should have to repeat their by-now ritualistic slandering of the beats, with so little self-examination or reflection. Even worse that they do so under the pretext of bringing back the good old days. Whatever their mistakes and tragedies, the most thoughtful of the ’50s intellectuals would have recoiled in disgust at the notion that 30 years later some of their associates would flirt with the Radical Right while mouthing euphemisms about cultural excellence: imagine Lionel Trilling sharing anything with Jerry Falwell, much less a common discourse. Yet such are the lessons and bur­dens of history, as some of our angrier ex­-liberals see it.

If the neocons’ ascendancy marks their betrayal of liberalism, it also helps us un­derstand the ’50s in a very different way. In this version, the beats appear not as vandals but as something closer to prophets. Long before anyone else, they saw it all coming. They sensed the deadliness of obsessive ci­vility, of irony as a creed and manly liberal criticism as a way of life — and they sensed where it could lead. They understood that somewhere in the Intellectual’s soul — in the part closed to transcendence — stirred the spirit of what Ginsberg called Moloch. In these flat, discouraging neocon times, the beats’ prophecies ring true enough. And their protests sound as urgent as ever. ❖

KEROUAC & FRIENDS: A Beat Generation Album by Fred W. McDarrah Morrow, $17.95


Ken Kesey: One Who Wigged Out

“Ken ‘Cuckoo Nest’ Kesey: One Who Wigged Out”
May 12, 1966

SAN FRANCISCO — Where is novelist Ken Kesey? It has been months and still no word on him. Not since O. Henry, 70 years ago, has an American lit­erary figure taken it on the lam after getting into trouble with the law. O. Henry was accused of embezzling bank funds. Kesey has been convicted of possessing marijuana and sentenced to six months in jail. Then, while his case was under appeal, he was picked up again, for marijuana and also for resisting arrest lo­cally, when he was taken one night from a Telegraph Hill roof­top with Mountain Girl, 19 years old. The neighbors had complained, as they have been doing ever since Kesey hit California.

O. Henry skipped because the idea of prison frightened him. Kesey ran because the “com­bine” was going to deny him justice and instead make an example of him. This is the way his followers, who reach from Portland, Oregon, down to Los Angeles, look at it. Others, not so fond of him, including novel­ist Robin White, say he ran be­cause, despite the bull neck and the big biceps and the big talk, Kesey is a coward.

This is part of the Kesey fascination: he doesn’t add up. Mark Schorer, who has had two polite conversations with him, regards him as “a very retiring fellow, nothing aggressive about him and rather shy.” Herbert Gold, who knows Kesey from various places, said first about him, “He’s a warm-hearted per­son.” Robin White (Elephant HillAll in Favor Say No) becomes incensed at the mention of Kesey: “He talks about him­self as though he were Christ. If Kesey was in isolation, he’d disintegrate. He’s got to have buttressing, weak individuals he can exploit.”

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Kesey, whose high domed head is nearly bald, is 30 years old. He regards himself as fiercely independent, no doubt as the McMurphy of his own novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are no limits. His buddies are LSD cultists, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, peace marchers, Allen Ginsberg (off and on), Jack Kerouac hangers-on, a bookshop owner, a helicopter pilot wounded in Vietnam, and people who prefer anonymity, like Mountain Girl, and the man she says she is going to marry. She is seven months pregnant.

Independence has a price. Kesey is convinced that the gutty individual is only doomed to failure and oblivion (like McMurphy). “Ken has as elaborate mystique about the system and retaliation,” a friend who knew him from the Palo Alto days said. In a weird record album made by Kesey and his LSD “trip” buddies, just before he skipped, voices, including Kesey’s, say in one segment:

“Oh my God, what does it mean? . . . Electrical impulses through all this statical feedback clicks . . . You do achieve a clarity that passes you one step over the be-good fence . . . He thinks I am dangerous. America doesn’t need these kind of impudent young snots . . . We are at war. ‘This is Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.’ The only salvation is to be good. Be good.”

Kesey had no care for community sensibilities. He was the watcher of the scene, “having fun all the time,” and wherever he went, he dragged a camera and a tape-recorder. He explained his drug habit. “You don’t sit on a toilet and strain and come up with a new idea. To discover something new, you have to put yourself in a position where an accident can happen to you. It can’t be pre-determined.”

He had come down to Palo Alto from Oregon lumber country, where he was reared, in 1960, to work in a mental hospital and to attend creative writing classes at Stanford taught by Wallace Stegner and later by Malcom Cowley. The mentally ill had a powerful hold on Kesey and he had “lightning ways” of looking at things, including his relationship with patients. He organized hell-raising parties. He loaned his car to them for a “night out.” He protected them. When co-worker wouldn’t stop bullying a pitiful catatonic patient, Kesey, who had been a champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, lifted the attendant off the floor and heaved him through the shower room door — even as McMurphy did in the novel. He was fired a few months later — “Not interested in patient welfare,” the official discharge said.

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Kesey lived on Perry Lane, Palo Alto (later celebrated in the work of Gwen Davis). Robin White had arranged it. “At the time,” he recalled, “Perry Lane was made up of nonconformists. After Kesey came on, it became conformist. There had to be sex parties, marijuana smoking, and you had to dress and speak in a certain way. Kesey became the master of ceremonies. He has a real capacity to perform which quite exceeds his ability to write.” Many nights Kesey lay wake in bed staring at the ceiling, scenes from the hospital burning themselves into his memory.

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published. Kesey’s first novel in 1962. One Flew Over was well received. Critics found the plight of a ward of mental patients a par­able of the whole human condi­tion. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 per­formances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-­country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cas­sidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kero­uac’s On the Road. Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

Sometimes a Great Notion, published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — un­able, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men . . . can get together and make a whole life.” News­week called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

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Kesey shot 60,000 feet of film on his travels. He proposed to produce a documentary movie. His redwood house in the drowsy resort village of La Honda, California, south of here, was trans­formed into a vast pleasure pad, where his buddies made out and freaked out in the woods all around it. No one was kept away. Inside was the promise of bed­lam: statues and metal pieces everywhere, pictures and furni­ture without names, incredible designs on the ceilings, the bath­tub and toilet bowl splashed with paint. Kesey took a title for him­self, The Navigator.

People complained. They h­arassed Kesey on the phone and cursed him from their cars. Kes­ey’s bright orange mailbox was picked with bullet holes. High on LSD, he and the gang went off and gave “shows” — one to an au­dience of 5000 in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall, Harry Bridges’s shrine.

Early last year, Federal and state narcotics agents started staking out Kesey’s pad. He con­sidered it a monumental joke. He was clean, he said. But on April 23, 1965, agents raided the place and arrested Kesey and 13 guests. The agents said Kesey was in his bathroom trying to flush away the evidence. He said it had been planted. They won. Two days after his conviction, Kesey and Mountain Girl decid­ed on a Telegraph Hill rooftop as the place to make a “big acci­dent” happen. Residents of the apartment house called the po­lice.

“They was coming on like gangbusters in the first row of the downtown Orpheus Theatre . . . I mean to say, watch them go. Their hooves was three feet above the ground and never touching down . . . ”

An officer discovered marijuana. Kesey told the cop to go to hell and wrestled him right to the edge of the roof: He was nailed there. He posted bond and took off.

His 1939 bus was found on January 31 of this year, aban­doned on a desolate stretch of the California coast. The note Kesey left was beautiful: “Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end. I’ll break you this time. I’ll go through with my heels at your hungry ribs.” Suicide note or the put-on? While au­thorities were puzzling, the cult make a tactical error. It leaked word through one of its principal spokesmen that Kesey was in Mexico, when he wasn’t. The anticipated result was supposed to be: Now they’ll call off the dogs. Who’d chase all the way to Mexico for a guy who smokes pot?

The FBI. It filed a fugitive warrant and promptly joined the search. The United States At­torney’s office here says that the trail is cold now, though tipsters keep calling and the FBI never gives up. A close friend says he recently heard from Kesey. Pe­ter Demma, who runs a book­shop in merry Santa Cruz, Cali­fornia, said Kesey “wants a con­frontation with world society” and is touring.

Two weeks before he disap­peared, Kesey, lugging a coffee can with over $3000 in it from a “show,” and his buddies cut a record, “The Acid Test,” dur­ing a 14-hour “trip” at Sound City here. The album sells for $5.95 and is moving at better than 100 copies a day. Sound City’s owner, Jim Safford, explained, “Anytime Ken Kesey wants to belch, there are at least 20 people around who want to hear it.”


All the Great Men of Literature and Me

The first book to turn me on was a Nancy Drew book: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon. As a preteen, without any coherent understanding of my own motivations, I began to seek out those volumes of the series in which the heroine was kidnapped, bound, and gagged, as happened with considerable frequency. When she swooned under the influence of chloroform, a little part of me swooned too. Her helplessness, the great danger she was in, intrigued me in ways I wasn’t close to having a name for.

By the time I was a teenager, I had more of a vocabulary for what that feeling meant, although I was better acquainted with theory than practice. I had a cloistered, deeply religious childhood, with highly restricted access to television and movies, but parents who were always indulgent about the library, and who rarely examined more than the first few in my weekly stack of books. I had already begun to find the more libidinal titles in the adult section and was shocked at how much depravity was contained in the Bergenfield Library. Carrie and The Shining and Greek mythology dropped tantalizing hints at a vast encoded world. Then I moved on to the Great Men: Roth and Bellow and Hemingway, Kerouac and Cheever.

Sex ed in my middle school was limited to a one-day class in which the boys and girls were separated and shown slides of the reproductive organs. I recall one of the boys saying later that ovaries looked sort of like a menorah. In eighth grade a boy on the bus used to read out the dirty bits of Leon Uris novels; after all, in our ultra-Zionist milieu, anything by the author of Exodus was kosher. I hadn’t seen an R-rated movie yet. So my sexual education was limited to imagination, Google, the great novels of the mid-twentieth century, and the horny men who wrote them.

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What they taught me was that women were to be seen and admired and, above all, to be fucked. I still remember reading On the Road — I was scribbling poems frantically in my notebooks by then, desperate to be an artist, included in the fellowship of great artists — and reading his description of a girl he saw at a bus stop: “Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious.” As if she were a steak. Philip Roth loved breasts so much he wrote a whole novella about them, a pastiche of Gogol, and in The Dying Animal he wrote of a new lover: “And she did something rather pornographic for a first time, and this, again to my surprise, on her own initiative — played with her breasts around my prick…. She knew how much this vision aroused me, the skin of the one on the skin of the other.” (Later, the lover gets breast cancer, and the protagonist is repulsed by the thought of sleeping with her: “I knew that hers was no longer a sexual life.”)

I trudged my way through the entirety of Saul Bellow’s lovely and unwieldy The Adventures of Augie March, in which Esther Fenchel is introduced as follows: “I had heavy dreams about her lips, hands, breasts, legs, between legs. She could not stoop for a ball on the tennis court…. I couldn’t witness this, I say, without a push of love and worship in my bowels at the curve of her hips, and triumphant maiden shape behind, and soft, protected secret.”

Even Hemingway — terse, curt, profoundly goyish, less prone to runaway punctuation and introspection — had attention to lavish on the feminine figure. “Maria lay close against him and he felt the long smoothness of her thighs against his and her breasts like two small hills that rise out of the long plain where there is a well, and the far country beyond the hills was the valley of her throat where his lips were,” he wrote, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The bell tolled, as ever, for the protagonist’s swollen dick.)

There were no guides in these novels for what loving a man ought to feel like: how to desire a man, how to seek his love. No one presented me with the great novels women had written and I did not know enough to find them. I wanted to write a great novel. In the pursuit of doing so I wanted to sink my teeth into the canon, but the canon was aiming its erection straight at me.

For a long time in my teens I wanted to die — a romantic and persistent death wish that pursued me for years. I was encumbered with a body that seemed so gross and alien to me that I wanted to flee it. The second-best thing, it seemed to me, was to fall in love. I wanted to fall into love as if it were an active volcano, and annihilate myself. My first kiss was in a synagogue basement at fourteen with a much older boy. I loved him as only a fourteen-year-old can love. And he used me like a rag doll. Before I turned sixteen I learned there was profound danger in loving men.

You never learn about those dangers in the great novels. You never learn what the well-breasted women think about their own breasts, or how they feel about the men who gaze at their breasts with such ardor. You never learn what it’s like to grow enormous breasts by the age of thirteen and carry them through a world that wants them as much as it doesn’t want you. You never read about bleeding profusely from your “soft, protected secret.”

In the company of Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest and the rest — Tolkien, Apollinaire, Breton, Rimbaud, Tzara, the coterie of male geniuses I read in those lonely and tormented years — I did not want to be a woman. I did not want to be a fuck-thing to be admired and mentioned in passing one hundred pages later, if at all, or simply not allowed in any story of brotherly adventure. I did not want to get cancer and drop off the sexual map, or be left at home to reward Samwise Gamgee for his faithfulness. I wanted to be a man. I felt myself to be as complicated as Augie March or Rabbit Angstrom or the Wapshot brothers or Ishmael; as ardent, as verbose, as pressing in my desire to love and be loved and do great deeds or die. In the novels I loved, men acted; women were enigmas. How could I be a woman and be great? And yet I was never anything but a woman. How to solve this conundrum? I would be a woman who was “mannish,” unfeminine, too loud, too fat, too smart, too assertive. I predicated my entire identity on being too much to be a real woman — and so I could exist. And so I could be great if only I loathed myself enough.

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They taught me this, the great male authors. Between my reading I fumbled with boys a little. Throughout those experiences, sexual things were things done to me — not done at my behest and with little relation to my own desire. The first penis I ever saw was put into my hand while we watched To Have and Have Not in my basement. Not having read lavish descriptions of penises, I was afraid of the alien pulsing thing in my hand, but too polite to push it away. I felt grateful to be desired at all (I was too much; I was captain of the debate team; I weighed so much more than my mother or my sisters).

And yet I did desire. I was horny all the time. That horniness bore so little relation to whatever genital-adjacent fumbling did occur that it might as well be a feeling from another planet. Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest had betrayed me. To desire men was something else, a map I didn’t have. No one laid it out for me in shining prose, the kind your parents have on their bookshelves. Whatever desiring men meant, it wasn’t great art. Women were like Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque or Manet’s Olympia: They can show you their breasts, or their bottoms, not their souls; their smiles have secrets; they are still and silent, not animate and hungry and desperate and sad and angry all the time.

By the time I got to college I caught a bit of a clue. I read Lorrie Moore. I read Alice Munro. I learned to fuck. I read Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker…and Anaïs Nin. She wrote: “He leaves the imprint of his flesh-visit on my skin, in my womb, and for days all I know is my legs. No world in the head…world between the legs…the dark, moist, live world.” I was cured of my desire to revere the canon by literary theory classes and the rightful derision of my classmates for that august collection of white men. But I loved them, still.

Now, I read the journalism and essays and fiction and poems of women who are geniuses. I read the dark reported narratives of Pamela Colloff and the trenchant insights of Rebecca Traister; the social analysis of Doreen St. Félix and Ijeoma Oluo. I read the game-changing daily reportage of Yamiche Alcindor, Rachana Pradhan, Jodi Kantor, and Danielle Tcholakian. I am no longer religious. I watch women run for office and paint protest signs for DSA. I read their books. I am writing one. Now I am swimming in women’s genius, a pebble borne along a great torrent along which runs pleasure and pride and joy and wrath and need. I am not demure, but I am not a man. I do not need to be. I wouldn’t want to be. The great men of literature taught me how deep desire runs, but I pull myself onward on the strength of my own desires, which are many, and all my own.

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.


At UES Show, Lucien Smith Leads the Charge of the Opportunist Brigade

Alene Lee, possibly the only female African-American member of the Beat Generation, once asked that movement’s reluctant celebrity, Jack Kerouac, how he liked fame. He replied, “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street.”

Incredibly, Kerouac’s words were repeated almost verbatim last year in a YouTube interview by this year’s art model, the 25-year-old painter Lucien Smith. The occasion was an exhibition of Smith’s work at Jeffrey Deitch’s old Grand Street space, resettled since 2011 by the Suzanne Geiss Company gallery. In that show, Smith literalized Kerouac’s phrase by screwing found brooms of various types to the floor so that they stood upright and gluing crumpled newspapers to canvases to mimic what the artist called a Giuliani-era “clean sweep” of Gotham’s streets.

Smith said the brooms and fish wrap were “indicative of the gentrification going on in New York, of things being cleaned up.” It’s hard to believe he could be so disingenuous, especially after seeing prices for his casual abstractions climb nearly fortyfold in just two short years (one canvas bought for $10,000 from his Cooper Union graduate show in 2011 was resold last November at Phillips for $389,000). It’s paintings like his — along with the formally thin, conceptually vacuous canvases of a slew of high-profile, derivative young painters like Oscar Murillo, Jacob Kassay, Alex Israel, Petra Cortright, and Parker Ito — that are largely responsible for pushing up prices for emerging art and shoving aside anything not resembling investment-ready fare. Assessed in isolation, he is the Starbucks of artistic gentrification.

Smith, along with a singularly opportunistic generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings — call them the Opportunists — produce paintings tailor-made for the market. Like predecessors such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami, they generate familiarly kitschy works that are both objects and agents of consumerism, but without offering any original commentary about art or its commodification. Their natural allies in this brazen Ponzi scheme are today’s rapacious auction houses, several strata of manipulative art dealers, and a pandemic of art-flipping collectors (one barefaced art trader claimed in a recent Bloomberg article that these artists’ paintings regularly “change hands five or six times within a year”). Mostly male overnight sensations, these investment artists have become marketers of high-grade financial stuff that up to now has promoted itself less as art — with its attendant claims on critical and historical attention — and more like juicy tech IPOs.

Smith’s newest exhibition, “Tigris,” at Skarstedt Gallery on 79th Street, provides a pitch-perfect, slicked-back, Mad Men–inspired variation on the genre. A show of 11 undistinguished, camouflage-patterned abstract paintings, the display proves a shrewd career move — especially as it constitutes Don Draper–style reputation repair for an artist who has been, commercially speaking, serially promiscuous. Big-money galleries like Skarstedt know how sensitive museums are to accusations of price-gouging and influence-peddling; in turn, they look for museums’ seal of approval to grow an emerging property like Smith. Tellingly, during my visit, a gallery director informed me that all the canvases in show had been placed at institutions — presumably as a hedge against erosion of the artist’s critical stock. To put it in AMC–speak: Smith’s move from speculative downtown asset to stable uptown value has Sterling Cooper written all over it.

But what about Smith’s actual artworks, you ask? Though the pieces on view at Skarstedt eschew his previous “innovations” with brooms and “painting” with a fire extinguisher (he has made more than 300 such so-called rain paintings), Smith’s current canvases have all the earmarks of the process-type noodling the New York Times recently identified as characteristic of “flip art,” i.e., art that changes hands quickly. Stenciled whorls that feature “tiger stripe” patterns, the works in “Tigris” — they range in color from green to orange to dark brown — essentially propose retreads of older, more accomplished art. The gallery press release claims Smith’s camouflage patterns are derived from South Vietnamese and U.S. military uniforms, information that provides its own razzle-dazzle. What’s really important about Smith’s work is its lack of originality. As with the appropriated-photo–based “Canal Zone” series by Richard Prince, the young artist’s anemic paintings crib so opportunistically that they recall Kelly Clarkson covers: celebrations of existing material that remain, cynically, one candid step removed from a copy.

What Smith’s paintings do reference heavily are Andy Warhol’s camouflage screen prints — who better to quote than the original “business artist” himself? — as well as the color-field staining techniques Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler used. Like the work of the former, the younger artist’s canvases simply repeat swirling shapes in organic and inorganic colors. As for the latter pair, it’s fitting to recall the words of art historian Michael Fried, who called the 1960s lyrical see-through technique a door opened onto “the unimagined possibilities for the future of painting.” No one could possibly say the same of Smith’s knock-off canvases, neither the watered-down pseudo-expressionism that Wall Street types conveniently leveraged from his earlier shows, nor the high-priced Warholiana hung inside the stately Skarstedt.

As paintings, Smith’s latest undemanding batch is basically as insipid as a viral Tweet: They exist to be favorited by everyone. But especially by millionaires willing to gamble that there’s a profit in easy popularity. The same goes for the rest of the deeply unoriginal, astonishingly successful abstract artists in his age cohort. For the time being, their acclaim is catching. But Smith’s disingenuous comments aside, this is not an art movement like Pop or the Beats. It’s just another reflection of a time when both art and money are dominated by unconstrained opportunism.



William S. Burroughs died in 1997 at the age of 83, but his brilliantly deranged spirit lives on at Munch Gallery during a 24-hour marathon reading of his Nova Trilogy by the artist Marshall Weber. Weber begins at midnight tonight and continues for 24 hours, presumably pausing for the occasional bathroom break and speedball. Weber has been performing similar feats since 1994, when he spent 33 hours reading Ulysses in San Francisco, and says the sleep-deprivation leads to a “hallucinatory trance state.” That suits these viscerally unnerving, avant-garde Burroughs tomes, derived from the same manuscripts as Naked Lunch, and described by Jack Kerouac as “all scatological homosexual super-violent madness.”

Wed., Feb. 5, 11:59 p.m., 2014