Beat roots

The Beat Generation Writers
June 20, 1997

The confusion bedevilling discussion of Beat literature stems from a critical obsession with the authors rather than with their writings. Leading Beats like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs contributed to this dilemma: first by publishing literary works in which they all make (sometimes pseudonymous) appearances, thereby creating the impression the reader might pierce the text in order to grasp an originating autobiographical "truth"; second, by promoting as peers friends whose life-styles they admired but whose literary talents were irredeemably minor (Herbert Huncke, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky and Neal Cassady are the most conspicuous instances).

This volume tries but largely fails to provide a revisionist interpretation. Five of the essays are devoted to canonical Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs) and a sixth to their quasi-criminal pals, Huncke and Cassady. The remaining four offer a variety of challenges to this canon, with studies of John Clellon Holmes (whose novels are marginal to Beat practice but whose essays are among the earliest and best on the subject); the "Black Beats'' LeRoi Jones, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman; the gender politics of the movement; and neglected women Beat poets.

The essays are interesting, provocative and accessible to the university audience at which the volume is targeted. Yet all shirk the fundamental task of identifying a Beat aesthetic, preferring to define the group as a circle of literary acquaintances with a New York-San Francisco axis. Hence, the essay on African-Americans justifies inclusion of LeRoi Jones by reference to his friendship with Ginsberg; whereas William Wantling, a poet whose work more convincingly exemplifies Beat ideology, does not receive a mention, presumably because his midwestern background and long years in prison excluded him from Ginsberg's coterie. Similarly, Huncke and Cassady get the longest chapter, though their writings are acknowledged to be "minimal'', whereas a major author like Charles Bukowski is scandalously omitted.

Granted this regrettable dependence on the biographical, it is a paradoxical that these essays contrive to avoid the more illuminating possibilities of such an author-centred approach. For example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's version of "Queer Theory'' might facilitate a reading of Ginsberg's "Howl" as a coming-out poem whose liberational intensity is directly proportional to the epistemological constraints of the 1950s closet. But alarmingly the prevalence of homosexuality among the canonical Beats is never directly addressed.

Whatever its local victories, then, and there are plenty of them, this under-edited work is not the revisionist study we await.

John Osborne is lecturer in American Studies, University of Hull.

The Beat Generation Writers

Editor - A. Robert Lee
ISBN - 0 7453 0660 8 and 0661 6
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 225

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