Cassady, Kerouac, and Other Dharma Bums Back Beats by Jennifer Scoville and Dave Cook
"Welcome to McBeatniks, sir. Could I interest you in a 99cents Big Jack?"
"Well, what do you get with the Value Deal?"
"With that you get a Ginsberger with everything and a fleeting of sense of having read a `serious' book."
"Sold - how much?"
Whatever it is, we are being asked to go out and spend our hard-earned slacker dollars on a whole slew of new publications about the Beats, including serious revisionist criticism, ambitious and extensive biographies, even memoirs written by women survivors of the pre-hippie hip, who've come out of the literary boys' club to reveal secrets as only women can.
Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher (St. Martin's Press, $18.95 paper) is an incredibly immense, "definitive" chronicle of Allen Ginsberg and a large cast of peripheral characters. But oh, those peripheral characters. The book begins with an insightful and amusing anecdote about a poetry reading Ginsberg gave in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., with his father, Louis (a well-respected, more traditional poet himself) well after Allen's reputation as a counterculture icon was established. After Ginsberg made a reference to smoking pot, the backwards Paterson police arrested him later that night. Problem was, it wasn't really him, just a man who bore a vague resemblance, and Ginsberg didn't even hear of the incident until he read about it later in New York. It seems everyone's been arresting the wrong Allen Ginsberg all these years, and this tome aims to set the record straight.
After the opening section (which also includes stunning photographs of young Beat figures, many taken by Ginsberg himself), we move into an engrossing, if compressed, account of Ginsberg's childhood. Some might question the necessity of such detail, and indeed a discussion of Ginsberg's high school grades seems downright gratuitous. But his family life at the least provides a remarkable study of the early intellectual/radical scene in Greenwich Village, as well as a worthwhile recounting of Ginsberg's mother's bizarre descent into schizophrenia, a drawn-out series of events that affected him tremendously and later served as subject matter in Kaddish.
From there, the book shifts to an enthralling account of Ginsberg's days at Columbia and his first encounters with most of the major Beat writers. These passages are handled competently and thoroughly, and nearly redeem the book's value in themselves. However, since Ginsberg was probably the least interesting of the Beats at this point, as he struggled with his voice and sexuality, it becomes exasperating when a fascinating anecdote about William Burroughs' experiments with drugs or the scene at Joan Vollmer's apartment is suddenly bumped back to Ginsberg's often-boring life. When Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac take off on their infamous On the Road trip, you want to hop in the car with them, not sit with Ginsberg in his grungy apartment listening to him whine about his hopeless relationship with Cassady. Even the author seems distracted from his subject, with long passages that don't mention Ginsberg at all.
Underscoring all of this is the debatable question of Ginsberg's status among the pantheon of great poets. The author avoids making an argument directly, preferring to gradually reinforce associations between the poet and his literary forebears, notably Blake, William Carlos Williams, and Whitman. Certainly he's up there somewhere, but the nagging problem of his still being alive makes any conclusion to this discussion incomplete, just as this book, despite its length and breadth, is doomed to fall short of chronicling the whole of Ginsberg's active lifetime.
Still, the true value of this book lies not in its biography of Ginsberg, nor even in its exciting descriptions of the birth of the Beat movement; the real treasure is in the author's attempts to relate the horrible struggles and growing pains Ginsberg faced to reconcile his talent to his muse, even including samples of his early, unsuccessful attempts at writing "New Poetry." His drug use, experiments with form, and mystical visions of Blake are all taken seriously and detailed thoroughly. As for his ultimate status among American poets, not to worry: After being paraphrased on no less an institution than the Simpsons, Ginsberg's reputation seems secure.
The first thing you should know
about The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook (Quill, $12 paper) is that its cover will lie to you: burned over the requisite photo of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac is the fluorescent orange legend "The Tumultuous '50s Movement and Its Impact on Today." Yet this book was not written today, yesterday, or the year before that; this book was first published in 1971, and was originally meant as a kind of informal thesis propagating the Beats as immediate literary and spiritual godparents to the hippies. While the "today" discrepancy is easily cleared up by a look at the back cover, one can't help but wonder if the publishers weren't half-hoping (hell, praying) we airhead twentysomethings would hastily consume large quantities of this reprint, scratch our heads later and say, "Wait a minute, Led Zeppelin wasn't released last year, was it?"
Aside, then, from being one of the first hippie-era attempts at considering the Beats' importance and recollecting them nostalgically, it's certainly valid to ask what relevance this book holds almost 25 years later, i.e., its impact on today, beyond an attempt to cash in on renewed interest in all things beatnik, and the book's context as a Beat primer for hippies may be reason enough for many to dismiss it. Also, this writer worships and wants to emulate his subjects, but he's too late; indeed, you're forced to guiltily, pathetically trudge along with Cook as he tracks down Kerouac in the den of his decline, back living with his mother in Lowell, Massachusetts, to carefully collect quips and bitter remembrances of all things Beat, such as the following gem: "...I wasn't trying to create any kind of new consciousness or anything like that. We [Beats] didn't have a whole lot of heavy abstract thoughts. We were just a bunch of guys who were out trying to get laid."
The ultimate failure of this book, however, is twofold, in its lack of any real pretense about seriously discussing the movement's importance in other than scattershot fashion and quickly dissolving into little more than a breathless recounting of key moments of the movement, and in the fact that its descriptions of said events simply aren't that good. In fact, Cook offers very little information that isn't rendered much more eloquently in his subjects' writings themselves, provided one is willing to decode the aliases they invented for each other. As the author himself points out in an updated afterword, there are excellent memoirs available from people who were actually there, which this book really wants to be, and on the other hand much more competent, academically oriented biographies written by scholars, which this book claims to be.
"Naturally we fell in love
with men who were rebels, we fell very quickly believing they would take us on their journeys and adventures, we did not expect to be rebels all by ourselves, we did not count on loneliness."
- Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Carolyn Cassady, wife of mad driver Neal and author of Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg (Penguin, $9.95 paper), and Joyce Glassman (now Johnson), young girlfriend of Kerouac the aging hipster, and author of Minor Characters (Anchor Books, $10.95 paper), existed on opposite coasts separated only by the long miles of highway made monumental by the roadtrips of their lovers. That and their ages - Joyce Glassman was only 14 years old in 1947 when Carolyn met Neal for the first time in San Francisco (she was 24, he was 21). But when Joyce met Jack Kerouac in New York City almost a decade later, she unwittingly joined an exclusive club of women who trailblazed a lifestyle despite the ear-ringing disapproval of mothers, families, and sometimes their own consciences. On the road or off, the trials they shared would forever set them apart from other women in their generation.
Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road is a detailed diary of her emotionally taxing marriage to Neal and her longtime affair with Kerouac. Sparks that flew on first sight of her true love burned again and again as Neal ran out, ignored their problems, left her pregnant and with no money, and more than once made her a party to bigamy. She convinces herself better than she does her readers that the good times outweighed the bad. Her account of their life together is sometimes unbearably bleak, but a collection of correspondences chronologically included throughout make the book worthwhile. Letters were lifeblood to this famous group, who saw each other infrequently and spent the rest of their time at opposite ends of the country dreaming up adventures for when they were together again.
The historical letters bring insight into the shy and compelling character of Allen Ginsberg and his own romantic love for Carolyn's husband, and to the actual literary influence that Cassady had on Kerouac's prose. Neal's letters are witty and philosophical, as much if not more than Kerouac's replies. The popular belief is that Kerouac molded his style of writing from jazz and the inspiration of Cassady's personality and wild behavior, but there are indications that Cassady actually dictated Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness style.
"I have always held that when one writes, one should forget all rules, literary styles and other such pretensions as large words, lordly clauses and other phrases as such - rolling the words around in the mouth as one would wine, and proper or not, putting them down because they sound so good..." Cassady writes.
Great for gossip but unlikable at times because of the author's reluctance to embrace the lifestyle that these men pursued, Off the Road is more reasonable than romantic, and it is difficult to be wrenched from romance for such long periods of pain and complaint. An understanding does arise, however, that Carolyn Cassady withstood more than most could, and her character is terminally softened when she gives in to herself in the form of a love affair with Kerouac. She begins to command respect by attending to her desires in the same manner her men do, which temporarily hinders the perception of her as a shrewish doormat. Clearly, she is awakened by Kerouac (at least sexually; Neal was apparently a lousy lover), and the excitement comes through in the writing, impossible to conceal. Carolyn Cassady got more than she bargained for in choosing a husband - an abrupt education on the ways of a Beatnik. In the case of Joyce Johnson, however, this lifestyle had been calling, and Kerouac was a merely a bonus.
Attending Barnard at 16, Joyce Glassman [Johnson] had already spent two years sneaking down to Washington Square park and spending weekend afternoons at the Waldorf, a cafe graced by hundreds of potential cultural heroes, literary and otherwise (Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock frequented it, as did e.e. cummings). She already had hopes of becoming a writer, and published a novel at just 26. She meets Jack Kerouac groupie-style at Howard Johnson's with a copy of The Town and the City in hand; she buys him dinner and soon they become lovers.
The writing in Minor Characters is much more accomplished and enjoyable to read in the spirit of Beat literature. It has some of the rhythm expected in this genre, and is less of a chronicle and more of an experience. While in Cassady's book there's hardly a page without a cultural icon present, Johnson's is more low key. She doesn't actually meet Jack 'til the middle of the book, but the preceding chapters are mellifluous in their writing. Lessons learned from events the author views through hindsight complement her coming of age rather nicely, and the "minor" characters of Johnson's own story are as tragically interesting as the Beats if not more so, because they're regular joes with discernibly independent psyches. They don't necessarily try to emulate their heroes, but after having found the door left open, have chosen to make their own difficult way through it.
The distinct time frames of these two books have much to do with their tones. The direct approach of the Sixties in Minor Characters seems responsible for the more possible yet still ill-received independence of young women. Joyce moved out of her house, experimented with sex, and had a desire to write without Kerouac's influence. In fact, she probably did more for him by easing the pain and confusion he faced just prior to his death.
Off the Road is a specific and factual sequence of events, with an index that deserves noting. Ironically, Joyce Glassman isn't mentioned, though it's easy to recognize where the two books cross paths. Johnson pays homage to Mrs. Cassady on a couple of occasions in Minor Characters, once if only to empathize with her plight: "Men [were] always disappearing on Carolyn into the attic, leaving her with the dishes." Each book celebrates these woman as their own people, despite the fact that they can't help but be overshadowed by their famed lovers. These members of the "Beat orbit" each in their own time and own way gave a would-be hero a reason to go on.
Both books are resolved sadly, and although Minor Characters is half the sourcebook that Off the Road is, they each end with incidents that lovers of the Beat genre of literature choose to forget - Kerouac deep into alcohol and depression, and Cassady out of his mind on drugs with Kesey's Merry Pranksters. Lenny Bruce once said, in an act of self-prophecy, "There's nothing sadder than an old hipster," and the final chapters of these two works are a testament to that. Hopefully, substance abuse had more to do with their downfall than the rootless lives they led, as it would be tragedy for the escapades that inspired such poignantly beautiful and raw writing to be responsible for the demise of their fragile creators. One thing's for sure: A woman who loves a man can remember every detail when he is gone. n