In Perfect Alignment: The Ransom Center Beat Holdings

Gary Snyder's "Manzanita," a poem from 1974's Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island, begins with this: "Before dawn the coyotes/weave medicine songs/dream nets -- spirit baskets--/milky way music/they cook young girls with/to be woman;/or the whirling dance of/striped boys -- ..." While he's no doubt kissing you hard with a Native American tongue, Snyder's deceptively idyllic lilt could well capture the waning hours of a mid-Fifties bash in a log cabin outside San Francisco. That's no coincidence. The Beats were a mystical lot, pissed on by their peers and regarded now with a frenzied respect. But they were also communal. They lived by the same code. They traveled together (Snyder himself with counterculture oracle Allen Ginsberg) and partied together (Snyder himself as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums). They wrote letters. They compared notes.

Kerouac's most important notes -- a journal he kept in 1948 while writing On the Road -- are, not surprisingly, an urgent, almost childlike scrawl rushing past your eyes before you even know it's there. What may be surprising is that they're here in Austin instead of San Francisco or New York or Lowell, Mass. Currently on display at the LBJ Library and Museum as part of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center's "From Gutenberg to Gone With the Wind: Treasures From the Ransom Center" exhibition, Kerouac's OtR journal is another of his that speaks of dreams. But these are "daydreams of destruction," as he calls them. They involve "paranoiac attack" and the desire to shoot at each car rushing toward him, to choke each person passing by him. He writes of completing 1,500 words a day for OtR, a novel he says provides "greater freedom" than The Town and the City. In a relatively rare moment of self-assurance, he declares that OtR "will slowly grow into a great book and I shall have learned at last how to really write."

But Kerouac, who tells us this journal is not meant simply for himself, offers much besides progress reports on OtR, including world-views and advice for aspiring writers: "You see, I don't arrive at conclusions -- I'm not a bus-driver, I'm a wrestler -- I wrestle to my conclusions. I don't believe in the mind, man. That is why I am so sly ... " and, later, "young writers of the future: -- (1) Do not believe in what criticizers say of you. (2) Because all men who do not criticize are silently watching ... and can only judge you from the silence of your works but not the noise of the criticizer."

William S. Burroughs, who knew a thing or two (or everything) about criticizers, also haunts the Ransom Center. In his notebook -- "LEAVES TURN FREE AND FAST ... LIE FREE IN PERFECT ALIGNMENT," boasts the corporate, curiously Beat-sounding sales pitch splashed across its cover -- Kerouac succinctly expresses his thoughts about the tall, thin titan: "I fear Burroughs because Burroughs fears me." Burroughs' work and play, his actions and reactions and interactions, were always gloriously monstrous, as anyone who accesses an Ransom Center-owned Jan. 17, 1964, letter to the London Times Literary Supplement regarding its moralistic review of 1963's Dead Fingers Talk (the manuscript of which, among other Burroughs files, can also be found at the Center) will discover.

Burroughs' exploits -- including drug clinic stints and his leaving his common-law wife Joan in Mexico for a Panamanian jaunt with a "pretty boy from school" -- are frequent topics of correspondence in the Ransom Center's massive collection of Ginsberg letters, most of which are to Kerouac or, as Ginsberg calls him in one greeting, "Old Rosy Cock." Some are typed, others cramped cursive, but all are dizzyingly tender. "I see you as a slob, too, in the same way that I see myself as a selfconsious [sic] wreck," he writes Kerouac in 1950. Filled with musings about his partner Peter Orlovsky, Kerouac's Dr Sax, and $7 mescaline, Ginsberg's letters are ultimately an outlet for a man poor and terrified and mad at America. Prefiguring Diane di Prima's mournful assessment of money and the Beat fantasy by about 50 years, Ginsberg seems downright depressed in a June 5, 1953, letter to his friend Jack:

The trouble is that the money problems of reality are not ghostly at all, they're solid as rock, I keep hitting my head on. ... How can we live with no future abuilding? That's what's bothering me, especially since no poetry I might possibly write will ever produce enough $$ to even think of that as solving my problems. ... Aw well on this lousy note I sign off. ... I'm bewildered. And it's no joke.

Yours, Allen The Geek.


"From Gutenberg to Gone With the Wind: Treasures From the Ransom Center" is on display at the LBJ Library and Museum until May 3, 2002. Call 916-5137 for more information. For research purposes, the public can access photocopies of Kerouac's journal and other archives, via registration, at the Ransom Center, which is located at the corner of 21st & Guadalupe. 471-8944.
  • More of the Story

  • Beat Currencies

    In a look at some recently reprinted classic works by the Beats, Chronicle writer Dale Smith examines why being on the road was such a dangerous place -- and why it no longer is.

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