This article by Mitchell J. Smith serves to point out society’s attempt to transform social entities that might be perceived as abnormal into harmless caricatures of themselves and how fashion or advertising can be used as a catalyst to disarm potentially serious threats to venerated institutions. I think that this is a very telling article to launch our study of the Beats. Do you agree with his definition of the “Beat Generation”? I suggest printing it out because it is really long.
Thresholds: viewing culture
University of California Santa Barbara
Volume 9, 1995
BEAT, BEATNIK, OR DIET BEAT: THE CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION
by Mitchell J. Smith
The popular definition of the terms "beat," "beatnik," and "Beat Generation" have in the past 41 years undergone numerous changes wrought by the market and the media. In the 1990s a neoconservative, nonactivist image has been fashioned for the Beats that serves both the function of selling products and defusing rebellious impulses. This new image takes the complex philosophical challenges that Kerouac and others posed for the dominant culture and reduces them to a fashion which can then be marketed. The oppositional power of the public image of the Beats is then assimilated through this process of commodification. It is useful, then, to examine how the definitions of the Beat Generation as conceived by its founders differ from those media images; the process of change that the images have undergone in order to be marketable then becomes clear. The culture which is receptive to these newly defined Beat images can also be examined, and the political and social ends that the images serve can be identified. And finally we can separate the original Beat Generation from its market-generated version, and thus counter criticism based upon the marketed representations.
The original definition of the term "Beat Generation" was developed by John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac to describe people their age living in New York City during the 1940s. The term "beat" itself comes from the image of being "beaten down" to one's bare essentials, of being too worn down by the Depression, World War II, and the new atomic threat to have the energy to construct any kind of false morality or mask for oneself and instead to be nakedly honest before the world. This was, however, a period of direct and purposeful attacks on the notion of individualism, manifested in anti-communism, the growth of bureaucracies, of mass media, of corporations, and the practice of electroshock and lobotomy for those suffering from "social diseases" such as homosexuality or nonconformity. In this period, the "individual" became by definition synonymous with anti-social thinking or even mental illness.
According to Holmes and Kerouac, their generation responded to this with a celebration--sometimes defiant, sometimes secretive--of the individual and unique self and its liberation. This further implied a rejection, not simply of the particular moral and behavioral orthodoxies that had become oppressive, but also of any doctrine which served to codify or justify intolerance. While the previous generation of poets had lamented the collapse of moral absolutes which resulted in an existential void, the Beats embraced this void as "accommodating space," to use Kerouac's terms. The Beats, who were also highly critical of politics, saw any type of political ideology as being ultimately oppressive, whatever its specifics. Naturally the Beats were also critical of conformity to mass and traditional values, because these would inhibit one's natural self. Instead the Beats valued spontaneity as a lifestyle and as a process by which to negate the "conventions of the world" and discover a more immediate response free from socialized preconceptions. The Beats were critical of capitalism for the dehumanizing conditions of labor in this country, as well as the dehumanizing effects of the desire for its materialistic products. Instead they valued the often ascetic, even impoverished life of the artist for pursuing a personal and liberating vision for oneself and others.
All of this is a long way off from bongo drums, hip chicks, and espresso bars full of cool cats in goatees snapping their fingers and saying, "Go crazy, Daddyo," but ironically it was the Beat writers' books which helped launch the mass marketing of such superficial images. So, in its second incarnation, the term "Beat Generation" referred not so much to an actual generation but to a group of increasingly famous, or infamous, writers. One effect of this was that it led to the perception of this generation as being something created, as a literary character, rather than as something observed. As a literary creation, and one not under copyright, the Beat Generation was open to refiguring in numerous media forms. The sales of the original novels and books of poetry were indicative of the market potential here. The initial moral disputes over the works translated into a need for some modification to make the Beat Generation properly marketable. But the titillation and controversy created by the disputes could also be seen as free advertising to help sales.
This then led quickly into the third incarnation of the Beat Generation: its marketable version, the "beatnik." The strategy was to market the Beats as a style or form, with the content either missing or altered. Soon the fad had little to do with the beliefs of the famous writers; rather it was about what they were wearing at the time they made their famous utterances, or more accurately it was about what their more slick imitators were wearing. The images of these newly created beatniks proliferated in the world of media and the mass market. They appeared in clothing fashions. They were characters on TV shows like Make Room for Daddy or had their own shows like Route 66. There were beatnik exploitation films such as The Beat Generation, about a beatnik rapist and murderer, The Wild Ones, about beatnik bikers, and The Subteranneans, which was based on Kerouac's novel about a love affair between a white man and a black woman but which Hollywood, to make things a little less shocking, changed to an affair between a white man and a French woman. There was even a beatnik issue of Mad magazine which highlighted such beatnik attributes as their refusal to take a bath, get a job, or take part in square society. Beatnik images also popped up in ads and logotypes used to sell other products. The purest market product would have to be the Rent-A-Beatnik service. Started by Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah, the beatniks were advertised as "Badly groomed but brilliant." The idea was that if you were having a party in a swanky uptown Manhattan setting and things had gotten a little too tame for you and your guests, you could pay a beatnik to come to your party, where he would ideally use foul language, expound a bit on existentialism, insult your guests, play his bongos, read his poetry, and generally give everyone a thrilling taste of the bohemian slum. This turns the Beat into pure image, a kind of shabby Ken doll to be marketed as pure capital product. The beatniks may be read as an outrage to contemporary mores, but they are an outrage only against the prevailing tastes and fashions, which is nothing more than any new fashion does. While the Beat attitude rejects poses and superficial masks as conformity to preconceptions, the Rent-A-Beatnik service had the effect of fetishizing appearance and further capitalizing on it in a way that would have been antithetical to the ascetic early Beats.
The image of the Beats was split into what John Maynard, in his book Venice West, has labeled the popular images of the "good" and "bad" beatnik. The "good" beatnik is pictured as having all the typical Beat tastes for jazz, shabby clothes, sunglasses, and berets, but he is a basically good-hearted, loyal, funny person who is rather naive and terrified of social conventions like work, baths, and marriage. The figure of the "good" beatnik is probably best characterized by Maynard G. Krebs from the television show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. As John Maynard shows, Krebs' fear of women is a way of emasculating the Beats, making them seem both pitiful and tame. The emphasis on Krebs as a tame, ineffectual creature seems to be an extension of the Beat idea of non-confrontation, but here it is taken to an extreme that negates the very real social criticisms that the Beats embodied. Legitimate attacks on the personal, social, and environmental dangers of the growing industrial state of the 1950s, which the Beats were by no means alone in expressing, are here trivialized through humor and reduced to a gag. Attention is shifted away from the criticisms of corporate structure and political power to an ad hominem attack on those voicing the criticism. The "bad" beatnik, however, is violent, uses drugs, and may be a biker or some other sort of social degenerate. He will generally not be physically strong (and therefore not a "real" man), but he will make up for this by preying on the weak. A classic portrayal of this can be found in the main character of the film The Beat Generation, who sits in espresso houses listening to poetry and then rapes and kills on his way home. Early in the film he justifies his behavior by saying that since nuclear bombs may start falling at any time, there is no reason to live as if there will be a tomorrow. This portrayal conflates dissent, such as protest against nuclear weapons, with criminality and thus stigmatizes those who choose to engage in any form of action against the government.
The beatnik thus provided a useful marketing image to reach the growing population of young consumers, albeit one altered to fit their demands. The 1950s was a period of social stability on the verge of instability, and the image of the "good" beatnik provided a safe outlet for young people's growing dissatisfaction. Rebelliousness could be trivialized by focusing on the superficial aspects of beatnik fashion that could perhaps satisfy those impulses but which presented no real threat to the established order. Rebellious impulses could also be channeled into the beatnik path of the apolitical dropout, the anti-activist who seeks to change nothing. The image of the "bad" beatnik could then be used to stigmatize anyone who defied the social order. It was J. Edgar Hoover who, with his typically tenuous grip on reality, stated that the three greatest threats to America were Communists, eggheads, and beatniks. Significantly, after Kennedy's election and the continued swell of youth culture throughout the sixties, the beatnik and the original Beats faded out of the mass media as both a marketing image and a literary movement, both replaced by more overt and engaged forms of rebellion.
Then in the eighties, during the Reagan years, which in many ways mirrored the Eisenhower period, the literature of the Beats saw a rise in popularity, with the beatnik once again becoming a familiar image in popular culture. This media redefinition of the Beat might be thought of as its fourth incarnation. The image can be spied once again on television in episodes of Doogie Howser and Quantum Leap. In the latter, Kerouac appears as a character, warning the young that they should not become violent bikers but instead should stay safely at home. The program reduces the choices available to dissatisfied young people to either a safe, "neoconservative" life of conformity or a life of violence and destructive ends. There are also beatnik movies like Heartbeat, Naked Lunch, and Roadside Prophets, and movies whose directors riff off Beat motifs as in Wild At Heart (which might be retitled On The Road Goes To Hell) and Salvador (On The Road and the Adventure of the Central American Death Squads). Beatniks have appeared in popular music by 10,000 Maniacs, The Dharma Bums, Tom Waits, and King Crimson. There are also beatnik products and ads, such as the one for Cappio, an iced espresso drink. And there is the curious publishing phenomenon of Ann Charters, whose Beat memorabilia and anthology volumes are assembled not with critical analysis but with a rolodex: a testament to her power as an editor to get release rights on so many published works and to the continuing marketability of the Beat Generation.
Some examples of these market products may be examined more closely, both to show the degree to which their representations are unlike the first incarnation of the Beat Generation and to see how the Beat aesthetic has changed in its travel through three decades. A fashion piece from the June 2, 1989 LA Weekly provides an excellent example. Entitled the "Re-Beat Generation," the piece describes the fashions and intellectual obsessions of the post-punk twenty-something generation. The text claims to describe the "great tradition of the Beat Generation," which here is interestingly pictured as: "neoconservative ... noncommittal ... cool ... sophisticat[ed] ... [but] no strict revival of Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti." And though the fashion is described as "so subtle as to elude description," their clothing ("black turtlenecks, baggy trousers, secondhand wing tips"), their affectations ("goatees, berets"), and their tastes ("Dizzy and Chet, underground poetry, John Fante, Fellini") are described rather precisely and with striking accuracy, as if these were instructions for designing a museum display of the classic media beatnik. This piece shows that the Beats are still being represented through their 1950s marketing images, and that the original writers are also read in that context. This blurring of the difference between Beats and beatniks also occurs in a recently released product, the Beat Boxed set of CDs released by Rhino Records, which combines readings by Beat Generation writers such as Kerouac with exploitation bits by Lord Buckley and Rod McKuen. All seems to be equal in the world of camp nostalgia.
How is the definition of Beat affected when beat writers themselves are associated with the ads? For example, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, all major Beat Generation figures, have recently been featured in national advertisements for large companies. The first question to explore in examining these ads concerns personal hypocrisy. This question does risk intentional fallacy, however, since the norm in literary criticism is to consider the poet, such as Ginsberg, as distinct from his persona, and the novelist, such as Burroughs, as even farther removed from his literary characters. But both Burroughs and Ginsberg are public figures whose interviews, speeches, and articles have reinforced their personal fidelity to the principles expressed in their literary works. So their actions may be scrutinized and compared to their public statements, literary and otherwise. In endorsing products, they risk hypocrisy in two areas. First, the motivation for endorsement is money, rather than social, spiritual, or aesthetic motivation. Second, it implies an approval of the capitalist process since instead of opposing and critiquing the materialism, dehumanization, and environmental destruction of capitalism, they are taking part in it. In addition, capitalism now involves multinationalism, which has further dangers including the subversion of democracy and oppression of civil liberties in developing countries. A less clear, but for these authors vital, element of capitalism is its tendency to assimilate and attenuate the power of oppositional ideas by reducing them to fashions which can be bought and sold. This process of commodification then acts as a social pressure release valve, because instead of actively opposing the dominant culture, people buy the fashion of opposition and thus are not merely made neutral, but made supporters of the dominant culture and capitalism.
In the cases of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the authors are complicit in some hypocrisies but not others. Kerouac's endorsement of The Gap's khaki pants is of course posthumous with the executors of his estate providing the rights to an old photo of a young Kerouac, like those The Gap has used of other deceased figures like Miles Davis and Salvador Dali. Ginsberg's ad for the same product features a current photo of him, which he posed for and which could be seen as being done for personal profit. But in fact, Ginsberg donated all earnings to the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, a non-profit school dedicated to poetry and spiritual studies, and so he can argue that his motives were not materialistic. Further, he demanded that The Gap include that information on each ad so that the public would not misread the ad. Nonetheless, Ginsberg has still violated his principles by taking part in the capitalist process which he has frequently criticized. The Gap, moreover, is especially culpable since its products are made in southeast Asian countries in factories where unions are outlawed, prison labor is used, and workers are exploited and oppressed.
Burroughs has also violated some of his own principles in his ad for Nike. Without any mitigating circumstances like Ginsberg's, his ad for Nike can be read as being motivated by personal gain. Further, in his writings and speeches, he has called money and material goods addictions which are used to control people and deny them their freedom. But while Nike uses production tactics similar to those of The Gap, Burroughs has never been a supporter of unions or workers' rights. Instead he as been a vocal libertarian, devoted to individualism and private enterprise. So his endorsement of capitalism would seem less troublesome. Yet he has sharply attacked totalitarian regimes, and Nike has been a strong economic supporter of the oppressive and militant regime in Indonesia. Burroughs also opposes systems of control and addiction, and he has pointed out that advertising is a form of mind control and materialism a destructive disease. And more than any other Beat, he has shown an astute insight into the manner by which commodification assimilates oppositional ideas.
The appearance of Beats in these ads also has the effect of conflating Beats in the reader's mind with capitalism. Each ad has specific messages associated with it, identifying the product and its message with the author and the meaning of Beat. The Ginsberg and Kerouac ads are fairly simple, with a black and white photo of the author and the same type of caption that the Gap uses with each famous figure ("Kerouac wore khakis," "Ginsberg wears khakis"). This reduces these authors' careers and contributions to a fashion statement. Further it shows that the authors are not critiquing fads, fashions, or the mindsets that create them, but rather they are giving them implicit approval. The definition of Beat then focuses on style, an attitude of cool, not on ideas.
The Burroughs television commercial for Nike is far more complex. In the first scene of the ad, a child wearing Nikes and playing basketball with friends runs over to a tiny hand-held television sitting on the ground and turns it on. Burroughs appears on the screen saying, "hey, I'm talking to you," while the boy runs off. This scene emphasizes most of the major themes of the commercial. Burroughs appears on a TV on the TV and is thus contained by technology. The commercial's repeated refrain--"the purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain but to serve the body"--highlights a conflict between mastering and serving technology, and Burroughs is clearly the subject rather than master of technology. The boy, however, who turns on the diminutive TV, small enough to be easily be handled by child, is in control of technology and thereby of Burroughs as well. Furthermore, the child runs off, back to his sports despite Burroughs' command, showing contempt for the older generation and particularly for its failure to master technology in relation to sports.
Burroughs then continues to appear on TV screens throughout the commercial's series of quick-cut images of young athletes and of high-tech computer graphics of Nike designs. The athletes themselves are portrayed primarily as body parts, intensifying the focus on humans as athletic machines, or on TVs which shake when they appear on the screen, again emphasizing that technology can't contain or control the young and powerful. The TV screens containing Burroughs are either shown in a stack (stable and unshaking, unlike those containing the youthful athletes) or placed on the playing fields, in which case they are doused with dirt as a baseball player slides into second base, swept off the street by a hockey stick, tossed aside with sand as a longjumper lands, splashed and shorted out by water as a jogger runs through a puddle. This re-emphasizes contempt for the older generation and shows that it's the strength, athletic limit-breaking, and mastery of new technology (i.e., the computer-designed Nike shoes) that sets the young above the old. This then identifies the next major theme of the commercial: both Burroughs and the athletes are rebels. Burroughs' narration admiringly speaks of the ability "to make anything possible" and to do "more that what was done [or] thought possible...put the beyond within reach." So the mastery of technology (again, Nike shoes) has made the young into limit breakers that previous generations of rebels may admire but cannot themselves equal.
Burroughs' admiration throughout the abuse and contempt he receives comes off sounding obsequious. In the final scene of the commercial, after the static caused by the runner disappears, Burroughs takes off his hat and bows his head in an image both of obeisance and emphasized baldness, age, and fragility. So if Burroughs symbolizes an older generation of would-be rebels approving of the rebelliousness of the younger generation, he is also approving of the buying of Nikes as something stronger and more revolutionary than what his peers had accomplished. This serves to attenuate the oppositional power of Burroughs and his generation. They are first de-fanged and then presented to the young as the best revolution the past had to offer. By contrast this makes the buying of Nikes seem radical, thus successfully selling the product and weakening the potential revolutionary influence of the Beats. Again they are made "neoconservative [and] noncommittal," blandly approving of society rather than critiquing it.
One note must be added to avoid confusion on this point. While the public definition of the Beats can be deprived of its oppositional power through the process of commodification, there is nothing here to suggest that their books and the principles contained in them are tainted. A currently popular neo-Marxist reading suggests that in a "late" capitalist era, all opposition is co-opted by market forces. Actions by the authors, such as Burroughs' Nike ad or Ginsberg's publication of a large, expensive volume of collected poems, are used as arguments to show that the author's ideas contained in the books are also assimilated. The suggestion is made that book selling itself causes ideas to be assimilated, or at least proves that they are not truly oppositional because if they were, they wouldn't be accepted for publication. This concept, however, depends on a monolithic definition of culture and a smooth conflation of capitalism and the dominant culture, both false premises. In fact, while capitalism does have the amoral, eternally ravenous quality described by neo-Marxists, the prevailing tastes and morality of what may be called the dominant culture (which is by no means the sole culture in our intensely pluralistic society) are frequently in conflict with activities defined as free enterprise. In fact, while Burroughs and Ginsberg (in this instance) and market forces act to mitigate the revolutionary image of the Beats as perceived by the dominant culture, actual Beat texts are being censored and attacked by that very same culture. Further, the opposition in the texts has very clear goals, such as making the institutions of poetry, publishing, and academia more open. When critics (who are ironically themselves well paid professors and writers within the institutions) demand that the authors remain eternally opposed to these institutions, long past the successful achievement of those goals, they are fetishizing rebellion for rebellion's sake.
A final example of current beatnik marketing which completes this picture of the newly neoconservative beatnik can be found in a Gilby's Gin advertisement in Time magazine. The ad is a full-page black and white photo of a jazz drummer twirling his drumstick, and the caption reads "The drink of the original beat generation." "Beat generation" can be read here in a number of ways. It may refer to the early Beats who were indeed jazz fans; it may refer to the jazz musicians themselves as an earlier and thus truer beat generation; it may focus on jazz as a music most popular in the pre-Sixties, pre-rock, and pre-drug era when the drug of choice for the listeners of jazz, if not the musicians, was stereotypically alcohol, such as the gin the ad is pushing. But the issue of Time in which the Gilbey's ad is included is the July 20, 1992 Democratic Convention issue with Bill Clinton and his newly selected running mate Al Gore on the cover. This contains Time's first cover story on the Clinton/Gore team, with stories on the confidence, youth, and vitality of this pair and their echoes of the Kennedy age of promise. And the cover headline reads, "The Democrats' New Generation." Clearly "generation" talk is in the air, as well as a nostalgia for previous generations. Read in this context, the Gilbey's ad has further resonances with Bill Clinton's preferences for jazz, and Al Gore's well-publicized (through the activities of the PMRC) distaste for explicit rock 'n' roll lyrics. As defined by articles within the issue, the "New Generation" consists of Democrats, usually thought of as liberals, who have moved toward centrist or conservative positions. So Gilbey's "beat generation" has been redefined into a group which is cosmetically radical, but in practice is neoconservative, reactionary in its nostalgia, conformist, and suspicious of the radicalism of the Sixties.
The current resurgence of the image of the beatnik might serve a function similar to the one it served in the late 1950s: as a safe release for rebellious impulses. But just as the first incarnation of the Beat Generation was a specific reaction to a specific time, the 1980s and 1990s version of the beatnik has its own special function. The beatnik was first created in a period on the verge of mass social dissent. That period now lies behind us (whatever may lie ahead) and is under constant pressure and rereading by conservatives as an era of failure. In the radical community as well, the Sixties are often viewed as a period of naive and often unsuccessful activism. The neoconservative, noncommittal, non-activist version of the beatnik may function less as a release than as a reinforcement for the avoidance of such "failed" activism. The beatnik as currently constructed is someone who can drop out, remain disengaged, and still be quite cool and stylish. The economic focus of the figure is on indolence and leisure, appropriate to a period that is seeking to delay young people from entering an overloaded workforce. The moral and political focus is on caution, which completely overturns the earlier Beat emphasis on non-conformity, again in favor of a simplified reading of nonconfrontation. On the Road, the primary text of the Beat Generation, is a novel of spiritual suffering and painful renewal. In today's cynical beatnik version, the message is: go out on the road, but buckle up, eat at the McDonalds, and whatever you do, don't change yourself or your world.
Barnet, Richard J. and John Cavanagh. "Viewpoints; Just Undo It: Nike's Exploited Workers." New York Times, Feb 13, 1994.
Dickey, Alison. "The Re-Beat Generation." LA Weekly, June 2, 1989.
Maynard, John. Venice West. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Morgenstern, Joseph. "Beatniks for Rent." Kerouac and Friends. Fred McDarrah, ed. New York: Morrow, 1985.
A Short Bio of Jack Kerouac—The Years Before Writing “On The Road”
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.
Entry Updated : 11/20/2003
Kerouac was born to French-Canadian parents in the working-class "Little Canada" neighborhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town some thirty miles north-west of Boston. He spoke only French until the age of seven, and his French-Canadian heritage, along with the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised, was a strong influence throughout his life. He was a highly imaginative child who created a private world of racing stables and sports teams, then wrote his own newspapers to report their performances. Diaries, radio plays, and a novel titled "Jack Kerouac Explores the Merrimack" were some of his other childhood writing projects. He was an excellent student, and by the time he entered Lowell High School, he was also developing into a gifted athlete. It was his performance on the high school football team that provided his ticket out of Lowell: he was offered a football scholarship to Columbia University. New York City was a world away from Lowell. Forty percent of Kerouac's home town received some form of public assistance, but at the Horace Mann School (where he spent a year preparing for Columbia's Ivy League standards) his classmates were the heirs to Manhattan's fortunes. Kerouac seemed amusingly rustic to them, but he was well liked, and his new friends guided his explorations of the city. He found its vibrancy and diversity inspirational.
Kerouac had a checkered career at Columbia. A broken leg kept him from playing much football in 1940, and his 1941 season was marked by disagreements with his coach. Furthermore, Kerouac was beginning to feel deeply troubled by the great shift in morals brought about by World War II. A whole way of life seemed to be vanishing, and as McNally observed, "Studying and practicing seemed trivial exercises in an apocalyptic world." Late in 1941 Kerouac left the university for a stint in the Merchant Marine. In his off-duty hours he read the works of Thomas Wolfe and worked on a novel he called "The Sea Is My Brother." He returned briefly to Columbia in 1942, left to join the Navy, then found himself unable to submit to the military discipline of that service. This earned him some time in the psychiatric ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital, but he eventually received an honorable discharge for "indifferent character." Kerouac reentered the less-regimented Merchant Marine for some time before returning to New York City, although not to Columbia. It was at this time that he began to meet the people who would profoundly influence the rest of his life and his work--the people who would in fact be the core of the Beat Generation.
"Cutting away the amateurs, the opportunists, and the figures whose generational identification was fleeting or less than wholehearted on their own part, the Beat Generation--as a literary school--pretty much amounts to Kerouac and his friends William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg," suggested Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee in Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg was a seventeen-year-old Columbia freshman when he and Kerouac first met. The two became like brothers, excitedly discussing their literary and philosophical ideas. Several years older than Kerouac, William Burroughs was a shadowy figure who had worked as an adman, a detective, an exterminator, and a bartender. He served as Kerouac's tutor and mentor, introducing him to the works of Spengler, Nietzsche, and Celine. He also provided an intimate introduction to the underground society of Times Square, to morphine, and to amphetamines.
After the death of his father, Kerouac began working on a new novel, an idealized autobiography that would be published in 1950 as The Town and the City. The book "reflected his return to family, replacing the New Vision aura of symbolic decadence with the style of his first love, Thomas Wolfe," remarked McNally. "The work was underlaid not only with his new insight into death but with the idealism of Goethe's autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), Kerouac's main reading matter that summer and fall. . . . Goethe calmly rejected satire and preached an affirmative love of life, and more, told Jack that all of his work was merely 'fragments of a great confession.' . . . Jack worked at his own confession . . . for two years, grimly struggling from morning until late at night to recite the history of the Kerouacs and America."
Stretches of work on The Town and the City were broken by occasional visits to friends in New York. It was on one such trip that Kerouac met the man who would inspire some of his best work. Neal Cassady was the motherless son of a derelict from Denver, Colorado. He had been born in an automobile and was fourteen years old when he stole his first car. Cassady quickly became addicted to the feeling of freedom he experienced behind the wheel. By the time he was twenty-one, he had stolen five hundred cars, been arrested ten times, convicted six times, and spent fifteen months in jail. McNally commented: "Twenty-year-old Neal swept into [Kerouac's] life like a Wild West siren singing freedom, kicks, a 'wild yea-saying overburst of American joy,' as Jack characterized him, enthusiastically flying after food and sex like a holy primitive, a 'natural man'; he was the embodiment of Jack's American dream."
The two men quickly developed an intense friendship, but when Cassady's plan to enter Columbia collapsed, he returned to Denver. Four months later, Kerouac took a break from his work on The Town and the City to hitchhike west and join his friend. Once there, he found Cassady preoccupied by his love affairs with his mistress, his estranged fifteen-year-old wife, and Allen Ginsberg, so Kerouac continued on to San Francisco alone, then returned to New York by bus. This first of many restless journeys around the United States provided Kerouac with the ending he needed for The Town and the City. The finished book opened with a lyrical re-creation of a New England childhood, featuring a large, happy family with strong foundations. War scatters the family, however, and eventually even its anchor, the father, must tear up his roots and move to the city. His death there symbolized the final destruction of the idyllic way of life evoked in the novel's first half. In a final scene, which prefigured the On the Road story, the most promising son turned his back on conventional success and took to the open road in search of a new way of life. The Town and the City was cordially reviewed upon its publication in 1950. Although there were objections to the message implied in the novel's closing scene, most critics noted the book's vitality and praised its style as powerful and evocative.
Johnny is quite the fan of Jack Kerouac. Read on to find out to what extent.
An excerpt from:
THE FIGHT OVER ALL THINGS KEROUAC
By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
Jeffrey Weinberg couldn't believe what John Sampas was asking. (Sampas is the brother of Jack’s widow and the executor of Jack’s estate.)
A Kerouac fan, Weinberg owned a book shop in Sudburg, Mass., that specialized in Beat materials. Now Sampas was asking him to inspect and sell materials from Kerouac's estate. Music to his ears.
Sampas ushered Weinberg into his Victorian home in Lowell one Sunday and locked the door behind them. Kerouac clutter was everywhere. Manuscripts of Mexico City Blues and The Subterraneans lay out, filing cabinets overflowed, the baseball game Kerouac invented was spread on the floor. Cats wandered about.
"I was willing to get involved just to be near this stuff," Weinberg said. "These were the crown jewels of Beat."
He said Sampas told him, "I want to turn some of this stuff into cash."
Weinberg said he began selling books from Kerouac's personal library, his paintings, letters, original manuscripts and first editions that the author had inscribed for Stella.
Scouting for buyers, Weinberg contacted the owner of Flashback Books, whose daughter happened to be dating a Kerouac fan of some means, Johnny Depp. The daughter's name: Winona Ryder.
Depp came to Lowell. He started with letters and manuscripts. According to Weinberg, Sampas brought in a large box and said, "Johnny, I think you're going to like this stuff better."
In the box were Kerouac's clothes: hats, shoes, raincoats, jackets.
"Johnny tries on the clothes," Weinberg said, "and by God, they fit."
Depp paid $15,000 for the raincoat, $5,000 for a suitcase, $3,000 for a rain hat, $10,000 for a tweed coat and $5,000 for a letter Kerouac had written his friend, Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
Sampas said he never sold anything important or related to Kerouac's work. Most of the letters, journals and notebooks remain, including all original manuscripts. He said he stored and handled all Kerouac materials like the treasures they are.
What he did sell, he said, covered the costs of office equipment and cataloging the archive. As the family member in charge of the estate, he said, "I had a financial responsibility to the heirs."
American Heritage, April-May 2002 v53 i2 p24(1)
Beatball: Jack Kerouac's make-believe baseball game has been archived for posterity. (History Now). (Brief Article)
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 American Heritage, A Division of Forbes, Inc.
The New York Public Library recently acquired a copious archive left by the novelist Jack Kerouac, including, according to an announcement, "two sets of more than one hundred handwritten cards that allowed Kerouac to play a fantasy baseball game of his own invention." The mass of Kerouaciana, ranging from manuscripts and diaries to his harmonica and railroad lamp to "seventy-two publishing contracts," will be added to the NYPL's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. There the author will find himself in distinguished company alongside "Kerouac's literary and spiritual forebears: Emerson, Thoreau, and, above all, Whitman." While it's hard to imagine Thoreau playing baseball with marbles, toothpicks, and an eraser no matter how much time he had on his hands, Whitman would no doubt have joined in with gusto.
Imaginary baseball was one of Kerouac's favorite pastimes from the age of six or seven, and he kept meticulous statistics the whole time. In the early 1960s the sportswriter Stan Isaacs spent an afternoon with Kerouac sipping wine and playing the baseball game. The novelist improvised a running commentary: Pic Jackson, the league's best-hitting pitcher, Kerouac said, "likes to read the Sunday supplements; his name, `Pic,' is short for Pictorial Review."
Not long afterward Isaacs mentioned Kerouac to Lou Little, the novelist's old football coach at Columbia. "Kerouac ... oh, yes, a good boy," Little recalled. "He would have been a fine football player if he hadn't gotten hurt. Say, what is he doing now?" Unfortunately, what Kerouac was mostly doing by then was drinking, perhaps the only more efficient way to waste time than playing fantasy baseball. He died of an alcohol-induced hemorrhage at the age of 47, on October 21, 1969, just five days after the Mets won the World Series, in the biggest baseball fantasy of them all.
Kerouac's papers and artifacts will be included in "Victorians, Moderns, and Beats: New in the Berg Collection, 1994-2001," on display at the NYPL from April 26 through July 27. For details, see nypl.org or call 212-869-8089.
THE BEAT GENERATION
I found this on the www.litkicks.com. I think it is a site worth checking out.
This is supposedly the complete text of the article by John Clellon Holmes that ran in the New York Times Magazine on November 16, 1952.
This Is The Beat Generation
by John Clellon Holmes
The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952
Several months ago, a national magazine ran a story under the heading 'Youth' and the subhead 'Mother Is Bugged At Me.' It concerned an eighteen-year-old California girl who had been picked up for smoking marijuana and wanted to talk about it. While a reporter took down her ideas in the uptempo language of 'tea,' someone snapped a picture. In view of her contention that she was part of a whole new culture where one out of every five people you meet is a user, it was an arresting photograph. In the pale, attentive face, with its soft eyes and intelligent mouth, there was no hint of corruption. It was a face which could only be deemed criminal through an enormous effort of righteousness. Its only complaint seemed to be: 'Why don't people leave us alone?' It was the face of a beat generation.
That clean young face has been making the newspapers steadily since the war. Standing before a judge in a Bronx courthouse, being arraigned for stealing a car, it looked up into the camera with curious laughter and no guilt. The same face, with a more serious bent, stared from the pages of Life magazine, representing a graduating class of ex-GI's, and said that as it believed small business to be dead, it intended to become a comfortable cog in the largest corporation it could find. A little younger, a little more bewildered, it was this same face that the photographers caught in Illinois when the first non-virgin club was uncovered. The young copywriter, leaning down the bar on Third Avenue, quietly drinking himself into relaxation, and the energetic hotrod driver of Los Angeles, who plays Russian Roulette with a jalopy, are separated only by a continent and a few years. They are the extremes. In between them fall the secretaries wondering whether to sleep with their boyfriends now or wait; the mechanic berring up with the guys and driving off to Detroit on a whim; the models studiously name-dropping at a cocktail party. But the face is the same. Bright, level, realistic, challenging.
Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective ... The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.
Its members have an instinctive individuality, needing no bohemianism or imposed eccentricity to express it. Brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression, weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war, they distrust collectivity. But they have never been able to keep the world out of their dreams. The fancies of their childhood inhabited the half-light of Munich, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the eventual blackout. Their adolescence was spent in a topsy-turvy world of war bonds, swing shifts, and troop movements. They grew to independent mind on beachheads, in gin mills and USO's, in past-midnight arrivals and pre-dawn departures. Their brothers, husbands, fathers or boy friends turned up dead one day at the other end of a telegram. At the four trembling corners of the world, or in the home town invaded by factories or lonely servicemen, they had intimate experience with the nadir and the zenith of human conduct, and little time for much that came between. The peace they inherited was only as secure as the next headline. It was a cold peace. Their own lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills (to which the war had adjusted them), led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later.
It is a postwar generation, and, in a world which seems to mark its cycles by its wars, it is already being compared to that other postwar generation, which dubbed itself 'lost'. The Roaring Twenties, and the generation that made them roar, are going through a sentimental revival, and the comparison is valuable. The Lost Generation was discovered in a roadster, laughing hysterically because nothing meant anything anymore. It migrated to Europe, unsure whether it was looking for the 'orgiastic future' or escaping from the 'puritanical past.' Its symbols were the flapper, the flask of bootleg whiskey, and an attitude of desperate frivolity best expressed by the line: 'Tennis, anyone?' It was caught up in the romance of disillusionment, until even that became an illusion. Every act in its drama of lostness was a tragic or ironic third act, and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land was more than the dead-end statement of a perceptive poet. The pervading atmosphere of that poem was an almost objectless sense of loss, through which the reader felt immediately that the cohesion of things had disappeared. It was, for an entire generation, an image which expressed, with dreadful accuracy, its own spiritual condition.
But the wild boys of today are not lost. Their flushed, often scoffing, always intent faces elude the word, and it would sound phony to them. For this generation lacks that eloquent air of bereavement which made so many of the exploits of the Lost Generation symbolic actions. Furthermore, the repeated inventory of shattered ideals, and the laments about the mud in moral currents, which so obsessed the Lost Generation, do not concern young people today. They take these things frighteningly for granted. They were brought up in these ruins and no longer notice them. They drink to 'come down' or to 'get high,' not to illustrate anything. Their excursions into drugs or promiscuity come out of curiosity, not disillusionment.
Only the most bitter among them would call their reality a nightmare and protest that they have indeed lost something, the future. For ever since they were old enough to imagine one, that has been in jeopardy anyway. The absence of personal and social values is to them, not a revelation shaking the ground beneath them, but a problem demanding a day-to-day solution. How to live seems to them much more crucial than why. And it is precisely at this point that the copywriter and the hotrod driver meet and their identical beatness becomes significant, for, unlike the Lost Generation, which was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it. As such, it is a disturbing illustration of Voltaire's reliable old joke: 'If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.' Not content to bemoan his absence, they are busily and haphazardly inventing totems for him on all sides.
For the giggling nihilist, eating up the highway at ninety miles an hour and steering with his feet, is no Harry Crosby, the poet of the Lost Generation who planned to fly his plane into the sun one day because he could no longer accept the modern world. On the contrary, the hotrod driver invites death only to outwit it. He is affirming the life within him in the only way he knows how, at the extreme. The eager-faced girl, picked up on a dope charge, is not one of those 'women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs from public places,' of whom Fitzgerald wrote. Instead, with persuasive seriousness, she describes the sense of community she has found in marijuana, which society never gave her. The copywriter, just as drunk by midnight as his Lost Generation counterpart, probably reads God and Man at Yale during his Sunday afternoon hangover. The difference is this almost exaggerated will to believe in something, if only in themselves. It is a will to believe, even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms. And that is bound to lead to excesses in one direction or another.
The shock that older people feel at the sight of this Beat Generation is, at its deepest level, not so much repugnance at the facts, as it is distress at the attitudes which move it. Though worried by this distress, they most often argue or legislate in terms of the facts rather than the attitudes. The newspaper reader, studying the eyes of young dope addicts, can only find an outlet for his horror and bewilderment in demands that passers be given the electric chair. Sociologists, with a more academic concern, are just as troubled by the legions of young men whose topmost ambition seems to be to find a secure birth in a monolithic corporation. Contemporary historians express mild surprise at the lack of organized movements, political, religious, or otherwise, among the young. The articles they write remind us that being one's own boss and being a natural joiner are two of our most cherished national traits. Everywhere people with tidy moralities shake their heads and wonder what is happening to the younger generation.
Perhaps they have not noticed that, behind the excess on the one hand, and the conformity on the other, lies that wait-and-see detachment that results from having to fall back for support more on one's capacity for human endurance than on one's philosophy of life. Not that the Beat Generation is immune to ideas; they fascinate it. Its wars, both past and future, were and will be wars of ideas. It knows, however, that in the final, private moment of conflict a man is really fighting another man, and not an idea. And that the same goes for love. So it is a generation with a greater facility for entertaining ideas than for believing in them. But it is also the first generation in several centuries for which the act of faith has been an obsessive problem, quite aside from the reasons for having a particular faith or not having it. It exhibits on every side, and in a bewildering number of facets, a perfect craving to believe.
Though it is certainly a generation of extremes, including both the hipster and the radical young Republican in its ranks, it renders unto Caesar (i.e., society) what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. For the wildest hipster, making a mystique of bop, drugs and the night life, there is no desire to shatter the 'square' society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd. Looking at the normal world, where most everything is a 'drag' for him, he nevertheless says: 'Well, that's the Forest of Arden after all. And even it jumps if you look at it right.' Equally, the young Republican, though often seeming to hold up Babbitt as his culture hero, is neither vulgar nor materialistic, as Babbitt was. He conforms because he believes it is socially practical, not necessarily virtuous. Both positions, however, are the result of more or less the same conviction -- namely that the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable.
For beneath the excess and the conformity, there is something other than detachment. There are the stirrings of a quest. What the hipster is looking for in his 'coolness' (withdrawal) or 'flipness' (ecstasy) is, after all, a feeling on somewhereness, not just another diversion. The young Republican feels that there is a point beyond which change becomes chaos, and what he wants is not simply privilege or wealth, but a stable position from which to operate. Both have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.
The variety and the extremity of their solutions are only a final indication that for today's young people there is not as yet a single external pivot around which they can, as a generation, group their observations and their aspirations. There is no single philosophy, no single party, no single attitude. The failure of most orthodox moral and social concepts to reflect fully the life they have known is probably the reason for this, but because of it each person becomes a walking, self-contained unit, compelled to meet, or at least endure, the problem of being young in a seemingly helpless world in his own way.
More than anything else, this is what is responsible for this generation's reluctance to name itself, its reluctance to discuss itself as a group, sometimes its reluctance to be itself. For invented gods invariably disappoint those who worship them. Only the need for them goes on, and it is this need, exhausting one object after another, which projects the Beat Generation forward into the future and will one day deprive it of its beatness.
Dostoyevski wrote in the early 1880's that 'Young Russia is talking of nothing but the eternal questions now.' With appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in America, in an American way; a re-evaluation of which the exploits and attitudes of this generation are only symptoms. No single comparison of one generation against another can accurately measure effects, but it seems obvious that a lost generation, occupied with disillusionment and trying to keep busy among the broken stones, is poetically moving, but not very dangerous. But a beat generation, driven by a desperate craving for belief and as yet unable to accept the moderations which are offered it, is quite another matter. Thirty years later, after all, the generation of which Dostoyevski wrote was meeting in cellars and making bombs.
This generation may make no bombs; it will probably be asked to drop some, and have some dropped on it, however, and this fact is never far from its mind. It is one of the pressures which created it and will play a large part in what will happen to it. There are those who believe that in generations such as this there is always the constant possibility of a great new moral idea, conceived in desparation, coming to life. Others note the self-indulgence, the waste, the apparent social irresponsibility, and disagree.
But its ability to keep its eyes open, and yet avoid cynicism; its ever-increasing conviction that the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem; and that capacity for sudden wisdom which people who live hard and go far possess, are assets and bear watching. And, anyway, the clear, challenging faces are worth it.
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2004.
Entry Updated : 02/25/2004
Allen Ginsberg was a distinguished poet who enjoyed a prominent place in post-World War II American culture. He was born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Paterson, where his father worked as a high school English teacher. Ginsberg's mother was a native Russian who supported the Communist Party. She suffered from mental instability and experienced repeated nervous breakdowns.
In 1943, while studying at Columbia University, Ginsberg befriended William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and the trio later established themselves as pivotal figures in what came to be known as the Beat Movement in American culture. Ginsberg and his friends regularly experimented with drugs and indulged their enthusiasms for rambunctious behavior. On one occasion, Ginsberg used his college room to store stolen goods acquired by an acquaintance. Faced with prosecution, Ginsberg decided to plead insanity. He subsequently spent several months in a mental institution.
After graduating from Columbia, Ginsberg remained in New York City and worked various jobs. In 1954, however, he abruptly moved to San Francisco, where the Beat Movement was developing through the activities of such poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Ginsberg first came to public attention in 1956 with the publication of Howl and Other Poems. "Howl," a long-line poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society. Kevin O'Sullivan, writing in Newsmakers, deemed "Howl" "an angry, sexually explicit poem" and added that it is "considered by many to be a revolutionary event in American poetry. "The poem's raw, honest language and its "Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath," as Ginsberg called it, stunned many traditional critics. James Dickey, for instance, referred to "Howl" as "a whipped-up state of excitement" and concluded that "it takes more than this to make poetry." Critic Walter Sutton dubbed "Howl" "a tirade revealing an animus directed outward against those who do not share the poet's social and sexual orientation." Other critics responded more positively. Richard Eberhart, for example, called "Howl" "a powerful work, cutting through to dynamic meaning . . . It is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit. . . . Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love." Paul Carroll judged it "one of the milestones of the generation." Appraising the impact of "Howl," Paul Zweig noted that it "almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditionalist poetry of the 1950s." Reed Whittemore, although noting that "Howl" is one of "a small number of earth-moving angry poems of this century, poems that poets (and people) who come after have been unable to ignore," nonetheless believed it to be "a sort of natural disaster" for American poetry. "Rightly or wrongly," he wrote, "'Howl' knocked hell out of earlier images of what best minds say and do."
In addition to stunning many critics, Howl also stunned the San Francisco Police Department. Because of the graphic sexual language of the poem, they declared the book obscene and arrested the publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The ensuing trial attracted national attention, as prominent literary figures such as Mark Schorer, Kenneth Rexroth, and Walter Van Tilberg Clark spoke in defense of Howl. Schorer testified that "Ginsberg uses the rhythms of ordinary speech and also the diction of ordinary speech. I would say the poem uses necessarily the language of vulgarity." Clark called Howl "the work of a thoroughly honest poet, who is also a highly competent technician." The testimony eventually persuaded Judge Clayton W. Horn to rule that Howl was not obscene.
The qualities cited in its defense helped make Howl the manifesto of the Beat literary movement. The Beats, popularly known as Beatniks, included such novelists as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and such poets as Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Ginsberg, all of whom wrote in the language of the street about previously forbidden and unliterary topics. The ideas and art of the Beats would greatly influence popular culture during the 1950s and 1960s.
Ginsberg followed Howl in 1961 with Kaddish and Other Poems. "Kaddish," a poem similar in style and form to "Howl," is based on the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead and tells the life story of Ginsberg's mother, Naomi. The poet's complex feelings for his mother, colored by her struggle with mental illness, are at the heart of this long-line poem. It is considered to be one of Ginsberg's finest poems. Thomas F. Merrill called it "Ginsberg at his purest and perhaps at his best"; Helen Vendler considered "Kaddish" Ginsberg's "great elegy for his mother"; Louis Simpson simply referred to it as "a masterpiece."
Ginsberg's early poems were greatly influenced by fellow Paterson, New Jersey, resident William Carlos Williams. Ginsberg recalled being taught at school that Williams "was some kind of awkward crude provincial from New Jersey," but upon talking to Williams about his poetry, Ginsberg "suddenly realized [that Williams] was hearing with raw ears. The sound, pure sound and rhythm--as it was spoken around him, and he was trying to adapt his poetry rhythms out of the actual talk-rhythms he heard rather than metronome or sing-song archaic literary rhythms." Ginsberg acted immediately on his sudden understanding. "I went over my prose writings," he told an interviewer, "and I took out little four-or-five line fragments that were absolutely accurate to somebody's speak-talk-thinking and rearranged them in lines, according to the breath, according to how you'd break it up if you were actually to talk it out, and then I sent 'em over to Williams. He sent me back a note, almost immediately, and he said 'These are it! Do you have any more of these?'"
Another major influence was Ginsberg's friend Kerouac, who wrote novels in a "spontaneous prose" style that Ginsberg admired and adapted in his own work. Kerouac had written some of his books by putting a roll of white paper into a typewriter and typing continuously in a "stream of consciousness." Ginsberg began writing poems not, as he states, "by working on it in little pieces and fragments from different times, but remembering an idea in my head and writing it down on the spot and completing it there." Both Williams and Kerouac emphasized a writer's emotions and natural mode of expression over traditional literary structures. Ginsberg cited as historical precedents for this idea the works of poet Walt Whitman, novelist Herman Melville, and writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A major theme in Ginsberg's life and poetry was politics. Kenneth Rexroth called this aspect of Ginsberg's work "an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry." In a number of poems, Ginsberg refers to the union struggles of the 1930s, popular radical figures, the McCarthy red hunts, and other leftist touchstones. In "Wichita Vortex Sutra," he attempts to end the Vietnam War through a kind of magical, poetic evocation. In "Plutonian Ode," a similar feat--ending the dangers of nuclear power through the magic of a poet's breath--is attempted. Other poems, such as "Howl," although not expressly political in nature, are nonetheless considered by many critics to contain strong social criticism.
Ginsberg's political activities were called strongly libertarian in nature, echoing his poetic preference for individual expression over traditional structure. In the mid-1960s he was closely associated with the hippie and antiwar movements. He created and advocated "flower power,"a strategy in which antiwar demonstrators would promote positive values like peace and love to dramatize their opposition to the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War. The use of flowers, bells, smiles, and mantras (sacred chants) became common among demonstrators for some time. In 1967 Ginsberg was an organizer of the "Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In," an event modeled after the Hindu mela, a religious festival. It was the first of the hippie festivals and served as an inspiration for hundreds of others. In 1969, when some antiwar activists staged an "exorcism of the Pentagon," Ginsberg composed the mantra they chanted. He testified for the defense in the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial, in which antiwar activists were charged with "conspiracy to cross state lines to promote a riot."
Sometimes Ginsberg's politics prompted reaction from law-enforcement authorities. He was arrested at an antiwar demonstration in New York City in 1967 and tear-gassed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. In 1972 he was jailed for demonstrating against then-President Richard Nixon at the Republican National Convention in Miami. In 1978 he and long-time companion Peter Orlovsky were arrested for sitting on train tracks in order to stop a trainload of radioactive waste coming from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado.
Ginsberg's political activities caused him problems in other countries as well. In 1965 he visited Cuba as a correspondent for Evergreen Review. After he complained about the treatment of gays at the University of Havana, the government asked Ginsberg to leave the country. In the same year the poet traveled to Czechoslovakia, where he was elected "King of May" by thousands of Czech citizens. The next day the Czech government requested that he leave, ostensibly because he was "sloppy and degenerate." Ginsberg attributes his expulsion to the Czech secret police being embarrassed by the acclaim given to "a bearded American fairy dope poet."
Another continuing concern reflected in Ginsberg's poetry was a focus on the spiritual and visionary. His interest in these matters was inspired by a series of visions he had while reading William Blake's poetry. Ginsberg recalled hearing "a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn't think twice, was Blake's voice." He added that "the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with
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