The legend of the Beats pivots on one of the counterculture’s hoariest clichés: Sensitive, creative misfits—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and their muse and frequent bed-warmer, Neal Cassady—are reluctantly seduced by the mainstream values they abhor, and prove too fragile to resist the corrosive fame that comes with the deal. Madness, burnout, and mediocrity ensue.
There’s truth to this myth, of course, not the least being that the Beats did craft a singular, shockingly new literary voice and were subsequently feted and forgotten. And, yes, mediocrity did ensue—boy, did it ensue. But far from being quaint, helpless, occasionally icky nocturnal creatures lured into the sunlight only to wither in its rays, the Beats worked as fiercely to achieve their celebrity as they did to craft their poems and novels. In a sense, they created the cliché and then offered themselves up as its casualties.
Three recent books underscore this process by dipping into Beat history at various stages. Sonoma State University scholar Jonah Raskin takes the most traditional approach in American Scream, a biographical explication of Ginsberg’s epochal poem Howl. Raskin tracks the forces that shaped Ginsberg, and that ultimately informed this breakout work: his tortured relationship with his schizophrenic mother and distant father, his early inability to accept his homosexuality, his tradition-bound education at Columbia under the tutelage of full-time bore Lionel Trilling, and his rage at the emotional toll of the Cold War and its attendant nuclear paranoia.
Much of this has been covered in other Ginsberg bios, and Raskin can be hasty in conveying the heady origins of Howl. Yet this urgency comes from his respect for Ginsberg (the two met late in the poet’s life) and his conviction that Howl is worthy of its reputation. Moreover, his close reading of Ginsberg’s letters, journals, and—yikes!— psychiatric reports enlightens key lines in the poem so thoroughly that the book becomes a virtual companion volume.
At the other end of the Ginsberg spectrum is Sam Kashner’s fond, funny, and finally heartbreaking memoir When I Was Cool. Like Raskin, the young Kashner was a “teenage beatnik in suburbia” who was psychically liberated by his discovery of literature in general and the Beats in particular. Lucky him: At the time (the mid ’70s), Ginsberg and several of his cohorts were running the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics on the campus of the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks in part to his open-minded parents, Kashner dodged a four-year slog at a Long Island university and was accepted as one of the nascent poetry program’s first students.
Kashner maintains a deceptively lighthearted tone, but there are reminders of how trapped the surviving Beats had become: “It was clear to me now that they had all come together to this quiet town to get away from their fame, to slip out of their legends for a while, but at the same time they had to trade on it in order to bankroll their getaway.”
Beneath the freewheeling antics of the school’s faculty—the wildly self-absorbed Ginsberg and his spacey longtime lover, Peter Orlovsky; the cynical, desiccated William Burroughs, who can barely bother to acknowledge his doomed son; and the ever mooching Gregory Corso, whose cavalier recklessness is the antithesis of Ginsberg’s chronic image-massaging—is a profound sense of loss that leads Kashner to ask himself upon graduation, “Had I just spent two years in the valley of the lost men?”
Having never met the men, Voice contributor Nick Mamatas—who, in a daring gambit, plops the Beats down in H.P. Lovecraft territory in his novel Move Under Ground—is less beholden to their memory. This position, and the critical stance it frees him to establish vis-à-vis the core Beats, results in a more piercing and poignant document. It also allows him to take their reputation to task in ways that would make Raskin and Kashner blanch. For instance, a hobo upbraids Kerouac for his peripatetic flakiness: “You’re cruel, you know that? You’re a cruel man. Selfish and uncaring. The world is falling into the shitter, and you’re here, taking some primrose path. Kickin’ back. Traveling, not living. Kitchen gets too hot, you’re the first one out the door.”
True, the receptacle in question is the slimy maw of some immense, octopoid “old god,” but the criticism holds. In fact, Kerouac’s “bebop prosody” and the Cthulhu mythos dovetail nicely, and what seems at first like literary stunt-casting actually gives Mamatas room to recast the Beats’ fall from grace in fanciful terms unhindered by their tricky psychology, the strictures of reality and realism—or lingering platitudes.