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Beat Streets: The War Between the Prophets and the Profs

"Nothing quite like the beat demimonde exists anymore, not with the same literary élan, the same desperate vitality. Being a poor New York writer or painter has become too expensive — or too crushing — to permit such animated congregation"

by

Kerouac & Friends assembles Fred McDarrah’s famous hipster photographs with 30 prose pieces of the time by various beats, journalists, and critics. It’s a splendid memoir-montage, not so much about Kerouac as about the Village beat milieu. Ker­ouac had a strong New York presence even when he wasn’t in town; one of the most evocative essays here, “The Roaming Beat­niks,” is his ramble through beat Manhat­tan after dark, an ode to simple postwar urban pleasures. But he wasn’t an integral part of everyday New York beat life, at least after On the Road was finally pub­lished in 1957. Young McDarrah, a self-­confessed beatnik groupie, mainly recorded that late-’50s Village scene — drinks at the Cedar, openings at the Hansa Gallery and the Living Theater, quiet times in Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen.

The book offers some long glimpses at Kerouac; the most striking appear in How­ard Smith’s and Dan Wakefield’s separate accounts of Christmas, 1957, at the Village Vanguard, with a sweaty, juiced-up Kerou­ac reading to the jazz buffs and his faithful flock. But these snippets reveal little that isn’t familiar from Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters or from McDarrah’s contribu­tions to The Beat Scene (1960; edited by my father, Eli Wilentz of 8th Street Book­shop fame). The real treat is getting to rub elbows with an enormous cavalcade of oth­ers, some long gone, some now well-estab­lished (William Styron!), and some, like McDarrah himself, who still figure mightily at places like The Voice (my favorite: Joel Oppenheimer looking dapper in his 1959 crewcut).

The only disappointment is the uneven quality of the photo reproductions. McDar­rah was a beginner in the late 1950s, shoot­ing with an old Rolleicord and a beat-up Nikon. His pictures had none of the sharp­-edged contrasts and meticulous composi­tion of his present work. Still, despite the occasional gaffe, he took some wonderful photographs, and Morrow doesn’t do them justice. Some of the best — a beat party un­der a scrawled graffito, “Le Sang des Poetes”; Tuli Kupferberg grinning outside the Gaslight — look muddy and overexposed compared to other versions I’ve seen. One picture, of Ginsberg and Corso at the Art­ist’s Club, looks murky enough to have been shot in a mine shaft. McDarrah deserves better; luckily, enough of the pictures are clear, and enough of McDarrah’s style shows through, that the clinkers are at worst an annoyance.

The book’s mood is nostalgic in the proper sense, a longing for home, for a Vil­lage half-remembered and half-invented. Its sense of place is rhapsodic, recalling the lost landmarks of youthful fantasy, the San Remo (sigh!), the 8th Street Deli (ditto!), the original 8th Street Bookshop on Mac­Dougal Street (mixed feelings, personally, about that one). Even more touching is the human congeries, the writers, artists, and hangers-on, populating a world where cheap rents, greasy spoons, and literary enterprise brought people together, to bohemia. It’s remarkable how many of McDarrah’s pho­tographs are of crowds — in cafés and bars, in galleries, in Washington Square on weekend. “The night people,” Jean Shepherd used to call them, those who forswore the 9 to 5 grind, spent afternoons and evenings in palatable jobs or solitary artistic work, and then came out at night for barroom conviviality and incessant party-going. Manhattan still has crowds; pockets of bohemia survive here and there. But nothing quite like the beat demimonde exists anymore, not with the same literary élan, the same desperate vitality. Being a poor New York writer or painter has become too expensive — or too crushing — to permit such animated congregation.

And animated it was. Long before anyone thought up a happening or a be-in, the beats mastered public showmanship, blur­ring the lines between art and the everyday, playing tricks with their own personae and the mythic “beatnik” invented by Time. Some beats called their hijinks a way to get attention and make some bread: Ted Joans, the Afro-surrealist painter, poet, and impresario, once remarked of his show-off stunts, “Well hell, that’s just part of the job of making a living.” But the beats’ irreverent aesthetic made even their wildest ploys more than a job. Joans himself took part in one caper, the Rent-a-Beatnik business that McDarrah started in 1959. Time had just publicized the Village scene as an abomina­tion, a titillating but unholy world of beard­ed sex perverts in berets and their emaciat­ed chicks. McDarrah, seizing on the stereotype, decided to give the suburban public the real thing. In the first beatnik rental, Joans, replete with beret and torn sweater, traveled to a Scarsdale party, McDarrah in tow, and mingled with the gentry. The photograph from that party is hilarious. Joans is earnest; his audience, decked out in its own weird idea of beat garb, looks just as well-meaning. The host had a great time (“People in Westchester are still talking about it,” he later enthused to a reporter); we can imagine Joans and McDarrah’s rollicking trip home.

The scene flourished only a short time, from about 1957 to about 1961 (the year some leading Village lights met at director Robert Cordier’s flat to contemplate the beat generation’s funeral). Kerouac & Friends offers several explanations why — ­the publicity was too much, one critic writes; the folk song crowd pushed the beats aside, another suggests. But even if the beats had stuck it out, beatdom could never have survived the politics of the ’60s. A personal recollection brings that home. Ex­actly 20 years ago, my family moved the bookshop across the street from its old spot on MacDougal. Some of the remaining beats in town helped with the lifting and unpacking (I especially remember Peter Or­lovsky, with his mottled tam o’shanter, and how he was so physically strong for one so skinny). When it was done, there was a grand party, a gathering of old friends, writ­ers, and beats. All went swimmingly until midday, when news arrived from Harlem that Malcolm X had just been murdered. Bewilderment, then tension, hit the room. My clearest memory is of LeRoi Jones im­mediately leaving the proceedings. I sensed that the Village would never be the same. The next time I saw Jones in the shop, his name was Baraka.

Despite its evanescence, the beat scene marked an important cultural and literary break, one that still affects those who passed through it and those of us born a bit too late. A great deal has been written about the beats’ long-term cultural signifi­cance; much of it has focused on their sexu­al style, on what Barbara Ehrenreich appre­ciates as their pre-feminist flight from gray-flanneled manhood and what Norman Podhoretz despises as their portentous re­nunciation of middle-class norms. Kerouac & Friends touches on these matters, with opinions from all sides, Podhoretz included. But its photos and reviews also place the New York beats more exactly in their liter­ary context. The beats’ disaffiliation from ’50s mainstream America was in large mea­sure a revolt against the prevailing arbiters of literary taste and manners — specifically, the New York intellectuals of Partisan Re­view and Commentary and their provincial admirers and imitators. From the start, the beats took the intellectuals — those Kenneth Rexroth called “the general staff of the En­emy” — as their chief objects of negative ref­erence. Thereafter, the passionate, ambivalent argument between Beat and Intellectual helped sharpen their respective identities, in creative and destructive ways. American literary culture hasn’t been the same since.

It began at Columbia in the late ’40s­ — years before anyone talked of a beat genera­tion — when Allen Ginsberg sought out his literature professors, especially Lionel Trill­ing. “In the early years, I tried to be open with him,” Ginsberg tells Al Aronowitz in a 1960 piece included here, “and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack­ — stories about them, hoping he would be in­terested or see some freshness or light, but all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship, or whatever they have been conditioned to think in terms of.” Diana Trilling’s notori­ous, motherly “The Other Night at Colum­bia” (also in the book) shows that this was exactly what the Morningside Lions thought then and continued to think later: she recalls that when pressed about why he didn’t correct his young pupil, Lionel Trill­ing would exclaim, “I’m not his father.” From these testy, stumbling encounters came the first clues that Ginsberg’s struggle with his teacher-critics ran far deeper than literary disagreement; the young trouble­maker and his oddball friends had hit a nerve in some of the most Olympian New York critics, and vice versa. Once the New York beats expanded their number, hooked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, and took to mocking the uptown eminences, the wrangling began to turn nasty.

The antagonism was mutually reinforc­ing, establishing Intellectual and Beat as opposites in their own minds. There were, to be sure, a few powerful critics — very few — who greeted the beats with bemused curiosity. William Phillips recalls in his memoirs how he listened to Ginsberg hold forth persuasively one day at the Partisan Review office; poetry by Ginsberg and Corso actually made it into PR. Far more typical was the response of Phillips’s coedi­tor, Philip Rahv: “I have looked over the stuff and it seems pretty vacuous to me.” To be an intellectual, especially on the Up­per West Side, meant cultivating a world-­weary, epigrammatic civility, even (espe­cially?) when cutting your rivals to ribbons. To be a beat meant finding sweetness, freshness, and light in elegiac, angelic bar­barism. The intellectuals, most of them products of the radical ’30s, had for the most part retreated from serious criticism of American capitalism, but they still saw literature politically, as the proving ground of the liberal imagination. The beats, chil­dren of the ’40s and Cold War stalemate, abhorred capitalism and communism, and retained at least some sense of political commitment — “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Ginsberg declared — but their poetry always vaunted the personal, the existential, the religious above politics. The intellectuals were al­most exclusively critics and essayists who devoted the better part of every day to tak­ing positions. The beats wrote poems and novels and very little criticism; they thought position-taking was absurd. The in­tellectuals cherished complexity, ambiguity, and Niebuhrian paradox. The beats sought simplicity, ecstasy, and Blakean transcen­dence. And yet, irreconcilable as they were, Intellectual and Beat shared an ambiva­lence about each other, born of an often unacknowledged awareness that they had each other’s number.

The beats’ ambivalence concerned fame: though they rejected the intellectuals, they still wanted to be known as the great artists of their time, the best minds of their gener­ation — laurels the intellectuals weren’t about to bestow. Ginsberg’s touching “Ego Confession” speaks to the beats’ anxiety about literary success; so, in a sadder, more destructive sense, does an anecdote Podhoretz tells in Al Aronowitz’s piece about Gins­berg, about an occasion McDarrah must have kicked himself for missing. One night, Podhoretz (then a Trilling protégé and pre­eminent aspiring New York Intellectual) got a phone call from his old Columbia ac­quaintance, Ginsberg, inviting him to a downtown party. Podhoretz went, only to discover that the party consisted of Gins­berg, Kerouac, and Peter Orlovsky, sitting in wait. Kerouac’s fury at Podhoretz crept through his charming wisecracks: “Why is it,” he fumed, “that all the biggest young critics… Why are you against us? Why aren’t you for the best talent of your generation?” Podhoretz replied that he didn’t think them the best talent; Kerouac became indignant. The indignation grew over the coming years — the years when Podhoretz really “made it” — as Kerouac fell apart and wound up an embittered paranoid, holed up in St. Petersburg (Florida), knocking back the boilermakers that finally killed him. At the very end, he declaimed against the Communists and the Jews, and especially against the Jewish literary mafia he swore had done him in.

The intellectuals’ ambivalence had to do with a nagging sense of vacancy about their own decorous, well-heeled academic lives. This was the nerve the beats hit. In characteristic form, the intellectuals responded by taking a position, but this time some of them lost their cool; Kerouac & Friends, with its reprints of reviews of the beats, invites us to contrast beat realities with the critics’ caricatures and see just how over­heated some of the intellectuals became. The beats, here, look genial enough — ­scruffy by ’50s standards, certainly frivo­lous, at times wild-eyed, but hardly menac­ing. They speak plainly of their basically religious faith, well summarized by Ted Joans: “We’re the richest people in the world and yet we don’t have truth and love. It’s not what’s up front that counts, it’s what’s in your heart and brain. There’s nothing wrong with material possessions. But you should use them and not let them use you.”

Yet to the intellectuals — many of them immigrant offspring who had won the re­spect of the goyim — the beat scene was both a cultural blasphemy and a kind of personal affront, an abandonment of cultur­al obligations and the hard-won refine­ments of Claremont Avenue, a regression to a confused and dangerous state of self-in­dulgent juvenile delinquency. The beats­ — bright students many of them — had refused the only world that mattered. With their rumpled clothes and zany non sequiturs, they challenged the intellectuals’ victory as a sellout. Worse than that, they got atten­tion with their ravings about transcen­dence; they had followers (“so many young girls, so few of them pretty,” Diana Trilling harrumphed about the audience at a Co­lumbia beat poetry reading). No problem taking a position on these miscreants.

Kerouac & Friends provides a survey of the critics’ escalating rage. Thus Trilling, commenting on the Columbia reading: “Maybe Ginsberg says he doesn’t bathe or shave… But for this occasion, at any rate, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky were all beautifully clean and shaven… Certainly there’s nothing dirty about a checked shirt or a lumberjacket and blue jeans; they’re standard uniform in the best nursery schools. Ginsberg has his price, as do his friends, however much they may dissem­ble.” Thus Podhoretz: “Isn’t the beat gener­ation a conspiracy to overthrow civilization (which is created by men, not boys) and to replace it not by the State of Nature where we can all romp around in a free-and-easy nakedness, but by the world of the adoles­cent street gang?” Thus Boston’s John Ciardi in the Saturday Review: “I hope the next time the young go out for an intellectu­al rebellion, they will think to try the li­brary. It’s still the most subversive building in town, and it’s still human headquarters. And even rebels can find it useful to know something, if only to learn to sit still with a book in hand.”

Beneath all this bluster, rumbling like a runaway Broadway local below ground, was the intellectuals’ suspicion that maybe the mannered academia of the age of anxiety wasn’t all they cracked it up to be. For the older heads, there was the creeping sensa­tion that they had lost something valuable in their adaptation, that their well-wrought existence demanded they suppress the unorthodoxy and high spirits of the rip-roar­ing ’30s: nights of debate and spritzing in Stewart’s Cafeteria, days in the left-wing alcoves and meeting halls, singing their lungs out, “A SOCialist union is a NO good union, is a COM-pan-y union of the bosses.” For the young men, like Podhoretz, there was an eerie feeling that they had grown prematurely stodgy and safe, apolo­gists for caution.

Not that the intellectuals were entirely wrong about the beats, their criticisms mere angry projection. When it came to self-­promotion — making it — there was method to the beats’ craziness; the intellectuals knew it. With their memories of Hitler and Stalin, they were entitled to be nervous about those beats who dipped into Céline and Gide and Hesse and celebrated the cult of experience. And there’s no denying that some of the prose and poetry written in the spontaneous bop mode was quite simply godawful.

But what made the beats so compelling — ­and, in retrospect, makes them even more so — was that they had their antagonists figured out so well, and so early on. A decade and more before the intellectuals suffered through the late ’60s and early ’70s, the beats smelled the staleness of an existence consecrated entirely to criticism, urbanity, and infighting, without much hope of transcendence, personal or political. A glance through the recent spate of New York Intellectuals’ memoirs exposes, with gloomy regularity, the phenomenon of lives unlived (or at least unremembered) outside the suffocating trenches of intellectual combat. These were lives of scholarship — ideally among the highest forms of spiritual endeavor — blighted by an unending search for correctness, a corrupting form of liberal anticommunism, and the conventions of a West Side literary career. Their self-importance bred a profound sadness and a paranoia as crippling in its way as Kerouac’s. The great crack-up really hit about ’67 or ’68. The CIA-Congress for Cultural Freedom exposé and the Columbia upheaval were especially upsetting episodes; the intellectuals’ imagination was slow to grasp that the liberal academy had shamelessly debased its honor and then lied about it. But the first shock was the sight of the beats chucking Matthew Arnold and lighting out for North Beach and the Village when they should have been knotting their ties, getting on with their dissertations, and earning their instructorships.

Nowadays the beats, with their wild dreams and ecstatic chatter, seem part of a distant pre-’60s past. Most of them made it through the storm and live on; Ginsberg, for one, having tamed his anguish in Buddha, is regarded in some circles as our national poet. But the beat scene itself is dead, its leaders scattered, its supposed armies of legatees lost to law school, the academy, the day-people’s world. Many of the surviving intellectuals, meanwhile, have grown smug­ger, plumper than ever with success. Since lurching into neoconservatism in the 1970s, they’ve banished any doubts they might have had about the wholesomeness of middle-class stolidity, and are now in the pro­cess of regaining their authority. Though they hold little political power — Jeane Kirkpatrick aside, the Reaganites couldn’t care less for the Commentary crowd — they are in charge of some important cultural precincts all down the line. And from their squad rooms they are doing their best to police American arts and letters and revive their own sort of intellectual as culture hero.

All of which makes Kerouac & Friends — ­and more generally the literary history of the beats and the ’50s — enormously instructive. The neocons certainly haven’t forgotten the beat scene. In their revisions of history, the beats were the advance guard of the 1960s cultural vandals; accordingly, the police actions of the 1980s are an at­tempt to restore all that was good and true about American culture before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and friends unleashed their beast­ly barrage. It’s a dreary moment indeed these neocons are sponsoring, less a reprise of their earlier anti-bohemian outbursts than a desecration of history — their own included — to justify their subsequent odys­sey and their current project. Bad enough they should have to repeat their by-now ritualistic slandering of the beats, with so little self-examination or reflection. Even worse that they do so under the pretext of bringing back the good old days. Whatever their mistakes and tragedies, the most thoughtful of the ’50s intellectuals would have recoiled in disgust at the notion that 30 years later some of their associates would flirt with the Radical Right while mouthing euphemisms about cultural excellence: imagine Lionel Trilling sharing anything with Jerry Falwell, much less a common discourse. Yet such are the lessons and bur­dens of history, as some of our angrier ex­-liberals see it.

If the neocons’ ascendancy marks their betrayal of liberalism, it also helps us un­derstand the ’50s in a very different way. In this version, the beats appear not as vandals but as something closer to prophets. Long before anyone else, they saw it all coming. They sensed the deadliness of obsessive ci­vility, of irony as a creed and manly liberal criticism as a way of life — and they sensed where it could lead. They understood that somewhere in the Intellectual’s soul — in the part closed to transcendence — stirred the spirit of what Ginsberg called Moloch. In these flat, discouraging neocon times, the beats’ prophecies ring true enough. And their protests sound as urgent as ever. ❖

KEROUAC & FRIENDS: A Beat Generation Album by Fred W. McDarrah Morrow, $17.95

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 1, 2020

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