The Beats: Mailer Vs. Kerouac

“Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics”


Books: The Beats

The idea that Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer are mutually excludable from each other’s Beat Generation is, of course, one that is engendered by and subject to many doubts. Now, however, Seymour Krim dispels the idea entirely. At least, he finds both Kerouac and Mailer mutually includable in his Beat Generation, which he defines in broad proportions in his new anthology, “The Beats.” But actually Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics. Kerouac named it Beat and Mailer calls it Hip, but both have been equally perceptive and outspoken in their presagement, reporting, and defense of it, if not equally maligned.

Mountains of Abuse

One has only to read the reviews of Kerouac’s works to see the mountain of abuse heaped on him. But one also has only to read his works to see the capability his soul has for suffering such abuse. “Kerouac is beautiful! Don’t you see that?” asks Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s close friend. “… I mean he has a real quality of soulful magician and artful kindness, a willingness to be talked to and communicate, even drunk, knowing the lie of fate — he comes through anyway — ” And it’s true. Despite a sensitivity of criticism which is painfully manifest, Kerouac continues to stand, unhidden, as he really is, in his writing and in his person, the butt of derision which comes from deep and rigid misunderstanding. Even in the face of the most hopeless and intransigent laughter, he presents his own true face, inviting more.

Mailer, although his own suffering is no less apparent, has the lingering reputation of a more traditional success to buffer him. Not that he is any less outspoken.

A Trend

In any event, Kerouac went on the road to discover that the Beatness he had encountered in New York has what the less ethereally inclined would call a trend. He found it everywhere that his thumb and various other vehicles would take him, and the distances he traveled are well documented. Kerouac’s discovery of the Beat Generation was at a grass-roots level, a term that seems strangely compatible with trend.

As for Mailer, although his research probably was no less empirical, it seems to have been at other levels. Perhaps it might be concluded that, in one way, Mailer found in his own mind what Kerouac found throughout America.

First Wind

This does not detract from the value of either Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Mailer’s “The White Negro,” both of which were the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more rational equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy,” to borrow a phrase from Mailer. With due consideration given to John Clellon Holmes’ novel, “Go,” and his subsequent article, “This is the Beat Generation,” printed in the New York Times as long ago as 1952, it was these two works, “On the Road” and “The White Negro,” which were the first cogent explanations of the strange new Hip mysticism of the Beat Generation of any length and of any significant audience, (Ginsberg’s “Howl,” more of a manifesto, was something else again.) So close, in fact, were Kerouac and Mailer in their thinking that Kerouac, until he learned “The White Negro” was published prior to “On the Road,” considered Mailer’s work a precis of his own. But then Kerouac has had good reason for his anxiety over the proprietorship of his ideas. One of his most bitter complaints is that not only has his meaning of Beat been corrupted but his authorship of the term has even been challenged.

Kerouac and Mailer, of course, have been between the same sheets before. They appeared together in another anthology, “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men,” edited by Gene Fledman and Max Gartenberg, which included “The White Negro” and selections from “On the Road.” Unhappily, but probably necessarily, “The Beats” doesn’t include “The White Negro.” Instead it includes a piece from “The Deer Park,” which is somewhat less than Beat in its message and much less in its style, but which is from a body of writing upon which Mailer is willing to stake his reputation with prosperity. (This seems to be a good point to note that “On the Road,” if it hasn’t already been recognized as a literary landmark, soon will. It is the turning point of the 1960’s.)

The chief complaint against the Feldman and Gartenberg anthology was from the Beats themselves, who insisted that the selections were not entirely representative of them and, in some cases, misrepresentative. The same criticism might apply to Krim’s anthology. But then, one of the selections under attack is “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Man” was that of Mailer.

The difficulty is that there are many who claim that they are Beat and many who claim they are not with equal emptiness. And then there are those like Chandler Brossard and Anatole Broyard who are neither Beat nor claim to be and who were included first in Feldman’s and Gartenberg’s book and who now are included in Krim’s. Brossard may have, as Krim says he has, “a cool eye.” Broyard may be, as Krim says, “a white-collar Beat.” They may both even be Hip. Certainly their writing make them see so. But the same might be said for J.D. Salinger and he’s printed in the New Yorker. 

Best and Worst

Otherwise Krim presents some of the Beat writing such as selections from Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody,” and some of the worst, such as Dan Propper’s “The Fable of the Final Hour.” It is “Visions of Cody” alone that might make the book worth its 35 cents, although “Cody” will soon be out in its entirety, as all of Kerouac eventually will. “Visions of Cody” is his greatest book, according to his own opinion, and its music is testimony to the verbal inventiveness and virtuosity of Kerouac, which all too few among Kerouac’s all too many readers seem willing to acknowledge. In the circles of reviewmanship, Kerouac is continually compared to hashed Wolfe or reheated Faulkner, and yet the range and variation of style within his remarkably growing bookshelf is just as remarkable. (It would seem that the differences among, say, “On the Road,” and “The Subterraneans,” “Dr. Sax,” and now “Visions of Cody” are even more obvious than the similarities.) Not only that, but there is a grace, a majesty, and a tenderness to his language, even in Hip talk, that is abjectly lacking among many of the younger Beat emulators, such as Propper. Kerouac is not along in his command of words; Ginsberg and Corso are similarly commanding. Even Burroughs, with his unredeemed style, is, too. It makes no difference that both the inspiration and the content of this literature is of an intuitive, emotional, and mystical nature. For these who love language, it is still literature.

There are other portions of “The Beats” which in themselves are well worth the book’s 35 cents. (My God! For 35 cents, how could you go wrong!) Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes, Lamantia, Bremser, Snyder would be more than worth the price even without covers. And Diane Di Prima’s contribution is especially overwhelming. (The selections from Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, however, seem somewhat random.) And Krim provides a new eye. There has been some comment about his own comments, offered at the beginning of each selection. But those are short notes written by a man who says that Beatness has liberated him from himself, or at least from his psychoanalysts, and he proves this freedom with his language. Why should he be denied his own vision? ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 16, 2020

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