COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, APRIL 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
PART 15: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Napkin Drawing by Kristen Wetterhahn)
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: THE BEATS INVADE THE CAMPUS
[Forty years ago, you never heard the word "fuck" as often as you do now. Today it's what it always was, just a word. But 40 years ago, to say "fuck" conjured up the Devil. You would almost never see it in print or hear it in a movie. Forty years later and you still can't hear it on the radio. A relaxation of the language is part of the Beat Generation's legacy. If nothing else, the Beats preached relaxation, period. It was the uptightness which society was trying to impose on us that the Beat Generation rebelled against. Obviously, the revolution has succeeded to some extent. Certainly, the Beats' revolution has succeeded on the campus. Today, the Beats are studied as heroes of American literature. Students get credits for taking courses on the Beats and in Beat liuterature. Consequently, I present this chapter from THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ as a document for the reord of how the Beats first grabbed a beachhead on America's campus some 40 years ago.]
High on the San Francisco slope that contributes uplift to North Beach, a boy, 15, his legs in pain from pedaling all the way from Los Angeles, his stomach in agony from starving all the way as well, dismounted a bicycle in front of a Congregationalist mission, sat down on the curb and cried.
"Why did you come here?" asked the minister.
"To find the Beat Generation," answered the boy.
"But why?" asked the minister.
"I want to become a beatnik," answered the boy.
The fact of the matter is that in San Francisco, in New York and in the great plenitude between, a second generation Beat Generation is growing. It is rising out of the first Beat Generation, out of the culture that produced the first Beat Generation and out of the fertilization that both those forces have accused each other of being full of.
But most of all, it is rising out of the prose of Jack Kerouac.
"The kids are reading Jack's On the Road, and they're trying to imitate the people in the book" says John Clellon Holmes, author of Go, and a friend of Kerouac. "But that all happened 10 years ago. We've all changed in the past 10 years---or I hope so."
"These younger types who are infiltrating North Beach don't understand much about the life Kerouac was speaking of," adds San Francisco painter Robert LaVigne, another Kerouac friend and an older type who apparently does understand the life.
"And worse than that, they don't have the cultural background to absorb it."
By life, apparently, LaVigne means Bohemianism, and if the younger types don't understand it they certainly seem to be trying. They dig it or attempt to dig it, depending upon what the exact meaning of dig happens to be at the moment.
Because the attraction of the young to Kerouac is as immediate as his imagery. He writes almost exclusively about them and almost exclusively with their viewpoint---so much so that his books have sometimes been called juvenile. He writes about things they understand:
Love agonies, recent or current, but mostly current. Nostalgia for the 1940s, not as years of earth-round magnitude, but merely as years of growing up. The movies, vicarious living, true, but part of everyday life as well. And travel, hell-bent, but bent also toward growth.
Obviously, Kerouac hasn't captivated all the young and not even most of the young; the Beat Generation, like any expression of Bohemianism before it, represents only a small group at the top or at the bottom of society, depending, naturally, on whether or not down is up.
But he certainly has captured the interest of the young who can, presumably, read, or so the sale of his books at college book stores would indicate. And, apparently he also has captured the interest of the young who can write---or who think they can.
"More and more I keep getting manuscripts from high school and college kids," reports Barney Rosset, head of Grove Press, which has published Kerouac's The Subterraneans in addition to other Beat Generation writings.
"And more and more the manuscripts show a tremendous influence, not only from Kerouac, but from other Beat Generation writers. But the curious thing is that I also keep getting more and more manuscripts from kids who would be in college, normally, but who are out in Oregon somewhere, cutting timber."
It is the kids in Oregon cutting timber, the kids in Kansas working in filling stations and, even the kids in prison, sweeping the floor of the textile mills, doing those things and writing, too, who are, to some extent, giving momentum to the Beat Generation as both a literary movement and a sociological phenomenon.
Gary Snyder, the young and bearded Zen Buddhist poet who was the prototype for the hero of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, has described the Beat Generation as essentially a rural revolution in the arts, with youth advancing from the in-between bulk of America to assault the cultural centers of New York and San Francisco.
Kerouac himself keeps writing about the Fellahin Man, the man of the soil. And then, too, if tomorrow's writers are not today's college students, it is because they are a part of the Beat Generation attack on the traditionalism of the colleges. Because the Beat Generation is, by its own definition, anti-academic.
Critics, of course, say that it is not so much anti-academic as it is anti-intellectual. (There are some who say, too, that the Beat Generation is rural only insofar as its writing is full of dirt.) But most of its adherents appear to be scholarly and well read, even if out of a self-engendered curiosity rather than out of an attempt to get all "As". And anyway, there is Kerouac's own word for it that he is not anti-intellectual.
"Allen Ginsberg and I," he says, "we're big, huge intellectuals. We've read everything. How many of those guys (the critics) have read Goethe? . . . Yeah, Norman Podhoretz, and the others, they're trying to make themselves a reputation attacking us . . . We have books, we read books. . ."
" . . . Sure, they're spawning new writers," answers critic Podhoretz, who, at 29, is of the right age for admission to the first Beat Generation but who never chose to join. "In the colleges and out. Sure, they're spawning new writers, but none of them very good. I don't think Kerouac's influence is a lasting thing. . ."
Kerouac himself has felt the influence of his influence. At his home in Northport, L. I., where he has sought, with some anonymity and no telephone to be what he calls "a Cervantes by candlelight," youth keeps knocking at his door.
"He says he wants to be like Dean Moriarty," says Kerouac, describing one such young, aspiring writer. "He says, 'I can drive just as good. I'll show you---get in the car! Get in the car!' Ninety miles an hour down Fifth Avenue! And he is a good driver, too!"
On occasion, Kerouac has come out of his candlelight to meet the young---the college young, that is---more than halfway. But only on occasion. On one occasion, at City College, and a well advertised and well attended occasion it was, too, he failed to appear.
On another occasion, equally well advertised and even better attended, he did appear. It was at Hunter College last fall, and he participated in a symposium the question, "Is there a Beat Generation?" Kerouac's answer began:
"The question is very silly because we should be wondering tonight, 'Is there a world?'"
He then read a speech which he later sold to Playboy Magazine for a reported $1,000.
"Afterwards," Kerouac recalls, "I went all the way up the spiral staircase backstage with two colored guys, and we turned on. And we were looking down on the stage, and I said, "I AM THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, BOYS!' And they were all screaming on stage, see?"
If Kerouac's personal missionary work among college students has been less than effective, Ginsberg's has been more. With Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, LeRol Jones, Edward Marshall, Ray Bremser and a host of other modern and so-called Beat Generation writers, Ginsberg, by invitation, has toured campuses throughout the Middle Atlantic states and certain parts of New England. He, too, has visited Hunter College.
"Prof. Edward Stephenson," reported the Hunter Arrow, student newspaper, "resigned his position as faculty advisor to the English Club after the appearance of the poet Allen Ginsberg downtown last Tuesday.
"'I offered my resignation because I felt that I had shown bad judgment in sanctioning the invitation to Mr. Ginsberg.' explained Prof. Stephenson. 'Had I known that he was going to give the kind of performance that he gave, I would not have lent my approval to the project.'
"When told of the resignation, Mr. Ginsberg asserted: 'I obeyed the voice of God and read poetry, which will speak for itself when Hunter College and its girls and I are folded in the same bright ash.'
"Mr. Ginsberg read to an audience of about 100 from his own works as well as from The Whip by Robert Creeley, Gasoline by Gregory Corso and the published and soon-to-be published works of Jack Kerouac. Prof. Stephenson left early in the program after the reading of one of Mr. Kerouac's works which made heavy use of Anglo-Saxonisms."
Where the Hunter College English Club lost an advisor, the Chicago Review lost an entire staff. But that controversy began long before Ginsberg & Co. arrived.
It seems that the Review, believing it had stumbled on a new and certainly a different trend in American literature, had begun devoting much of several issues to Beat Generation authors. Unfortunately, one of its more irregular readers happened to be one Jack Mabley, columnist for the Chicago Daily News. Mabley described what he read in the Review in a column entitled: Filthy Writing on the Midway.
The University, according to a charge by Review editor Irving Rosenthal, responded to Mabley's freedom of the press by canceling freedom of the press on its campus. It suppressed, Rosenthal said, the winter issue of the Review. The staff immediately resigned, made provisions to publish the forbidden material in a new and independent magazine and then brought Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky to Chicago in a series of poetry readings to raise money.
As for Kerouac, whose prose was to be included in the book, he contributed a title. Asked to suggest a name, he looked about and espied a note he had written to himself as a reminder to buy a desk. "Get Big Table," the note said.
Accordingly, a new literary magazine, Big Table, comes out this week, using for a cover an American flag with 48 stars. The missing star, presumably, represents Illinois.
Other universities, of course, haven't had the fun that Chicago has had, but a survey of some 100 institutions of higher learning indicates that there is at least one espresso coffee shop in almost every college town.
"If you don't have a copy of Ginsberg's Howl sticking out of your back pocket," comments one Midwest college junior, "then you're not a literary figure on campus."
And at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, medievalist English instructor William Kinter reports:
"I can hardly estimate the impact of Beat literature except to say that it has swept the campus. Kerouac, Ginsberg and the others talk to the students in their own language about eternal verities. Ginsberg read to us Oct, 8 and held more than 200 students in an enchanter's power. . . He and his companions are jongleurs of the 20th Century. . . The Beat literature is no trend here; it is an inundation. . ."
In New York, of course, the influence on the colleges is heavier even if only by virtue of Greenwich Village. Even so, New York has no collegiate poetry centers in the manner of San Francisco, where Beat literature is also an inundation. So in New York, poetry is read aloud in coffee-houses. Students, naturally, attend.
Other colleges surveyed report these manifestations of the Beat influence:
University of North Carolina: ". . . A student in the music department has invented a new form of jazz which is, he claims, the application of Wilhelm Reich's theory of the orgasm to music in the same way that Kerouac's 'spontaneous prose' applied Reich to prose style . . ."
Harvard: ". . .One explanation for the lack of success of the Beatniks at Cambridge is the impossibility of remaining in Harvard and being 'beat' at the same time . . ."
Blue Mountain College: ". . .Nobody on tbis Campus reads or gives a damn about the 'Beat Generation' . . ."
Colgate: "Those who are Beat won't admit it. Those who aren't love to talk about it."
University of Illinois: ". . .One or two have left the university to hit the road . . ."
College Misericordia: ". . .One girl tells that the University of Pennsylvania men followed the Beat craze for all of a month . . ."
And on Columbia Campus, which, in a sense, spawned the Beat Generation, Professor Lionel Trilling, literary critic who once was, in fact, Ginsberg's teacher, says:
"Ten years ago, there was a social awareness among the students which implied an acceptance of society. But today, I find a passivity among my students, a disinclination to become involved. It reminds me of Germany before Hitler, when the students would put on their leather shorts and their woolen socks and take their rucksacks and go hiking in the woods. It scares me." ##
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