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In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline

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In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline

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Road Ready

‘The Voice Is All,’ by Joyce Johnson

By  JAMES CAMPBELL
Published: January 18, 2013    

In January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline. He had told Allen Ginsberg he planned to marry her — “the finest woman I’ll ever know” — once she had unshackled herself from her truck-driver husband, who, according to Joyce Johnson, was accustomed to “slapping her around to keep her in line.” In the meantime, Kerouac began an affair with Adele Morales (later to become the second Mrs. Norman Mailer). His failure to keep the rendezvous with Pauline, however, had nothing to do with affection for Adele; rather, he had overslept after a night of sex games with Luanne Henderson, whom Jack’s muse Neal Cassady had married when she was 15, and who, according to their friend Hal Chase, was “quite easy to get . . . into bed.” The tryst had been engineered by Cassady, who was hoping to watch, Johnson says, to show Luanne, by then 18, “how little she meant to him.” Two days later, Kerouac called on Ginsberg and found Luanne “covered with bruises from a beating Neal had given her.” Johnson describes Kerouac as “shocked” by the sight; nevertheless, “they all went out to hear bebop,” partly financed by money stolen by Cassady. In response to being jilted, Pauline confessed her affair to her husband, who tried to burn her on the stove. Kerouac described her in his journal as a “whore.” All the while, Ginsberg can be heard in the background: “How did we get here, angels?”

Collection of Allen Ginsberg, via Sotheby’s

Jack Kerouac in his Columbia University football uniform, 1940s.

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THE VOICE IS ALL

The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

By Joyce Johnson

489 pp. Viking. $32.95.

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This is an everyday story of the Beat Generation in late-1940s New York, a tale of crazy mixed-up kids who took a lot of drugs, dabbled in criminality — with two homicides among the statistics — lapsed into madness, were fond of identifying one another as “saints, saints,” but often had the barest notion of what it means to respect the individuality of other human beings. Yet three members of the inner circle, Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs, created experimental literary works of remarkable originality — in particular, “On the Road,” “Kaddish” and “Naked Lunch” — which read as freshly today as they did 50 years ago; perhaps, in an instance of that trick that the best art sometimes plays on us, more so.

Kerouac certainly makes a good subject, but there already exist about a dozen biographies (by Ann Charters, Barry Miles, Gerald Nicosia, among others), not to mention memoirs, an oral history — the excellent “Jack’s Book” (1978) — and wider surveys of the Beat Generation. In “Minor Characters” (1983), Johnson wrote about her affair with Kerouac at the time of publication of “On the Road.” She now steps back to a period of Kerouac’s life with which she has no direct acquaintance, tracing the story from his origins in a French Canadian family in Lowell, Mass., to New York in 1951, where the book ends with a rare citation from ­Kerouac’s journals: “I’m lost, but my work is found.”

Johnson justifies the retelling of what is in outline a familiar tale by the fact of having gained access to the vast Kerouac archive, “deposited in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in 2002.” So far, so good. No large-scale Kerouac biography, so far as I am aware (“The Voice Is All” lacks a bibliography), has appeared since that date. Unfortunately, Johnson was apparently refused permission to quote at length from the journals and working drafts among Kerouac’s papers. The result is a life in paraphrase.

The method gives rise to frustration. In 1945, for example, Kerouac began writing a novel called “I Wish I Were You,” a reworking of the story of the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in 1944. Together, Kerouac and Burroughs had previously written “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” a collaboration on the same subject that eventually saw the light of day in 2008. According to Johnson, “I Wish I Were You” is a different beast: “In two successive drafts of the first 100 pages, Jack put in all the textural detail that had been left out of ‘Hippos’ and even returned with renewed confidence to the lyricism he had abandoned just the year before. It was really quite brilliant, the best prose he had written so far

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A literary group, also known as the Beats or the Beat generation

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beatgenerationShown clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956. The Beat movement was characterized by a rejection of the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s, in favor of individual freedom and spontaneity.

Beat Generation

Shown clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956. The Beat movement was characterized by a rejection of the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s, in favor of individual freedom and spontaneity.

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Literary group, also known as the Beats or the Beat generation, that flourished from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s. Its most prominent members were the novelists John Clellon Holmes (1926-88) and Jack Kerouac (1922-69), and the poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919), Philip Whalen (b. 1923), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), and Gregory Corso (1930-2001). William Burroughs (1914-97) was loosely associated with the group, which was mainly located in San Francisco and in Greenwich Village, New York City. Much Beat poetry was published by Ferlinghetti’s “City Lights” imprint, and his “City Lights” bookstore in San Francisco was an important meeting-place for the group. Gregory Stephenson has suggested that the Beat movement had two distinct phases: the “underground,” from 1944 to 1956, and the public, 1956-62.
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Holmes introduced the term “Beat generation” in a 1952 essay on his novel GO (1952), and later Kerouac suggested that “Beat” meant being socially marginalized and exhausted (“beaten down”) and blessed (“beatific”). There are also musical connotations to the name as many members were jazz enthusiasts. Socially the Beats, many of whom were homosexual or bisexual, extolled individual freedom and attacked what they saw as the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s; “America, where everyone is always doing what they ought,” as Kerouac put it in one of Beat’s defining works, the novel ON THE ROAD (1957). To this end they affected nonconformist styles of dress and speech and, avowedly antimaterialist, they cultivated mystical experiences by the use of drugs or by meditation — many members developed an interest in forms of mysticism and in Zen Buddhism. The Beats were politically radical, and to some degree their anti-authoritarian attitudes were taken up by activists in the 1960s. In their writing they encouraged direct and frank communication and, rejecting the formalist, impersonal writing encouraged by the New Criticism, they cultivated styles that gave the impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Much Beat poetry was performance orientated (often read in public with jazz accompaniment). Although they have been much parodied and satirized, the Beats brought fresh energies to American writing and their influence has been significant.

Further Reading:
THIS IS THE BEAT GENERATION (1999) by James Campbell; BEAT DOWN TO YOUR SOUL (2001), edited by Ann Charters; THE BEAT GENERATION WRITERS (1996), edited by A. Robert Lee; A DIFFERENT BEAT: WRITINGS BY WOMEN OF THE BEAT GENERATION (1997), edited by Richard Peabody, and THE DAYBREAK BOYS (1990) by Gregory Stephenson.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Harlem Renaissance

harlemrenaissance

Langston Hughes was a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance — a movement during the 1920s of black writers and intellectuals who engaged in intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist.  Pictured here are Langston Hughes [far left] with [left to right:] Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney, on a Harlem rooftop on the occasion of a party in Hughes’ honor, 1924.
New York Public Library

The first major movement of African-American literature, beginning around 1923 and flourishing until the depression, but providing a stimulus that lasted through the 1940s.

The renaissance mainly involved a group of writers and intellectuals associated (often loosely) with Harlem, the district of Manhattan that, during the migration of African Americans from the rural South, became the major center for urbanized blacks. Harlem was described by Alain Locke (1886-1954) as “not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life.” The renaissance was associated with the New Negro Movement, so called because of the anthology THE NEW NEGRO (1925) edited by Locke, whose introductory essay “The New Negro” is the closest to a manifesto or statement of ideals that the Harlem Renaissance has. In it he writes of the Negro who is no longer apologetic for blackness but who takes a new pride in a racial identity and heritage, of the “renewed self-respect and self-dependence” felt in the contemporary black community, which is “about to enter a new phase.”

Elsewhere Locke urged writers to examine the meaning of an African past and to utilize this in their art. This urging coincided with a growing interest among whites at the time in primitivism, evident for example in Eugene O’Neill’s plays “The Emperor Jones” (1920) and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1924). The Harlem Renaissance was partly fostered by the existence of this interest, and by the concurrent development of American modernism and the readiness to accept experimentation and to expand the breadth of artistic expression. The renaissance was greatly assisted by several whites, especially Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), whose enthusiasm for African-American culture was reflected in his popular 1926 novel NIGGER HEAVEN. Locke had explicitly called for social and artistic interracial cooperation in “The New Negro,” commenting that, “The fiction is that the life of the races is separate, and increasingly so. The fact is that they have touched too closely at the unfavorable and too lightly at the favorable levels.”

One characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance was a move toward so-called “high art” in black writing, rather than the use of folk idioms, comic writing, and vernacular that had often been considered the special realm of African-American writing up to that time. In some respects this shift mirrors the change from rural to urban life for many blacks in this period. However, several of the Harlem writers made powerful use of folk idioms such as the blues, particularly Langston Hughes (1902-67). The Harlem writers also engaged in an intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist. In this sense the Harlem Renaissance is by no means a monolithic movement with a single purpose. For example, the artistic differences between Hughes and the poet Countee Cullen (1903-46) are instructive. Cullen believed that an African-American poet should be free to write in mainstream established traditions, and need not racialize poetry. “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” he said, and wrote in forms such as the sonnet and became a translator of Euripides. Hughes, on the other hand, saw this attitude as a betrayal of racial identity, an aping of white European-ness, and sought in his work to accept and explore his blackness using forms and idioms that he associated with it. Both are major poets but their differences point to the relative breadth of the movement and to the development of quite different kinds of African-American writing in the Harlem Renaissance.

Prominent Harlem Renaissance writers include James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), the Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1889-1948), Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen (1893-1964), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Arna Bontemps (1902-73), Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-81), and Helene Johnson (1907-95). In addition to the NEW NEGRO anthology, key works produced during the period of the renaissance or during its influence include Toomer’s multigeneric CANE (1923), Hughes’ WEARY’S BLUES (1926), Larsen’s QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929), and Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (1937).

Further Reading:
COLOR, SEX AND POETRY: THREE WOMEN WRITERS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE (1987) by Gloria Hull; THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE IN BLACK AND WHITE (1995) by George Hutchinson; WHEN HARLEM WAS IN VOGUE (1989) by David Levering Lewis, and WOMEN OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE (1995) by Cheryl A. Wall. HARLEM RENAISSANCE: A HISTORICAL DICTIONARY FOR THE ERA (1984), edited by Bruce Kellner, is a valuable resource.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.