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

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

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.



The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

By Joyce Johnson

489 pp. Viking. $32.95.


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

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation and a trailer from the movie “On The Road”


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untitled (42)What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation

A new crop of films portrays their lifestyle as rebellious, adolescent fun. But what made the Beats so influential in the first place was that they were radical, free-thinking adults.
Jordan Larson
Oct 16 2013, 1:54 PM ET
Sony Pictures

John Clellon Holmes, author of the seminal Beat Generation novel Go, wrote in 1952 that for the free-spirited rising stars of American literature known as the Beats, “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.” In those years, young people in the U.S. were in the process of inheriting both economic prosperity and stifling societal mores from their parents. So for many, the Beat Generation of writers—with their stupendous refusal of social and cultural norms and their way of life governed by the pursuit of pleasure, belief, and truth—was a godsend.

Today’s young people experience problems of a bit of a different ilk. Feeling free and adventurous won’t avail you of your student loan debt, poems penned in the days between drug-fueled nights probably won’t make it into your favorite lit mag—and, if they did, you’d probably be asked to write for free anyway, you know, “for the exposure.” But this hasn’t stopped a veritable resurgence over the last few years of Beat obsession, beginning with the film Howl (2010), and continuing with On the Road (2012) and two new films, Kill Your Darlings, in theaters today, and Big Sur, opening November 1. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—the authors of On the Road and Howl, respectively—have been the focus of two films each.

Given what the Beats meant to young people of the 1950s, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that their culture has been revived for millennial consumption. What teenager or 20-something doesn’t long to drop everything and take a road trip to wherever, with friends and booze and drugs and sex? And in an age when many young people are discovering that young adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, we could use some fun, right? But the current Beat revival arguably goes too far with its re-imagination of the Beat writers’ livelihoods as simple adolescent goofing around—its most prominent writers were, after all, well into their grown-up years when they wrote many of their most notable writings. This crop of films diminishes what was so radical about the Beat Generation in the first place: their iconoclastic approach to life, which extended far beyond their 20s and into adulthood proper.

Conspicuously absent from the latest revival is the third heavyweight of the movement, William S. Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch was adapted into a disturbing and gritty film by David Cronenberg in 1991. The omission perhaps isn’t so surprising: Burroughs credited his awakening as a writer to a 1951 incident in Mexico when he accidentally killed his wife while playing “William Tell,” a bar trick Burroughs invented that involves shooting a glass off someone’s head, so his legacy would likely be a bit harder to spin as one of harmless and youthful adventure.

In casting the authors as eternally and fundamentally adolescent, the recent revival tones down their behavior—both revolutionary and repulsive—as a sort of passing teenage phase.

The exclusion of Burroughs from the Beat revival isn’t the only way the movement has been crafted for optimal consumption, though: Howl and Kill Your Darlings focus on Allen Ginsberg at his most youthful and promising. Kill Your Darlings, in which a baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, tells a little-known tale of murder in the Beats’ group of friends at Columbia University, which ends up bringing the group together. The appeal of the story seems to be that it’s about a set of famous people who may have been involved in a possible murder during their youths, the occurrence of which may or may not explain their genius, or art, or something. In Howl, however, Ginsberg’s collection of poems are the subject of an obscenity trial, and though you’d never guess from James Franco’s youthful appearance as Ginsberg in the film, the author was actually 30 years old when Howl was published.

On the Road, published when Kerouac was 35, seems most susceptible to being reimagined as a series of youthful whims. A recollection of Kerouac’s mid-20s, which he spent traveling with Neal Cassady (known as Dean Moriarty in the book); Neal’s wife, Luanne Henderson; and other Beat figures, On the Road is a paean to recklessness and discovery. Significantly, the film replaces the famous opening line of the book, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up,” with “I first met Dean not long after my father died,” likely because it interferes with the viewer’s image of carefree and unbridled youth. Scrubbed from the film is any mention of Sal’s age at the time (25) or his stint in the military before attending Columbia. However, the film doesn’t balk at Luanne’s age: characters make numerous references to “Dean’s 16-year-old bride,” known in the book as Marylou.

Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s character in the book, describes Marylou as being “awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” In the morning after Sal’s first all-night meeting with the couple, Dean “decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor.” Shortly after, Dean and Marylou have a fight, and Marylou kicks Dean out of their shared apartment. According to Sal, “Dean said she’d apparently whored a few dollars together and gone back to Denver—‘the whore!’” This is all within the first three pages. While Marylou’s character in last year’s film adaptation of On the Road, played by Kristen Stewart, is spared some of the nastier epithets, the story’s misogyny largely lives on unchallenged and uncut. Marylou plays a tiny role in the story, mostly as a “dumb little box” whom Dean and Sal trade around until she gets pregnant and they tire of her.

In casting the authors as eternally and fundamentally adolescent, the recent revival tones down their behavior—both revolutionary and repulsive—as a sort of passing teenage phase, something that young people just sort of do. And in that way, the latest cultural reincarnation both nullifies and excuses the behavior of its leaders. In the end, I’m not sure what’s more offensive—the film’s rampant and unapologetic misogyny or Stewart’s interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, in which she claimed that On the Road told her “that you have to use every second in life. You can’t get complacent and let life pass you by,” as if fathering children and abandoning them is just an essential part of what it means to be free, man.

Pretending Kerouac’s life was some sort of consequence-free dream not only does a disservice to viewers, but to the Beats, as well.

Big Sur, it’s worth noting, is remarkably different from the other films. The film, to its great credit, largely avoids the pitfalls of the others by tackling subject matter that’s less inherently glamorous. An adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 novel, his first after the publication of On the Road, Big Sur shows Kerouac suffering from the burden of fame and lamenting the fact that he’s no longer young. The film opens with a lightly adapted quote from the novel: “All over America high school and college kids thinking ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitchhiking’ while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded.” (Jack Kerouac is known as Jack Duluoz in the book.) The film follows Kerouac as he wanders from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur to San Francisco and back again, usually in the company of several Beats and lady friends. The film crescendos with Kerouac’s alcohol-induced nervous breakdown, accompanied by a sudden epiphany and strangely chipper ending. Though Kerouac behaves much the same way as he did in On the Road, he doesn’t feel the same way: He becomes obsessed with death and drinking, and the narrative seems to comment on the binary of blessed youth and damned old age.

The misogyny of On the Road also figures into Big Sur, and it gets a little harder to stomach as it becomes clear that it’s not just a phase of adolescence, but rather, it’s seemingly central to the life of a Beat writer. A significant portion of the plot revolves around Neal Cassady’s mistress, whom he introduces to Kerouac. Kerouac, in turn, becomes her lover, promises to marry her, and introduces her to Cassady’s wife. He later calls off the marriage, or any form of commitment, leaving his lover to wonder how she’ll take care of herself and her four-year-old son. Unlike in On the Road, these actions finally begin to reflect upon Cassady and Kerouac in negative ways. Their casual womanizing no longer seems like something fun and rebellious to partake in, but like a deep-seated and decidedly unfortunate character flaw.

Overall, while these films are supposed to offer some vintage escapism, their takes ring hollow. Kerouac may have been a tremendous writer, but the enormity of his art is largely left out of the film adaptations. Even for all the dramatic voiceovers of Kerouac’s prose, On the Road and Big Sur are mostly left to work with muddled and problematic plot points. Still, what’s most problematic about these films isn’t their artistry but their authenticity.

Yes, to some extent, the real Kerouac and Cassady will always be remembered as somewhat youthful. Seven years after the publication of Big Sur, Kerouac died of cirrhosis of the liver, nearly 30 years before both Burroughs and Ginsberg died; Cassady died the previous year at the age of 41. But despite the fact that they “died young,” both of them were said to look far older than their years. One could argue that these films are only trying to honor the spirit of the Beat Generation, but can you separate the “essence” of a story or a movement from what its progenitors really said and did, and at what point in their lives? Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were grown men who were also alcoholics, misogynists, and womanizers who killed themselves with substance abuse. Pretending Kerouac’s life was some sort of consequence-free dream not only does a disservice to viewers, but to the Beats, as well.

Even at its best, the idea of a revelatory and sensual Beat adventure is rather clichéd, but especially so when divorced from the movement’s great and lasting achievements: Their rebelliousness paved the way for the counterculture of the sixties, and artists from Patti Smith to Thomas Pynchon have hailed the Beats’ style of jazz-like improvisation as an influence. The Beats deserve to be celebrated for the way they lived and what they created, not just for how fun and sexy their escapades may have looked.





The Beat Generation

By Levi Asher on Monday, July 25, 1994 12:36 pm

Like the French Impressionist artists of Paris, the Beat writers were a small group of close friends first, and a movement later. The term “Beat Generation” gradually came to represent an entire period in time, but the entire original Beat Generation in literature was small enough to have fit into a couple of cars (at times this nearly happened).

The core group consisted of Jack KerouacAllen GinsbergNeal Cassadyand William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surroundingColumbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-40’s. They picked up Gregory Corso in Greenwich Village and found Herbert Huncke hanging around Times Square. They then migrated to San Francisco where they expanded their group consciousness by meeting Gary SnyderLawrence FerlinghettiMichael McClurePhilip Whalen and Lew Welch.

Most of them struggled for years to get published, and it is inspiring to learn how they managed to keep each other from giving up hope when it seemed their writings would never be understood. Their moment of fame began with a legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

After the first wave of Beat writers became famous, a second wave followed. Some later arrivals to the crowd include Bob KaufmanDiane DiPrimaEd SandersAnne Waldman, Ray Bremser and Ted Joans. The “latter day beats” added some much needed cultural diversity, as well as an infusion of new ideas and talent, to the core of white male friends that were the “classic beats”. The ranks of legendary Beat poets continues to slowly evolve; recently more attention has been paid to other talented writers who had gathered at the fringes of earlier Beat scenes, including Charles Plymell, Jack Micheline, Herschel Silverman,Marty MatzRon Whitehead, Jim Carroll, Janine Pommy-Vega and countless others.

It is not likely that today’s generation-defining machinery will ever again allocate so much “cultural influence” to such a small and odd group of individuals. Defining generations is big business these days, and you’ve got to look good on Total Request Live to even have a chance. If today’s “Generation X” (or “Gen Y” or whatever it’s called) is like Woodstock, the Beat Generation was like a small dark tavern at two in the morning, with a bunch of old jazz musicians jamming on stage and Jack Kerouac buying rounds at the bar.

The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948 (for a discussion of the origin of this and other labels, check out Lost, Beat and Hip). The phrase was introduced to the general public in 1952 when Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes wrote an article, ‘This is the Beat Generation,’ for the New York Times Magazine (click here to read the complete original text).

Literary Kicks will hopefully evolve in many directions in the future, but the site began as a series of pages on the Beat Generation and this legacy will always provide the site’s guiding spirit. I did not experience the Beat era firsthand, and would probably find it less fascinating if I had. If you’d like to know why I care about the whole mess, here’s something I wrote about it, Why I Like The Beats.

And here’s an intriguing article by Don Carpenter about a significant poetry reading he arranged in 1964 at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco.

The photo at the top of this page was taken by Diana Church at the Cafe Trieste in North Beach in 1975. Guests at the table include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Minelte Le Blanc, Peter Le Blanc, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Norse, Jack Hirschman & Bob Kaufman.




How Beat Happened

by Steve Silberman

O Poets! Shamans of the word! When will you recover the trance-like rhythms, the subliminal imagery, the haunting sense of possession, the powerful inflection and enunciation to effect the vision? Throw off this malaise, this evasion, this attitudinizing and sickliness of urbanity. Penetrate to the discord in yourself, the rootlessness, and induce the trance that will heal the rift within. Shamanize! Shamanize! The American destiny is in your hands.

–William Everson, Birth of a Poet

From the swinging confluences of jazz and rap in Mission nightclubs, to the reinvigoration of poetry as bearer of the news among young people from slams to ‘zines, to the warp-accelerated potlatch of ideas in online communities like the WELL, the “vibrations of sincerity” (as Jack Kerouac put it) championed by the writers of the Beat Generation have fired up a new generation of best minds in San Francisco.

This is poetic justice, for it was here that the Beats made themselves known to the world as a public force, on the night of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 13, 1955.

When Ginsberg stepped up to the podium, he had only lived in San Francisco a short while, but the cultural pot had been simmering a long time before he brought it to a Beat boil. The Bay Area in the late ’40s and early ’50s was a nexus of collaborative innovation, inquiry, and radical experiment in many arts, and “Howl” wouldn’t have been “Howl” without Ginsberg’s immersion in the local scene during the year preceding the poem’s composition.

San Francisco was the perfect stage on which the Beats could happen.

The Ground of Opposition

In 1954, Allen Ginsberg turned 28 while visiting his mother’s relatives in Los Angeles. “For the first time,” he entered in his journal, “I am older than I’ve dreamed of being.”

The poet felt saddled with his identity, his “character with its childish core” lurking behind an unattractive goatee. The first electric days in Manhattan of the core group that became the Beats (Ginsberg himself, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr and others) were over, comrades and lovers dispersing to various locations and other relationships.

Ginsberg had just returned from Mexico, an odyssey which opened his senses to the vitality of another culture. “The town so noisy, dirty, streetfulls of wild boys all night…. Big halls for restaurants and music, painted crudely with monolithic donkeys… little gardens below bounded by the uptown hip cliff,” Ginsberg scribed in Mexicali, his eye for detail honed by the example and criticism of his mentor, the poet and general practitioner William Carlos Williams, who flashed verbal snapshots on his prescription pad between house calls.

Ginsberg knew he was at a crossroads in his art between apprenticeship to academic models of literature, and breaking through to a personal voice which could sing of experience beyond the bounds of what was permissible — by ’50s academic standards — to speak of in poetry. “To break with that pattern entirely,” he wrote, “Must find energy & image & act on it.”

Planning to enroll in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, Ginsberg moved to North Beach, taking a room at the $6-a-week Hotel Marconi on Broadway where Al Sublette — a friend of Kerouac’s — lived.

The most lively literary salon in the Bay Area in those days was a circle that met on Friday nights in poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apartment over Jack’s Record Cellar, at Page and Divisadero. Rexroth grew up in Chicago, where he owned a tearoom called the Green Mask, featuring jazz and poetry, with a whorehouse on the floor above. Moving to San Francisco in the ’30s, the young Rexroth exhorted dockworkers to unionize in a mimeo sheet called The Waterfront Worker, and applied his efforts in the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ladling out pea soup to young Catholics held in detention camps as Conscientious Objectors to the Second World War.

Rexroth loved jazz and knew the guys who played it, and translated poetry and drama from several languages, including classical Greek, Provençal French, and Japanese. He prided himself on reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover each year, and published more than a dozen books in his lifetime, including an autobiographical novel, and books of criticism on subjects ranging from contemporary poetry, to Hasidism, to Anarchism, to Zen.

Rexroth’s earliest poems sound remarkably like the work of the ’80s “Language Poetry” school, abandoning photographic realism in an attempt to shed cliché and sentimentality. His mature poems, however, speak in language that is colloquial, sensual without being sentimental, calling forth the High Sierra granitescapes that Rexroth liked to make love in, with a crispness of image, a classical sense of balance, and elegiac gravity. Rexroth’s apartment on Page Street was a library, its shelves lined with the heartwood of the classical literatures of East and West; and Rexroth had a caustic wit, and an ego, to match his erudition.

One of the young poets who attended these salons was Philip Whalen, who would appear in Kerouac’s novels as Warren Coughlin and Ben Fagin — “a quiet, bespectacled booboo, smiling over books.” Whalen had been invited down from his job as a firewatch on Sourdough Mountain in the North Cascades by Gary Snyder, with whom Whalen had shared rooms at Reed College.

For over a decade, Rexroth’s weekly “at-homes” brought together geniuses in diverse forms — from Helen Adam’s contemporary ballads, to James Broughton’s bawdy nursery rhymes and experimental films. Whalen (who now teaches Zen at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro) recalled the atmosphere at these Friday night conclaves: “It was always very interesting, because there were young poets there, and older ones, visiting luminaries from different professions and arts. People said it was boring because Kenneth talked all the time. But Kenneth was a marvelous talker, so I didn’t mind if there was anybody else famous there or not.”

It was at one of these salons that Ginsberg first heard Rexroth read his scathing blast, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”:

The hyena with polished face and bow tie,
In the office of a billion dollar
Corporation devoted to service;
The vulture dripping with carrion,
Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds,
Lecturing on the Age of Abundance;
The jackal in the double-breasted gabardine,
Barking by remote control,
In the United Nations...
The Superego in a thousand uniforms, 
You, the finger man of the behemoth,
The murderer of the young men...

Through Rexroth, Ginsberg met Robert Duncan, whose essay “The Homosexual in Society” brought dialogue about homosexuality in America into the open. Duncan was a master poet and teacher in his own right, and a generative influence on many contemporary Bay Area poets, like Thom Gunn and Aaron Shurin.

Though one prevalent myth is that the Beats were a lone wake-up call in ’50s America, that summons did not come from nowhere. Laying the intellectual foundation for the Beat breakthrough, the Rexroth circle was a ground of opposition: well-read and international, homosexual and heterosexual, poets and artists from several generations of revolt.

An Explosion of New Forms

Ginsberg showed Duncan his manuscript Empty Mirror, poems influenced by his apprenticeship with Williams. Duncan didn’t like the poems much, but was impressed with a list of slogans that Ginsberg kept over his desk:

Blow as deep as you want — write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind…. Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time — Shakespearean stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue — no revisions … write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion … tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow! —now! — your way is your only way….

Ginsberg explained that the author of these “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” was a friend: Jack Kerouac.

In December of 1954, Ginsberg — distraught over an argument with his girlfriend, and slightly drunk — walked into Foster’s Cafeteria, and asked Robert LaVigne, a young painter, about the whereabouts of Peter DuPeru, a North Beach eccentric. LaVigne didn’t know where Du Peru was, but the two began a conversation about art, and LaVigne invited Ginsberg back to his apartment. There Ginsberg was transfixed by one canvas depicting a naked young man with a frank, open gaze. “Who’s that?” Ginsberg asked.

“Oh, that’s Peter. He’s here,” was the reply, and the young man walked into the room.

Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky became lovers, taking vows to each other a few weeks later in Foster’s Cafeteria at 3 a.m., their promise being “that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the other one in,” as Ginsberg recalls.

Ginsberg had maintained a correspondence with Kerouac, who was living in New York. Kerouac had published his first novel, The Town and the City, and was looking for a publisher — with frustratingly little success — for On the RoadThe Subterraneans, and Visions of Cody. Ginsberg was showing to editors and friends the manuscripts of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax and San Francisco Blues, a volume of poems written while sipping tokay and staring out the window of the Cameo Hotel, a South-of-Market flophouse. Rexroth was unimpressed with Visions of Cody, which is a jam (less “mythic,” more naked and experimental) on themes and characters from On the Road, but Duncan was encouraging, recognizing in its rhapsodic, meticulous descriptions the mark of genius.

It was an exciting time to be in San Francisco. Dylan Thomas came through on a tour in 1952 that included a meeting with Henry Miller and a reading on KPFA. His performances hardly resembled the staid affairs of academic poetry readings, with the poet often drunk, chanting his lyrics in oracular tones, and people crowding to get into the room.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Bookstore in June of 1953, the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States, as a way of financing Martin’s magazine City Lights, which published poems by the surrealist Philip Lamantia and many others, as well as the first film criticism of Pauline Kael. Next door to City Lights was (and is) the Vesuvio, then run by Henri Lenoir, who prided himself on the musicians, painters and poets who socialized at his establishment, attracted, as Lenoir put it, “by the non-bourgeois atmosphere created by the avant-garde paintings I hung on the walls.”

Ruth Witt-Diamant founded the San Francisco State College Poetry Center in 1954, with a dedicatory reading by W.H. Auden. The Center became a place where representatives of the different poetry subcultures of the Bay Area could be exposed to each other’s work, and be accountable to one another, and endures to this day.

At the Cellar Bar, Rexroth was crooning “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Married Blues,” while a band riffed on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Jack Spicer hosted “Blabbermouth Nights” at a North Beach hangout called The Place, featuring performances by Richard Brautigan and John Wieners, with few prepared texts — the idea, as in jazz, was to burn — with the poets competing for door prizes and free drinks.

The California School of Fine Arts appointed a new director, Douglas MacAgy, whose invitations brought Abstract Expressionist painters like Clyfford Still to the City, and their exhibitions resulted in an explosion of new forms on the canvasses of local artists. The poet and playwright Michael McClure came to San Francisco to paint, but found himself discussing William Blake with Ginsberg at theopening of the Poetry Center. The two became good friends.

James Broughton was making some of the first “underground” films in America, like The Potted Psalm — greeted, at its 1946 premiere, Berkeley-style, by outraged hissing. Other filmmakers like Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger and Jordan Belsen were also at work, energized by a showcase for independent films that had been organized at the San Francisco Museum of Art by Frank Stauffacher. The showings brought in acclaimed directors and photographers like Man Ray and Hans Richter, and gave young filmmakers a chance to show their first films to a packed house of cognoscenti.

Harry Partch, the composer who built his own instruments with names like “Cloud Chamber Bowls” and “Surrogate Kithara,” had a houseboat in Sausalito that was a gathering place for students of composition. There was a series of new-music concerts called Vortex at the Planetarium, the Cellar hosted an exhibit of Joan Brown’s paintings accompanied by the jazz of Brew Moore and Pony Poindexter, and students from the School of Fine Arts were congregating at The Place for “Dada Night.” Collaboration — between painters and poets, poets and musicians, filmmakers and poets — was cranking up the creative heat.

Blessed Be the Muses for Their Descent

Ginsberg, however, was becoming increasingly depressed. He and Cassady were unable to speak heart-to- heart as they once had, owing partly to Neal’s ravenous intake of marijuana and speed, and Neal and his wife Carolyn’s infatuation with Edgar Cayce, the trance healer who influenced Neal to burn most of his literary efforts, to Ginsberg’s dismay.

Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist at Langley-Porter to ask him if he should be trying to be heterosexual. In Ginsberg’s telling of the tale, the psychiatrist asked Ginsberg what he really wanted to do. “I really would just love to get an apartment, stop working and live with Peter and write poems,” was Ginsberg’s reply.

“So why don’t you do that?” asked the doctor.

“What happens if I get old or something?”

“You’re a nice person. There’s always people who will like you.”

Ginsberg felt he had received a blessing. He arranged his own layoff at the market-research firm where he had been working by replacing himself with a computer, ensuring himself unemployment benefits for six months. He bought an armful of Bach records with the first check. Orlovsky and Ginsberg moved into an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street which allowed them separate rooms, and Ginsberg wrote a poem telling of his happiness to Kerouac: “I’m happy, Kerouac, your madman Allen’s/ finally made it: discovered a new young cat,/ and my imagination of an eternal boy/ walks on the streets of San Francisco,/ handsome, and meets me in cafeterias/ and loves me….”

One afternoon in late July of 1955, Ginsberg wrote a line in his journal, “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned,” thinking of his friend Carl Solomon, who had survived a gauntlet of insulin shock treatments at the New York Psychiatric Institute. A week or so later, Ginsberg sat down in his apartment to jam at his typewriter.

I sat idly at my desk by the first floor window facing Montgomery Street’s slope to gay Broadway — only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookshop. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family, formal education, business and current literature.

Ginsberg expanded on the line from his journal, changing it to a second draft of the best-known line in 20th Century poetry: “I saw the best minds of my generation/ generation destroyed by madness/ starving mystical naked.” Ginsberg continued for seven single-spaced pages. The lines were short, Williams-like, but the phrases already soared like the Charlie Parker riffs the poet had in mind as he typed. “I knew Kerouac would hear the sound,” said Ginsberg later.

At first, Ginsberg thought that “Howl” was too personal for publication, but he did begin revising it almost immediately, combining the short lines into expansive out- breaths, and dropping out more diffuse language (“who stumbled by billboards with 6 cents and broken glasses and a bloody nose and stomach full of guilt metaphysics and metaphysical lightning blasting through the icy skull”).

Ginsberg titled the poem “Howl for Carl Solomon,” and posted it to Kerouac, who responded enthusiastically. Ginsberg told Kerouac that “Howl” was the product of Kerouac’s own method of spontaneous writing: “It came out in your method, sounding like you, an imitation practically. How far advanced you are on this.”

It was as if Ginsberg had rediscovered America — an America that was all around him in the alleys and espresso bars of North Beach, but unrepresented in poetry:

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up 
smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats 
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz ...

A Charming Event

By the fall of 1955, Ginsberg was scouting for a venue where he and Kerouac and Cassady could read together. He had written a second part to “Howl” after eating peyote, seeing the lights of the Sir Francis Drake hotel burning in the fog as the mask of Moloch, the Biblical devourer of innocents. Painter Wally Hedrick asked Rexroth to organize a reading at the Six Gallery at Fillmore and Greenwich, and Rexroth asked Michael McClure and Ginsberg to read.

Rexroth also suggested that Ginsberg add to the bill Gary Snyder, a graduate student at Berkeley who was translating the poems of Han Shan or “Cold Mountain,” a Zen poet of T’ang-era China. Snyder told Ginsberg about Whalen, and Ginsberg told Snyder about Kerouac. The bill was set: Ginsberg, Snyder, McClure, Whalen, and Philip Lamantia, with Rexroth as M.C. Kerouac declined to read.

Ginsberg put up signs, and inscribed a hundred postcards with the following advertisement:

6 poets at 6 Gallery. Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John Hoffman — Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen — all sharp new straightforward writing — remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C.

The reading drew a larger crowd than the poets hoped for, with the gallery — in an old auto-repair garage — packed with over a hundred people. Kerouac brought jugs of burgundy, which were quickly empty, and the reading was delayed while Kerouac passed the hat. For a podium, there was an upended fruit-crate, and Rexroth cracked, “What’s this, a reading stand for a midget? Somebody gonna come up and read a haiku version of theIliad?”

Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman, a friend who had recently died in Mexico. Then McClure read “Point Lobos: Animism” and “For the Death of 100 Whales,” written in protest of the thrill-killing of a pack of whales by NATO troops. Whalen followed.

After an intermission, Ginsberg took the stage. His delivery of “Howl” gained force as he was urged on by Kerouac, who capped each phrase with a whap at the wine jug and a shout, “GO!” “It was very exciting,” recalls Whalen, “and Ginsberg getting excited while doing it was sort of scary. You wondered was he wigging out, or what — and he was, but within certain parameters. It was a breakthrough for everybody. The mixture of terrifically inventive and wild language, with what had hitherto been forbidden subject matter, and just general power, was quite impressive.”

When Ginsberg finished, both he and Rexroth were in tears.

“We had gone beyond a point of no return, and we were ready for it,” McClure recalled in his memoir, Scratching the Beat Surface. “None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”

Snyder closed the reading with “A Berry Feast,” an invocation to the spirit of Coyote the Trickster, for whom plump berries grow in the skeletons of dead cities. Afterward, the readers headed off to Sam Woh’s to celebrate.

Kerouac congratulated Ginsberg, telling him his poem would make him famous in San Francisco, but Rexroth went further, assuring Ginsberg that “Howl” would ensure his fame “from bridge to bridge.” Ferlinghetti went home to compose a telegram that echoed Emerson’s praise of Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

The reading was followed by readings by each of the poets at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, and a repeat of the Six Gallery bill at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley, on March 18, 1956. Local luminaries like Alan Watts were in the audience, along with Neal Cassady and the young editor Anne Charters.

That night’s reading is the version of “Howl” on Ginsberg’s Rhino collection, Holy Soul Jellyroll. A contemporary listener might expect the second reading of “Howl” to have been received with a respectful hush, but there were jeers and titters in the first minutes, including a scream after the line about “saintly motorcyclists.” It’s only after Ginsberg finds a voice of passionate, unshakable conviction – “rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” – that the audience absorbs the poem in silence.

The success of these readings fired Ginsberg up to his greatest period of productivity, during which he wrote “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “A Supermarket in California.” “Howl”‘s obscenity trial — which would indeed publicize Ginsberg’s name from bridge to bridge, and alert the world that a renaissance of poetry as a popular art was underway in San Francisco — was still months off, as was the “beatnik” hype that would hasten Snyder’s pilgrimage to Japan, and Ginsberg’s flight to Tangiers. Whatever sea-changes in global culture were precipitated by the events at the Six Gallery could never have been foreseen by the poets sharing steaming platters of chow fun at Sam Woh’s.

That night, they drank tea.

A version of this article first appeared in the SF Weekly.

Copyright © 1995