Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2009

The Beats

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Given the neoconservative slant of the Sunday New York Times book review section, it is of some note that “The Beats: a Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle, got what amounts to a rave review. As most of you probably know, Paul is one of the most unpopular figures in what Woody Allen once referred to as the world of Dysentery (the journal that resulted from a merger of Commentary and Dissent). The concluding paragraph:

This, perhaps, is the Beats’ true legacy: the impact they continue to have on people who encounter them for the first time, even if that impact isn’t literary. Discussions of “On the Road” tend to begin, “I was 17 when I first read it, and it made me . . .” in ways that discussions of “Ulysses” or “The Great Gatsby” do not. (They tend to end there as well, alas.) “The Beats” captures some of the wonder of that first encounter and places it in historical and political context. Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art. They fit America’s romance with the outsider. That they were products of elite colleges – Harvard, Reed, Columbia, Swarthmore – and owed their visibility to non­outsider publications like Mademoiselle and this newspaper is a paradox “The Beats” chooses not to engage. They rocked.

The writers who contributed text to this graphic history were clearly touched by the beat experience personally. Harvey Pekar, who contributed the lion’s share, recounts his early exposure to the beats in his very fine memoir “The Quitter”. It is 1957, and he is entering Case Western Reserve University. This is how he describes the scene:


While the book understandably devotes the most space to the superstars of the beat generation-Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs-there are mini-biographies of more obscure figures like Robert Duncan, the openly gay poet who I had the good fortune to hear at Bard College in 1961. Duncan, who lived from 1919 to 1988, moved to New York at the age of 20 and hobnobbed with Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Sanders Russell, the editor of Experimental Review.

Duncan’s connection with an earlier generation of rebels strengthens my conviction that there has always been a bohemian movement in the U.S., going back at least to Thoreau, Whitman and Melville who were the beats of their day. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg shipped out in the merchant marines in the 1940s, Melville sought Experience on a whaling vessel. Clearly, the one thing that keeps this movement going is the utterly soulless and mammon-worshipping character of American capitalism. In 1944, Duncan had the guts to write an essay titled “The Homosexual in History”, something that I will try to track down in the next few weeks or so. It deserves to be online.

Duncan was brought to Bard by Robert Kelly, a 500 pound poet who began teaching at Bard the same year I was a freshman: 1961. Kelly also brought up a guy named Leroi Jones, who there’s a chapter on as well. Jones, of course, became known as Amiri Baraka. At Bard, he read from a work in progress called “The System of Dante’s Inferno”. Despite the somewhat academic sounding title, the work was an excoriating examination of racism in Newark, New Jersey. It was my very first exposure to Black militancy and a far cry from the Kumbaya sentiments of the nascent civil rights movement.

Kelly, Jones and Duncan’s works were all represented in Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry 1945-1960”, an anthology that was indispensable to fledgling beats like me. Allen’s book made clear, just as it is made clear in Buhle’s “The Beats” despite the title, that the new poetry movement was a river consisting of three separate streams: the Black Mountain College poets, which included Robert Duncan and others who taught there like Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen (who also have chapters in “The Beats”); the New York School, which included Allen Ginsberg most notably; and the San Francisco Renaissance writers.

For reasons peculiar to the history of San Francisco, its new poets tended to be the most radical. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is still going strong at the age of 90, was an anarchist as was Kenneth Rexroth, who also spent time as a labor organizer in the 1930s. In 1940, he wrote “In What Hour”, a poem that mixed contemplation of nature with angry responses to Sacco and Vanzetti.

When I first learned about the beats, I did not have much of a clue that they were political. All I cared about was the fact that I was not alone in being alienated by the “system”, something that I equated more with conformity than capitalism itself. I had no idea at the time that the middle-class values that were suffocating me in my rural village in the Catskill Mountains were linked to commodity production. It would take the Vietnam War to wake me up to that fact.

In fact, just around the time I was ready to join the beat generation, I was also ready to join the Young Americans for Freedom, the rightwing student group founded by William F. Buckley. When JFK ran against Nixon in 1960, I decided to support Nixon because all of my classmates were for JFK. I hated them for being more popular than me, for having family lives less crazy than my own, and for having enough money to buy a new Buick or Cadillac nearly every year. I developed my paper-thin conservative beliefs out of a sour grapes mentality. Of course, as soon as I got to Bard College one year later, I was laughed out of my dorm until I switched to liberalism. There’s nothing like peer pressure from people you respect to make you reevaluate superficially held opinions.

Weird as my mixture of bohemianism and rightwing politics might sound, this is not that different from what my hero Jack Kerouac exhibited. As Harvey Pekar points out in his account of Kerouac’s life, “as his life seemed to settle down, Kerouac increasingly insisted that he had always been a political right-winger.”

But the beat generation affinity has always stayed with me, even today as I write as an unrepentant Marxist.

I watched Steve Allen interview Jack Kerouac in 1959

As a miserable 14 year old in 1959, I first began to learn about the beats on television and in Time Magazine, a publication that my parents subscribed to and my only source of information about dissidents in America, even when the coverage was hostile. On September 7, 1959 the magazine reported on the West Coast scene, opening with a predictably jaded paragraph:

Those unwashed minstrels of the West, the beatniks of San Francisco’s North Beach and Los Angeles’ Venice West, make much of their loud vows of poverty. To be poor, yak the shirtless ones as they sit scratching in store-front espresso halls, is to be holy, man, holy. But last week, the mendicants of marijuana and mad verse were in the somewhat embarrassing position of monks whose liqueur sells too well. Tourists were snapping up their stuff like Chinese back-scratchers, and the beatniks were starting to rake in the dough.

That didn’t interest me half as much as the excerpt from the poem “Bomb” by  a 28 year old Gregory Corso that was included in the article:

O Bomb I love you

I want to kiss your clank eat your boom
You are a paean an acme of scream . . .
O resound thy tanky knees
BOOM ye skies arid BOOM ye suns
BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM
nights ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM
BOOM BOOM ye winds ye clouds ye rams
go BANG ye lakes ye oceans BING
Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM
Ubangi BANG orangoutang
BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon
the tail the fin the wing.

The entire poem can be read at http://www.litkicks.com/Texts/Bomb.html, with its ingenious typography in the shape of a mushroom cloud. I could not say whether I understood the poem completely, but every time I recalled the words “Ubangi BANG orangoutang”, a smile broke out across my face. I wanted to be part of any scene whose poets were writing lines like this.

About a year after I read this article, I became friends with a woman named Laura whose father was a golf-playing Republican who didn’t like me at all. Despite my William F. Buckley politics, all he saw was Gregory Corso when I stepped into his house. Like me, Laura was pretty alienated by the scene in high school and was beginning to identify with the Beats.

One morning, as we were on our way to school in the yellow bus that picked us up each morning at 7am, she pointed to a girl about our age walking toward school on the side of the road. It was unusual to see somebody walking to school back in those days, but even more unusual were the Roman sandals she was wearing. “Look at those sandals,” Laura said. “They are really cool”. She explained to me that the girl had been living in Manhattan but had been sent to live with her grandparents, who owned a bungalow colony in this mostly Jewish resort area. The Roman sandals were a dead give away that she had been recruited to the new bohemian movement that strove for a more authentic look that evoked workers and peasants: blue denim shirts, sandals, peasant blouses, etc. were signs that you rejected late-model Cadillacs, conformity and everything that was rotten about American society. As Allen Ginsberg put it:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Now if you planned to go out “starving hysterical naked”, who would want to do so dressed like an Amherst College fraternity member?

If you want to understand what the beats were about, and why they had the power to change the lives of young people like me, Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar, “The Beats” is indispensable reading. While the artwork is of the highest quality throughout, there is one artist who deserves special mention and that is Summer McClinton, a young woman who is described as “a modern-day beatnik chick” in the contributors’ section. Rather than describe her work, I will let one drawing from the Philip Lamantia chapter speak for itself:



  1. Since I did not go to college until the late 70’s, the scene had changed a bit. There was still all the sex and drugs but the politics had changed. I went to what by all appearances was a sleepy conservative liberal arts college, but underneath the brick and colonnade architecture, it was partytime at least 3 nights a week. I retreated into the countryside, dropped acid and got high, became a photography editor of the yearbook, and as an english major I of course read all the beats back to Rexroth.

    But I was so impressed with the art work of Summer McClinton in my copy of the book under review I went out and bought “Tau”. The psychological effect of her style could easily be described as trippy.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — April 29, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

  2. It’s nice to see that the book mentions Robert Duncan, whose work I’ve always admired. The essay you refer to, however, was called “The Homosexual in Society” (not “in History”), published in Dwight MacDonald’s magazine Politics in 1944.

    Comment by Duncan — April 29, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  3. Thanks for re-telling your own odyssey, which parallels mine a few years earlier. I still have Don Allen’s anthology somewhere and will now go dig it up.

    I’ve just been reading a very good contemporary poet who has a lot in common with the early beats — Steven Kessler. He also grew up in NY, but lives out west now.

    Comment by hce — April 30, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  4. On one level, the Beat attitude and that of a post WWII American Marxist have something in common. They both said no to a way of life. But the nagging question about the Beats is whether they were only a chapter in the history of mores, like 1890s’ dandies or 1920s’ flappers, or whether they also left us something that was significant and irreplaceable in the way of art.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 30, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  5. Peter: I’d say the latter, though no texts come to mind right now. The introduction of Zen into literary consciousness, the continuation of high-brow experiments in verse from the thirties, the critical nad humorous eye turned on mainstream culture, the journey of inner and outer expatriation, the heroic image of the outsider — these are all real expressions of an American bohemian/nonconformist tradition which Louis mentioned, if not of the even older European Revolutionary/Romantic tradition.

    In many ways, I prefer the Beats to the hyper-intellectual French writers of the same time.

    Comment by senecal — May 1, 2009 @ 2:12 am

  6. Nice column, Louis. My man Baraka of the Beats, who I discovered probably twenty years after you, but who resonated far differently then any of the Civil Rights era, I. Reed and Jimmie B. being notable exceptions. But yea, the System of Dante’s Hell, with its lyrical brevity:

    ” Hell in the head.
    The torture of being the unseen object, and, the constantly observed subject.”

    Oh yes, that was it. And despite all his recent gameology-Glen Ford calls him the “prince of schisms”, “Baraka for Bradley” et al- he remains for me someone who, once upon a time, lit up reality better than anyone else could.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — May 1, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  7. […] The Beats […]

    Pingback by Harvey Pekar is dead « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 12, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

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