Among other pursuits, I collect postwar American poetry and fiction. One of my goals in this endeavor has been to collect the "Wilson 50," Robert A. Wilson’s list of the fifty most important and influential books of American literature published since the end of World War II. His list, in Modern Book Collecting (1980), has Ezra Pound’s postwar The Pisan Cantos (1948), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1946), Richard Wilbur’s Things of This World (1956), John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), and The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath (as Victoria Lucas). Members of the Beat Generation wrote twelve of the fifty on Wilson’s list. Their books have a special interest for me.
Initiated by two disaffected students at Columbia University in the late 1940s and named the Beat Generation by its leader, Jack Kerouac, this movement has had a profound effect on American culture, spawning, among other things, hippies in the 1960s and the "Me Decade" of the 1970s (as christened by Tom Wolfe). Its two main spokesmen were Allen Ginsberg, who was suspended from Columbia, and Kerouac, who dropped out. This movement came under nationwide scrutiny following the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956, with its famous first line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," and Kerouac’s novel On the Road in 1957. The steadily increasing price of a first edition of Howl reflects this movement’s cultural and literary importance. City Lights Books published Howl in a small-sized 44-page paperback edition (1000 copies in the first issue), Number Four in its Pocket Poet Series, costing 75 cents. In 1990 a first edition, first issue, signed copy of Howl in very good condition cost $2,000. Book dealers today sell it for $5,500.
The Beat Generation was the first generation in American history to be subjected to peacetime military conscription. It was also the first generation of young adults who had to confront the stark reality that two powerful nation-states, which might wind up fighting each other, possessed nuclear weapons in sufficient quantity to possibly destroy the world. The Beat fringe expressed their displeasure and alienation from mainstream, statist society by seeking enlightenment, and escape, through sex, drugs, modern jazz, and forays into Eastern mysticism.
For Kerouac and Ginsberg, the inspiration and guiding light of this movement was Neal Cassady. He was an energetic and fast-talking, handsome, sensual, bisexual, compassionate con man from Denver, Colorado. Kerouac and Ginsberg met Cassady when he went to New York to visit a friend from Denver who was at Columbia. Both were bowled over by him. In Ginsberg’s Howl, Neal Cassady is "N.C.," the "secret hero of these poems," the celebrated "cocksman and Adonis of Denver" whose ultimate purpose in "ecstatic and insatiate" copulation is to achieve spiritual enlightenment. In Kerouac’s On the Road, Cassady is Dean Moriarty, the main character in the novel, who has "got the secret we’re all burning to find." Kerouac calls him a "new American saint," who introduced him to the religion of IT — a self-transcending attainment of synchronization with the Eternal Now.
Gregory Stephenson, in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (1990), in my opinion the best book so far written on this subject, describes Neal Cassady (shown here driving) this way:
He is a catalyst — initiating, inciting action, urging others on to pleasure and abandon… He is a prophet of the libido, of the instincts and appetites. His desperate hedonism is not, however, an end in itself but rather the means to an end: the transcendence of personal consciousness and time. His message, incoherent and inarticulately expressed, is of the perfection and essential unity of all experience.
Called the "HOLY GOOF" by Kerouac and a "friendly and flowing savage" by Stephenson, Neal Cassady as a teenager, when not in reform school for stealing cars, spent his afternoons after work in the Denver Public Library reading Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust. Before he died (in 1968 at the age of forty-two), Cassady and Ken Kesey became friends; nicknamed "Speed Limit," he drove the Pranksters’ "psychedelic" bus in their romp across America. He is a central figure in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). In that nonfictional account of the adventures of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Wolfe examines the "living legend" of Neal Cassady and depicts him as a mythic figure in pursuit of "the westernmost edge of experience."
Cassady did not publish any books while he was alive, but he wrote letters and the first third of his autobiography, published after his death by City Lights Books under the title The First Third & Other Writings (1971). Creative Arts of Berkeley published the letters he wrote to Ginsberg in As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady (1977).
Jack Kerouac — the cause célèbre of the Beat movement — wrote fifteen novels. As Wilson notes in his list, his one best seller, On the Road (his second novel), probably has had a greater impact on its readers than any other work of fiction in the 20th century. I was 17 years old when On the Road was published, and it did indeed have a big impact on me. I played the saxophone in a jazz quintet, which essayed the genre known as hard bop, and was interested in philosophy, particularly philosophy of religion. My sympathies easily lay with the Beats. My family and I were sufficiently part of the "establishment," however, for me to steer a course through college and medical school. Nevertheless, I have remained interested in this jazz-appreciating, quasi-religious movement and have been able to assemble a fairly extensive collection of its literature.
Among Kerouac’s fourteen other novels, the most notable ones are The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), Big Sur (1962), and Visions of Cody (published after his death in 1972). Kerouac also wrote several books of poetry, the most important being Mexico City Blues (1959). A serious collector of Beat literature must acquire all of Kerouac’s books in both their American and British first editions.
Other Beat writers in the Wilson 50 include William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Gary Synder, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Diane DiPrima. Burroughs seminal work is The Naked Lunch (1959). It was issued in Paris in the now famous Traveler’s Companion series of the Olympia Press. Some observers say his "cut-up" method of writing fiction has revolutionized narrative writing more than anything since the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Gregory Corso’s collection of poems titled Gasoline (1958), Number Eight in City Light’s Pocket Poet Series, is on the Wilson 50. Corso is the quintessential Beat. Kerouac describes him as "a tough young kid from the lower East Side who rose like an angel over the rooftops and sang Italian songs as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words." Corso embodied the dual meaning of Beat: one who discovers joy (beatific) through suffering (beat). The beatific part is the blessedness that arises from illumination about the true realities of life, which is rooted, for the Beats, in Zen Buddhism. Employed as a manual laborer in the garment district and at times homeless, Corso met Ginsberg, who said that he was drawn to him by his interesting face, at a bar in Greenwich Village. After seeing the poems that this beaten-down laborer had stashed in a suitcase, Ginsberg took him to meet Kerouac. Corso came to be closely associated with Kerouac and Ginsberg and, taking on the role enfant terrible, thus became a member of what one could call the original triumvirate of Beats.
In 1955 the Beat scene moved to San Francisco. Kerouac and Ginsberg traveled there to visit Neal Cassady, now living in San Jose with his wife, Carolyn, who wrote Heart Beat: My Life with Jack & Neal (1976), and their three children. Ginsberg gave the first public reading of Howl, with Kerouac and Cassady present — offering encouragement and passing around jugs of wine — at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. Two other Beat writers in the Wilson 50 also read poems there that night: Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. McClure’s Dark Brown (1961) and Snyder’s Regarding Wave (1969) are on the Wilson 50 list. Duncan and Ferlinghetti also attended the reading at the Gallery; and Duncan’s Selected Poems (1959) and Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) are among the "50."
After the reading Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books and publisher of the Pocket Poets Series, told Ginsberg that he wanted to publish Howl. Twelve months later, shortly after he published it, the U. S. Customs and the San Francisco police seized the edition and banned its further sale, until forced to release it after City Lights successfully argued the merits of the work in a long court battle. In addition to being a successful bookstore owner, publisher, and important promoter of Beat poets, Ferlinghetti is a first-rate poet himself. His first book of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World (1955), which initiated the Pocket Poet Series (and sold for 65 cents), is an essential work in a collection of Beat literature.
In a seemingly male-dominated movement, three women Beat writers stand out — Denise Levertov, Joyce Johnson, and Diane DiPrima. DiPrima went to Swarthmore College, dropped out after two years and went to live in Greenwich Village in Manhattan with her lovers and write. Her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, was published in 1958. It is also an essential title in a Beat collection. Olympia Press published her Memoirs of a Beatnik in 1969 in its Traveler’s Companion series. It is sexually explicit, "for adults only;" but her picture of Bohemian life in New York rings true. In describing the momentous impact the appearance of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems had on her and her fellow beatniks, she writes:
I already clung instinctively to the easy, unselfconscious Bohemianism we had maintained at the pad, our unspoken sense that we were alone in a strange world, a sense that kept us proud and together. But for the moment all this was buried under a sweeping sense of exhilaration, of glee: someone was speaking for all of us, and the poem [Howl] was good. I was high and delighted. I made my way back to the house and to supper, and we all read the poem. I read it aloud to everyone. A new era had begun.
Robert Wilson justifies putting Memoirs of a Beatnik on his list with these comments: "Beyond question [DiPrima is] the leading female member of the Beat group…[and]…despite the high quality of her poetry at its best, I have selected this volume of memoirs because of its overwhelming honesty, and also because it is the only book I have encountered that presents a totally accurate and at the same time moving account of the Beat period."
Wilson included Denise Levertov’s second book Here and Now (1961) on his list. Published by City Lights, it is Number Six in the Pocket Poet Series. Joyce Johnson, who lived for a short time with Kerouac before he became famous, has written, along with several novels, two books that shed light on the place of women in the Beat movement: Minor Characters: A Memoir of a Young Woman of the 1950’s in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (1983) and Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957—1958 (2000).
Literature about the Beat Generation is large and still growing. For example, I have nine biographies of Jack Kerouac in my collection, and there may be more to be written. There are several good bibliographies of Beat literature. In addition, an important reference work exists in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America (1983).
I continue "on the road," so to speak, in my collector’s pursuit of the Beats and their literary efforts. But as with life, it is the journey, not the destination, that counts.
Donald Miller (send him mail) is a cardiac surgeon and Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness and writes articles on a variety of subjects for LewRockwell.com, including bioterrorism. His web site is www.donaldmiller.com. This article, in somewhat altered form, was published in The Journal of the Book Club of Washington (December 2003, Volume 4, Number 2).