A Literary History of the Beats / Hassan Melehy

The Beats (clockwise from front left): Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, and Allen Ginsburg in New York in the late 1950s. Photograph: John Cohen/Getty Images

The Beats: A Literary History, by Steven Belletto. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

This is a wonderful book. I’ve probably learned more about literature from it than from any other book I’ve read in a long time—creative processes, genre, form, experiment, the publishing industry including small presses, the roles of journalists and scholars in literary reception, the relationship between live reading and print. Belletto concentrates on the midcentury, when most of the works he addresses were published. But he’s clearly aware of the shape of literary practices and institutions in the present day, and it wouldn’t be hard to extend his observational methodology further back in time than the Beat Generation. My point is that The Beats: A Literary History is of broader readerly interest than its title suggests. Belletto aims not merely to provide a literary history but to situate the Beat writers in literary history, from which, in both academic and journalistic criticism, for many years they were excluded as unworthy. That is, in demonstrating these writers’ deep involvement with all aspects of literature, from earnest reading in the canon to sweating over literary technique to running the obstacle course of New York publishing, Belletto makes the case for seeing them as notable contributors to American literature.

Anyone more than superficially familiar with the Beat writers knows they were immersed in the Western canon and much else—in the works of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, and many others, well-informed references turn up to Villon, Shakespeare, Spenser, Goethe, Rabelais, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Bashō, Han Shan, and so on. The Beat writers inherited the modernist reverence for literature as refuge from cultural chaos, some of them observing it to a fault. Anyone who studies them also knows that a persistently widespread opinion is that they did the opposite—that they stand out among Anglophone writers as unschooled, indifferent to if not scornful of the classics, unconcerned with matters of genre or form. In fact, the Beat writers have met with both praise and blame for their supposedly lackadaisical approach to reading and writing, a model for the slacker and a whipping post for the self-righteous. Consequently, a focus of fandom as well as dismissal has been their lives rather than their work, fact or pseudofact rather than form. Belletto’s subtitle, A Literary History, is a terse riposte. The book fully lives up to its task.

Misrepresentation of the Beats is Belletto’s starting point. But rather than assume the defensive posture that marks much Beat scholarship, he digs into the chasm between Beat writing and its reception: popular portraits involve gross distortions that he traces to the slew of media depictions that greeted the Beat Generation. The irony is that representation is a major aesthetic preoccupation of the well-known and lesser-known figures of the loosely cohering movement. It’s certainly true that in much Beat writing the raw material is autobiography. But it hardly follows that the authors’ aim is primarily autobiographical. “When thinking about the Beats,” writes Belletto, “it is therefore essential to foreground questions of representation, to recognize that however much real life inspired and informed literary production, their achievement rests finally in the nature of this production, in the distinctive ways they explored and experimented with language” (4). With such analytically crisp sentences, Belletto proceeds with his inquiry.

His opening example is the incident that brought the young writers their first media exposure, the 1944 murder of David Kammerer by Julian Carr. This story of a younger straight man killing an older gay man who had stalked him for years is familiar in Beat lore. Often regarded as a founding event, it is the subject of some of the earliest and most recent representations of the Beat Generation: the novel that Burroughs and Kerouac co-wrote in 1944–1945 (first published 2008), And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which Kerouac reworked as the short novel I Wish I were You (first published 2016), and John Krokidas’s rotely hagiographic 2013 movie Kill Your Darlings. Belletto shows that, against critical judgments that Hippos simply follows the facts, Burroughs and Kerouac use narrative and point of view precisely to question the facts as reported in the media: “Hippos unsettles the official story…. This unsettling depends on the interplay of real life and fictional stories, meaning that one cannot read Hippos hermetically, by bracketing biographical and cultural contexts, a truism that applies to essentially all Beat literature” (6).

Although Belletto gives extensive space to the “Big Three”—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs—his book is impressive for the panoply of authors it includes. He emphasizes the broad reach of the Beat Generation, the fact that it was and remains an idea that attracted many, something “mutable and protean” (16), rather than a set group with a plan. In chapter two he details its close connections with a number of literary avant-gardes—Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School. Belletto demonstrates the intersections of Beat practice with the techniques and erudition of these small communities, the closest he comes to apologetics. The series of names becomes kaleidoscopic: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Anatole Broyard, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, George Mandel, Chandler Brossard, John Clellon Holmes, Peter Orlovsky, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Ted Joans, Joyce Johnson, Elise Cowen, Tuli Kupferberg, Harold Norse, Ed Sanders, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch, Bonnier Bremser, Ray Bremser, Janine Pommy Vega, Lenore Kandel, and more. The chapters, numbering a prodigious thirteen, are organized into four parts: “Get Hip, My Soul: How It All Got Started (1944–1948),” “Underground to Literary Celebrity (1948–1957),” “The Beatnik Era and the Profusion of Beat Literature” (1958–1962),” and “Beat Politics” (1962–1969).” In parts one and two, Belletto brings a more comprehensive view to the beginnings and rising fame of the Beat Generation than previous books have. Part three chronicles the journalistic and scholarly reactions to the Beat Generation, mostly dismissals targeting berets and messy apartments. Crucially, Belletto shows that the responses of many Beat writers to such caricature involved parody of the Beatnik image that critics mistook for advocacy. In part four, Belletto documents the increasing political consciousness of Beat writers in the 1960s, stemming from their dissident aesthetics as well as the social turbulence around the Vietnam War.

I hate to make a single complaint about such a well-done book. But in the spirit of an academic review, I have two overlapping ones. The first is that Belletto tends to regard the Beat Generation as belonging to an America in isolation from the rest of the world. This is a nearsighted view: not only were many of the writers of recent immigrant heritage—Kerouac (French-Canadian), Corso (Italian), di Prima (Italian), Ginsberg (Russian Jewish), to name three—but these heritages were also their occasion for reflecting on the limits of American culture, ideology, and world-political hegemony, a core component of their work that early critics almost completely missed. Although Belletto acknowledges the exploits in Mexico, Morocco, and France, he barely consider the ways that, say, Kerouac and Ginsberg incorporated elements of especially French literature in their writing, or that Burroughs viewed the Tangier International Zone (which in his fiction becomes the Interzone) as offering a basic challenge to the rule of nations.

Symptomatic is Belletto’s omission of the name of the principal actress in the short film Pull My Daisy (1959), Delphine Seyrig, who soon became one of the most celebrated French stars of the late twentieth century: curiously, he points out that her character has no name—he thus reproduces the very gesture he criticizes as misogynist (311). Making her first screen appearance, Seyrig displays the self-possessed flare that became her trademark in such monumental films as Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a demeanor that casts an ironic tint over Pull My Daisy’s boyfest atmosphere. My second complaint stems from my first: the limited attention Belletto gives to certain important women, exceptions to his otherwise staunch challenge to Beat Generation misogyny and its validation in criticism. Beginning with di Prima’s statement “As a woman, I was invisible” (315), he explains that women were active in the Beat Generation as “poets, prose writers, dramatists, and editors” (316). He rightly credits the editorship of the journal Yugen to both LeRoi and Hettie Jones (160–68); but he speaks of “LeRoi Jones’s Totem Press” (268), whereas in her memoir How I Became Hettie Jones (1990), Hettie Jones makes clear it was both their project. Although Belletto recognizes Joyce Johnson’s Come and Join the Dance (1962) as the first Beat novel by a woman (317), he makes no mention of her energetic publishing career: besides being editor of LeRoi Jones’s early prose works and Kerouac’s posthumous Visions of Cody (1972), Johnson saw to print such authors as Abbie Hoffman, Stanley Aronowitz, and Ron Kovic. In according these women and several others a single chapter (“The Women Who Said Something,” 315–44), he underestimates their contributions. But to be fair, women authors also figure in other chapters.

These are tiny blind spots in a powerful broadsiding of many durable commonplaces. Belletto’s masterfully narrated history is filled with sensitive, respectful appraisals of writers whose work has been widely misunderstood if not largely ignored. I expect that The Beats: A Literary History, alongside the companion volume of which Belletto is editor, The Cambridge Companion to the Beats (2017), will remain indispensable reading on the subject for a long time to come.

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Editor’s note: Hassan Melehy’s review of Steven Belletto’s The Beats: A Literary History can be read in response to Belletto’s review of Hassan Melehy’s Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory (Bloomsbury, 2016)published in ASAP/J here.

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