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THE BEATS: REMEMBERED, LIONIZED AND UNREAD
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
For a good 40 years now, Beat literature - the works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure and others - has sat, a big indigestible lump, in the belly of American high culture.
From the first appearance of Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" in 1956 and of Kerouac's novel "On the Road" in '57, with Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" following in 1960, serious literary critics have fastidiously declined to take the Beats' rough writing edges and sopping wet passions seriously.
Popular culture is a different story. The Beatles put Burroughs on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper." Ginsberg made a cameo appearance in the Bob Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back." A generation later, 10,000 Maniacs recorded a song titled "Jack Kerouac." Keith Richards once tried to kick heroin using Burroughs' "apomorphine cure." And Rolling Stone magazine, almost from its earliest issue in 1969, always treated the Beats like the “elder statesmen" of hippiedom they claimed to be.
So the appearance of a big anthology titled "The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture," edited by Holly-George Warren (Hyperion, $27.50), is pretty much a matter of the choir preaching to the choir.
The book dauntingly contains more than 60 entries, ranging from a new essay by Michael McClure to a lengthy critical assessment of the whole Beat book bag by Richard Meltzer. Also included is some interesting perspective from Carolyn Cassady (wife of Neal Cassady, model for Kerouac's "On the Road" hero), analyses by various writers and artists, an absorbing cartoon history of the Beats in New York by Rick Bleier, irrelevant jottings by celebrities like Johnny Depp, old Rolling Stone reviews of Beat books and records and far too many pictures of an aged Burroughs in the company of such acolytes as Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and David Bowie. Perhaps most welcome and significant is the late Lester Bangs' eloquent obituary for Kerouac, published in Rolling Stone.
Yet the book pretty much leaves the Beat conundrum where it was to begin with: We're still left with the task of understanding how the Beats can be fitted into the world of American letters and thought occupied by Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Faulkner and Eliot.
The inclusion of Meltzer's long critique raises some hopes. Meltzer, like Bangs (who died in 1982), is a true inheritor of the Beat spirit. Freewheeling, drunk with words, perverse and of crazy insight, he's like a nihilistic Kerouac eking out a living writing for RS, Creem, Crawdaddy, the Village Voice and other alternative publications.
One of the very few things Meltzer has ever taken seriously is Beat writing. He truly loves the stuff. "Reading Beat literature," he writes here, "calms (soothes) me the way Buddhism - or let's say Buddhist literature - or even Walt Whitman - can't (or doesn't). Or maybe I don't let it, but I let Beat. Soothes me the way watching the rain can. Or a cat washing himself."
Believe it or not, this is one of the most cogent critical remarks anyone has ever made about Beat writing - and since it's cogent only to a very limited degree, the problem is obvious.
But Meltzer's assessment is a letdown because he can't stay serious long enough to dig into all of the books and poems he knows so well. Instead, he dismisses Gary Snyder's work, hasn't much to say about Gregory Corso's and gives short shrift to such Kerouac masterworks as "Doctor Sax" and "Visions of Cody."
He does recognize that Kerouac's novel "Big Stir" - a terrifying true account of a drinking binge ending in delirium tremens - is a work of astonishing honesty and power. It would be better if Meltzer went on to admit that entire long passages of the novel are sheer claptrap, because that mixture in Kerouac and the Beats of the sublime and the lame is one of the things that keep the Beat lump indigestible. (Another is their lack of literary decorum.)
William Faulkner's novels may be the most likely jumping-off point for a serious critical appraisal of the Beats, especially of Kerouac. Although the great Mississippi writer doesn't seem to have been much of an influence on the Beats (they almost never even mention his books in their own writings), the nature of their work makes you think they sat at his feet. A look at "Absalom, Absalom!," "The Sound and the Fury" and other Faulkner books turns up the same endless, headlong sentences and maniacal absorption in sensory detail that Kerouac unreels in "Visions of Cody," "Doctor Sax," "The Railroad Earth" and "Tristessa."
Also, Faulkner and Kerouac are alike insofar as big portions of their books are pure drivel. Take Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun": never has a book contained such a dissonant mixture of great lyrical writing and embarrassing grandiloquence, much like "Big Stir" and "Cody."
If Faulkner can be taken seriously, so can Kerouac.
The one thing no one seems to be doing is really looking at the books themselves. What you find yourself reading about is the Beat lifestyle, not the Beat work. Out of all the rock stars and artists who made pilgrimages to Burroughs' home, which of them knows his novels well enough to point out that "The Wild Boys" is an imagistic classic of American literature, or that substantial portions of such denigrated Burroughs fiction as "The Soft Machine" and "The Ticket that Exploded” are powerful and uncanny, worth reading and rereading?
Ginsberg himself is the one escapee from this critical black hole, mainly because his epic poem, "Kaddish," in memory of his mentally ill mother and her squalid death, is now recognized as one of the great American poems of the century even by poets and writers who hold respectable academic positions and get published in The New Yorker. Burroughs would seem to be in a similar position based on “Naked Lunch," which is invariably named as one of the remarkable and influential books since World War II. The problem is that when you press people, it always turns out they haven't read it.
The lump won't and can't be digested until readers take the trouble to know the books and poems the Beats produced. And it's high time that more "respectable" writers - Thomas Pynchon comes forcefully to mind - who have obviously been influenced by Kerouac and Burroughs should come out of the closet and acknowledge their debt. Until the reading gets done and the writing follows, the Beats will continue to be a mere gallery of wonders in the prehistory of hippie culture.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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