Breaking up with the Beats

Kerouac and company were my first literary loves -- but I had to get off their road.

Published April 12, 1999 4:08PM (EDT)

In 1958, decades before his conversion to neoconservatism, the young leftist intellectual Norman Podhoretz ended his essay "The Know-Nothing Bohemians" with what we now recognize as his characteristic either/or pugnacity. The Beat Generation, he argued, glamorized the primitive and the instinctual and hated the civilized and the rational; to oppose or support the Beats, therefore, "has to do ... with being for or against intelligence itself."

Reading this today, I'm inclined to laugh. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, probably even Jack Kerouac, were surely better wired and immeasurably lighter on their feet than an earnest A-minus student like Podhoretz. Nevertheless, in those early days -- when Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" was still the mysterious unpublished novel Ginsberg's dedication to "Howl" promised would "drive everybody mad" -- Podhoretz was smart to recognize the Beat writers as avatars of an alternative, anticanonical literature, whose work demanded, both implicitly and explicitly, that other writers and readers stand with them or against them.

I was only 11 when Podhoretz's piece came out, but when I discovered the Beats a few years later, I felt the pressure too. So did my friends. So has every generation since. The Beats believed -- and not without reason -- that rigid literary forms reflect and perpetuate political, social, racial, sexual, psychic and spiritual oppression; their writing was in part an altar call on behalf of a freer, more passionate, more intuitive life and letters. Kerouac's "On the Road" posits a literary community far from seminars and cocktail parties: the open road and the writer's life seem like metaphors for each other. Burroughs hit upon a wildly appealing synthesis of high-bohemian contempt for the bourgeoisie and the cantankerous American individualism of the frontier saga and the Hollywood western. Lee, the protagonist of Burroughs's long-unpublished second novel, "Queer," feels "a killing hate for the stupid, ordinary, disapproving people who kept him from doing what he wanted to do. 'Someday I am going to have things just like I want,' he said to himself. [He has in mind a Huck Finn-like life in a territory where drugs and boys are always on hand.] 'And if any moralizing son of a bitch gives me any static, they will fish him out of the river.'"

The Beats cast themselves as the Romantics of the 20th century: similarly libertarian, similarly dismissive of received literary forms, similarly intent on what they considered direct expression of inner states of feeling. And like Blake, Byron and Shelley, they pioneered a radical sensibility that, when sufficiently domesticated, came to typify the rest of their century. From Bob Dylan through Kurt Cobain, popular music has been essentially post-Beat poetry with electric guitars, and as Burroughs wrote, "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages."

Directly or indirectly, Beat literature has transformed much of America. Except for American literature. Beat, once-Beat and post-Beat poets (Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, the poetry slam movement) continue to hold their ground, but they simply constitute one more school -- like their evil twins, the New Formalists, squinting over sestinas in the age of hip-hop. Mainstream-modern lyric poets like John Ashbery still win most of the prizes and get most of the teaching gigs. Among novelists, Kerouac and Burroughs may be honored as role models of American cussedness, as familiar spirits, as Promethean innovators, as visionaries who lived on enviably intimate terms with their imaginations. But relatively few people actually want to write like either of them, and few of those few will have their work taken seriously by whatever's left of the literary establishment. A 21-year-old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft.

In a way, this has all worked out just as it should. By keeping their outsider cachet, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs get to stay forever young; they're discovered and taken to heart by generation after generation of late adolescent idealists who aspire to become holy degenerates. The Beats make wonderful, moody, endlessly engaging armchair buddies; Burroughs, particularly, is a cranky, brilliant, funny, ironic and sometimes heartbreaking presence on the page. But they're also dicey company for a young writer. Not so much because they're apt to make drugs and unsafe sex seem like a hell of an adventure -- who could deny it? -- but because their ideology of endless possibility paradoxically limited their literary options. And their various theories, manifestos and obiter dicta tended to discourage the rigorous self-scrutiny that enables a writer to reach the truest, weirdest, innermost vision.

Though the Beats' basically unworldly sensibility seems more congenial to poetry -- lyric meditation, prophetic outburst, bardic yarn-spinning -- two of the movement's three great figures were novelists. (For a writer who yearns to leave a mark -- however unworldly that yearning may be -- the Great American Novel always trumps the Great American Epic Poem.) Predictably, their narratives, for all their expansive and democratic impulses, largely turn away from the society in which most people live -- which the Beats regarded with Wordsworthian loathing as a wasteland of getting and spending. Instead, they favor either fictionalized memoirs mythologizing their fellow outsiders or nightmare fantasias in which scraps of the everyday social and political world bob like bits of rotten meat in a foul stew of language.

The mimetic notion of fiction that drives the work of mainstream writers from Richardson through Raymond Carver -- the dioramalike illusion of real-seeming people in real-seeming settings and situations, with incidents selected and contrived to give the work a distinct and dramatic shape -- interested the Beats only as reading matter (Burroughs liked to kick back with Frederick Forsyth), not as the proper business of a serious writer.

The critique of American life in "Naked Lunch" isn't essentially different from that in John Cheever's contemporaneous Shady Hill stories. Burroughs evoked "a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky. In lifeproof houses they hover over the young, sop up a little of what they shut out. Only the young bring anything in, and they are not young very long." And he could spin out surreal parodies of TV-commercial consumerism: "AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (opening a box of Lux): 'Why don't it have an electric eye the box flip open when it see me and hand itself to the Automat Handy Man he should put it inna water already ...'" But it wouldn't have occurred to Burroughs to try to limn AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE's secret sorrows. She's not a character, but simply a voice in one of those "routines," in which you seldom have to dig deep to hit polemical paydirt.

Cheever, on the other hand, half anthropologist and half fabulist, created an imaginary suburbia in rich and convincing (if sometimes ostentatiously loony) detail, and peopled it with plausible (if sometimes ostentatiously loony) imaginary suburbanites. Francis Weed, in "The Country Husband," rebels as bitterly as any Beat from what was then called "conformity" -- he just doesn't have the nerve to do much of anything about it -- and the miracle cure for his seven-year itch (psychiatry and therapeutic woodworking) seems parodic. Yet Cheever -- and in this he's more like the openhearted Kerouac than the fiercer Burroughs -- also saw the sweetness, the covert, ultimately irrepressible anarchy and the admirable if smug and clubby decencies of Shady Hill.

On the one hand, truth and prophetic intensity; on the other, verisimilitude and negative capability. Readers don't really have to choose sides, even if Norman Podhoretz says they do. Anybody's library should have room for the book of Revelation (that most Burroughsian of sacred texts), William Blake and Allen Ginsberg, as well as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot. Writers, though -- except in their capacity as readers -- can't afford to keep an open mind. The Beats' ethic of spontaneity, their suspicion of form, their openness to aleatory techniques (as in Burroughs' cut-ups), their extreme subjectivity and their spiritual dogmatism are strong temptations to unformed writers. Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" recommends "no pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained" -- and no revisions after the fact. In a list entitled "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose," he advises writers to "remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibitions" and reminds them, "You're a Genius all the time."

This sounds like a lot more fun than Flaubert sweating bullets all day to grind out two sentences -- more fun for the writer, at least -- and far more productive than Philip Roth's standard practice of writing a hundred pages or so to get a few lines that could serve as the starting point for a novel. But it takes a leap of faith to consider every vagary of consciousness aesthetically sacred, and such faculties as judgment, taste and discrimination unholy mutations, offenses against the spirit. And readers with such faculties may not leap with you.

Mainstream writers, of course, regularly go through something like the process Kerouac recommends: spewing out thoughts, images, snatches of dialogue. (Even so mandarin a personage as Vladimir Nabokov once obliged a curious interviewer by reading out a few such random, incomprehensible notebook jottings.) And the Beats -- even Kerouac -- did in fact revise their work. In a 1955 letter, Burroughs tells Ginsberg he'll "often sort through 100 pages" of letters and journal fragments "to concoct 1 page" of his pre-"Naked Lunch" novel "Interzone" -- exactly like Roth. Subsequent letters show him working 10 hours a day, cutting and rearranging "Naked Lunch"; finally, in 10 days, he "welded the whole book together into a real organic continuity."

Still, we mostly associate ostensibly conventional writers with heroic perfectionism. The Beats have no legendary feats of hunger artistry like Pound cutting "The Waste Land" or Lish cutting Carver, no Hemingway challenging buddies to shorten a single one of his sentences; fairly or unfairly, the popular image of the Beat writer remains Kerouac speeding his brains out, a mile-long roll of paper chugging through his chattering typewriter. Nor do the Beats have achievements like Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" or Carver's "Fat" -- short, exquisitely shaped pieces of utter elegance and devastating power, in which every word pulls its weight.

In "Interzone," Burroughs made wicked sport with just this sort of talk: "Not bad, young man, not bad. But you must learn the meaning of discipline. Now you will observe in my production every word got some kinda awful function fit into mosaic on the shithouse wall of the world." This is a masterstroke of contempt. Literary formalists are old blowhards who don't understand a new mode of writing that can't be "fixed" with a little stick-to-it-ivity. Worse still, in Burroughs' essentially Manichaean view, they're collaborators with the cosmic status quo, the doctored "reality film," the jailhouse of time, space and language. "What scared you all into time?" Burroughs wrote in Nova Express. "Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: 'the word.'" Kerouac's Buddhist Catholicism also led him to regard the visible world as a con game and language as the barker's spiel. "Why do we fool to be alive," he wrote in "Desolation Angels." "Enough I've said it all, and there's not even a Desolation in Solitude, not even this page, not even words, but the prejudged show of things impinging on your habit energy -- O Ignorant brothers, O Ignorant sisters, O Ignorant me! there's nothing to write about, everything is nothing, there's everything to write about! -- Time! Time! Things! Things! Why? Why? ... look closely, you're being fooled -- look close, you're dreaming."

Needless to say, the conviction that both words and phenomena are unreal doesn't dispose a novelist either to fuss over le mot juste or to get lost in the intricate passions and conflicts of deluded worldlings. Kerouac and Burroughs wrote their best when most in love with the world -- Kerouac chiefly treasured its sad sweetness, Burroughs its rich, Falstaffian villainies and the rich contempt they excited in him -- or most pained by its evanescence. Near the end of his life, Burroughs dropped the steely ironies and wrote artlessly and lovingly about his cats. "They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face."

Podhoretz was right that our attitude toward the Beats has something to do with our attitude toward intelligence. But it didn't occur to him that it might be intelligent to be skeptical of intelligence. Samuel Johnson was. Samuel Beckett was. (If they didn't learn this paradox from experience, they probably picked it up where Harold Bloom says the rest of us did, from "Hamlet.") If the Beats ditched intelligence too quickly in favor of mysticism or hedonism, how much longer should they have stuck with it? Until they ended up like Beckett's Unnamable, so gridlocked in dualism that instant denial negated every assertion, and that denial denied in its turn? If the Beats were conveniently self-forgiving in matters of literary craft, at least they had a convenient rationale: As Kerouac put it, "Craft is craft."

And if the Beats trusted too much that their subjectivities would somehow mesh with their readers' subjectivities -- at least they trusted. Kerouac didn't tweak his sub-picaresque plots or shape his scenes for dramatic effect, but he somehow got readers to experience a mood and a moment so strongly that they tried to re-create it in their own lives. Dean Moriarty, the pseudonymized Neal Cassady of "On the Road," is one of American literature's great characters; so is Kerouac's ongoing, unprettified self-portrait under such names as Sal Paradise and Jack Duluoz: a needy, self-doubting depressive prone to both spiritual panic attacks and arias of ecstasy. Despite Burroughs' satisfaction with the "organic continuity" of "Naked Lunch," its riffs, routines, voices and shards of narrative seem determined by subjective considerations to which we're not privy. But his inventiveness, his gift for ventriloquism and his weird fusion of the outrageous with the coldly logical supply something like the momentum of a conventional plot, every sentence its own cliffhanger.

And not far beneath Burroughs' Martian ironies, his fearsome transgressiveness and his flashes of mystic irrationalism, the reader feels moral bedrock. Sooner or later, every would-be writer who takes the Beats to heart has to make Podhoretz's Choice, and I had to go the other way. For one thing, some of this stuff just wasn't readable -- though I'd still rather slog through "Minutes to Go" or Kerouac's onomatopoeic sea poem at the end of "Big Sur" than "Finnegans Wake." For another, I didn't believe in magic: The Burroughs/Brion Gysin notion of exposing hidden truths by cutting up and folding in texts seemed as silly to me as Yeats or James Merrill summoning up spooks at the Ouija board, and Kerouac's Catholicism bored me even more than Flannery O'Connor's.

But mostly it became obvious to me that I wasn't a genius all the time, and that I could only make my work better by working on it. The Beats reverenced the work in part for the process of its creation. ("The usual novel," Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg during the writing of "Naked Lunch," "has happened. This novel is happening.") This resistance to the notion of art as artifact is a smart way of "reading" a Charlie Parker solo, in which the kick is to witness its coming into being; but for me it began to seem a dubious approach to a text -- in which the words count for everything, and what might or might not be in the writer's mind, heart and soul count for nothing.

And finally, Beat dogmatism and messianism started to wear me out. Burroughs, particularly, loved to hand out free advice in his books -- "cut lines of control," "storm the reality studio" -- and I began to think that my relations with reality were none of his damn business. Probably I was being defensive, because I'd begun to wallow in what Kerouac would have dismissed, however sweetly and compassionately, as the world of maya -- that is, of Dickens and Austen, Tolstoy and George Eliot -- and I figured I'd pay the piper on the next karmic go-around. Or maybe I could do penance here and now in Beckett's lavish deprivations, his anguished reveling in the noble futilities of language. But my choice was simply a matter of taste and temperament. It wasn't about intelligence (as Podhoretz would've said) or about collaborating with literary Nova criminals (as true believers might think) in order to review and get reviewed in the New York Times. It was just how things happened to happen, and I don't offer this account of my backings and forthings as covert advice. The Beats were my first vicarious mentors, and they have my gratitude, my admiration -- my love, is what I'm avoiding saying. It's just that they can't have me.

By David Gates

David Gates is a staff critic for Newsweek and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, "Wonders of the Invisible World."

MORE FROM David Gates

Related Topics ------------------------------------------