Skip to content

Beat Generation blues

7 April 2016

We had another literary coffee klatsch today (for the first one, see here), once again at Cafe 41 in Arcadia, and this time, at David Levey’s suggestion, we discussed the Beat Generation. David was particularly interested in the correspondence between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and noted that they tended to be male supremacists and exclude females.

I found the discussion very interesting, as I have long been interested in the Beat Generation writers, and interest sparked off by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, who mentioned them in a paper he read at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation at Modderpoort in 1960 (and he was invited back for a second go in 1961). You can click the link for a combined version of both papers, with the title Pilgrims of the Absolute.

My favourite book by Jack Kerouac is The Dharma Bums, and my favourite work by Allen Ginsberg is his poem Howl. Jack Kerouac is probably best known for his first novel On the Road, which I didn’t much like. But in view of David’s comment about male exclusivity, I suggested that an interesting comparison could be made between On the Road and Off the Road: my years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, which is a feminine take on it. As the GoodReads summary puts it:

On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac’s years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, “a sideburned hero of the snowy West.” As “Sal Paradise” and “Dean Moriarty,” the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience.

Neal Cassady (alias Dean Moriaty) and Jack Kerouac (alias Sal Paradise). Photo taken by Carolyn Cassady.

Neal Cassady (alias Dean Moriaty) and Jack Kerouac (alias Sal Paradise). Photo taken by Carolyn Cassady.

The actual events that Kerouac writes about took place in the 1940s, and their carefree jaunting around wasn’t much fun for Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn, who was left home holding the baby. As she describes it, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were selfish, immature and irresponsible, and she was probably right. Except that she met Neal Cassady during his jaunting, and should have known what he was like.

The impression I got from her book (which none of the others had read) was that Carolyn was torn between the freedom and spontaneity of the Bohemian jaunting of Neal and Jack, and the current bourgeois ideal of the stable American nuclear family, which, however “square” it may have seemed, did have its attractions when you had to feed and clothe the kids and pay the rent.

The bourgeois American family ideal

The bourgeois American family ideal

Later the Beat movement (as opposed to the much smaller group of the Beat Generation writers) came to a more conscious and explicit rejection of what they saw as bourgeois American values, and by the late 1950s the movement was quite widespread, and ten years later, in the late 1960s had morphed into the hippie movement, which spawned a lively underground press and a much more widespread and vocal countercultural movement. But in its inchoate beginnings in the 1940s it was much less articulate.

At this point we began talking at cross-purposes. What were the characteristics of the generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and lived through the Second World War? Tanya Pretorius thought that the women were proto-feminists, and were the first generation who had learned to be independent of males (I hope I’m not misrepresenting her point there).

GraFlan1I tend it to see it more in economic terms. Contrary to what the picture asserts, the things in the picture are all things that can only be bought with money: the clothes, the houses, the quiet neighbourhood. People had to earn enough money to live like that, and it was usually the males who had to commute from the suburbs to the city centre in order to earn the money that enabled them to live in the suburbs. And for the Beat Generation this was the “rat race” that they opted out of.

One of the points made by Brother Roger in the Pilgrims of the Absolute paper was that the Beat Generation and others were engaged in a spiritual search, and the Christian churches of the time were so embedded in the rat race themselves that they had nothing to show to such seekers. But there were also bourgeois seekers of the time, and they followed spiritual teachers like Edgar Cayce and Starr Daily. Carolyn Cassady was interested in both and for a time managed to interest Neal and Jack in them, but never with much enthusiasm. I recalled that in the 1950s my mother was engaged in a spiritual search, and had some books by Starr Daily, and also received a publication called The Path of Truth from a local guru, Nichol Campbell, whose teaching was based on Theosophy. Tanya Pretorius thought I was being rather dismissive in comparing Edgar Cayce with Nichol Campbell, whom I described as a motivational speaker. She thought Edgar Cayce deserved to be taken more seriously than that.

It was about this time that Jack Kerouac encountered Gary Snyder (alias Japhy Rider in The Dharma Bums). I thought (and this thought really struck me most strongly in this discussion, so I have to thank Tanya, David and Val for prompting it), that Gary Snyder was a much healthier  role model for Jack Kerouac than Neal Cassady, and sparked off his “Zen Catholicism” thoughts, which he expressed in The Dharma Bums. When he came down from the mountain (literally and figuratively) as recounted in Desolation Angels he fell under the influence of Neal Cassady again, and his writing deteriorated, and never recovered. Neal Cassady was really more of a ducktail than a Beat.

And that sparked off a memory of when I was a student, and a youthful member of the Liberal Party, and a group of us Liberal Party youth were rounded up and taken to meet the Grand Dame of the Liberal Party, Margaret Ballinger, who had been the only Liberal MP in the South African parliament until her seat was abolished (she represented the black constituency of Cape Western). At the gathering she asked me to explain to her the difference between beatniks and ducktails, which I did by saying that the beatniks (well, actually the Beats) rejected the values and goods that bourgeois society offered, and sought to disaffiliate from it, whereas ducktails accepted the values, but just wanted to get the goods more quickly — as Queen later put it, “we want it all, and we want it now”. So it seems to me that Neal Cassady was more of a ducktail than a Beat.

Some of this rejection of bourgeois American values is told in a book written by someone from the outside looking in to the Beat counterculture of the late 1950s, The Holy Barbarians, by Lawrence Lipton. Perhaps this quote from Lipton’s book can show why Brother Roger compared the Beats to the early Franciscans, and this is the core of the hipster attitude:

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honorable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 December 2020 12:40 am

    I have read Kerouac, Huxley and Wolf, all good authors with different takes. Wolf would be the most sensible of the authors at that time, and the more believable. On The Road is a book you have to adjust to, it is not an easy read. Funny how the times changed. Kerouac hated hippies and Ginsberg morphed into one. I think the entire bunch was content being in their own circle of so called “beats.” The hippies were not beats, although the movement used them as idols. I was partially one in those times, but couldn’t take the total fake love and peace scene. Once I grew up, that was it. Many did not choose adult-hood and are still stuck in the 60s. Visit Austin Texas if you want to see a flashback.


  1. Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism | Notes from underground

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: