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Irregular Beats: The Surprising Politics of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg

(Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs)

“It is hard to say whether this philosophy would have had any adherents other than Kerouac, but it would have represented something new and uplifting—a counterculture to the counterculture.”

“We love everything: Billy Graham, the Big Ten, rock and roll, Zen, apple pie, Eisenhower—we dig it all.”

Jack Kerouac on Nightbeat, 1957

It is not an overstatement to say that Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road had a seismic impact on American youth culture—one that continues to reverberate. Kerouac’s tale of struggling poets, societal outcasts, and one fast-talking con man, all barreling down the highways of America toward no fixed destination, was initially read as a repudiation of the values of 1950s suburban America, even though the events described therein—true events loosely embellished—had occurred in the more idiosyncratic late-1940s just before the mass adoption of television.

Granted, it would have been a rebellious book in any era. But through a happy accident of timing—Kerouac’s manuscript took six years to attract a publisher adventurous enough to take a gamble on it—On the Road appeared after Marlon Brando, James Dean, Bill Haley, and Elvis Presley had primed the youth-culture fuse. Suddenly, Kerouac was not just a working novelist but the media-anointed spokesman for “The Beat Generation”—the phrase itself something Kerouac had coined, half in jest, during a casual conversation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes several years earlier (as recounted in Allen Ginsberg’s The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats). “Naw, this isn’t a lost generation,” he had said. “This is a beat generation.” He meant “beat” as in downbeat, washed-up, out of options—in other words, nothing to lose. But additional meanings suggested themselves. There was the musical “beat”—first the bebop rhythms that informed Kerouac’s prose and then, as the 1950s unfolded, the insistent backbeat of nascent rock ‘n’ roll and all the rowdiness associated with it.

Now Kerouac was being pinned to words once uttered casually, just a few of the million-plus he had already thrown onto paper and into the air since he had first committed himself to the writing vocation in his late teens. With the arrival of fame, and being forced to reconcile the earlier, tossed-off statement with the several revolutions of his inner philosophical wheel that had occurred since then, he revised his meaning to make the “Beat Generation” about something other than pure sensation.

“[Kerouac] clarified his intention,” his friend Allen Ginsberg later observed, “which was ‘beat’ as in beatific, as in ‘dark night of the soul,’ or ‘cloud of unknowing,’ the necessary beatness of darkness that precedes opening up to light, egolessness, giving room for religious illumination.” This was a more appropriate definition of “beat” as applied to Kerouac, for Jack was more an observer and seeker than rebel, and not especially attuned to the left-wing politics that came into the mix as the Beat movement migrated to San Francisco in the 1950s and took on new adherents. He was “basically unhostile,” as his friend and fellow Beat writer William S. Burroughs noted. So, it is possible that Kerouac’s public crowning as a leader of youth revolt turbocharged his drinking (which had always fortified his shyness) and hastened his early demise from cirrhosis. Few writers have worked harder for their success. Few were so blindsided by its arrival.

Desolation Angels

The Beat Generation as it originally existed was hardly a generation or movement at all. It was the Venn Diagram overlap of three unlikely friends and aspiring writers—Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg—and their sometimes-unwitting muses (Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Joan Vollmer, and others).

This trio met in New York City in the 1940s via mutual friends and a shared connection to Columbia University. Kerouac, a handsome former football player and Columbia dropout, hailed from the insular French-Canadian community of Lowell, Massachusetts. He harbored serious literary ambitions and a quasi-Norman Rockwell view of life (As recounted in Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover’s 2013 book Mania, he was described to his future wife Joan Haverty as having “some middle class ideas about marriage” and being “serious about settling down and having a family”). Yet his twin appetites for intoxicants and the freedom of the open road doomed all attempts at constancy.

Ginsberg was Jewish, self-conscious, and gay, the son of a socialist poet father and a fiercely communist (and grievously mentally ill) mother. With Kerouac, he shared a love of literature and a curiosity about the wild side of life.

It says something about Kerouac and Ginsberg’s ability to see beneath the surface that that they adopted Burroughs—an awkward loner, the black sheep of a wealthy St. Louis family who had failed at virtually everything he had tried in life—as a mentor, a role Burroughs took to with relish. Burroughs was the first great teacher of the Beats, and his quirky libertarian philosophy probably had something to do with the group’s early apolitical, outsider stance. Here is how Kerouac described Burroughs (as “Old Bull Lee”) in On the Road:

“Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops. He spent all his time talking and teaching others. Jane (Joan Vollmer) sat at his feet; so did I; so did Dean (Neal Cassady); and so had Carlo Marx (Ginsberg). We’d all learned from him.”

(The “Old Bull” pseudonym may have been a double-entendre. Burroughs was indeed older than his Beat cohorts. But Kerouac, even with his tendency toward naivete and over-romanticizing, might have suspected there was more than a little “old bull” in Old Bull’s reveries.)

Some 15 years after the impromptu salons described in On the Road, the author William Styron encountered a seemingly unchanged Burroughs at the tail end of the Eisenhower era, shortly after Burroughs’s controversial novel Naked Lunch had been published in France by the Olympia Press. “It might interest you to know […] that while in Paris I attended a jazz-poetry session presided over by (Beat poet) Gregory Corso,” Styron wrote to John P. Marquand, Jr. (reprinted in Selected Letters of William Styron).

“All the international hip set was there and afterwards I fell into company with Bill Burroughs. He is an absolutely astonishing personage, with the grim mad face of Savonarola and a hideously tailored 1925 shit-colored overcoat and scarf to match and a gray fedora pulled down tight around his ears. He reminded me of nothing so much as a mean old Lesbian and is a fantastic reactionary, very prim and tight lipped and proper who spoke of our present Republican administration as that ‘dirty group of Reds.’ I thought he was kidding but he was not; he is as mad as a hatter…”

(Styron clearly did not share Kerouac’s appreciation for Old Bull’s charms.)

I will stop short of labeling Kerouac and Burroughs “conservative,” at least in the commonly understood sense, and note a few things that would have kept them out of any 1950s-era Republican golf gathering. Despite his common-law marriage to Joan Vollmer (whom he ultimately shot through the forehead in 1951 while drunk), William Burroughs was openly homosexual. He was also a ferocious drug addict obsessed with aliens, Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone therapy,” the alleged mind control powers of the ancient Mayan priests, and, later, Scientology. His writings, in addition to being preoccupied with the aforementioned subjects, were noted for their violence, scatology, and homoerotic imagery, their plots often presented out of logical order and, during the Naked Lunch era, further scrambled by their author’s mind shattering experiences ingesting the Peruvian hallucinogenic vine yagé.

Kerouac, despite his bottom-of-the-glass Rockwellian sensibility and his 1952 support of Republican Senator Robert Taft for the presidency, was himself a former communist fellow-traveler whose political ideas did not exactly follow a straight line. (In a 2022 article for CounterPunch, Jonah Raskin asserts that Kerouac was at one point an anti-communist and then an “anti-anti-communist” and that his unpublished essay on the Army-McCarthy hearings both excoriated McCarthy’s methods and largely concurred with his underlying thesis.) Kerouac’s sexual history was similarly zigzagged, including, amid three marriages and numerous girlfriends, trysts with Ginsberg and Gore Vidal.

No, they were not optimal conservative spokesmen, these two. Still, it is fascinating to ponder that 2/3 of the Beat Generation trinity that so influenced the subsequent generation of hippies and anti-war activists tilted rightward philosophically, an orientation that put both men at odds—at least superficially— with the ideologies and aims of their successors.

On the Firing Line

Burroughs, for his part, pivoted. By the mid-1960s, he had already been moving toward a sort of anarchic hard-left libertarianism, never abandoning his enthusiasm for the Second Amendment but jettisoning many of the other right-wing preoccupations that had informed his letters and living-room lectures of the 1940s. As Beat Scholar David S. Wills notes in his 2013 book Scientologist!: Williams S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, “[F]ighting control mechanisms was the only important battle,” a mindset that overlapped enough with the aims of the emergent counterculture that Burroughs could cast his lot with the revolution with some credibility—even as he continued to dress in banker’s attire and observe strict punctuality in all endeavors.

Kerouac had a tougher time of it. As the youth culture became more confrontational, so too did Jack’s rebuttals. “Listen, my politics haven’t changed,” he stated in 1968. “And I haven’t changed. I’m solidly behind Bill Buckley, if you want to know. Nothing I wrote in my books, nothing could be seen as basically in disagreement with this.”

Kerouac subsequently went on William F. Buckley Jr’s Firing Line television program in 1968 to elaborate on this point, but the appearance quickly devolved into farce. Just 11 years after On the Road had catapulted him to fame, he had become a physical and psychological wreck. Still, he emerged from his stupor for brief flashes of insight, as during a pointed exchange with the younger poet-musician-activist Ed Sanders. Kerouac, rearing up like an inebriated Old Testament prophet, declared: “I made myself famous by writing ‘songs’ and lyrics about the beauty of the things I did and ugliness too. You made yourself famous by saying, ‘Down with this, down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that!’ Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse; you may have it back.” Elsewhere he insisted, “The Beat generation was a generation of the attitude, the pleasure in life, and tenderness. But they called it in the papers ‘the Beat Mutiny,’ ‘the Beat Insurrection’—words I never used. Being a Catholic, I believe in order, tenderness, and piety.”

These were just about the only things Kerouac said that made sense, and they represent a fascinating missed opportunity. Openly here, and implicit in his writings, Kerouac was positing a sort of alternative conservatism—a mix of Catholic mysticism, old America nostalgia (the football-and-apple-pie America as opposed to Burroughs’ opium-in-every-drugstore America), and Whitmanesque exuberance with a garnish of Zen playfulness. It is hard to say whether this philosophy would have had any adherents other than Kerouac, but it would have represented something new and uplifting—a counterculture to the counterculture. The Firing Line appearance demonstrated that he had strong ideas of what differentiated his work from what followed, but he was, sadly, too far gone to put them forward beyond a feisty outburst or two.

“Following the Beat movement to its logical conclusion”

Burroughs was in the audience during the Firing Line taping, and though he never became an activist like Sanders and his compatriots, he concluded that the hippies had not misread the Beats.

“Although the Beats were originally non-political,” he said in a 1986 documentary about Kerouac, “others who were political were really following the Beat movement to its logical conclusion.” Of Kerouac, Burroughs said, “I don’t think he ever took part in a demonstration or signed a petition. But he started it. Jesus Christ said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’—not by their disclaimers.”

Burroughs the great teacher was not without his own messianic side. At one point in the 1960s he proposed an academy in which his hypothetical acolytes (presumably young men; he posited women were “a biological mistake”) would be trained in techniques of resistance: martial arts, firearms, knifework, the Gysin-Burroughs cut-up method, and Scientology (later deleted as Burroughs became disenchanted). This eccentric call to action inspired…pretty much no one. Burroughs did, however, enjoy an outsized—if largely behind the scenes—impact on rock music and the visual arts, influencing first the Beatles (with whom he socialized during his years living in London) and Bob Dylan, then the Velvet Underground and Bowie, and later—and perhaps most profoundly—the New York punk and art scenes of the 1970s. At the dawn of the 1990s, a restless young Burroughs aficionado named Kurt Cobain and his trio Nirvana upended popular music. Burroughs’s outlaw lifestyle—touched by violence and saturated with hard narcotics—certainly appealed to many of these artists, but his experimental literary techniques sealed the deal—especially the cut-up method, which involved slicing and rearranging text to locate profound new juxtapositions, and which arguably worked better in the milieus of song composition, music production, and lyric writing than between the covers of a book. Listen closely, and one might hear the offstage ghost chuckle of Burroughs amid those tape-splicing experiments that propelled the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to their iconic statuses.

As for the evolution of the gritty, individualistic world of the New York-era Beats into the more communal harmonium-and-prayer-beads world of the 1960’s hippies, the common denominator was Ginsberg. Unique among the three principal Beats, he came from a family in which activism and social engagement were encouraged. And from the moment he exploded into the popular consciousness with the publication of, and subsequent obscenity charge against, his groundbreaking 1956 poem “Howl,” he was in crusader mode. “Howl” was a powerful synthesis of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” method, Burroughs-influenced apocalyptic paranoia, and Ginsberg’s own torrential free-associated railings against conformity and capitalism. It was both a fitting summation of the first phase of the Beat Generation and the kickoff for Beat 2.0: The San Francisco Renaissance—a movement which included the poets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and which, with its more overtly leftist orientation, served as a land bridge between the original Beat Generation and the 1960s counterculture. Across that bridge walked Ginsberg, who would champion many causes in the ensuing years: free speech, drug legalization, gay liberation, opposition to the war in Vietnam, tax resistance (to starve the war machine), advocacy for the homeless, the exposing of alleged Central Intelligence Agency drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, and so on.

Ginsberg and his harmonium were fixtures at such events as the 1967 “Human Be-In” in San Francisco (which brought together the initially separate hippie and antiwar movements), the chaotic protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and a 1970 Black Panther Rally at Yale University. At the 1967 “March on the Pentagon” to protest the Vietnam War, his presence and influence on the event were unmissable. In The Armies of the Night, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the march, Norman Mailer described trickster troubadour (and future unwitting Kerouac antagonist on Firing Line) Sanders as an “old protégé of Allen Ginsberg” and added, “(W)hat mighty protégés was Allen amassing.”

Amid all of this, the Marx-conversant Ginsberg had a knack for getting himself kicked out of communist countries that had initially welcomed him, in the case of Cuba for protesting Fidel Castro’s oppressive policies toward homosexuals, and in Czechoslovakia for making a public nuisance of himself. Somewhat confusingly, the Czech resistance adopted him as an anti-communist icon, perhaps because his subversive antics reliably put him on the wrong side of all forms of authority.

Perils of Engagement

The above activities were celebrated in the numerous eulogies for Ginsberg published upon his passing in 1997. But in an otherwise rhapsodic tribute in Rolling Stone (reprinted in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats), Mikal Gilmore noted Ginsberg’s advocacy on behalf of NAMBLA—the “North American Man/Boy Love Association,” an organization that sought to repeal or reduce age-of-consent laws to lessen the legal risks of the aforesaid “man/boy love.” Gilmore conceded that this stance “outraged many of (Ginsberg’s) longstanding admirers.”

Ginsberg framed his defense of NAMBLA as “a free-speech issue.” Whatever the merits of that argument, it is a little surprising that the most relentlessly enterprising and image-conscious of the Beats would adopt a cause so damaging to the brand. Out of all the edgy envelope-pushing artists and organizations he could have supported to make a free-expression point, he picked the one that reinforced the worst stereotypes about older gay men.

Ginsberg’s vocal support of NAMBLA highlights the perils of subsuming art to activism. In the best of circumstances, the artist-activist can move the world in a positive direction. And in times of great consequence such as the 1960s, doing something—anything—feels like a moral imperative. But the artist-activist faces twin dangers. For one thing, the agitated-for changes could make the world worse, not better. Many would put Ginsberg’s NAMBLA advocacy in this column.

On another, less-fraught level, relentless engagement with the hot-button issues of the day can timestamp the art and the artist, resulting in work that trades potential timelessness for immediate impact. For example, Sanders remains a well-regarded poet and provocateur, an impressively multi-disciplinary artist who has even distinguished himself in the true-crime genre; yet he is largely a figure of his era, appealing most strongly to other people who lived his times and causes with him. Similarly, the late Phil Ochs was a talented performer of protest (or “topical”) songs that were perfectly pitched to the decade in which they were written, but, despite some passionate modern-day admirers and a film-ready tragic story arc, he remains something of a 1960s-era artifact. There are certainly many examples in the other direction, but the timeliness trap is real. As Burroughs said in 1961, “To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth.”

It is possible that if Ginsberg had first appeared in the 1960s alongside Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and had mostly been known for his activism—however immediate and salutary its effects might have been—he would have lost his bid for immortality.

Fortunately, he had already established his literary bona-fides with poems such as “Howl,” “A Supermarket in California,” and the hallucinatory, soul-wrenching “Kaddish,” an elegy for his mother in all her complexity. Ginsberg was acutely aware of the rarefied aura surrounding the Beats, and, in later years, he seemed to emphasize his Beat credentials over his role as a 1960s icon. “Let us say that the spiritual and natural [themes] that were being proposed during the Beat Generation were somewhat bypassed during the political aggression of the Sixties from the New Left, who went off in an ideological direction,” he told Barry Alfonso in 1994, sounding very much like Kerouac.

In an earlier series of lectures at Naropa Institute (collected in The Best Minds of My Generation), Ginsberg gave a fuller explication of what had set the Beats apart, drawing a surprising parallel with a then-emergent new music form and conceding the value of Kerouac’s disengaged approach. It feels fitting to end here, with Ginsberg’s testament to the Beat Generation’s ineffable, perennial appeal:

“There does seem to be a revival these days culturally, in the punk movement, of Kerouac of the 1950s style, which is to say nonpolitical. Looking for kicks, or looking for soul, or looking for lost Saturday night personal romance mystery. Some people see this as a return to the silent 1950s, silent 1970s apathy, but other people, myself included, see it as a deepening of insight, and the entry of the void, sunyata, dharma, the entry of emptiness into our skulls, awareness of death as the original beatnik perception, and so a deepening of heart rather than a shallowness of heart.”.

Robert Dean Lurie is a writer and musician. His current project, Listening to 1984, is unfolding now at his Substack

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