As I watched Howl for the second time last night, it reminded me of my young discovery and enduring love of the writers of the Beat Generation.
As a feminist, I suppose I’m supposed to declare Kerouac a brute, Cassidy a womanizing jerk, and Burroughs a junkie madman.
I’ll give you that last one, but as far as the rest go, I’m smitten through and through.
I expect my opinions on the Beats will look similar to my opinion about Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski or any other classic writer pinned as being a misogynist blowhard.
Perhaps talent elicits sympathy. I do know that I love Kerouac’s writing style. It’s not always as easy as it looks. He relies on you to care enough to follow his form, which can be dry. It’s not exactly a page-turner, nor is it designed to be. I let him get away with saying some truly shitty things about women, not because he’s got a free pass, but because I know enough about Kerouac through biographies and cultural memory to know that Kerouac questioned his masculinity and his sexuality through his writing and his life.
This questioning is precisely what I adore about the Beats. They were seekers, all fragile men hoping to find answers about where they belonged in the world. They wanted to matter but didn’t know how. In the 50s, a man had two ways to matter: be a husband-father-businessman, or be a soldier. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassidy, and the rest didn’t want those things (though they attempted to in their various ways). They were mired in their ennui, part of a generation at the cusp of discovery of new forms, though few were brave enough to try it out. Jazz was already happening, and stimulated a lot of innovation in other arts, but few wrote as brave as jazz.
For men (probably moreso for the straight, white, men who didn’t have the premature lessons in self-examination that all non-normative folks get), this seeking, this spiritual fragility often inspires people to lash out, particularly at the women they were told to marry to be “normal” or at least sleep with to be “real men.”
I’m not trying to apologize on the Beats’ behalf, just like I don’t apologize for some of the truly gross things Henry Miller said in his writing. I merely appreciate their writing, and the spirit I see in their work.
In Cassidy, I see a guy who was desperate to find an artists’ voice but felt dwarfed by his friends’ talents. In Kerouac, I see a guy who was ultimately razed by his own search for the core of the purpose of the Good American Man. In Ginsberg, I see a man who carried his fear of the other side of artistry throughout his life, yet transcended to become a patron saint of the sensitive queer spirit.
Through these men’s writings I am able to sympathize in a small way with the plight of the white American man of the 50s. I see through their braggadocio and maudlin ballads to the core of writing. They wrote, like many of us do, because they were afraid of their own irrelevance. They feared dying the deaths not of war heroes, but of the anonymous hordes on the streets of New York City. They fought against the inevitability of their own meaninglessness, and wrote like crazy men to stave off that fear.
I admire their vehemence, and I believe it’s present in their work. Ginsberg was perhaps the most deliberate in his plea for immortality, channeling as he so often did, Whitman. Kerouac sought similar glory but he focused more on experience than craft, and it shows in his work. Cassidy, I think, was crippled by his own fear from the get go, never indulging in his writing in the way he would have liked to.
The faggot in me yearns for the spirit of Ginsberg to grace my life and my work. His severity mixed with play is a wickedly splendid combination. The dyke in me understands Kerouac more: his frustrations with women, his own complicated feelings towards his friends and his sexuality, and his macho posturing as a disguise.
I don’t know why I grow so tired of the excuses of the white men of my time but give such a free pass to those generations before me. Perhaps it is indeed their talent, or merely my ability to see what they were longing for beneath their text. It’s the same thing we all want, really, to have our spirits transcend our work, and to create for ourselves the answers we so desperately seek.