Life is a nightmare for most people, who went something else...People went a lesser fake of Beauty...We've seen Beauty face to face, one time or another and said," of course, so that's what it's all about, no wonder I was born and had all those secret world feelings. Allen Ginsberg
These days, Allen Ginsberg meets up with many people who think the Beat Generation consisted entirely of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and a few zany sycophants who followed them around America's weird roads raising hell, writing poems and novels, drinking beer smoking weed and worse.
Fred W. McDarrah's collection of his photographs and prose pieces by various authors, Keronac & Friends: A Beat Generation Album, offers us a far more penetrating look into the 1950s Beat movement than the usual dose of Kerouac's On the Road of Ginsberg's "Howl" can afford.
In assembling this album, McDarrah has provided an inside glimpse of the Beat movement and all its facets: staging wild parties, ingesting drugs, trekking to Mexico, ignoring combining poetry readings with jazz and writing in a new unconventional style. McDarrah's book is enlightening because it provides a range of personal perspectives on a movement that critics have so long tried to pigeonhole, embalm, or simply ignore.
In the late 1950s, McDarrah was a strange cross between Beat writer and camera buff who once started a successful "Rent a Beatnik" enterprise, charging 5-40 for a Beatnik to appear at cocktail parties. His photographs of his Greenwich village buddies and his selection of commentaries from the time make up an eclectic collage.
The Best Generation had at least two histories--one which took shape in the minds of the Beats and their followers and another which grew out of the American public's perception of them.
Kerouac himself describes a deflant search for good times in an essay. The Roaming Beatniks. The Beats' critics get a word in, too--from the granted condescension of Bostonian poet John Ciardi to the quasi-intellectual sneering of Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. And New York Times accounts of Beat revelry round out the assortment of perspectives.
The Beat Generation entered the public eye in 1952 when the New York Times Magazine ran an essay on the Beatnik's search for faith during the Cold War.
This search promoted the rejection of literary norms, middle-class materialism and conformity--in short, anything that confines.
The Beats continued poet William Carlos William's search for a uniquely American poetic rhythm and revived the tradition of combining music with poetry readings. The use of rhythms jazz rhythms and along in poetry shocked the literary establishment. Many of the essays here accuse the Beats of confusing mediocrity with spontancity.
But it was the rejection of conventional lifestyles, and the way the Beats unashamedly took on the role of prophets, that horrified the rest of America. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, was arrested in 1957 for distributing Allen Ginsberg's allegedly obscene book Howl, Serlinghetti's account of the trial is included in McDarrah's book, and it gives a good idea of how much alarm the Beats caused in some circles.
But there is another history of the Beat Generation, hardler to pin down--a history of self-images both consciously and unconsciously created. Their writings show an attachment to the urban landscape, even the ugliness, and to the hip areas in America--San Francisco's North Beach and New York's Greenwich Village in New York. They see themselves as hope-seekers, wild partyers and holy madmen.
Sometimes it is hard to tell where the freight-train-hopping, the shouting until down, the whoople-making and hopping end and the holiness begins, Immersion and transcendence become the same thing. The senses of both are blended in McDarrah's photographs, whose refreshing candor suggests living for the moment, and whose hary quality lends, sadly, a touch of nostalgia.
THAT NOSTALGIA also comes from the impression that the Best generation is finished. When Kerouac died, an alcoholic, in 1970, a number of writers proclaimed the death of the movement. Those who have rejected the Best mission or who never accepted it are all too ready, even eager, to proclaim the Beats washed up. Many have joined the establishment, Still, a small group can be seen in San Francisco's North Beach, sipping coffee or beer, reading and writing poetry and getting into shouting matches.
History has a way of evading time--it repeats itself. One writer's comments about the effects of the 1950s on the Beat generation sounds straightly as though it could have been written about Reagan's America.
The 'Beat Generation' was born disillusioned it takes for granter, the imminence of war, the barrenness of politics and the hostility of the rest of society, said The New York Times's Gilbert Millstein in 1957. The difference between now and then is that in 1984 there is less physical room for a counter culture to flourish, and that we are more cynical than disillusioned. Twenty-five years ago, the Beats could still assert the validity of mystical experience as a refuge: these days, mystics are regarded as nuts.
But there will always be people who ignore mainstream culture because it disgusts them--and there will always be people who hope when there is no reason for hoping. This means, of course, that there will always be Beats.