Baggy Monster Beat: A Review Essay by R J Ellis on The Cambridge Companion to the Beats

Cambridge Beat coverThe Cambridge Companion to the Beats, ed. Steven Belletto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). i-xxviii, 297 pp.

Baggy Monster Beat: A review essay by R J Ellis, University of Chichester

Well: after a slow beginning, what an explosion of academic attention has come about: cornucopias, floribundas… choose your own epithet to describe how the Beat writing panoply has now, for more than a couple of decades, attracted serious critical analysis from within the academy. So much so that such criticism is threatening to rival the very well established “fanzine” attention to the Beats that has long existed in print and now (especially) flourishes on-line (a fanzine legacy which, despite its early importance, this collection fails to explore). Largely gone are the days when a suggestion by a promising undergraduate student that the Beats might constitute the basis for graduate study would most usually have been met by a potential supervisor’s disapproval, whether rooted in disdain, or founded upon precautionary mentoring (along the lines of “you just won’t get a lecturing post if you do”). There is of course a certain irony in this, given that the Beats themselves, initially, were far more often than not confronted by critical and academic rejection.

So this collection of essays (henceforth “this Companion”), as it itself notes, is yet another breakout from what is still a well-fortified University of Southern Illinois enclave and a thinly scattered representation elsewhere. Perhaps this is why the academics writing these essays repeatedly highlight freedom of expression as a key element of the Beats’ activities: they want still more of it too, on the Beats, in academia. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Beats’ intent to assault any and all constraints upon freedom of artistic expression is noted in almost all of the essays in this collection. What generates this repetition is this Companion’s greatest failing: its over-reliance on essays exploring aspects/facets/features of Beat activity in broad-brush sweeping surveys. Consequently, there is little space for striking(ly) new research evident, nor, even, much original insight. Rather, the essays are written from positions recurrently evidencing in-depth knowledge, certainly, but often providing only broad over-views of various kinds.

The problem with such an inclusive approach is that by now “the Beats” have come to constitute a huge subject, as more and more writers and artists have come to be associated with the descriptor “Beat.” What therefore happens in this Companion is that lists keep recurring, more or less fully annotated. Three essays into this book, I had the disconcerting feeling I had just read a third introduction, as it were. Later essays also revived this feeling in me — a repetitiveness echoing the repetitiveness inherent in the “Beats embrace freedom” chorus.

It would have been great if this chorus had been unpacked more. For example, one person’s freedom is often purchased at the expense of another person’s, in one way or another. Perhaps the (in itself) repetitive identification by critics in this Companion of the existence of sexist and/or misogynistic traits in many male Beats’ productions goes some of the way, implicitly, to confronting how far this potential paradox intruded (males asserting their freedom have all too frequently repressed females in American culture). But there are other, related, problems–such as the way some Beats embrace the category of the fellaheen as part of a strain of casual racism–that are left underexplored. (For example: how much is a rendering of the non-white as an “Other” endemically part of the [white] Beats’ perspective? Edward Said does not get a look-in, yet Oswald Spengler reappears thrice in this Companion.)

Indeed, generally, this book’s repetitiveness could be more easily passed over if the analyses accompanying them had more often been specifically developed and/or made more nuanced. Thus the point is repeatedly made that the “male Beats” (usually labelled as such unambiguously when the sexual identities of both they and their literary or characters are often more ambiguous) were patriarchal and/or sexist and/or misogynistic. (Let me make it clear that I am not questioning the fact that this trait/trace exists.) But this flaw is more complex and conflicted than this volume allows. Beat studies is not well served by any reductiveness (something the Beats have too long suffered from), especially when the necessary historical perspective is not applied. Just to take one example, On the Road was composed in the late 1940s and (mostly) the very early 1950s. That is to say: before any interventions by de Beauvoir; or Millett; or Friedan; or Greer, or Cixous, or Irigary, or Kristeva, etc. No excuse, I agree, but a reason for sort of qualification: consciousness-raising had just not begun as such (and its beneficial effects are often singularly missing in Beat writing).

I am unfairly at this point going to focus upon one of the essays in this book – by Ronna C Johnson, who has (I immediately want to say) done a lot to advance understandings of the status and role of women Beat writers, including identifying their recurrent neglect, sidelining and/or belittling (and, indeed, The Companion overall is alert to such past omissions). I also want to stress that Johnson’s essay is one of the better in the book, and includes some incisive analyses. But I also feel that she stops short of working through the conflicted complexities of the sexually and genderedly hybrid texts she explores (a symptomatic shortcoming in this collection is that attention to reading the Beats in the light of queer theory is simply under-represented).

For example, I felt that Johnson’s exploration of Kerouac’s work segues around the fact that Kerouac’s narrators are personae, even fictionalizations (that is to say, characters). Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans is (rightly) criticised for his repeated tendency (to put it mildly) to lapse into sexist reflections and objectifications. But this is not accompanied by any recognition that, written in 1953, this was the first of Kerouac’s novels to be published to take up in a sustained way the subject of uncertainty concerning sexual orientation (though this had been introduced in On the Road [Visions of Cody remained unpublished]). Percepied’s confusions in this terrain need to be intercalated with his engagements with and reactions to Mardou Fox, and indeed hers to him. “Binary gender roles” (CB 164) are blurred, complicated and contested (Fox’s break up with Percepied is precipitated in part by his AC/DC propensities) and it is this fuller picture that is further confounded by issues of sexual stereotyping across racial lines (Johnson notes well the book’s racial complications). It also needs stressing, more forcefully than Johnson does, that Percepied is aware, even at times acutely, of his own shortcomings, and criticises them – but in such a fashion that his halting and incomplete confessions are ironized, if not satirized, for their inadequacy.

It is this trait of Kerouac’s personae (or narrators) that needed more of Johnson’s attention. Sal Paradise in On the Road is indeed often sexist and at times misogynistic in his dealings, but he has some (limited) awareness of this, and this self-consciousness intensifies the reader’s own misgivings. Sal denounces, albeit quite late on in the novel (OR 164), his treatment of the Mexican-American, Terry (who, be it noted, is presented as a strong female, able to cope on her own as a single parent and to far outstrip Sal at cotton-picking). The novel also exposes how Sal happily (and cynically) allows Terry to regard him as a “college boy” who could, potentially, supply her and her son with a very much needed supply of financial stability – she is working on a subsistence wage, and the novel lays her resulting privations bare (OR 75, 82-91). Significantly, Sal (Salt) Paradise (it is plain here how his name is rendered highly ironic by this text) flees such a (stereotypically depicted) cotton-picking life.

Sal would, it emerges, rather seek out his rich first wife, Edie.[1] But Edie – like Terry – is a stronger character than he, and, more affluently situated, she has no time for her ex-husband almost-bum. When they are picked up by the police for running a red light, Edie is so “sassy” with the cops that Sal notes “You never saw anybody sassier” (ORS 348) whilst he and Neal anticipate “getting the hose in the back room and screaming with delight” (ORS 348).[2] Again – if less overtly – sexual binaries blur. These scenes with Edie (ORS 341-45, 347-48) are cut from the 1957 version of On the Road, and can only be found in the “original scroll” version of 1951 (unpublished until 2007). Who cut them? Kerouac? Or his Viking editors – perhaps because, precisely, these Edie scenes sit very uncomfortably with the sexist, binary mores of mainstream America? We may never know.

We need to explore such conflicted granular narratives carefully. So, when Diane di Prima’s persona in “The Quarrel” writes “You know I said to Mark that I’m furious at you / No he said are you bugged. He was drawing Brad who was asleep on the bed … /…  I didn’t say anything else to him. / You know I thought I’ve got work to do too sometimes. In fact I / probably have just as much fucking work to do as you do … / I am sick I said to the woodpile of doing dishes” (CB  166), it is astute of Johnson to note that di Prima’s persona only utters the words “You know … I’m furious with you” out loud, leaving her other reflections uncommunicated. Indeed, Johnson’s analysis of the persona’s denunciation of the casual sexism of Mark is astute.

But I think it is worth noting how di Prima’s persona goes beyond simply saying how the lifestyle of which she is a part does not allow for quarrelling, which, it becomes clear, is to be regarded as an uncool indulgence. Things can be revealed to be more complicated if this is taken on board. The quarrel of the poem’s title is one also being carried on in the persona’s head. It is of course in part about whether to carry on acquiescing or not in the asymmetrical observation of household activities, yes. But it is also I think a quarrel the persona is carrying on with herself: concerning how quarrels are not only uncool but also reductive and almost always untrustworthily lacking balance and understanding. What is the mention of the “woodpile” doing in this poem? Who chopped the wood? Di Prima’s persona? Or Mark? Or someone paid to do it? Or Brad? (Brad is after all asleep, perhaps after labours or perhaps just from laziness.) We are forced into active interpretation, but this is frustrated by a textual granularity that renders this poem at least only semi-translucent and perhaps even opaque. Is the “quarrel” in part to be understood as about the fact that Mark is drawing Brad asleep on the bed, which might well create in the reader the understanding, drawing upon literary/ artistic convention, that Mark is sketching his lover, or at least a person of sexual attraction/allure. Is this (also) the source of di Prima’s persona’s “bug”?

I repeat: Johnson’s essay is one of the best in the book, makes many compelling points, and correctly castigates male Beats for their sexism and misogyny. But still she sometimes needed to press on beyond exploring what might now be described as the over-established binaries framing Beat writings’ gender relations. Insofar as Johnson does press on, such moments cluster when advancing the claim that the Beat writers were recurrently postmodernist in their artistic approach.

This claim is taken up by Polina Mackay in an adjoining essay that disconcertingly enough covers much of the same ground as Johnson’s, albeit within an approach centred upon sexuality rather than gender. In practice, though, Johnson’s and Mackay’s analyses are rather too close to becoming coextensive, not least because postmodern traits are highlighted by both.

Mackay’s essay, like Johnson’s, one of the best in the book, is forthright: “The Beats were notorious nonconformist postmodernists” (CB 179). But this sort of bold claim is difficult to sustain. There is no doubt that the Beats’ experimentations frequently generated texts within which an incredulity towards metanarratives emerges (think only of Visions of Cody and in particular its “Imitation of the Tape” section’s pastiche and/or parodic reworkings, leaning unstably on Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Stein, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and especially Faulkner and  Joyce but still conspicuously failing to find any closer way to secure a romantic authenticity than the original tape transcriptions, themselves already compromised). No metastyle can assist, just as the appropriations of popular media styles cannot – not even the Flintstones or W C Fields. But Visions dates from the very early 1950s, when the term postmodern was unavailable: Kerouac in Visions of Cody speaks of sado-masochistic modernity (VC 42) and in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” of “modern bizarre structures” (ESP 72) – struggling towards coining a formulation of something both beyond modernism, but still modernist: in transition and transformative. This, I think, is one approximation of what the Beats were about.  Burroughs’ cut-ups were not just collage or montage: chance played a role. Nor are they reducible to Dadaistic experimentation (as Oliver Harris, in another fine essay, points out). Mackay’s characterization, then, is slightly reductive, though she gets closer than Johnson to clarifying how the Beats’ representations can, at their best, address the complications proliferating in embracing ambiguous, shifting, sexual identities.

It was, after all, Kerouac who in the early 1960s in Visions of Cody, in a passage which of course was never to be published until Visions finally came out in 1972, depicted Cody Pomeray as fantasizing about himself waiting, as a sexually-aroused young woman, for his/her husband to return (VC 109-10): “Cody … wishes he was a sweet young cunt of 16 so he could imagine himself squishy and nice and squirm all over .. and feel the soft shape of his or her ass in a silk dress and that squishy all over feeling”. Note the phrasing here: “his or her” – we are tumbling into the terrain of transgender in a passage written in, say, 1952. (It is hard to be exact about the dates of composition of the various parts of Visions of Cody.) Identifying these radical uncertainties helps us understand just why Kerouac emerges as so uncertain about how it might be possible to ever capture any moment, no matter how “spontaneous” and immediate the writing might be, and despite his own manifestoes on this subject, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief and Technique in Modern Prose,” which I argue benefit from hindsight in the way that they meet his audience’s expectations.

Kerouac was a careful and considered experimenter: his most inspired prose and poetry, in the early to mid 1950s, which he described as unfolding from a “jewel center” (ESP), might often be better thought of, as sentences accelerating into a jazzy ride from, in Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s phrase, a “trigger inference” (3), though Jones/Baraka also notes that Kerouac could at times fake/fall short of such inspiration. Emphasizing this sort of experimental approach in Beat writing might help us delimit less encyclopaedically the term “the Beats.” Burroughs was also a committed experimenter, working out ways of taking his dark, often farcical, recurrently satirical, comedic routines into a realm of surrealistic, expressionistic and/or nihilistic, pornographic and/or violent fantasy, as a way of dealing with the state’s meretricious “treatment” of drug addiction and homosexuality. But this was a path that enabled him to violently disrupt meaning-constructions and insert collage, montage, and climactically, cut-ups into his arsenal of responses. Ginsberg, too, to complete the Beat triumvirate (as this collection calls it) of early New York Beat writers, introduced a long, big-breath-phased line, driven often by anaphora and counterpoint-phrasing, rushing to penetrate the kaleidoscopic complexities of emerging  consumer-capitalistic society and of underground resistances. If we highlight the Beats’ use of such testing experimentation in this way, then many so-called Beat writers become what might be described as fellow travellers, whilst others, like (say) Brion Gysin, Diane Di Prima, Lenore Kandel, Charles Bukowski, and Michael McClure, develop their own experimental modes.  Emphasizing that experimentation is one hallmark of “the Beat” provides one way of reducing the size of the field, as would be introducing a more pronounced recognition that, alongside the Beats, New York poets, San Francisco Renaissance poets and Black Mountain poets were dealing with issues to do with the relationship of form and content that do not make them Beats in any simple way. Is Ted Berrigan (not “Berigan”, by the way) a Beat? Nope: not really.

This collection kind of disappoints, for all that it contains some good essays, some of which I’ve named and to which I only have time here (amongst others) to add John Whalen-Bridges’, insofar as he comes up with the suggestive idea that it is best to explore the Beats’ recurrent interests in Eastern religions and especially Buddhism, as ones undertaken in a “goofy” fashion – goofing with the ideas, recognising (self-reflexively) their own naïve and over-enthusiastically ebullient Goofy-ness, yet also seeing how, for example, Zen itself at times turned to a related kind of humour.

But it is easier to take issue with this collection: Kirby Olson needed to deal in more detail with Jack Kerouac’s Catholic background; David Sterritt, instead of offering thumbnail critiques of films about the Beats (rather than by them), needed to attend in more detail to the painting, photography and other artwork of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Carolyn Cassady and McDarrah (at least). And, as Sterritt considers the Beats’ relationship to television he surely needs to consider how the subject is treated in Pic. Furthermore, not all Beats are Americans, and, though this collection does recognise this, it does not do so in any detail or in any critical way (both Trocchi and Norse get one brief mention, just to provide one example). I will not go on.

This is, as Steven Belletto notes in his introduction, a collection of essays emanating from Cambridge University Press as part of a major, long-established series, one that has repeatedly contained well-edited collections – as do the equivalent series emanating from many other University Presses. (I refuse to reify Oxbridge [in the spirit of Neal Cassady].) But his Companion, in this respect, falls a little short, as I have intimated already, and the editing/subediting needed more work. Some sentences deserved rewriting: “Thus, however radical in poetics, politics, and sexuality, with regard to gender – the system of cultural meanings ascribed to sex – the Beat movement’s canonical male artists were confounded in their counterculturalism, even as their experimental writing manifested transformations that were afforded by their dissenting poetics and biographical chronicles of profligacy and that were promised by the growing contingent of female bohemian writers” (CB 162). I think a good point is struggling to emerge from this mammoth sentence, but I gave up trying to find it, I’m afraid. Meanwhile on p. 243 and again on p. 246, clarity did not help at all: “In parts of the poem to St. Francis where he’s optimistic, Corso tries to fold not only eating but also sexual life into his poetic thought. In this sense he is a good postmodernist along the lines of Michel Foucault or many other French thinkers”; “At times, love seemed for Kerouac just to mean that the young and hip could sleep with one another’s wives and girlfriends and have this deepen rather than destroy their friendships.” I really would rather have not understood these two sentences. Editorial intervention was needed

As I proof-read my review essay I could not help but notice that its tone is fairly negative for much of the time. This is not fair. This collection helps develop an approach now beginning, thank goodness, to dominate: examining the Beats by and large by focusing upon their contexts (I am understanding this word very broadly) and not their (auto-)biography. By doing so, this Companion further cements in place a more balanced and penetrative approach to Beat Studies. But as a collection it is still a baggy monster in terms of its over-ambitious coverage: to take on all it does it needed to be longer and to be broken down into more focused segments, drawing upon more detailed archival and contextual research. Let me at the end, and a bit abruptly, show what I mean.

The contributors to this Companion, as I have said, constantly repeat the mantra that the Beats pursued/sought/found freedom of expression during an era of growing repression (think only of McCarthy, anti-communism and homophobia – subjects only thinly touched on in this collection [McCarthy is not even mentioned]). That the Beats were labelled in 1958 by Herb Caen as the Beatniks was a deliberate attempt to blacken them by association in this pernicious atmosphere (see also CB 62). But this mantra needs qualification. Kerouac, for example, did not just write in freedom/freely (let alone simply spontaneously). So the depiction of the character, Dean Moriarty, though certainly based upon Neal Cassady, is just as plainly shaped by Kerouac’s responses to Moby Dick, Don Quixote, and I want to add here, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet all of these three books’ authors are unmentioned, and this is a sure sign of how the Beats’ complex intertextual engagements are only patchily described and almost wholly limited to the twentieth century.

Now I need, in line with my own argument, to provide here some detail: I am thinking obviously of Dean as a “mad Ahab” (OR 213) and of his relationship with Sal Paradise (as Quixote and Sancho Panza). But, let it be noted, Dean also has close affinities with Dimitry (Mitya) Fyodorovich Karamazov. Mitya races around, arriving late, repeatedly drunk, “extremely disturbed and ‘dissipated’” (BK 74) “seduc[ing] … decent girls” (BK 78). He lays wild plans involving dashing from woman to woman and place to place: “in an hour’s time I shall decide the whole thing, discover everything and then, then to start with, I shall go to Samsonov’s house, find out if Grushenka is there, and in a flash return here, and stay until eleven o’clock, and then go back to fetch her (BK 441). There is surely no need to underline how at times Dean’s words carry an echo of Mitya’s, as insanely complex shuttles are outlined. We are a small step away from discovering one other way of understanding Dean’s use of the term “IT” (OR 206): “Every time he had a new idea, he abandoned himself to it with passion” (BK 442); “He seemed to have forgotten everything and kept looking round at them with a childish smile” (BK 484). Like Mitya, often broke and in need of money, which he instantly spends when he has it, in search of the woman he claims he loves but rather is obsessed by, whilst engaged to another, Dean is frequently gripped by (in Dostoyevsky’s words) “peculiar emotion[s]” (BK 32) and frequently “of unsteady and irregular mind” (BK 74). Mitya’s story is given in the form of an action-by-action stream, like Dean’s and Sal’s. And Mitya, prefiguring Dean, constantly bursts into long monologues of explanation, irradiated by a species of holy yet profane enthusiasm: “beauty is not only a terrifying thing – it is also a mysterious one. In it the Devil struggles with God, and the field of battle is the hearts of men” (BK 122). “His gaze,” we are told, “seemed not to obey his inner mood but to express something else that was on occasion not at all in keeping with the moment in question” (BK 74). It is of course true that Mitya is more morose and more bad-tempered than Dean, and is full of violent, even murderous thoughts. But the two possess a common dangerous intensity, and its potential threat is clarified by identifying the intertextual exchange. Kerouac surely learned from Dostoyevsky something of how to delineate the fleeting identities of excessive over-emotionality, its dangers and rushing insights (“A … Karamazovian feature … this thirst for life in spite of everything” [BK 264]), as part of a general commitment to using a species of literary collage to furnish extra granularity to his depictions.

I appreciate this final segue has been a long one, but I hope it suggests how, with the addition of some detail, generalities (like my claim that Kerouac was indebted to Dostoevsky) can be developed productively (rather than worrying about seeking comprehensiveness). The many excellent qualities of this Companion would have been enhanced by a more frequent introduction of such depth to many of the contributors’ interesting and suggestive arguments.

1. The section where Sal and Dean spend time with Edie in Detroit, cut from the version published in 1957, appears in the original scroll version, 341-44.
2. That Kerouac uses a word with sexist connotations, “sassy” to describe Edie as she stands up to the cops is a reminder of how contradictorily conflicted issues of gender and sexuality always are in his writings.
3. Le Roi Jones, “Letter to the Editors,” Evergreen Review (1959).

Di Prima, Diane. ”The Quarrel,” in Dinners and Nightmares (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1961) rpt. in Richard Peabody, ed., A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997), 73-74.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin, 1993). BK
Jones, Le Roi, “Letter to the Editors,” Evergreen Review (vol. 2 no. 8, 1959), 254-45.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road (New York: Viking: 1957). OR
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll (London: Penguin, 2007). ORS
Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody (New York: McGraw Hill, 1972). VC
Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans (New York: Avon Publications, 1959).
Kerouac, Jack. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Evergreen Review (vol. 2 no. 5, 1958), 72-73. ESP
Kerouac, Jack. “Belief and Technique in Modern Prose,” Evergreen Review (vol. 2 no. 8, 1959), 57.