Comparative American Studies: The Beat Generation and Europe. Review by A. Robert Lee

Comparative American Studies:  An International Journal
Vol. 11, Number 3, September 2013
Special Issue: The Beat Generation and Europe

Mapping Beat authorship as transnational enterprise, both in the writings of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and of the circuits around them, has been a development as welcome as it has been overdue. In this respect the eight pieces at hand in CAS’s Special Issue could not carry a more timely stamp, a run of close focused accounts of Beat literary internationalism. Each essay takes Europe – England, France, and if it so qualifies Turkey, as point of departure to explore shaping plays of source or image along with contexts of travel, site, memory. The effect is two-fold: European avenues of framing,  and reciprocally, Europe’s own styles of take-up and reaction. Derived from EBSN’s Inaugural conference in Middelburg in September 2012 the upshot is little short of a flourish. A bow, accordingly, is owed to Polina Mackay and Chad Weidner in doing the editorial midwifery needed to transpose the original presentations into published script.

Luke Walker opens proceedings with a well-turned investigation of  “Blakean Albion” and its mythopoetic impact on Ginsberg. With great local diligence he shows how Ginsberg’s different UK sojourns 1958-79, to include the celebrated reading in the Albert Hall Holy Communion of June 1965 and the later BBC “huge mad broadcast to all England ,” confirmed quite the opposite of any anxiety of influence. Blake, famously, served Ginsberg as epiphanic mentor, a poet to whom (along with Whitman) he saw himself the visionary successor even if as counter-culture luminary and internationalist he trod lightly round Blake’s Anglocentrism. This account tracks in detail not only the Blake seamed into Ginsberg’s verse but the degree of scholarly reading with which it is underpinned. Alongside Blake, though this is a pioneer account of the link, stands Keats whose major Odes of 1819 Franca Bellarsi deploys as caught up in “conversation” with Ginsberg’s “Siesta in Xbalba,” the 1955 elegy inspired by Chiapas-Mayan death legend during the early Mexican sojourn. Rightly pitched to do more than establish mere confluence Bellarsi does a fine, indeed hugely sophisticated,  job of capturing footfalls. She reads Ginsberg’s poem as the re-inscription of Keats’s focus on time and transience, the very drama of consciousness, and with the celebrated Negative Capability and Truth as Beauty fully in the mix. Nor is the paradox of suturing two different orders of verse-craft lost on her, Keats’s brilliant adherence to genre, Ginsberg’s virtuosity of open measure. Truly an essay that assays new ground.

France as héritage culturel, and specifically its counter-texts and cinema, supply  coordinates for three ensuing essays. Véronique Lane takes up the rich Gallic intertextuality of And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (available in the 2008 Penguin edition) as co-authored by Burroughs and Kerouac. The account traces not only the text’s mise-en-scène of the Lucien Carr/David Kammerer murder, but its subtexts of  French outsider visual art from the Russian-born Pavel Tchelitchew’s canvas Cache-Cache to cinema like Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Carné’s Le Quai des brumes. Above all it addresses the book’s shared authorial fashioning with its Verlaine-Rimbaud shadow and  Kerouac’s subsequent emergence into his own discrete writ in the hitherto typescript-only  “I Wish I Were You.”  M. E. Jackson, with nods to Kerouac’s awareness of Céline, takes up On The Road’s French Canadian/American hybridities , the joual that underwrites his English, and above all the well-taken embodying interplay of Neal as America, Henry Cru as France. Other France, within Kerouac’s several times expressed ambition to write the overall Duluoz legend as Proustian, comes into focus for Peggy Pacini in how Satori in Paris both pursues and yet undermines the search for “authentic”  legacy. She argues that Kerouac’s quest after French-European ancestry was always pitched more in the interests of usable (and writerly) self-myth than literality of origins.

The two Burroughs contributions turn on cut-up as far wider than technique, rather an altogether encompassing epistemology. Rona Cran, in this respect, re-situates Naked Lunch, and successor cut-up texts from Minutes to Go and The Soft Machine to Nova Express, within Europe’s modernist aesthetic – Cubism , Dadism, Surrealism, Breton to Tzara. Much, as she properly insists, that Burroughs was ever his own style of collagist, his own figurative navigator in a favoured phrase, he was also long an American steeped in European cultural pathways  and has every right to claim a working place in the continent’s gallery of the text and image avant-garde. Burroughs as eco-writer? Chad Weidner makes an intriguing case, using VIRUSES WERE BY ACCIDENT (in Minutes to Go) and “I am Dying, Meester?” (The Yage Letters) as exemplary cut-up texts given over to depicting environmental ruin.  This is to discern how the fragmented Burroughs narrative refracts, and at the same time patrols, worlds themselves fragmented by toxicities of control. His structures, as Weidner savvily terms them, operate as “proto-ecological,” reflexive prompts to awareness and warning as to a wholly larger sense of threatened environment.

In Resources for American Literary Study (36, August 2013), Nancy Grace’s“The Crisis of Beat Studies Scholarship” take umbrage at what she discerns as unscholarly casualness in Beat literary critique with particular barbs reserved for Erik Mortenson’s Capturing the Beat Moment. She might think better of his work on the basis of his reception study on Beat influence in Turkey. This, for most of us, is unknown terrain. Mortenson gives an informed account of Turkish-language translations, a key journal like Calinti with its 1993 special Beat Generation issue, scholarship like Melike Ash Şahinsoy’s Rock Culture in Istanbul (2010), discussion of Beat-influenced counter-culture in leading Turkish literary magazines like Varlik and Notos, and the various censorship trials (recently of The Soft Machine) within a society long used to a clash of the religious and the secular. It makes a strong, and nothing if not pertinently transnational, closing essay in this Special Issue’s well-conceived overall roster.