The Beats: A Literary History, Steven Belletto, Review by A. Robert Lee

Steven Belletto, The Beats: A Literary History, New York and Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2020

Plaudits. As successor to The Cambridge Companion to the Beats (2017), also under Steven Belletto’s hand, this account of Beat’s cultural narrative will assuredly rank among the best. It brings to bear a full and stirring shelf of interpretation buttressed by quite enviable fluency. In unthreading any assumption that in his own phrase Beat’s “republic of letters” serendipitously erupted as though some ready-made Big Bang, Belletto seizes upon the intricacies of gallery and chronicle with genuine stride. It invites admiration, a hurrah.  

         Let it also be said at the outset that this indeed is a history. Belletto works his material from a hugely informed overview of Beat’s evolving patterns and cross-referencing in the plural literary cultures of post-war America. To be sure all the Usual Suspects make their necessary bow, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs as helmsmen, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Di Prima, as co-movers. But they, together with a copiously explored full ancillary cast, do so less as the one or another canonized group but as situated within the filters of different writing communities and timeline. To this end historicizing the overall imaginative presence of Beat, 1940s to the late 1960s, might have led to crowdedness, the top-heavy.

          In the event that is anything but the case. Belletto keeps his critical distance. In steering through the differentiation of the contributing players, the overlaps and linkages with other literary–cultural currents, the poetics and performance, the extraordinary role of the magazines in the pathway to each book publication, and assuredly the fissures between Podhoretz, Ciardi and other denigrators and the generational and popular culture acclaim, the map and its lattices are handled with dispatch, an assured touch.  

         Particulars. Belletto situates his coverage within two death-episodes. The Lucien Carr/David Kammerer debacle with its stalking and knife-murder in 1944, and arising court involvement of Kerouac and Ginsberg, gives a point of departure. But it is made to be so through a savvy deconstruction of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks for its reflexive and gay subtexts (“Hippos is a prototypically Beat, underground book”). The span for Belletto closes in the “Vietnam effect,” body bags and protest, and for which he sees Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and the Human Be-in in San Francisco in 1967 as respectively dirge and lowering of the curtain. Between, and in chapters that move forward through careful periodization, the resolve upon “unsettling the official story” is given persuasive grip.

          Early chapters so unpack the Beat/Hipster/Hippy nexus, the rise of writing communities like the New York School, San Francisco and Black Mountain. Belletto alights deftly on the role of the precursor authorship of Paul Goodman, Chandler Broyard and George Mandell. Circles are aligned and compared in detail, the Columbus University start, Frank O’Hara’s “personism,” Olson and the publication of the Black Mountain Review, and the North Beach/San Francisco efflorescence pioneered by Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The very naming of Beat, Kerouac to John Clellon Holmes to Herbert Huncke, is made into a working paradigm. Aficionados may well be familiar with many of these countercultural stirrings dated as “mid-century.” But Belletto’s coup is to invest them with not only his own insights but excavation from journals, correspondence, reviews, each writer-to-writer connection.

          The same allusive flair holds for readings in the rise of the Beat novel. The Kerouac of The Town and the City is unpacked for how, against usual writ, the figure of Francis is to be assigned implicit Beat status, and how the novel leads into On The Road (the scroll and its history given due account) and into Visions of Cody which Belletto designates Kerouac’s “experimental writing lab.” Burroughs’s Junky and Queer are helpfully linked to Naked Lunch through the prism of “factualism” and analysis of “the word as disruptive force.” The same dexterity marks the account of the rise of Beat poetry. “Howl” offers “the secret history of the Beat Generation” and its vision and poetics tackled accordingly. “Mexico City Blues” is to be read, and heard, through its blues sway and density. The  “seditious streak” of Corso in The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Gasoline gives a marker for his writing overall. Peter Orlovsky, and his style of metathesis, invites better recognition. The occasion and impact of the 6 Gallery reading remains “a foundational moment in and for the Beat Generation” in kind with the “Howl” trial and around it the role of City Lights as publisher and bookstore gathering-place.   

         The further Beat thesaurus comes under similar rules of engagement. These embrace New Critical disdain as against the support of Herbert Gold or Warren Tallman and the standing of each key magazine from Yugen to Big Table. Di Prima, early to later work and her role in setting up Poets Press, and the Jones/Baraka of his Beat years (1958-62) with Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note as fulcrum, lead on to the other ranking dramatis personae and their writings. Few go missing (you might quibble at no fuller mention of outriders like Helen Adams, Oscar Zeta Acosta or Tram Combs). But then you are off and running. The compendium, each with lively annotation, runs from Jack Micheline to ruth weiss, Ted Joans to Tuli Kupferberg, Philip Lamantia to Michael McClure, Gary Snyder to Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer to Sheri Martinelli, Alan Ansen to Janine Pommy Vega, Ray Bremser to Bonnie Bremser, Joyce Johnson to Elise Cowen, and with an approving nod for Ed Sanders. It’s particularly heartening to see attention given to rarely featured names, the Barbara Moraff of the poems in Mister (1959) or the Kay Johnson of Human Songs (1964).

         The closing chapter on language, Ferlinghetti’s painterly Her, Corso’s surrealist turn in American Express, and the Gysin/Burroughs launch of cut-up with its “semantic uncertainties,” offers an astute point of arrival. The coda says of Beat’s influence that it has been a liberation in which “everyone can always have their say.”  True enough, but Belletto might have gone a few steps further. How Beat did Beat remain? What of Beat authorship beyond the USA (I declare an interest on the basis of The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature). None of this, for a moment, is to detract from a major contribution. Belletto’s re-telling of Beat cultural history deserves every recognition, truly fresh boots on the ground.