The formidable A. Robert Lee, simply Bob to his many friends and connections in the global academic community, has been on the Beat bus longer than most. He studied under the trailblazing Eric Mottram, one of the early British scholars to acknowledge the artistic and cultural worth of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, and was there at a shining moment in the movement’s rich and entangled mythology: the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall In London in June 1965.
In short, Lee has an impressively credible past in this field of study and, in the present, continues to proffer astute and insightful commentaries on the Beat writers and the wider literary scene, covered helpfully by his own phrase ‘counter-writing’. His newest volume, The Beats: Authorships, Legacies, is a deeply nourishing addition to a realm of scholarly enquiry that now expands its catalogue of serious studies almost by the month.
But while The Beats is indeed a substantial contemplation of the whole movement – and a little more besides – it is refreshingly accessible, voiced in a way that is clear, lively and always enthused: the excitement, which Lee felt as a student in a radical new London 50 years ago, has continued to fuel his passion for these alternative interpretations of mid-century America and the countercultural tentacles it sent spilling into the 1960s and beyond.
In its concentrated 240 pages, it addresses this writing community in admirable detail – its identities and ideologies, its history and its current status – and, best of all, paints clear portraits of all the main protagonists and some of the lesser-known participants, with not only valuable sections on the women Beats and what Lee dubs ‘the Afro-Beats’ but also agile sketches of and teasing references to much less familiar figures: Clive Matson, Larry Kloss, Maxine Hong Kingston, Martin Matz and Nathaniel Mackey, to name only a few.
In other words, Lee is not so transfixed by that extraordinary moment between the end of the Second World War and the climax of the 1950s, when On the Road, ‘Howl’ and Naked Lunch were all seeded and hatched, that he fails to recognise the ongoing lifeblood of Beat ideas and Beat ideals. This volume is not merely a densely packed handbook of times gone by; it is also a guide to the ways in which this framing of maverick attitudes retains a beating heart.
To its credit also, the overview does not make the mistake of emphasising the lives of the players in this drama over the work they have produced. Lee is not just a capable social and cultural historian: he is at ease with the literature, briefly yet sharply describing and analysing key examples of the prose and poetry that is the lasting legacy of this many-headed, multi-gendered, multiracial generation. His approach affirms David Meltzer’s well-known epithet, ‘It’s the books not the looks.’
But who out there might want another condensed paperback on a movement they already know so well? I think this book has definite value for the knowledgeable and the novice. Firstly, it reminds us of and deftly orders the principal information about the early days of the Beats and their rise to prominence, connecting these pioneers with a broader canvas – peopled by Baldwin and Bellow, Plath and Heller, Dylan and Warhol, for example.
Secondly, to reiterate, it is a collection that convincingly argues that Beat did not die once its great central triumvirate had given up the ghost. Other recent and related practices – photography, music, visual art and film – are suitably addressed, as are media representations. Both the long-running magazine Beat Scene and the authoritative website Literary Kicks are deservedly mentioned as enduring, and vibrant, reflections on this wide river and its numerous tributaries.
Thirdly, and I like this almost the best, is its highly commendable bibliography – extensive lists of the principal works of the major and minor writers, including significant criticism that covers them, and a further body of secondary scholarship within a splendid 30-page section. This is what makes The Beats: Authorships, Legacies particularly valuable to those already immersed in this world of creativity but also newcomers just dipping their toes in the winding waters.