The Beats, Revisited: The Shifting Legacy of a Literary Generation

Detail from The Beat Book

How poetry is viewed often encompasses factors that have nothing to do with the work itself. “The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” writes Ben Lerner in his new book The Hatred of Poetry. “This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing.” The ideas in Lerner’s book help frame the debates that surround poetry and how it’s perceived. Reading it also provides an interesting window into the ways in which literary legacies are viewed over time.

June 3rd marks what would have been Allen Ginsberg’s 90th birthday. As members of the Beat Generation go, Ginsberg has fared better than most in our collective cultural memory. He was portrayed by a scene-stealing David Cross in “I’m Not There.” “Howl,” a film about Ginsberg’s life and the obscenity trial surrounding the book of the same name, was released in 2010. And “Kill Your Darlings,” a film about the early days of Ginsberg and many of his contemporaries, was released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Ginsberg has also, curiously, had a revival as a figure in musical circles. In 2012, the premiere of a work by the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell inspired by Ginsberg’s Kaddish was held at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. 2010 saw the release of a 1970s collaboration between Ginsberg and songwriter/composer/dance music pioneer Arthur Russell. And earlier this year, Ginsberg’s 1983 album The Last Word on First Blues was reissued, which includes appearances from the likes of Russell, Bob Dylan, and Don Cherry. In a review for Pitchfork, Jesse Jarnow (author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America) wrote that Ginsberg was “a missing link in the East Village’s musical pathways, a secret alt-folk hero hidden in relatively plain view.”

Ginsberg has remained a vivid cultural presence, but can the same be said for some of his peers? The 2008 release of And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, a collaborative novel by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and based on a killing that took place in their literary circle (also covered in the film “Kill Your Darlings”) was greeted with a number of reviews that looked at its literary history more than its literary value. Michiko Kakutanis review of it in the New York Times deemed it “a flimsy piece of work — repetitious, flat-footed and quite devoid of any of the distinctive gifts each writer would go on to develop on his own.” A long-in-the-works film adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road was released in 2012 and, while well-received, did not exactly become a runaway hit.

In a piece on a 1990 reissue of several of Kerouacs spokenword albums (which can be found in the anthology Jazz and Its Discontents), critic Francis Davis noted the paradoxical reception afforded Kerouac. “Lacking his friend Allen Ginsberg’s self-promotion and wisdom that the beat goes on, Kerouac was already out of favor by the time I left college in 1968,” he writes.

The question of whether the Beats have aged well is a lingering one, and it’s also one that will vary from reader to reader. “I realize that there truly was this determinedly male community of writers around me in the ‘50s,” wrote Diane di Prima in her memoir Recollections of My Life As a Woman: The New York Years. Certainly, that gender imbalance also plays a part in our changing perceptions of the Beats.

The fact that Ginsberg, who died in 1997, remained a fixture in a particular artistic scene for so long both speaks to his continued relevance and allows for him to pop up in odd places (including a memorable appearance in Patti Smiths Just Kids). In his review, Jarnow also notes that Ginsberg was “[a]s responsible for pop music’s turn to poetry as anyone.” Whole books have been written about the relationship between the Beats and rock music, including Simon Warner’s 2013 Text and Drugs and RocknRoll.

Discussions of relevance may be unfair to Kerouac, who died in 1969, but he remains influential, especially among one particular segment of the music world: “Indie rock lyricist guys love Jack Kerouac,” wrote critic Brandon Stosuy in a piece for Stereogum in 2008. In 2009, as if on cue, Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar collaborated on the album One Fast Move and Im Gone, with lyrics adapted from Kerouac’s novel Big Sur.

All of which puts Kerouac in an interesting place: he’s a cult writer to some, but he’s also written a wildly popular novel that occupies a significant place in the annals of mid-century American fiction. That paradox crops up in Sean Carswell’s The Metaphysical Ukulele, a collection of short stories with real-life writers at their center. Early on, Carswell tells the story of Kerouac’s life with the occasional accompaniment of a stringed instrument; it’s a surreal take on his life, but it’s also a moving one. Also featured in the book are writers as disparate as Yoko Ogawa, Chester Himes, and Herman Melville, in sections that unexpectedly echo and re-imagine their subjects’ styles and aesthetics.

At one point, a first-person narrator who may or may not be Carsell chimes in, “I’m a writer who has written almost exclusively for punk rockers and working class males.” This reads like a conscious nod to the way some Beats — Kerouac, specifically — are read today. Carswell is a co-founder of the long-running punk magazine Razorcake, and its publishing arm Gorsky Press, which puts him pretty firmly in the “punks of a certain age who like Kerouac” camp. (There are also other, subtler echoes of the Beats in Ukulele, like a focus on Patricia Geary and her frustrations with the publishing world.)

The legacy of the Beats continues, in unexpected ways and places. Kerouac is evoked in experimental fiction; Ginsberg’s musical forays earn him a posthumous reconsideration for an entirely different side of his artistic output. Though the Beats as a literary movement may no longer be in their heyday, there’s still plenty to discover, you just have to know where to look.