The Beats

The Beats shook up
the Establishment

  In 1957 a young writer named Jack Kerouac burst upon the literary scene with the publication of his second novel, On the Road. The book was a celebration of freedom--of a wild American spirit that had been smothered by affluence and conformity and was raring to break loose. The novel's characters were college dropouts, hitchhikers, mad poets of the urban American night. It had taken Kerouac seven years to find a publisher. When the book appeared, the Literary Establishment took it as almost a personal affront. John Updike wrote a parody in The New Yorker entitled On the Street. Truman Capote accused Kerouac on television of "typing," not writing. The press led by Time-Life was uniform in its denunciation of this new movement depicting its members as unwashed, unemployed, ungodly: "beatniks."

 Into this maelstrom, the New York Post tossed a young former police reporter named Alfred Aronowitz. He was assigned to do a story--a hatchet-job, in newspaper parlance--on "the Beat Generation."

 The Post was then edited by James Wechsler who assigned Aronowitz the story. Wechsler had been a student radical in the thirties. He had briefly flirted with communism, then found salvation as a problem solving liberal. Wechsler considered the Beats undisciplined and irresponsible. He had debated Kerouac at Hunter College, but Jack's clowning and drunken antics had turned the event into a fiasco.

 And so, Al Aronowitz drew his assignment. Unfortunately, for Wechsler anyway, the young reporter found himself drawn to the Beats and warmed by their irreverent spirit. In later years, he would describe Allen Ginsberg as his "guru." Aronowitz's twelve part series (published in 1960) was a landmark in journalism--the first objective, in-depth reporting on the generation that would revolutionize America.

 Aronowitz went on to write about other cultural trends throughout the sixties and early seventies. However, the reporter's independence finally led to a falling out with his employer. After losing a bruising labor arbitration, Aronowitz claims he was blacklisted by every major New York newspaper.

 In the 1990s, Al Aronwitz made a comeback as an internet journalist with his remembrances of Dylan, the Beatles, and of course, the Beats. This interview first appeared on the American Legends web site in 2001. Al died of cancer in 2005, leaving behind many friends and admirers.

AL: You've written about James Wechsler's debate with Jack Kerouac at Hunter in which Jack denounced the editor and another opponent as "communist shits." Shortly thereafter , Wechsler assigned you to write about the Beats.



There was more to it than that. Wechsler had a son who was very enamored with Allen Ginsberg's poetry. Wechsler wanted to show his son that the Beat Generation was made up of artistic nihilists--which is what he called them.



Were you familiar with the Beats?



Not at all. I was a middle class kid from Jersey. What today they would call a "nerd." The first thing I did was read On the Road. I realized that all of the characters were based on real people: Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady--I wanted to talk to all of them.


AL: Neal, of course, was Dean Moriarty. Allen was called Carlo Marx.

AA: I later found out that Kerouac chose the name in honor of Harpo, not Karl. Jack was a Marx brothers fan. The Beats had a whimsical side which attracted me.



You visited Kerouac in Northport, Long Island where he was living with his mother, and Neal Cassady at San Quentin where he was doing a stretch for marijuana possession.



Allen Ginsberg told me that Neal got busted for handing a joint to a narc. But I talked to the cops, and they said he was selling it by the pound. Allen always futzed things. Whatever he fantasized that's what he said.


AL: What was Neal like?



Tall. Slender. Good looking. He was very personable.


AL: Did you ask Neal how he felt about being the hero of On the Road?

AA: Neal resented the fact that he was in jail while Kerouac was getting rich and famous. He said that Kerouac could at least send him a typewriter.

AL: You've written that Paul Sann, a Post editor, called the Beats a bunch of "pansies." Was it generally known that Ginsberg and Cassady were lovers?


AA: Carolyn Cassady told me that Neal slept with Allen. Carolyn and I drove down to Big Sur to visit Henry Miller.

AL: You alluded to Cassady and Ginsberg's relationship when you quoted Carolyn as saying that Ginsberg wanted to be in her shoes. You later got to know Ginsberg well. Why didn't you write a biography of him?

AA: Allen wanted his biographer to be homosexual.

AL: You have called Ginsberg a prophet and a genius, but you and he had a falling out.

AA: Ginsberg wanted me to remain an invisible journalist. I was trying not to be invisible. I was Allen's disciple, but he treated me the way Lionel Trilling, his Columbia professor, treated him--like a pompous don. In the end, Allen wrote me that he took Rimbaud with a grain of salt. Allen had a lot of conflicting opinions.

AL: Norman Podhoretz was at Columbia with Ginsberg. He later put the Beats down in an essay called The Know-Nothing Bohemians. Why did Podhoretz dislike the Beats?

AA: My guess is that he wanted to be the star in the class of pre-pubescent neocons. Now, he's just blah.

AL: You asked Billie Holliday and Miles Davis what they thought of the Beats.

AA: Miles told me that it was just "more synthetic white shit."

AL: Kenneth Rexroth helped organize the famous Six Gallery poetry session where Ginsberg read Howl. But he was always patronizing of the Beats. He once wrote that in his "small way" Kerouac was like Celine.

AA: Rexroth resented the Beats, so did Kenneth Patchen. I've found that poets are all such terrible backbiters.


AL: Alan Kaufman, a San Francisco poet, has coined the term the Beat Corporation implying that the Beats are now part of the literary mainstream. In twenty years, will the Beats seem as musty as Hawthorne?


AA: Some of them do already.

(Background information for the interview was found in the following: Norman Podhoretz, Doings and Undoings, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964; Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg, editors, The Beat Generation and The Angry Young Men, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1984.)

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