“Kick is seeing things from a special angle”
Walter Benjamin, the distinguished European critic, didn’t have Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac in mind when he proclaimed “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” Yet, it was the two college friends who came together on Morningside Heights in the 1940s, and then, a decade later, went on to upend staid American literature. With his now storied reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1954, and its swift paperback publication, Allen overthrew generations of Pulitzer Prize winners, like Robert Frost with his vision of snowy New England woods, and Carl Sandburg who boasted of Chicago, his city of “big shoulders,” and its industrial might.
In their place, Allen sang of an underground America, a subterranean land of “junk-withdrawl in Newark’s bleak furnishedroom,” of people “who howled on their knees in the subway...”–characters he had met in his wanderings through Times Square, the pool halls of Denver, and the psychiatric hospital where he was banished after his suspension from Columbia College. It was in that hospital that he met Carl Solomon, the mad Bronx poet to whom he dedicated “Howl.”
Three years later, in 1957, Kerouac and On the Road appeared on the scene racing by the prim works of Truman Capote and John Updike that had graced the literary landscape. The novel included some of the same characters as in Allen’s poem, including Ginsberg himself (Carlo Marx) and one of the “secrete heroes” of “Howl” and other poems, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty)–a fast talking, part-time parking lot attendant whose frantic cross-country rides in a ‘49 Hudson comprised the plot, such as it was. Jack had written the book in 21 days on a Benzedrine high, but it had collected seven years of rejection slips, including one from a publisher who claimed the public wouldn’t buy a book “about bums.”
A twist of fate proved the Establishment wrong. On publication day, the priggish reviewer for The New York Times, Orville Prescott, was on vacation, his place taken by a young critic named Gilbert Millstein who knew of Kerouac’s underground reputation. He praised the novel as “an authentic work of art,” “beautifully executed” and went on to describe Jack as “the avatar” of the Beat Generation. It was a term Jack used in the book, one that he had heard years earlier from a Times Square junkie.
Overnight, Jack found himself famous. His handsome lumberjack profile appeared in popular journals, like Mademoiselle, and his quips and sly humor were made for the TV studio.
With fame, came controversy. Jack and his fellow Beats were attacked in the press, their works parodied by jealous writers. This disapproval appealed to young people, tired of their parents conformity–and they flocked to the siren call of sexual freedom and a freewheeling life style.
Even Jack was astonished by what he and his friends had done. “[P]retty soon we’ll have a Beat Secretary of State,” he wrote in an essay, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” published in Playboy.
Those who pulled the levers of power didn’t quite see it Jack’s way. Three years after Road appeared, President-elect John F. Kennedy chose the ancient Robert Frost to read a poem at his inauguration.
Urbane and well-educated, Kennedy became the figure presidential aspirants modeled themselves on, including Barack Obama, the first African American occupant of the White House. Fond of sharing his reading habits, Obama dismissed Jack Kerouac’s writing as overly romantic and “open road, young kid on the make discussing stuff.” In a way, it was a tribute to an author who had been dead almost fifty years.
And there, the matter rested: the Beats were shut out of power, until one day, in the year of our Lord, 2016, down an escalator in a gaudy palace erected to himself rode a man named Donald J. Trump, wild-haired and angry, a scion of Queens, Jack’s own borough, proclaiming his candidacy.
His was not a promise of the New Frontier but a dark vision of “American carnage.” There were killers on the loose, rapists on the border, he warned.
At heart, Jack was a seer, a Catholic mystic who lived with his mother until the day he died; and maybe in Road was a prophecy, as well as a credo, when he wrote:
“...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live mad to talk...who never yawn or say a commonplace thing....”
And the new Redeemer fulfilled this promise: “Crooked Hillary” was the square secretary of state, the position that rightfully should have gone to a Beat generations before. Jack’s detractor, the incumbent president, was dismissed as “sick,” “a bad man.”
It was a four year joy ride, like crazy Neal was at the wheel, racing from one policy point to another, only to double-back again.
“Whee...we gotta go and never stop going till we get there,” Neal had told his friend on a cross-country jaunt. “Where are we going, man?” Jack wanted to know. “I don’t know,” Neal replied, “but we gotta go.”
Even Burroughs was put off by the “purposelessness” of Neal’s journey, describing it in a letter to Ginsberg, quoted by Steven Watson in The Birth of the Beat Generation, as “pure, abstract meaningless motion.”
Donald’s peregrination as president seemed headed down the same road: Since there was no destination, there was no end to the political voyage; it was logical that Donald sought to extend his four year stay in the White House. A rigged and stolen election was as good a pretext as any.
The re-inauguration party was premature and so got out of hand, harkening back to the great blizzard of ‘49 when New York was blanketed under snow on New Year’s Eve, and Jack and his friends celebrated for “three days and three nights,” as Jack wrote in Road, climbing through windows, crashing each other’s pads while the “wild bop” of Dexter Gordon blasted all night on the radio.
The only difference was Donald’s bash and overturned furniture was in the Halls of Congress.
Years before, young Millstein had hailed the publication of On the Road as “an historic occasion.” The Washington D.C. blow-out was, too. Donald described it as “beautiful.”
Early on, the Beats, or beatniks as they came to be called, might have disappeared as another fad, with their beards and sandals, had it not been for Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s sexual candor. In “Howl,” Allen’s ode to the male sex organ (“Holy is the cock”) especially irked critics. It was Norman Podhoretz, the future neocon, who led the charge against the Beats by the New York Literary Establishment in his essay, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.”
The Beats mores–more than their “prosody”–caused Podhoretz to accuse them of being “very primitive” and “hostile to civilization,” harboring “an anti-intellectualism so bitter it makes the ordinary American’s hatred of eggheads seem positively benign.”
In the expensive business of preserving democracy, every four years, it seems, a (usually eccentric) billionaire enters the presidential race, only to fizzle out after the first primary. This fate might have befallen Donald had not there surfaced an old radio tape in which he crassly spoke of his talent for grabbing women by their private parts. Instead of sinking his candidacy, this revelation pushed every other candidate aside, giving Donald a news monopoly that money could not buy.
Jung has taught that some coincidences have meaning; so it may not have been mere chance that Donald’s harshest critics within his own party were neocons, one of whom, Elliott Abrams, a government official, was Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law. Writing in The Weekly Standard, a journal founded by second generation neocons, Abrams asked the pressing question of what to do: “When you can’t stand your candidate” ? The answer came easily: Donald won, the paper folded, Elliott joined the Administration–a nice touch of hypocrisy that no self-respecting Beat would have been surprised by.
Growing up, the Beats were enamored with the 1930s Hollywood movies that romanticized gangsters and the underworld. Later, Kerouac wrote of the influence that John Garfield, the tough New York actor, and Humphrey Bogart, had had on him. Then, on Morningside Heights, Jack and Allen fell under the spell of William Burroughs, a jaded dilettante, who wrote of his brushes with the law in Junkie, a memoir published by Ace Books where Carl Solomon was an editor.
Before leaving Columbia, Kerouac and Ginsberg had their own rap sheets: Jack as an accessory after the fact involving a campus murder–a charge later dismissed against him; and Allen for transporting stolen property, which thanks partly to his distinguished English professor, Lionel Trilling, landed him in a psychiatric hospital, rather than prison. "I like it here," Allen informed his professor in a postcard a few days after his arrival.
Although our former president’s list of alleged felonies–forty-one–is impressive, some appear technical and lack the panache of the Beats’ acts: Burroughs, for example, shot his wife in Mexico City in a William Tell prank that went awry.
Even so, Donald’s casual regard for the rule of law makes him a solid fellow traveler, one who told an audience (at a Christian college no less) that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK”? (Trump scholars, like Robert Reich, call this the “Fifth Avenue principle.”)
The closest similarity between Donald and the Beats is the most obvious: At bottom, each is apolitical. “If I were voting this year,” Kerouac told a friend, “I’d vote for Eisenhower.” What mattered was showmanship. In fact, Jack himself traced the origins of the Beat Generation to Laurel and Hardy and the clowning of the Marx Brothers. This played out in the early years with Allen disrobing at a poetry reading in Los Angeles and Jack showing up inebriated on television to debate a newspaper editor. “What we’ve got now,” the neo-realist writer Nelson Algren complained, “is a bunch of performers.”
So it is with Trump whose affairs and marriages splashed across the New York tabloids when he was known as “The Donald” before he became a fixture on television with his own reality show, The Apprentice, in which he played an unpredictable real estate mogul. Politics, the White House, and beyond are only an extension of that personality, dressed in a MAGA cap and entertaining the faithful at Mar-a-Largo as a DJ spinning “ Y.M.C.A,” the disco hit, by Village People.
Unfortunately, during Donald’s reign no Beat personality–at least none in the classic mode of Kerouac or Burroughs–made it into his cabinet: the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was a former oil company executive.
A second term may remedy this defect. If Jared turns out to be less uptight than pictured, Donald may find his Allen Ginsberg. In the meantime: It used to be said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. So, apparently, does literature.
Ron Martinetti for AL. Ron has written for The Columbia University Forum and other publications. Background material for this essay was found in A Casebook on the Beats, ed. by Thomas Parkinson, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961; the Gilbert Millstein review was reproduced in Jack’s Book by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, St. Martin’s Press, 1978.