Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Typewriter is Holy

As you know (since I've said it 300 times), my wonderful husband took us to San Francisco as a celebratory trip for our seventh anniversary. It was awesome. One of the highlights for me, of course, was our trip to the City Lights bookstore. The store is famous for its publishing and its politics. It is three floors of gloriousness (still less than Powell's in Portland, but impressive nonetheless). This is my husband standing outside the door waiting for me to get pictures and get over the idea of being at the store enough to actually go inside.

Before going to this store, I had only a vague notion of The Beat Generation. I knew it included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and they did drugs, traveled and wrote poetry and books. I saw the movie Howl, which gave me a bit more of an idea, but it was still pretty fuzzy. I majored in English in undergrad, but I think the only stuff I read by any of The Beats was a poem or two in a survey course. The point is that when we walked into City Lights, I knew it was a big deal, but I didn't know how much or exactly why. So, my goal was to find a book there that would tell me more, and I did indeed find such a book - on the third floor in the poetry room.

The Typewriter is Holy

By Bill Morgan

The author of this book is Bill Morgan. He is a friend and the personal archivist for Allen Ginsberg. He has made a life documenting Ginsberg's life and career. He noticed throughout his research that there are biographies and books on all The Beats separately, but there was not a book that told the story of The Beat Generation as a whole, and there was nothing that put all of their stories together in one place. Now we have it.

This makes it the perfect book for someone (like me) who knows very little about The Beats as a whole - even after reading the book, I'm not sure whether I should be calling them "The Beats," or if I should be typing out "The Beat Generation" every time.

The Irritating:

I will quickly start off with the two major flaws I found with this biographical retelling, and then get on with the good and interesting things about this book. The most irritating thing about this novel is that the author is inconsistent with names. There is a HUGE cast of characters, and it's nearly impossible to keep everyone straight. For example, it took me a long time to figure out that Bill = William S. Burroughs, but sometimes the author also called him Burroughs, and at other times just William, and still other times, he used the whole name. A good editor would have fixed this problem right away.

The other flaw with this biography, in my opinion, is the overwhelming bias towards Allen Ginsberg. The author is clear in the Introduction about his relationship with Ginsberg, so it shouldn't have been surprising that he says mostly favorable things about Ginsberg when so many of the other Beats were described as careless, shallow, self-indulgent people. Some of Ginsberg's faults are stated quickly, but they are not dwelt on like Neal Cassady's womanizing or William S. Burroughs's drug dependency. That takes away some of my belief in the author's version of events. Since the author was upfront about things, this may be forgivable. Nevertheless, it bothered me, and it made me want to seek out other biographies on The Beats, just for clarity.

The Good:

There is a core group of people that make up The Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady are kind of the 4 central characters, but there are a lot of other names that come and go. This author's thesis is that The Beat Generation would not have happened the way it did without Allen Ginsberg's knack for introducing people, encouraging them to write, promoting their work to his (and every other) publisher, and his ability to keep them all in contact with each other on a surprisingly regular basis. Ginsberg's apartment - whether in New York or San Francisco - was often the place where people gathered, stayed, slept, lived, etc. It was also often the place where the group experimented with drugs, and where groups of people would work together writing, editing and refining books of poetry or stories.

The core group met in New York, and branched out from there: Kerouac traveling across the US on many occasions, Burroughs living overseas mostly (Mexico City and then Tangier), Cassady traveling across the US and Mexico with Jack, his wife, other women, etc. But they all wrote each other a lot, and therefore, it's easy to document their movements and what each was doing while the rest were writing elsewhere.

Their story is extremely interesting and compelling. There is no denying that the works of literature and poetry that this group contributed to the world is amazing and worthy of attention. Social boundaries were pushed and broken. But the stories of these men are kind of sad - there is so much tragedy that follows each of them, and most of them ended their lives, penniless and alone. But great art often comes from such events, and that's what they gave us - great art.

The Takeaway:

Or so I'm told. I've never actually read much of the work written by The Beats. I'm not generally a big fan of poetry (I'm either too stupid or too lazy for it), so I probably won't be pouring over Howl or any of Ginsberg's other poetry. However, this book did give me a list of a few books I should probably read:

On the Road
, by Jack Kerouac. This is a largely biographical story of Kerouac's travels with Neal Cassady, and it was the book that made The Beats famous. It was not Kerouac's favorite, though, and he struggled with the fame it brought him, not only because of the attention, but also because it wasn't always positive attention and praise. This fame was his ultimate downfall. This makes me curious.

by William Burroughs. It tells the story of a man's decline into addiction - something with which Burroughs struggled his entire life. It wasn't published initially because publishers didn't want to glorify addiction or even talk about it at all. That's something better left under the rug. Heaven forbid we have a conversation about addiction or try to understand addicts.

I also have a book called Kerouac, A Biography, by Ann Charters. I've had it awhile, but I think it might be about time to read it. From what I read in The Typewriter is Holy, I think that Kerouac's story is one of the most tragic, and I'd like to know more about him.

Have you read anything about The Beats? Have you read any of their work? I think I'm more interested in the movement as a whole, and its impact on the literary community, but I'm always open to suggestions of what to read.

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