(An article that I had published in Prestige Magazine in 2010, images by Marija Anja Venter)
Take yourself back to the days of ducktails, Springbok Radio, the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle and the literature of William S Burroughs. In short: the 1950s. The stench of post- World War II lethargy and resultant rebellion against “the man” was the status quo, and the buzz of activism filled the air. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but it was Jack Kerouac who coined the name “The Beat Generation.” Generalising from his social circle to characterise the underground, anti-conformist youth of the time, the adjective “beat” referred to being “tired” or “beaten down.” The term was later synonymous with a group of American writers known as “The Beatniks.”
The Beats were the alluring embodiment of rebellion. During the very conformist post-War era, the Beats engaged in a questioning of traditional values, which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react either to, or against. They spurred a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably with regards to sex and drugs), and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority. Hints of their influence even began leaking into the music industry. The Beatles spelled their name with an “a” because John Lennon was a fan of Kerouac.
The three most prominent Beats are undoubtedly William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Remember reading and rereading and rereading yet again Naked Lunch to find a semblance of meaning? Well, luckily we have the gift of hindsight today, which may offer us a modicum of clarity into these disjointed works of art. Perhaps a closer look at these literary iconoclasts is in order?
The beginning of the Beats can be traced back to Columbia University, New York, to the meeting of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others in the original Beat circle. They bonded because they saw in one another a potential that existed outside the strict conformist confines of the post- War, McCarthy-era America. It was on the hallowed grounds of this Ivy League university that Ginsberg discussed the need for a new vision to move away from Columbia University’s conservative notions of literature.
Burroughs was a pivotal member and was introduced to the group at Columbia through a mutual friend. Unlike the others, Burroughs was a Harvard graduate who came from a wealthy family and received a monthly allowance of $200, quite a tidy sum in that time. This allowance was enough to keep him going, and guaranteed his survival for the next 25 years. The allowance was his ticket to freedom. It allowed him to live where he wanted to, and to forego employment.
In 1944, two of the original Beats were involved in a rather convoluted stabbing affair, which resulted in murder. The stabbing precipitated a brief collaboration between Kerouac and Burroughs entitled “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks“, a novel about the killing. The book was not published during the lifetimes of either Kerouac or Burroughs. It was shortly after this incident that Burroughs started abusing morphine, which would eventually become a life-long struggle with addiction.
In 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, while playing a drunken game of “William Tell.” He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release him on bail. He was sentenced to two years, which was later suspended. Burroughs believed that shooting Vollmer was a pivotal event in his life, one which provoked his writing: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a life-long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
In 1954, Burroughs started working on the fiction that would later become “Naked Lunch“. Under the strong influence of a marijuana confection known as “majoun” and a German-made opioid called “Eukodol,” Burroughs settled in to write. Eventually, Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him type, edit, and arrange these episodes into Naked Lunch. This was Burroughs’ first venture into a non-linear writing style. Excerpts from Naked Lunch were first published in the US in 1958. The novel was initially rejected by City Lights Books, the publisher of Ginsberg’s “Howl“.
Howl was considered scandalous at the time of its publication because of the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a rallying point for defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming artistic value.
Ginsberg was also a great advocator of his friends and worked hard to get excerpts from Naked Lunch published. Irving Rosenthal, student editor of Chicago Review, promised to publish more excerpts from the book, but was fired from his position due to the obscene content of these extracts. Rosenthal went on to publish more in his newly created literary journal, Big Table No. 1. However, these copies elicited such contempt that the editors were accused of sending explicit material through the US Mail. This controversy put Naked Lunch at the fore of attention and it was subsequently published in 1959.
Whilst Burroughs and Ginsberg toiled upon the path to publication, Kerouac completed his masterpiece, On the Road, in 1951. The book is largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the US and Mexico in the late 1940s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. Before beginning the book, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 37-metre-long uncomfortable with the idea of publishing a book that contained such graphic descriptions of drug-use and homosexual behaviour; a move that could result in obscenity charges being filed – a fate that later befell Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s Howl. In 1957, after being rejected several times, “On the Road” was finally purchased by Viking Press.
The Beats were a generation of constant conflict. They chose to push and struggle against the grain, and in so doing opened the path for many others in terms of anti-war activism, gay rights and experimental literature. They were a group of brave souls who had the courage of their convictions. They told it like it was, no matter how hairy the truth. Their writing is entangled with their very humanity; their works are immortal pieces of their semi-lucid lives. When we read their words, we assimilate their very mortality; we inhale their ideology and ingest their beliefs. Who could ask for anything more exhilarating?