Tina Rubin on the Beat Writers
I grew up in a family of readers. Flying magazines and movie magazines littered the coffee table; bookshelves were crammed with hardcovers like War and Peace and Little Women. Nancy Drew mysteries, Bobbsey Twins adventures, and Superman and Archie comics were boxed away in our basement for rereading.
The names Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Ginsberg swirled around our universe, but they meant no more to me than the American Gothic wallpaper in our kitchen. It wasn’t until high school English that I learned the significance of those names, and with that came a whole new dimension. If the Beat writers could explode America’s cultural mores by celebrating the unencumbered life and hungering for spirituality, I wanted in.
Columbia University, New York, early forties: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady met and forged the friendships that would establish them as the core of the Beat writers. In the early fifties they arrived in San Francisco, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti had just opened City Lights Books, the first all-paperback bookstore in the nation. Within a year, Ferlinghetti, a Ph.D. and poet, used his profits to start publishing what he called “international, dissident, insurgent ferment.” He began with his own work. Pictures of a Gone World became the first in his City Lights Pocket Poets series. Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Jerome Rothenberg, and Nicanor Parra were among the writers who followed Ferlinghetti into print in the series.
One rainy day in February, my son and I arrived in San Francisco to explore this insurgent ferment. The Beat Writers tour we booked didn’t materialize, so with a few tips from the cashier at City Lights Books (261 Columbus Ave. at Broadway, in North Beach), we created our own, starting right there.
Narrow, three-story City Lights has the kind of ambience you see in old European bookshops, but that’s becoming rare in the U.S. today: walls and stairs and corners jammed with bookshelves. But the books on those shelves are the kind you won’t find anywhere else. As Pico Iyer noted in a March 23, 2014 Los Angeles Times article, “City Lights is a little like that ideal, book-loving friend–imagine exacting literary critic James Wood filtered through the eclectic, all-American, hip omnivorousness of David Foster Wallace–who has impeccable taste but knows that the real classics are books you’ve never heard of.”
For me, walking through the real thing–the bookstore whose name alone had lit the darkness of my teenage angst–was like stepping into a dream. I wanted to stay. I wanted to spend the night roaming its corridors. But on we went.
Just across Jack Kerouac Alley from City Lights is Vesuvio (255 Columbus Ave.). The bar, around since 1948, is obviously one of the leading literary spots in the world–you can tell by this poem painted on an outside wall:
When the shadow of the grasshopper
Falls across the trail of the field mouse
On green and slimy grass as a red sun rises
Above the western horizon silhouetting
A gaunt and tautly muscled Indian warrior
Perched with bow and arrow cocked and aimed
Straight at you it’s time for another martini.
Another martini indeed. One night in October 1955, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s breakthrough novel On the Road) stopped in for a drink at Vesuvio before heading over to a poetry reading at Six Gallery. From that night on, the bar was the spot where the intellectuals, artists, writers, and musicians of the Beat era let their hair down. Still a bar today, Vesuvio honors its heritage with poetry readings, art festivals, concerts in the alley, and more.
Across the street, the Beat Museum (540 Broadway at Columbus) displays a large chunk of the history we were searching for. The ground floor comprises a bookstore filled with works of the era and a theater that was showing an informative film about Jack Kerouac. But on the attic-like second floor, filled with typewriters and record players and memorabilia, I learned the stories I’d never heard in school. For starters, the derivation of the name Beat Generation.
Around 1948, the story goes, novelist John Clellon Holmes asked his buddy Kerouac for a description of their crowd so he could use it in a novel. Herbert Huncke, another writer, had referred to the group as beat while talking to Kerouac one day–(he meant beat in the sense of being reduced to the essentials, or “all the crap gone out of it,” the museum display explained)–so Kerouac told Holmes they were the Beat Generation. Holmes’s novel Go, the first book of the Beat era, was published in 1952, as was an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine entitled “This Is the Beat Generation.” A legend was shaping up.
Five years later, San Francisco Chronicle Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning columnist Herb Caen took the hype up a notch. After the Russians launched Sputnik in October 1957, Caen wrote a snide paragraph about a Beat party in North Beach. He dubbed the party-goers “Beatniks”–alluding to Sputnik and implying that the Beats were in orbit too. He closed by saying, “They’re only beat, y’know, when it comes to work.” Kerouac hated that the nickname stuck. “You make us sound like jerks,” he told Caen.
Much as the Beats might have appeared the way Caen described them–drunk, drugged, sexed-crazed free-thinkers–they were college-educated intellectuals who worked hard at their art. On the Road, finally published six years after Kerouac wrote it in 1951, was infused with the rhythm and language of jazz, poetry, and surreal drug-induced experiences–but he worked on it up to seven hours a day for weeks at a time until he exhausted himself, and then he would begin again.
Like Kerouac and the others, Allen Ginsberg took his work seriously. A copy of his revolutionary poem, “Howl,” on display at the Beat Museum shows edits penciled in by his friends. He took his work to the clubs where they gathered and passed it around. Ginsberg railed against society’s ills with imagery from his own life–that of homosexuality, drugs, obscenity, suffering. But his friends were editing his poetry, which speaks to their work ethic.
Ginsberg’s legendary reading of part one of “Howl” on October 7, 1955, at Six Gallery (3119 Fillmore St.; now a store)–the reading Cassady was headed to when he stopped at Vesuvio–made the poet a household name. The admission-free event, Six Poets at Six Gallery, was organized and emceed by respected San Francisco Poetry Renaissance leader Kenneth Rexroth. It turned out to be the actual genesis of the Beat movement. At least 150 people came. Kerouac collected change from them–(did Ellen DeGeneres take a page from his playbook at the 2014 Academy Awards?)–and went out to buy jugs of red wine, which he then dispensed to everyone to warm them up. He immortalized the night in his 1958 novel,Dharma Bums:
Scores of people stood around in the darkened gallery straining to hear every word of the amazing poetry reading as I wandered from group to group . . . urging them to glug a slug from the jug, or wandered back and sat on the right side of the stage giving out little wows and yeses of approval and even whole sentences of comment with nobody’s invitation but in the general gaiety nobody’s disapproval either.
Ginsberg began reading around 11 p.m. He spewed out the words rhythmically, in one long breath at a time, his volume building, while Kerouac shouted “Go, go!” and the audience screamed and waved wine jugs in the air:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz . . . .
About a year later, when Ginsberg finished writing the second and third parts of “Howl,” Ferlinghetti sent the entire poem to England to be published, anticipating trouble with U.S. publishers because of the poem’s obscenity. When the books arrived in San Francisco, sure enough they were confiscated by U.S. Customs officials.
So Ferlinghetti published it himself as part of the City Lights Pocket Poets series, and was arrested in 1957 on obscenity charges. It was a landmark case for freedom of speech. Ferlinghetti’s attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union argued that it was not the poet who was obscene, but what he had observed. The way Ferlinghetti put it, it was “the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.” After about a three-month trial, the judge ruled that the poem could not be suppressed as obscene, and Ferlinghetti was acquitted.
Our journey into San Francisco’s “dissident ferment” revealed a trail overgrown by half a century of love from the city’s artists, writers, musicians, publishers, bar owners, restaurateurs. San Francisco gave the Beats the freedom of expression that enabled them to reshape America’s literary landscape. Ferlinghetti’s own poem “I Am Waiting,” from his 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind, is still relevant, echoing the sentiments of disillusioned artists and thinkers throughout the country:
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for the American Boy
to take off Beauty’s clothes
and get on top of her
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder. . . .
An earlier version of this essay appeared here in 2009 as “San Francisco: The Beat Goes On.”
Tina Rubin is a hopeless romantic with a fascination for the dark side. She has written at least a dozen coffee-table books on cities and states, and her articles, essays and poetry have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Citron Review, and Annotation Nation. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and founded and produces this journal, Travel by the Books.