But the publishing establishment had not changed overnight. They wanted to publish Beat material because it was "hot," but what they really wanted was the Beat label, without any of its more controversial aspects. They wanted a sanitized and acceptable Bohemia, one which would not get them embroiled in lawsuits; they wanted Beat material that the general public, their audience, would not feel threatened by; they wanted Beat writing which would sell. And so, while Beat-related material was rushed into print, much of it was purely sensationalistic, catering to and reinforcing the caricature "Beatnik" image. Hollywood followed suit, with MGM's 1959 release of The Beat Generation. Bantam Books came out with a novelization of the film, describing it on the cover as "the shocking and revealing novel of a generation gone wild, [...]the searing story of the restless, jaded men and women, with no aim in life except a new sensation - drugs, 'way-out' jazz, perverted sex, actual crime." In 1961 the 7 Poets Press in New York produced a Beat Generation Cookbook (10) (see right), and had a A Pocket Guide to Beat Watching planned for publication the following Spring. Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians, a sociological study of the Beat Generation, was published in 1959, purporting to give "the first complete inside story of the Beat Generation: who they are; what they believe; how they live."
The works of the Beat writers themselves were accompanied by similar hype. Signet's 1958 paperback edition of On the Road called it "the bible of the Beat Generation - the explosive best-seller that tells all about today's wild youth and their frenetic search for Experience and Sensation." The 1959 edition of The Dharma Bums promised to take the reader "from the pagan depths of Frisco's Bohemian bars to the dizzying heights of the snow-capped Sierras" as they followed "the story of two sensation-seeking hipsters:"
Here are their "yabyum" sexual orgies ... their marathon wine-drinking binges ... their wild careening mountain-climbing sprees ... their sky-rocketing poetry-jazz bouts ... as only Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road, can reveal them.Just as the image of a Beat Generation had been refined out of a more generic and anonymous avant-garde, had in fact come to symbolize the avant-garde in the minds of many people, so too had writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg come to represent the Beat Generation. As spokesmen and as symbols, their works in particular was much in demand. Collections of Beat writing came out, with Allen Ginsberg helping the editors and anthologists on a number of them. Jack Kerouac was advised by his agent to demand high fees for his anthology appearances, since, according to his agent, "they can't make it without my name" (Miles 1989).
Along with the hype, and the lucrative publishing offers, came pressures to conform. (Miles 1989):
Allen was concerned that Kerouac's publishing career was going astray and did his best to intervene. Jack had a number of good unpublished manuscripts, among them Mexico City Blues, Dr. Sax, and Visions of Cody. However his agent, Sterling Lord, had persuaded him to write a follow-up to On the Road, continuing the adventures of his characters - The Dharma Bums. Now Lord wanted him to write a travel book about Paris for Viking. Meanwhile, Grove Press was clamoring to be allowed to publish Dr. Sax. [...] Allen wrote to Jack: "I say, perhaps Viking and Lord are neglecting your good books and trying to get you to write 'potboilers' according to their idea of what your writing career should develop like." [...] In another letter he spelled it out: "My opinion - don't let Madison Avenue try water you down and make you palatable to reviewers Mentality by waiting on Wildbooks and putting out commercial travelogues (however good)"As the Beat Generation matured through the late fifties and early sixties, the cultural conditions which had given birth to this particular incarnation of literary Bohemianism were changing. The stage was being set for the cycle to repeat itself, and the next Generation was beginning to condense out of the general cultural soup, in unconscious preparation for recognition and baptism by the popular media. The Bohemian dialectic was at work, as elements of the Beat Generation began to be absorbed into the mainstream.
The driving forces behind this "synthesis" of extremes were the significant social changes taking place in America during the sixties. The transformations were a further example of the dual aspects of the role of the media: as a voice and a representative for an elusive "public," publishers served as an outlet for the public's voice; yet as an influential and respected part of the established social framework, that voice wielded significant influence on the public.
The avant-garde had always represented rebellion against convention. As rebelliousness became more commonplace, as suburban conformity began to be replaced with a more open and unconventional lifestyle, the stark contrast which had existed between the Bohemia of the Beats and the American middle class gradually began to fade (Gontarski 1990):
The sexual revolution that Grove had championed had turned on its champion, and Rosset was perplexed. Moreover, like Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press and the Obelisk Press before it, Grove ironically relied for its existence on the "archaic" censorship rules that it fought, the abolition of which finally also swept away the uniqueness and thus the necessity of presses like Olympia and Grove. In addition, Grove Press could make inroads into the popular market only because the very idea of the avant-garde was in eclipse, that is, when experimentalism in art was already being accepted by growing numbers. If the notion of the avant-garde art means anything, it is defined by its hostility to accepted artistic standards and values. The very success of Grove Press hastened the decline of the avant-garde by broadening the audience for, and hence increasing the tolerance of, nontraditional art, absorbing it into the tradition, blurring the distinctions between the established literary canon and the works of the counterculture. The decline of Grove Press was inherent in the very structure of its success.Throughout America the next resurgence of Bohemia was beginning, the next generation being born. San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury area was to become their Greenwich Village; Be-Ins and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests would replace the jazz-backed poetry readings of the Beats. By the end of the decade the monochromatic image of the "Beatniks" would come to seem an outdated joke beside the colourful, tie-dyed and paisley-patterned image of the hippies.
Publishers responded again (with the same tendencies towards caricature and simplification) with books about and for this new generation of the avant-garde. One of these, a 1970 "paperback magazine" named US, contains an interview with Jack Kerouac, conducted shortly before his death. Titled Would You Run Away From Home To Become a Beatnik If You Knew That the Man Who Wrote On the Road Lived With His Mother? there is more than a suggestion of ridicule about it, illustrating the new counterculture's wish to distance themselves from the now-dated Beat Generation.
The death of Jack Kerouac in 1969 symbolically marked the end to an era. Although the Bohemian torch had been passed to a new generation, the transition was more an evolutionary one than it was a clean break with the past. Certain elements of the Beat Generation had been absorbed by the cultural mainstream; other elements merged seamlessly into the new counterculture. Allen Ginsberg was an active participant in this new underground, just as he had been in its precursor. Neal Cassady, the prototype for the Dean Moriarity character in On The Road, joined forces with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, driving yet one more time across America, an episode chronicled in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Through it all the publishers tried to keep pace with changing trends. The more prominent Beat writers continued to sell well long after the Beat Generation itself had disappeared. Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg's books for City Lights remained popular. On the Road and The Dharma Bums remained constantly in print, their cover copy suitably updated to appeal to a new audience (11).
The influence of the Beat Generation was evident in many aspects of the counterculture which came afterwards. Richard Brautigan was one writer whose career bridged the Beats and the hippie era. Too young to have participated as a full-fledged Beat, he had hung out on the fringes of the San Francisco literary scene from 1954 onwards. Perhaps the most widely read author of the sixties' counterculture, his book Trout Fishing in America sold over two million copies. His previous novel, A Confederate General From Big Sur, had attracted little attention when Grove published it in 1964: "Some critics liked it, others didn't, and the public was overwhelmingly indifferent. Generally publicized as a novel of the Beat generation, it appeared long after the Beats had ceased to interest the American public" (Foster 1983).
Brautigan was just one of those whom Gregory Stephenson, in his excellent introduction to The Daybreak Boys (Stephenson 1990), termed "second generation Beats:"
younger men and women who, in the late fifties and early sixties, responded to and were inspired by the Beat Generation. Some notable second generation Beats would include Ed Sanders, Ken Kesey, Ted Berrigan, Emmet Grogan, Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, and Richard Fariña. Their writings and activities, together with those of the original Beats, helped to catalyze the second phase of the impact of the Beat Generation: the counterculture of the late sixties and the early seventies.The influence of the Beat writers was felt widely outside the United States too. The group of writers surrounding Tish magazine, published in Vancouver between 1961 and 1969, drew inspiration from the Beats. A turning point for them came in the summer of 1963, while Allen Ginsberg was at the University of British Columbia teaching poetry, along with Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.
That conference had been arranged by professor Warren Tallman, co-editor with Donald Allen of The Poetics of the New American Poetry for Grove. Tallman recently described the Tish writers, who included George Bowering, Fred Wah, and Frank Davey, as being "thoroughgoing literary delinquents who lifted everything they could lay hands on from their incredibly naive American visitors for purposes of their own imaginations" (Barbour 1991). Interestingly, in another Vancouver connection, Jack Kerouac, in a 1967 Paris Review interview with Ted Berrigan, speaks enthusiastically of "William Bissette [sic] of Vancouver. An Indian boy. Bill Bissette, or Bisonette," calling him one of "the great poets."
The torch having been passed, the Beat Generation as such was relegated to the pages of history. Critical recognition for the writing of the Beat Generation was slow in coming. For many years the works were considered to be simply relics from a bygone era, of little interest or relevance to today, and lacking in that literary substance which would have ensured longevity.
More recently though, this has begun to change. In his foreword to Kerouac and the Beats, John Tytell writes that "the Beat Generation is still a recent phenomenon in American literature; a number of its members are still writing and its permanent reputation is still in the process of being formed. The literary reputation of the Beats has changed remarkably in the eighties and they are no longer treated with the grinning condescension we reserve for Bohemians whom we refuse to take seriously" (Knight 1988).
Accompanying this critical reappraisal is what can only be described as a Beat revival. The revival is a nostalgic look backwards by those who grew up during the fifties; it is also an example of the human tendency to Romanticize the outlaw and the rebel (12).
In July of 1982, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of On the Road was celebrated in Boulder, Colorado, with a week-long event which was almost a "high school reunion" of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg was the Bhudda-like host of the gathering, and was surrounded with such Beat luminaries as William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, and Diane di Prima, as well as a number of post-Beat figures such as Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, and Abbie Hoffman. Posters of Jack Kerouac were for sale, as were T-shirts with his face emblazoned on them. The entire conference proceedings were available on cassette tape. A collection of "Documents from the Jack Kerouac Conference" was prepared later, the cover featuring a photograph of the original roll manuscript of On the Road: perhaps the most famous relic of the Beat Generation.
During the 1980s the surviving Beat figures have been elevated into the ranks of Elder Statesmen of American literature. Allen Ginsberg has had his Collected Poems published in a sumptuous hardcover edition from Harper & Row; Jack Kerouac's recorded poetry, three albums long unavailable except at exorbitant collector's prices, were re-released on CD this year; Gary Snyder's 60th birthday was recently marked by Sierra Club's publication of a collection of essays honoring him; William S. Burroughs has performed on stage with New Wave musician Laurie Anderson; Michael McClure's archives now reside in Special Collections at the Simon Fraser University, and in 1990 he played at Vancouver's Commodore nightclub (under the banner "Legendary Beat Poet") with Ray Manzarek, formerly a keyboardist with The Doors.
There are other examples of this phenomenon; they all point out that the Beat Generation has long ceased to represent the cutting edge of the avant-garde. The avant-garde has moved on. In a 1980 interview (Dana 1980), James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, was asked: "Is there still an avant-garde?" He replied that
[t]here is, and there isn't. One thing which differentiated the avant-garde in the old days when I started publishing was that they couldn't get published by the regular publishers, and they were more or less a small group. [...] Now you have a situation where a writer as exotic and as good as Donald Barthelme gets published right from the beginning in New Yorker magazine. And the New Yorker is hospitable to people like Borges and the other Latin American writer, Márquez. So that part of the avant-garde has disappeared.But the avant-garde still does flourish, in a certain sense, in that there are a large number of very good writers who are doing something which is totally different from what your average, accepted, good writer is doing.
The evidence of history suggests that a literary avant-garde will exist in some form as long as there are writers of merit who are out of step with the publishing establishment. Just as the ancestry of the Beat writers can be traced through numerous preceding instances of literary Bohemia, so the "unspeakable visions" of the Beat Generation will live on in the instances which follow.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.