The 1950s Beat Generation: Did it define a generation or just a few people?

March 01, 1992|By Christopher Corbett

THE PORTABLE BEAT READER.

Edited by Ann Charters.

Viking.

635 pages. $25.

Shortly before Christmas 1946, Neal Cassady, freshly discharged from the New Mexico State Reformatory, but apparently unreformed, departed Sidney, Neb., with a stolen car, hTC a 16-year-old child bride and $300 of her aunt's money.

This cross-country jaunt (car abandoned in Nebraska snow drift . . . trip continued via Greyhound) would end in New York City. There, in a cold-water flat, Mr. Cassady would meet Jack Kerouac (and later Allen Ginsberg), the seminal events for the Beat generation.

Appropriately, the entire second section of "The Portable Beat -- Reader" is devoted to Mr. Cassady, whom Mr. Kerouac memorialized as Dean Moriarty, the central character in the novel "On the Road."

Mr. Cassady was Huck Finn with a '49 Hudson. "A Western Kinsman of the Sun." Alcoholic father. Grew up on skid row. Claimed to have stolen 500 cars to go joy riding before his 21st birthday. Railroad brakeman, conman, "cocksman and Adonis of Denver," says Mr. Ginsberg in his best-known poem, "Howl." The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called Mr. Cassady "a fast talker" rather than a "writer." Later drove the bus for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. San Quentin alumnus. Died in Mexico of drug overdose.

Ann Charters includes a sampling of Mr. Cassady's writing, chiefly his long and crazy letters to Mr. Kerouac. His wild, untutored prose -- accounts of picking up girls on Greyhound buses and his adventures in the car-theft trade -- echoes across all of Kerouac's books, and in Mr. Burroughs' "Junky" and "Naked Lunch," and Mr. Ginsberg's poetry, as well.

It echoes, too, across "The Portable Beat Reader."

In the introduction to the first section of this 635-page anthology, Ms. Charters, Mr. Kerouac's first biographer, writes: "The poet Gary Snyder once joked there was no Beat Generation -- it consisted of three or four people, and four people don't make up a generation."

If the whole Beat Generation consisted of a handful of friends (Mr. Kerouac, Mr. Burroughs, Mr. Ginsberg), then to a great extent it was a cult of Neal Cassady, too.

The best minds of that generation are old men now or dead. Some indeed were destroyed by madness: counting railroad ties in San Miguel de Allende (Mr. Cassady) or drinking boilermakers and watching "The Galloping Gourmet" in Florida retirement hell (Mr. Kerouac).

Some are still about -- William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg -- to borrow the words of Mr. Ferlinghetti, "constantly risking absurdity."

But the gang's all here, enshrined forever for those who would be Beat, in a Viking portable.

Mr. Kerouac's "On the Road" and "Dharma Bums." Mr. Ginsberg's "Howl." Mr. Burroughs' "Junky" and "Naked Lunch." And the poets associated with the era: Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, Mr. Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth.

Close readers of the Beats may wonder about how a few things got in here. (Bob Dylan?) And there are a few omissions that puzzle.

There's nothing from Mr. Kerouac's "Lonesome Traveler." His "The Vanishing American Hobo" would have been a nice addition, too, reminding us, as it does, that "the woods are full of wardens."

On the other hand, Ms. Charters has made some splendid selections.

Favorites: Charles Bukowski. Writing in the old Los Angeles underground newspaper "Open City." The original "Notes of a Dirty Old Man." Reporting on his night on the town with Neal Cassady. The best part: Mr. Bukowski expressing mock alarm that Mr. Cassady was too wild.

Or Ken Kesey's "The Day After Superman Died" -- a little-known meditation on Mr. Cassady's death.

The Fugs' own Tuli Kupferberg's "1001 Ways To Beat the Draft" (e.g.: "Rent motel room with ewe").

Or William Burroughs the Younger's accounts of being sent at 14 tender years of age to live with dear old Dad in Tangier, a treatise on contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Several years ago, sorting some of this out, the writer and editor Joyce Johnson -- once Mr. Kerouac's girlfriend -- wrote "Minor Characters," her memoir of the 1950s. (It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.)

Ms. Johnson (included in this book) recalled years after the deaths of Mr. Kerouac and Mr. Cassady going to see the old Beat movie "Pull My Daisy" with a friend who was completely baffled.

" 'So what was it all about?' my companion asks as the final credits flash on the screen.

" 'I think it was about the right to remain children.' "

She ended her memoir by quoting William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy."

But the question still remains: What was it all about?

When Charles Olson was asked, the usually cryptic poet drawled: "Cars and girls."

Mr. Corbett is the visiting journalist at Loyola College.

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