The best writers in the business.


Writers of
the Beat Generation

If you are
just coming around to the Beats, you will be surprised to learn that the Beat Generation maintained a large orbit of writers and poets. The pantheon includes more than Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti and Corso.












by William Burroughs

By now we know who Burroughs is: bete noir, surrealist auteur most scandalous, and keen observer of the police state.

Plus, he was a randy dandy well into his eighties (1914-1997). Seriously, check the YouTube footage of Burroughs: he was a spry old goose, which says that there might be good health in opiate use and chasing after your desires.

I'm no expert on the man, although I did make the pilgrimage to his farm in Algiers, Louisiana (featured in Jack Kerouac's On the Road). Reading Naked Lunch for me proved to be grotesque and dull. But Junky can now be placed on my completed list.

The shortest and most straightforward of his tomes, Junky is the tale of Burroughs' shooting and dealing in New York-New Orleans-Mexico City during the 1940s.

Other books by Burroughs include Queer, In Search of Yage, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.

The main appeal of Junky, imho, is the historical aspect, written with perfect candor. Like Jean Genet -- a writer of the early 20th C. European underground -- Burroughs does not cover up that he's a criminal and gives full disclosure of his milieu.
His key insight -- and prophetic one -- is that the so-called drug war is a pretext for a giant surveillance state.

Junky, in terms of readability and, as poet Allen Ginsberg commented, "enormous sociologic grasp", rivals the work of other literary anthropologists like Zora Neale Hurston, Carlos Castaneda, Lafcadio Hearn and Genet.

Yet Junky may have the ultimate euphemism in literary history: failing to mention that he murdered his wife while playing William Tell, Burroughs writes that he is merely "separated from his wife". Another euphemism is that he says he is leaving Mexico City and "going south" to look for the drug yage, when in reality he was skipping town to avoid prosecution for murder.

But I take no judgmental view of Burroughs, like I don't take one of Oscar Wilde – which would be the typically dumb way of U.S. tabloids. Instead when I open up Junky I open a window into a lost time period. We see the "war on doctors" in NYC and prosecution of those who took their Hippocratic Oaths too seriously and treated addicts going through withdrawal sickness. Or in New Orleans, our eyes are opened to the French Quarter as it was before the great commercialization and how the cops and Feds ruthlessly operated. Then Burroughs gives us a glimpse of a marginal Mexico City, where drugs were virtually legal, love is for sale, and guns are a necessity.

One section of the book that sums up his Mexico City experience nicely is when he buys an ounce of heroin from a local politician:

One day I was in the Opera Bar in Mexico City and ran into a politician I knew. He was standing at the bar with a napkin tucked in his collar, eating a steak. Between mouthfuls he asked me did I know anyone who might be interested to buy an ounce of heroin.

I said, "Maybe. How much?"

He said, "They want five hundred dollars."

I talked to Bill Gains and he said, "All right. If it's anywhere near pure I'll take it. But no sight unseen. I have to try the stuff first."

So I arranged it with the politician and we went down to his office. He brought the stuff out of a drawer in a finger stall and laid it on the desk beside a .45 automatic.

"I don't know anything about this stuff," he said. "All I use is cocaine."

I poured some out on a piece of paper. It didn't look right to me. Sort of gray-black. I guess "they" had cooked it up some place on a kitchen stove.

Gains took a shot, but he was so loaded on goof balls and M he couldn't tell one way or the other. So I took a shot and told him. "It's H, but there's something not exactly right about it."

People meanwhile were walking in and out of the office. Nobody paid us any mind sitting there on the couch with our sleeves rolled up, probing for veins with the needle. Anything can happen in the office of a Mexican politician.



visionaries, rebels, and hipsters 1944-1960

by Steven Watson

Steven Watson expertly entertains and informs us with this interesting history of the Beats. "...the Beat Generation touched a raw nerve," writes Watson. "Succeeding generations - the hippies of the 1960s, the punks of the 1970s - regarded them as cultural antecedents, and their work continues to be discovered anew."

Watson's specialty in this book is to show the cultural relevance of these writers (eg, Beat Chronology cross-referenced with the general chronology of American history), and he also shows how each member of the illustrious group influenced the other, for this was a highly synergistic melding of minds. By including all the players - from Neal Cassady to the lesser known writers from the West Coast like Robert Creeley - Watson gives us the complete drama of the Beat Generation.

Reading Watson, we see that the life of Cassady, with all its kinetic frenzy and despair, was the semen that impregnated the writing of the other Beats. With an incisive eye for literary history, Watson places Jack Kerouac in the pantheon of great American writers. He portrays William Burroughs as perhaps the darkest man of letters ever known. Finally, Watson illuminates the heroic efforts of poet Allen Ginsberg, showing him to be the glue that kept the Beat Generation together, intellectually if not physically.

Watson tells a great story, but there are no particularly new revelations in this book. It is special, however, for the greater cultural context the biographer has created. It is his interpretation of the material that is keen.



Bill Morgan's Beat Generation bio
is  an intimate portrait only an insider could write. For forty years Morgan has been the archivist for the Beats, and his work is an indispensable resource for scholars and laymen alike, even if he does take on a priestly tone at various points.

The Beats were who they were. They caroused, they womanized, they had orgies, they did dope, they stole
cars. They were also great writers. What Morgan forgets, as he scolds Neal Cassady for his various trangsgressions against the law and scrutinizes Jack Kerouac for being a deadbeat dad, is that most artists are terrible shits. Did you ever hear about how Jackson Pollack treated his wife? Is Morgan aware that perhaps the greatest French poet ever, Paul Verlaine, was a homicidal alcoholic? Fidelity and even-temperedness might be respected in our modern society, but it is bohemianism and rebellion that inspire great art.

Once you get past the seminary school take on the Beats, you find a wonderful tale about a group of guys -- William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and Cassady -- who in the 1950s really did change American letters and opened up the floodgates for other authors and even for a brand new culture.

It was books like Kerouac's On the Road and Dharma Bums that documented a new breed of post-war American youth. The stories told of a spiritual promised land, and informed readers about a way of thinking and acting that was spontaneous, individualistic and free.

Morgan's book is filled with interesting anecdotes about the group's days at Columbia
University, their roaming around the country, and their various international exploits. He masterfully weaves the story of Bill Burroughs and the unfortunate killing of his wife Joan Volmer by Bill's own hand. Morgan shows how Burroughs was a slave not only to heroin but also to his obsessive thoughts and impulsive actions -- but which were also the wellspring of his art! Additionally, Morgan takes the time to introduce the reader to female Beats like Diane DiPrima, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, and Anne Waldman.




by Lou Bardel
Our Town
October 14, 1999

(Editor's note: The auction netted $674,446. Five years earlier, Ginsberg took some heat for selling his papers for a cool million dollars. sees nothing wrong with making money, but at the time some were attacking the Beat Godfather for selling out.)

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