Sunday, October 30, 2011

Two Beat Books: A Literary Movement’s Legacy

The Beats: A Graphic History, text by Harvey Pekar et al., art by Ed Piskor et al. 199 pp. Hill and Wang. $14.95 (paperback)
Beats At Naropa, Edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright. 227 pp. Coffee House Press. $15.95 (paperback)

The Beat Generation was distinctive as a countercultural movement whose most lasting legacy is the literature it produced. Two books offer an assessment of the literary lights of this group, primarily active in the 1950s.

The Beats: A Graphic History is an illustrated narrative of the lives and work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, plus other Beat writers. While the medium of this book is limited in terms of scholarly depth, it does provide an entertaining overview of the movement, along with valuable insights: “The Beats revolutionized American culture and consciousness, reviving the oral tradition, taking poetry out of the academy and into the streets. The Beats challenged the sexual and political values of the 1950s, opening the doors to writers who were female, gay and lesbian, and from ethnic minorities.” Regarding female writers, the Beats were not immune to the male chauvinism of the time; one of the most moving chapters, “Beatnik Chicks,” describes how female artists often sacrificed their art and lives for the males. Other issues considered include the obscenity trial for Ginsberg’s “Howl” (see my review of the related film), the San Francisco Literary Renaissance, artists associated with the Beats and the phenomenon of jazz and poetry.

Beats at Naropa is a diverse and explorative anthology based on the audio archives of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Individual presentations and panel discussions focus on Ginsberg’s famous 1955 reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Women and the Beat movement, Kerouac’s spiritual search, and a poets' colloquium in which W.S. Merwin and Ginsberg, among others, discuss the excitement of sharing oneself and having others recognize themselves through writing. Steven Taylor provides an illuminating final chapter on the importance of oral and literary traditions in terms of preserving cultural memory and the Beats’ role in the twentieth-century’s mixture of high and low culture.

Reviews written in memory of Hal Goldman (1954-2010), Beat scholar and dear friend.
Strange now to think of you, gone...while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village. – Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish

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