Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation” Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944 – 1960. Pantheon Books, 1995.
Reason read: Allen Ginsberg died in April. Read in his memory.
We begin by exploring the phrase “beat generation.” Where it came from and what does it mean. What exactly is a Beat? Were these people a brand new class of genius? Or were they just plain crazy? Maybe it is a cultural thing, but I was alarmed at the behaviors of some members of the group. The violence, self-mutilation, sexual escapades. Whether it was the drugs or their need to be seen as over the top artistic, I don’t know.
Birth of the Beat Generation does not only delve into the core members of the original group. Watson takes you behind the curtain to meet the mothers, girlfriends, wives, and muses of the Beats, the less often talked about women of the generation. They had their own addictions and mental failings, but they always played second fiddle to the boys. Everyone seemed to searching for sexual identity. Everyone seemed to be one card short of a full deck. Everyone slept with anyone, regardless of actual preference. Celebrity was a beast to be chased, but once caught, extremely hard to tame. To be a Beat you had to be a libertarian, write confessional poetry, be open to mind-bending drugs, sexual liberation, and embrace pacifism.
Birth of the Beat Generation is not your average book. It has unusual dimensions. The photography is sprinkled throughout like Easter eggs. Quotes, a slang dictionary, and fun facts are written in the margins. I appreciated the flow chart of players, when they met, their relationships to one another, and the seriousness of their connections. The best margin information was what was on everyone’s book shelves. I found that fascinating.
As an aside, I learned of two new words today. I want to use them often – bewilderness (I visit that place whenever I am at a festival) and “alcoholized”.
As another aside, this is the second book in as many months where someone cuts off their own digit. There is an amputation scene in Little Bee and William Burroughs does his thing…
As yet another aside, and you knew this was coming if you know anything about me. How could I not think of the 10,000 Maniacs song, “Hey, Jack Kerouac” while reading Birth of the Beat Generation? Especially when Natalie sings, “Allen baby, why so jaded? Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded. Billy, what a saint they made you.” That particular line took on a whole new meaning when I read about Burroughs and his wife, Joan, and a little game they played called William Tell. In an interesting twist of fate, I sat in a jury pool room, waiting for #70 to be called when I was reading the part about the perjury of the witnesses.
Quotes to quote, “The notion of the anti-hero as icon – the underworld beautified – had already been partly codified” (p 72).
Author fact: Watson has his own website here. He has written a handful of other books, but I am only reading The Birth of the Beats.
Book trivia: At the end of the book there is a chronology of what the Beats were up to at the same time as the rest of the world, including when Tupperware was invented.
Playlist: Charlie Parker, “The Red Flag”, “On the Line”, “Last Night the Nightingale Woke Me”, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Brahms Trio Number One, Thelonious Monk, Bach’s Toccata, Edith Pilaf, “Too Close for Comfort”, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”, Leadbelly, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Suit, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Lee Konitz, “My Funny Valentine”, “Just You, Just Me”, Cal Tjader, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, Pat Boone, Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, and John Cage.
Nancy said: Pearl commented on the same thing I did. She called the extra information in the margins cunning.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “The Beats and Their Generation” (p 17).