Birth of the Beat Generation

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).

To the Is-Land

Frame, Janet. To the Is-Land. New York: George Braziller, 1982.

Reason read: Anzac Day in New Zealand is celebrated in April. Janet Frame was born in New Zealand.

Janet Frame had written at least ten novels and a series of poetry over the course of her career before it seemed the natural next step to tell her autobiography. Her life story gave perspective to the fiction she had been writing for so many years. Why else does one assume his or her life story would be interesting to someone else, a complete stranger, if only to explain their actions or, in Frame’s case, her craft? To the Is-Land starts when Frame is a very young child in Dunedin, New Zealand. She recounts the trials and tribulations of growing up poor and longing to fit in. She found solace in writing and at the the end of To the Is-Land a poet starts to emerge.

As an aside, if you know my blogs you know I love to make connections to Natalie Merchant, no matter how far fetched. This time I came across a song Frame’s father used to sing, “Come for a trip in my airship…” Of course, Natalie sang a version of that for Stay Awake, a tribute to Disney music.

Quotes I thought worth mentioning, “I don’t attempt to search for the commonplace origins of such a feeling” (p 23), and only a few of you will get why this one is so funny, “””It could be his spine,” someone said, adding that they knew someone who’d been miraculously cured by a chiropractor who insisted that the answer was always in the spine” (p 99).

Author fact: Janet Frame started her career as a teacher. She only spent one year as an educator before deciding to become a writer. That takes guts!

Book trivia: To the Is-Land is part one of Frame’s autobiography and does not include any photography. Boo. If anything, I would have loved seeing the New Zealand landscape.

Nancy said: Janet Frame “is best known for her three-volume autobiography” (p 124).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Kiwis Forever!: New Zealand in Print” (p 123).