“New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.”–Jack Kerouac
I love reading about the Beat Generation. This is not the same, I hasten to add, as actually reading the work of the Beats, which can be hard going for someone used to more traditional forms of writing. But the idea of them–that there was once this group of friends who, through their individual and collected works, managed to change the literary world, and maybe the actual world–fascinates me. I’ve just finished Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, and have begun The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. And later this year, the long-awaited film adaptation of the definitive Beat novel, On the Road, comes out.
So what appeals to me about these men and women who wrote like “slob[s] running a temperature,” according to the Hudson Review? Why do I envy a group Charles Poore in the New York Times referred to as “a sideshow of freaks”?
Like most writers, I’m a loner. I can’t tell whether it’s because of something in my personality or the world at large, but at this point it’s habitual. I imagine most writers are like that, since writing by its nature is a lone, solitary activity. I don’t mean I’m antisocial, or at least I hope I’m not. I try to be accessible and friendly. But the things that drive me, that are important to me and that guide my thinking…those things I keep to myself, for a simple and ironic reason: they’re almost impossible to convey in words.
The original group at the core of the Beats found a way around that, though. They formed a network of friendships and other relationships, with poet Allen Ginsberg at the center of the web. They shared living quarters, adventures, and romantic partners, all with a raw-nerved intensity. Sure, I recognize that youth was a big part of it, as was the particular historical moment and heavy substance abuse. And there’s no avoiding the narcissistic selfishness that kept them from more traditional connections (the only thing worse than being the romantic partner of a Beat was being the child of one). But even with all that, I envy their sense that here were people who understood, who got both the joy of being a writer trying to do something significant, and the sheer tedium of it. They got it.
Don’t get me wrong, I have good friends who are also good writers. But we e-mail and post on Facebook, instead of sitting up all night in San Francisco coffee shops. We see each other at comfortable conventions, instead of flophouses or jails. Most of us are concerned with living healthy, so we don’t chain-smoke or do hard drugs. Many of us have partners, and children, that we treasure. We’re products of our era just as the Beats were of theirs. And perhaps if I were 29 instead of 49, these connections would have the same effect on me as those espresso arguments had on the original Beats.
But I’m not. I’m a middle-aged guy with two kids, a wife and a mortgage, trying to make it in a world where screaming has replaced talking. I don’t have the option of dropping out the way the Beats did, or of dictating my own terms. And even if I did, I’m not sure I would; a number of the Beats ended up tragically, the result of an inability to handle substances and/or success. Their moment was fleeting, even for them.
Still, once they were the network of the cool: Ginsberg to Kerouac to Cassady to Corso to Burroughs, and so on and so forth. People who understood what the others were experiencing, what the struggle to create something meaningful was like. People who got it, man.