The Typewriter Is Holy
The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation
by Bill Morgan
Free Press, 320 pp., $28
The small group of drug addicts, thieves, pedophiles, and murderers that constituted the core of the Beat Generation has received more than its share of coverage since September 5, 1957, when Gilbert Millstein enshrined Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in the New York Times. But the numberless critical works, biographies, and revivals—recent publications by and about Kerouac marking the 50th anniversary of his most famous work—are not enough for Bill Morgan.
In his introduction, Morgan points to the vacuum The Typewriter Is Holy means to fill:
I’ve studied dozens of biographies of individual Beat authors such as Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the rest, but stories that focus on a single writer sometimes obscure the overall Beat chronology and make it difficult to see exactly how their lives intersected. For example, when Burroughs was experimenting with his cut-up method, what was Kerouac doing? Or where was Ginsberg when Ferlinghetti was standing trial for the publication of “Howl”? Or what were they all doing while Cassady was locked in a San Quentin prison cell?
Morgan diligently answers these questions, and hundreds more, in this short, interminable volume. Now, presenting the intertwining lives of members of a literary or intellectual movement is a perfectly respectable venture: The Romantics (Daisy Hay), the American Transcendentalists (Susan Cheever), the Pragmatists (Louis Menand), Britain’s Angry Young Men (Humphrey Carpenter), and the Bloomsbury Group (everyone else) have all received this treatment. In the case of the dangerously influential, overexposed Beats, however, it’s an otiose exercise. It is tawdry enough to read a biography of William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg (or a sample of their correspondence) without learning what every other member of the “family” was up to when Ginsberg first slept with the killer Lucien Carr or when Burroughs shot his wife. Most of the lives that intersect on these pages are sordid, selfish, indulgent, and destructive. There are some exceptions: Ginsberg’s great “enabler,” William Carlos Williams, the earnest poet Gary Snyder, the San Francisco poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the radical éminence grise Kenneth Rexroth, and the critic, poet, and novelist Randall Jarrell. (It is both painful and humorous to see the last two become quickly unenamored of the wild boys after Robert Creeley and Kerouac steal Rexroth’s wife, and Gregory Corso and Kerouac trash Jarrell’s house.)
In his subtitle, Morgan calls his book a “history” when it is really a chronicle, and brags that it is uncensored when, it fact, it appears to be unedited. He dives into his multibiography with nary a word about the times, and with little background information about his protagonists. His few moments of psychological or political “interpretation” are, when not inaccurate, vapid, baffling—or both. Allen Ginsberg meets Carl Solomon in the New York State Psychiatric Institute:
The two found that they shared a love of literature and immediately compared themselves to the heroes of their favorite Russian novels. They identified easily with those poor souls who were most helpless to defend themselves against a cruel and callous society.
What novels? What heroes? What poor souls? This withholding of the telling detail is as negligent as Morgan’s analyses, as we see in his gesturing toward a “cruel and callous,” materialistic and conformist, American society: “At a time when the average American was content and wanted to enjoy postwar prosperity quietly, the Beats sensed that an essential spiritual element was missing.” Burroughs sought the “spiritual element” in Tangier by buying boys and shooting heroin. Ginsberg sought it in a relentless hucksterism for himself and his friends, an endless quest for exotic hallucinogens, and a personal and literary exhibitionism. Morgan’s moments of literary criticism are as unnuanced as his cultural commentary: Gregory Corso is a “great poet,” as is Bob Dylan. Leroi Jones’s ritualistic play Dutchman “was a powerful story that illustrated what might happen if a mild-mannered black man ever found himself in an emotionally charged situation with a flirtatious white woman on a New York City subway.” More generally, the Beats “followed a long tradition of writers from Homer to Blake to Keats and Shelley, who wanted poetry to bring about social, political, and cultural change,” and “it was through their efforts that freedom of speech was once again restored to America.” Case closed.
Morgan thanks no less than five editors in his acknowledgments, yet there are numerous editorial infelicities, including repetitions of whole passages (just slightly altered) and references to events that hadn’t been reported earlier. The editors are also derelict in neglecting to lend Morgan a thesaurus. His physical descriptions are remarkably consistent: Lucien Carr is “one of the most handsome students in the incoming class at Columbia that year,” Kerouac was “even more handsome” than another Beat, and when Ginsberg meets Kerouac, “Ginsberg found himself face to face with one of the most handsome men he had ever met.” Peter Orlovsky beats Kerouac by a hair—“Allen later recalled that he was the most handsome man he had ever seen”—and Haldon Chase “was a handsome young Columbia student.” Morgan describes Neal Cassady’s “astonishing good looks” in more detail: “He exuded a strong sexual aura and with an IQ of 120, he was as intelligent as he was charming and personable.” Only poor Ginsberg “was not an attractive boy.”
Morgan does manage to show that, as he writes in his preface, Allen Ginsberg was, indeed, the “locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars.” An indefatigable self-promoter, the author of “Howl” was also unfailingly loyal to his friends and colleagues and was the impetus behind the publication of On the Road and Naked Lunch. It’s fair to say that the Beat Generation as we know it would not exist without Allen Ginsberg. But The Typewriter Is Holy fails to convince that we are anything but poorer as a result of the Beats’ influence. Kerouac remains a bad boy’s adventure writer, bursting with grandiosity, dull and humorless. Burroughs produced incoherent genre salads with an occasionally successful satirical routine amid thousands of pages of impenetrable prose.
Ginsberg himself continues to be breathtakingly overrated. A few of his many poems are amusing, particularly some in his first collection; but they are, for the most part, prolonged tantrums and exhibitionist confessions. He has often been compared, and was happy to compare himself, to Walt Whitman; but he had neither Whitman’s wonderfully controlled long line nor his appreciation for the world’s majesty. Ginsberg’s lines are long, to be sure, but he unwittingly installs speed bumps even in his happy detours into fluency.
Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.