Monday, January 12, 2009

She’s No Ginsberg: Boston Give Up The Beats!

I wrote this for a creative writing class centered around the Beats Junior Year at Clark University. It was probably one of the most painfully boring classes I've ever taken in a weird attic they called a classroom. At first I was deeply curious about Kerouac's style, mimicking him in short stories, but reading the content of his main work On The Road, I was overcome by a loathing for the man. Ignoring how easy it would be to rip Kerouac and the Beat movement a new one over what Kerouac says about the burden of being white (you have to be successful!) and how poetically glorious tilling the earth as a migrant worker is -- deep!! -- I decided to do a small but artful dissection of the role of women in the Beat movement. It was my last paper or "fuck you" before the class ended.

I decided to pull it out of nowhere and clean it up for public consumption. It's long, I know, I'm sorry -- I'm not that sorry though because there's so few people reading this blog, I don't have anybody to apologize to. My main motivation was anger and annoyance over how accepted the Beats are in Boston, or probably anywhere else with a sizeable population that graduate from high school. You get major cool points if you read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, or Burroughs, especially on the subway with your little city boots and funky scarf. Eponymous Bukowksi has two pubs and a sandwich in Boston and Worcester. It's really unbearable that people pretend to find these writers inspirational. I just wanted to do my part in chipping away at their allure.

My girlfriend and I have a quasi-joke that somebody's opinion on the Beats serves as a litmus test for how educated, or more likely, how uneducated they are. Oh, we are so snobby... and lonesome...

I apologize in advance for not offering a bibliography. The two references, one a short memoir, another a poem, are a bit more obscure and were a part of our curriculum reading. Hopefully this assumed knowledge of my sources will not be too confusing for the passing reader of this blog.

The Beat movement is herald as a powerful cultural revolution to meet the constricting norms of American society in the 1950s. With the advent of unprecedented technological advancement, the existential terror of World War II, and the collective awareness of the possible mass destruction that could result from an atomic bomb, Americans sought structure and assurance in the face of catastrophe. The Beat movement was a reaction to this stifling hyper-conformity by engaging in the socially unacceptable. Women were drawn to the movement as a way to escape traditional roles and limited intellectual, occupational and social goals in American society; however, their rebellion through the Beat movement offered them many of the same social injustices disguised in the pretensions of a “rebellion.” Many if not all the women of the Beat movement, the muses, the characters of their newly-formed literature, and the writers, were submitted to an ever-present sexism, misogyny and anonymity which laid in waiting amongst the Beat movement for hopeful, young women. The incarcerations, the sexual abuses and objectifications, the adultery, the obscurity and the unpublished work of these women cannot be explained away by an all-too-easy argument; that is, the success of a conservative American society prevented the hopes and ideals of an attempted cultural revolution by the Beats.

This essay will analyze “Beat Queens: Women in Flux” by Joyce Johnson and Elise Cowen’s poetry (both women being members of the Beat movement) in an attempt to reveal the Beat movement was a feigned cultural revolution because it failed to address and fight the injustices women dealt with in the 1950s; and its ignorance and/or apathy for these concerns, including issues of class (which this paper will not discuss in interest of brevity), reveal the Beat movement was actually a new expression of traditionalism.

The general themes that will guide this paper are the subjects: travel, sex/sexuality and freedom, which is contained in the prior two and is an over-arching subject. These divisions are general and loose, and function only for further analysis in the explanation of my argument. These have been borrowed and reduced for my own purposes from Joyce Johnson’s descriptions.

Traveling was a pursuit afforded to men, while women were expected to stay home by the conservatism of the 1950s. Johnson describes her own need to travel and explore outside the boundaries setup by the inequality of her gender role. “My need for experience that inescapably involved risk; her need to insist there was nothing out there in order to keep me tied to her” (42) Johnson describes her unrelenting desire to travel out and experience the world on her own terms; her mother routinely plays the role of the Freudian super-ego, which relays the wishes and the desires of accepted norms -- “stay at home!” The Beats routinely deal with the subject of travel; many of the male writers of the Beat movement based their stories if not a huge part of their aesthetics around the flux of interstate and international travel. This being a luxury afforded to men who dare reject the social norms of stifling commitment to state, community and family.

The freedom and desire for travel is distinctly defined in a male voice and on male terms. “…Holmes’ female characters were always relegated to the backseat.” (54) This is true throughout “the canon” of the Beats’ work. Jack Kerouac in On the Road talks about the male hobo as the archetype of American freedom; this traveling lifestyle has a man’s face -- becomes incarnate through a male body. It is always a man behind the wheel, or, at least, a man as a true helmsmen of the wheel. Women are allotted to a role of companion or potential companion, always defined by the freedom of their male partner usually explicity defined by their physical position to the male helmsman’s car. A commitment to a woman interferes with a commitment to the open road -- Cassidy and Kerouac routinely reject or give up on women to return to the road. Kerouac begins his narrative after a failed marriage; the road representing freedom seems to be the opposite to a relationship with a woman, therefore, a woman represents a lack of a freedom to a man committed to her. Ginsberg describes the revolutionaries in “Howl,” the chaotic travelers -- motorcyclists, sailors, hipsters -- as distinctly homosexual males. Burroughs’ main actors in Naked Lunch tend to possess an archetypal masculinity; their alien and bizarre acts capturing sodomy and rape with phallic organs and objects. The travelers and the actors in much of the Beat movement are undeniably men representative of a strong notion of what masculinity is. Travel, conceptualized as masculine and represented by men, left the women Beats without a voice or narrative in relation to the road -- in relation to that aesthetic of the ideal of freedom.

Elise Cowen poetry offers deep insight in exploring the consciousness and sub-consciousness of women in the Beat movement. Much of her poetry clearly displays deep psychological stress, and her life was filled with mental instability, ending with her suicide. Much of her poetry offers a perfect window, intentionally and perhaps accidentally, into the Beat women struggling and failing to define themselves in a narrative, in a literature, that keeps women powerless and anonymous.

Her poem “I took the skin of corpses” offers a stanza to describe the melancholy felt by a Beat woman trying to achieve an authentic freedom through travel: “I took the skin of corpses/ An dyed them blue for dreams/ Oh I can wear these everywhere/(I sat home in my jeans)” (1-4) This stanza relates to the reader that the writer has adopted a tool, a characteristic, a mode of being, etc. to allow the person access to go anywhere; though in reality, the person continues to be relegated to the home. Cowen is relating the fact that she adopted a male-dominated thing, in this case jeans as opposed to a dress, to allow her to travel (perhaps the Beat culture is represented in her jeans too?) but she found that it was inauthentic. Her hope for travel and freedom was artificial and she went nowhere but home, as there is no definition for her as a traveling woman in the greater Beat narrative. The voice of travel is a male one, expressed by the most prominent writers Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs.

Let’s follow on to the next topic as outlined by Johnson. Sex and sexuality is a pervasive topic in Beat writing with the latent Puritanism residing in American culture, springing out in times of fear. The Beats were met with an unforgiving, guilt-ridden and conservative culture when dealing with the physical act of sex and the definition of person in the terms of sex. Johnson describes her early experience with the idea of sex. “I was sure real life was sexual, though my ignorance of sex was profound.” (50) Women and men went uneducated about sex in the 1950s. The Beats began to question and challenge these norms and entered into sex and sexuality with serious social repercussions in pursuit of knowledge. This sexuality was not revolutionary or enlightening for the women of the Beat movement though. The male dominance that had subjugated women and put them into strict gender roles was also the influencing force in the barbarism of Neal Cassidy’s, Kerouac’s real-life friend and hero in On The Road, sexual exploits (comparing sex to grand theft auto throughout most of the novel); there could be no greater display of the objectification of women than Neal Cassidy’s ability to sleep with numerous, unnamed, young women, which is applauded by Kerouac and Ginsberg in their writing. Though revolutionary in terms of male sexual repression, female repression still remained as Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy and Ginsberg entered into self-serving relationships with women; many of the multiple relationships they had ending after adulterous behavior, substance abuse, secret abortions and even the death of Burroughs’ wife by gunshot to the head. The subordinate position and sexual objectification of women remained in the new male sexuality of the Beats, but now the prudence and self-denial in the conservative, dominant values were lifted, opening up a flood gate of sexual energy upon many naïve, young women.

Many women celebrated this movement decades later, feminists too, as it is seen in the progeny of the Beat generation with the sexual revolutions of following decades. Johnson objects to an attack that the sexual enlightenment of the Beats was not for women too. “[On the Road] suggested that you could choose--choose to open yourself up to a broad range of experience, instead of simply duplicating the lifestyle of your parents.” (54) Though given a new choice, women still were to choose between female prudence or male-dominated sexual exploits. As the Beats cultural movement separated from their parents’ values, they still incorporated in the movement a very powerful and internalized patriarchy. The experience of sexual freedom was inauthentic for women, it just opened up a world of actualized male objectification in the once off-limits realm of sex.

We go back to Cowen’s poetry for evidence. This inauthentic freedom is returned to again and again in Elise Cowen’s poetry. Many of her poems have phallic-centric imagery. “Suck sea monsters off Tierra del Fuego… Filter the uncircumcised sin of my heart.” (5, 8) from “Dear God of the bent trees of Fifth Avenue” shows this curious relation to the phallus; her writing continues to be possessed by phallic imagery. “I took the skin of corpses” has each stanza borrowing the flesh of others to build the things she needs. She forms a penis from the flesh. “Were humbler than my cock.” (20) As she writes and participates in the cultural revolution, the poetry she writes finds a voice that is stuck between her identity as a disenfranchised woman and her need to possess male tools, male being and male body parts to succeed in the cultural movement. Her acts are wanting though, as she finds it is an inauthentic mode of being.

Cowen in her poetry captures a greater sentiment of the role of women in the Beat movement. In order to be a Beat, one must be a man; Cowen, desperate to escape her oppression in greater society, seeks out a cultural revolution in the Beats. She, however, finds that she cannot achieve anything in her voice as a woman. Cowen, like the rest of women attempting to escape oppression through the Beat movement, realizes she is in an impossible situation. Her attempts to escape her subjugation lead her to parody men, by writing herself a penis, by writing in a male voice in male terms; in doing this, she enters into an ironic situation where she is both the victim and actor of oppression upon herself. “I took the thoughts of corpses/To do my daily needs/ But all the goods in all the stores/ Were neatly labeled me.” (21-24) Even if she attains something-like masculine power, she realizes it is the very power that has and will objectify her, like an item to be bought. She both fellates a penis and possesses a penis in her poems; this reflecting her dual role as subjugated and artificial subjugator of women. Cowen has no language, history, and clear meaning to help her write her poetry to express herself in a distinct voice as a self-defined woman of a particular generation.

From this, it is evident that the Beat movement, in its lofty ideals of freedom from the oppressive structures of society, did not provide an adequate forum for the analysis of patriarchy and gender inequality. They assumed their more pretentious and audacious displays of rejecting dominant norms gave them a security from the same injustices they attacked. Their movement towards individual freedom and expression reflected the prevailing power structures of their time. Women were not given a voice that was distinctly their own; the female characters were hallow and defined by men within the narratives of the Beat movement; and the real life perceptions and behaviors of the Beats led to the participation of the continued subjugation of women through the retention of traditional power relations disguised with the pretensions of revolution.


Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

I wanted to stop reading when you misspelled canon, but then I decided that since it was in quotes, perhaps you intended the spelling. So I kept reading.

The beats are way too easy to criticize for their patriarchy since, as you say, they reflected the prevailing power structures of the time. But then, what cultural revolution can't be criticized when done in retrospect?

I'd love you to read Dr. Audrey Sprenger's post, Sputnik Sweetheart (

Brandon The Unqualified Critic said...

Thanks for commenting, Rick Dale. And thanks for pointing out my typo, Professor. The problem was fixed. How come I didn't get a grade? Oh, I joke, I joke -- education jokes!

I really do appreciate somebody with an academic background and a published writer commenting on my blog. It's a bit absurd, perhaps, but still appreciated. Your name "author of The Beat Handbook" is noted.

Unfortunately you took the route of commenting if only to point out that maybe you shouldn't even bother to comment because my argument is so insignificant, you don't even begin to approach it. You focus on my ironic typos. You push aside my relatively lengthy argument with two sentences.

I attempted to read that blog entry you forced upon me, but Kerouac-worship within the first paragraph makes me too nauseated to keep reading. Kerouac is a clueless racist, romantic alcoholic who revealed himself to be an outright nihilist and a glorifier of petty crimes.

You say that all revolutions are guilty of persisting certain power relations and structures, and this is easily revealed in retrospect. To some extent this is true, but the Beats support of a patriarchal culture is really not at all something that is retrospect. Cowen, Ginsberg's brief girlfriend, wrote about how she was voiceless in the movement while Ginsberg wrote about sucking motorcyclists' dicks in bars in Howl. The Beats celebrated and supported and pushed Ginsberg's work while Cowen's remained unedited, obscure and ignored. The end result is everybody knows Ginsberg's words, but most people, including high schoolers who study the Beats in school, can't name a single female Beat writer.

All of this "revolution" occurred while feminist theory, established a long time before the Beat movement, continued to developed, particularly in France -- a country the Beats had a strong connection to. They willing chose to ignore a Beauvoir and a Emma Goldman, contemporary, relevant feminists. Any idea I rail against the Beat movement is not an idea they didn't have access to when they chose to build their aesthetics and ideologies that resulted in the psychological and physical abuse of women. None of this is done in retrospect! Neal Cassidy is something short of a drug-addict serial rapist, yet he is the Kerouac hero.

A more reasonable argument would be that the Beats failed to meet a specific injustice that existed in their conservative society -- no revolution can possible compensate for all of the social problems of its society. This is true, but the Beats not only failed to support women, they also entirely failed to support lower classes and impoverished races in their economic inequality. Kerouac says in On The Road that migrant Mexican farmers are blessed with their low-paying, back-breaking jobs, and white people should be envious of them because they are forced to be economically successful with social duties and obligations.

Name one way that the Beats are a legitimate cultural revolution? The Beats have consistently created new ways to re-invigorate power relations and structures that oppress the traditionally disenfranchised of their conservative society. The Beats just painted the conservative values and hidden powers they were supposedly fighting with a new stimulating aesthetic.

yatpay said...

good read