When was the last time you read a piece of Beat literature? I bet it depends on your age, to a great degree. I had not read any real Beat lit for close to forty years, until yesterday. This may sound strange, being as Your Humble Narrator is the assistant editor of the Beat lit journal, Beatdom.
In the 1970s, reading the Beats was a true rite of passage, just as sure as smoking your first cigarette was. We found everything we could find and read it and re-read it. At the time, pre-information-highway, there were two remaining books to be consumed to complete the whole Beat bookshelf. They were Jan Kerouac’s Trainsong and Neal Cassady’s The First Third. It seems like the latter two books were published in the 1980s, the early 1980s.
And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, the chapter-for-chapter collaboration written by Jack Kerouac and Williams S. Burroughs in 1945 still remains outstanding on the reading list but that is only because it was not published until much more recently. Since we enjoy Burroughs’ ‘straight’ writing best, this looks like a long lost treat. This is the next book to the ‘to read’ list.
The trouble with reading all of the Beats when you are young, say from age thriteen to age seventeen, is that you do not have the life experience to truly appreciate the events and lifestyles depicted in these novels and poems. It can even be a little confounding. Also questionable is my grasp of Edgar Allen Poe. These were some heavy stories and I read all of them before I got out of the eighth grade. I remember the stories and the morals but there must be something in those books that goes over the head of an eleven-year-old reader. Those will need to be revisited, as well. The closest I have come to returning to Poe occurred on a visit to the Poe House and Museum in Philadelphia, the house where he lived when he wrote the great, epic poem, Annabelle Lee.
Sticking to the rear of the tour due to my height, the end of the line drew close to the door of a small closet. Nobody was looking, so entering the tiny, dark space, I closed the door and sat in the dark, thinking ‘who else but Poe would have sat in here’ and as a souvenier of my intrepid sidestep, peeled off a tiny piece of wallpaper. For years, ‘Edgar Allen Poe’s Wallpaper’ went everywhere I did, stuck in my wallet and often shown to those with literary interests, until it crumbled and disappeared sometime in the 1980s.
Yesterday, while waiting for my dope at the doctor’s office, I had a copy of Ann Charters’ wonderful The Portable Jack Kerouac on hand to amuse myself and slaked my thirst on the waters of Beat for the first time in years. The section on spontaneous prose was where I started sucking up the Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Belief & Technique For Modern Prose and Are Writers Made Or Born. These were revelatory, as was The First Word: Jack Kerouac Takes A Fresh Look At Jack Kerouac. This was all interesting, as well as ‘heavy reading’ so something lighter was in order and that choice was The Three Stooges from Visions of Cody. Most endearing was his description of Stooge Larry Fine, pictured below on a mural in Philadelphia, (yes, there is a lot to see in Philly) who was given the most Beatific take as “meaningless goof (though somewhat mysterious as though he was a saint in disguise, a masquerading super-duper witch doctor with good intentions actually)…”
They are all on a comeback lately, with dvds and films about the Beats, the Stooges and even a rumored HBO Beat-themed series. There are a few books that deserved several readings in my life, like Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and East of Eden, and Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Now, it is time to return to the books of my teenage years and see if they are more fun as an adult. If you are 50 or over, maybe you ought to do the same. You may even enjoy yourself!