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How the 'Beat Generation' Got Away from Kerouac

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One of the many surprises tucked away in the vast Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library is the tiny pocket notebook in which Kerouac reacted in the fall of 1947 to a conversation he'd just had with his mother. She had been horrified by a story in her morning paper about bands of abandoned children living in caves in a remote part of Italy, who were ravaging the countryside in their search for food and having sex and babies as early as 13. Jack's mother wanted the Pope to step right in and put a stop to this. Her son wrote in his notebook: "I want to go there."

Not long afterwards a reference to the "cave children of Italy" would appear in Jack's extremely important unpublished letter to a young Hemingway acolyte named Allan Temko that I came upon as I worked on my new Kerouac biography, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. That letter dated December 14, is a manifesto that seems to be Kerouac's first written statement of what the Beat Generation meant to him.

Jack had been very moody that fall as he went to classes at the New School and waited to see whether any publisher would buy his first novel. It was years before the invention of the Xerox machine and typewritten manuscripts circulated to editors one by one, a maddeningly slow process for an impatient and perpetually broke writer. Jack's tension had been expressing itself in some objectionable behavior at parties, especially in the drunken passes he made at women which ran counter to his usual shyness. He had begun to get a lot of flak for his "immature" behavior--until immaturity and its opposite became the words he most hated.

By November, the intense conversations Jack had been having with a brilliant new friend, 22-year-old John Clellon Holmes often revolved around the philosophical question, "Where do I fit in? If this world rejects me, how can it be the best of all possible worlds." Both young men agreed on the tremendous need for a sexual revolution and saw signs that one was already in motion. In Jack's journal, allusions to a mysterious and nameless"One Prophecy" began to appear.

The Beat Generation was born all at once in Kerouac's mind in late November during a long talk with Holmes about what the 1920s writers Gertrude Stein had called the "Lost Generation." Jack stopped the conversation with, "You know this is really a Beat Generation!" Since 1945, he, as well as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, had made beat part of their vocabularies after first hearing it uttered by a drug addict and petty thief named Herman Huncke. Long before it meant black stockings, berets and Bongo drums, beat was a coded word for those in Jack's circle, signifying a state of mind they all could identify with after the war--the feeling that came from being exposed to the extremes of experience, but being able nonetheless to look outward and upward. For Jack, who had been raised as a devout Catholic, it had another meaning--beatific.

By the time he wrote to Allan Temko in mid-December, Kerouac could clearly define the people his Beat Generation would include--the rising group of American "furtives" leading existences outside the law; the hipsters, many of them disaffected war veterans, who no longer cared what society demanded of them; the black beboppers he had been meeting lately who had told him they were fed up with being second class citizens--in fact, Jack considered this particular group his avant garde. (With his French Canadian and Indian blood he had never considered himself completely "white"--or fully American) All of them, he thought, were just like those "cave children of Italy." And together they would create a spiritual path that would lead the world away from the atomic bomb and the sheer madness of another war into an ecstatic future. When Jack sent a copy of this letter to the novelist and social critic Alan Harrington, Harrington advised him to "stop pretending you're a Republican."

By 1950, Jack's hopeful vision had faded so much that when he wrote On the Road the following year, it would be a retrospective recapturing of a brief and passing period and of a feeling in the air that for him had begun to evaporate. John Clellon Holmes, on the other hand was still captivated by the idea. In 1952, after the publication of Go, his autobiographical novel about his and Jack's New York scene, Holmes followed it up with "This Is the Beat Generation," a widely read and discussed article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But Holmes's Beat Generation was intrinsically different from Jack's. Its members were young , educated, middle-class white people already chafing under the restrictions of 1950s conformity and the return of puritanical morality in regard to sex--a dissatisfaction that would be reaching its boiling point by September 1957, when On the Road came out six years after Jack wrote it.

In August of that year, Jack was in Mexico City battling deep depression and trying to focus on the task of writing an article about the Beat Generation to please his publisher, since people already seemed so interested in it. He asked himself whether he should say what he really thought--that after 1950 the Beat Generation no longer had much meaning for him; that the very people who had originally inspired it had moved on by then--either into settled lives or deepening trouble with the law. Bravely he confessed in his piece that the Beat Generation was over for him, but very few took notice..Within a few weeks, Kerouac would be very unwillingly be crowned King of the Beats, after which he told John Clellon Holmes that he didn't know who he was anymore.

The Beat Generation that captured the public imagination and kicked off the Cullture War that persists to this day turned out to be the one Holmes had envisioned. Newspapers, magazines, and that new medium television disseminated the news of it worldwide with breathtaking speed, providing a template for masses of young people to imitate even in the illustrated articles that condemned it or held it up to ridicule, along with Jack's writing.

Maybe there was something about the term itself that made it catch on that way. The first word was thoroughly American and jarringly ambiguous, leading some to wonder whether beat meant beaten. Its conjunction with generation was so unlikely that sparks were struck and people had to pay attention. Never underestimate the power of language, and Jack Kerouac was a master of it.