“Take that, Maynard G Krebs!”: the Beat Generation.

Issue: 133

Adam Marks

The tag “Beat Generation” mostly refers to a generation of authors and poets, although it is a very flexible epithet. You could easily include various contemporary painters, musicians and so on.1

They were a pioneering example of a shift in popular culture, noticed by commentator Marshall McLuhan. Put simply, Western popular cultural values shifted away from the linear, literary and sequential, towards the non-linear, visual and instantaneous. In his collection Understanding Media, McLuhan made a comparison between American and Russian culture:

In the special Russian issue of Life magazine for 13 September, 1963, it is mentioned in Russian restaurants and nightclubs, “though the Charleston is tolerated, the Twist is taboo”. All this is to say that a country in the process of industrialisation is inclined to regard Hot Jazz as consistent with its developing programmes. The cool and involved form of the Twist…would strike a culture at once as retrograde and incompatible with its new mechanical stress.2

He came close to the Marxist understanding of the relation between culture, society and change (although Marxism, for him, was not so much the life and works of Karl Marx, more the official dogma of the Soviet Union). In his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx laid out his reasons for switching from a critique of philosophy to economics. The first function of any society is to reproduce itself. Human beings work collectively, all the more so since the advent of capitalism. In doing so they not only generate what Marx called “forces of production” but also “relations of production”, the way in which humans consent to come together.3

People labour consciously, and so have the ability to change and refine what they do. Once any society produces surplus wealth it can free people from constant work, give them time to think and play, to be active in a way that’s not immediately productive. This is the basis of culture. The rise of culture meant human beings no longer had to relate to each other on the basis of raw necessity but on their rationality. It goes without saying that the level of rationality could be no greater than the amount of surplus wealth and the way it was generated. Though every social upheaval has been different, rich and varied, they have come down to a clash between the forces and relations of production.

The Beat Generation was an artistic reaction against the infamous military-industrial complex: the hideous, bureaucratic machine that rose out of the Second World War and the relations it generated, which by the 50s and 60s not only threatened to engulf civil society but to incinerate it in nuclear fire. Everything they did, from their free-associative poetry to their spontaneous prose to their deliberately “obscene” provocations, whether overtly political or not, was a subversion not just of post-war conservative ideology but also of commonplace reformist notions. The Beats embodied a critique of and potential solution to the problems of their society.


Shortly before midnight on 4 September 1957 Jack Kerouac and his partner Joyce Johnson were waiting on a street corner for delivery of the following day’s New York Times. In it was a review of Jack’s second published books On the Road, hailing its publication as “an historic occasion”.

Kerouac’s life was forever changed by the review. He’d go to sleep that night and wake up famous. Yet, as Johnson noted, “he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was”.4

Part of the reason was the six-year gap between the novel’s genesis and its eventual publication. His unease grew with his fame, as he was elevated (or lowered) from a writer into a spokesman for a generation.

Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac in 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents were working class French Canadians. They moved to Lowell separately, whereupon they met and married. The Kerouacs spoke a specific French Canadian dialect at home.5 The young Jean could not speak English until the age of six (some say he spoke only haltingly up to early adulthood). Jean was a talented pupil and gifted athlete. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, but dropped out in his second year after an argument with the coach. During the Second World War he spent time in the merchant navy. He served briefly in the regular armed forces but again fell out with his superiors by refusing to be drilled.6

He spent large parts of the war hanging round the seamier parts of New York, rubbing shoulders with hustlers and criminals and, in the process, meeting various characters who would become the Beat Generation. During this period he got caught up in a manslaughter case. A friend of his, Lucien Carr, also a Columbia student, confessed to Kerouac that he killed a homosexual admirer of his, David Kammerer. The case, dubbed an “honour killing”, was infamous at the time. Jack was detained as a material witness. His father, Leo, ashamed, refused to post bail. Kerouac felt a burning desire to make amends for his fall, which intensified when Leo died from cancer soon after. He wrote his first published novel, The Town and the City, a
semi-fictional saga of a New England family, as a kind of explanation.7

From the point when he left home Kerouac led a double life, one with his liberal, bohemian friends and one with his family, conservative Catholics and (at best) borderline fascists. The most persistent enigma was how he managed to knit the two together.

Shortly after beginning The Town and the City Kerouac met Neal Cassady, who would become a hero to two generations of counter-culture. Kerouac eventually immortalised him as Dean Moriarty. They hit the road together several times over the next five years. Once their adventures were over Jack tried hitting the road with other buddies, to much less success or satisfaction. Jack’s road stories nonetheless became crucial to his art and fame.

Kerouac was at heart a good Catholic boy. The great contradiction at the heart of Christianity is between its place in the system of power and its appeal to the poor. In so far as Kerouac was a “Catholic mystic”, he scandalised society by reminding it that Jesus was crucified among thieves. Dean Moriarty/Cody Pomeray was a car thief and “holy goof”.8

On the Road is about a studious young man called Sal Paradise and his adventures in America’s underground, a network of junkies and jazz fanatics, homosexuals and career criminals—people pushed to the margins of mid-century America. Before On the Road polite America only heard about this world through pulp fiction and films like Reefer Madness. Not only were these people not deluded or depraved, but to Jack they were modern-day saints. For a country still to go through the shock therapy of the 60s, when McCarthyism was a fresh memory, this was strong stuff.

The hero of the novel is Dean Moriarty. Like many an angel-headed hipster he’s not exactly reliable, but he’s full of life, a zest he transmits to everyone around him. Fellow Columbia student Norman Podhoretz (later to become a neoconservative commentator) wrote of On The Road:

There is a suppressed cry in those books [of Kerouac]: Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time… The Bohemianism of the 1950s [is] hostile to civilisation; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, blood… This is the revolt of the spiritually underprivileged.9

Podhoretz was typical of the social critics of Beat bohemianism. If the outcasts were saintly by definition the mainstream, hard-working families (still venerated today) must be devilish. Allen Ginsberg responded to Podhoretz:

The novel is not an imaginary situation of imaginary truths—it is an expression of what one feels. Podhoretz doesn’t write prose, he doesn’t know how to write prose, and he isn’t interested in the technical problems of prose or poetry. His criticism of Jack’s spontaneous bop prosody shows that he can’t tell the difference between words as rhythm and words as in diction… The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are “Intellectuals” and there are intellectuals. Podhoretz is just out of touch with 20th-century literature, he’s writing for the 18th-century mind. We have a personal literature now—Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce.10

That said, the straight world barely figures in On the Road, except as a strange interruption, a quaint joke. For example:

We arrived in Washington at dawn. It was the day of Harry Truman’s inauguration for his second term. Great displays of war might were lined along Pennsylvania Avenue as we rolled by in our battered boat. There were B29s, PT boats, artillery, all kinds of war material that looked murderous in the snowy grass; the last thing was a regular small ordinary lifeboat that looked pitiful and foolish. Dean slowed down to look at it. He kept shaking his head in awe… “Good old Harry… That must be his own boat”.11

The other thing objected to was Kerouac’s method. His breakthrough with the road story came when he gave up trying to fictionalise his experiences. The original manuscript of On the Road was written over a three-week period as a single, unbroken paragraph on a continuous 120 foot long scroll. Kerouac’s editors were understandably confused. Though he later regretted it, Kerouac, avid to get the story published, allowed it to be edited down (with names suitably altered) into something more manageable. In the time it took to get On the Road into print Kerouac capitalised on his breakthrough, writing the bulk of his most famous and regarded works.12

His method and style, which he called “spontaneous prose”, became even more extreme. For example he often substituted simple dashes for other punctuation. Around this time visitors to chez Kerouac describe a common experience, the relentless thunder of his typewriter. One of his books, The Subterraneans, was written in a single three-day sitting. Spontaneous prose could not have been further from the pre-war Modernist tradition of high artifice. His novels were performances, where he took elements of his life and worked them up into breathless riffs.

Kerouac would justify his approach in mystical terms. Though basically
a Catholic, under the influence of poet Gary Snyder he spent years exploring the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism. He saw a link between the beatific (beat) vision and the Buddhist concept of revelation, or satori.13 To him writing was holy; to edit, to censor was profane. Maybe so, but Kerouac worked hard on his craft, writing extensive notes, frequently drafting his ideas before committing them formally to paper. His best work is comparable to Jackson Pollock’s art or John Coltrane’s music: each spent years refining their technique in order to be spontaneous.14

The political implications of method

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin dwelt on the conflict between art’s “cultic” value and its “display” value. A work of art, for example Picasso’s Guernica, has cultic value. In order to see it you have to go to it. Early art forms were generally not reproducible on a mass scale. They were bound up in ritual, in particular religion.

However, Guernica was painted in an age of mechanical reproduction. Copies of it can be seen over and over again. Works of art can now be seen by masses of people, free from the context of ritual. This causes the “aura” of an original work to fade: “Rather than being underpinned by ritual, [the work of art] came to be underpinned by a different practice: politics”.15

Attempts to revive the artistic aura run into difficulty: “They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts—such as creativity and genius, everlasting value and secrecy—concepts whose uncontrolled…application leads to a processing of facts along the lines of Fascism”.16

The Beat Generation’s stress on capturing individual, evanescent expression holds this danger. The fact that they were rebelling against post-war society’s hypocritical, conformist culture cuts against this. The Beats were concerned with democratic causes, free speech, sexual liberation and environmentalism. They were generally anti-racist and anti-war. The Beats were not flaky, snobbish bohemians; they worked in a variety of jobs, both blue and white collar.

However, even at the best of times Jack Kerouac was the least political of the principal Beats. Compare William Burroughs’s vivid protests against lynching to Kerouac’s sentimental attitude towards African-Americans: for example, in On the Road Sal Paradise at one point idly wishes he could be black.

Kerouac grew up in a town virtually run by the Catholic church. He was exposed to a great deal of anti-Semitism from an early age. As a young man he declared himself left wing. But as his career stalled he grew more and more frustrated. He would, for example, express disappointment that what he saw as the Jewish monopoly over New York publishing was blocking his obvious genius. Later still he was to become a supporter of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. Like most defectors he probably switched sides out of disappointment. Despite having friends with almost saintly levels of patience, he felt let down by his bohemian circle.17 Only his mother showed what he felt to be appropriate levels of love and devotion.18 There were many dark moments toward the end of his life. His decline is perhaps best illustrated by the time in 1962 when, living in Orlando, he and his 14 year old nephew planted a burning cross in a black neighbourhood.19

If we follow Walter Benjamin’s contention, we see Jack Kerouac was least concerned with politics and most concerned with the cultic aspects of his art.20 He was politically influenced rather than influencing. As he withdrew from liberal bohemia he surely dropped its values. While Kerouac’s personal and political outlook became outwardly contradictory he stayed consistent to his own particular vision.


Ginsberg was the most comfortable of the principal Beats with Beatitude. He was the closest thing the Beat Generation had to a spokesperson. Unlike Burroughs or Kerouac he wholeheartedly embraced the Beats’ counter-cultural legacy.

As a poet he had a lot in common with Jack Kerouac, emphasising the performance value of his work. Compare Ginsberg performances of “Howl” with Kerouac reading pages from On the Road. They are similar texts: written to be performed. Whereas Kerouac shrank with self-consciousness (his stories were always romans à clef) Ginsberg remained proudly direct.

A striking thing about his poetry is its conversational quality. A sample from a popular poem, “America”:

America when will you be angelic?

When will you take off your clothes?

When will you look at yourself through the grave?

When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?21

Now there’s a question and a half! “America” is typical (except in one respect) of Ginsberg, especially early Ginsberg. He rarely obeys the “rules”. He mostly wrote open-form poetry. Any respect shown toward metre or rhyme is contingent. What matters is direct communication of the mind onto paper and into the air.

There are two commonly cited influences on Ginsberg, the first being the romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries; for example, Ginsberg’s famous auditory hallucination. Ginsberg was reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower” and “The Sick Rose” when a booming voice appeared, reading aloud over the rooftops of New York. It appeared to be a holy revelation. Ginsberg deduced it was Blake himself.22 Walt Whitman was an equally big influence on Ginsberg, a similar, egoistic free spirit (touchingly celebrated in “A Supermarket in California”). Apart from his frank male eroticism, Ginsberg chiefly borrowed Whitman’s notion of long breath lines.

Other influences, less cited, include the modernist and, in particular, the imagist poets, such as Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Their idea was that poetry is heightened language, creating strong images in the reader’s or listener’s mind. Though common throughout his work, it’s perhaps more obvious in Ginsberg’s short poems—for example, “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels”, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926, in New Jersey, to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, both active socialists. Ginsberg was a red diaper baby. In one sense he had the kind of upbringing we all should have, affluent and nurturing without being insular. His mother was a member of the Communist Party. She took Allen and his brother, Eugene, to their meetings, something which Ginsberg remembered fondly. As he grew up he was encouraged to hold opinions. Teenage Ginsberg would write to newspapers about current affairs. He went to university with the idea of becoming a labour lawyer.

The Beat family was first flung together in New York, around Columbia University. Ginsberg’s primal scene came via a friend of the family, a career criminal called Herbert Hunke, usually credited with minting the modern meaning of Beat.23 Hunke lived with Ginsberg for a while. Hunke was arrested and their home was searched for stolen goods. Ginsberg was charged with being an accessory. Fearing prison he pleaded insanity and was committed. In hospital he met a man called Carl Solomon, to whom he eventually dedicated his breakthrough poem. By most accounts Solomon was a witty eccentric who had been driven genuinely mad by the hospital’s ECT programme.

Ginsberg was doubly sensitised to this environment by his upbringing. He was particularly attached to his mother who by this time was succumbing to mental illness. A large part of his Beat perspective was formed here. The free individual up against the dehumanising system: Moloch the incomprehensible prison: unrestricted expression clashing with violent control. Ginsberg took his experience and turned it into “Howl (for Carl Solomon)”. Why did he express himself in the way he did?

Ginsberg was a poet. Poetry is a performance art, but it is also a form of literature. It has access to the printing press and, therefore, a ticket to posterity. Until the rise of moving images and recorded sound performing arts were evanescent, dependent on ritual. The dominant trend in poetry when Ginsberg began to write had been set by the modernists, for example TS Eliot and his landmark poem “The Waste Land”. It is noticeably disjointed, multifocal and multilingual. Crucially it is literary and visual. “The Waste Land” is, of course, the city. Eliot was getting to grips with what he regarded as a confused but striking environment. His poetry reflected that.

Strong imagist lines and attacks on form are an influence on “Howl”. Eliot’s poetry strove after objectivity, however. Nothing could be further removed from Ginsberg’s method. Some lines from “Howl”:

Who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo

Who sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox…24

The point being we are chained to subways; we are sunk in Bickford’s. We are not lonely as a cloud, tracking the poet’s emotions. We go through his world with him. A recent dramatisation of the poem’s conception, performance and prosecution included an animation, a literal depiction of the people and action described in “Howl”. In many ways “Howl” represents the perfect fusion of the romantic and imagist outlooks.

But also notice these aren’t sentences for you to silently read. These words should be performed. What’s more they can be improvised on. Take the second line quoted: “Who sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat…” There should be a comma between “Bickford’s” and “floated”. There isn’t. One can choose to add the caesura or not (and in the process make a strange noise). The lines given are breath lines. One is supposed to pronounce each line in full before breathing again.25 Here Ginsberg reveals the influence on him of contemporary jazz. Beat writing, especially New York Beat, is saturated with jazz references. The jazz that the Beats particularly loved was called bebop.

Compared to earlier big-band swing music, bebop was pared down. Musicians playing bebop would perform in quartets or even trios. The body of the music would be a supporting platform for a soloist, who would improvise, often on a popular tune or classical air. The three-chord format handed down from folk and the blues was dramatically expanded by bebop.

The Beats, with their take on free expression and creativity, were drawn to jazz music. The friendship and alliance between mostly black musicians and mostly white authors and poets was a small, early sign of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Remember, these formative experiences were mostly from the 1940s.

Ginsberg was by far the most musical of the principal Beats. He went on to record and tour with numerous musicians.26 His recitals were often musical affairs. Let’s not forget his subjective, long-winded and graphic poetry set the tone for modern pop and rock lyrics. Ginsberg rejected closed form poetry with deliberate rhyme and metre. He also steered away from the modernist technique of objective distance. He was oriented firmly towards common speech and thought. Within that seemingly limited framework he was able to use numerous poetic devices, alliteration, repetition, metaphor, juxtaposition and so forth.

Ginsberg’s social and political perspective combined with his spiritual pursuit to give his poetry the tang of a jeremiad, a prophetic warning, the seer burning with desire to bring the truth to the people before it’s too late.

The original Beats called their perspective the “New Vision”, with shades of WB Yeats and Oswald Spengler. After his encounter with the spirit of Blake (and before his encounter with LSD) Ginsberg realised the interconected oneness of the universe. Ginsberg in time became an LSD evangelist. He originally saw drugs as an accompaniment to artistic creation. The artist was required to derange his or her senses in order to perceive the rawest of emotions and the harshest of truths: drugs were the surest route. Ginsberg worked hard to demystify drugs.27 Like most intelligent hippies and Beats, he eventually tried to philosophically and spiritually frame his drug experiences. He was drawn to Buddhism, a religion with a totalising perspective.

This perspective of cosmic consciousness complemented his original artistic and political urge. It makes sense for Ginsberg to celebrate the jazz soloist over the classical musician, the street punk over the lecturer and so forth. He borrows their language (be it the saxophone riff or verbal babble and slang) in order to elevate them from obscurity. Each individual is a facet of a beautiful (or potentially beautiful) whole. As the footnote to “Howl” says, “Everything is holy! Everybody is holy!” It was this passage that granted “Howl” a pass in its obscenity trial.28

While this meant Ginsberg was politically no Lenin (was Lenin artistically a Ginsberg?), he was well placed to participate in the 1960s upsurge. He felt driven to be a tribune of the marginalised, to bring the truth to a shrouded and repressed society, be it the nature of LSD or the nature of the war in Vietnam.29 He was often exceptionally brave. In one particular instance he negotiated with Sonny Barger, the leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels that had attacked an anti-war demonstration, so that further marches could go ahead. He won the chapter’s respect by meeting them directly at Barger’s home.

Ginsberg often travelled to Communist-ruled countries. He did so in order to promote solidarity between peoples during the Cold War. In 1968 he was crowned King of the May Day parade in Prague. Governments often welcomed him as an American radical with connections to native Communism (which could have easily marked him out for persecution in his home country). However, they usually expelled him for being a troublemaker,
as the Czech government did after a week, for being an “immoral menace”.

Ginsberg frequently harnessed this seemingly boundless energy for his friends’ benefit—the encouragement, editing and promotion he gave to Kerouac and Burroughs, gratis. He always carried copies of poems by kindred writers, fighting tirelessly to get them into anthologies. Without him there might never have been a Beat Generation, at least not in print. One of which was…


Who monopolised immortality?

Who monopolised cosmic consciousness?

Who monopolised Love Sex and Dream?

Who took from you what is yours?

Now will they give it back?

Did they ever give anything away for nothing?

Did they ever give any more than they had to give?

Did they not always take back what they gave when possible and it always was?

So, I hope you’re in no doubt. The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest the Nova Criminals… We show who they are and what they are doing and what they’ll do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.30

Burroughs was an idiosyncratic but politically committed writer. He is the most modern of the key Beats. If Kerouac is hipness-was then we make Ginsberg into hipness-is and Burroughs, in his most utopian moments, hipness-to-be. Despite the dazzling narrative and linguistic devices, Burroughs’s content was personal. In this respect he was like the other Beats. So what well was he drawing from?

Burroughs was older than the other principal Beats, born in 1914 into a well-to-do family. The Burroughs wealth was built on grandpa Burroughs’s patented refinement of the adding machine, an early computer. The family became idle rich and William was due to inherit part of the fortune.31

By most accounts, including his first attempt at a story,32 Burroughs was a strange child. He described his earliest memories being coloured by fear of nightmares and deep superstition inherited from his mother. He was conscious of his sexuality, a key form of difference, from an early age, and acutely aware of his alienation from bourgeois society and culture. Young William found an early outlet and refuge in crime fiction. An often quoted example is the book You Can’t Win by Jack Black, an autobiography by a petty thief. Stories of this radically different world entranced him.

Alienation is felt keenly by wage workers, but they aren’t the only ones touched. When the bourgeoisie was young, pioneering and revolutionary, it had an affirming link with the world. Its members were industrialists and merchants, its advocates lawyers, doctors and journalists. The typical bourgeois was seen in the thick of the workplace, anxiously directing the work going on, poring over facts and figures, profits and losses. With the arrival of modern capitalism, the capitalist retreated from active life. Capital grew and became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Capitalists could no longer marshal their empires. They delegated to a new class of managers, executives, foremen and so on. Though the rule of “the market” is beneficial to the average capitalist, it can appear just as eerily natural.

Young Burroughs lived an essentially pointless life. He went to Harvard University, graduating in 1936 with a degree in English literature and a $200 a month trust. At the height of the Depression he didn’t need to get a job. He drifted around Europe for a while, with enough money to “buy a good percentage of the inhabitants…male or female”. He came back to America, diddled around with graduate courses and eventually fell into drug use:

The questions, of course, could be asked: why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction… Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience.33

We don’t have to take his word about addiction but his early life does confirm the archetype of the poor little rich boy. In the Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci compared the typical attitudes of American and Italian wealth. In America there is the legend of the pioneer, the bootstrap capitalist who builds an empire from dust and dedicates his life to hard work. In Italy, by comparison, it was considered bad form for a wealthy family to keep working. This led Gramsci to draw conclusions about the quality of bourgeois life and politics. If the bourgeoisie play no active role in public life they will surely lose the knack for rule and the generations that scrapped for power will be replaced by decadent dullards.

There is a degree of truth in this observation. Gramsci wrote his notes in Mussolini’s prison. Mussolini was a fascist, the leader of a movement of students and ex-soldiers which rose to power, in part, on the inability of the Italian bourgeoisie to rule. There is also a degree to which the observation is false. Capitalism is still here. There are many great leaders of politics, industry and commerce left. While the modern bourgeoisie may have Paris Hilton and Peaches Geldof it also has Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.

During the Second World War Burroughs was refused for service in the armed forces. He had spent a short time in a psychiatric hospital after chopping off the end of his left-hand little finger in an effort to impress a hustler he was infatuated with. He was also turned down for the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) by a former house master at Harvard, who objected to him personally.

With huge demand in the labour market Burroughs found himself taking menial jobs, from advertising copywriter to exterminator. Living variously in New York and Chicago, he moved with people from the criminal underworld, making friends with the characters in his beloved crime novels. It was while he was holding some stolen goods that Burroughs first encountered heroin. In many ways it was the start of a downward spiral (for one thing, it meant he had to take up manual labour simply to get by). But through drugs he also found a world that was accepting of him. This society became a focal point for his literature.

We’ve already had a couple of snippets from his early work. It’s time to introduce some of his books. Meet Junky and Queer. In many ways they are his only two novels, short books about his overriding preoccupations: sex and drugs. You can read them and understand most of what he drove at. Their fate as books tells us something about contemporary politics and taste, particularly in publishing. Junky was first published as Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, by a pulp novel publisher.

In 1928 Le Monde asked Victor Serge whether there was such a thing as proletarian literature. He said, “France has over twelve million proletarians but does not have a proletarian literature.” Why was this? “There are not and cannot be literary figures writing for proletarians, because as a rule they do not buy books. Today’s book (at present 12 francs) is an unaffordable price for the majority of workers. It is therefore written for the middle classes or the rich”.34

In one sense he is still not wrong. Literature (with a capital L) is still the preserve of the upper classes. The typical hardback novel costs between £15 and £20, not so steep a price, but enough to discourage most people from building a book collection. This fact is reflected in the typical subject matter and approach of your typical highbrow novelist.

Yet we have lived through an age of booming literacy. The driving force of the post-war boom and post-war revolt was increased working class consumption. The paperback was developed to fill the gap identified by Serge. Junky was published in paperback with an eye to a contemporary vogue for books about addicts (started by The Man with the Golden Arm). It was meant to be sensational fare, yet Junky is flat and matter of fact about its subject. As the original title suggests, the book pays no regard to traditional moral positions on narcotics. It was paired with a balancing story about a narcotics agent, in a two for one deal.

Even at this stage Burroughs paid very little regard to the niceties of beginning, middle and end—his writing was an ongoing project. Large parts of what became Queer were collected in the Junky manuscript, but the material about homosexuality was hived off and allowed to gather dust until 1985. At one point Allen Ginsberg (who was Burroughs’s de facto agent at the time) suggested the manuscripts for Junky and Queer be added to a series of letters sent by Burroughs to Ginsberg during the former’s trek through South America in search of the drug yage. The book was to be called The Naked Lunch.

Part of the reason for the strange, dead tone in Junky was (at least for Burroughs) his ongoing opiate addiction. Burroughs made many interesting observations of drug addiction, the trade, and the nature of narcotics generally. One of the first, and clearest, was his distinction between front and back brain drugs, stimulants and depressants. He considered opiates to be depressants, working on the back of the brain, suppressing the emotional centres of thought. This for him was part of the addiction. An addict does not need society, feels no love or hate. Once someone gets a habit they shift to “junk time”; their mind and body become regulated by addiction. While their appetite is sated they can happily sit and stare at their shoes for eight hours.

What remains of brain function is rational and fact orientated. Addicts can absorb large amounts of information uncritically and without emotional response or diversion. A famous addict, John Lennon was an avid reader. Around the time of his heroin addiction he apparently developed the knack of reading piles of newspapers from top to bottom, front to back.

Trying to define himself in print Burroughs wrote Junky and Queer. What’s so striking about them is they are honest but untroubled accounts of what were supposed to be painful subjects. Burroughs was like Jack Kerouac in this respect. Whether either intended to make a political point, the extent of social repression and conformism automatically meant their subject matter challenged contemporary capitalist norms.

In the intersection between the gay, drug and criminal underworlds, Burroughs found himself. It felt like home. He built on this conclusion, later expelling straights of all kinds from his pirate utopia, Interzone.

Burroughs was a declassed bourgeois anarchist. He left university and bummed around Europe when politics was caught between the rise of Hitler and the decline of the two Internationals. The labour movement in America in this time went through the popular front period, followed by the McCarthyite purges, before it fell into corruption.

The post-war period was characterised by witch-hunts and
climb-downs. Two huge military-industrial complexes dominated world politics and absorbed life. Given this background and his own personal history the limitations of his politics are understandable. Within this framework, however, he shows great insight.

Burroughs was an exceptionally consistent writer, true to who he was. As the perfect declassed bourgeois anarchist he was as likely to appear on the left or right wing of the spectrum. He could hold very advanced views on personal liberty but be a pungent misogynist.35 He was bitterly opposed to bureaucracy and coercion but scornful of anything beyond individual organisation. He could work up a stinging satire on militarism on one page and denounce the welfare state on the next. Despite being, arguably, more sophisticated than his contemporaries he was never as active in social movements as Ginsberg.

1.Never give anything away for nothing.

2.Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait).

3.Always take everything back if you possibly can.36

These are Burroughs’s principles of monopoly. They are the premises of The Naked Lunch.

The Naked Lunch is what Burroughs is most famous for. More than any other writer (except perhaps James Joyce) a page of Burroughs stands alone and unmistakable. He built on the basic themes of Junky and Queer through a new method of “routines”. The Naked Lunch can be consumed in any order. The chapters do not lead into each other or explain each other. There is a hero of sorts but (as with Junky and Queer) there’s no moral or redeeming message. Psychology and morality are banished. Instead there is a much broader picture arising from the general collage. The Naked Lunch is in many ways post-literature, an attempt to come to terms with new visual media such as film and television. Parts of the book are written in script form. There are scene changes, fadeouts, etc. Large parts of the book flip between short, graphic sentences, creating strong images.

The visual media are forms that open up new potential for sharp discontinuity. Burroughs seized on this potential to abolish literal, linear reality. Unlike the protagonists of traditional crime fiction, Burroughs characters can win. William Lee can shoot two narcotics agents and escape through the impenetrable Kasbah of the book’s pages.

Another comparison might be with music. Post-war rock and roll took the very precise terms of the pre-war folk/blues lyric (I woke up this morning… My baby done gone now…etc) and broadened it out. Instead of a quickfire narrative you have a broad appeal to the senses and the emotions. You can’t say what “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop” means literally. You just know.

What does The Naked Lunch mean? It’s a title usually attributed to Jack Kerouac. The Naked Lunch is the moment when you realise exactly what’s on the end of your fork, what is jamais vu: never seen. It means to regard a commonplace object with an unaccountably fresh eye. In The Naked Lunch Burroughs draws our eye towards the carefully protected underbelly of capitalism. The true satire and obscenity is that the madmen and perverts don’t just dine at the same table as the rich and powerful, like the pigs and men in Animal Farm: they are the one and the same, be they Doctor Benway, AJ or the County Clerk.37

But The Naked Lunch is more than just straight satire. It is set in a city called Interzone, an unaccountable utopia where the people expelled by society as freakish gather and turn the tables. Interzone is a rich and ambivalent setting, suited to The Naked Lunch’s cast of anti-heroes. It was based in large part on the city of Tangier. The prelude to the First World War and climax of the imperial period was an incident in 1911 where Germany tried to assert dominance over the Gibraltar Straits. Part of the eventual settlement was the division of influence in Morocco. Tangier was declared an international zone, officially administered by several European powers (for example, the French got customs while the British handled policing). For over 40 years it had no effective government. After the war it became a popular bohemian location. Many writers and artists made their way to Tangier: a little rough and tumble but cheap, laid back and with plenty of freely available kief.

Burroughs’s most popular book might never have reached print without help from his friends Ginsberg, effectively his early agent, and Kerouac, who typed up the manuscript (at the cost of having vivid nightmares). His written work spent months and even years scattered around Burroughs’s Tangier home.38 The Naked Lunch was published in 1959, in the face of outrage and prosecution. Burroughs once described his writing as purposefully obscene, “shitting out” his Middle American background. The censors objected especially to the repeated satire of capital punishment, real-life obscenity, as opposed to the stuff about talking assholes. The powers that be were right to fear Burroughs’s writing as it pointed out that the ultimate nightmare was essential to the system itself.

The Naked Lunch was a slim book drawn from a fat deposit of pages. His “word hoard”, as Burroughs called it, became the basis of much of his 1960s output. The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express were derived from the word hoard (material from the first two books was shuffled together with parts of The Naked Lunch to make a compilation, called Dead Fingers Talk). They became the Nova Mob Quartet. In it he developed and sharpened the thrust of The Naked Lunch to logical perfection. Burroughs took the liberating struggle of the routine down to the level of the sentence.

In the late 1950s in Tangier Burroughs met an artist named Brion Gysin. They would be friends and collaborators until Gysin’s death in 1986. Gysin introduced Burroughs to a number of ideas, good, bad and ugly (scientology both bad and ugly). In 1959 Gysin was mounting some drawings. Slicing through the boards, he inadvertently sliced through the newspapers he used to protect his table. As a strip was cut away he noticed the lines from the paper below could be read into the one above. The result was intriguing.39

Burroughs and Gysin collaborated on two little publications of prose-poetry, Exterminator and Minutes To Go. Burroughs, however, used “cut-ups” on a grand scale, attacking the sentence, the very unit of meaning and communication (and control). He severed and reassembled sentences, developing motifs (no bueno, c’lom Fliday, word falling—photo falling, and so on). He appropriated other authors’ works (for example, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad). This does not make for easy reading, at least not if you’re trying to read a “novel”.

The new novel, as it were, no longer travels from point A to point B across an index of time and space, but is free to move in any direction. With the weaving of themes and motifs the meaning can now be “read” as much in each individual sentence as across the whole quartet; the novel is now electric, instant and simultaneous.

Another of Gysin’s influences was a tale he told Burroughs, the legend of Hassan i Sabbah. Al-Hassan was the 11th century founder and first grand master of an Ismaili sect known as the Assassins. What sparked Burroughs’s interest was the Garden of Delights, a secret place within Hassan’s castle. Followers who successfully carried out their leader’s orders were drugged with hashish paste and taken to what they believed was paradise. From The Soft Machine on, the legend of Hassan i Sabbah was repeated time and again. It was Burroughs’s ultimate go-to metaphor, linking drugs, power and systems of control. The word as drug, the word as virus was now under attack.

Whether religion, politics or philosophy, human systems of power and control are designed to win acceptance and reproduce themselves. This control is largely exercised through text. Modern bureaucracy is, of course, built-up text, ever-multiplying, self-justifying text. Burroughs’s assault through cut-ups was what we now call deconstruction. Deconstruction was debased in the hands of postmodernists to become a deeply cynical tool (although Burroughs wasn’t above cynicism). Graphic juxtaposition is integral to modern capitalist culture, from adverts, to TV comedy, to pop music; it almost glides over our minds. It’s easy to forget that people once saw it as a radical, emancipatory tool. Burroughs’s fiction anticipated the socialist/situationist outburst of May 1968, the desire to raze stale philosophies to the ground.

In the Quartet Burroughs introduces Inspector Bill Lee of the Nova Police, in hot pursuit of the Nova Mob, a gang of protean criminals bent on hooking populations on the word (word as drug) as a means of control and eventually destruction (word as virus). Through the metaphor of the “nova ovens” Burroughs brilliantly conveys the ultimate horror of the century, the Nazi Holocaust, and the potential final holocaust, nuclear war. The quartet was written during and after the Cuban missile crisis, adding an extra dimension to the idea of a criminal gang bent on destruction.

Inspector Lee’s programme is one of apomorphine, cut-ups and silence. His department is the only non-bureaucratic police force. It does not perpetuate crime. Like apomorphine (which Burroughs credited with helping him beat his addiction) Lee does his job and departs.

With the Nova Mob Quartet, Burroughs reached the logical limit of his experimentation. The radical fix ends with Nova Express. His later works are much more accessible, though still with the same routines, topics and fascinations. Perhaps the best way into William Burroughs’s work is through the collection Exterminator! (not to be confused with his Gysin collaboration Exterminator, no exclamation mark).

Burroughs’s work is a weird and wonderful feast; just don’t go near the punch bowl.

The Beats can appear wacky and anachronistic these days, but then we were supposed to be at the end of history, where everything is supposed to be anachronistic. If it was anything, the Beat Generation was an attempt to escape from a cul-de-sac, the dead end of literary culture and, at the same time, the dead end of late capitalist society. In terms of artistic form the Beat Generation borrowed and used heavily techniques from the new performing arts, popular film and music. In terms of content they tried to put forward examples of a future, liberated society. Modern Norman Podhoretzes (we all know who they are) might sneer at their utopianism and brand them as failures. So long as we remember who the Beats were and why they did what they did they will have been nothing but successful.


1: For the purpose of brevity I will concentrate on the trio generally regarded as the principle Beat writers. Apologies to fans of Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, Joyce Johnson, Amiri Baraka, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and any other names I’ve failed to drop. This article’s title is taken from the Simpsons episode “Homer the Vigilante”.

2: McLuhan, 2001, pp29-30.

3: Marx, 1859.

4: Charters, 1991, ppviii.

5: Joual is the common name for the dialect of Quebec French associated with the French-speaking working class in Montreal and which has become a symbol of national identity for many artists from that area.

6: “He insisted on calling the Navy Dentist…’doc’ when ‘sir’ was obligatory. Kerouac appeared during inspection, cigarette in mouth. The commanding officer whipped the cigarette from his mouth. Kerouac punched him in return. Kerouac then laid down his rifle and walked off”-Miles, 2002, p47.

7: The Town and the City deals with the period surrounding Kammerer’s murder. Kerouac also wrote a book jointly with William Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, directly concerning the case. It remained unpublished until 2008.

8: Dean Moriarty became Cody Pomeray in Visions of Cody, in Kerouac’s non-linear version of On the Road, written later in 1951. His name remained so in further books.

9: Podhoretz, 2003 [1958], pp481-493.

10: Schleifer, 1958.

11: Charters, 1991, pxxii.

12: Doctor Sax, Book of Dreams, Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, Mexico City Blues, Tristessa, Visions of Gerard, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and Desolation Angels.

13: Satori literally means “understanding”.

14: In contrast to his writing, Kerouac was a very slow reader. He would read and reread passages of a book not just to understand their meaning, but also their style and construction. He was very interested in the formal aspect of literature.

15: Benjamin, 1999, p218.

16: Benjamin, 1999, p212.

17: Allen Ginsberg remained a consistent advocate of his even after his death. He acted as an aide and agent before his fame, an apologist during the years of his celebrity. In 1975 he founded the School of Poetry in Kerouac’s honour. He fought continually for Jack’s literary reputation.

18: Kerouac’s relationship with his mother was anything but appropriate. Biographers usually speculate to what extent he might have been emotionally and sexually abused by her. See, for example, Miles, 2002, p335.

19: Miles, 2002, p333.

20: Burroughs and Ginsberg both produced automatic writing; however they were both sceptical of the literary merits of spontaneous prose. For example, though Kerouac resisted (or resented) editors revising his work, Burroughs quite happily rewrote many of his books after their initial publication.

21: Ginsberg, 2008, p28.

22: Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder, which eventually led to her being lobotomised. Ginsberg was a student at the time and was asked to sign papers approving the procedure. Later in life Ginsberg was described as being comfortable round eccentric characters who would disturb most other people, a result of having to deal with his mother’s erratic behaviour. Even so it is striking that he could accept an apparently powerful aural hallucination with equanimity.

23: “A Times Square hustler, he was known to all the principal Beats. Though one of their friends, by most accounts he was a sickening, amoral character”-Miles, 2002, pp105-106.

24: Ginsberg, 2008, p6.

25: Ginsberg was a notoriously fast talker.

26: For example, the Rolling Thunder Revue, a touring caravan of acts (headed by Bob Dylan) that crossed America in 1975/6.

27: For example, attending the Pro-Cannabis Rally in Hyde Park on 16 July 1967.

28: Ginsberg was not the subject of the prosecution. His publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights bookshop, San Francisco, was the one in the dock. The trial was interesting and consistent with the theme of many literary obscenity trials. The prosecution focused not just on the directly obscene subject matter but also on the obscurity of the poem, strangeness being equally offensive as frankness. The prosecutor frequently referred to how difficult he found the poem to read (though clearly it was not too difficult for him to find it offensive).

29: Ginsberg once wrote to Robert McNamara, Lyndon B Johnson’s defence secretary, advising him to study Buddhism and listen to Bob Dylan as an alternative to making war.

30: Burroughs, 1964, pp5, 14.

31: Although Burroughs pointed out they weren’t that rich. Burroughs’s father sold $200,000 worth of stock in the Burroughs Adding Machine Company shortly before the 1929 stock market crash, which was the greatest personal fortune the family ever had. The family was bourgeois but on the periphery of the WASP elite. It was a St Louis aristocrat who labelled young William “a sheep killing dog”, an insult that stuck.

32: “Autobiography of a Wolf”, frequently referred throughout his published works.

33: Burroughs, 2008, pxi.

34: Serge, 2004, p52.

35: His outlook on gender politics shifted over time. Like many artistic intellectuals, his opinions were often determined by his personal milieu. In the 1960s, he was quoted as saying, “I think love is a virus. I think love is a con put down by the female sex… I think they [women] were a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.” A decade on, back in America, away from his London/Tangier cronies, his outlook softened. “They [the women’s movement] are opposed to the matriarchal society. They don’t want to be treated as women. I certainly have no objection to any of their objectives… The difference between the sexes is certainly more sociological than biological”-Miles, 1993, pp142-143.

36: Burroughs, 1993, p8.

37: The extended satire of official Southern racism in Naked Lunch got rejigged for the follow-up The Soft Machine (Burroughs was one of the few Beat Generation writers to directly refer to the violent nature of Jim Crow). He believed in the predictive power of his writing. The County Clerk, recycled as the Southern Senator, at one point says, “I wanna say further that ahm a true friend of the nigra and understand all his simple wants. Why I got a good darkie in here now wiping my ass.” Barry Miles points out not long after this was published President Johnson “actually invited reporters to interview him while he sat on the can”-Miles, 1993, p130.

38: Proof the past really does lie like a nightmare on the brain of the living: asked why he left sheets of paper lying loose on the floor, Burroughs, determined crusader against hypocritical bourgeois values, simply shrugged, “Oh, it’ll get picked up someday”-Miles, 1993, p82.

39: Miles, 1993, p115.


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