Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
When Jack Kerouac wrote "Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation" for Esquire magazine in the spring of 1958, less than a year had passed since the publication of On the Road, his novel that came to define the movement, but nearly a decade had gone by since Kerouac determined the movement to have died. By 1950, the Beat writers, especially the core triumvirate of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, had begun to move out of the collective orbit and into their own ideas of life and literature. They continued to collaborate and support each other's careers, but their days of, to quote Ginsberg's Howl, "smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz," became fewer and farther between.
Despite the end of the ongoing movement (once their fortunes picked up through publication) and the infamy that surrounded their lives, the Beat writers continue to fascinate new generations of readers desperate for experience and devoted to a movement that was mostly fabricated by the media and whose reality is far less glamorous in the rearview mirror of history.
Every few years, scholars and biographers tackle the Beats and attempt to divine new meaning and insights. However, in their quest for literary immortality, the Beats were so thoroughly autobiographical as writers and lead such public lives that it's difficult for scholars to gain any traction in these well-worn grooves. Even readers with only a passing familiarity know of Ginsberg's struggles with his homosexuality and family history of insanity, of Burroughs's ill-fated game of William Tell that resulted in him murdering his wife, and of Kerouac's reluctance in being the movement's figurehead. Is there really that much new that can be uncovered about the Beats?
The latest author attempting to ascend Mount Beatmore is Bill Morgan. Morgan, Ginsberg's archivist, bibliographer, and biographer, has written The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, and, it disappointments me to report, Morgan fails to live up to the book's ambitious subtitle. This should be apparent at first sight, as the book weighs in at a paltry 250 pages. It's not that you can't produce a decent history of the Beats in that length, but to claim it as complete is overselling it just a bit.
In the book, Morgan convincingly sells the reader his thesis that Ginsberg was the true center of the movement, being both the original nucleus for a group of writers hovering around post-WWII Columbia University, as well as being the tireless advocate and encourager to the other members of the Beat group. According to Morgan's thesis, you could take away Kerouac or Burroughs and still have the Beat movement, but take away Ginsberg, and it's very possible that none of these like-minded people would have ever gotten together, let alone sustain a literary movement.
While Morgan's observation regarding Ginsberg and his role with the Beats is spot on, it's hardly enough to sustain a book-length examination. When you take away this one interesting nugget, there isn't much to distinguish The Typewriter Is Holy from earlier, and better written, Beat histories. Writers such as Barry Miles, Ted Morgan, and Ann Charters have mined this material more effectively. Again, as the Beat writers led such public lives, perhaps readers shouldn't be too hard on Morgan for not delivering any new and earth-shattering revelations.
While The Typewriter Is Holy serves as a very respectable overview of its subject, Morgan's writing style is pedestrian and often disconcertingly repetitive. In one example, he writes about "The Cult of Unthink," a magazine article critiquing the Beats, only to bring it up again a few pages later when describing the critical backlash against the Beats: "That was when articles with titles like 'The Know-Nothing Bohemians' and 'The Cult of Unthink' began to appear regularly in the press." Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but if he's already mentioned it once, I don't think it needs to be referenced again so soon (less than 10 pages later) seemingly as if for the first time.
It is to Morgan's credit that he lives up to the promise of offering an uncensored history of the movement, giving readers an unvarnished account of these writers, whose relationship with women, for the most part, ranged from cavalier (at best) to misogynistic, and whose membership (with the exception of Amiri Baraka, known at the time as LeRoi Jones) was almost exclusively white and male (and before anybody starts tapping out a message telling me I'm missing something, I am well aware of female Beats like Diane Di Prima, that's why I used the qualifier "almost"). Petty feuds and professional jealousies abound, but, through it all, Ginsberg always manages to keep everyone civil and forgives all transgressions. By veering neither too far into either a scandalous or hagiographic portrayal, Morgan paints an honest portrait of the movement.
Ultimately, for anyone who considers themselves a Beat enthusiast, there is little new under the sun -- and little new in this book. However, for somebody who is new to Beats, The Typewriter Is Holy, despite a banal approach to presentation, offers a decent overview of the movement and a thorough bibliography at the end that will send acolytes on countless journeys to more detailed and comprehensive volumes.
Books mentioned in this post