An informative, comprehensive account of one woman’s rise in the literary underground, ripe with the flavors and transformations of the Beat Generation.
San Francisco poet di Prima (Loba, not reviewed) is considered the most prominent woman among the “beatniks” (Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg et al.) of the 1950s. Her unconventional career, however, was hardly forecast by a 1930s girlhood filled with violence and foreboding, in which the bright child was alternately confused and tormented by her strict Italian family and the cruel Brooklyn streets. After an unsatisfying year at Swarthmore, she dropped out and began to move with a small circle of estranged nonconformists in rundown Manhattan locales, where they experimented with sex, drugs, and art. The author brings a relentless acuity to her depiction of sensual, chaotic times, and she is astute in her portrayal of the awkward place women occupied in this bohemian hierarchy. She produces a sharp sense of the creative collisions of the day—involving figures as diverse as Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Le Roi Jones, Charlie Parker, Merce Cunningham, Martin Landau, and Audre Lorde—and of the Beats’ sense of embattlement against a repressive city and police. While not exactly stream-of-consciousness, strongly evocative passages alternate throughout with ones that might have been trimmed. Many of the recollections of di Prima’s early years are warm and affectionate, as are her reminiscences of her first lover (a gentle, literate longshoreman twice her age). The author also details her circle’s founding of important small presses, theater companies, and other cultural outlets.
A rich trove for literary archaeologists in search of artifacts from the Beat epoch.