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THE BEATS by Harvey Pekar


A Graphic History

by and edited by and illustrated by

Pub Date: March 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9496-7
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An illustrated tour of the world of hepcats, bongo bangers and other denizens of the bohemian 1950s.

The culture of the ’50s really began in the ’40s, when Jack Kerouac started palling around with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others of their experimental, countercultural ilk. Fittingly, Pekar (Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, 2008, etc.) and Buhle (American Civilization/Brown Univ.; editor: Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, 2008, etc.) begin this pen-and-ink survey of Beat Generation icons with that trio. Their exploits will be well-known to readers familiar with their contributions to literature. In the hands of the profoundly dyspeptic Pekar, however, the less-than-appealing aspects of the three—Kerouac’s alcoholism and right-wing extremism, Ginsberg’s pederasty, Burroughs’s bad aim with a pistol—are laid bare. But we still read their work and that of many of their contemporaries, and one of the best things about this collection by various hands—including art by noted underground cartoonist Jay Kinney and text by surrealist doyenne Penelope Rosemont—is that it elevates lesser-known figures tied to Kerouac and company. Among those are Kenneth Rexroth (who pointedly asked not to be numbered among the Beats, but has been labeled so evermore all the same), Diane Di Prima, Michael McClure, Kenneth Patchen, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia and even Tuli Kupferberg, beatified octogenarian and rabble-rousing Fug. Again, this roster will harbor no surprises for those who know the Beats, but those who do not may be surprised at how varied the movement was—and how different its East and West Coast branches were. The only serious drawback is that few of the drawn figures look much like their real-life counterparts. Instead, it seems, they are shifted one contemporary to the left—Ginsberg looks like William Gaines, Kerouac like Gregory Corso, Patti Smith like Joan Baez, and so on.

A worthy introduction to the makers of Howl, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turtle Island and a small library’s worth of enduring books.