The co-authors of The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002) return with a sharp-edged history of the Beats.
Collins and Skover, both law professors (Univ. of Washington and Seattle Univ., respectively), focus on the notables of the movement. William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti enjoy the most space, but we also learn about the friends, lovers and criminals swept along in the artists’ wakes—though it’s sometimes questionable whose wake is transporting whom. Early on, Collins and Skover emphasize the lawless culture that attracted the artists: the drugs, drinking, violence, thefts and infidelities that found the Beats in and out of trouble (and jail and mental institutions). The authors begin with a fatal stabbing, introduce us to Herbert Huncke (junkie, hustler, thief) and describe a serious car accident that propelled Ginsberg into an asylum. Then another death—that of groupie Bill Cannastra in a reckless subway stunt—and another: junked-up Burroughs, in a William Tell moment, shooting his lover in the head. Throughout, Neal Cassady jumped from woman to woman. “It was a world,” write the authors, “where, by and large, men were verbs and women objects.” The last half of the volume deals with Kerouac’s long struggle to publish On the Road, Ginsberg’s publication of and ensuing obscenity trail for Howl and Other Poems and Burroughs’ legal problems with Naked Lunch, all of which occurred somewhat simultaneously. Collins and Skover handle the various trials and legal issues with aplomb, and by the end, they soften their criticisms of the Beat lifestyle—though they do suggest, more than once, that Ginsberg, traveling in Europe during the Howl trial, left some San Francisco friends in a precarious position.
A balanced history—sometimes admiring, sometimes blistering—of the writers who fractured the glass capsule of literary conformity.