"THE BIRTH OF THE BEAT GENERATION: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960" by Steven Watson

"THE BIRTH OF THE BEAT GENERATION: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960"

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A highly entertaining group biography of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and company that skimps on literary criticism but plumbs the Beats' dramatic lives with not quite-prurient gusto. Anyone interested in the Beat writers will probably have encountered nearly all of the information here before; Kerouac alone seems to have inspired as many biographies as Abraham Lincoln. But by giving equal time to the three central Beats, Watson (The Harlem Renaissance, not reviewed, etc.) astutely emphasizes the interplay between their separate inspirations and the importance they attached to several ancillary figures, especially Columbia student and murderer Lucien Carr, unschooled car thief Neal Cassady, and Benzedrine addict Joan Vollmer, who married the primarily homosexual Burroughs. Kerouac's fictional portrayal of Cassady in On the Road helped to create a popular image of ""beatniks"" (in columnist Herb Caen's flip 1957 coinage) as foolish, speed-crazed menaces to the American way, but Watson shows that the Beats were bonded by enormous intellectual curiosity as well as the voracious pursuit of sex, drugs, and mystical visions. Of course, the towering disarray of Beat lives drives this rollicking saga more than the inherent qualities of Beat literature. Burroughs's heroin addiction, his South American quests for the legendary hallucinogen yage, and the botched William Tell stunt that killed his wife; Kerouac's speed-fueled writing binges and later alcoholic descent; Cassady's underworld upbringing, incessant marital infidelities, and last hurrah as the acid-dropping driver for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters; Ginsberg's incarceration in a mental hospital and his sexual exploits with Burroughs, Kerouac, and, most sustainedly, Cassady: The brow-lifting anecdotes maintain their perverse allure. On a more critically rigorous note, Watson provides an expert map to the links between the Beats and the poets of the '50s San Francisco Renaissance. For a spirited introduction to the midcentury American literary avant-garde, curious readers could do far worse than to start here.

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 1995
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Pantheon