The beginning of Beat

Booknotes looks at Ginsberg, Kerouac and the start of a generation.

Allen Ginsberg (left) and Jack Kerouac

Mike Selby

“The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy / the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!”

These words, first uttered in public in the fall of 1955, were read by Allen Ginsberg, from a work he had written called “Howl.” Ginsberg had been invited to read his work at the Six Gallery Art Museum in San Francisco. None of the young poets that night had ever read their work publically, including Ginsberg, whose dread of public speaking was obvious by the tears welling up behind his glasses. Ginsberg shouldn’t have worried though. It was the “Howl” heard around the world.

Although most people feel the Beat Generation begins and ends with Jack Kerouac, it is actually Allen Ginsberg who is the most responsible for this literary group of post-World War II writers. Looking back from today, the Beats were nothing more than Ginsberg’s wish to be surrounded with like-minded friends. As one historian put it, Ginsberg was “the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars.”

Yet the story of the Beats doesn’t begin with new forms of writing — or even with Ginsberg making friends. The story of the Beats begins with a murder.

It was the mid-1940s when 18-year-old Lucien Carr enrolled at Columbia University; not so much to study but for a much darker reason. David Kammerer, one of Carr’s middle school teachers, turned out to be a sexual predator, and had been stalking Carr for the past five years. Columbia was the 4th university Carr’s parents had sent him to.  Upon moving into Columbia’s dorms, he met Ginsberg, and they became instant friends. Soon after they met Carr took Ginsberg to meet a friend of his from his hometown of St. Louis, William S. Burroughs. At Burroughs’ apartment Ginsberg met Celine Young, another fellow student and Carr’s girlfriend. Also sitting in Burroughs’ apartment — much to Carr’s dismay — was David Kammerer.

Retreating back to Columbia, Carr ran into another transplant from his hometown, Edie Parker. It was here that Parker introduced Ginsberg, Carr, and Burroughs to her new boyfriend, a French-Canadian named Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was at Columbia to play football, but he wrecked his knee and now hoped to become a writer. Like the others, Kerouac became one of Ginsberg’s closet friends. Then it all fell apart as suddenly as it had begun.

On the evening August 13th, 1944, Carr spent the night drinking with Kerouac at a bar. Kerouac left early, forcing Carr to walk home alone. Crossing a deserted park, he was attacked by David Kammerer. Carr stabbed Kammerer with his pocket knife, and rolled his body into the Hudson River. Carr was charged with manslaughter, and was sent to prison (he served two years, and was later pardoned).

This event profoundly shook Ginsberg’s tightly knit group, and the only way they felt they could deal with it was to write about it. Kerouac did just that with his first book, “The Town & the City.” Ginsberg wrote a novel about the murder in “Bloodsong,” and Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on a mystery titled “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.”

Ginsberg’s friendship and Carr’s imprisonment solidified the Beat Generation; realizing their common bond was in producing literature. Although a famous poet would later state “three people don’t make a generation,” it is hard to deny the influence Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac would have on what was to come.

And what was to come came in a person named Neal Cassady (next week!).

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library