Allen Ginsberg likened the Beat Generation to a “boy gang,” yet there were a number of strong women who traveled in Beat circles, whose influence cannot be ignored
Over the past few years, I have taught university-level courses on American bohemianism and countercultures. Among the usual suspects into whose legacy I dip are the Beats, the Hippies and the Punks. Most of the time, I try to find subtle links between these three hipster havens (e.g., Kerouac to Morrison to Rollins; or Lord Buckley to Captain Beefheart to Ian Dury/Tom Waits; Billie Holiday to Joni Mitchell to Patti Smith, etc.).
At heart, I’m most simpatico with the Beats, perhaps because I’ve written about them at more length than the other two subcultures (and I like their literature the best). However, there’s one side of the so-called “Beat Generation” that is often (and conveniently) overlooked by its champions: the sexism.
Indeed, no less an authority than Allen Ginsberg once likened the Beats to a “boy gang.” The metaphor was apt. Few women broke past the testosterone zone to stand on equal footing with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady or most of the other Beats who came along after this core group was formed. Women were treated badly by most of the men, and largely ignored by those who weren’t interested in them sexually.
Among the women affiliated with the Beat Generation who stood the tallest were some who, sadly, never wrote a word about their experiences:
Joan (Vollmer Adams) Burroughs
According to Steven Watson, Joan Burroughs (1924-1951), was “the sole female equal in an otherwise all-male cast.” When Burroughs met her, she was married and pregnant. After she had her baby (a daughter), she left her husband, a law student named Paul Adams, to get an apartment with Edie Parker (later Jack Kerouac’s first wife). She turned her apartment into a literary salon, of sorts, opening it unquestioningly to all the major figures of the Beat circle (Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Hal Chase). Extremely well read and sexually uninhibited, Vollmer pointed the way to a new lifestyle that the Beats would embrace totally. She developed a chemical dependence on Benzedrine and ended up in Bellevue Hospital. William Burroughs checked her out of the hospital, and the pair took a vow of marriage (though some questions remain about whether they were ever legally married) and moved to Texas, where they had a son, William Burroughs Jr. in 1950. They moved to Mexico where, on September 6, 1951, a drunken Burroughs accidentally killed Vollmer while attempting to shoot a glass off her head in a botched William Tell trick. Ah, the stories she could have told had she ever gotten it down on paper!
Nashville-born Carolyn Robinson (1923-2013) went to Bennington College on scholarship, studying drama, dance and painting. After graduating from Bennington, she moved to Denver to study theater arts. There she met and was courted by Neal Cassady, who introduced her to his Beat friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. She moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in costume design, while Cassady hit the road with Ginsberg. In October 1947, Cassady reunited with her in San Francisco and they were married on April Fools Day 1948. For the next several years, they lived in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Gatos, and had three children. During this time, she provided a stable home for Cassady, as well as a haven for him after his release from prison in 1960, and a reliable way station for Kerouac during the times when he was off the road. She published two memoirs about her connections to the pair who launched the Beat Generation, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack & Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg (1990). In the film adaptation of Heart Beat, Carolyn Cassady’s part was played by Sissy Spacek, while Nick Nolte portrayed Neal Cassady. Jan Kerouac, Jack’s daughter, was hired as an extra.
Ann Charters (bn. 1936) was studying for her master’s degree at University of California at Berkeley when she read The Dharma Bums in 1958. She fell instantly under the Beat spell, attending a reenactment of the famous Six Gallery reading that year in Berkeley. She began collecting Kerouac’s work in 1962. She compiled the first bibliography of his work, meeting with the novelist in 1966 to go through his files. By then, Kerouac was despairing over his neglect by the academy, which considered his writing unworthy of serious study. Charters embarked on a one-person campaign to resurrect his literary reputation. The revival began with her biography, Kerouac (1974), the first on the Beat legend. She stayed in contact with the Beat Generation circle, compiling literary ephemera, consulting on documentary films and editing the definitive Portable Beat Reader (1992). She also edited the Portable Jack Kerouac (1995), Selected Letters: 1940-1956 by Jack Kerouac (1995) and Selected Letters: 1957-1969 by Jack Kerouac (1999). For years, Charters was on the English department faculty at University of Connecticut. Her The Story and Its Writer is one of the best-selling textbooks for college students. Of her work keeping the Beat flame alive, Charters once told me, “I’m not a writer. I’m an editor and a teacher. American literature has been kind to me and I want to give something back.” As to why college students continue to flock to the work of Kerouac and other Beats, she said, “Life looks kind of bleak to them, and Kerouac is a hero because he lived on his own terms…Most important, though, is that Kerouac writes so well about an America that’s gone but we still have in our hearts. Jack Kerouac deserves the attention he is getting. He should have a place as a major American writer.”
Diane di Prima
Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Italian-American community, di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College to pursue writing. She joined a group of artists in New York who called themselves the “New Bohemians” before the Beats emerged. She was a serious student of poetry, corresponding with Kenneth Patchen, Charles Olson and Ezra Pound. In 1953, she visited Pound in St. Elizabeth’s, the mental hospital in Washington D.C. where he was sent in lieu of prison for his fascist radio broadcasts during World War II. Watson wrote, “She provided an apt combination of Beat qualities: absolute independence, wide sexual experience from mid-teens on, familiarity with drugs, the Village, jazz and bohemian style.” She had an affair with LeRoi Jones and had a baby daughter by him (as well as four other children). Her first book, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), was published by Hettie and LeRoi Jones’ Totem Press. Her second book, Dinners and Nightmares (1961), was a book of prose sketches dedicated to “pads and the people who shared them” and contained a blurb that boasted its “honesty would shock the romantic illusions of even the beat generation.” Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press encouraged her to write Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), an erotic chronicle of her intimate relations with Beat figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Diane di Prima, along with Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, forged a link between the Beats and the hippies. She lived for a spell at Timothy Leary’s psychedelic commune in Millbrook, N.Y. and settled in San Francisco, where she joined the Diggers in 1968.
Joyce Johnson (nee Glassman)
Joyce Glassman (bn. 1935) was a Barnard College graduate and aspiring 21-year-old novelist working for publisher Robert Giroux when she met Jack Kerouac, thirteen years her senior. Prior to meeting him, she’d read, and been impressed by his first novel The Town and The City. Her Barnard classmate Elise Cowen had befriended Allen Ginsberg, who set up a blind date for Kerouac with Glassman at a Greenwich Village Howard Johnson’s in January 1957. Kerouac moved into her apartment on the Upper West Side and she was his companion, and anchor, when On the Road was published and he was vaulted nearly overnight into international celebrity as “King of the Beats.” They continued their relationship by mail whenever Kerouac would leave the city. Their correspondence was published as Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958 (2000). She later wrote about those days in her award-winning memoir Minor Characters (1983), a candid “insider” account of the Beats’ inner circle. Johnson went on to write several highly acclaimed novels, including In the Night Café (1989).
Poet and Zen practitioner Lenore Kandel (1932-2009) helped, along with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, pass the Beat torch on to the so-called hippies. Carolyn Cassady called her a “fertility goddess” while Kerouac called her “a big Rumanian monster beauty, who knows everything.” Though she was born and raised in New York City, Kandel was a resident of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury at the height of “flower power,” Kandel had earlier published The Love Book (1965), a collection of erotic verse that led to a court challenge for “obscenity.” Her later book Word Alchemy (1967) contained controversial poems like “First They Slaughtered the Angels.”
Edith “Edie” Parker Kerouac
After growing up in wealthy Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Edith Parker (1923-1992) enrolled in Columbia University in 1941. There, she met Joan Vollmer Adams, with whom she shared an apartment that became the first literary salon of the Beats’ inner circle. She dated Henry Cru, a merchant marine. When Cru shipped out, she began dating his friend, Jack Kerouac, whom she married on August 22, 1944; the marriage was annulled the following year. Parker would marry three more times and write an unpublished memoir about her time with Kerouac. Excerpts from the latter are included in the excellent Women of the Beat Generation (1996) by Brenda Knight.
Though she only saw her father twice, Jack Kerouac’s only child inherited his literary gifts and wanderlust. Jan Kerouac (1952-1996) had little formal schooling but developed her own distinct writing style, with which she chronicled her life of hippie excess and adventure. Her friend Gerald Nicosia, who wrote the definitive biography of Jack Kerouac, said, “She was not writing because she was a famous man’s daughter. She was writing because she had already lived far more broadly and intensely than most people, and because it was important to her to preserved as much of her life as possible in language.”1 Though she received some royalties from her father’s work, Jan Kerouac battled his estate’s executors over many things, including their sale of his image to Gap, to be used in an avertisement for khaki pants, and the sale of one of his raincoats to Johnny Depp. She also unsuccessfully effort to move her father’s body from Lowell’s Edson Cemetery to the family burial plot in Nashua, New Hampshire, where his father, mother and brother were buried. She published two autobiographical novels, Baby Driver (1981) and Trainsong (1988). She died at age 44.
Joan Haverty Kerouac
A dressmaker when she was dating Bill Cannastra, Joan Haverty (1931-1990) became a member of the early Beat circle in New York. After Cannastra was killed in a freakish subway accident, Kerouac began dating her; within two weeks they were married, in November 1950. By the spring of 1952, the couple had separated, but not before Kerouac had finished typing the “scroll” version of On the Road in their West 20th Street apartment and Joan had become pregnant. Their daughter, Jan Kerouac, was born in February 1952. Joan worked periodically over the years on an unpublished memoir about her and Kerouac, called Nobody’s Wife. Excerpts from this work are included in Women of the Beat Generation.
Hettie Jones (nee Cohen)
Hettie Cohen met LeRoi Jones in 1957 when he applied for a job at the Record Changer, where she was subscription manager. They bonded over the fact that she was reading Kafka’s Amerika; they were married a year later. They started Yugen magazine in 1958 as “a new consciousness in arts and letters,” and hosted gatherings of writers, artists and musicians at their Village apartment (402 West Twentieth Street), creating one of the few multiracial mingling spots in the city which Ginsberg described as “an acme of good feeling.” She and LeRoi Jones divorced in 1965, when the latter became more involved with black activism in the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination. She went on to write several children’s books, direct a day-care program and engage in antipoverty activism. Hettie Jones chronicled her days as a Beat in How I Became Hettie Jones (1989), an unflinching reassessment of those heady days. She has also published collections of her own verse, including Drive. Finally, there were those women whose literary efforts eventually dissolved the glass ceiling of “Beatness,” though it took the 1960s countercultural revolution to truly loosen the final bonds.
Lehrman, who later took the name Liza Williams, lived with Lucien Carr in New York after he was released from prison. She befriended Joan Haverty Kerouac, and went with the newly married couple to meet the Haverty family. Lehrman eventually moved to South Africa, married a musician and became anti-apartheid activist. During the late 1960s, she lived in Los Angeles and was a widely-read columnist for the LA Free Press, a hippie newspaper. Seven years of her journalism were compiled to make her book Up the City of Angels (1971).
Born in England, Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was educated at home and served as a civilian nurse in London during World War II. Her first book of poetry The Double Image (1946) was praised for its “militant pacifism.” She married an American writer, Mitchell Goodman, and moved to New York in 1948. Her poetry was influenced by the writings of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Charles Olson, and her friendships with Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. She was considerably more “straight” than the rest of the Beat circle, but she stood her own ground and gained their respect. She taught at the University of California at Berkeley and was involved with both the antiwar and antinuclear movements.
An English professor at the University of California-Berkeley from 1940 until her death, Josephine Miles (1911-1985) was a vital member of the Bay Area literary scene that paved the way for the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. In 1956, when Allen Ginsberg sought her out for graduate school advice, Miles, who was also an accomplished poet, was impressed with the young Beat. She introduced him to Richard Eberhart, who was working on an article for the New York Times. The resultant article, “West Coast Rhythms,” which ran on September 2, 1956, brought national attention to the thriving poetry scene, and boosted the work of Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, City Lights Pocket Books, and Ginsberg.
Born Priscilla Arminger, Vickie Russell was the daughter of a Philadelphia judge. She entered the Beat circle through Herbert Huncke, with whom she traversed the underside of Manhattan. A striking redhead, Russell took up prostitution to make enough money to keep a steady supply of Benzedrine. Her boyfriend Little Jack Melody was a petty thief whose regular accomplice was Huncke. They hid their loot in Ginsberg’s apartment. Ginsberg was arrested, along with Melody and Russell when their stolen car was crashed and police searched Ginsberg’s apartment to find the contraband. She befriended Joan Vollmer and often stayed at the communal apartment at 419 West 115th Street, along with Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac. She taught them how to purchase nasal inhalers, break them open and eat the Benzedrine-soaked cotton inside. This became a cheap staple of the Beats, and helped fuel Kerouac’s early writing binges.
Born in New Jersey in 1945 and raised in Greenwich Village, Waldman was exposed to bohemian life at a young age. She idolized Gregory Corso, whom she saw on the streets of the city. “He was an idol in some sense,” she told Ann Charters. “Like Rimbaud, he was the epitome of the ‘damned’ poet.”1 After graduating from Bennington College, Waldman moved to the Lower East Side in 1966. She started an influential magazine, Angel Hair, and was director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, that has become a staple of the New York arts scene since that time. She was a longtime member of the faculty, along with Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
This article has been partially adapted from Alan Bisbort’s book Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture
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