When Ned Polsky wrote Hustlers, Beats And Others his pioneering sociological study of the Beat subculture as it was in 1960, he was scathing of their literary value. ‘Most beat literature is poor when it is not godawful,’ he opined. ‘And this is certainly true of its best-publicised examples, which have been surpassed by even the minor Victorians: James Thomson’s poetic howl of urban despair, The City of Dreadful Night, is greater by far than anything Ginsberg offers, and in on-the-road literature the genuine gusto of George Borrow is preferable to the faked-up fervour of Kerouac.’
Stinging stuff – and that faked-up charge must have hurt – but times change, and while the Beats are still an acquired taste, one can’t image George Borrow being the subject of a special exhibition at the British Library, as is currently the case with Jack Kerouac.
On The Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll is a small but welcome look at the basics of Beatery, offering an overview of the main protagonists – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso (the only one Polsky rates) – and trying to explain where they fitted within the American literary tradition. The exhibition is illustrated by photographs, many of the American landscape as explored in On The Road, but also of the writers themselves. I particularly liked this shot of William Burroughs, dressed like a fugitive Nazi, hand shielding eyes from the sun as he stares back with clinical impassivity. Burroughs is possibly the most photogenic writer there has ever been.
The main exhibit, though, is the extraordinary scroll on which Kerouac wrote a key draft for On The Road. You do not have to like the book – and I don’t, particularly – to appreciate the sheer thrilling insanity of this object, 120 feet of closely typed pages, filled with ‘spontaneous prose’ and occasional pencil marks. I have never seen a manuscript like it.
Kerouac’s second novel has been described as the book that ‘started
a whole new youth culture of which drugs were an accepted part’, so sodden is it in dope and speed. It was based on a series of road trips Kerouac took with
Neal Cassady (the pair are reinvented as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively) between 1947 and 1950, and most of the characters are based on Kerouac’s friends. Mythology states that it was written in a three-week
splurge fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, but Kerouac actually began it as early as 1948, when he also came up with the title. He spent a while searching for a voice, but eventually settled upon a stream-of-consciousness, jazzy, impressionistic style. This was inspired by a 40,000-word letter written to him Cassady, a charismatic sociopath described by his biographer as ‘a slim hipped hedonist who could throw a football seventy yards, do fifty chin-ups at a clip and masturbate six times a day’. Cassady was trouble; he was also said to have ‘one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known’, by a friend of writer Ken Kesey.
Kerouac sat down to write his famous ‘scroll’ draft on 2 April 1951 on a 120-feet sheet of paper that had belonged to Bill Cannastra, a wild-living friend who had been decapitated after sticking his head out of a New York train window.
Kerouac spent many years rewriting the manuscript as he tried to find a publisher, and it was eventually brought out by Viking in September 1957 – Kerouac belatedly considered renaming it Rock and Roll Road
to catch the spirit of the time – and immediately received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, which claimed it was ‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat’.
On The Road is one of the most important books of the post-War era, but it’s questionable how much it influenced English culture given that it is such a specifically American book on such an American topic written in the American vernacular. London was more taken by Burroughs and Ginsberg, both of whom would spend extensive time in the city while Kerouac only visited for a few days in the 1940s when serving in the Navy. By 1959, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Horovitz and the rest of the British counterculture scene were soon discussing, publishing, imitating and eulogising the Beat poets.
Being more of a philistine, though, I prefer the exploitation stuff. Tony Hancock frequently mocked Beatnik culture, notably in The Poetry Society.
Hancock: You see, Sidney, we are a collection of kindred spirits who are all revolting against the Establishment.
Bill: How long have you been at it?
Hancock: Three days.
I also like Colin Wilson’s often sardonic but hugely charismatic novel, Adrift In Soho, which has that time-honoured plot of a young ingenue coming to London and getting drawn into a curious sub-culture, in this case the Beats. It is apparently currently being made into a film.
But the pull of the Beats, that desire to be different, was probably best expressed by Hancock again, in the opening scenes to his film, The Rebel. ‘Where are we going?’ It’s what Kerouac was asking, and it’s what Hancock wanted to know as well. Well, where?