Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats

by Allen Ginsberg (Author), Bill Morgan (Editor) and Anne Waldman (Introduction)
Grove Atlantic
Reviewed by Marc Olmsted

The Best Minds of My Generation, a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s classroom lectures from 1977 to 1994, covering both Naropa University and his later Brooklyn College period, is deftly collected and edited by Ginsberg scholar Bill Morgan. There is very definitely an aura of special importance about this book, because it is such a concise primary source material on the Beats it will undoubtedly be used in both classroom and footnote in decades to come.

This is the mature Ginsberg, infused with serious Buddhist practice, so his remarks about Jack Kerouac’s intentions are like those of Prospero, that foil of Shakespeare’s elder intelligence, and far beyond the Ginsberg of the ’60s that still dominates as Ginsberg’s literary mask in the minds of many (and in some ways held with a stubborn nostalgia). For instance, Ginsberg points out that Kerouac’s last major work Vanity of Duluoz was written within little more than a year of his death, showing Kerouac’s enduring if fragile (i.e. alcoholic-sick) lucidity.

There is a first-rate explanation of bebop jazz influence on Kerouac through Symphony Sid on the radio and friendship with jazz-hip Seymour Wyse. Charlie Parker is examined particularly well. What Ginsberg does is actually show what specific phrasings of jazz erupted in Jack’s mind, rather than the usual rote coterminous jazz-Beat origins.

Also, though there have been many references to Lucien Carr’s charismatic qualities on Kerouac and Ginsberg, finally we get to understand Carr’s humorous mock-Shakespearean speech that Kerouac not only occasionally imitated but even originally intended his longer piece “Old Angel Midnight” to be called “Old Lucien Midnight.” Here Ginsberg gives examples of Kerouac’s reproduction of that speech and it clarifies what has been vague in virtually every other account of this relationship.

Ginsberg rightly equates Dashiell Hammett’s effect on William S. Burroughs in terms of a post-journalistic “no ideas but in things” (per William Carlos Williams), but conflates Raymond Chandler as doing the same in his own later hard-boiled detective novels. Simply put, it was Chandler that introduced that standard detective voice-over metaphor, often parodied, that bordered on Federico Garcia Lorca more than Williams – an element of surreality that is also very much part of Burroughs’ images. So in the long run, Ginsberg is still right.

Ginsberg on Burroughs is probably one area that has been the most thoroughly explored elsewhere. What does happen here is a near-Cliff Notes intro to what may have confused less obsessed readers in trying to get at what Burroughs was up to. In particular, what was an actual “cut-up” and when did it start? This, as most Beat enthusiasts know, involved razoring up texts and getting new, often startlingly penetrating meanings and seemingly prophetic messages. Though Naked Lunch can in the broadest sense show a cut-up sensibility by assembling chapters in no particular order, the chapters themselves are not violated and the text within them is certainly not chopped up, folded in or rearranged in any way. Ginsberg examines what came before Naked Lunch and the texts that followed it (which is where the chopping of texts began in earnest).

There are, however, several astounding pieces on Gregory Corso.  Equating his chaos of person (Gregory as disruptor is a well-known anecdotal archetype in Beat history) with Corso’s collision of language shows an insight I’d never considered before – and perhaps as good a case as any for how this notorious thief/junkie/derelict Coyote Trickster might actually get away with minimum karmic debt in the Big Picture. Revisiting Corso’s language is proof of his genius, regardless.
In “Howl,” Ginsberg correctly refers to his own “surprise mind” contraction of “hydrogen jukebox” – though he has mentioned outside of this book in an interview (without reexamining the original manuscript) that it was an editing contraction of the “hydrogen bomb of the jukebox.” Of course, anyone who has tried to cite Allen as a primary source has run into this problem. Often, phrases he has attributed to Kerouac, including the title “Howl” – may be otherwise, or more often, came about in a conversation where the it’s hard to know who said it first, like “Mind is shapely, Art is Shapely,” (with Kerouac) or “First thought, best thought.” (with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche).

Anne Waldman points out in her introduction that the women are missing from this historical account. I find it striking that the really A-list female voices and visionaries of this period, with the exception of Diane di Prima (who was “late” as Corso said about her part in the Beat movement) seemed more at home in musical phrasing, such as Billie Holiday and in film and painting, such as Maya Deren, Jay DeFeo and Cameron (herself still majorly unappreciated). There is no getting around that the quartet of Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac was an exclusive boy’s club. Women writers did not affect them, nor even black poets like LeRoi Jones and Bob Kaufman, who again, in this quartet’s experience, were “late.” Of course, as Morgan himself says in his introduction, the expanse both in time and scope of what Beat Culture actually comprises remains a scholar’s problem. Personally, I think the Whitney Museum’s bracketing of 1950-1965 as a time line, as well as establishing a bohemian family tree within that period still remains the best overview, though itself incomplete (as with neglecting the Wichita Vortex art group).

Where Ginsberg’s memory blurs (and Morgan only sometimes corrects in footnote) – certain errors will hopefully not go unnoticed in the inevitable paperback edition and future printings. “Beatnik” per usual is attributed to columnist Herb Caen, with no mention by Morgan of Bob Kaufman, whom he knows (and previously written) may very likely have been overheard by Caen creating this phrase in wild street speech. Another editorial decision involving accuracy: Ginsberg is left uncorrected when saying “hypno-genetic” when he clearly means “hypnogogic.”

Likewise, On the Road was written on taped-together sheets of tracing paper, not a teletype roll (that was Dharma Bums), nor is it one long sentence. Now many have seen the actual roll and there is a transcript of it in print which shows that the original was absent of much of the punctuation (mostly comas) that the 1957 first edition has. It is important, since much has been made of refuting some of Jack Kerouac’s claims of spontaneous prose, particularly academics who even admire him but hate the notion of lack of revision due to their own anal and Apollonian habits.
Ginsberg’s memory has Gerard Malanga as the star of Andy Warhol’s “Sleep.” It is poet John Giorno.

These may seem petty concerns, but Morgan chooses to make sure we know other minutia that seem less important, including a historical reference in a Corso poem where snow is mentioned – Morgan tells us it was not actually snowing that day in 1804.

The book quickly rounds off with other major influences, Neal Cassady among them, and also includes John Clellon Holmes, Peter Orlovsky and Carl Solomon in brief snippets. Some may be surprised at how little Cassady occupies this book, but the recent discovery of the full Joan Anderson letter (Neal to Jack – lost for years and taking on mythic philosopher’s stone implications) really shows that Neal’s main contribution is not literary, but the length of his manic self-disclosure. In fact, the letter is well within the bounds of conventional grammar and startlingly neat in its typed presentation. Perhaps also an oversight to some, Herbert Huncke is not yet a writer during this period, but his influence is given extensive credit in the earliest lectures.

The lack of di Prima, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen suggest that this will not be the only volume of lectures we’ll see. It is easy to imagine an earlier lecture volume exclusively on pre-Beat influences such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as later lectures on second wave Beat and finally Post-Beat literature. I look forward to them all.

Marc Olmsted is a regular book reviewer for Radius.