Missing Beats: Marginalised Women of the Beat Generation
Inspired by the revolutionary works of Walt Whitman, the Beat Generation aspired towards a lifestyle that rejected conformity and focused on the value of individual experience. The Beat writers, living mainly in either New York or San Francisco, turned against Capitalism and placed themselves on the outskirts of society, as America’s most celebrated counter-culture. As a society, our contemporary understanding of the Beat generation glamourises freedom from responsibility and the notion of life on the road; it celebrates sex, drugs, and creativity in the lives of rebellious writers. If asked to list as many Beat writers as possible, most people will recall the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Michael McClure; interestingly, the most memorable members of the Beat generation are all male. Thus, the literature of the Beat generation speaks predominantly through male voices, largely accounting for male experience; but amidst such testosterone fuelled frivolity, one might wonder, where are all the women?
From the beginning of 1950s, the Beats writers began to form a kind of literary brotherhood led by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, two figures who were idolised by marginalised individuals across America. This notion of a shared masculinity filtered into Beat literature, and is especially evident in Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), a novel that documents the protagonist, Sal Paradise’s obsession and platonic infatuation with his friend, Dean Moriarty. Based on Kerouac’s own affection for Neal Cassady, a fellow writer of the Beat Generation, the novel reflects the male dominated culture of the period. The novel’s female characters, namely Dean’s wives, Marylou, Camille, and Inez, are characterised merely as accessories to Dean’s life. In fact, almost none of the main characters have meaningful relationships with women, and those who find themselves engaged or married, frequently leave their wives abandoned at home with their children. Dean Moriarty’s bigamy is somewhat overlooked as an issue in the novel, demonstrating the disregard for any kind of domestic responsibility amongst the Beats.
Walter Salles’ cinematic adaptation of the novel demonstrates this absence of significant female characters quite accurately, although his use of respected actresses, such as Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, perhaps undermines the insignificance of the female roles in the novel. Additionally, Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Marylou challenges Kerouac’s depiction of a ditsy young blonde with ringlets in her hair, offering an intelligent sulky teen whose nonchalance towards Dean’s adultery places her almost in a position of equality, especially following her short affair with Sal Paradise.
From a contemporary feminist perspective, the misogyny of Kerouac’s novel can be quite difficult to read, and some regard On The Road as an elaborate account of 1950s ‘lad’ culture. However, the rising popularity of Beat literature amidst the current generation of culture junkies suggests that its flaws are being somewhat overlooked. Much like the psychedelic haze that spawned Beat literature, the Beat generation itself has an intoxicating appeal to young men and women, who find themselves nostalgically dreaming of a culture that they wish they could have experienced first-hand. As a consequence of remembering the Beat generation through somewhat rose-tinted glasses, the young admirers fail to see the prevalence of gender bias amongst Beat literature and culture; this gender imbalance is evident in the objectification and absence of women in Beat literature, which reinforces patriarchal notions of women’s inferiority, and could prove damaging if not recognised by young readers.
However, this is an issue easily solved by a more inclusive education, which veers outside of the male dominated Beat canon. When asked to list as many female Beat writers as possible, most people will struggle, largely because the female voices of the Beat Generation have been drowned-out by their male counterparts. The women of the Beat generation encountered a great deal of resistance when they dared to write their own experience, predominantly due to social and cultural expectations. Post-War America was built upon conformist ideals, particularly regarding women’s roles in society; the 1950’s woman was expected to present herself as the perfect housewife, ruling the domestic sphere as a wife and a mother. Therefore, for those women who desired a literary career, the gateway was very narrow, particularly if they thought of associating with a controversial counter-culture such as the Beats.
Joyce Johnson is perhaps one of the better-known female Beats, though her fame largely sprung from her romantic relationships with the male Beats. In her memoir of her experiences amongst the Beat writers, Johnson writes: ‘The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers. You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.’ Here, Johnson demonstrates the gender exclusivity of the Beat generation, reflecting Kerouac’s earlier representation of women in On the Road. Johnson’s comments outline the difficulty in finding an opportunity to express female creativity in a group that was dominated by patriarchal ideologies. With this in mind, it is particularly interesting to consider the ways in which the female Beat writers disrupted the traditional patriarchal voice of the Beat generation.
Diane Di Prima is one female Beat poet who draws attention to women’s experience, considering both her domestic responsibility and her literary career. Born in New York in 1934, Di Prima was the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, and grew up with a thirst for rebellion. Like the male Beat writers, Di Prima dropped out of college in order to pursue her career in writing, and joined Manhattan’s bohemian community. Di Prima’s poetry is striking in its satirical reiteration of patriarchal norms, which ultimately rebels against women’s marginalization in literary communities.
Di Prima’s ‘Song for Baby-O, Unborn’ speaks specifically to women’s experience of motherhood, addressing her unborn child: ‘Sweetheart when you break thru you’ll find a poet here not quite what one would choose.’ Here, Di Prima draws attention to the tension between her domestic duty and her creativity, dryly suggesting that as a poet, she is not an ideal candidate for a mother. Interestingly, in ‘Three Laments’ Di Prima suggests that as a woman, she is not an ideal candidate for a poet. In response to William Burroughs’ remark that to be a great poet one must be comfortable sitting alone in a chair, Di Prima declares: ‘Alas I believe I might have become a great writer but the chairs in the library were too hard.’ The mock-woeful tone of Di Prima’s opening line lampoons the marginalisation of women in the Beat generation, suggesting that the rituals of the male Beat writers were merely a collection of childish superstitions. These two short examples of Di Prima’s poetry address women’s struggle to break into the literary world, particularly due to domestic responsibility and their perceived inferiority to men, whilst humorously mocking notions of literary exclusivity.
Brenda Frazer, born in 1939, similarly addresses women’s struggles amongst literary communities in her body of poetry. ‘Poem to Lee Forest’ (1964) is written to an elder female poet, who serves as a kind of role-model for Frazer’s literary career. The poem explains how Frazer ‘encountered [Lee Forest’s] physical shape in the park / beauty moves in infinite measure among the blades of grass.’ Frazer’s slight reference to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is indicative of the ways in which Lee Forest’s role as a female idol mirrored Whitman’s role as an idol to the male Beats. However, the poem goes on to document the demise of Forest as an idol, as her ‘lovely and placid’ exterior transformed into a ‘hard mortal shell skin burnt brown with many days in the sun.’ Here, Frazer demonstrates the breakdown of the guiding ideal, as her encounter with Forest reveals her humanity, and consequently, her fragility. Ultimately, Frazer’s poem demonstrates the lack of dominant female figures amongst the Beat generation, which leaves the female poets without a literary parentage. Frazer’s poem asks: if Whitman is the father of the Beat generation, where is our mother?
Ultimately, these examples of female Beat writers are merely the tip of the iceberg, but all three demonstrate an intelligent awareness of their marginalised position in a male dominated counter-culture. Each of the three women disrupt notions of female passivity and conformity, challenging conventions and rebelling against more constraints than the male Beats would have experienced. In terms of rebellion against conformist expectations, the women of the Beat generation show more guts than the men, namely because of their consistent historical marginalisation. It’s easy for an upper-middle class white male to challenge conventions, but, as Joyce Johnson demonstrates, the Beat women faced much more hardship. If Beat literature is to continue in its current revival, it is crucial that we explore outside of the dominant male canon, and consider the writing of the Beat generation’s minority groups; not only does this include female writers, but also ethnic and working-class writers.
What do you think? Leave a comment.