Missing Beats: Marginalised Women of the Beat Generation

Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others.
Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others.

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.

Kristen Stewart as Marylou
Kristen Stewart as Marylou

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
Diane Di Prima

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.

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31 Comments

  1. Candice
    0

    I have been a fan of Kerouac’s since I first read “On The Road” in junior high school. I’ll read anything that he has written at least once.

  2. Lovely article. To understand the Beat Generation, we need to understand the political and social goings on of that time. The 1950’s was a very repressed society. Mccarthyism was rampant. Books were censored. Pornography was illegal. Women were lacking intelligence. A “smart woman,” was one who dressed well. Rape was very seldom prosecuted. (She must have done SOMETHING mentality.) Freud was ranked alongside Darwin.

    Homosexuality was a mental illness. Autism was the result of bad mothering. Battering women was allowed.

    The Beat Generation posed embarrassing questions which not a soul wanted to answer. It was not just a literary movement. It was intellectual and political as well.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      You’re absolutely right. 1950s America was riddled with paranoia; in response to the threat of communism society orchestrated a kind of conformist lockdown. Though I still believe that the men of the Beat generation had an advantage in their rebellion, since, as you noted, women’s education was much less advanced, and their voice amongst society was not considered to be very relevant.

  3. Elle831

    I agree greatly with the article. I think you wrapped things up nicely in the conclusion, however could’ve spent a little more time commenting on the ethnic and working class writers. It felt like an after thought.

    I also like the inclusion of modern adaptations of the ‘On the Road’ characterizations of women. It reveals that modern culture has chosen to perceive women as dynamic human beings, despite how Kerouac portrayed them in his writings. By doing so, the filmmaker dramatically elevated the character Marylou, without change in the story line that ultimately humanizes her. Instead of a ditzy blond with a mean streak we get a person with who is subject to: love, jealousy, guilt, sense of belonging etc.

    Well done.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Thanks for your comment! I would have loved to have talked about ethic and working-class writers, but it might have made the article a little too lengthy. Maybe another article is in order!

      • I agree with you–I think the mention at the end of the article is a great segway into a separate article about ethnic and working-class writers.

  4. Harold Roberts
    0

    The place of Kerouac’s On the Road as one of our country’s greatest novels of the twentieth century no longer needs to be justified. I’ve come to recommend this piece to anyone who is looking to expand their horizon in order to find themselves.

  5. Loved it! I like how you exposed the irony in how the men of the Beat Generation were so “rebellious,” but in the end they were able to do so anyway because of their gender. It hailed the women of the Beat Generation without outright degrading the men, which I found to be very well done. This was a great, informative read!

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Thanks for the encouragement – it’s much appreciated! At the end of the day, most of the male Beat writers belonged to the dominant social group – middle-upper class white men! It’s easy to rebel if you’re already in a position of authority, but not so much if you’re part of a marginalised minority.

  6. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Have you read any of Anais Nin? While she was around far before the Beat generation and she doesn’t really have anything to do with the subject, her books and history might click with you, as far as women authors of the first half of the 20th century are concerned : )

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Thanks for the recommendation – I haven’t read anything of hers but I’ll definitely put her on my list now!

    • Venus Echos

      Nilson,
      Thank you for speaking of Ms. Nin, I have several of her books in my collection and use many of her quotes. I found myself smiling when I read that she was getting $1.00 a page for writing erotica.

  7. PerkAlert

    I’m not very familiar with the Beat Generation outside of a Life & Literature of the 1960s class that I took in college a while back. However your article was still an interesting read, even for a Beats novice like me! I loved your description “culture junkies.” What a great way to describe our generation and all our modern ‘revivals’ (clothing, music, etc)!! My favorite paragraph was probably your analysis of Di Prima and how her works exemplified the overall conflict of the Beats era. Also,you did a terrific job summing up your argument in your conclusion paragraph. I like the idea that the ‘real’ rebels were the women, simply because they had more to fight against.

    Small bit of nit-pickyness: You misspelled Kristen Stewart (Kristen Stuart). Not a big deal, obviously, just thought I’d point it out! On that note though, I thought it was ironic that Kristen Stewart is praised for that role. Since the Twilight series, Kristen seems to be viewed with the same kind of disrespect (dare I say misogyny from the Twilight-haters?) that’s apparent in Kerouac’s story. Of course, I haven’t read On The Road, nor have I seen the movie, so I may be totally out of place in my opinion here.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Oops! Silly mistake, thanks for pointing that out! Glad you enjoyed the article, it’s great to hear that it’s accessible for people who aren’t massively familiar with the Beats!

  8. Imma aspiring beat girl myself, gotta put my feet to the street and speak about dem issues so pressing, confessing the truth of this harsh reality, lets leave the insanity of profit and enter through the door of love and be lovers of bliss life.

  9. Evita Winstead
    0

    The piece was well written. Thanks.

  10. KimSw

    Great article, I’m working right now on an article about a female artist from the same era who was also pushed aside due to her sex.

  11. Great article analyzing the canon of literature that is the beat generation. I would sometimes wonder in a literature class the other perspectives of that time period and the ways they relate, if at all, to the usual authors that are regarded as the Beats. I found it enjoyable and informative to read with the inclusion of authors I now plan to read.

  12. mflamm

    Very nice (and needed) analysis of the masculinist nature of the Beats–reinforced by the marginalization of the female representatives to whom you nicely draw attention here. Makes me think of the general masculinist “problem” (if that characterization is fair) of all of the stars of American literature. Whether we’re talking about Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Cheever, or more contemporarily McCarthy–is there a single representative who in some central way are not guilty of proferring an exclusively masculinist aesthetic. Perhaps its DNA is traced to our frontier-cowboy beginnings?

  13. Elaina Chastain

    This article gave me LIFE. I never really realized the lack of female acknowledgment during the Beat generation. I wrote an article about how the Beats affect us today and not a single woman appeared in my research. Looks like it’s time to dig deeper and learn about all of the wonderful ladies that deserve just as much credit as the dudes.

  14. Great article that gets me thinking of how we define “American” literature within our canon not only in the Beats generation, but also in the courses English students are required to take. For example, a required course I took on the truly American literature which includes Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman…but no women, not even Dickinson. I must say, I was a bit shocked to be able to get a degree without having read much Dickinson, or any Diane Di Prima. We should constantly revise our notions of literary eras formulated by the ideas of men, even the counter-cultural revolutions/revelations of the Beats.

  15. The Beats were trying to break from the very notions that your “female Beats” are so compromised by as artists.

    And have they been marginalized, or are they merely unsuccessful?

    Are they unsuccessful because they weren’t as imaginative or prolific?

    Aren’t other women of the generation to blame for “marginalizing” them?

    Isn’t pointing out the “irresponsibility” of the Beats the easiest target of all?

    You wrote:

    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.’

    Isn’t Joyce Johnson timid? Were the women onlookers because they were being marginalized, or because they weren’t as intellectually and artistically passionate about what they were talking about, or the need to rediscover and reinvent post-war America through their fiction? “And if you were interested in things you might pick up what you could.” Ha! Because if that happened… then Kerouac might only want to have sex with you if you didn’t wanna rap about physics and Eastern meditation!

    As for Di Prima, if those are examples of her work then she is lucky to be as popular as she is. The fact is, the writers (who happen to be women) quoted lack the daring and exploration of the core Beats (who happen to be male).

    And I don’t know if Johnson, Di Prima, would appreciate being labeled as victims by the Beats — whether socially or by cultural status. It would occur to them that while the Beats sought to escape American victimization, these women only wanted to escape marginalization by the Beats — as it should have occurred to you.

    Regardless, marginalization in this context is a fame issue. If Johnson, Di Prima, etc had reached (or wanted) the kind of success received by Kerouac, would not the biographies have revealed enough of them the sorts of imperfections and character flaws you attack Kerouac for? Are women the little-known “light-side” of the Beats, and men the “dark”?

    The success of women in the Beats is a vision issue. It’s not a gender issue.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. To suggest that women of the Beat generation were not marginalised, but merely unsuccessful because they were less intelligent and less creative, is to ignore an entire history of patriarchal dominance in literature. Women writing in the 1950s were not regarded with the same respect as was given to male writers, namely because society still expected women to fulfil roles as domestic goddesses. Women writers were less successful as a result of a vast history of oppression, and to question their intellect is narrow-minded and incredibly insulting. Unless you have first-hand experience of living as a woman in 1950s America, I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to minimise their struggle as an outcome of laziness or stupidity. What you’re suggesting ultimately reinforces damaging patriarchal notions of women being less engaged and imaginative than men.

      Would you argue the same if I’d highlighted the marginalisation of the ethnic minorities of the Beat generation? Would you imply that an African-American writer, such as Amiri Baraka, was less prominent than Kerouac because he was less intelligent? Because he lacked some exclusive imaginative capacity that only white men are capable of cultivating? Probably not.

  16. LauraM

    I’m glad someone finally took the time to look at the women of the beat generation.

  17. The very distinction between men and women during the 1950’s was one being active vs. passive.

    The article’s spot on by noting the additional hardships women of the ’50s. Post-war America was the economic juggernaut of the world, and coupled with the expected roles of men—being the “rational” thinkers, being assertive—this granted men multiple forms of independence, including access to economic, social, and intellectual capital.

    American women of the ’50s did not possess the same capital that would facilitate them to lead a life where they could head for the open road with a typewriter. Though the ’20s with its jazz and modernism eroded the past generation’s Victorian ideals (temperance, sexual and emotional repression, etc.) and the ’40s mobilized both ethnic minorities and women into the workforce (think the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster), the ’50s was the age of conservatism.

    The construct of “Separate Spheres” still riddled the structure of American families, and thus the expected gender responsibilities of women to perform as mothers, to marry young (usually by the age of 20, yikes!) and caretakers of the household diminished their chances of becoming great existentialist thinkers.

    That said, I’m glad this article turned me on to new writers!

  18. Thank you, Jessica, for giving us this insight into the world of female writers and poets. I find it interesting that most famous artists tend to have an upper crust connection. Somehow the work of the upper class is credited with more value and prestige than the lower class. This is probably because of the connections they have but what does that say about their critics and contemporaries? Who is seriously and honestly critiquing their work?

  19. Good for you! It is always interesting to learn of marginalized women in history and this specific look is framed through a feminist lense, speaking in literary criticism terms. While readable it smacks of an end of semester, lit crit paper. Very scholarly, but bringing it down a bit in tone would make it ever so much more pleasant. I do feel informed.

  20. This article is well-organized and is successful at critiquing the maleness of the Beats, without being derogatory or negative. You open up this important topic of discussion beautifully.

  21. Venus Echos

    Jessica,
    Thank you for your article on the women of the Beat Generation. I responded to another article about the Beat Generation and was very excited about it. Then when I saw yours it made me realize that I have not read any material from women of the Beat Generation. I am normally one who points these things out, I missed my ‘Beat.’ Thank you for coming along and striking up the band. I understand your feelings about the male writers, they were rebelling and I suppose yes they were of a protective class. They could easily go back to that protective class if they failed. There are and were so many humans that fit into disenfranchised sections of society that if they chose this lifestyle would most likely suffer more serious ramifications to their families they supported or themselves.
    However, I do enjoy the men of the Beat Generation, I do recall not being able to really identify with their experiences. The closest I came was in Kerouac’s Subterranean, he had a girl friend who was a women of colour and I could identify with her character, but still it was not the best of relationships, then again what is? I am grateful for these men to journey out and brake down some barriers and have different experiences. I feel they opened the door for women and many others to begin to take a different journey. The cultural climate at that time was oppressive for women, people of colour, immigrants, and various other barriers that were perpetrated by the wealthy patriarchal society. Women and many others are still oppressed in our current society but as long as doors are opened by force or by choice we can all learn from each other’s experiences.
    Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
    ~Walt Whitman,

  22. Please take a look at th trailer for the documentary film Renegade Dreamers at http://www.RenegadeDreamers.com. We think you’ll like it
    karen

  23. Kevin Dilhan
    0

    Hey I liked this very much! Thank you. Reading ‘On the Road’, it was strikingly clear how the women are in the periphery of the story, appearing only when the male characters wanted.
    There is definitely something very wrong with the beat generation when it comes to how women were seen, or unseen.

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