The Influence of Death on Beat Literature
The writers of what is now widely known as The Beat Generation have been both praised and criticized, loved and hated. Their works have been some of the most influential in American writing and opened an entirely new, unexplored region for future writers to occupy. While the works of each writer has clear distinctions from those of his companions, many themes are recurring in Beat literature as a whole. Because many of the writers have experienced loss and death in their personal life, this seems to be a recurring influence in their writings. Loss is not only a central theme in Beat writing but an essential part of each writer’s identity. The deaths of not only family members but mutual friends molded the Beats’ works and perspective on life, accounting for much of their carefree, spontaneous attitudes toward it. The Beats each had a personal battle with these experiences until, finally, death is greeted as an old friend, both expected and accepted.
Loss was an authoritative force in the Beats’ lives well before they became “Beats.” Each of their personal losses became an energy which transformed and metamorphosed the lives they would lead and the writings they would create. The early experience of death clearly affects each author, though in different ways. Jack Kerouac was plagued by the death of both his father and brother, forever searching for men to take their place in his life. Gregory Corso was abandoned by his mother in his first year of life and began to despise the life he could have possibly had with her. Allen Ginsberg slowly watched his mother lose her sanity until death. Each of these events was detrimental to these men and that is apparent in their writings.
Kerouac was deeply traumatized by the death of his brother. He was agonized by nightmares and was desperately afraid of sleeping alone, leading to Kerouac’s sleeping with his mother, perhaps ultimately contributed to Jack’s “mama’s boy” personality. Without a father figure, Jack spent much of his life living with his mother. Much of Jack’s life after the death of his brother was spent subconsciously searching for a replacement. This is clear in the men that become the heroes in his life and their alter egos that become the protagonists of his novels. In On the Road, Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac’s character) idolizes Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady’s character). Sal says of Dean, “…he reminded me of some long-lost brother…” (On the Road, Kerouac). Later in the novel, Sal repeatedly refers to Dean as his brother, insinuating there is a bond deeper than mere friendship. This is also demonstrated in The Dharma Bums’ characters of Ray and Japhy.
Kerouac also lost his father at a young age and the same characters that readers recognize as his brothers can be seen in father-figure roles at times. The character representing Jack in all of his novels is always easily influenced and taught by the other male main character, such as Japhy Ryder or Dean Moriarty. Though Sal knows his relationship with Dean is not healthy, nor will it last, he craves closeness and friendship from him. He explains, “Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age; and a little bit of trouble or even Dean’s eventual rejection of me as a buddy, putting me down, as he would later, on starving sidewalks and sickbeds-what did it matter?” (On the Road, Kerouac). Because Kerouac has no male figures to look up to, he began to transform his friendships into familial relationships, and use them as a replacement for his own lost alliances. Jack had no father figure to distinguish between right and wrong and as the men he looked up to transitioned into the father role, Jack’s actions grew wilder. While Jack used the men he idolized in order to feel closer to a familiar figure, Corso’s upbringing caused him to avoid the life he could have had with his mother.
While Corso expresses nostalgia, confusion and disgust in all of his poetry, all of these works were molded by the fact that his mother abandoned him in childhood. Corso was born into a traditional Italian family, which is most apparent in his early poetry. Had he continued to live with his mother, he would have experienced traditions Italian-American families celebrate and would have felt the love of an oversized family. Because Corso never experiences these traditions, it seems he begins to despise them. This is expressed in his short but revealing poem, “Italian Extravaganza.” Corso uses this poem to express his sarcasm and confusion toward Italian traditions. The poem states,
“Mrs. Lombardi’s month-old son is dead
They’ve just finished having high mass for it;
They’re coming out now
…wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.”
Corso’s poem clearly shows confusion as to why the death of a child should need ten black Cadillacs, something that could be seen as a sign of celebration, rather than death. While Corso first expresses sarcasm toward his roots, these feelings are soon replaced by feelings of nostalgia. The audience can feel this change in “Birthplace Revisited,” which expresses his longings toward his birth home. The poem begins
“I stand in the dark light in the dark street
and look up at my window, I was born there.”
The poem continues to explain that the place he was born is now inhabited by another family, but it has remained dirty. Both of these works by Corso were written around the same time. This establishes that his early sense of loss later lead to confusion toward his heritage. He was both bewildered and sorrowful toward the loss of his mother and the life he could have had with her, which he explored and analyzed in his writings. Though Corso dealt with the loss of his family by shunning everything that represents them in his writings, Ginsberg used the closeness he felt towards his mother before her death in order to create his poetry.
Allen Ginsberg was a witness to his mother’s loss of sanity and watched her mental and physical health decline unti her eventual death. This event was a major contribution to much of Ginsberg’s work, especially “Howl,” and “Kaddish.” Many lines of Ginsberg’s most famous work, “Howl,” recount the slow loss of Naomi Ginsberg’s mental health. He speaks of her, “Accusing the radio of hypnotism…” and explains some of the mental institutions she had spent time in. While this poem references her death, “Kaddish” was written entirely in her memory. He begins by explaining the strangeness that accompanies death:
“Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwhich Village…”
He continues to say that there is nothing more to say of death and that, ultimately, there is nothing to weep for. Part II explains Naomi’s long and terrifying list of experiences while institutionalized. The poem ends by sharing with the audience a letter that Ginsberg’s mother wrote to him:
“She wrote-‘The key is in the window, they key is in the sunlight at the window-I have the key-Get married Allen don’t take drugs-they key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
which is Naomi-“
This “key” is referenced several times in the poem and the poem ending with this letter suggests that Allen took these words personally, and honestly saw them as advice. While Ginsberg openly mourned the loss of his mother, his father’s death also impacted him. “Don’t Grow Old” was written by Ginsberg while mourning his father. Each Beat was familiar with death by the time they all came together in the late 1940’s. After their meeting, though, they began to experience the death of friends and colleagues, together.
While each Beat experienced death before their infamous meeting at Columbia University, loss did not stop for the generation as their relationships and writings progressed. The writers watched their mutual friends and wives slowly be taken. The death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs was one of the first that the Beats experienced as a family. Her death clearly affected the works of the men, especially her husband and (accidental) killer, William Burroughs. Ginsberg also referenced her death in a number of his poems. Burroughs credited the beginning of his writing to Joan’s death, claiming he never would be the artist in which he became if not for the incident in which he shot her. He is noted as saying, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing…So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Burroughs not only expressed deep sadness at her loss but deep remorse in his own actions.
Many of Ginsberg’s poetry explored the idea of death, morality and loss. In a work known simply as “Dream Record: June 8, 1955,” Ginsberg recalled a dream which he used to analyze his own curiosity and questions concerning death. He explains,
“Then I knew
She was a dream and questioned her
–Joan, what kind of knowledge have the dead?”
The technique used here was first experimented with in “Dream Record,” and became the central technique in “Howl,” Ginsberg’s most famous work. While Joan’s death was detrimental to Burroughs’, yet constructive toward both he and Ginsberg’s writing, the death of Jack Kerouac had a more prominent effect on his fellow founders, especially Ginsberg.
The first of the Beat men to be taken by their enemy was Kerouac. This event obviously molded the writings of his friends. It is clear that these men used writing as a form of therapy. This is illustrated in the fact that many of the Beats have written poems in memory of the friends they lost. This is demonstrated in Corso’s poem, “Elegiac Feelings American,” written in Jack’s remembrance. In this work, Corso expressed his belief that Jack is the typical portrait of an all-American man. He also addressed something central to the Beats; he claims their purpose was not to find their place in America, but to speak up for its citizens, claiming,
“Was not so much our finding America as it was America finding
Its voice in us…”
Ginsberg greatly admired Kerouac, and his writings were heavily influenced not only by his death but by his writing style.
In an interview in which Ginsberg speaks on Kerouac’s work, he explained, “All of my poetic practice is founded on Kerouac’s notion of non-revising, ‘spit forth intelligence at the moment.’” He continues to discuss his works, questioning, “What does the mind really think? What is the poetry of pure mind? And [Kerouac] was the first person to have that great breakthrough of consciousness in art. Well, not the first, it is a tradition.” Kerouac’s heavy influence on Ginsberg is apparent in his writing. The audience can see the transformation of Ginsberg’s work as it becomes more and more honest after the death of Kerouac. Though death molds the writings of all these men, it eventually becomes something each Beat must accept and become comfortable with.
While it is evident in the works of Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg that death is a terrible experience, their later writings show that death is something that one must learn to accept. Jack Kerouac claims in an interview, “…we’re all going to die.” Ginsberg speaks both of others’ deaths and of his own as something that should not be mourned. In “Kaddish,” he proclaimed,
“There, rest. No more suffering for you. I know where you’ve gone, it’s good.”
In this line, he is explaining to his deceased mother that she no longer has to suffer. In this aspect, death is positive; it ceases suffering. He also claimed that he knows where she is going after death and reassures her that it is a good place. This line demonstrates that Ginsberg has come to accept his mother’s death and is optimistic about the afterlife. In “Death and Fame,” he discussed his views for his own funeral. He begins the poem by telling the audience,
“When I die
I don’t care what happens to my body”
This demonstrates Ginsberg’s belief that the body and spirit are two separate entities. The poem continues with Ginsberg sharing what he believed others would say about him after death. The end of the poem expressed his desire for people to not only praise his work, but to praise poems such as “Kaddish,” and “Father Death” because they brought comfort to the reader. Kerouac also writes in You’re a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique in Modern Prose that a necessity in life is to, “Accept loss forever.” This shows that Kerouac finally came to terms with the death of his brother and accepted this as loss. These works established that the Beat writers had become familiar with death. Many would even argue that Kerouac and Burroughs were welcoming death with their drug habits, which ultimately killed them.
The Beat authors were huge influences on future writers and made it acceptable and comfortable to openly express sometimes frowned-upon personal opinions. These authors made it known that we are not alone, we are creative, and we can speak out. While all of these men held their own personal philosophies and beliefs, many of them use the same ideas and experiences in order to convey them. Loss and death are a common theme among these men’s work. Each of the authors had experienced loss in the “pre-Beat” era, and they continued to experience it throughout their lives. The men who marked a generation watched each other lose their hand to Death until it became something that was expected and eventually, accepted.
Corso, Gregory. “Birthplace Revisted.” Mindfield. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1989. N. pag. Print.
Corso, Gregory. “Elegiac Feelings American.” Mindfield. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1989. N. pag. Print.
Corso, Gregory. “Italian Extravaganza.” Mindfield. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1989. N. pag. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Death and Fame.” Collected Poems, 1947-1997. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Dream Record: June 8, 1955.” Collected Poems, 1947-1997. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Father Death.” Collected Poems, 1947-1997. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket hop, 1956. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Collected Poems, 1947-1997. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Kaddish.” Collected Poems: 1947-1997. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. You’re a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2009. Print.
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