To the Beat of Our Own Drum: My Life Among the Beat Generation

This guest post comes to us by way of one of our eNotes educators, wordprof. Besides serving as one of our literary experts, having written two books on drama and worked for Purdue University, wordprof has much to share for having witnessed firsthand one of the most interesting time periods in American literary history. Read on to find out a little more about one of our best educators as well as the decade dominated by the Beat movement.

There is an interesting way to think of History: it is any time you didn’t live through. The Beatnik era, however, for me is not history, because I was there, in San Francisco in the 1950’s, and I experienced the emergence of a new sensibility, in the contrasting lifestyles of the time.

San Francisco (of course, New York also) experienced a dynamic, innovative time just before the invasion of the “Flower Children” in the 1960’s.  It was known as the Beatnik era (named by Herb Caen), combining the Russian suffix –nik from Sputnik (1957) to the “Beat” designation from Kerauoc’s “Beat Generation” (meaning many things, including “The Beatitudes,” because there was a beatific, nonviolent atmosphere to the art of the time). I remember at the time that the aesthetic atmosphere brought an interesting contrast between the commercial, conservative atmosphere of the Ayn Rand  mentality (The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, and the like.

The contrast could most easily be seen in the two dominant book stores—Paul Elder’s Books, downtown, where multiple copies of such novel bestsellers as Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (1957) and Nabakov’s Lolita (1957 in English translation) were stacked in towers in the expanses of window displays, and City Lights Book Store in North Beach. The latter, co-owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featured single copies of books on shelves marked “Alternate Lifestyles” and “Non-Western religions,” where my friends would keep in touch with me by leaving notes on the cork bulletin board made available to all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside City Lights Bookstore, which devoted itself to selling alt and ,yes, banned books.

The reading habits of this period reflected a vital new interest in Eastern philosophies and literature, prompted in large part by translation of eastern thought by Alan Watts ( The Way of Zen, 1957) and by English editions of Herman Hesse’s work (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Glass Bead Game, Journey to the East).  The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran of The Prophet and the ancient Egyptian “Hermes Trismegistus” of The Kybalion also became widely read; Krishnamurti and the theosophists were much admired, along with existential philosophical writers—Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness, but more often Existentialism and Human Emotion), Albert Camus’ novels, Andre Gide, Dostoevsky, Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum,  all much read, passed along, and discussed. It was a time of experimentation for all.

Other influences, both philosophically and stylistically, were Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and especially E. E. Cummings, not only because of his distinct poetry, but for his prose autobiographical The Enormous Room and his seminal Norton Lectures i. six nonlectures. (I enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cummings that started as a paean to his genius and an inquiry about whether we should capitalize his name in our writings, and ended up with a request to be his apprentice, to which he responded in a postcard: “This nonhero is too busy being to teach.”)  Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving (1956), in many ways a contrast to the other popular literature of the time, was also read widely.  My personal “book of wonder” during these years of the Beatnik era was Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (written earlier but enjoying a revival), a conjecture about the next phase of human development, followed by a collection of brief biographies of persons who had transcended self-consciousness into “cosmic” consciousness (Francis Bacon, Walt Whitman, Gautama Buddha, etc.). It was all very beatific.

As for my own enlightenment, I had my spine read by a “chiropracter” who could tell me all about my previous lives (I had been a sailor and an astronomer!). I was charted by a “personology” expert, who read my face, hair, and head bumps to determine my predilections toward a profession in this lifetime.  I also tried to teach myself Greek by reading interlinear translations of The Odyssey (no luck), and took playwriting lessons at the Sears-Whiteside School of Drama.

That was the world of the “Beatnik” wannabe.

Between that world and the world of ego-driven commercialism lay a chasm only bridged by San Francisco’s geographic splendor.  Besides the obvious tourist attractions—Pelican Island (Alcatraz), the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf–there was Golden Gate Park, containing, besides expansive grass valleys, dozens of commemorative statues (many hidden by fast-growing shrubbery), as well as the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Gardens.  At the park’s western edge, guarded by two old-fashioned windmills, was the Pacific Ocean beach, a free public expanse of sand beyond which nothing existed except the Farallon Islands and the mysterious East.  At the top, northern tip of the beach, was Seal Island, close enough to shore to observe the seals without the coin-operated  binoculars, overlooked by the Camera Obscura and the Cliff House restaurant and bar, next to Sutro’s Bath House (since burned down).  These sites were somehow almost reserved for natives to discover (despite the gift shops), again because the beach was free and we were always broke.

Living as a young adult in the mid-50’s to early 1960’s, I witnessed the contrasts daily. In North Beach, for example, (not a beach, but the Italian-American area surrounding the intersection of Columbus and Broadway streets) one could walk from a sublime, subtle Benny Bufano bronze statue of St. Francis in front of St. Francis Church, to the frighteningly commercial art studio and gallery of Walter Keane, where the big-eyed clown portraits reeked of poor taste.  Elsewhere throughout the Bay Area, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn (my friend, a student at S.F. School of Fine Art, did his gardening and mowed his lawn), and Paul Thiebaud were carving out Fine Art careers. (I remember one abstract expressionist painting at the DeYoung originally called something like “Study No. 2” but renamed “The Unnatural Battle of the Four Primal Elements” but I don’t recall the artist’s name.)

The contrast in drinking establishments, too, was always apparent, from the upscale nightclubs—The Condor, Finnochio’s, Bimbo’s, Vesuvio’s, and the Buena Vista at the cablecar terminus—to “The Place”, a simple bar where anyone could speak publicly on the topic of the day, on Blabbermouth night, posted on a blackboard behind the bar. I myself spoke to “Is Nixon a Stone Fetishist?” (when he was vice-president and was stoned by the crowds as he toured South America on a “goodwill mission”) and to “Is Nudism a Form of Catharsis?” before nudism entered the free enterprise system with Carol Doda.

Poet Allen Ginsberg (right), at North Beach’s popular hangout Caffe Trieste. He’s joined by City Lights clerk Shig Murao, who was once arrested for selling Howl to an undercover police officer.

In music (pre-British Invasion), Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Mose Allison sang out from apartment windows, while Flamenco dance music and West Coast Jazz floated out of the nightclubs (financially out of reach for the Beatniks, who would cluster on the sidewalks just outside the bouncer-doorman’s jurisdiction). A startlingly good recording of Porgy and Bess, with Mel Torme and Francis Faye, came out—in vinyl, of course—with a real red handkerchief in a pocket on the cover. Comics considered cutting-edge at the time would be featured at the Hungry I—Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, George Carlin.

Entertainment—other than the private gatherings in apartments decorated with free posters of faraway places (handed out by downtown travel agencies) featuring cheap wine and Tarot card readings, I Ching yarrow stick interpretations, and Mah Jongg games—was self-generated. We played chess at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (where no bagels were served), or attending Auteur theatre. We watched Jules et Jim, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita and a dozen others, or the free performances in Golden Gate Park of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. There was a growth of experimental theatre, with 1957’s Waiting for Godot, (an outstanding production directed by Herbert Blau, with Jules Irving as Lucky, performed downtown and then at San Quentin prison), Albee’s The Sandbox, Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, the Happenings of Allen Kaprow, and an interest in the New York theatre experiments emerging at the beginning of the 1960’s, Living Theatre, Open Theatre, etc.  In the conservative category at the same time, the best were the movies The Vikings and The Horse’s Mouth and on stage a traveling production of West Side Story.  I remember the Jack Tar hotel (finished in 1960) being built, ugly, rectangular, devoid of charm, an outsider to San Francisco’s opulent tradition of upscale hotels—the Mark Hopkins, and the St Francis.  As one critic put it: “It looks like the box that the Mark Hopkins came in.”

The changing landscape of Broadway and Columbus signified the ushering in of a new era and the end of the time that belonged to the Beats.

Geographically and socially, the Beatnik era ended around 1962, not only because of the Kennedy assassination, but also because Carol Doda at the Condor brought a different kind of tourism to the Columbus and Broadway area (her larger-than-life image in neon became a visual reminder of the change in atmosphere). The creative forces of the writers and poets were moving on, to Telegraphic Hill and to the Eastern cultures that Zen, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Krishnamurti had introduced them to—Japan, China, India, Tibet. The new neighborhoods were the Castro district and the Haight-Cole area (later claimed and re-named by the Flower Children as the Haight-Ashbury area, surrounding the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.) The writing generation just before the Beatniks, such as William Saroyan (Fresno), Jack London (Oakland), and John Steinbeck (Monterey), had branded California as a literary haven, but the Beats took San Francisco as their own (Saroyan lived on Carl Street in the Haight-Cole district before returning to Fresno). They—we—branded it with the indelible image still found today between the stacks of City Lights, or the pages of On the Road.

All in all, if my memory hasn’t distorted the actual facts (Hinman Collator needed), the contrasting worlds served to heighten my awareness of the changes in social aesthetics that were taking place at that time. Whether the Beat Generation or the Ayn Rand Establishment won that particular battle, only history will tell.

Besides, I wasn’t in history—I was in my salad days, in San Francisco during the Beatnik era.


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