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The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

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Gift of Gary S. Davis, National Gallery of Art, Washingon
Jack Kerouac; photograph by Allen Ginsberg, 1953. Ginsberg’s caption reads: ‘Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel “Sunset” Cox, “The Letter-Carrier’s Friend” in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he’s making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.”

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.

As Ginsberg said:

If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.

Ginsberg had been taking snapshots of friends with a borrowed camera since the mid-1940s. In 1953 he bought a small Kodak Retina camera for $13 secondhand at a Bowery pawnshop, and for the next ten years he photographed all his friends and activities in a casual, spontaneous way. It wasn’t until 1983 that Ginsberg rediscovered these pictures among his papers.

As Sarah Greenough writes of Ginsberg in the catalog of “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg”:

Long a foe of American materialism and convinced that it was better to give to friends, colleagues, and worthy causes than to pay taxes, he found himself in the mid-1980s sixty years old and without much money in the bank. Until his death in 1997, he presented numerous lectures and workshops around the world on “Snapshot Poetics” and attentively worked with dealers and agents to sell his photographs and reproduction rights.
It was also in the 1980s that he added chatty, affectionate, handwritten captions to his photographs, which explained what was going on in them—and which also added to their value by making them into unique objects.

In 1994 Ginsberg sold his archives to Stanford University for a million dollars, but after all the deductions for the auction house, his agent, and taxes he only had enough money left to buy his New York loft and was back to square one. His photos brought him some income in his last years, though he insisted that most of the profits were plowed back into his work, for hiring an assistant and maintaining a lab.

The pictures are fascinating since few of them are well known and they often show their subjects in their youth—a fresh-faced, toothy, nerdy Ginsberg, for instance, long before he became the bearded guru, and a melancholy, poetic William Burroughs before he became the saurian undertaker seen in his familiar portraits. There’s even a shadowy nude of Burroughs in bed during the period when he and Ginsberg were lovers.

Almost all of the Beats were bisexual and one another’s lovers. Neal Cassady, the heartthrob of the bunch, slept with everyone, male or female, though he preferred women and was never faithful to anyone. He let Ginsberg sleep with him but mainly as a favor and partly as an experiment; soon after their first New York idyll Cassady left a lovesick Ginsberg behind and ran off to Denver and to adventures with numerous women. Ginsberg joined him there but was ignored most of the time.

Burroughs had as his female companion a woman named Joan Vollmer Adams; the apartment they shared in New York with Kerouac and his first wife, Edie Parker, was a central gathering spot for the Beats in the 1940s. In 1951, when they were living in Mexico City, Burroughs shot and killed her during a game of William Tell gone awry. He fled back to the US to avoid jail time. About the incident, he later wrote: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer if not for Joan’s death…. [It] brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”

Kerouac was mostly straight but he did drink epic quantities and put out for Ginsberg occasionally. Peter Orlovsky, who was very striking when Ginsberg met him, was straight but slightly mad; he let the inexperienced Ginsberg screw him on their first date and then wept, bewildered by what had happened. They stayed together for the rest of their lives though Orlovsky was often so paranoid and out of control that he had to be hospitalized—and occasionally he was hostile to Ginsberg. Not so many years ago I remember asking a straight friend why he had had sex with Ginsberg and he said, opening his hands palm-up as if it were self-evident, “Dude, he was Allen Ginsberg.

Here they all are in the National Gallery show—and what a handsome group they are, especially the young Kerouac and Cassady and Orlovsky. Perhaps the most memorable photo is of Kerouac wandering down East 7th Street in Manhattan in the fall of 1953 “making a Dostoevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om,” though I like to think his mouth is shaped in a giant O because he’s reciting “O harp and altar, of the fury fused,” Hart Crane’s ode to the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. Cassady is also a natural Marlon Brando stand-in and a 1955 picture shows him and one of his fugitive loves, Natalie Jackson, posing under a San Francisco movie marquee advertising The Wild One.

In another image, the eternally elegant Paul Bowles is shown in a seersucker suit and a rep tie between the grubby Gregory Corso and the frankly weird Burroughs in Tangier in 1961. Burroughs is dressed like a court stenographer in a long-sleeve black shirt buttoned all the way up, pleated trousers cinched high around his waist, and a trilby hat shading his drug-wasted face. The long sleeves were necessary even in the semitropics to hide the needle tracks.

One earlier, campy photo from 1953 shows an unexpectedly suave and theatrical Burroughs giving sophisticated advice in the “André Gide” manner to a browbeaten but adorable Jack Kerouac, an All-American boy right out of a Thomas Wolfe novel (Ginsberg’s interpretation). According to Ginsberg’s caption, written forty years later, Burroughs is saying, “Now Jack, as I warned you far back as 1945, if you keep going home to live with your ‘Memère’ you’ll find yourself wound tighter and tighter in her apron strings till you’re an old man and can’t escape….” By the time Ginsberg wrote those words he knew that in the interval Kerouac had in fact become a day-in day-out drunk, moved back to his mother in Lowell, Massachusetts, and died in 1969 with her in Florida from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver. He was just forty-seven years old.

A late photo of 1964 shows, in Ginsberg’s words, Kerouac as a “red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror…” and resembling his own father. There are equally devastating late photos of Gregory Corso (“Maestro Poet,” Ginsberg notes beneath the image of his bloated friend, “ancient herald’s wand pin, messenger-god Hermes Caduceus, near his pen, a quiet afternoon in ‘The Kettle of Fish,’ an old bar in Greenwich Village under whose sign Kerouac used to drink”) and Herbert Huncke (“Old-timer & survivor Herbert E. Huncke,” Ginsberg calls him, “Beat literary pioneer who introduced Burroughs, Kerouac & myself to floating population hustling & drug scene Times Square 1945”); only Ginsberg himself retains his warmth and humanity to the end. In fact, one of the most touching pictures is a self-portrait as an old man in the nude, an image that has the dignity and depth and vulnerability of a late Rembrandt self-portrait.

Early on, when they were just inventing themselves and their original brand of writing, Ginsberg and Kerouac decided to turn all their friends into myths. They did so by writing about each other and their holy or zany or heroic or comic exploits, but they also compared each other to famous people of the distant or recent past. In his late captions to his early photos, written by hand at the bottom of new, “museum-quality” prints of them, Ginsberg quite naturally vaunted the epic qualities of his friends. In one picture he has posed Burroughs in the Egyptian Wing beside “a brother Sphinx” in the Metropolitan Museum to emphasize his sepulchral personality. Ginsberg’s description of Kerouac’s “Dostoyevsky mad-face,” is designed to ally his pal with the great Russian.

Their letters and journal entries from that period all reveal that they were convinced they represented something new and monumental in literary history. To be sure, Ginsberg was at Columbia studying literature with Lionel Trilling and art history with Meyer Shapiro and, outside school, hobnobbing with the much older poet William Carlos Williams—this heady intellectual company only reinforced his sense of artistic destiny.

Although Ginsberg was usually enthusiastic, especially about his friends’ work, sometimes his faith was shaken. During a spell in a mental hospital Ginsberg had met Carl Solomon, whose uncle, A.A. Wyn, was the publisher of Ace Books. Carl convinced his uncle to publish Burroughs’s early novel Junkie, but Wyn was reluctant to publish Kerouac’s On the Road—and this reluctance gave Ginsberg a temporary doubt. He wrote in his journal: “Carl shook my own self-esteem, threw me into depression. Is there no way we can tell what’s good on our own except by personal heart sympathies, going against almost all rational and commercial possibility?”

In this early period Ginsberg was working out—as a photographer but primarily as a poet—his doctrine of spontaneity, “First Thought, Best Thought.” This principle, which Kerouac probably invented, made On the Road a classic work of American literature and “Howl” a daring piece of confessional poetry, so that even established masters such as Robert Lowell took account of it (his next book was Life Studies). But the Beats’ refusal to edit themselves also led to poems and novels that were repetitious and full of dreary longueurs. Ginsberg was always at his best in visionary poems such as the genuinely inspired free-verse “Wales Visitation“:

All the Valley quivered, one extended motion, wind
undulating on mossy hills
a giant wash that sank white fog delicately down red runnels
on the mountainside
whose leaf-branch tendrils moved asway
in granitic undertow down—
and lifted the floating Nebulous upward, and lifted the arms of the trees
and lifted the grasses an instant in balance
and lifted the lambs to hold still
and lifted the green of the hill, in one solemn wave

A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale….

In 1949 Ginsberg wrote about his down-and-out pal Herbert Huncke. They lived together briefly and Huncke was constantly arranging the furniture and burning bits of wood to smell their scent:

Perhaps he had nothing better to do. But I appreciated these activities as touches peculiar to Huncke alone, and therefore valuable, lovely and honorable. They were part of his whole being and “life force.” I also enjoyed mythologizing his character. It is a literary trick which Kerouac, the novelist—who has written much about Herbert Huncke—and I exploited in the past.

Not only in the past but throughout their careers. It’s really a very simple strategy. You have a small group of friends and you declare them all to be geniuses and you laud all their work and ascribe to them sweet and stormy qualities worthy of the Greek gods. What you’re selling is not just your writing but your personal legends.

—A previous version of this article was published on the NYRblog.

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