The gay, the Bi, and the other.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1948, Allen Ginsberg sublet a Spanish Harlem apartment from a fellow student at Columbia University and began reading the theology books stacked around the room in orange crates. In a mystical frame of mind, he pored over William Blake, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross. One afternoon, he lay on the bed by the open window, his pants unzipped, reading Blake's "Ah! Sunflower" while masturbating. After he came, he heard a low, ancient voice that seemed to emanate from somewhere in the room. It was the voice of Blake himself, he realized, reciting his own poem. "The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable." Ginsberg later explained, "because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son." The vision persisted, accompanied by heightened visual perception and a sudden knowledge of the wondrous complexity of nature and the divine significance of the works of man: "I had the impression of the entire universe as poetry filled with light and intelligence and communication and signals."
The dead poet read other verses from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in each of which Ginsberg now saw himself as the subject. He was the rose in "The Sick Rose" and Lyca, the girl, in "The Little Girl Lost." As the vision faded, he stumbled, ecstatic, onto the fire escape and shouted into the neighboring apartment, "I've seen God!" The two girls inside slammed the window shut. Later, his psychoanalyst hung up on him. He told his father, too, who worried that Ginsberg was showing signs of the schizophrenia that had caused his mother to be hospitalized.
For the next fifteen years, Ginsberg would try to re-create this rapturous experience through the use of drugs of every kind, even journeying alone to the jungles of Peru in search of a hallucinogen called yage, used by witch doctors. The Blake vision was so pivotal for Ginsberg that several versions of the story exist, in all of which his pants are open but in none of which does Ginsberg or his interviewer think to remark on this. The masturbation is an integral part of the scene; including it is as natural, for Ginsberg, as describing the brilliant blue of the sky outside the apartment window. So effectively did he project in his writings his sense of these transporting moments and their lasting significance--and so powerfully did his sensibility alter the world around him--that by the time he gave the 1966 Paris Review interview from which I've drawn these quotes, his open fly was a mundane detail. He'd helped create a culture in which references to a hand on a cock could go without notice.
This candid attitude toward sex and the body--toward pleasure in general--is one of the enduring legacies of the Beat writers, though only Ginsberg would fulfill this ideal, to the extent of appearing naked at parties full of clothed people. Theirs was a revolution of flesh as well as the word. The orgies, addictions, and all-night Benzedrine-fueled writing binges of Beat legend are, in the end, inseparable from their search for the ultimate reality of the kind embodied in the Blake vision or in the high-speed, cross-country road trips immortalized in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Those who read beyond the legend know that Kerouac retreated into a paranoid conservatism in his forties, that the openly gay Ginsberg, even in midlife, often longed for a wife and children, and that William Burroughs would sometimes, when kicking a drug addiction, claim that he wanted cunt, that he was never meant to be queer. These are the contradictions of actual lives, of mid-century lives in particular. The Beat writers did not always bring these conflicts into their works, though they aired them in conversations and letters. This open confession of their feelings was one of the pivots of the movement, and no less vital to their influence on the rising counterculture than their marijuana reveries and restless experiments in literary form.
The group's origins lay in friendships formed at and around Columbia University in the months after Christmas 1943, when Allen Ginsberg, then a freshman, met a raffish, angelic-looking aesthete named Lucien Carr. It was the sophisticated Carr who first took Ginsberg down to Greenwich Village to meet "queer and interesting people," as Ginsberg wrote to his brother Eugene, adding that he planned to try to get drunk. Soon after this walk on the wild side, Carr introduced him to Jack Kerouac, an ex-Columbia football player and aspiring writer, and Dave Kammerer, an older gay man whose life was organized around a hopeless love for Carr that dated from the latter's childhood in Saint Louis. At Kammerer's place, they met another exile from Saint Louis: William Burroughs, a thirty-year-old Harvard graduate and escapee from respectability whose friends included petty thieves, hipsters, junkies, and Times Square hustlers like Herbert Huncke, as well as a number of pretty boys, immortalized as "the Sensualists" in Kerouac's Visions of Cody. Along with higher-minded works like the philosophy of Spengler, the novels of Genet were among the first books Burroughs passed on to his younger friends. He led them around Times Square--Kerouac in terror--in and out of gay bars. Burroughs made no secret of his orientation--he had cut off the tip of a finger to impress one piece of trade--but Ginsberg was still unsure of his. A virgin with both men and women, he had fallen in love with the golden-haired and irredeemably straight Lucien Carr, and then with Kerouac, too. The friends indulged in marathon, late-night arguments in cafeterias, drank hard, tried drugs. Kerouac, who had lost his best friend in the War that spring, was hungry for intensity, for purity. In his own blood, he copied out a Nietzsche quotation: "Art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life."
Given the group's respect for any expression of individuality or risk taking, it comes as no surprise that one of the galvanizing moments in the emergence of the Beat identity was a gay murder. On the night of August 13, 1944, Lucien Carr stabbed Dave Kammerer in a drunken argument and tried to sink his body in the Hudson River. Theirs had been a strange romance. Like a spoiled child, Carr bullied and tormented Kammerer, yet never put him off decisively. They were drinking buddies, with something of the young Rimbaud and his adoring Verlaine in their stormy relationship, though they were apparently never lovers. That night, after leaving a bar, Carr and Kammerer had walked to the river with a bottle. Kammerer professed his love again and threatened to kill them both. Driven to rage, Carr stabbed him over and over with a Boy Scout knife. "I just killed the old man." said Carr, knocking on Burroughs's door at dawn and handing him a bloodstained pack of Lucky's.
"The act seemed to have a gratuitous grace," as John Tytell wrote in Naked Angels. "It was an exemption from the ordinary, a romantic gauntlet in the bland face of the world." With his grim insight into human nature, Burroughs felt that Kammerer had been asking for it, demanding a consummation of one kind or another. Although considered an "honor killing" by newspapers and police--Carr was straight, after all, and Kammerer queer--Carr went to prison for several years on a first-degree manslaughter charge, and Kerouac was arrested, though later released, for helping his friend dispose of the murder weapon. Ginsberg wrote in his journal, "The libertine circle is destroyed with the death of Kammerer." In fact, the group was brought closer. It had lost Carr, however, who emerged from prison a solid citizen, who would go through life annoyed by his friends' "dig-up-of-the-past, roll-in-your-own-shit" writings. He remained friendly with Ginsberg and the others, but the spark of their early association had gone out.
Carr was replaced, to some extent, by Joan Vollmer Adams, a brainy, charismatic journalism student whose large apartment on West 115th Street became home to many of the Beats for the next two years. Separated from her husband, but with a new baby girl, she was an unlikely housemother--and an unlikely mother, too, who ran through young men, had a haphazard way with birth control, and, when introduced to Benzedrine by Kerouac, quickly became addicted. Ginsberg's classmate Hal Chase was an early tenant of hers. Ginsberg moved in after getting kicked out of Columbia in spring 1945, and Kerouac shared a room there with Edie Parker, whom he had hastily married after the Kammerer murder. The last to move in was William Burroughs, for whom Joan had saved the best room. Their intellectual connection was as strong as any Burroughs had experienced with male friends; it was Joan, for example, who suggested that Mayan priests must have practiced mind control--a theory that recurs, in altered forms, throughout his later writings. They developed an almost telepathic union. Burroughs's preference for men seemed irrelevant when they fell into bed. Joan told him he made love like a pimp.
In the wake of the Kammerer stabbing. Ginsberg had confessed his attraction to Kerouac, whose first response was a genial rejection. His second response was to exchange furtive hand jobs with Ginsberg one night under the Elevated Railway. The murder had shocked Ginsberg out of the closet, as Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally puts it. Although he had a few unsatisfying encounters with strangers over the next year, he yearned for a lover.
Neal Cassady was a Denver friend of Hal Chase--a twenty-year-old street kid and ex-con who could hot-wire a Ford or a schoolgirl in a matter of seconds. He had grown up in and out of skid row hotels with his wino father, with a long stint in reform school. Handsome, athletic, self-taught, a brilliant, rapid-fire talker who peppered his conversation with quotes from Proust and the "yes yes yes" of perpetual motion, he took the group of friends by storm when he visited them with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, LuAnne, in the fall of 1946. In this manic, sexually voracious "maverick of inspiration," Ginsberg found what he'd been looking for. And so, unexpectedly, did Jack Kerouac. Hearing rumors about this wild man, Kerouac went to meet him. Cassady opened the door naked, with a hard on, having leapt out of bed with LuAnne.
And so arrived the muse. In On the Road, Kerouac described Ginsberg's first meeting with Cassady: "Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes--the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind." One night in January 1947, Ginsberg and Cassady shared a bed, and Cassady graciously initiated sex. Their attraction was genuine and mutual, though not lasting for Cassady. "Neal was a hard guy to get to know intimately," Herbert Huncke later wrote in Guilty of Everything, "because he lived very much within himself, as gung-ho as he was." Because he was predominantly heterosexual--and faithful to no one--Cassady became a painful obsession for Ginsberg. For years after, on visits to Cassady, he would try to re-create the closeness of those first weeks. Ginsberg soon began to explore his conflicted feelings about his emerging sexual identity in poems like "In Society" (1947), in which he peeks inside a meat sandwich at a gay party and finds that it contains a dirty asshole. The pain of Cassady's rejection reinforced all his fears about living a queer life. Only two months after the affair with Cassady began (with Cassady, writing from Denver again, wildly backpedaling on his physical attraction to men), Ginsberg wrote to Wilhelm Reich, at Burroughs's suggestion, asking him to recommend an analyst for his "psychic difficulty" as a homosexual.
To Kerouac, Cassady was both a brother and a muse. Any careful reading of Kerouac's novels or his published letters reveals a sensitive and gentle mama's boy who goaded himself into macho displays. The most conventional of the group--and the one whose queer sensibility was most disguised, folded into the hero worship of On the Road and Visions of Cody--he's also the most popular of the Beat writers by no accident. His alter ego in On the Road is the narrator, Sal Paradise, but readers have often associated him with the womanizing Cassady character, Dean Moriarty.
Despite his three marriages and the impressive amount of girlie action recorded in his notebooks, Kerouac had a long history of casual gay sex. He and Gore Vidal "rubbed bellies," among other parts, in one of the most famous pairings New York's Chelsea Hotel has seen. Harold Norse remembers finding Kerouac on the bed in Chester Kallman's apartment after another brief encounter. His close friend Ginsberg may have been his only long-term male sex partner, with Ginsberg providing the occasional blow job and ego boost. Kerouac was clearly attracted to Neal Cassady, the central figure of two of his novels, but it was Cassady's frontier masculinity that he admired--his casual dominance of women, his self-assurance, his prowess. A sexuality that would have appeared frenzied to a laid-back cat like Burroughs was a thing of beauty to Kerouac, who declared in On the Road that, for Cassady, sex was "the one and only holy and important thing in life." His line in Visions of Cody about Cassady masturbating six times a day slips into every Beat biography. Although Kerouac knew about his new friend's gay hustling and his affair with Ginsberg, Cassady was his "phallic totem," as John Tytell styled it, and there is little chance that Kerouac would have threatened either his own self-image or his idealization of Cassady by acting on his attraction.
Kerouac's only sex with Cassady was by proxy, through the time-honored act of sharing women. Cassady's discarded or neglected girlfriends proved easy pickups for the handsome Kerouac. And in spring 1952, Cassady encouraged an affair between his second wife, Carolyn, and Kerouac, in part to add the spice of jealousy to his marriage and in part to connect on a deeper level with his friend. In her memoir, Heartbeat, Carolyn describes Jack as a tender and attentive lover, a welcome contrast to her brutish husband. But Kerouac was never able to form a lasting bond with any of the women he loved. As the writer Steven Watson summed up his relationships with women (in The Birth of the Beat Generation, 1995): "He became infatuated with a woman associated with a male buddy: he fantasized domesticity; he drove away in a car; he proposed marriage; he returned to his mother." Kerouac rushed through the stages of romantic love as if reading a book in one night: from attraction through jealous possession to disenchantment and a sense of being trapped (a rapid progression perfectly described in The Subterraneans). Then, when he had lost the prize, he succumbed to a brief, wrenching despair and, if he was lucky, banged out a new novel. In the ugliest chapter of his life, he denied paternity of his infant daughter Jan in 1952 and left her and her mother without support.
Of the three principal Beat writers, only Kerouac identified as straight. "I never was, nor wanted to be, homosexual," he wrote in protest to an early piece of Beat criticism. Although his novels were all different in style and tone, his public image was based on his aggressively straight second novel, On the Road. For publication, Kerouac had been obliged to cut some gay content, but left in a few derisive references to fags and fairies, as well as one memory in which Sal Paradise, having failed to make it with a girl in San Francisco, notes that "there were plenty of queers": "Several times I went to San Fran with my gun and when a queer approached me in a bar john I took out the gun and said, 'Eh? Eh? What's that you say?' He bolted. I've never understood why I did that; I knew queers all over the country. It was just the loneliness of San Francisco and the fact that I had a gun. I had to show it to someone."
Despite the urge to show off his gun, Kerouac was well aware of the dangers of revealing his bisexual inclinations. In a letter to Neal Cassady, he railed against queerness, then explained that he did so because he didn't want "posterity" to think he was queer. He wanted the behavior, clearly, but not the identity. And because he was able to distance himself from those opportunistic sex acts with men, he was in some ways less homophobic than Burroughs and Ginsberg in those early years. He wasn't forced to reconcile his self-image with the stereotype of the contemptible, effeminate American gay man.
In 1949, Ginsberg was hospitalized for seven months in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute on 168th Street. His internment had been part of a deal to keep him out of jail after an almost comic escapade with Herbert Huncke and his friends, who had fled from the police in a car full of stolen goods. Ginsberg was also in the car, along with a box full of his most intimate letters, which he'd thought it unwise to keep in his apartment, where Huncke was storing booty as conspicuous as a cigarette machine. It seemed obvious to his doctors that Ginsberg was sick: his mother was mad; he was confessing to visions; his friends were thieves and queers. Any reasonable cure, by the standards of the day, would include sexual reorientation. With that in mind, Ginsberg emerged from prison a "straight" man and embarked on a five-year program of sexual conformity. He wrote to Kerouac of his relief at losing his virginity to a woman (as quoted in Barry Miles's Ginsberg: A Biography):
I wandered around in the most benign and courteous stupor of delight at the perfection of nature; I felt the ease and relief of knowledge that all the maddening walls of heaven were finally down, that all my aching corridors were traveled out of, that all my queerness was camp, unnecessary, morbid, so lacking in completion and sharing of love as to be almost as bad as impotence and celibacy, which it almost was anyway.
This is less a paean to hetero bliss than a poignant statement of the pain of being queer in the postwar period. Adhering to the advanced thought of the day, Ginsberg continually consulted psychologists and analysts in his search for a cure, until a San Francisco doctor finally told him he should do exactly as he pleased.
The Beat-associated poet Harold Norse describes in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, the agony of wanting to be normal, to be accepted. He remembers talking in the 1940's with his friend Tennessee Williams about "the problem of being queer": "'It's a curse,' I said, 'the worst fate that could befall anyone. We have to hide our need for love and sex, never knowing when we might be insulted, abused, attacked, killed.'" Williams answered him in a choked voice. "Homosexuals," he said, "are wounded, deeply hurt. We live with a psychic wound that never heals."
William Burroughs's response to the psychic wound was to flip the bird at bourgeois values. Attracted from childhood to vice of all kinds, he had been planning a robbery (never executed) by the time he met Ginsberg and Kerouac. When some stolen morphine syrettes and a shotgun came into his possession, he asked for help from some junky acquaintances in learning how to shoot up. Although he sold most of the syrettes, his addiction began at that point, both in his intellectual curiosity and in his attraction to the underworld. At a time when homosexuality was regarded as criminal or pathological, Burroughs was smoothly formulating his conviction that there was no such thing as criminal behavior, only acts declared illegal by a particular society.
In fact, if the modest, buttoned-down advocates of "homophile rights"--closeted schoolteachers, librarians, theater workers--had made more headway in this period, Burroughs in particular might have been far less attracted to the same-sex world. "I glanced through a book called The Homosexual in America [by Donald Webster Cory]," he wrote Ginsberg from Mexico in 1952. "Enough to turn a man's gut.... This citizen says a queer learns humility, learns to turn the other cheek, and returns love for hate. Let him learn that sort of thing if he wants to. I never swallowed the other cheek routine, and I hate the stupid bastards who won't mind their own business. They can die in agony for all I care."
The problem was that Burroughs, a self-professed "manly type" and gun freak, could not find a model for male homosexuality that didn't sicken him. His second novel, Queer, is a record of his loneliness and isolation, a man's man among expatriate fairies in Mexico City. He repudiated that book when he began to write Naked Lunch, the series of surreal, violent, and brilliantly inventive sketches ("routines")--some based on letters to Ginsberg--that would make his name. Although he longed for a profound connection, a union of souls, he was forced to settle much of his life for brief, uneven affairs with younger men--often with trade--and a close circle of male friends. "He was divided between a puritan obsession with dirty sex and his own true romantic nature," writes his biographer Ted Morgan. In the wake of a failed romance in Mexico, Burroughs developed a passion for Allen Ginsberg that went largely unrequited. Not until the late 1950's did Burroughs connect with Ian Sommerville, who would be his lover and friend for the next seventeen years.
Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom. She lives in San Francisco.
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|Title Annotation:||Essay; excerpt from "Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex"|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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