Building the Beat Canon
by David Cope
The Typewriter is Holy: the complete uncensored history of the Beat Generation. by Bill Morgan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Bill Morgan’s The Typewriter is Holy: the complete uncensored history of the Beat Generation has been, for those of us who knew them, a distinct pleasure. One revisits a vast hoard of memories gleaned from the writers’ books, from casual yakking with Allen, Gary, Joanne, Anne Waldman, Corso, Jack Micheline, Peter, et al, from their books and from study of ancillary volumes ranging from those by Ann Charters, Joyce Johnson, even such early books as Parkinson’s A Casebook on the Beat or The Beat Scene, ed. Wilentz. The great virtue is that Bill has carefully placed them on a timeline which shows the gradual process of their lives in great detail and in context.
While reading, I also thought long and hard about how the book could provide a better foundation for those who know little or nothing about the beat revolution, as well as for those younger poets imitating the supposed mannerisms and ethos (to the extent that they could grasp it) of being “hip.” Bill has done an admirable job of showing the agonies, the confrontations with themselves and with a world gone mad which characterize the writers’ journeys, and perhaps this will do something to raise the consciousness of those who’ve confused a carefully constructed pose with the harrowing journeys these poets and writers took.
Although I’d take issue with the claim that the beats “did not represent a genuine literary movement,” as stated in Simon & Schuster’s blurb for the book, I appreciate the emphasis on their social networking as part of their development as writers. As one who grew up in that Postbeat group that began with Allen’s blessings, I myself know this aspect of the writer’s life in thirty years of friendships borne of those early meetings. I would thus caution against any claim that “the beats were not a literary movement . . . but a social group.” Just as with the English dramatists and poets of the Elizabethan age, the romantics, American transcendentalists, Pound and the high modernists or Williams and the objectivists, all great movements in literature—including the beats—inevitably involve a convergence of social friendships and the dialogues that lead to changes in the art. Further, the diversity of their styles and approaches to writing does not negate the genuine quality of a literary movement: who would ever mistake writings by Percy Shelley with those of Coleridge or Wordsworth? Or Whitman for Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller or Hawthorne?
Thankfully, Bill has avoided this either/or in his book, emphasizing the personal struggles —and the evolving nature—of their friendships while connecting their interactions to changes in the work itself. I was particularly interested in the rift between Burroughs and Allen re cutups vs. poetry, or Kerouac’s constant struggle to delineate his methods even as he began the tragic pro-cess of withdrawal from the others.
Finally, as an old Shakespearean, I am acutely aware that in preserving and canonizing writers’ works for future generations, there must be new editions, quality scholarly activity that presents new information, critiques a propos to the time, as well as an ever-renewing dedicated readership for the work—usually developed through the works’ presence in academic study, publication or continued performance. While there has been a resurgence of interest in the beats on many levels, I credit Bill Morgan as a one-man canon maker for the ways he has ferreted out biographical and critically important details for future scholars and those who will want to know everything about the writers to whom they dedicate their professional lives. Just as the cultural and biographical essays at the front of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare began the process that would eventually lead to Malone’s magisterial work later in that century—the necessary foundation for later critical ventures dedicated to the bard—so too, Bill Morgan is doing much the same thing for the beats. Thus, I end with deepest gratitude for making these books available for those future scholars and “adolescent farmboys opening book covers with ruddy hands” in Kansas and elsewhere, who will find a light they had not previously seen in their lives, as we did.
Note: “Building the Beat Canon” appeared in Napalm Health Spa Report 2010. Ed. Jim Cohn. http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs10/index.html .