This article 1st appeared in my former blog The Prices Do DC
Before there was Bob Dylan, before there were the Beatles, before there was an American counterculture, there were the Beats, a 1950s group of outrageous personalities who were determined to overthrow the restrictive, repressive social mores of the time through their writings and lifestyles.
“They were exactly the opposite of the conformity of the 1950s. They really wanted to upset the apple cart. It’s very difficult to believe that these people could live in the America then that was the way we know it was today” says author Ronald Collins.
Collins appeared at the Newseum to discuss Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution, the new book he co-authored with David Skover.
Collins said he and Skover decided to write the book after their research showed that most of the existing works on the subject were “deadly boring.”
“They would put anybody to sleep in minutes. We wanted to write a high octane narrative like the way they (the Beats) lived their lives,” he explained.
Of course, the work features the best-known of the literary rebels – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs. But it also sheds light on some of the lesser known figures of the movement like Lucien Carr, who murdered a young New York college student, liked to chew glass at New York parties and then spit out blood, and eventually became the Washington Bureau Chief for UPI (United Press International).
The narrative is a tale of talent, but it is tempered with the effects of lives plagued by alienation, addiction, madness, demons, and often a general disregard for others.
“These people changed the literary landscape, but there was all this carnage,” Collins said. “It’s very easy to admire these men, but when you see these things they did in their lives, you take a deep breath. There was a real dark side. They were fascinated by criminals, by the seedy side of life.”
The Beat writers didn’t have to look too far for sources and settings for their stories, essays, and poems. “They wove the facts of their lives into their fiction,” Collins said. “They produced a body of work that has survived.”
Collins was asked if works of the Beats will last through the ages. “I think some of it will,” Collins maintained.
“‘Howl’ (Ginsberg’s most famous poem) and On the Road by Kerouac. Was Allen Ginsberg the Shakespeare of his time? Absolutely not. But he did have these remarkable moments.”
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Of all the figures associated with the Beat movement, the one that clearly stands out from the others was Lawrence Ferlinghetti . “He was the only one that wasn’t a madman,” Collin says. Ferlinghetti was a poet, but he also operated the famous City Lights bookstore, which still exists in San Francisco. Despite the racy language in the poem, Ferlinghetti decided to publish Ginsberg’s most famous work “Howl” and sell it in his store. Federal authorities seized all the copies of the book, claiming the poem was “a danger to young people who would be exposed to this depravity.” Ferlinghetti decided to fight the action in court, and, in a surprising verdict, the judge ruled in the poem’s favor. For his part, Ferlinghetti seemed to disregard any punitive actions that could have resulted from the legal battle. “What’s the worst that can happen to me. I’ll end up in jail reading poetry.”