Beat Critics

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

The Beat Studies Association webpage has made available many of the papers from the Beat Generation Symposium (October 10-11, 2008) at Columbia College in Chicago. Kudos to The Beat Studies Association for putting the papers online. The Association was formed in 2004 to encourage scholarship on the Beat Generation. Scholars, teachers, and student are encouraged to join. Yet there are plenty of interested parties who fall under none of those three categories. In the past, papers like the ones given at the Columbia Symposium would have been distributed to a small circle and would have remained unavailable to those outside the industry (academic scholarship, particularly Beat scholarship is without a doubt an industry). On occasion, such papers might have been collected into book form and published by an academic press. Such was the case with Beat Culture: The 1950s and Beyond. This book contains papers presented at the 1998 Middelburg Beat Conference which are much like those found on the Beat Studies Association website. If you were a scholar, teacher or student, hopefully your institutional library had a copy or could interlibrary loan it and you were good to go. If you were unaffiliated with an institution, getting the book proves to be a pain in the ass and in the pocketbook. The book is not that common (four copies on Abebooks) and it is expensive. Copies on Amazon range from $90-150. Three of the four copies on Abebooks are $135. This is a perfect example of the shortcomings of the academic publishing / distribution system.

Here is another. I recently read Mark Scroggins’ biography of Louis Zukofsky. Once I finished the book I wanted to get a copy of the complete A, which was last published by Wesleyan University in 1993. Well, it is out of print and copies are now $100-150 online. Therefore the key text by one of the major poets of the 20th century, a poet whose reputation and readership is on the rise, remains essentially unavailable. There has to be a better way of disseminating scholarly material, as well as experimental poems and novels, than the academic press.

Yet it is not all the fault of an out-of-date publishing apparatus. The rare book market is a major problem as well. Years ago literary criticism was considered the equivalent of a loss leader by book dealers and book scouts. This section of a bookstore was largely unexplored and unmanaged. It was a good place to find titles that were prohibitively expensive from an academic publisher. Literary criticism, particularly if published by a university press, is an area that has been radically changed by internet bookselling. Books once found on the shelves of brick and mortar stores for cheaper than the published price are now being priced like collectibles. The Zukofsky is a case in point. The Wesleyan edition of A is over $100 but for a few dollars more you could buy a signed copy of Zukofsky’s self-published collection Barely and Widely (1958). This is completely out of whack and says something about the expensive after-market for academic titles. Search William Burroughs on Abebooks for books over $30 and see how many of the daily updates are of an academic or critical nature. As I have stated elsewhere, most brick and mortar bookstores price their books based on Abebook listings so the price of these titles are on the rise everywhere. The availability and affordability of academic titles becomes more problematic than ever before.

Therefore, despite whatever you think of the readability of the papers on the Beat Studies Association’s website, the mere fact that they are there and that anyone can read them is a big deal. It marks an ideological shift by the academic industry in regards to publication and distribution. I want to single out two of the papers in particular because they involve what I have been touching on thus far.

Kerouac and His Critics

I took a class on the Beat Generation with Prof. Ronna Johnson when I was in college, and it was an eye-opener for me. I had been reading the Beats for two to three years by then, and I knew the major texts and the general Beat history. What was great about Prof. Johnson’s class was that it got me off of the beaten path. Prof. Johnson specializes in the women of the Beat Generation, and she is one of the pioneers in expanding the Beat canon and making the creative work of forgotten figures like Elise Cowen available as well as developing the critical approaches to neglected Beat work. I was introduced to Diane Di Prima, Anne Waldman, Elise Cowen, Janine Pommy Vega, Joanne Kyger, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Cohen, Brenda Frazer and others by Prof. Johnson. Her class also centered on Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman. In addressing the major Beat figures (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs), she focused on secondary texts like The Yage Letters and The Subterraneans. She did what, in my experience, all great teachers do — she put me in contact with books and ideas I knew nothing about. In addition, her office was often open if you chose to wander in. It was all about availability and access. Prof. Johnson made herself and her knowledge available.

Given that availability and access are the keys to scholarship and teaching, Prof. Johnson’s paper on Kerouac criticism in the 1980s seems misguided to me. The paper opens with Johnson recounting her optimism for a renaissance in Beat criticism in the early 1980s on the heels of work by Tim Hunt and others. Unfortunately the glass turned half empty as the 1980s wore on, and Beat criticism, in Johnson’s view, was taken over by mythographers, hagiographers, cronies, and fans. Johnson concludes her essay, “This raises issues of reception that anticipate by 25 years Wikipedia and wiki communities, which are ruled by the democratizing view that anyone — read: including rank amateurs or fans — is fit to collect, present, and edit materials said to constitute ‘knowledge.’ My study of Kerouac’s reception is titled ‘Inventing Jack Kerouac,’ and it is this sort of amateur construction of Kerouac erected in the 1980s by the pre-wiki community that encourages my impression that Kerouac’s reception in this period had been, overall, a matter not of evaluation but of pure wishful projective invention — an invention of the Everyman’s Kerouac, literally.” This paper is part of a larger project so I do not know how her argument develops but the paper’s closing words capture the insularity and isolation that dogs the academic community. Academics with this mentality would rather talk and listen to themselves than come in contact with the larger public. This is the academy of jargon, theory for the sake of theory, and tenure track posturing. In such a world, the academic press is used to pad resumes not circulate information. Hopefully this is a world in decline. The recent action of The Beat Studies Association, of which Prof. Johnson is a founding member, provides optimism for a more open future.

Prof. Johnson surely knows the valuable role that collectors and academic outsiders have played in the development of Beat scholarship. First of all, collectors sponsored many of the small presses and little magazines that published the Beats, and their collections formed the basis for many bibliographies and institutional holdings (like Robert Jackson’s gathering of the Burroughs archive, although his policy of providing access to the archive while in his possession was far from ideal). In many cases, collectors are in fact fans and rank amateurs. Secondly, publications like The Beat Road (and all of Kit and Arthur Knight’s publications), The Moody Street Irregulars, The Kerouac Connection, and Beat Scene, which were / are considered outside of the academic arena, did critical legwork in establishing the foundations of Beat criticism. They gathered interviews, researched bibliographies, published unavailable letters and forgotten works, and printed little-seen photographs. Historically, Beat criticism is outsider criticism from the pioneering work of Warren Tallman and Eric Mottram onwards. These men utilized both academic and non-academic venues to further their research.

But even the value of the collector, fan, and amateur is beside the point. In fact the main reason there was no renaissance in Kerouac and other Beat criticism in the 1980s has little to do with the hijacking of the industry by hangers-on and outsiders. The fault lies squarely with the insiders, that is the controllers of the estates and archives. This is particularly true in the case of Kerouac. The reason hagiography and memoir dominated Kerouac criticism was largely because nobody could get access to key manuscripts and letters and if a scholar did, his work was closely monitored and controlled. There was a closed door policy, a door protected by a velvet rope and a doorman that led to a smoky backroom in which decisions regarding Kerouac’s legacy were made in secrecy. Information did not flow openly. Therefore those with personal recollections filled a void in providing information even if the information provided was largely mythic in nature. Unlike the Kerouac Estate, the fans and rank amateurs were accessible and available.
Prof. Johnson does not focus on the conduct of the Kerouac Estate in her paper (maybe she does in her book), but clearly the Estate got the type of criticism that it encouraged and deserved. The hiring of official biographers, the restricting of access to archives, the mismanaging of those archives with a mind to immediate monetary gain and not intellectual gain (in my opinion intellectual / informational capital in the long run generates financial capital, and it seems those handling the Kerouac Archive are just now realizing this basic fact even though we are decades into the Information Age) leads to a criticism that generates myth and the academic equivalent of barroom storytelling.

The Beats deserve better. They kept meticulous archives, and hoards of material are there for willing and able researchers (professional and non-professional). The Beats, particularly Ginsberg and Kerouac, encouraged scholars to utilize their archives in their lifetime. Kerouac’s participation and openness was crucial to Ann Charters’ landmark studies. Ginsberg more than anyone knew that restricting access to information (and thus encouraging misinformation) was crucial to furthering the United States’ repressive policies, paranoia politics, and abuse of power. Similarly Burroughs warned that such practices assisted the agents of control. As Prof. Johnson knows, the stunted state of Beat scholarship is the result of stunted availability and access. A host of post-WWII writers suffer / suffered a similar fate (Robert Duncan and Louis Zukofsky come to mind).

The second essay of note on the Beat Studies Association website suggests the future of Beat criticism in an era of more open access and availability. John Bryant’s paper, “Visions of Jack/Versions of Jack: Toward a Digital Fluid Text Edition of Kerouac,” can be read as a manifesto for Beat scholarship. Bryant’s view of a digital On the Road is the translation of the concepts of legendary scholars like Jerome McGann to Beat criticism. Interestingly Bryant is a textual scholar of Herman Melville; McGann also specializes in 19th Century material. Other 19th Century writers like Emily Dickinson have benefitted from scholarship of this type. The requirement for this level of academic rigor is access and availability. Bryant closes his paper, “Kerouac scholarship is on the threshold of its own Revival. With the Kerouac archive now available, scholars must work to make these documents accessible to everyone, but in ways that will allow them to witness Kerouac’s vast book. Textual scholars, digital scholars, students of revision, lovers Kerouac, and lovers of language: it is time, you angels, to cross the threshold and get on the road.” There is a spirit of openness and inclusion here that is missing from Prof. Johnson’s paper. Hopefully the future of scholarship is with Bryant’s angels, professional and non-professional.

The Madame Bovary Project provides a model for similar Beat projects. Drafts of Flaubert’s masterpiece have found their way online due to the combined effort of 650 volunteers, including a teenager, an oil worker and a cleaning lady. All interested parties, professional or not, have a role to play in the furtherance of such scholarship. Something similar could be developed for On the Road. The main goal of scholarship should not be tenure and promotions obtained through navigating the traditional academic venues. This is merely another form of the corporate ladder. Beat scholars need to generate intellectual capital through all the available venues, high and low, popular and academic. This will engender profit (intellectually, occupationally, and hopefully financially) for the scholars, the general readers and more importantly for the writers themselves (or their Estates).

Word HoardAnother model of open access is the creation of a journal dedicated to Beat archives. Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives which ran for 10 issues under the guidance of George F. Butterick with the support of the University of Connecticut is one prominent example of such a publication. Important works, like Maud’s study of Olson’s reading, were cultivated in Olson and eventually developed into fuller works of criticism. Olson Studies borders on the fanatical. Personally I would like to see some of that obsessiveness, particularly to textual details, carried over to Beat scholarship. Oliver Harris possesses this level of fanaticism, er, fascination. Not surprisingly, he is at the cutting edge of Beat criticism. So what is the possibility of the publication of Word Hoard: A Journal of the Archives under the editorial eye of Harris and with the full cooperation of the New York Public Library under Isaac Gewirtz? This could be a print or online publication. There is clearly enough unpublished material for such a project. The rare book market for detailed literary studies and texts like A coupled with the demand for collected works of poets ranging from Joanne Kyger to Philip Whalen to Jack Spicer (I hear the Spicer has already been reprinted) suggests there is an audience. Burroughs’ unpublished letters and cut-up manuscripts alone would fill several issues of Word Hoard. I would love to see a reprint of an unpublished cut-up accompanied by an essay describing its genesis and significance to Burroughs and the larger literary scene.

Devotional Criticism

In any case who is to say that professional academics are the best qualified to broker the critical reputations of the authors and poets they write about? Robert Duncan clearly did not think so, and he said as much in his much talked about but little read work of scholarship, The HD Book. The most enlightening and most informed books of criticism that I have read lately have been written by poets, like Duncan. Such works provide insight into the subject under analysis while also serving as a passionate statement of personal poetics. Literary criticism as creative work. There are few peers to D.H. Lawrence’s Classic Studies in American Literature, William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. I have yet to read the Finnegan’s Wake of creative criticism, Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare.

Creative or devotional criticism seems to be a dying art nowadays. This is probably because in recent decades poets are merely the flip side of the traditional university-based academic, who is in turn the flip side of the corporate employee. Like today’s children who have all their activities planned and organized, today’s workshop poets largely find their mentors and influences within an academic classroom / institutional setting, not the salon, print shop, bookstore, art gallery, barroom, or non-academically affiliated reading. What happened to gathering a bunch of kids from the neighborhood and playing ball for the fun of it (and without coaches and umpires)? What happened to getting dirty and using your imagination? What happened to making your own games and toys? Today’s poets and writers prefer to stay inside and do the equivalent of playing video games.

I just finished reading Duncan’s The HD Book, and I just bought a copy of Zukofsky’s Bottom’ On Shakespeare (thankfully still in print from Wesleyan). This got me thinking about Burroughs and creative criticism. I have never felt that Burroughs had much of a critical mind. His collection of essays, The Adding Machine, is far from his best writing and is rather undistinguished. Burroughs’ essays are for the most part undeveloped and shallow. His lectures, as recorded by Naropa, are similarly lacking in depth and complexity. They are interesting because they are by Burroughs, but they do not stand on their own merits. I don’t think Burroughs’ heart was in it.

Charles Olson on the other hand seems to me to possess a fascinating (if scattered) critical mind. Maybe this strikes me because Olson wore his learning on his sleeve and was so ostentatious about his scholarship. Olson was a talker. Burroughs never was. Burroughs played his learning much closer to the vest. Did Burroughs have it in him, could he have written (or maybe more importantly would have wanted to write) a work like Call Me Ishmael? Clearly Brion Gysin would be the subject. Well, in fact, Burroughs on a small scale did just that. Burroughs wrote an essay on Gysin entitled “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” which was published in Yugen 8. The essay closes with a fold-in cut-up that enacts the very techniques that Burroughs attributes to and discusses in regard to Gysin. This is very much in keeping with the style of creative criticism as practiced by writers like Olson and Howe. As such, Burroughs’ essay is a piece of creative writing that elucidates its subject while simultaneously shedding light on Burroughs’ own literary obsessions and techniques.

Third Mind CollagePersonally I would have liked to see Burroughs complete a work like Time or APO-33 dedicated to examining the work of Gysin: a merging of text and image that critically addressed Gysin’s painting, his novels, and the cut-up and then in turn provided insight into Burroughs’ own work and how Gysin’s output influenced Burroughs. Burroughs sought to write just this book: the aborted The Third Mind project as proposed to Grove Press in the late 1960s. I have discussed this project elsewhere, but never before considered it as a work of creative criticism on par with Call Me Ishmael or The HD Book. In fact as planned it would have been one step beyond those studies as Burroughs and Gysin hoped the book would be an art book as much as a critical work. The failure of the full Third Mind project is one of the great losses to Burroughs’ legacy. The completion of the project would have radically altered Burroughs’ reputation and reception.

The itinerary for the New York festivities surrounding Naked Lunch states that there will be a talk discussing Burroughs’ heirs. This got me to thinking about who could have written a work of creative criticism about Burroughs. I brush aside those writers who are heirs in terms of subject matter, like Irvine Welsh or Dennis Cooper. It is more interesting to me to consider those writers who incorporated Burroughs’ literary techniques, particularly the cut-up. The question is then not who writes about the Burroughsian but who writes in a Burroughsian manner. Who carries on Burroughs’ exploration of language? Who similarly challenges the tradition of the novel and the concept of the book? This is a short list indeed and gets to the heart of question about the extent of Burroughs’ literary influence. He might in fact be more influential in cinema or music than in literature.

In any case, the artist that jumps to my mind is little known to many: Tom Phillips. Phillips is a visual artist who created an ongoing project entitled A Humument. A Humument is a treated book based on the Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. Phillips began the project in 1966, and it is a matter of public record that he got his idea for A Humument after he encountered the cut-ups of Burroughs. The idea of Phillips considering a work of creative criticism on Burroughs appeals to me since I see so much of Burroughs’ achievement as not just textual but also visual. So in a sense Phillips would not merely write a book on Burroughs he would create an art object that comments critically on Burroughs. Creative criticism as artist’s book. The simplest idea in this line would be a work like A Humument enacted on one of Burroughs’ own novels. It is interesting to think just which book Phillips would choose to use as a canvas and to consider just what themes and images would develop from a treated Burroughs novel.

Rat CatchingThere is also the work of Crispin Glover. Glover, the actor who starred in Charlie’s Angels and Back to the Future, creates books, such as Rat Catching, that are similar to those of Phillips. Glover merges the Burroughsian in subject matter and technique. In fact, Glover reminds me much of Burroughs physically. Is it a stretch to see the Creepy Thin Man from Charlie’s Angels as El Hombre Invisible as superhero? In addition to being an actor and an author, Glover has directed experimental films and released various concept albums. The wide range of his abilities parallels Burroughs’. Possibly these interests, many of which contain Burroughsian elements, would give him unique insight into Burroughs. It is interesting to consider what would result if Glover attempted a work of creative criticism as experimental art film/documentary.

Could Ted Berrigan have written a devotional book on Burroughs had he the inclination? It is a personal belief of mine that Berrigan’s The Sonnets owes much of its inspiration to Burroughs’ cut-up technique. The inspiration would not have come from the cut-up novels so much as the cut-up poetry. The key texts are Minutes to Go, The Exterminator and particularly collaborations in Locus Solus II (brief as they are). Throughout the 1960s Burroughs was as much a poet as a novelist, and Berrigan was uniquely qualified to comment on Burroughs in this light. I suspect that Berrigan, like Burroughs, lacked the inclination to produce a critical work on the level of Olson or Duncan, but Berrigan’s approach to the poem in terms of collage, recycling, and serial composition are very similar to Burroughs’. I would read with great interest Berrigan discussing Burroughs’ poetics which dovetail so well with his own. What could Berrigan have done with a serial poem that utilized source material from Burroughs’ work while at the same time commenting on key Burroughsian issues like originality, plagiarism, or repetition?

No discussion of Burroughs’ influence would be complete without mention of Carl Weissner. The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that Weissner would be the ideal man to write a work of creative criticism on Burroughs. First of all, nobody knows Burroughs’ work more completely and from more perspectives than Weissner. Weissner acted as Burroughs’ editor such as when he published Burroughs in Klactoveedsedsteen, and he was Burroughs’ primary German translator for decades. Weissner has whole passages at his fingertips. He knows not only the words but also how Burroughs constructed and structured his novels. Weissner also knows and shares Burroughs’ obsessions and sources. To be a translator requires not just great skill on a creative level but also a keen critical mind. Weissner is one of the foremost practitioners of the cut-up, and when Burroughs scaled back the technique Weissner pushed it forward. This goes beyond the level of text. Weissner made audio and video experiments as well. I can think of nobody more uniquely suited to the task of revealing Burroughs’ work while simultaneously telling about his own creative process than Weissner. And that is the essence of creative criticism.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 1 June 2009. Photo of Crispin Glover’s Rat Catching from Bananawacky’s Flickr account.

One thought on “Beat Critics

  1. I just don’t get the Beat thing. It seems like the Tail-End invention of an age defined by the New Critics. They were obsessed by categorizing everything and the Beats were a great Marketing Tool since something was Supposed to follow from the Moderns, another, less marketed, Marketing Thing.

    There could not be any three writers different than Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg, for instance. But they get lumped together due to friendships. They have no real common interests as the recent ‘The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks’ shows. That book was the voice of two completely opposite writers. Only as a reflective template of the Moderns (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.) are they taken seriously.

    For this reason, I really wonder about Beat Critics, since you have to wonder why they don’t put the pieces together on that one. Yes, they were of a similar age as writers, but that doesn’t mean much. So was John Updike and he doesn’t cut the mustard, as they say.

    I have to wonder if this Beat Critic designation will stick. If it does, it is a fabrication, quite clearly. If it does not, then it bears out what so many New Critics said, despite the emulation people used to establish the genre in the academy.

    So weird.

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