[Marxism] Pekar/Buhle on the Beat Generation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 12 11:37:57 MDT 2009

NY Times Book Review, April 12, 2009
The Mad Ones

A Graphic History
Text by Harvey Pekar and others.
Art by Ed Piskor and others.
Edited by Paul Buhle
199 pp. Hill & Wang. $22

The writers of the Beat Generation had the good fortune to give 
themselves a name and to write extensively about their lives, in novels 
like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and William Burroughs’s “Junkie,” in 
poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and, later, in memoirs like Joyce 
Johnson’s “Minor Characters” and Hettie Jones’s “How I Became Hettie 
Jones.” Jones once said they couldn’t be a generation because they could 
all fit in her living room, but in the popular imagination they were 
much more than the sum of their body parts or writings. They were a brand.

When the country still considered literary writers and poets important 
public figures, these were literary writers and poets who came with 
luridly colorful lives, full of sex and drugs and cars, “the best minds 
of my generation,” “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live,” 
cultural avatars who were often linked more by lifestyle considerations 
than by writerly ones. If they inspired lots of bad poetry set to bongos 
and little poetic discipline, they have even more effectively escaped 
disciplined literary or historical analysis. They rocked; they posed a 
threat to the nation’s youth. Either you got them or you didn’t. What 
could matter compared with that?

“The Beats” moves this mythology into the comics realm, where it finds a 
nice fit. In the introduction, Harvey Pekar and the lefty historian Paul 
Buhle write that the book has “no pretension to the depth of coverage 
and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in 
many languages,” adding that “no one claims this treatment to be 
definitive. But it is new, and it is vital.”

The pages that follow, mostly written by Pekar and illustrated by his 
frequent collaborator Ed Piskor, live up to both of those claims, while 
also living down to the caveats. “The Beats” is plainly celebratory. The 
writers and artists don’t try to untangle the Beats’ hazy history — 
which is often drawn from works of fiction — or to examine their 
writings. There are almost no quotations.

But the medium provides a new angle on a familiar story, in a voice more 
directly empathetic than those of many prose histories. It gives the 
hipsters back their body language. In a book that is largely about 
license and the enlightened rebel, it is easy to find reflections of 
both in the graphic form. The panels, which are flat and often horrific, 
capture the dullness and insanity not only of the lives the Beats sought 
to escape but of the ones they made in their place. The Beats here 
inhabit a world that looks a lot like Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. No 
wonder they had to go go go and not stop till they got there.

Some of the history is off. Jan Kerouac was not shown by a blood test to 
be Jack’s daughter (the test was inconclusive), and Pekar scrambles the 
chronology of some of Kerouac’s books and stylistic breakthroughs. Nancy 
J. Peters, a part owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, 
was unwisely tapped to help write the chapter on the store, which 
includes lines like “City Lights is not only a bookstore and publisher, 
it’s a historic public space and an international cultural center,” and 
“Today, City Lights has come to symbolize the American spirit of free 
intellectual inquiry.” Here, nonobjective history gives way to plain 
self-promotion, and not even cool self-promotion.

And sometimes the scope of history overwhelms the panels. There’s too 
much to tell, and the telling gets clunky and dutiful: “Another 1950 
occurrence was Kerouac’s trip with Cassady to Mexico City, where 
Burroughs had been living since his last drug bust and working on 
‘Junkie,’ a classic of its kind, which Ginsberg, who was always acting 
as an unpaid agent for other writers, encouraged him to write and 
finally got Ace Books to publish.”

The freshest chapters are on the less well-known characters, and those 
in which the writers insert themselves. Nick Thorkelson and Pekar, in 
their hallucinatory chapter on the jazz-influenced poet Kenneth Patchen, 
begin: “My high school friend Dave Burton turned me on to Kenneth 
Patchen’s picture poems in 1961. We were on the lookout for anything 
‘beat,’ which for us meant tough, funny . . . & ecstatic. Patchen had it 

This, perhaps, is the Beats’ true legacy: the impact they continue to 
have on people who encounter them for the first time, even if that 
impact isn’t literary. Discussions of “On the Road” tend to begin, “I 
was 17 when I first read it, and it made me . . .” in ways that 
discussions of “Ulys­ses” or “The Great Gatsby” do not. (They tend to 
end there as well, alas.) “The Beats” captures some of the wonder of 
that first encounter and places it in historical and political context. 
Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through 
their lives and art. They fit America’s romance with the outsider. That 
they were products of elite colleges — Harvard, Reed, Columbia, 
Swarthmore — and owed their visibility to non­outsider publications like 
Mademoiselle and this newspaper is a paradox “The Beats” chooses not to 
engage. They rocked.

John Leland, a reporter at The Times, is the author of “Hip: The 
History” and “Why Kerouac Matters.”

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