In Writing from the Margins this month, we consider women of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. This first article sets the stage by describing the climate in which Beat women made the revolutionary choices they did to become artists, writers and poets in the iconoclastic Beat tradition, and introduces a few of the women who truly embody the Beat.
The 1950s: A Setting
Consider for a moment the following description of life in the 1950s, taken from the PBS documentary series, “The American Experience”:
American society in the 1950s was geared toward the family. Marriage and children were part of the national agenda. The Cold War was in part a culture war, with the American family at the center of the struggle.
Embedded in the propaganda of the time was the idea that the nuclear family was what made Americans superior to the Communists…. In contrast to the “evils” of Communism, an image was promoted of American women, with their feminine hairdos and delicate dresses, tending to the hearth and home as they enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, democracy, and freedom…
In the 1950s, women felt tremendous societal pressure to focus their aspirations on a wedding ring. The U.S. marriage rate was at an all-time high and couples were tying the knot, on average, younger than ever before.
“We wore girdles we couldn’t have taken on and off for a date, certainly,” contributor Joan McCracken said in the film. You might be able to “pet” just before you were “pinned” (which was like being engaged to be engaged). “Once you had your marriage license in hand, you could be fitted for a diaphragm.”
Most brides walked down the aisle by the age of 19, and were pregnant within seven months of their weddings. Large families were common.
A New Meaning of “Beat”
It is important to fully appreciate this context before considering the truly wild and revolutionary life, relationship and artistic choices the women writers and artists of the much-fabled Beat Generation made, the ones who dared to be a part of a cultural and artistic movement against the conformity and materialism of the era.
The term “Beat Generation,” coined by Jack Kerouac, described a type of individual beat down by the industrial, militaristic conformity of the day, beat travelers, worn out from being on the road, but also “beat” in “exalted exhaustion” by running through life (like Kerouac ran through sentences) with passionate enjoyment of natural intoxicants—people, jazz, art as well as not-so-natural substances—Benzedrine and other drugs.
But in thinking of Beat women, the word “beat” takes on a new meaning. Consider Gregory Corso’s now notorious quote about women in the movement: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the ‘50s if you were male you could rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”
Indeed, as Anne Waldman (a second-generation Beat poet who founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg) described in her introduction to Women of the Beat Generation (Conari Press, 1996) the women she knew:
Being dominated by relationships with men—letting our own talents lag, following their lead—which could result in drug dependencies, painful abortions, alienation from family and friends…I knew interesting and creative women who became junkies for their boyfriends…who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations…who never felt they owned or appreciated their own bodies…living secret or double lives because love and sexual desire for another woman as anathema…
Inquiring into the lives of many of the women who lived among the famous male Beat writers shows that everything Waldman describes was true. Memoirist and novelist Joyce Johnson left a respectable home and expectations of parents to be among the Beats; memoirist Brenda Fraser went to Mexico following poet Ray Bremser, fell into a drug habit and found herself a prostitute for a time, and left their year-old daughter for adoption at the border. Poet Janine Pommy Vega wanted to read anything Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky (her lover) were reading. Talented but troubled poet Elise Cowen jumped to her death at the age of 29. Many of the writers didn’t publish works until many years after the Beat heyday, or were kept to small presses.
But the Beat women were not just primarily girlfriends, wives and muses, as famous Beat literature would have us believe. Many of the women started salons, poetry readings and discussions in their Greenwich village or North Beach apartments crucial to the development of the Beat scene; they founded poetry festivals and were pioneers of new styles like poetry & jazz. But all of this came with tremendous risk.
Cutting a Path
Not just poets or writers “in their own right” (read: tangential to the men’s work), some even paved the way for the known Beat writers; Josephine Miles (the first tenured female professor at Berkeley) and Madeline Gleason led the San Francisco Renaissance even before the famous male Beats arrived on the scene, and they helped nurture the careers of male beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg came to Josephine Miles at Berkeley seeking critique and assistance with publication).
Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s lover for a time, was working on her first novel, Come and Join the Dance (Atheneum, 1962) when she met him. Her vivid and insightful memoir, Minor Characters (Houghton & Mifflin, 1983) depicts Beat generation life in full color. She describes the decisions she and her peers made at the time this way: “We were very young and we were in over our heads. But we knew we had done something brave, practically historic. We were the ones who dared to leave home.”
Diane di Prima, who was named Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 2009 and was one of the most prolific writers from the era, provides a lyrical, imaginatively worded and haunting glimpse into just what it could have been like to dream and rebel and write in the Beat time and style in her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman (Penguin Books, 2001). In this memoir, di Prima provides proof for the assertion that many women of this generation were true pioneers for a women’s movement that had not yet blossomed. When she first told her parents she was dropping out of Swarthmore College to become a writer in New York, they pleaded hysterically with her to just give them “the next three years of her life.” Of her feeling at the time she wrote: “No one had the right to a minute of my life, not anymore, not ever again. Unless I wanted to give it. I am clear on that. I am clear in my own anger.”
While the women of the Beat generation are not nearly as celebrated or remembered by history as Kerouac, Burroughs or Ginsberg, they were every bit as much pure artist souls, and they seemed to know it from very young ages. Self-knowledge, even if it drove these women to great lengths or tragic ends, seemed to be key to the way they lived their lives. Joyce Johnson recollects: “[N]o warning would have stopped us, so hungry we were to embrace life and all of reality. Even hardship was something to be savored.” They had to have this desire and they had to be autodidactic; di Prima notes that the know-how was generally passed down from males to males.
Said di Prima of the decisions they made:
“Do you see? It wasn’t the work, though the work was clearly blessed. Nor the rewards, which were none, as far as we knew. It was the life itself—a vocation, like being a hermit or a samurai. A calling. The holiest life that was offered in our world: artist. One that required the purest flame, clearest lines of demarcation. Renunciation. ‘Sacrifice everything’ we would write on our apartment walls…Continual offering of our minds and hearts. Offering impersonally our most personal passion. Most secret vision. What comfort we could give, and give each other. This beauty. Compassion disguised as aesthetics.”
It still takes courage and self-knowledge to live this way, but it is difficult to imagine just how much courage it took then.
To read about real courage, look out for the next article in our series on Beat Women about poet, playwright and performer, ruth weiss. To read a tribute poem written for ruth weiss, click here.
The Artful Dodge, Women of the Beat Generation: Conversations with Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones, November 9, 1999 http://www3.wooster.edu/artfuldodge/interviews/johnsonjones.htm
Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Generation, Houghton & Mifflin, 1983
Brenda Knight, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Conari Press 1996) (contains many samples of poems, excerpts from memoirs and short stories of many of the women mentioned in this article, including some previously unpublished works)
Diane di Prima, Recollections of My Life as a Woman (Penguin Books, 2001) (di Prima has published over 30 books, has been a contributor to more than 300 literary and popular magazines and newspapers; has appeared in at least 70 anthologies; and has been translated into at least 13 languages).
The American Experience, PBS Documentary Film Series, “The Pill http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/p_mrs.html
*Title taken from the unpublished autobiography of Eileen Kaufman (wife of poet Bob Kaufman), excerpted in Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation. Eileen was a successful journalist who left her career to support her husband’s writing.