Over the past few years, the concept of Beat has gone through a peculiar transformation, becoming a banner under which to place virtually the entire spectrum of 1950s bohemian life. In its most extreme form, this posture accounts for the recent "Beat Culture and the New America" exhibition, which opened last fall at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and features non-Beats like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as well as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and the rest of their gang. From an admirer's perspective, such revisionism is understandable, a way of laying claim to the influence and accolades the Beats' lingering notoriety has always denied. Yet ultimately, it just represents another set of distortions that obscure this misunderstood movement beneath an added layer of myth.
In "Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution," editor Brenda Knight falls prey to precisely this kind of thinking, choosing to interpret Beat as a wide-ranging cultural umbrella, not the specific phenomenon it was. Bringing together an array of historical and literary materials, Knight argues that, rather than a wholly masculine constellation, the Beats were also informed and motivated by female concerns. To be fair, there is a measure of validity to this notion. As early as the mid-1950s, women like Diane di Prima were living their own version of the Beat lifestyle; when "Howl" appeared in 1956, she reports, "I knew that this Allen Ginsberg, whoever he was, had broken ground for all of us--all few hundreds of us--simply by getting this published. I had no idea yet what that meant, how far it would take us. . . . I was about to meet my brothers and sisters."
Since then, however, only a handful of books--Di Prima's "Memoirs of a Beatnik," Carolyn Cassady's "Heart Beat" and "Off the Road," and Joyce Johnson's "Minor Characters"--have addressed the issue, which makes an anthology like "Women of the Beat Generation" in some ways overdue. For all that, the book does little to change our perception of the Beats as a male-driven movement, where women were largely relegated to the roles of lovers or hangers-on. Many contributors seem to have nothing in common beyond a romantic attachment with one of the Beats.
To her credit, Knight tries to develop some connective fiber, providing biographical sketches to create a context for the work. But her writing is marred by a breathlessness that makes us doubt her critical judgment. Her description of Kerouac's late daughter, Jan, in particular, is a masterpiece of overstatement: "At 44," she writes, "Jan truly embodied the notion of taking oneself where one needed to go," an assertion belied by the photo a few pages earlier in which Jan wears khakis and a slouch hat in conscious imitation of the father she never knew.
"Women of the Beat Generation" is not without its significant discoveries; among the gems is an excerpt from "Nobody's Wife," an unpublished memoir by the late Joan Haverty, Jack Kerouac's second wife, and the mother of Jan. In writing about her courtship with the then-unknown writer, Haverty convincingly refutes Kerouac's contention that "I didn't like her. She didn't like any of my friends. My friends didn't like her. But she was beautiful. I married her because she was beautiful."
The scene she portrays, of a visit to her future mother-in-law, Gabrielle, reveals Kerouac to be solicitous, if not overly passionate, and ends as he plays in a local park with his 2-year-old nephew, Paul. Given that the author of "On the Road" never acknowledged his own daughter during his lifetime and, in fact, abandoned his pregnant wife when she refused to undergo an abortion, it's astonishing to learn that, in Haverty's words, "we shared a dream of children." Still, as she admits, "Between us there was not even a physical attraction we might have mistaken for love or magic. . . . For me, Jack's appeal lay more in what he was not than in what he was. . . . My view of the situation was that we could be, for each other, a means to an end."
Unfortunately, Haverty's powerful memoir is more the exception than the rule here. Knight calls her book "an opportunity to finally understand these women as important figures in our literature, our history and our culture and as some of the best minds of the Beat Generation." But with the exception of Mary Norbert Korte and Mary Fabilli--neither of whom has much to do with the Beats besides geographic proximity--the undiscovered contributors to "Women of the Beat Generation" do not measure up to their more famous counterparts, which leaves us to question the very premise upon which the collection is based.
Knight is correct that the Beats "changed forever the landscape of American literature," making it "a democracy, a game with no rules." But the Beats were also a misogynistic boys' club, a movement of philanderers and deadbeat dads, whose social philosophy can be summed up by Burroughs' declaration that women are a biological mistake. Although there were female participants, they had to fight to overcome their second-class status; by glossing over these implications to preserve its own illusions, "Women of the Beat Generation" does a disservice to the very people it means to acclaim.