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Muses of a Revolution

They were wives, lovers, writers and observers of the Beat Generation. But their contributions were largely overlooked. Only now are these women's efforts being recognized.

November 25, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lady is a humble thing

Made of death and water

The fashion is to dress it plain

And use the mind for border

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 27, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Beat culture: In a Monday Life & Style story on women of the Beat movement, the name of writer Joanna McClure was misspelled.

--Elise Cowen, 1933-1962

Like grainy Cinerama, stretching out over the hood of a convertible, the road spreads like spilled ink. It's an easterly view of Melrose Avenue, at Doheny, just as it forks off into Santa Monica Boulevard, a.k.a. Route 66--the Mother Road.

Just left of the photograph's center perch twin placards--Standard chevrons arching, flagging plentiful fuel islands. Above those, hidden amid a tangle of power lines and storm clouds, rises a billboard displaying a woman. In evening dress, button earrings, hair swept into elegant updo, she cradles a serving dish and stares confidently toward eastward-traveling drivers: "Smart women cook with Gas. . . ."

This photograph, "Double Standard," was made in 1961 by actor-cum-photographer Dennis Hopper. Its message is busy, double-edged: a paean to car culture and motion, a commentary on disparity. In this context--the "Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965" exhibit at San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum until Dec. 29--it points up the bifurcated nature of counterculture: the lives on and off the road.

Much like the De Young show--which seeks to expand the Beat context, from antecedents and influences (bebop to black slang)--Brenda Knight's new book, "Women of the Beat Generation" (Conari Press), fleshes out the image of the women beyond bangs and black tights. Recognizes their perspectives and contributions at last.

Anyone familiar with the Beat canon knows this: "Kicks and chicks" connect the dots from ocean to gulf to river to other ocean. Like points on the map in Nat Cole's jubilant "Route 66," Beat men built elaborate pedestals only to upset them, taking to the ribbon of asphalt again. The Lee Anns, Marylous, Camilles, Mardous, Tristessas of Kerouac's most famous disclosures hover like perfumed ghosts on the page.

That said, any woman with even a passing fascination with the Beats has found herself in the cramped position of explaining the passion. Why rhapsodize about a movement that excluded women, treated them as (at best) passive muse or (at worst) mere trifle?

Those questions only scratch the surface. A recent San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival panel, "Women of the Beat," delved deeper. Writer Joanne McClure leaned into her microphone, puffed out this message to the cross-generational assembly: "Just because you were married to a male chauvinist didn't mean that you were downtrodden."

Hopper's photograph, McClure's rapier words--such commentary, whether stitched in art or part of fluid discourse, illuminates the contradictions within counterculture. For all its freewheeling rejection of norms, heckling of majority culture, the Beat generation was fraught with its own brand of sexism, racism, elitism, cronyism--but that didn't stop those pushed to the margins from arranging their thoughts on page.

*

Every few years the digs begin anew, a living archeology: A gritty city memoir here, a slick-packaged anthology there, from music to fashion, America's fascination with '50s bohemianism seldom dies; it transmogrifies.

"With all the retrospectives, it became mythological," says Joyce Johnson, author of the novel "In the Night Cafe" (Dutton, 1989) and her own evocation of an era, "Minor Characters" (Houghton Mifflin, 1983). "I want to feel for me that it's not a myth. I want to be aware of the reality of it."

With that in mind, in recent times these explorations have moved beyond fond-glimpse nostalgia. These excavations of Beat culture are more about repositioning--broadening the focus, understanding not just the players but the environment that produced them.

At the time, what Beat was was a noisy protracted argument, a literary-artistic social force going after Middle America's thin skin at mid-century. The Beats took on big issues with big voices: "Mainstream neutralizes by co-opting," says De Young curator Timothy Burgard, pointing to a string of cartoonish icons used as media shorthand, which quickly turned cliche: goatees, berets, bongos and Maynard G. Krebs. "The media and market forces have promoted an image of Beats that is simplified to reduce and diminish it."

Defanged by pop culture, sanitized of its issues--the bomb, McCarthyism, censorship, conformity--this codification-turned-romanticization stripped away substance and left only symbols. Ironically, Knight writes, "Because the women, to a certain degree, have been ignored and marginalized, they represent the precious little of that which remains truly Beat."

*

Knight opens up a universe that for so long has orbited tightly around the Holy Beat Trinity--Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs--and those males who radiated outward from it. After all, she points out, it was a woman, Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs--the "midwife of the Beat generation"--who transformed her New York living room into a salon, convening a generation.

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