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Edie Parker Kerouac’s frustrations lingered with me, especially after reading in her bio about her disappointment in not being published and her outburst at Jack Kerouac’s funeral that she’s “Mrs. Jack Kerouac!” I empathized with her, but what I see at work in Edie is an insecurity beyond lost love and “good times.” What I see at work in Edie, in fact, is the Hipster trope. Her internal struggle for something “real” be it (love or life), something authentic (validated by others), something exciting—all of it is compelling. Her insecurity fuels the several intrusions into the reflection where she offers fact to the reader about Jack that seemed to only be important to her that the reader should know, from her. However, these moments of intrusion read almost as irrelevant to the reader:
“Jack and I had not conventionally “split up” in our own minds anyway; in a manner of thinking, we never really did. We were just caught up in the “excitement” of ourlives, of what we were doing from day to day, enjoying the freedom of finally having become “adults” (80).
“Neal didn’t know Cassidy as well as I did” (81).
“This was Jack’s favorite dessert, and he was pleased” (82).
“Jack and I were anxious to be together again behind closed doors” (82).
“Jack wrote about this, but his editor Malcolm Cowley cut out most of his Detroit visits, changing St. Clair to Lake Michigan, clear across the state from Gross Pointe” (85).
Each of these moments I consider to be an intrusion, because outside of the last statement mentioned, they all read as unnecessary fluff asserting the intimacy between herself and Kerouac. While I do not at once think that any of this is exaggerated or made up, the insecure place this seems to come from compels me to do so, or at least wonder what she is trying to do by telling me this information that does not seem important.
Is she telling me this information because it’s significant to her, or does she believe this will be significant to the reader? Each of the moments above cause me to ask this question, to understand what she is trying to do, and in understanding that, it leads me back understanding her insecurity. This is an aspect of the “Hipster,” that I think is particularly strong. Thinking of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and The White Negro (1957), insecurity seems like such a key aspect of Beat performance, as this group of dissenters navigate new territory. This foreign territory is so much so, that it causes for the inclusion of “the Negro” by Mailer to legitimize or place the struggle Hipsters underwent during the Beat Generation.
With the glorification of the “Negro” as a map for struggle, an important route is the hypersexualization of Blacks, which justified the voyeurism of Hipsters. This brings me back to Edie. Edie’s subtle assertion of intimacy in this excerpt of You’ll Be Okay communicates to the reader that, in fact, she is not okay. She is dealing with insecurity in life (Beat lifestyle, Hipster identity) and love (Kerouac, etc). Sex is an intimate act, in which one may have control of their vulnerability, but not the proximity. Intimacy is equally physical as it is emotional. The nearness of another person is intimate. While Edie’s sexual life may not be entirely on display in her writing, what and who she wants to be intimate with seem to be intentionally aired, like laundry. Edie’s assertions of intimacy between herself and Kerouac read as directly tied to the insecurities of the Hipster, and lead me to not feel convinced by her writing of her “impact.” It all seems as if, upon leaving New York, she internalized her Beat-idenitity, and now she struggles to conjure it back up in “re-memory,” the struggle itself emphasizing the complexity of the Hipster.
However, my favorite section of the excerpt is the paragraph “ I got up before the rest of the crowd… I was still in love with Jack, which kept my adrenaline flowing” (83). To me, this is the strongest paragraph in this excerpt. Here, I read solely about Edie, not her ulterior aims and insecurities. Here, I see the first wife of Jack. Here I witness her at peace and that is interesting, moreso than reading her writing about other people to prove a point, when they themselves may’ve written about something or did not think it important enough to written about.
It is quite apparent from Edie Parker Kerouac’s writing style in the excerpt from her unpublished autobiography, You’ll Be Okay, that she is not the traditional 50s housewife or even traditional 50s woman. Early in the excerpt she writes about her relationship with Kerouac that “Jack and I had not conventionally ‘split up’ in our own minds anyway; in a manner of thinking, we never really did. We were just caught up in the ‘excitement’ of our lives, of what we were doing from day to day, enjoying the freedom of finally having become ‘adults’” (80). I think this clearly shows her strong sense of independence because she views this is a mutual decision for both of them to decide that commitment to each other was not something either of them needed. This defies the traditional role of a woman in the 50s who is expected to find a man, settle down, and remain in the position of a subservient housewife. She presents herself in this quote as a very independent woman who knows what she wants, and is not afraid to defy the expectation that she should remain loyal to just one man. She recognizes that she should have the same liberties as men to enjoy as many relationships as she wants to, and to allow herself to experience the excitement and whims of life that the traditional housewife would not be able to.
Additionally, her writing is very to the point, and not as ornate as other Beat writers include Jack Kerouac. Edie writes in a very objective and almost detached manner. She does take the time to describe her surroundings and what she observes, but she does so in a very plain manner – for example she writes on page 85 that “Emma’s huge mansion was covered with ankle-deep oriental rugs, silk upholstery, the most expensive glass, and porcelains, with Belgian masterpiece paintings on the wall”. This gives an idea of what the room looks like, but she doesn’t preoccupy herself in her writing with trying to capture an essence of her surrounding – she just intends to objectively describe what she sees. In this excerpt she seems to be chronicling her journey, almost as if she is writing in a journal. Each new paragraph is like a new section of her day/journey, expressing each new idea or event. She uses simple sentences for the majority of her writing, expressing one idea in each sentence. I think that this straightforwardness also attests to her character because she expresses what she feels and observes. An example of this is the following quote: “Then Virginia served coffee, apple pie, and Sander’s vanilla ice cream. This was Jack’s favorite dessert and he was pleased” (82). There is little emotion behind most of her writing, and that helps contribute the very matter of fact style in which she writes. She does, however, throw in emphatic statements throughout “The plumbers arrived in two trucks, I suspect to partake of the party!” (83). This objective writing style I think shows how she does not like to romanticize everyday events as other Beats have tried to do. I believe this shows how she believes in practicality and getting to the point.
I want to use this blog post to discuss the complexities and somewhat startling contradictions of Baldwin’s reflections on the Beat’s depictions of black culture and his rhetorical representations of these injustices. While Baldwin is eloquent and persuasive in his articulation of the apparent racial misrepresentations (especially regarding sexuality and masculinity) of the Beats—which our other classmates have more thoroughly articulated—the ways in which he describes these injustices are somewhat apologetic and problematic.
Baldwin introduces the racial problems the Beats perpetuate when he writes, “The world tends to trap and immobilize you in the role you play; and it is not always easy—in fact, it is always extremely hard—to maintain a kind of watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is” (Baldwin, 271). It is clear from this statement that Baldwin is reflecting on and criticizing the stereotypical “black” mold that the Beat’s propagate. However, it also seems that whenever Baldwin furthers his argument, he acknowledges his own censorship of this critique.
One example of this is when Baldwin writes, “it did not seem worthwhile to challenge, in any real way, Norman’s views of life on the periphery, or to put him down for them” (Baldwin, 272). In this statement, Baldwin juxtaposes his true feelings about Mailer’s perspective on representations of “black” culture; he contrasts his internal and subsequently written monologue with his face to face interactions. The reader can feel the rhetorical tension, in this essay Baldwin is writing what he cannot assert in person, that he disagrees with Mailer’s perspective. Similarly, Baldwin extends this tension to his other black associates. He writes, “And matters were not helped at all by the fact that the Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him” (Baldwin, 272). So, the black perspective on the Beats is somewhat revealed, at least in Baldwin’s case. He dissents, but not openly, only through calculated terms, through writing, the allocated place for critiques.
And so, I find a somewhat startling distinction between the Beat’s representations of “black” culture and Baldwin’s dissent of this representation. In opposite ways, the Beats unapologetically perpetuate dangerously oppressive and stereotypical ideology, and black writers such as Baldwin, apologetically criticize these representations and feed into notions of internalized oppression, induced by the very friends they are protecting. I find this fascinating, the ways in which Beats such as Mailer can associate their lives on the margins with black culture, and yet, just from their writing (different imbedded rhetorical tones) one can recognize the invalidity of such notions.
It would be difficult to argue that Carolyn Cassady didn’t have to put up with a lot. For fifteen years, she was married to a man who had neither the time nor the true desire for a family, whose only real love was the open road (and drugs, lots of them.) Her reason for staying in this relationship was her love for Neal, of course, but also the social pressures of the era. The Gregory Corso poem we discussed in class touches on this, but it is a well-acknowledged aspect of American life in the 1950s. A woman was expected to be a housewife, to serve her family’s every need, specifically those of her husband. Neal was allowed to go where he pleased and do what he pleased, and Carolyn was to follow after with the dustpan, sweeping up the mess and silently hoping that one day he would calm down and be the life partner she had always thought he could be. Sure, she carried on an affair with his best friend, but when a woman is pushed to her emotional extremes, certain things are bound to happen. When the chips were down, she was always there for Neal. The same could not be said in the opposite.
In her prose, we never get a hint of any kind of victim complex, or that she felt like she was suffering emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. There is a sort of wistful acceptance there, especially in Off the Road, where she deconstructs her relationship with Neal and muses on the fact that no matter how many times she gets her hopes up, or how low she sets the bar, he still manages to disappoint her. After a road trip with Neal, she writes, “We had learned our limitations, and that gave us a new freedom.” (pg.68). Here she is talking about the limitations of their relationship. There isn’t a sense of anger there, or a desire for revenge. Is this what true love is, then? Acceptance of your partner’s flaws, and a recognition that you are far too involved with them to ever really give them up? Perhaps, but it opens up a wider question: why was it okay for Cassady to do these things and to behave in this manner?
In the interview we watched in class, Carolyn mentions that Kerouac had a deep-rooted need for machismo, and it seems like the same concept can be applied to Cassady. It created not only a sense of restlessness but a need to prove himself, without taking into regard the other people in his life who could have benefitted from his presence. Carolyn was, as we can see from her prose, a massively talented and creative individual. She did not need Neal in the sense that her career would only flourish if she presented herself as one half of the Cassady picture. Perhaps she thought this way, due to the toxic masculinity of the period, but it was far from the truth. The truth was that Carolyn learned to take the wins with the losses, and recognize Neal for the terribly flawed individual that he was. She was a strong, brave, and independent woman, and a clear backbone of the Beat movement.
Carolyn Cassady was usually left behind by her husband, Neal Cassady, to take care of their children, but her brief biography and the excerpt from her memoir, “Off the Road,” never present someone that felt she was missing out on this life. When thinking about her awkward goodbye to Jack Kerouac, she thinks, “We had learned our limitations, and that gave us a new freedom. Now I could concentrate all my attention on my own little family.” The Beats would have thought of any limitation as reprehensible. However, Carolyn thought that this limitation had given her “a new freedom,” because it gave her the ability to focus on her children. Her family was a source of comfort when she was unable to have a substantial relationship with neither Neal nor Jack.
The only burden that Carolyn had in her life was her relationship with Neal. When thinking back on her relationship, she writes, “I’d never before experienced such solicitude…” Her relationship with Neal was that she would be there for him on his terms. Because their viewpoints on many subjects were so different, she would often have to stretch herself to meet the needs of her husband in ways that make her seem remarkably adaptable. When writing about recounting her relationship with Jack in “Off the Road,” she writes “We could make no overt move towards each other without feeling sorry for Neal […] it was a romantic agony willingly suffered.” Carolyn’s relationship with Jack in the text is the poignant sacrifice in the texts. She desperately wanted to feel loved and supported conventionally – so much so, that when Allen Ginsberg wants to learn more about her she “jumped at the offer to share [her] thoughts by pouring them out to him…”
Women who are capable of taking care of themselves (and, in Carolyn’s case, already is) would not think twice of leaving such an exploitative relationship, but Carolyn was always hoping that at some point their relationship would settle into a more normal place. Carolyn writes, “Deep in my heart I still yearned for a monogamous arrangement with Neal, but if it wasn’t possible…” Throughout the texts, she forgives Neal Countless times, because of a “dim hope recycled once more” that he would eventually be better. She eventually understood that Neal would never be the person she wanted and settled on a “loving indifference,” where she hoped she’d no longer have to resort to “the same old righteous martyrdom…”
Furthermore, their differences were primarily the reasons that she loved him throughout their tumultuous relationship. When Carolyn tries to make Neal understand the relationship between black and white people in the south, she finds that “Neal couldn’t, and I was glad of it.” Carolyn saw something special in Neal and other Beat writers – they had viewpoints that were interesting and unique, and although they were unlike her own, she wanted to understand them. However, Neal’s inability to rationalize racism does not excuse his solicitous relationship with Carolyn.
Reading the two letters written by Joan Burroughs, I found mental illness to be a pervasive topic in both letters. In the 1945 letter to Edie Parker Kerouac, Burroughs writes about being taken to a mental hospital for a “amphetamine psychosis,” after overdosing on benzedrine. According to Wikipedia, “Stimulant psychosis is a psychosis symptom which involves hallucinations, paranoia, and/or delusions and typically occurs following an overdose on psychostimulants.” Burroughs writes that she healed within a few days, but had to “convince those stupid doctors that I wasn’t completely mad.” This statement might imply that there are various degrees of mental illness, that while Burroughs wasn’t “completely mad,” she might still be unstable to a lesser degree. But overall, I found that this letter downplayed the seriousness of psychosis. Burroughs seems to shrug off her overdose by writing, “Anyways I was all clear in a couple of days,” and then by calling her doctors “stupid.” While Burroughs downplays mental illness in this letter, she seems to present it differently in her second letter.
In her 1949 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs writes that she was not surprised of Ginsberg’s hospitalization because she has “been claiming for three years […] that anyone who doesn’t blow his top once is no damn good” (56). In this line, not only does Burroughs quickly dismiss the potential seriousness of Ginsberg’s hospitalization, but in fact, she seems to present Ginsberg’s mental troubles as a good sign. Later, she writes that possibly, Ginsberg is “just a dime-a-dozen neurotic and I’m nuts” (56). Burroughs not only makes a distinction between “ordinary” mental illness and that which isn’t, but seems to present “ordinary” illness as somehow inferior or less respectable. It seems like for Burroughs, going “truly” mad is some sort of gateway to wisdom, to “see[ing] the light” (56). After all, the hallucinations and other such symptoms Wikipedia lists show up in Ginsberg’s “Blake vision,” which gave him much knowledge in life and for writing his poetry (though I’m not sure if this Blake vision is what Burroughs is referring to, and if it was a result of psychosis at all).
While Burroughs seems to promote mental illness to some degree, she does maintain that it is painful. She concludes her letter to Ginsberg by pointing to her own “suffering,” her need for “thyroid tablets” to endure, and wondering “how poor Herbert managed” (56). It seems that in the society the Beats saw as dull, square, and mindless, Burroughs saw mental illness as a painful, but necessary door to achieving some enlightenment within an unnurturing society.
While reading the sections on Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs and Carolyn Cassady, I couldn’t help but feel as though these two women, and likely many of the women that the Beat writers encountered, were unfairly talked about and treated. Not only were these women scrutinized by outsiders and Beat writers alike, they were also hurt by the men they cared about.
Beginning with Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs, it’s obvious that she was, at times, viewed as more of a possession than a human by the men in her life. In Ted Morgan’s description of Joan from the Literary Outlaw, Morgan writes, “She had a lovely complexion and a nice figure, with legs a little on the heavy side. When she walked her calves jiggled” (WBG 54). Although Morgan goes on to write, “Joan’s beauty was more than the sum of its parts,” he still feels the need to spend this first paragraph describing Joan’s physical attributes rather than her intellect or other qualities (WBG 54).
Carolyn Cassady faced the same sort of treatment but at the hands of Neal Cassady. Unfortunately, Neal mistreated several other women in his life including his first wife, LuAnne Henderson, and Diana Hansen (one of the women with whom he had an affair). The entire storyline on page 62 makes me cringe the most. While Carolyn Cassady was at home raising their child and pregnant with another, Neal Cassady was off gallivanting across the United States and having affairs with models. What makes it even worse is that when he finally returned, Carolyn took him back and proceeded to have another child with him. Reading this left me wondering why? It’s noted that Carolyn was smart and well-educated, but for such a capable woman, I’m not sure why she chose to stay married to Neal after the way he treated her (WBG 59). It’s noted in the beginning that “On the surface it would seem that [Carolyn Cassady] was the closest to the fifties’ ideal of a devoted wife and mother, ‘standing by her man.’ But Carolyn doesn’t fit into any such convenient mold” (WBG 57). While it’s nice to hear that “everything is not as it appears” with the Cassadys, this chapter on Carolyn does not prove that idea to be true.
Although I’m not sure if it’s fair to label Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and other like men as misogynistic, they certainly did not treat the women in their lives very well. This treatment shows in their writing. The seemingly indifferent nature that Neal often portrayed towards his wife reminded me of the way in which Jack Kerouac’s character approached the woman on the bus in Detroit in his book On the Road. Kerouac in On the Road and Neal in real life both portrayed a sort of superiority complex in regard to these women, seemingly believing that the women were lucky to be graced with the presence of such men. I know that these women were described to be the “muses” of the Beat writers, a term with which I’ve always had positive associations, but, after reading about Carolyn and Joan, I’m left wondering if these “muses” were oppressed at the expense of their male counterparts’ creative freedom.
Existentialism: commonly associated with the European philosophy of though is known for its ideas of a meaningless life. Throughout Mailer’s work he attempts to incorporate existentialism into the subculture of America – he does this through the use of “hipsters.” Mailer compares the everyday Negro to the hipster, which from previous readings the connection between both of these entities can be easily made since they both feel like outsiders within America.
The psychopathic hipster is equated to the everyday negro because Mailer believes that they are both coexisting in a world full of chaos. “Survival as the art of the primitive” is the only way for the two to be able to persevere in the world. Thus, the only way to make sense of this chaotic world is through non conforming deviance. Similarly, this ideology roots back to the existential beliefs in Europe that stem from author’s like Albert Camus in his novel “The Stranger.” Here both author’s attempt to make sense of the world through analyzing society from the perspective of outsiders.
In “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” Baldwin explains sexuality in terms of racial discrepancies. For example, he mentions how “the thing that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life, is really, in sum, their innocence” (270). He conveys the struggle that life is by comparing it to a storm that every individual must undergo. Additionally, he alludes to what might be a sexual innocence that White people feel they still have; thus he is saying Black people do not feel that they can safe their sexual innocence.
The racial backgrounds of Mailer and Baldwin create an interesting perspective on the sexuality of white and black males. Through his piece of work, Baldwin attempts to justify that Black sexuality is the root of racial hardships; “the sexual background is really the same for everyone” in Baldwin’s perspective – yet, there is a reoccurring sexual difference that Baldwin says the White man feels.
Personally, I think that Mailer and Baldwin’s relationship is root to Baldwin writing the piece of literature that is “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” Through which a series of ideas are combined to analyze sexuality – the root of existentialism, the race inequality, the sexual tendencies of black and white men. Thus, there is an overarching perspective of chaos in the world, that white people believe can be salvaged through hoping for innocence. Longing for the innocent past depicts how sexual desires are not something individuals can go back to. Innocence is bliss, but once it is lost there is no going back.
I never got the chance to learn about you in all of my academic career. Perhaps we as a society are at fault for failing to recognize all of the women behind the male’s work. Why should they get all the credit? Especially if we are just as vital to literary movements as they are? I digress. I had the pleasure to read about your influence on the Beat Generation. First and foremost, I understand your relationship with your mother and your issue with house constraints. Believe it or not, still today we have several cultures that engage in traditions that belittle women. With that being said, my culture still thrives on the idea that women are domestic caretakers. However, as I write this, I am defying all standards of that notion just by being at a university. I definitely credit women like you who take a purposeful stance against society’s wishful thinking and instead use all the things going against you to blossom from that.
Another point I would like to digest is the fact that you found a beautiful, gigantic place in New York for “something like 75 dollars” (WBG 53). Not only does this note your intelligence, but it also notes how savvy you are. I appreciate that. With this apartment in New York, you became “a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beats” (WBG 46). By being the catalyst for where the Beats thrived in, you inherently became part of that generation which is so huge because we hardly see women take control of situations that are dominated by our male counterparts. It makes sense in the way people to describe you to think of you as a powerful presence and being. I mean it truly was your “refusal to live within the boundaries of the social mores of forties’ and fifties’ America” ultimately led to your demise (WBG 49). Albeit a sick and twisted way of looking at female empowerment, that very same death is the epitome of feminism. I, too, would rather not have a life than live in one where I don’t measure up in importance alongside my male peers.
Though you had an awful relationship with Benzedrine, you never failed to be a muse to the people around you. I mean just the way Ted Morgan describes you shows that you did not die in vain: “she spoke, walked, dressed, and read slowly, as if savoring every moment” (WBG 54-55). He continues on by saying
Joan’s idea of a good time was to go to Child’s at 110th street and broadway and sip kummel and have deep conversations about Plato and Kant while listening to classical music. Or she would spend the entire moring in the bathtub, with bubble bath up to her chin, reading Proust. If you wanted to talk to her it had to be in the bathroom (WBG 55).
You are described in thoroughness and extensive detail; it is a reminder that your normalcy and day-to-day routine served as a muse for someone else, and I don’t know about you, but there is something so innocent and beautiful about that. It swells my heart.
Something I really appreciated about “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” – and this is something I appreciate in most of James Baldwin’s work – is an analytical quality that somehow manages to be reflective but penetrating, critical but empathic. Within this commentary is a critique of Norman Mailer and the Beat movement that encapsulates an idea I have been trying to grapple with all semester in this class, but couldn’t quite manage to express in a well-founded or intelligent way – the Beat idealization of ephemerality and experiential living as essentially a manifestation of fear and insecurity. This theme of insecurity as a driving force behind seemingly unrelated beliefs and endeavors appears in different forms throughout the text, and Baldwin applies it to a number of different subjects in an incisive and compelling way.
In his discussion of white hypersexualization of the black male, Baldwin writes: “It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.” (Baldwin 270) This point is, of course, a shrewd analysis of white America’s conceptualization of black men as inherently sexual or deviant – “that myth of the sexuality of Negroes which Norman, like so many others, refuses to give up” (Baldwin 272) — but it’s also a fascinating point about the profound ability of repressed insecurities to color one’s perception of the world around him.
Baldwin relates the seed of this idea to the Beat generation itself, indicting the movement’s tenets as being inherently founded upon an aversion to accountability and facing the trials of life: “From them [the Beats], indeed, I expected nothing more than their pablum-clogged cries of Kicks! And Holy! It seemed very clear to me that their glorification of the orgasm was but a way of avoiding all the terrors of life and love…their mystique depended on a total rejection of life, and insisted on the fulfillment of an infantile dream of love…No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” (Baldwin 277)
Baldwin manages to succinctly summarize here the idea that’s been bothering me about the Beat generation all these months – the inherent falsity and misdirection of its ideals. Feverish dedication to transience, rejection of conventional values and practices simply because they are conventional and for the sake of rejecting them, prioritization of temporary bliss over long-term, hard-earned fulfillment…it’s founded on fear and intrinsic immaturity, not revolution.