Muses or Maestros? Women of the Beat Generation
© 1997, Angela D. Baccala
I learnt more from her in a flash,
Than if my brainpan were an empty hull,
And every Muse tumbled a science in.
Tennyson, from "Princess II," 1847
When I began studying the women of the Beat Generation closely, I looked to
the one and only secondary source on their role in the movement, Brenda
Knight's Women of the Beat Generation. As I
eagerly read through the newly-released text, I noted the divisions of the
chapters: The Precursors, The Muses, The Writers, and The Artists. Pause. Who
was a muse? Many of the women of the Beat movement were influential in their
husbands' or lovers' or friends' writings. Does that make then muses? Was Joan
Vollmer Burroughs -- the friend and advisor of Allen Ginsberg -- a muse? Was
Edie Parker Kerouac, who wrote a hidden, unpublished memoir about her life? Was
Carolyn Robinson Cassady, who paints and consults, and wrote Off the Road?
Was Joan Haverty Kerouac, who wrote Nobody's Wife? These women had not
merely influenced the work of their men, but had created themselves. Similarly,
those women listed (in Knight's book) as writers -- including Joyce Johnson,
Elise Cowen, and Hettie Jones -- influenced the Beat men. No clear line can be
drawn between those who created and those who were a catalyst for other Beats'
creative processes. Not only does the label "muse" do an injustice to these
women's works, but it does not thoroughly explain the Beat women's indirect
influence in the movement.
The word muse comes from the Ancient Greek language and Mythology. The king of
the Greek gods, Zeus, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, had nine daughters
the Muses. Calliope was said to be the chief Muse. Each daughter was associated
with a different discipline. The most famous being Clio, the Muse of history.
Today, "muse" means the particular inspiration for an artist, "a poet's
particular genius, the character of his style and spirit."
Philip Whalen refers to his muse in his poem, "To the Muse." Here, Whalen
evokes the muse of history "Cleo" and apologizes for a misunderstanding between
them. He describes his muse as the "one Lady who changes before my eyes." He
titles her "QUEEN LIONESS OF HEAVEN IN THE SUN." She is his inspiration, a
goddess in her own right. Yet she is not supernatural. In the following verse,
he identifies her as human. He sleeps beside this goddess: "waking I watch your
closed eyes, film of gold hair across your cheek a mystery." Whalen describes
their struggle together as "a tangle, my impatience, your wildness." Some
woman, a goddess, a wild-woman, a muse, had influenced Whalen. In fact, the
"persistence of [her] vision centered" in his heart. At the end of the poem,
Whalen asks that she bless him as he walks "along the fire-road."
It is this muse that watches over Whalen as he writes, as he rebels.
The Beat women never intended to be the keepers of the flame. They were rebels
themselves who left the fifties mentality of their parents' homes. Joan Vollmer
left her home in Albany, New York, and the charmed life she had led in the
suburbs, for Barnard College. Edie Parker left Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in
favor of Columbia University, for the very same reason. Together they formed a
sort of salon in their New York apartment. Joyce Johnson dropped out of Barnard
because she felt she was merely living out her mothers dreams. Johnson
befriended Elise Cowen and Hettie Jones because they all were writers. These
women bonded in their new freedom from their family of origin. They made a bold
move. In her novel Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson describes the heroism
involved in the Beat women's rejection of the status quo.
Naturally, we fell in love with men who were rebels We fell very quickly,
believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures. We did not
expect to be rebels all by ourselves; we did not count on loneliness. Once we
had found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the
old male/female rules. We were very young and we were in over our heads. But we
knew we had done something brave, practically historic. We were the first ones
who had dared to leave home.
These women were not interested in taking a back seat to anyone, let alone a
husband. Many of the so-called "muses" of the Beat men not only influenced the
careers of others, but had the potential to have, and to some extent did have,
their own literary careers. These women created great works, whether in tandem
with their men's accomplishments, or after their relationships with Beat men
ended. Anne Waldman calls the memoir the "strongest literary genre by the women
of the so-called Beat generation" for a good reason. Carolyn Cassady wrote a
memoir about her time with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg called Off the Road;
Edie Parker Kerouac described her times with Jack Kerouac in yet unpublished
memoirs; Joyce Johnson created the novel Minor Characters; Hettie
Jones wrote a memoir entitled How I Became Hettie Jones. These women
needed to bear witness to what went on during the Beat movement because they
were "often present as the most observant and sober witnesses."
There were poets as well: Elise Cowen, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Joanne
Kyger, Denise Levertov, Joanna McClure, and others. They all exemplify the Beat
movement in their oft-forgotten works. The women writers of the Beat movement
are just that -- "beat" -- because they were and are so overlooked.
Just as these women wrote themselves, they also influenced the work of the men
of the Beat movement. At times women did act as the muse Philip Whalen
describes sleeping with closed eyes and golden hair. In a Paris Review
interview, Jack Kerouac jokingly makes a humorous but important comparison
between literary collaboration and sex. In response to the question, "You don't
believe in collaborations? Have you ever done any collaborations, other than
with publishers?" Kerouac retorts "I did a couple of collaborations in bed with
Bill Cannastra in lofts. With blondes." Very often the
women who influenced these men the most were their bedfellows. Kerouac wrote
about Edie Parker Kerouac, Carolyn Cassady, and other women with whom he shared
a bed. He even comments on the beauty of his muse while writing the novel Tritessa.
He says "all I did was suffer with that poor girl and then when she fell on her
head and almost killed herself. . . she was all busted up and everything. She
was the most gorgeous little Indian chick you ever saw."
Beautiful women made their way into Beat novels as "inspirations."
How many other women of the Beat Generation held the same role in the hearts of
their men? Some of the Beat men would describe their women as having influenced
their work. These men were inspired by their women, wrote about the times they
spent with those women, and even consulted with them as literary partners. In
contrast, the men also emphasize that they were often happier when their women
were not on their minds. Even Whalen says to his goddess, "I can't hear what
you say, Quietly happily out of my mind." Looking
closely at the Beat men and their work reveals the Beat women's roles as
co-creators and advisors, as well as sources of both happiness and angst. Yes,
some of these women were the anti-muse, if you will, inspiring their sons,
husbands, and lovers to distress.
Many of the Beat women inspired the Beat men as a result of break-ups or death.
William S. Burroughs "has always maintained that it was Joan Vollmer's death
which has motivated him to write ever since." Vollmer also influenced Ginsberg.
He wrote Howl after he dreamt of the deceased Joan Vollmer Burroughs.
In Howl, Ginsberg writes about madmen and women, and about Bellevue --
subjects on which Joan Vollmer would have been an authority. Similarly, Kerouac
begins his most famous novel, On the Road, with a passage describing
his break-up with Edie Parker Kerouac. Present or not, the women did influence
the men's work.
The question remains: were the Beat women muses, artists, or both? One Beat
blurs this line between muse and author even further -- Neal Cassady. He never
produced more than one autobiographical novel. Neither did some of the Beat
women. What makes his work more noteworthy? Cassady composed letters to Kerouac
and other Beats. So did the women. Neal Cassady was Jack Kerouac's muse. So
were Parker, Robinson, Johnson, and countless other women. Cassady was Allen
Ginsberg's muse. So were Joan Vollmer and Elise Cowen. Numerous Beat men wanted
to sleep with Cassady -- and the Beat women. Despite Cassady's glorified sexual
conquests, he took on a stereotypical 'womanly' role as a muse and sex-object
within the Beat movement.
Kerouac literally worshipped Cassady, as did many of the other Beats. Horrified
by the question, "Why do you think Neal doesn't write?" Kerouac answers, "He
has written. . .beautifully! He has written better than I have."
Neal Cassady's letters meant more to Kerouac than any woman's poem or novel.
Yet, Cassady's predominantly casual letters are no more justifiably literature
than the letters of any number of men and women -- who would not necessarily be
considered "authors." Kerouac says that he "got the idea for the spontaneous
style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to
me. . . I got the flash from his style. . . [The Joan Anderson Letter] was the
greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better'n anybody in America."
What was it, then, that made the letters of Neal Cassady literature, while the
writing of so many Beat women was ignored? Gregory Corso answers,
In the fifties if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female
your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone
will write about them.
But were the writings of Beat women ignored as a result of societal mores or
the psychology of the Beats themselves? Most of the women who became involved
with the Beats did so as a sort of rebellion against the singular role women
were allowed to play in the fifties -- that of the wife and mother. As Brenda
Knight suggests, "being Beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a
brand-new kitchen appliance." They thought that they
would be rebels alongside the rebel men. Yet, as Gregory Corso pointed out, in
the fifties only men could be rebels. Even within the Beat community women
could not find a new place. They became wives and mothers, only in a more
chaotic and rebellious framework. Someone needed to care for Neal Cassady's
children; someone needed to hang Jack Kerouac's T-shirts to dry; someone needed
to type "Kaddish" for Allen Ginsberg. As much as the men of the "Beat
Revolution" were rebelling, the values of the fifties could not be entirely
opposed. In the fifties, the legacy of a woman's place surfaced even on the
fringes of society. Despite their creative pursuits, the women of the Beat
movement conformed, to an extent, to the mold of the fifties woman.
What happened to make these women be considered sub-standard writers? What
relegated them to the role of muse? They had already broken free from their
families. Though they belonged to a subculture that rejected the white-collar
work world and the suburban family, they still were not able to break free from
the subtle misogyny that simultaneously made women's art worthless and made
Neal Cassady -- a self-proclaimed con-artist -- somehow worthwhile. In The San
Francisco Renaissance, Michael Davidson identifies the problem that "bohemian
enclaves seldom escape issues of gender." While, in earlier bohemian circles,
women's salons provided an outlet for creativity and discussion, there were no
such outlets for women artists of the fifties. The Beat circle did not offer a
welcoming place for women to showcase their work. However, this bohemian group
did offer women some refuge from tradition. With the
strong social ideals of the fifties prevailing, these women could only hope to
break free from part of the mold. The available stereotypes for women included:
"wife, mother, spinster, courtesan, whore, [and] ballbreaker."
The Beat women somehow shrugged off the first three.
1. Brenda Knight, Women of the Beat Generation: The
Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley, CA:
Conari Press, 1996).
2. "Muse," Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989.
3. Philip Whalen, "To the Muse," Paris Review 34
4. Joyce Johnson, in Knight, p. 177.
5. Anne Waldman, in Knight, p. xi.
6. Ted Berrigan, "The Art of Fiction XLI: Jack Kerouac," Paris
Review 43 (1968): 75.
7. ibid., p. 91.
8. Whalen, "To the Muse."
9. Knight, p. 53.
10. Berrigan, p. 77.
11 Berrigan, pp. 65-66.
12. From Stephen Scobie's account of the Naropa Institute
tribute to Ginsberg, July 1994, in Knight, p. 141.
13. Knight p. 3.
14. Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance:
Poetics and Community at Mid-century (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1989), pp. 174, 176.
15. John Clellon Holmes, Passionate Opinions: The
Cultural Essays (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988), p.
Berrigan, Ted. "The Art of Fiction XLI: Jack Kerouac." Paris Review 43
Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.
New York: W. Morrow, 1990.
Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Books,
Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at
Mid-century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Holmes, John Clellon. Passionate Opinions: The Cultural Essays.
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
Knight, Arthur and Kit Knight, eds. The Beat Vision, A Primary Source Book.
New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987.
Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and
Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996.
"Muse." Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon
Whalen, Philip. "To the Muse." Paris Review 34 (1965): 95.