HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

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.[1] 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 Was Edie Parker Kerouac, who wrote a hidden, unpublished memoir about her life?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."[2] 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."[3] 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.[4]

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."[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8] 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.[9] 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."[10] 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."[11]

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.[12]

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."[13] 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.[14] 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."[15] 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 (1965): 95.

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. 137.


Berrigan, Ted. "The Art of Fiction XLI: Jack Kerouac." Paris Review 43 (1968): 61-105.

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, 1992.

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 Press, 1989.

Whalen, Philip. "To the Muse." Paris Review 34 (1965): 95.

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