Tag Archives: Allen Ginsberg

One Legendary Party: The Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters Meet at Kesey’s

7 Jul
Hell's Angels Group with Jackets

Guess who’s coming to dinner.
Image via nostalgiaonwheels.blogspot.com

WARNING: This post contains descriptions of alleged sexual violence. 

For the last six years or so, one party has been haunting me. It wasn’t any soiree I’d attended—this party took place on Saturday August 7, 1965 at Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced ranch in La Honda, California. It was a fete that epitomized the West Coast psychedelic movement’s embrace of drugs, music, and above all, the outlaw lifestyle. What made this party special wasn’t its mix of intellectuals—poet Allen Ginsberg and Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) among them—and countercultural icons such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neal Cassady; it was the 15-foot-long, red white and blue sign strung up outside the ranch: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS. Continue reading


The Politics of Authenticity: Outlaws Looking In

24 Mar

This post contains part IV of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Kerouac and GinsbergImage from flapjackstate.com

Kerouac and Ginsberg
Image from flapjackstate.com

The idea of authenticity, particularly in relation to the production and appreciation of art, reflects the fundamental desire of bohemian subcultures to establish themselves in opposition to what they perceive to be an “inauthentic” society, which often meant an embrace of rebellious—even criminal—behavior. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac (as Sal) laments, “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing” (68). This is Sal’s response to the seeming inanity of security guards enforcing a quiet ordinance, but the statement encapsulates the contemptuous attitude the Beats had for those who simply acted out society’s norms without questioning them. “Law and order’s got to be kept,” the guard says, but all Sal wants to do is “sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere” (67).

To rebel against the perceived conformity epidemic of the 1950s, Beats like Kerouac embraced and celebrated the lifestyle of society’s ultimate nonconformist: the outlaw. The outlaw, who works against established norms, is a consistent fixture in American folklore, often depicted as a hero (Konas 184). [5] Kerouac holds Dean up as a new embodiment of the outlaw/hero archetype, even describing him as a “new kind of American saint” (Kerouac 38). Consequently, Dean’s outlaw behavior is both romanticized and justified, as is his chosen lifestyle of being “on the run.” “Con-man Dean” flitters about the country “gigg[ling] maniacally” and “antagonizing people away from him by degrees” (155). Sal follows Dean devotedly because his divisive acts of rebellion unequivocally distinguish him and those around him from the monotony of 1950s America.[6] Yet the social fallout of Dean’s self-alienating behavior is evident throughout the novel, foreshadowing the conflicts that later arise within the Beat movement—a direct consequence of idealizing the outlaw brand of authenticity. Continue reading

First Thought, Best Thought: Beat Literature and the Authentic Ideal

21 Mar

This post contains part III of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Kerouac and his scrollPhoto via bookforum.com

Kerouac and his scroll
Photo from bookforum.com

When Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road about walking through “the Denver colored section, wishing [he was] a Negro,” he was rather naively expressing the Beat identification with the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negros of America” (Kerouac 180). Many aspects of Beat culture were appropriated from black culture, probably because they interpreted African Americans’ outsider status in an “inauthentic” American society as a kind of inborn authenticity.4 As Kerouac painted a vivid portrait of the Beat lifestyle in On the Road, he emphasized the Beat identification with black jazz culture, and in doing so, he brought a highly descriptive, free-flowing, sense-oriented writing style into the mainstream.  A characteristic example of this style occurs as Kerouac describes one of several jazz club scenes within the novel:

In back of the joint in a dark corridor […] scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars—wine and whiskey. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!” and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. (197)

This passage evokes not only the sights, but the sounds woven into the sensory tapestry that was a typical night at a 1950s San Francisco jazz club. Throughout the novel, Kerouac goes out of his way to convey the total synesthetic experience of Beat culture and lifestyle.

For Dean, the ultimate synesthetic experience—known enigmatically as “IT”—comes from listening to jazz played by black musicians who can “put down what’s on everybody’s mind” (207). Kerouac describes Dean as “listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own […] use” (242). Kerouac, too, did exactly that; he listened to the wild bop phrases of black jazz musicians and attempted to imitate them using a free-association writing technique that he referred to as “spontaneous prose.” As evidenced above, this style relies heavily on extensive descriptions, slang terminology, onomatopoeia, and other poetic devices to give the text a fast-paced, distinctly jazz-like feel (Charters xxv). Because of the freshness of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and his skill at ascribing written words to the frenzied excitement of the Beat lifestyle, On the Road effectively brought the ultimate Beat ideal to a mainstream audience: the jazz-inspired goal of spontaneous authenticity.

Continue reading