On The Road and Staying Home
Robert Creeley used to say that the tradition of the traveling poet was resurrected in all its peripatetic romanticism and grit in America in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when movement was a key not only to the poetic imagination but to cultural revolution. In the age of the Internet, it can be hard to imagine that hitchhiking, train-hopping and road-tripping could be effective artistic mediums for change, but we were a different nation then, requiring more primitive heroes. The misfit vagabond became the antihero.
Traveling down America’s rapidly expanding highways through its cities and towns, the itinerant poet/observer could discover the shabby, dysfunctional and exciting stories that made up the real country that lay hidden behind a landscape dotted with cookie-cutter suburban homes, each with a Dichondra lawn rimmed with marigolds, a shiny new car in the garage and a large mahogany TV set in a wall-to-wall-carpeted living room. This Disney-like façade was fueled by the postwar economic boom and the conservative politics of the Eisenhower years. I grew up in one of those homes in Orange County, California—the home base for the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society. That was where I first read a small Viking paperback entitled On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Wow, I thought. Chronicling day by frenetic day his interactions, reactions and sordid relationships with women, booze, drugs and thugs, Kerouac made my suburban enclave seem small and trivial. I was ready to go. All I needed was gas money and for my mother to do a load of my wash.
No one epitomizes the cool poet/nomad more than Kerouac. On the Road, published in 1957, remains an icon of aesthetic mobility, insurgence and anarchy. His was a mythic voyage, one that would allow me to spin a number of myths and stereotypes of my own, not the least of which was that every artist in the 1950s was on the road wearing T-shirts and khakis, smoking Luckies, taking bennies to keep moving and drinking wine from large, oddly shaped containers.
Many years later, I learned that this so-called Beat movement was a more complex phenomenon. I was fortunate enough to meet some of the poets and artists who actually lived through that period, and was particularly fortunate to become friends with the poet Robert Duncan and his longtime companion, the artist Jess. I have done a number of exhibitions of Jess’s work, and I have always been fascinated by his unusual biography and his relationship to the Beat movement. Like everyone associated with the Beats, he fit and he didn’t fit, perhaps proving, in the end, that they were all misfits.
As Kerouac was bouncing like a pinball across the country, the young teetotaler Burgess Collins forsook his degree in chemical engineering from Cal Tech in Pasadena, California, to become a poet/artist. His conservative family essentially disowned him. He decided to “drop out,” eventually secreting himself away in a run-down Victorian house in the Mission District of San Francisco with Duncan. Known by many of the Beats simply as Jess, he became a kind of alter ego to Kerouac and a legion of Kerouac wannabes, staying at home and creating an intense vision of America characterized by fragmentation, political and social irony and fantasy through intricate collages, assemblages and paintings.
At its edges, the creative process has always been a Janus-like image—one side presenting a public face, reaching out to its social context, not only reflecting but engaging it, mixing in with and disturbing its party music (in the case of Kerouac, jazzing up the Motorola with Dizzy Gillespie records in place of Lawrence Welk). The other side of that face is more shy and introspective, home-bound on the verge of reclusive, listening to classical music and cutting out weird images from Scientific American and Harper’s Bazaar, gluing them together to form strange visual and textual stories that cross-wire Miss America with Frankenstein.
What unites these two impulses is the acceptance of a completely nonlinear view of the world—the notion that perception in the twentieth century is made up of a stream of fragments being juggled on an immense Ouija board, which is what Jess called “a flux image.” Put into motion at the beginning of the century by Cubism’s multifaceted forms, coupled with Futurism’s exploration of speed and time, the challenge of creating a “field of action,” as the poet Charles Olson called it, became paramount and remains so today. Whether we call it collage, montage or assemblage, poets, filmmakers and artists all essentially speak the same language now. Moving across different boundaries to cut up and splice low and high, the debased and the religious, artists continue the Beat legacy of seeing the world not as a whole but as parts continually transformed in relation to their context. Simply put, Damien Hirst (like Kerouac, a social animal himself) cuts a cow in half not for shock value alone but to expose it as a series of fleshy, vulnerable organs. New media practice—today’s manifestation of the flux image—produces such sophisticated electronic collages that the cuts now seem seamless.
Two exhibitions at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas place two alter egos in the context of their revolutionary generation: the Beats. Jess: To and From the Printed Page, which includes the collages, poems and broadsides of Jess, is presented alongside On the Road with the Beats, featuring manuscripts, first-edition books, photographs, drawings and all manner of ephemera left in the wake of Beatitude. To this corpus of material, the Center has added the original manuscript for Kerouac’s On the Road, an immense scroll that unrolls into a dense, typewritten text flickering from the different degrees of pressure the writer placed on the keys throughout his extended monologue. Single-spaced, with no paragraph or chapter breaks, it constitutes the first full-length draft of the work—an explosion of writing that resulted from a seven-year span of road trips in which the author became a gypsy poet.
Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady leaning against a car, undated (early 1960s)
On the surface of it, it seems extraordinary that Kerouac and Jess could end up on the same team. Go a little deeper, however, and you see two men finding their unique critical devices within a large, developing “underground” of cultural change that took the form of movable feasts and poetry readings between New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kerouac took his place as part of the holy trinity of Beat along with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who began meeting in the late 1940s and developed what Robert Duncan referred to in mafia terms as “the East Coast Family.”
Duncan would become part of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance, a West Coast alternative. As with all mafias, there was tension, but also shared territories. In 1955, San Francisco poet Michael McClure invited Ginsberg to give his first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, a Bay Area artists’ cooperative. This legendary reading, during which Ginsberg stripped, was a volatile salvo into the literary establishment: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix....” Kerouac cheered him from the audience.
Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance—Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, McClure, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen—also frequently gave readings in New York, though perhaps not to the same acclaim. And let’s not forget the Harvard-educated Creeley at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, who seemed to be everywhere all the time.
On the Road with the Beats is a kaleidoscopic exhibition that covers the broad geographic locations and some signal events of the movement that suggests the friction generated between The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and radical poets and artists of the 1950s and ‘60s. Scanning the photos and book covers alone from this period suggests a nostalgic film loop in the imagination of rebels affronting the bourgeois sensibility that many of these well-educated poets came from, including a 1953 first edition of Burroughs’ book Junkie (which he published under the pseudonym William Lee) and a 1959 first edition of the author’s Naked Lunch, a rambling collage, as he called it, of pot- and opium-inspired journalistic fragments written in Tangier, Paris and London. Both books were deemed morally and legally obscene in the United States. Although these texts might now seem tame, those of us of a certain age can attest to the impact of browsing through a bookstore in the fifties and seeing an innocent-enough-looking paperback with the large bold type spelling out JUNKIE on its cover. This was real heroin chic.
Young revolutionaries always look lean and mean, and I would guess they generally know when their time has come to be recorded for posterity. Many of the photographs included in the exhibition show poets posing. But it always seems like they are in a party atmosphere—different tribes meeting after a journey. Looking over these grainy, black-and-white images, you can almost smell the cheap wine and nicotine that stained the paper they are printed on. A photo of Charlie Parker playing in a packed club that undoubtedly included more than a few Beatniks speaks to the importance of jazz, and its melodic deviations and variations, to these writers, who valued improvisation over style.
Kerouac’s On the Road, however, is the big draw here. One of the most beloved and imitated books of the last half century, it continues to sell a hundred thousand copies a year in the United States and Canada alone. Who among us, from baby boomer to grunge musician to rapper, hasn’t identified with Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness persona? The presentation of this 120-foot-long scroll is an exhibition all its own. Gently unrolled to the length of 48 feet, it has the iconic presence of an ancient relic imparting the history of a lost civilization.
As someone with at best a limited grasp of the intricacies of the history of poetics, it is hard for me to say at what level of poetry On the Road exists. Although the language and the stories now seem a little less thrilling and immediate than they did to me when I originally read it, the juxtaposition of the seemingly unending scroll to the small, handy paperback it became seems even more radical. It is as much a piece of conceptual sculpture as it is poetry. Neither journalism, fiction, prose nor poetry, the scroll exists as a seamless, expressionistic collage of run-together descriptions that tear away at American pretensions of purity and righteousness in the fifties and sixties. With no breaks or edges, it is comparable in some respects to a Jackson Pollock drip painting, a continuously unfolding field that captured an increasingly decentered America populated by people and stories not quite in sync with the Eisenhower years.
Dizzy Gillespie and Charley Christian (New York: Esoteric, 1953)
Jess represents one of those stories. It begins in the science labs of the California Institute of Technology, where he studied chemistry before being drafted into the Army in 1944. He was assigned to the Special Engineering Corps at the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he was involved with the production of plutonium for the atom bomb. In the aftermath of the Hiroshima explosion (which occurred on his twenty-second birthday), Jess’s life took some quick turns. To make a long story short, his first declaration of independence from what he called “straight-jacket society” was his decision to become an artist. He applied to the art department of the University of California, Berkeley, on the GI Bill, but when the evaluators saw the extent of his scientific background and his subsequent impassioned desire to become an artist, they asked him to undergo psychological testing. In the end, he transferred to the more radical California School of Fine Arts, where he discovered what he called “an antidote to the scientific method.”
He also acknowledged his homosexuality and fell in love with the poet Robert Duncan. While Kerouac was on the road, Jess and Duncan were setting up their household as an openly gay, monogamous couple. While not exactly Ozzie and Harriet, they were amazingly domestic for their time and milieu: Duncan wrote and went on regular “business trips” to give readings, while Jess kept inside, cooking three meals a day for the couple and developing his art form. There was little or no alcohol or drugs in the house. The difference in temperament between Jess and Kerouac and Co. is reflected in the legendary story in which Ginsberg and a group of poets were partying in San Francisco one evening in 1956 and found themselves a little inebriated and looking for action. They rang the doorbell of Jess and Duncan’s house, hoping to continue their party. Jess slammed the door in their face and drew the curtains, hiding in the back of the house until they left.
Postcard sent from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac, 16 July 1951
Jess’ shyness and domesticity did not make him any less critical of society at large than the Beats. Indeed, Jess in many respects is simply a domestic Beat. While he stayed in the house ninety percent of the time, considered by most to be a recluse, he railed against a society that did not acknowledge difference—a world that only saw one straight path for all lives. He and Duncan imagined a world of many paths, “a grand collage,” as Duncan called it. Indeed, collage became Jess’ preferred medium. He used collage the way the Beats used language, and it is no coincidence that many of his collages contain words. A few are made up entirely of words. Even before his engagement with living poets, he was inspired by James Joyce, purchasing a first edition of Finnegans Wake (1939) on his meager Army salary. “I had some designs to be a poet, but I didn’t have the gift that Robert [Duncan] and the others had. So I went in a different direction.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, print media was a vital part of society, and Jess engaged both the printed word and the printed image, which he found in newspapers, magazines, used books, posters—even abandoned college yearbooks. He “rescued” these images, cut them up and created a new world for himself. Newspaper cartoons, or “the funnies,” as they were called then, were a particular favorite of Jess’. The characters who populated the Dick Tracy or Krazy Kat comic strips, both of which Jess loved, offered a surrogate society, which he liked to manipulate by cutting up their language balloons and the attached images to make new, disjunctive narratives. In his Tricky Cad collages, the police become as muddled as the lamebrained criminals they pursue.
Jess, Tricky Cad: Case IV, 1957; collage; 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches; courtesy Odyssia Gallery, New York
The later collages become remarkably intricate. On his rare occasions out of the house, Jess would comb through the Mission District’s used bookstores looking for images. One of the collages included in Jess: To and From the Printed Page is made up entirely of hundreds of fragments of images from a book of nineteenth-century steel engravings, which the artist cut into minute scenes. The meshing of images in many of these collages is remarkably precise. Long before Photoshop was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, using special scissors, Jess was able to make the couplings in some of his collages appear almost seamless. His collages not only were formal but were, in their own way, political in their heterogeneity. He would cut thousands of fragments from magazines and books and before using them would place them into categories. His second-floor studio had cardboard containers of these images from floor to ceiling, each with a different file label: Toys, Animals, Race, Bigots, Militarists, Homoerotic, etc.
As much as Jess was a scavenger, Duncan was both a poet and a quirky literary historian who collected everything from Gnostic texts to science fiction. The house that Jess and Duncan shared was a literary Merzbau of disparate imaginations, a domestic universe of the old and the new, the hip and the sentimental. For Jess, as it was for Kerouac and the Beats, society was a collage of seemingly misfit parts that with care could be made to work. Jess didn’t need to hit the road, however. His house was a cozy universe, where I imagine Kerouac might have once pondered resting. There are still artists who travel the planet to document and deconstruct multifaceted imagery, and those who hardly ever leave their ranch. And while their vocabulary might differ from cut-up artists of the past—sound or video as opposed to the printed word and image—both polarities nonetheless continue to explore the fragmentation of public and private in an ever-changing world under continual surveillance.