The Women of the Beat Generation
By Pamela Twining
“We lived outside, as if.
As if we were men? As if we were freer versions of ourselves?
There have always been women like us.” ~ Hettie Jones
Janine Pommy Vega Lenore Kandel Diane Di Prima ruth weiss Joanne Kyger Hettie Jones Joanna McClure Anne Waldman Elise Cowan Bonnie Bremser Louanne Henderson Carolyn Cassady Joyce Johnson, hardly the household names that their friends, lovers, and partners in social subversion, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, among others, came to be. Though many of these women were and are excellent writers, artists, poets in their own right, they are often mentioned only in passing, as background, in renderings of the Life & Times of the Beat Generation. Works such as ‘On The Road’, ‘Howl’, ‘Naked Lunch’ inspired more than one generation of young people to flout convention, seek Enlightenment through mind altering substances and a whole World of religions, support the recognition and joyous acceptance of difference among people, and release Art & Literature from the chains of the Academy.
In the post-WWII euphoria, young men returned home to a changed and changing country. Women had entered the work force in huge numbers, filling the factory jobs abandoned by men off to war and office jobs expanding as technology advanced, typewriters, Dictaphones, mimeograph machines enabling the coming age of mass production. However, as the men came home from the front, most women welcomed the return to more traditional roles, as wives and mothers, as chatelaines of the tidy little picket fenced castles supported and maintained by their newly minted husbands, the Ideal being 2.5 children and a mortgage on a little house on a small street in small town America.
Some women were not so easily convinced to return to acceptance of these old-fashioned mores. They had tasted autonomy and reveled in their newfound ability to support a single life, engage in sexual liaisons of their choosing, whether married or no, to study at university in fields formerly open only to men. They were finding their own Voices in the postwar American Dream. Poets like HD (Hilda Doolittle), Marilyn Rukeyser, and Gwendolyn Brooks created essential lives for themselves within and surrounded by their work. Each, in her own way, defied the conventions in service of her art.
The Jazz and the energy and exuberance of postwar youth spawned an explosion in Art and Literature that became known as Beat in the 1950s. If Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ provided the fire for this insurgency, these newly independent women, often poets and artists in their own right, nurtured the flames. They were often the breadwinners, whose apartments provided meeting places for the students, artists, and intellectuals of the new bohemians. They worked in bookstores, publishing houses, and as translators, waitresses and clerks. They were the Lovers, Muses, sometimes Wives, of the brash and charismatic young men who were changing poetry and literature in America. They were stubborn in their defiance of convention, though their paths to recognition of their own work were blocked by those very conventions. In the ’50s, a woman’s goal was wife and motherhood, in that order; accomplishment in the public sphere was a male prerogative.
There were some who wrote and thrived in Beatitude, others who banked their own fires while furthering the careers of their lovers and husbands, still others who fell tragically, victims of their demons and the times. As Gregory Corso once said, “There were women; they were there. I knew them. Their families put them in institutions. They were given electric shock. In the ’50s, if you were male, you could be a rebel, but if you were female, your families had you locked up.”[i]
One of those doomed young women was Elise Cowan. Raised in a safe, middle class Long Island home, she never quite fit in with her parents’ plans for her. Though she graduated from Barnard College according to their wishes, it was there she met Joyce Glassman (Johnson) and others, whose apartments were gathering places for poets and philosophers of the new bohemians. Upon meeting Allen Ginsberg, she immediately felt that they were kindred spirits and fell deeply in love. Always fey, she had flirted with suicide several times and spent time in Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward for depression. When Allen fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, Elise took a woman lover and the two couples shared an apartment for a while. However, her depressions became deeper and darker. In early 1962, she was again admitted to Bellevue for several days. Her parents secured her release, hoping to take her to Florida to recover. Before that could happen, she jumped from the fifth floor window of her parents’ apartment to her death. She never even opened the window.
Her parents destroyed most of her poetry and all of her journals, but her longtime friend, Leo Skir, had saved 83 poems in a box in his basement, which he sent to Evergreen Review and other small magazines for publication. It is only for that reason that we are able to appreciate her brilliance.
Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
I love you
“The” is a beautiful, regal, perfect word
Oh I wish you body here
With or without bearded poems
Who Will Slap…
Who will slap
When I am born
Who will close my eyes
Lenore Kandel was immortalized by Jack Kerouac in ‘Big Sur’ as Romana Swartz, “a big Rumanian monster beauty of some kind… but also intelligent, well read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything…”[ii] One of the few female Beat writers to be recognized in her own time, her notoriety came in 1966, after publication of ‘The Love Book’. Her poetry, which she referred to as Holy Erotica was deemed obscene. City Lights bookstore and the Psychedelic Shop were raided by the San Francisco police, who confiscated all copies off the shelves on the grounds that it ‘excited lewd thoughts’. She defended her work as an attempt to show that “sexual acts between loving persons are religious acts.”
Born in New York City in 1932, Lenore had decided to become a Buddhist by the age of 12. She read voraciously and wrote prodigiously. She sat zazen in New York and had three small chapbooks published before moving to San Francisco in 1960. Through her lover, poet Lew Welch, she met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Gary Snyder, et al, as well as Carolyn Cassady and Joanne Kyger, the wives of Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder. Joining the anarchist political group, The Diggers, she met and became fast friends with Diane Di Prima, another of the seminal (if one can use that word with regard to a woman) poets of the Beat.
The only other work published during her lifetime was ‘Word Alchemy’ in 1967. In the Introduction, she says, “Poetry is never compromise. It is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience. If you compromise your vision you become a blind prophet.” In 1970, she was grievously injured in a motorcycle accident with her then-husband, Hell’s Angel Bill Fritsch. In constant pain, she removed herself from ‘the Scene’ living quietly, still reading and writing, until her death from lung cancer in 2009.
Age of Consent
I cannot be satisfied until I speak with angels
I require to behold the eye of god
to cast my own being into the cosmos as bait for miracles
to breathe air and spew visions
to unlock that door which stands already open and enter into the presence
of that which I cannot imagine
I require answers for which I have not yet learned the questions
I demand the access of enlightenment, the permutation into the miraculous
the presence of the unendurable light
perhaps in the same way that caterpillars demand their lepidoptera wings
or tadpoles demand their froghood
or the child of man demands his exit
from the safe warm womb
The short film, ‘Pull My Daisy’, adapted by Jack Kerouac from Act III of his play, ‘Beat Generation’, depicts a fictional scene in the life of Neal Cassady and his wife, Carolyn, a painter and the mother of three of his children. The cast includes Beat icons Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and David Amram, and is narrated by Kerouac himself. The characters of Neal and Carolyn are played by others. The film tells the story of a railway brakeman whose wife invites the Bishop over for dinner, but the brakeman’s bohemian friends crash the party, with hilarious results, as might be expected. At the end of the film, as the boys race out of the apartment, chased by domestic convention, the wife is left crying. And the boys rave off, “She’ll get over it!” “Let’s go! ‘S go! ‘S go!”
Many of the women of the Beat, Joanna McClure, married to Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, wife of Gary Snyder, Hettie Jones, married at the time to Leroi Jones, later to be known as Amiri Baraka, Carolyn Cassady, Joyce (Glassman) Johnson and Helen Weaver, early lovers of Kerouac, wrote books and poems, painted paintings, kept house, raised the children, ran small press publishing houses, won the bread, and kept the home fires burning, during that time that women’s roles were so circumscribed. Years later, some would write and publish memoirs of that time, providing a unique inside look at the nitty gritty of Life in Bohemia. Joyce Johnson’s ‘Minor Characters’, Hettie Jones’ ‘How I Became Hettie Jones’, Carolyn Cassady’s ‘Off The Road’, Helen Weaver’s ‘The Awakener’, Bonnie Bremser’s ‘Troia: Mexican Memoirs’ are a few of the glimpses into the Beat, seen through the eyes of the women who waited and watched.
There is some pushback against the idea that the women of the Beat were stay-at-home left-behinds of a misogynistic homosocial boy’s adventure. One of the women whose life speaks the most to that point of view was Luanne Henderson, Neal’s first wife, whom he married when she was just 15. Bounced back and forth between divorced parents, she matured early and was beginning to be sexually adventurous, unusual for a girl at that time. When her stepfather started to look her way, Luanne’s mother allowed her to marry Neal and leave school. The young couple hitchhiked to Nebraska to stay with her relatives, then decided to leave for New York, because Neal had dreams of matriculating at Columbia University. Neal was a great stealer and borrower of cars. They left one midnight in Luanne’s uncle’s car with her employer’s petty cash and hightailed it for New York City, where they stayed with Neal’s friends who introduced them to Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and, eventually, Jack Kerouac.
Luanne and Jack hit it off, as they talked quietly amidst the raucous goings-on of the poet/artist/Beat young men around them. Neal was initially suspicious of Jack; they were very different personalities, Neal’s famous ebullience and manic energy, Jack’s quiet, almost shy, diffidence. But both were close to Luanne. She was reputed to be a good Listener and intuitively compassionate. The relationship among the three deepened and eventually translated into those mad journeys across the country that became immortal in Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’. In the book, Luanne is characterized as Marylou, Dean Moriarty’s ‘beautiful little sharp chick’, who takes part in their adventures with unquestioning gusto. Her sexual openness and ever readiness for new adventures made her very different from most young women of her time. She knew and was close to both Neal and Jack until their early, somewhat parallel, deaths. Though she never wrote her own memoirs, her story is told in depth in interviews by Gerald Nicosia and her daughter, Anne Marie Santos, in ‘One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road’.[iii] Besides bringing Jack and Neal momentously together, through the character of Marylou, she changed the way young women participated in adventures previously the prerogative of men. In the words of Joanna McClure, the poet and wife of Michael, quoting Luanne: “She demanded a ‘broad margin’ to her life showing she had ‘as much right to go through every door as a man had.’ A number of us followed her.”
Janine Pommy Vega was another young woman of the Beat who went her own way; though participating in many relationships, both long and very short, she never tied herself to one man. Inspired by ‘On The Road’, she left her home in New Jersey at 15 to become part of the Beat scene in New York City. She was soon living with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, both of whom were her lovers, and Peter’s young brother, Lafcadio. When Allen and Peter left for India, they entrusted Janine and Lafcadio to their friend, writer, poet, street hustler and junkie, Herbert Huncke, with whom she developed a lifelong friendship. Married at 20 to poet/artist Fernando Vega and widowed by 23, she wrote her first book, ‘Poems To Fernando’, which was the first work by a female to be published by City Lights, as part of their Pocket Poets series in 1968.
After his death, she lived as a hermit on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian-Peruvian border. The books, ‘Journal of a Hermit’ and ‘Morning Passage’, were the result of this sojourn. She went on to publish several more books, including ‘Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents’, journaling her extensive travels in search of the Divine Mother, her life goal. Throughout her life, she was widely sought as a reader in Europe and the US. In the 1970s, she began working in the schools, teaching poetry to children, and in prisons through the Incisions/Arts program, also serving on the PEN Prison Writing Committee. Her advocacy for prisoners, especially women in prison, became a hallmark of her later life. Her last years were spent, when she wasn’t ‘on the road’, in Woodstock, NY, in her beloved Catskill Mountains, most of which she hiked and climbed. She shared her life at that time with poet Andy Clausen, an esteemed protégé of Allen Ginsberg, a ‘BeBop Buddha’ whose jazz rants are legendary. She died in his arms in 2010.
I lower my bones in you
through the porthole
lapping on my ceiling
all night long
I surrender my joints and knuckles
the watery lining of my lungs
the passageways of breath
and brain wave
Mother of the apron pocket
crook of the arm
susurrous lullaby O
rock me in your cradle
all night long
Other women, Anne Waldman, poet, performer and co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Hettie Jones who, after her marriage to LeRoi Jones ended, was an acknowledged poet/publisher in her own right, and revolutionary poet and Digger Diane DiPrima, also carved out paths to success for themselves through the jungles of institutional misogyny. All of these women, the Survivors and the Lost, have left their writings and performances as a deeper, broader experience of the Beat era, the sine qua non without whom the fragile edifice constructed by those wild, unstructured, often troubled, and brilliant young men of the Beat could not have survived. As a feminist consciousness has expanded since the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, their work is finally coming to light and appreciation. Their stories add to the richness of understanding; their art reflects the deeply subversive nature of ungendered Beat.
In the ’60s, the massive cohort of babies born in postwar US began to reach adolescence. They had little interest in joining the grey legions of pacified citizens endlessly striving for middle class affirmation. Television provided images of mushroom clouds testing nuclear apocalypse, black Americans attacked with dogs and fire hoses, flag draped coffins of young men returning by thousands from a war no one admitted existed.
Though it has often been said that the Beats were rather apolitical, and it’s true that they did not speak with one voice, their focus on the common man, the relation of art to daily life, their acceptance of difference, racial, sexual, and religious, evinced a radical social individualism, perhaps distinctly American, that informed the nascent Movements of the ’60s, for Peace, for Civil Rights, gender equality and sexual openness, the burning of draft cards, the burning of bras.
The ‘Road’ mythology inspired by the Beat insurgency spoke to youth in general, and female characters like MaryLou and Romana Swartz spoke to young women, in particular, of women free-spirited and adventurous, of the excitement of being in the middle of the erotic and creative energy of the Beat scene, possibilities unknown in conventional society. Hettie Jones and Eileen Kaufman, married to poet and activist, Bob Kaufman, were mothers of bi-racial children in a time when interracial marriage was uncommon. Some women were, like Elise Cowan, fluid of gender, often dressing in masculine garb and living bi-sexually. Lenore Kandel wrote of sexual/spiritual ecstasy; Diane Di Prima wrote of inner and outer revolution, walking the walk with the anarchist Diggers, traveling the country in a van, children in tow. These women, through the art of their work and their lives, helped spark a social revolution, from the hippies, to the Punks, to the millennials of today. That these women lived and wrote and painted and loved belies the prevailing narrative of misogyny. The fact that we have those discussions at all is a testament to the fact that ‘They were there.’
[i] From Stephen Scobie’s account of the Naropa institute tribute to Allen Ginsberg, July 1994
Ref: “Women of the Beat Generation”; Brenda Knight 1996
[ii] “Big Sur” ~ Jack Kerouac
[iii] “One and Only: The Untold Story of On The Road & LuAnne Henderson, the Woman Who Started Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady On Their Journey” Gerald Nicosia, Anne Marie Santos, Cleis Press, Inc. 2011
Pamela Twining left home at the age of 17, hitchhiked to California and back to live in Woodstock, NY. There she wrote poetry, raised four children, studied herbal healing and matriculated at Vassar College, majoring in Women’s Studies. She has traveled the US with her partner, poet Andy Clausen, performing her work in California, Colorado, New York City, Michigan, Wisconsin and places in between. Her work has appeared in Big Scream, Big Hammer, poetrybay, Heyday! and Napalm Health Spa, among others. With Andy Clausen, she is co-curator of “The Invisible Empires of Beatitude” page at The Museum of American Poetics. In addition, she is author of three chapbooks: “i have been a river…” dancinFool Press 2011; “utopians & madmen” dancinFool Press 2012; “A Thousand Years of Wanting; the Erotic Poetry of Pamela Twining” Shivastan Press 2013. More info about her on Woodstock Beat Poets & The Open Door.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.