Our identities exist in a dialectical relationship with history, where identities both shape and result from history. At a superficial level, this may seem like fact, but when you excavate the dust that history disguises itself with, you realise that this also means that identities are lost. For instance, if you look at any significant period of literary tumult in history, the names of significant women pales when compared to the names of significant men. The only (rather ironic) exception is revolutions or movements based on gender equality, where female suffragists/feminists/activists incidentally, happen to be more bountiful.
When Virginia Woolf claimed that “for most of history, Anonymous was a woman”, she acknowledged an ailment that has persisted and continues to persist: women authors and artists venturing into avenues considered “cool” – primarily by being associated with a “Bad Boy” – such as drugs, sex and alcohol, aren’t romanticised and elevated the way the “Bad Boy” is. The “best minds of my generation” that Ginsberg talks about never include women in a direct role, just as Kerouac’s “mad to live, mad to talk” people are actually men.
The Beat Generation has gained immense cultural significance long past its descent into overnight oblivion. The drugs, the life on the road that exemplified the Beatniks has inspired people, especially young adults, all over the world. The fact that a glaring lacuna exists in the formula of the Beatniks is that the legacy that has lingered in exclusively-male, or determined by male relationships. Take Carolyn Cassady– the woman who has not been remembered for her personal intellect, but the relationships she shared with the more popular Beatniks, especially her personal involvement with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady. She had her personal intelligence, but that exists as an addendum in any recollection of the Beat Generation. She was a woman- history clearly records her as a beautiful one- existing in her relationship with Cassady and her affair with Kerouac. In a more brutal example of normalising the attitude of making women seem expendable in the pursuit of greatness, William S Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch claimed, by his own admission, that he “would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death”, which is to say, his drunken murder of her.
Joyce Johnson, another female who has been remembered in history as a result of her relation to her man (Kerouac, and an experimenting Ginsberg) said that, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.” Johnson went on to attain literary fame, writing for multiple publications, including, but not limited to, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Johnson, however, was one of many others – Hettie Jones, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman. Each of them had their own claim to fame, and literary endurance: Hettie Jones was one of the major minds behind Totem Press, which produced most of the Beats’ works. Diane di Prima wrote prolifically, and beautifully, as anyone who has read This Kind of Bird Flies Backward can attest. Anne Waldman was part of the second generation beats, writing and performing spoken word pieces that could move you to the madness Kerouac talks about. The problem lies in the fact that Hettie Jones is best remembered for her marriage to Amiri Baraka; di Prima is terribly unread and more importantly, uncanonised, so that despite being considered brilliant by the Beats – men and women alike, she was remembered for her relationships with the men; only Waldman lies as a possible exception, because her books are still relatively available, which is another important matter.
The fact that the availability, or publication of books is directly proportionate to literary canonisation speaks volumes about the peculiarities of history: any bookstore will offer you a first hand, second hand edition of On the Road, but the chances of you chancing upon, or even recognising Waldman or di Prima’s name, is terribly low. The publications you are likely to encounter are publications discussing their relationships with their men- because in history, the Beat Generation women existed in a singular bracket: the sexy, tragic muse. The ones who wasted their lives to sex and drugs and rock and roll, but became epitomised as the ones you should never become. The ones whose wasting away amounted to good poetry, or (like in the case of Burroughs) good poetic instinct, in the male. The chances of women’s literature stemming from a movement that has made poster-boys of boy-men surviving seemed paradoxical to begin with- but literary canonisation ensured their collective art became a tragedy, just like the individuals are remembered as tragic footnotes. The women of the beat tried to “shine and shine”, but history, and the sexist threads it is woven by, has left them “unspent and underground”.
Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org (Beatnik beauties posing for the title of Miss Beatnik, 1959)