July 30, 1982
Beat Generation Elders Meet to Praise Kerouac
By WILLIAM E. SCHMIDT
BOULDER, Colo., July 29 — Nearly 13 years after his death and 25 years after ”On the Road” became his testament for the Beat Generation, young admirers and old comrades of Jack Kerouac gathered here this week to celebrate his life and his legacy.
Hundreds joined in the celebrating, with poetry and debate and sometimes sadly affectionate recollections of the man who was called the ”King of the Beats.”
”We couldn’t have had the 60’s, the decade of social revolution, without the 50’s,” said Abbie Hoffman, who was a prominent figure in the antiwar movement of the late 1960’s. Mr. Hoffman was among the panelists invited to speak here this week on the political effect of the Beat Generation.
”The Beats gave us a choice, showed us we could let our emotions hang out, we could fight City Hall,” said Mr. Hoffman, in a speech to more than 1,000 people crowding an auditorium on the campus of the University of Colorado here. ”The Beats are alive today.”
”On the Road: the Jack Kerouac Conference,” which will continue here through Sunday, has brought together many of the elders of a movement whose followers were once popularly referred to as beatniks and for whom Mr. Kerouac has become not only a symbol but also a figure of almost cultlike proportion.
Legacy of the Beats
In a sense, the conference is not only a celebration of Mr. Kerouac, although he is clearly the central figure, but also a whole fraternity of writers, poets and musicians who rebelled against what they saw as the stifling, conformist cultural values of the 1950’s.
”As a literary generation, the legacy of the Beats seems stronger than ever,” said Allen Ginsberg, the poet and a longtime friend of Mr. Kerouac. Mr. Ginsberg’s 1956 poem, ”Howl,” also became an anthem of the Beat generation. As for ”On the Road,” Mr. Kerouac’s novel, Mr. Ginsberg said that ”it turned on an entire generation.”
In addition to Mr. Ginsberg, who is 56 years old, those here this week include William S. Burroughs, 68, the author of the novel ”Naked Lunch,” and the poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure and Peter Orlovsky.
More than 300 people pledged as much as $240 each to attend the conference and workshops, and scores more paid as much as $8 each for tickets to panel discussions that ranged from examinations of Mr. Kerouac’s relationships with women to an afternoon of personal recollections by his friends, many of which focused on his corrosive bouts with alcohol.
Carried ‘Like a Suitcase’
Nanda Pivano recalled that on a visit to Naples in the 1960’s to talk about his book, Mr. Kerouac was so drunk he had to be carried around ”like a suitcase.” John Clellon Holmes, a writer and poet, remembered a telephone call that turned out to be his last conversation with Mr. Kerouac, just a month before the writer died in October 1969.
Mr. Holmes said that Mr. Kerouac, who was lonely and probably drunk when he called, reluctantly hung up the telephone at last with the plea, ”If you’re my friend, you’ll call me right back.”
”I didn’t call him back,” Mr. Holmes said, adding softly, ”I’m doing it right now.”
Memorabilia Sells Briskly
In a small room off the lobby of the University’s Memorial Center, conference sponsors were doing a brisk business selling Beat memorabilia, including old copies of Evergreen Review for $5 and brightly colored T-shirts that bear Mr. Kerouac’s visage, for $6 and $7. They sold out their first shipment of 12 dozen T-shirts, as well as all their copies of ”On the Road,” in the first three days.
In addition, there is a display of films, manuscripts and photographs at a local museum, including a photo of the original manuscript of ”On the Road,” which Mr. Kerouac wrote in 1951 on a single, 100-foot roll of yellow teletype paper.
In an interview, Mr. Ginsberg said that the work of Mr. Kerouac and others of the Beat Generation was ”at the cutting edge of a literary movement that broke the back of censorship in this country.”
”The real legacy of Kerouac and the Beats is one of literary liberation,” said Mr. Ginsberg, whose own work has been frequently decried as pornographic because of its sexual detail. ”And that literary liberation was the catalyst for Gay liberation, Black liberation, women’s liberation and now, hopefully, liberation from the threat of nuclear destruction.”
‘Notre Dame of Buddhism
The conference is sponsored by the Naropa Institute, a small, Buddhist-oriented college above some shops on the second floor of a building in downtown Boulder. The institute, which offers degree programs in the humanities, is sometimes described by its patrons as ”the Notre Dame of Buddhism,” a reference to the Catholic university in South Bend, Ind.
Mr. Ginsberg has been associated with the school since 1974 as a founder and instructor of its Jack Kerouac School of Poetics, which offers courses in creative writing, Buddhist poetry and the literary history of the Beat generation. The institute has about 100 full-time students.
”In Kerouac, there is a gentleness, a basic vulnerability, that puts him somewhere between Buddhism and Christianity,” said Mr. Ginsberg, who said that Mr. Kerouac was, like himself, a student of Buddhist meditation.
”On the Road,” a free-flowing treatise on Mr. Kerouac’s moods, feelings and experiences as he traveled across America, was criticized by many critics as shallow and self-indulgent.
Sex and drugs play a large part in the novel, which was written as if it were one long sentence, with only dashes for punctuation. That peculiar style led Truman Capote, another author, to remark that the book was not writing, but rather ”typewriting.” ”What we are doing here is not just nostalgia,” Mr. Ginsberg said. ”We want to survey what was achieved, and make some prophesy for the future. I think both the Buddhist teaching and the Beat attitude provide us with some useful karma for the moment.”