Their Own Press, Their Own Public: Editing & Promoting the Beat Generation

In the Autumn of 1958, poet/playwright LeRoi Jones and his wife, Hettie Cohen, then editors of the New York-based literary magazine Yugen, wrote to Louis Ginsberg, father of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, about Louis’s earlier protest of their “arrogant mutilation and falsification of the manifold nature of American poetry.” Their reply, probably authored by Jones, read in part, “I think it’s mags lk Poetry, PR [Partisan Review], Kenyon[Review] that do that, we are just patiently trying to show the other side of American poetry. But we are sorry if this attempt does not meet with yr approval.”

The past decade has seen a revival of interest in the writers and poets of the Beat Generation. From CD box sets of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others reading their respective works, to movies like The Source and The Last Time I Committed Suicide, to a boom in critical works dealing with topics ranging from Beat Buddhism to Beat cinema, the Beats have become “hip” again. The widespread attention, covering the commercial and the scholarly, has revisited the Beats both as serious writers and as cultural icons. But little study has been made of the Beats not only as the producers of a body of written work, but as the publishers and promoters of that work. This is an overlooked, but important aspect of the history of the Beats, for without being all three, the Beats might not be the subject of dissertations and GAP ads today.

Corresponding with the initial growth and popularity of the Beats, roughly the 1940s through the 1960s, was a rise in the number of independent literary magazines and publishers in America. Many of these magazines and presses focused on the writing of what was labeled the “Beat Generation” comprised of Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, John Weiners, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Gregory Corso, amongst others — and, at times, they were the only publication outlet for these writers. Many of the authors and contributors were also listed under the title of Editor. Doubling as contributor/editor were Jones (Yugen, The Floating Bear), Wieners (Measure), Ed Sanders (Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts), Robert Creeley (Black Mountain Review), Diane DiPrima (The Floating Bear), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (City Lights Books, City Lights Journal), to name a few.

In his anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, which featured many Beat writers, as well as those from related schools (Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance) editor Don Allen wrote in the introduction: “These poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, and their own public.” In this statement Allen touches upon two seemingly contradictory notions. While contemporary and progressive in the types of writing they were publishing, the Beats were following a tradition in American literature of self-publication, the foundation of small publishing houses and periodicals sympathetic to their own work, and collective promotion that traces back through the Modernists in the early decades of the 1900s to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in the mid-nineteenth century, a tradition they were very conscious of.

The question arises, just what brought about the need for these presses and magazines? Part of the answer is straightforward: the literary/political/cultural views of many of the Beat writers did not mirror those of more established literary magazines, mainstream publishers or the media. Their writing was in some respects socio-political and artistic commentary on the nature of American society and culture at mid-century — focusing, directly or indirectly, on what they perceived to be the militarization and conservativism of 1950s America.

Jack Kerouac’s difficulty in finding a publisher for his second book, On the Road, was not the only example of the challenge new writers faced in trying to break into print. Written in 1951, Kerouac’s 120-foot scroll manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers until Viking Press released it in 1957. One editor at Alfred A. Knopf described Kerouac’s effort as “badly misdirected talent and that this huge, sprawling and, au fonde, inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic, indignant (with some justice) reviews from every side”. Poet Gary Snyder recalled later that “From [1952] on I sent a lot of poems to Poetry magazine, and they were rejected, regularly.” The Kenyon Review backed out of publishing a poem by Robert Duncan after his essay “The Homosexual in Society” appeared in the left-wing monthly Politics. Kenyon editor, John Ransom Crowe, provided the strange excuse that the essay was courageous, but the poem was a “homosexual advertisement.” Such is the initial dilemma of any underground writing.

Some writers, frustrated by this lack of interest from the literary and publishing establishments, chose to create their own outlets. The production methods differed, from mimeograph to letterpress, but beginning in the mid-1940s a number of Beat-edited magazines began to appear. Growing from this were small presses like Totem Press, Corinth Books, and City Lights. Although it is often lumped together, the writing of the Beat Generation was quite diverse. Within this diversity, there was still a sense of community, which led to the support of one another’s work. By starting magazines such as Measure, Neon, etc., these writers/editors could begin to find an audience for their own work and for that of their compatriots.

In a 1960 interview, LeRoi Jones was asked why he published a “stable” of Beat, New York and San Francisco writers in Yugen and his Totem Press books. He responded that since the editors of the more established Hudson Review or Sewanee Review excluded William Carlos Williams or Kenneth Patchen based on their “literary point of view” then “I feel I have as much right, certainly, to base my choice on my literary taste.” Gilbert Sorrentino in an editorial for the second issue of Neon wrote that the magazine was “by and for young writers” whose writing had no place else to go.

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books, has said, “The function of the small press is discovery.” Ferlinghetti opened San Francisco’s City Lights Book Shop in 1953 as an all paperback bookstore. In less than a year, he had become sole owner and expanded the business into a publishing house, which he modeled after James Laughlin’s New Directions. City Lights published a host of Beat writers, and continues to do so to this day. Initially, many of them were featured in the Pocket Poet Series, inexpensive pocket-sized volumes of poetry, with Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World being the first in 1955.

Walt Whitman, like Ferlinghetti, had begun his own effort at self-publishing a century before with Leaves of Grass. For the first edition, in 1855, Whitman’s involvement extended from assisting the printers in setting type to ghostwriting his own reviews. Whitman would continue to revise and expand the poems in this volume and oversee its publication until his death. Whitman was also an influence on many of the Beats with his emphasis on creating a truly American voice in poetry, an influence that would in many ways be filtered through William Carlos Williams.

The explosion of literary magazines and small presses duri
ng the post-WWII period was a revival of the “little magazine”, the term used to describe the American and English literary reviews of the early decades of the 20th century, many of which had been devoted to the works of Modernist writers such as Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Richard Aldington, and T.S. Eliot.

The guiding spirit of this group was poet and critic Ezra Pound, who perhaps has had a greater influence on American literary arts than any other writer. Pound was a tireless champion of those authors and poets whose work he believed to have promise. He helped others find publishers for their work, provided financial assistance to help fund publications, and wrote appreciative reviews. Pound served as “foreign correspondent” for the Little Review and Poetry, helped found both Blast and The Exile, and steered The Egoist from a feminist magazine to an avant-garde literary review. New Directions Publishing Corporation, which would be a leading publisher of the Modernists and later the Beats, was founded when Pound advised James Laughlin that he would never make it as a writer and should instead consider starting his own publishing company.

Like Pound, poet William Carlos Williams was also a dedicated supporter of small literary reviews. He edited Contact from 1920 to 1923 and published three issues of a “new series” in 1932 and was later a guiding force of Pagany, which took its name from Williams’ novel A Voyage to Pagany. To Williams, “The little magazine is something I have always fostered, for without it, I myself would have been easily silenced.”

Pound and Williams, both as poets and as editors, profoundly influenced many of the Beats, with hardly a Beat editor not having contact with, or claiming inspiration from, Pound, Williams and the literary reviews of the 1910s and 20s. Prior to the publication of the Black Mountain Review, Robert Creeley’s first attempt at starting a literary magazine in the late 1940s occasioned him to write to both poet/editors. Pound responded with what Creeley referred to as a “rule book” for editing a literary magazine; advice that Creeley would put to use in BMR.

Allen Ginsberg felt that the Beats were heirs to the Modernist movement. In turn, Williams was an early supporter of the writing of the Beats, hosting Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso and others during pilgrimages to his New Jersey home, as well as writing an introduction to Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Williams summarized the title poem as Ginsberg’s attempt to “[see] through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing, but experiences it to the hilt,” and advises, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”

Apart from the writing featured in many Beat era magazines, one could also find advertisements for other publications, presses, and bookstores that offered the Beats an audience. Many of these publications focused on the newness of the writing within Yugen‘s subtitle proclaimed it to be a “new consiousness in arts and letters”, while the Journal for the Protection of All Beings advertised itself as a “visionary and revolutionary review.” Even New York City’s Gotham Book Mart listed “New Writers, New Magazines” in its advertisements.

While keeping a focus on the work of new, young writers and poets, many of these magazines realized their debt to those of earlier decades. In announcing its formation, City Lights Journal editor Lawrence Ferlinghetti stated that the Journal would “take as our models such great literary loci of other decades as Transition, Botteghe Oscure and the continuing New Directions anthologies.” An ad for City Lights Books found in Lita Hornik’s Kulchur (which derived its name from Pound’s Guide to Kulchur) lists Ferlinghetti’s annual as “following in the footsteps of the Dial, Transition, etc.

Apart from the formation of magazines and presses, the promotion and circulation of one another’s works was common among the Beat writers, whether it be to the “littles” or major publishers. Exemplary in this duty were Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka.

Much as Ralph Waldo Emerson had played a large role in promoting the work of his contemporaries, so did Ginsberg. Beginning with the first American edition of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Emerson edited or promoted works by Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Ellery Channing and others. In his dedication in Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg not only mentioned Kerouac, Burroughs and Neal Cassady, but also listed titles of their unpublished works, as well. If this didn’t help to interest would-be publishers, the three could at least take heart in Ginsberg’s belief that their books were already “published in heaven”.

In his autobiography, Baraka calls Ginsberg “the poetry advertiser of that age, the role that Ezra Pound played during the 20s, hipping people to each other, trying to get various people published.” In his role as unofficial literary agent for both Kerouac and William Burroughs, Ginsberg spent considerable time making the rounds of publishers with their respective unpublished manuscripts. Try as he might, Ginsberg was unable to interest anyone in Kerouac’s work. He did, however, find success in placing Burroughs’ first book, Junkie, with Carl Solomon at Ace Books.

Jones/Baraka’s own role as an editor has often been overshadowed by his poetry and drama or by his later interest in black nationalism. However, along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books, Jones was responsible for the circulation of the majority of Beat writing at the time. In addition to co-editing both Yugen and The Floating Bear, he also served as a contributing editor to Kulchur. His Totem Press, on its own or in conjunction with Corinth Books, published titles by Kerouac, Snyder, Frank O’Hara, Edward Dorn, Michael McClure and others.

As with many examples of vanguard art, the mainstream eventually began to accept or absorb the Beat Generation. Eventually, Harper & Row, Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and other major publishers would all include the work of Beat writers in their catalogs. Such a process often takes time, and the art must first sustain itself by its own means until a wider audience and society as a whole begin to accept it. By providing sources of publication and an audience for themselves, Jones/Baraka, Ferlinghetti, Wieners, and others succeeded in bringing about a “new consciousness in American literary art” much as writers had done for the past century.

(First published in The Ryder (February 2002), Bloomington, Indiana.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!