Beatniks: How I Wrote A Subculture Guidebook

(There are many, many books about the literary Beat Generation, but Alan Bisbort’s guidebook Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture offers a freahly anthropological look at the same old crowd, rich in detail and enthusiastic about far-flung cultural connections. I asked Bisbort, author of books like When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me”: The Life and Redemption of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America and Rhino’s Psychedelic Trip, how this new work came to be, and here’s what he wrote.– Levi)

In 2008, my friend Sharon Hannon was contracted by Greenwood Press to write Punks, part of a reference book series called Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures. As a talented writer, dogged researcher and former punk rocker who cut her teeth in Washington, D.C.’s hardcore punk scene, Sharon was imminently qualified to undertake the volume. She sent me an email to thank me for putting her in touch with Greenwood Press, for whom I had written a book the year before (Media Scandals, part of their Scandals in American History series). Sharon mentioned in passing that she thought Greenwood was also planning to publish separate volumes in the Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures series called Hippies, Goths, Flappers and Beatniks.

“Wait a minute,” I responded. “Run that by me again. Beatniks?! Hey, I’ve already written that book! I’ve written it in my head a hundred times! They can’t let anyone but me write that book!”

Luckily, I knew the acquisition editor in charge of the series. When I contacted her, I told her I was writing Beatniks. I didn’t ask her if I could, I didn’t say I would submit a book proposal. I told her I was writing it. I told her that the book was, in fact, already written, that it had been written in my head, heart and soul over the past 25 years, since the first time I picked up a Jack Kerouac novel and really read it. All I had to do was turn myself upside down, shake vigorously and it would all spill out.

Surprisingly, the Greenwood Press editor didn’t hang the phone up on me. Instead, she told me to just submit a sample chapter and an outline and the contract was mine. And that’s how I came to write Beatniks, recently published by Greenwood/ABC-Clio. The words and connections just flowed out of my head like the waters of the Merrimac River outside the old mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Beatniks now sits on the reference shelves of many estimable libraries even as we speak, nestled next to Sharon Hannon’s Punks, Micah Issitt’s Hippies, and Travis & Hardy’s Skinheads. Taken together, these volumes comprise a fairly detailed portrait of American countercultural history over the past 60 years.

The hardest part of the whole experience of writing Beatniks was knowing when and where to stop. How do you put an ending on the Beat Generation? As far as I’m concerned, it never really ended. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the events of the 1960s could have unfolded as they did without the Beat Generation and the Beatniks loosening the bonds of the mainstream culture and opening the doors of perception to new alternatives. By comparison to the 1960s, the 1950s were a vast frozen expanse, buffeted by the winds of the Cold War and McCarthyism, bothered by the fears of Communism and nuclear annihilation, and bewildered by political paranoia and cultural conformity. Under such conditions, the chances of pulling off a countercultural revolution were slim. And yet, that revolution did occur, though the enormity of it has only now begun to be appreciated in the wake of the much more colorful and dramatic events of the 1960s.

In every aspect of that tumultuous decade of the 1960s — in music, art, dance, literature, as well as in spirituality, environmentalism, civil rights, feminism, gay liberation, fashion, language — the fingerprint of the Beats and the Beatniks can be found. Indeed, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road may have introduced young Americans to the possibilities of their own country, but his novel The Dharma Bums sparked a “rucksack revolution,” blazing the trail for the back-to-nature and communal movements that were inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog, first published by Stewart Brand in 1968. Brand has admitted that he was influenced by the writings of Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, and their influence runs through the catalog’s pages. The influence of the Whole Earth Catalog, in turn, was said to inspire computer visionaries like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, Inc., who claimed the catalog was the “conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web.” While it’s a stretch to say that, like Al Gore, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder “invented the Internet,” their influence was there from the start, like ripples in a pond that led to the tidal wave of instant communication that washes over us today.

Getting back to how Kerouac got his hooks in to me.

I confess that I backed my way into the Beat Generation. I was not born when the Beats were haunting the streets of Manhattan and San Francisco, and I did not immediately take to their worldview when I first encountered it. I graduated from college in North Carolina in 1976, a newly-minted English literature major whose only ambition was to drink beer and work in restaurant kitchens. While some of my college friends rocketed off to Manhattan, I was not nearly so ambitious, choosing instead to fizzle and drizzle my way along until eventually I ended up in Washington D.C. looking for government work.

Soon enough, one of my friends landed a job in New York as an editorial intern at McGraw-Hill. It was a fortuitous time to be at McGraw-Hill, which was in the process of reissuing trade paperback editions of Jack Kerouac’s (then) lesser-known work (Visions of Gerard, Tristessa, Big Sur, etc.), as well as the first attempt to capture his high-water mark of spontaneous prose, Visions of Cody, in an affordable edition. Back in high school, I had breezed through On the Road and The Dharma Bums, along with countless other titles that were then required of wannabe hipsters (e.g. Kesey, Brautigan, Vonnegut, etc.). For some unfathomable reason, these hastily read volumes were not part of Lakeside High’s English literature curriculum, a fact that only further alienated me from my suburban surroundings.

Somehow, though, these earlier Beat books failed to leave a lasting mark on me. This time, however, via these McGraw Hill volumes that had no attachment to any literary fashion, Kerouac really got his hooks in me. Here was a writer! Here was everything I wanted to be!

Through a series of what I now can only see as small miracles, I was working at the Library of Congress at the time. My stated job, as part of a Dostoevskian office buried deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, was to deliver books and photocopied articles to Congressional offices. One of the unstated perks of the job was the right (if not the patriotic duty) to roam freely through the stacks of the world’s greatest literary repository: 72 miles of shelves’ housed in three separate buildings, all within the shadows of the U.S. Capitol and U.S. Supreme Court. To skulk about among the dimmest-lit corners of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams buildings was like entering the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Will I find my way back out? Do I really want to find my way back out?

During the hours, weeks and years that I was supposed to be photocopying articles for members of Congress, I was instead perched at reading tables in upper alcoves of the Main Reading Room poring over limited edition pamphlets of Beat verse, or bound copies of Evergreen Review, or Arthur and Kit Knight’s series of unspeakable visions of the individual periodicals. The Kerouac of Big Sur and Visions of Cody had led me to Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (and William Burroughs Jr.) and Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso and John Clellon Holmes and Gary Snyder. Snyder led me to Philip Whalen and Lew Welch and Alan Watts and Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti led me to Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen and William Everson and Denise Levertov and Josephine Miles and Diane di Prima …

Slowly, over the next several years of venturing deeper inside the literary labyrinth, I amassed a file cabinet’s worth of Beat Generation materials—all surrogate versions of the real thing. That is, I used that photocopy machine (and your tax money!) to create for myself as large a collection of Beat material as I could. I didn’t know exactly what I would do with this cache, but it was my contention that this circle of writers, musicians, artists, photographers, drinkers and druggers had been underappreciated when they were in their heyday and were in danger of being forgotten lest someone like me kept their flames alive.

Talk about Dracula in the blood bank: In the Library of Congress stacks were bound runs of the Chicago Review, Big Table, Black Mountain Review, Kulchur, Yugen and even Fuck You, Ed Sanders’ “Magazine of the Arts,” the only copies of that seminal work that I have seen before or since. There were runs of Nugget, too, and Saga and other softcore men’s magazines where some of the Beat legacy was disseminated. And, from the Beats, I was carried me off into other realms of American bohemianism, the interconnected circles that go backward and forward through time and settle in little pockets throughout the country: Harlem, Greenwich Village, Provincetown, Big Sur, Monterey, Venice Beach, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, North Beach, The Haight-Ashbury, Santa Cruz, and so on, outward into the rest of the world.

The arrival of those McGraw-Hill paperbacks set off a chain of events that has pretty much kept me busy for the past 30 years. I’ve published books on countercultural and musical and media history, California, art and artists influenced by the bohemian circles, as well as true American renegades like Caryl Chessman and Charles Bragg and Barry Kite.

But it wasn’t until Sharon Hannon called me to tell me about the Greenwood Press Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures series that I remembered that file cabinet’s worth of photocopies that has been holding down a corner of my basement all these years waiting for me.

Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture is that file cabinet captured between covers.

10 Responses

  1. A sharp editor in a
    A sharp editor in a highly-functioning publishing house, by which I mean a publisher who 1) cares about literature, 2) knows the progressive power of beloved books and the communities that spring up around them, and wishes to nurture and harness that power, and 3) who is personally potent in his or her own house and has the self-possession to hear the call through the din and answer it for the good of all concerned. A person like that can sometimes change the world, make us all start looking up and forward again. And what a gift that would be right about now.

  2. I just returned from
    I just returned from wandering around a barnes & nobles (for no apparent reason) nearby. Then i read this about you wandering about the Library of Congress. I am insanely jealous. A pox on you for ruining my lunch break.

    I really like your conviction that Beatnik was yours. Writers should that way about everything they write.

    Hope Beatniks does well.

  3. you should write a book about
    you should write a book about the LoC, an insider’s guide or just a young guy running around those stacks collecting all that great obscure stuff. wow, i’d love to read that.

  4. Glad to hear that the LoC
    Glad to hear that the LoC actually kept the books I was sending them as a publisher. I published almost as many of the beats as old Ferlinghetti. Haven’t seen your book but I’ll look for it. Thanks.

  5. Delighted to know that your
    Delighted to know that your days at He’s not here and the Carolina Coffee Shop were not wasted. As I recall, you were an original beatnik. Congratulations on your literary successes!

  6. There’s a whole other Beat
    There’s a whole other Beat chapter worth chronicling: The years of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, which I attended in 1977. Ginsberg (teaching “A Literary History of the Beat Generation”–he taped all the classes), Burroughs, Corso, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, and countless others coming and going to teach and do readings.

    I think Anne is still there, not sure.

  7. I think the best way to try
    I think the best way to try to understand the beat generation and the writers is to, well, read their works. But call me old school.

  8. Levi — could you please pass
    Levi — could you please pass along Alan’s email address? Not using Twitter or Facebook nowadays as they are no longer secure platforms… Seeing Alan’s recent publication above reminded me of some fine adventures when he was based in ATL… I also doubt we will still be looking for replies here – now four years after the post. Thanks, Brian

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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!