The Birthplace of the Beat Movement

What could be less ‘beat’ than Columbia University? This grand old Ivy League university may not even want to be the birthplace of the Beat Generation, but the fact is that that a young man named Jack Kerouac enrolled there on a football scholarship in 1940, and another young man named Allen Ginsberg arrived to begin his freshman year four years later.

Now, just the idea of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg being friends is kind of amusing. Jack was a macho athletic brooding football player, Allen a naive sissy homosexual. Jack’s parents taught him to distrust Jews and leftists; Allen was both of these things and apologized for neither. Jack would spend his career writing gentle memory-rich piquant prose lifescapes; while Allen would express himself in explosive, sexually explicit poems.

But both had a mutual friend, Lucien Carr, who introduced them in 1944 when Ginsberg was 17 and Kerouac was 22. The less-than-successful first meeting, at the apartment of Kerouac’s girlfriend Edie Parker, is described by Ann Charters in her biography, “Kerouac”:

Allen walked into the living room to find Jack sprawling in the armchair, and trying to make an impression, looked at him with shining black eyes and confided in a deep voice, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Instead of finding this funny, Jack replied, “Aw, shut up, you little twitch,” turning away to yell at Edie, “Aw, where’s my food!”

Thus was the Beat Generation born. With many friends in common, the two could not long avoid growing to like each other, and through Lucien Carr they also met the uncategorizable lost intellectual from St. Louis, William S. Burroughs, who impressed the Columbia crowd with his combination of drug-addled worldliness and mature erudition.

Lucien Carr had provided the St. Louis connection, and another student named Hal Chase provided the equally important connection to Denver, Colorado. Chase shared a room with Ginsberg and was a close friend of Kerouac’s. In the fall of 1946, Chase received a visit from his hometown friend Neal Cassady, which is the event that begins the book ‘On The Road.’ Hal Chase appears in this novel as Chad King, who later snubs his Denver friend ‘Dean Moriarty.’

Jack Kerouac was an exceptional football player, but he fought bitterly with his coach, Lou Little, and dropped out when he realized the coach was snubbing him on purpose. Kerouac continued to hang around campus (in between voyages with the Merchant Marine), but would become unwelcome on campus after Lucien Carr committed a murder and enlisted Kerouac to help him hide the evidence.

Ginsberg didn’t do much better. He was recognized as a promising young talent by several important English professors including Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, but was disciplined for writing nasty graffiti on his dorm window and suspended for a year after allowing the renegade ex-student Jack Kerouac to sleep in his room. Ginsberg would attempt to continue at Columbia after this, and and stayed in touch with Mark Van Doren. Mark Van Doren (whose son was Charles Van Doren, one of the key figures in the 50’s game show scandal depicted in the film ‘Quiz Show’) would go on to help several Beats-to-be get published.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a graduate student at the same time that Ginsberg and Kerouac were there, but did not meet them.

The University

Columbia is one of the eight Ivy League schools, and like the other seven has a lousy football team. The team was much better when Kerouac was a part of it, although he didn’t play much.

Columbia University is located in Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan, far north of either midtown or downtown. It’s next to Harlem, where Kerouac’s life was changed by his discovery of jazz, and includes Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes among it’s alumni.

The main campus is on Broadway and Amsterdam between 114th and 120th Streets. The entrances are inconspicuous, and I know people who’ve walked past the campus many times without ever glimpsing the gorgeous green lawns and elegant neoclassical buildings inside the gates.

Tom’s Restaurant, the place with the blue sign where Seinfeld and George and Elaine and Kramer used to hang out, can be seen on Broadway and 112th. Suzanne Vega’s song ‘Tom’s Diner’ is about this same restaurant, but the food isn’t that great.

Like Berkeley, Columbia was the site of some exciting student protests in the 60’s. A book called “Strawberry Statement” tells the story of the protests from the vantage point of a student; it was later made into a film, but Columbia’s protest scene (led by Mark Rudd) never became as prominent or legendary as Berkeley’s (led by Mario Savio).

One of the ugliest modern sculptures I’ve ever seen is visible in front of the Law School Building at Amsterdam and 116th. And I’ve seen a lot of ugly modern sculptures, too.

Other Random Literary Stuff About Columbia

While Ginsberg was studying English at the University, one of the professors was Raymond Weaver, who had earlier led the rediscovery of Herman Melville, a sort of beat figure in his own way, decades after Melville had died in total obscurity.

One of my favorite contemporary writers, Paul Auster, is a Columbia graduate and has featured the neighborhood in several of his books, most notably his amazing ‘City of Glass.’ Another of his novels, ‘Moon Palace,’ took it’s name from a Chinese Restaurant on Broadway and 112th. The restaurant no longer exists.

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