When young Lucien Carr left his hometown of St. Louis to study at Columbia University in the early forties, he was setting off a chain reaction that would have effects beyond what he could have possibly imagined. An older St. Louis man named David Kammerer was in love with Carr (who was heterosexual) and followed him to New York. Carr would eventually be jailed for Kammerer’s murder, but before then Carr would bring a young and impressionable Allen Ginsberg to Kammerer’s apartment, where Ginsberg met an odd friend of Kammerer’s, another native of St. Louis named William S. Burroughs. Thus two of the elements of the peculiar chemical reaction known as the Beat Generation were now in place.
Unlike Denver, St. Louis did not have much romantic appeal to the Beats, and they did not often visit there. It’s a pleasant city, though, with a huge white arch on the banks of the Mississippi River, representing the gateway to the West.
Besides William S. Burroughs, St. Louis has been the birthplace of several other seminal figures, such as T. S. Eliot, who promptly left to become as British as he possibly could, so that today half the people who’ve heard of T. S. Eliot think he was British. Even more cool was Chuck Berry, who once recorded an album called ‘From St. Louis to Liverpool,’ but never claimed to actually be British himself. I’m a huge Chuck Berry fan (come on, the guy is a lyrical genius), and years ago when I was married I dragged my wife with me on a trip to St. Louis to search out the house where Berry lives, in a suburb called Wentzville (George Thorogood wrote a song about this town, ‘Back to Wentzville’). We found Chuck listed in the phone book, gazed in wonder at his large estate, and went back to the hotel. I don’t think my choice of a vacation spot particularly helped the marriage, in retrospect. We also took an elevator to the top of the Arch, and drove through the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois, one of the most impoverished areas in the country, where Chop Suey joints and honky-tonks line the streets. I wished Jack Kerouac could have seen the town as I saw it that day. I think he would have found quite a few Dharma Bums there.