(all rights to this material retained by author)
Grandpa Grump’s Hemlock Brew
(A Continuing Meditation on Life and Art)
When Beatniks were in Flower
Wally Lee Parker
Censorship ought to be an issue for anyone who reads, writes, talks, listens, thinks or otherwise has a mind of their own. Censorship is all about control over others. And any relationship strongly rooted in control — be it social, sexual, or political — will, as a natural progression, become abusive. I’ve been alive for almost 70 years, and from what I’ve observed, that’s always the way of it. When it comes to social and political control through censorship, it seems the only things that alters the course of kind are a series of prolonged and sometimes bloody rebellions — usually artistic, often legal — or the realization among the powers that be that lots of money can be made by commercializing the hereto forbidden.
Whenever the wife and I go to Spokane’s north side Costco, our pattern is for her to start rounds with the supersized rolling wire-basket while I go in search of the usual display of books — they move them on occasion (just to confuse us oldies). Normally a search through the stacks on stacks is futility since Costco seldom carries any hardcore science fiction. But what they most certainly do carry is whatever’s currently selling best. And one of the things that has been hot for the last several years is a bondage and domination trilogy beginning with a critically disparaged novel titled Fifty Shades of Grey — followed by Fifty Shades Darker and finishing with Fifty Shades Freed. What makes these offerings notable is that not all that long ago (as us old folks measure time) Costco’s north side store would have been raided by the vice squad, its managers jailed, its corporation sued by the Department of Justice, and its executives investigated by the FBI. All of this would have been the culture police’s reaction to Costco offering a set of books that graphically depict a sadomasochistic relationship (or so I’m told). All this would likely have occurred had literary censorship not by-in-large been done away with in the latter half of the twentieth century — a space of time I researched one day at a time.
When stripped of all the sensuous silk ties and well-oiled riding crops, the fundamentals underlying the plot of Fifty Shades appear to exhibit the same pathology one finds in most every abusive though not necessarily enjoyable relationship. Since 80% of those buying these books are women, many feminist have voiced concerned that a graphic depiction of abuse is being mainstreamed as some sort of romantically sweetened “mommy porn.” Though most of the goals of the various women’s movements are laudable, I’ve never been particularly impressed by feminism’s basic understanding of “normal” women — as odd as that sounds. Having spent the vast majority of my working life in a female dominated profession — and that being during the most vehement days of the recent feminist uprising — I do have some firsthand knowledge as to what feminist think. I also know how convenient it is for them to sweep up the entire male species and categorize the lot as the enemy. But when confronted with the revelation of a dark, foreboding, and possibly self-destructive impulse barely below the surface of a large number of women — a darkness that mirrors a form of twisted psychopathology long assumed solely the province of men — the feminist find themselves flummoxed by their own beliefs. They usually fall back on the old axiom that everything that’s wrong with a woman can be traced to a man. Still, unless something about women has fundamentally changed in the last three or four decades, they, as independent creatures, are proving a lot more complex than the simplicity of sexual politics finds it convenient to admit.
Not being a feminist, I’m not surprised when a fairly dowdy middle-aged woman plops a cellophane encrusted bundle containing all three of these erotic novels into her basket — right down there beside a large cardboard canister of Quakers Oats and a six-pack of canned pears. It’s just another unremarkable purchase. Another three in the 35 million copies of books from this trilogy sold in hardcopy or electronic versions in the United States alone. Roughly calculated, that’s one book from this trilogy for every six American females.
Just so there no delusions as to which side of the ongoing censorship issue I fall, in the early 1990s I was discussing Christmas presents with Gwendolyn, my then high school aged daughter. She said she’d like a copy of A. N. Roquelaure’s “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” — Roquelaure being a pseudonym for the then up and coming writer Anne Rice. I asked Gwen if she wasn’t a little too old for fairy tales. She cautioned, “It’s not what you’re thinking Dad. It’s pretty explicit.”
As for any readers that might wonder why I’d even consider buying my daughter what she herself described as an “explicit” book, my kids have always understood that my house was a non-censorship zone. Books, movies, artwork — none of that was hidden. Possibly as a result, when it comes to having common sense and a fair minded temperament, both my kids — well into their thirties and with families of their own — are doing much better than I ever did at such.
So, to finish off my Christmas shopping I’m off to B. Dalton Bookseller (RIP). I ask the clerk — another one of those middle-aged women, though not as dowdy — where I can find a copy of Roquelaure’s Sleeping Beauty. And she just lights up.
“I think we have that, and we have Beauty’s Punishment and Beauty’s Release as well!”
Those do seem odd titles for a series of fairy tales. And I can’t quite understand the clerk’s enthusiasm for a story that’s been told and retold so many times. Regardless, I say “Just the first one will do.”
When I got the book home I read a random chapter or two — just to see for myself. My, oh my! My daughter’s literary taste seems to have advanced a bit since Nancy Drew. But Gwen made a choice regarding what was acceptable to her, so under the Christmas tree it goes. (Was that in a plain brown wrapper? I can't recall.)
As for dealing with the clerk, it reminds me of that time years earlier when I asked a bookstore salesperson if she had a copy of Fanny Hill. Smiling brightly she uttered, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and zipped away to retrieve a copy of Erica Jong’s 1980 novel Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones.
“No,” I said. “I’m after John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Jong’s version is just a modern retelling of that.”
What I didn’t add was that the original Fanny Hill was written in 1748, and then banned in most of the English speaking world until 1963. It survived — as most classic pornography did — sequestered in private editions printed by and for a clique of wealth collectors.
By today’s standards of explicitness, the original Fanny Hill is at best tepid. On the other hand, the privately commissioned etchings bound into certain highly limited editions of this rather humorous romp were far from tepid.
“Well no, I don’t have that one,” the clerk admitted regarding Cleland’s Fanny Hill. “But you should read Jong’s. It’s great!”
The truth is, still being a bit parochial in my attitudes, I tend to defocus when women start showing enthusiasm toward this or that work of pornography. Perhaps it’s that age old masculine quandary as to whether I and the lady in question are having a light literary conversation or are entering the early stages of pre-copulatory negotiations. In general, men tend to be easily confused by such things. Just as I’ve ever since been confused about what I can only assume to be the outgoing pornographic proclivities of women booksellers — which is just to be expected since confused men gravitate toward interpreting two of anything as being either a trend, a pattern, or a conspiracy.
It’s not that I’m defining the above used term — defocus — as a symptom of sexual confusion; rather I’m using the word more personally to describe the mental fuzziness that becomes apparent when my left-leaning liberalism runs afoul of my Pentecostal upbringing. If I jump to the wrong conclusions when dealing with what would otherwise be available women — while understanding that there’s a much larger pool of hypothetically available women than the very small pool of women actually willing to be available — it’s likely because of my inherent burden of evil; that burden being the extra helping of original sin several Pentecostal preachers noted when they publicly labeled me — to my way of thinking at least — a hell bound sinner before I had reached the age of six.
Now that may require some explanation.
I suspect my flight to agnosticism began by age seven, and that shortly thereafter I was tripping over the edge of a classification of thoughts many religious leaders denounce as leading directly into damnation. The problem is that due to religion’s holy censorship, it was never made clear exactly what those thoughts might be — at least not to a seven year old.
That is to say that to a reasonably bright and well behaved child it seemed perplexingly nonsensical to be seated in the house of God for the apparent purpose of being publicly excoriated for any number of sins — the exact nature of said sins being so hideous they must remain hidden. From all the drama compacted into the church’s revelation of my guilt, I was sure the sins I was apparently engaged in were so evil that any mention of them would lead us all straight to hell; meaning my sins were so evilly depraved that they all fell within that vast category of wrongness best explained by the ancient playground proverb, “If you don’t know, I ain’t gonna tell you.”
From all this it was apparent to my confused and struggling brain that it must have something to do with the covered parts. Sixty years later and I’m absolutely sure that the often repeated demands for acts of repentance have something to do with the covered parts — in which case I’m … you know.
You might be a little confused by the above several paragraphs. What you need to understand is that meetings in the Pentecostal church are largely theater — and bad theater at that. What you see is a sweaty, increasingly wild-eyed evangelical hopping around the pulpit, whooping and hollering “Repent! You must repent all your sins!”
I’ve always been a little foggy as to the exact methodology of repentance. The preacher repeatedly explained “To escape the eternal fires of damnation you must bow before the throne of God and be baptized in the blood of the lamb! You must repent your sins or wither in agony forever!” That’s not a whole hell of a lot clearer — except for the wither part.
Through this all the fevered group of parishioners would clap, stomp their feet, and echo bits and pieces of the whooping and hollering right back at the preacher — which, of course, would just jack the preacher up into an even higher froth.
Luckily my parents tended to remain politely passive and maybe even a little bit embarrassed during all this. I can’t recall ever hearing so much as a “praise the lord” from either. On the other hand, since both had grown up in Oklahoma, where revivalist religion was the norm, they acted as if this self-conscious and it seemed to me very suspect mass hysteria was fairly matter of fact.
Anyway, it seems as if I was exposed to these high volume psychodramas at least a couple of Sundays every month for most of the very early 1950s. Much later I learned how adult churchgoers handled these visceral onslaughts of eye to eye and wall to wall accusations. Even though the preacher might be looking directly at them, the parishioners simply assumed the vile sinner the holy man was referencing was someone else in the several rows of pews. A careful analysis of the gossip whispered between parishioners before and after these sermons (seven year olds have extremely acute hearing) clearly validate this theory. But being young, I tended to take everything shouted in my general direction very personally.
Leaning toward the pragmatic — which later manifested itself as a love of science rather than religion — I spent several years waiting for some specific examples of the sins requiring repentance. In the mean time I saw no logical reason for getting up and confessing something that might not even qualify as a sin. Not only was I reluctant to suggest what might prove an entirely new category of sin for these people to harp about, but I was also concerned that if I tried repenting and screwed it up everyone would laugh at me. In fact, I suspect my ongoing fear of public speaking first took root in the rich compost of my redemptive indecisiveness.
From the “witnessing” seen in our local Pentecostal church, it was pretty easy to figure out that I would eventually be judged by a loving God who counterintuitively enjoyed roasting people forever and ever in hellfire and damnation for any number of often vague provocations. I assumed this vengeful God would be deriving the same kind of enjoyment a certain aunt-by-marriage of mine expressed when fingernail pinching my ear to force me down in front of a bible opened at the kitchen table. She was bright-eyed and grinning through clinched teeth — a stigma I’ve noted manifested among a broad swath of religious people when they’re engrossed in visions of God’s coming wrath against disliked relatives and neighbors.
I think what finally broke the proverbial back was the often uttered excuse that this wrathful God was supposedly father to us all. Well — I had a real father and he was nothing like the sadist these people were praying for — and I do mean praying for.
Trying to take all the things the church was saying to heart was turning me into a fearful, bewildered, neurotic wreck. This chronic state of high anxiety led me to my first religious epiphany. I figured out that the only way to survive religion was get as far away from it as possible. And by the age of eight or nine I had begun my rebellion by absolutely refusing to go to Sunday school — even though I was fairly sure that such was one of those irredeemable sins the sweaty browed preachers kept railing against.
In my early twenties I did have a momentary relapse. During that relapse I learned that, in a religious sense, it is possible to be bad without having done anything bad. It’s called “original sin.” Essentially it hypothesizes that everyone is screwed from the get-go. And the rest of your life must be spent apologizing for things you often didn’t actually do.
I do have to agree with the Pentecostals on one thing. Without jazzing it up with all that hellfire and damnation, the concept of original sin would be a pretty hard sell. The Catholics, with all their well-staged pageantry, specialized spiritual terminology, and soothsaying logic are much better at it. But then they’ve had an extra 1,500 years and the police powers of a number of European states to institutionalize the whole thing.
The folks tried other churches too. But eventually it all boiled down to only going on certain holidays. And then, somewhere in the latter days of the 1950s, something occurred that soured the folks altogether. A preacher — this one just happened to be a Pentecostal — convinced my eldest sister that it was her wifely duty to go back to her abusive husband even after the alcoholic sot had beaten her to a pulp for the forty-eleventh time. I don’t know which holy man it was since the preachers at the local Pentecostal seemed to move on down the road at regular intervals — some, as gossip had it, due to questions regarding their interpersonal dalliances with certain ill-defined female members of the flock. Regardless, the folks got so mad over that particular preacher’s interference in what was clearly our family’s private business that we never again had to go to church — except for weddings and funerals, and then only those involving close friends and family.
So, how did I end up with such liberal attitudes toward spicy literature — other than the expected satanic influence of original sin, a brutally deep dislike of other people telling me what I should read, see, hear, or think, and a growing acquaintance with the various functions of those aforementioned hidden parts?
I’m inclined to blame curiosity, puberty, and the Beatniks — for which some more explanation might be needed.
Anyone burdened by a reasonably strong libido during puberty has their own horror stories to tell, so I’ll not bore everyone with mine. Besides, most such stories should only be told in the privacy of a therapist’s office, where there’s at least a remote possibility that some benefit will be derived (that is other than an accolade-laden paper to be presented by the same said therapist at the next nut-doctor conference, of course). But the measure of blame I’m ascribing I attribute squarely to curiosity and the Beatniks — and revealing that is another matter.
It was the early 1960s. I found myself road-tripping with a young, reasonably hip black intellectual by the name of Jimmy Walker. I say he was an intellectual because he’d been to college and knew what existentialism was — though he was never successful in explaining it to me. When he was talking to other college educated people, they seemed to know what he meant, and that was certification enough of his expertise in the matter as far as I was concerned. And I say hip because he was originally from Philadelphia, and any progressive jazz loving black kid from Philadelphia was by osmosis — if nothing else — hip. I lost contact with Jimmy a shameful number of years ago — after he moved back the Philadelphia. I’ve always wondered how things turned out for him. I’m hoping well. Anyway — we found ourselves adrift in San Francisco, which just a few years before our arrival had been the west coast’s ground zero for the short lived Beat revolution.
Although I say short lived, something similar to the Beat revolution has been popping up here then there ever since the craft of printing became cheap enough that most any dedicated individual or group could set up their own press. In a way, I suspect these counterculture revolutions are kind of like a game of whack-a-mole. Whenever one sprouts, it’s quickly beat to death by the culture police — but only apparently because it always seems to sprout up again just a few years later. The intellectual tenants of what can generally be termed bohemianism — of which the Beat generation and Beatniks are just a post-World War II variation — always gravitate toward personal freedom, intellectual freedom, artistic freedom, social justice, and (naturally drawing the most attention) free love. Advocating for expressive freedom, egalitarian justice, and sexual liberalism obviously places the Beats and their kindred souls at odds with whatever the current establishment happens to be. So finding the current manifestation of the Beat movement is fairly easy, just look for whatever is driving the establishment into a frothy, spittle spraying rage. Somewhere within that vexing cultural irritant you’ll find a least a few people who would pass for what we classically think of as Beatniks.
As for drifting through San Francisco, I recall not a small amount of booze was involved. I’d been crawling in and out of pubs since I was seventeen — that being only a year or so before our San Francisco expedition. As to how I did that — crawling in and out of pubs at will — well, I was twenty six years old when first carded. So I guess from a fairy early age I looked like I belong among the denizens of tavern culture. It was a gift of sorts.
Jimmy knew one of my great ambitions in life was to see a real live Beatnik — my ambitions at that time trending toward the short term. But as Jimmy explained, “There’s something you need to understand about Beatniks.”
I later confirmed Jimmy’s contention that the Beatniks as I envisioned them were a cultural illusion — a media derived creation intended to change something more than a little dangerous to the status quo into something mildly humorous and most certainly deserving of mockery. It’s fair to say that the beatniks were to the actual beat generation as the television show “Happy Days” was to the reality of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. While the Beatniks were a media-driven reimagining, the real Beats were a loose band of artist, writers, and poets out to redefine the art and literature of the postwar world. And in their pursuit of artistic acceptance if not honesty, to break any number of moral, legal, and political limitation imposed by the laws and cultural taboos of the 1940s and ‘50s.
None of this is to suggest that the Beats, as a species, weren’t seriously screwed up and questionable as role models of normalcy. The problem for society in general was that the Beats slapped all the social and political discrepancies they saw onto canvas or burnished them into print, while allegedly normal people did their best to hide such defects behind locked doors and then publically crucify anyone attempting to pick the lock.
The term Beatnik arrived late. The root of the word comes from the 1948 phrase “Beat Generation” — that phrase being attributed to writer and poet Jack Kerouac. As Kerouac used the term “Beat,” it signified being beaten down in the sense of downtrodden. The word Beatnik itself first appeared in an article written by columnist Herb Caen — an article published in the April 2nd, 1958 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. As might be expected, it was created by suffixing the “nik” from Sputnik — Russia’s name for the world’s first artificial satellite (launched in late 1957) — to Kerouac’s “Beat.” The resultant coinage was not intended to be complementary. That didn’t deflect the media in general from latching onto the word and created a visual stereotype to match.
The affectation of blue jeans and black turtleneck sweater, of sandals and black beret, of hip words, fuzzy chin growth, and bongos made up the popular image of a Beatnik.
Shortly after the new term was coined, the supposed cohesion of the Beat Generation began to fragment. At the same time the media’s caricature of the Beatniks was becoming deeply embedded in the world’s consciousness through the images seen in movies and on television, and the descriptions found in magazines and novels. As for the artistic freedoms sought by the Beat generation and the general Bohemian rebellion of which the Beats were a part, those things continued their accumulative advance against the sometimes violent resistance of the cultural and legal establishment.
I entered my teens in 1958 — the late 1950s, as any political conservative will tell you, being that era of beatific serenity that once adorned the very apex of American culture. J. Edgar Hoover had the Communist, Jews, and leftist homosexuals well in hand — and as we subsequently discovered regarding the latter homosexuals, very well in hand indeed. Smut films were banned everywhere except the back room of the local men’s club — as was only proper. Prostitution was absolutely forbidden — except in those instances where certain financial considerations would assure that young, single (and often older and not so single) men had outlets for their baser urges, thusly insuring the continued virginity of the local misses. Child molestation was unheard of — but if it were, the priest, preacher, teacher, Scout leader, or whomever else the community had socially adjudicated as an offender, would be sent packing, often with a letter of recommendation for their next job — thereby assuring that everything would remain quiet — just to protect the children of course. (Rumor has it that one of my former male teachers at Deer Park’s grade school had an affinity for newly pubescent girls, and therefore fit into that sent-packing category.) In more areas of the country than most would like to admit, the act of a black man even looking at a white woman was considered justification for a lynching. And women in general were treated as second class citizens — just as God intended.
Despite all the bad publicity generated by the culture police, enough of the Beatniks’ underlying bohemianism seeped through the popular media to suggest something existed that a farm kid from eastern Washington State would find refreshingly novel. Then too, as should have been expected, I was curious about what so many within the community — including a sizable chunk of my high school teachers — found so distasteful about Bohemian art and literature.
The first clear dust-up between me and the culture police occurred during my freshman year at high school. It occurred over a book I’m sure our local John Birch Society would have loved to have banned. As rumor later suggested, our local John Birch Society was well represented among the more outspoken of our male high schools instructors. During this particular encounter I was sitting in one so instructed class when the patrolling thought policeman noted a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 sitting on my desk.
More than less rhetorically this teacher asked, “You’re not actually reading that filth, are you?”
Seeing how the novel was a classic even then — a classic containing a few mildly portrayed sexual encounters, but nothing I or any normal person would regard as filth — and since the book’s protagonist was living in a brutal socialist dictatorship — I didn’t understand what my anti-communist teacher could find distasteful about the book. Eventually I came to understand that it wasn’t the book the teacher found offensive, it was the author. Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair’s pen name) had fought against the fascist during the Spanish Civil War — had fought alongside a faction called the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. Though most scholars agree that Orwell was a socialist, not a Marxist, political conservatives see no need of differentiating between the two. Besides which, the scholars studying Orwell’s political leanings were themselves intellectuals, and therefore suspect.
Anyway, being more interested in the author’s science fiction than his politics, I stupidly asked, “What’s wrong with it?”
The teacher snapped back, “Reading that kind of stuff will make you mentally sick!” Then, grinning one of those surly grins he seemed so fond of (and not unlike the one noted on my ear-pinching aunt), he continued down the aisle.
I suspect he would have found Orwell’s Animal Farm doubly offensive.
One of the oddities of Deer Park High School during the late 1950s and early ‘60s was the constant drumming of anti-communist rhetoric. Though we were all naturally anti-communist in those dark nuclear-war-at-any-moment days, even I could tell there was something weird about the anti-communist propaganda we were receiving at school. Constantly told the communist were behind every bush, had seeped into every cranny of our social structure, were poised to take over the county from within at any moment, we were never told exactly who these obviously sneaky bastards were. When — in a class or general assembly — someone would ask what we could do about this impending takeover, the answer was always to be alert for any telltale signs — which our instructors always seemed a bit vague about — and to be sure to go to church and pray for salvation.
Hardly a satisfactory answer, that seemed to be all we’d ever get — though I suspect as soon our instructors felt we had been properly groomed (said grooming being somewhat analogous to the systems pedophiles use) a carefully constructed list of communist organizations and individuals — most said individuals being American citizens — would have been provided. I’m sure just about anyone or anything J. Edgar Hoover disapproved of — liberals, intellectuals, atheists, unions (except for the Teamsters since they reportedly had their own set of extremely revealing dossiers on J. Edgar’s private sexual proclivities), black organizations, Jewish organizations, United Nations supporters, feminist, homosexuals, blacklisted artists, blacklisted writers, blacklisted playwrights, and critical thinkers in general who by their very nature could be assumed to be overt or closet communist types — all these would have been on the list.
Of course most Republicans could be trusted — except for Ike Eisenhower. After all, the traitorous Eisenhower had refused to nuke North Korea. And — as one of my anti-communist teachers explained to my history class — as commander of all allied European forces in World War II, Eisenhower stopped our advancing troops at Germany’s Elbe River rather than pushing on over the top of the oncoming Russian Army and crushing the entire Soviet State when we had the chance. (The John Birch Society’s continuing wet-dream being that the entirety of Russian would have been a walkover had Eisenhower chosen to do so.)
A rumor I heard several years after I left Deer Park High indicated that — likely due to a number of accusations that the school’s administration had a policy of urging what it considered unsatisfactory students to leave school — a reckoning with the school board occurred during which an admission of membership in the extreme right-wing John Birch Society was made by many of my more contentious instructors, and one or more of the school’s administrative cadre. This led to several requested resignations, and a subsequent slew of protest resignations — doubtless all in exchange for the customary glowing letters of recommendation.
As for whether this was all true, all I can say is that several of the school’s teachers did more than once suggest I drop out. And that those specific teachers were among the ones resigning in mass. After my sophomore year I did take their advice and drop out, but that was mostly due to the constant hazing I and the other less physically able had to endure at the hands of the school’s jocks and jock wannabes. As for the response of the teachers directly observing such incidents of harassment or failing to respond to our request for relief from these constant acts of sadism, my feeling is that their indifference worked well with their preference that we weak, feeble, nonconforming undesirables be somewhere else.
As for why this parent-demanded purging of teachers was necessary, in college I ran into a former Deer Park student (abet one that transferred in and back out in fairly short order) willing to explain it to me.
Gary was a wild-eyed Italian who suffered from a dizzying intellect and occasional conscious blackouts —both of which tended to scare the crap out of the teachers and other students. But he was also a physically imposing specimen with a voracious love of confrontation that absolutely none of Deer Park’s jocks and their wannabes dared test. The end result was that his nonconformity wasn’t challenged by anyone at the old alma mater.
Gary’s understanding was that the John Birchers intended to use Deer Park High as a test bed to demonstrate the superiority of a politically conservative education. To demonstrate such, Deer Park had to become one of the best high schools in the state — both academically and in sports. One way to do that would be to work like hell pulling all the resources available — including the entire community — into insuring that each student received everything they needed to excel — which for me would have included a safe, harassment free work environment. The other method — and apparently the one our local John Bircher’s chose — was to skewer the statistics by squeezing out everyone considered less able or motivated. After it was noted that about a third of the students entering the school were dropping out as an apparent result of this conservative experiment in social Darwinism, the inevitable comeuppance came. Though the school’s academic rating was doubtless rising without all us sub-par neo-Beatniks dragging it down, a lot of the parents got pissed. And after facing an angered mob of PTA’ers, another right-wing hypothesis bit the dust.
That at least was Garry’s theory. But just to be fair to the John Bircher’s (abet loathingly) Gary was the first person I knew that possessed a truly Bohemian sprit — and therefore trended pretty far to the political left. On the other hand, smart people have a way of finding out things others try to hide. Doubtless that’s one of the reasons it’s in the conservative nature to hate intellectuals.
Anyway, back to Jimmy Walker and our adventures in San Francisco.
My first encounter with real, unfiltered, un-sanitized, uncensored Beat literature was in a San Francisco library. Oddly enough, it was something composed by a gentleman who preferred the term Bohemian to describe both himself and his outlook. The book Jimmy wanted me to see contained a sleeved vinyl record — one of those smaller 33⅓ RPM versions — on the inside back cover. The librarian signed us out some headphones, and we headed to the library’s media center — which in those days meant an area with a record player and a couple of couches.
The writer was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and his book of poems was titled Starting from San Francisco.
Jimmy dropped the needle onto the record and we, headphones in place, settled in. All I have left of that session is one single line from one of the poems. I followed that line — “My white snake has entered her” — across the Internet and recovered the facts beneath my recollection — and quite a bit more.
The first edition of Starting from San Francisco was a small hardbound book published in 1961 — published with an old style vinyl recording of the author reading some of his poems enclosed, just as I recalled. The line came from a piece titled “Overpopulation.” The book was scandalous because the lines following “the white snake” made it abundantly clear what specific heterosexual act as well as body parts the author was referencing. As for why such a scandalous book was openly available in a San Francisco public library, we’ll need to look a few years back in the poet’s personal history.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a business associate, Pete Martin, founded San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore in 1953. In 1955 Ferlinghetti — now sole owner — formed City Lights Publishing in order to expand the number of ‘intellectual’ publications available at the store. Though best known for publishing Beat Generation writers, the company reportedly also published numerous translations of foreign writers not normally available in the United States.
City Lights Publishing and Ferlinghetti garnered widespread literary attention in 1956 with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem Howl. The attention was generated when the San Francisco police arrested both Ferlinghetti and his employee, Sig Murao, after Murao sold a copy of Howl to undercover officers. The complaint against Murao was dropped, while Ferlinghetti was tried on obscenity charges — a trial that was being closely followed by the national media.
Oddly enough, no charges were brought against Allen Ginsburg as author.
In its 1957 verdict the court found that Howl was not obscene — that it was in essence protected speech due to its redeeming social value. This led to a renewed series of court battles over censored and banned books — such as those of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and scores of others. By the mid-1960s, much of the federal, state, and local governments’ power to control literary speech had been shredded by the decisions of the nation’s Supreme Court — though the judicial system often found alternate routes to persecuting the unrepentant.
Nowadays everyone has the right to make up their own minds regarding any redeeming social value within Ginsburg’s Howl — which was exactly the objective Ferlinghetti and others were trying to reach. More than likely it wasn’t only the imagery or word usage in Ginsburg’s poem the establishment was objecting to. Probably the culture police were most incensed by the poem’s depiction of American’s contemporary culture in an exceedingly unflattering light, and the fact that Ginsburg was a known homosexual.
To my ears the poem is a novel juxtaposition of words and phrases that do — with thought — trend toward making sense. As for being great poetry, I don’t think so. But then, as noted above, the fact that I can make up my own mind regarding Ginsburg’s verse is what makes the poem so important to literary history.
As for the quality of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem — Overpopulation — I still prefer rhyme. But I will say hearing some “real” Beat poetry did throw light on what the mainstream media seemed so bent on caustically lampooning. Reading the real stuff, it seemed clear the intent of the verse was subversive — just as J. Edgar and others claimed — rather than being anything I would recognize as art. The ongoing question is whether this type of subversion — cultural subversion — is protected speech.
I’m suggesting that Beat poetry wasn’t of necessity socially corrosive by its content, but it most certainly was culturally subversive by the mere fact of its continued existence and open publication. Within that framework its survival through the court process did indeed constituted an imminent danger to the establishment’s ability to control the free expression of ideas — especially those ideas critical of the establishment.
What happened in San Francisco proved a major loss to the establishment’s ability to control subversive rhetoric and what it determined to be salacious filth. This all became a constitutional issue because the establishment has never learned to temper its greed for control over literary and artistic expressions to just those that take place in the public’s common space. It refuses to distinguish the difference between dirty words being screamed out loud in a public park, and those same dirty words resting quietly on the pages of a closed book, or uttered in a coffeehouse that no one is forced to enter, or seen on the shelves of an art gallery no one is forced to stroll. And even when forced to distinguish between these formats, the establishment has never voluntarily ascribe to the idea that an open book behind a closed door is the legal equivalent of a closed book in a public space. As a result, in order to retain our right to judge the worthiness of literature and art for ourselves, we are forced to live in a rude, openly vulgar society where much language, literature, and art that should only be exposed behind closed doors is placed on public display. We are forced to live this way because, given the power to control such public displays, the establishment has always tended to scoot relentlessly toward ever more inclusive control of things that are clearly none of its business. Thusly the only way to prevent improper censorship is to severely inhibit all forms of censorship — which often proves publicly uncomfortable for those of us who would prefer to limit our right to utter or hear obscenities, our right to create or see explicit images, to a private or otherwise controlled environment.
I do recall running across another book published by City Lights — possibly around the same time. With pages about the size of standard typewriter sheets and a plain white cover, there was nothing particularly memorable about the book other than its amateurish appearance — though it did seem serviceably bound. And I’ve not a trace of recollection about the title — although I’m sure there was one printed on that otherwise plain white cover. All I remember is that the book contained a number of short stories. And that one of those was a graphic description of childbirth using extremely plain — meaning classically coarse — language.
So what made that story memorable enough I can still recall the gist of it fifty years later? First, it was written in the first person by the husband of the woman giving mid-wife assisted home birth. Secondly, I’m thinking this was likely written in the late 1950s or early ‘60s at a time when fathers were in general excluded from the birthing room. In fact, in most communities it’s probable that a father requesting admittance to the birthing room would have been suspected to have prurient interest — as the phrase went. And besides, it was a cultural understanding that men wouldn’t want to be there anyway (I most certainly had no such interest when my turn came).
As for the writing, replace the “vulgar” terms used to describe body parts and functions with the proper medical terminology and this unusual essay would have passed as an excellent primmer on the externally observable mechanics of natural childbirth. Despite this, prior to the reexamination of obscenity statutes, this same bit of literature would have also been banned and burned in every state in the union.
Oddly enough, nowadays the father not wanting to go into the delivery room tends to be the one ostracized — especially since the feminist decided Daddy in the birthing room was a form of well-deserved punishment for his assumedly indifferent pleasure.
Times do change.
As for my quest to see a real live Beatnik; not having any idea of the layout of San Francisco, I trusted Jimmy’s judgment when he said the best chance for spotting a Beat was along Grant Avenue in what the locals called the North Bay area. Late one night we floundered into a rather shabby looking place along a Grant Avenue block of likewise shabby looking places, this specific place called Coffee and Confusion. Inside was a fairly tight packing of chairs around a fairly tight packing of small tables. It may have been lit by candles flickering in glass containers siting on the tables, or by a few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling — I just can’t recall which was the ambiance of this place and which was the ambiance of a handful of others equally dismal places. I do recall that an elevated platform in one corner acted as a stage. But since I’m trying to reconstruct a coffeehouse visited for maybe two hours some fifty years ago, beyond those few details it all seems a bit vague.
Jimmy ordered us a pot of jasmine tea — swearing it was just the thing. Being a coffee drinker at that time, to me it was just a container of warm, off-colored water with a hint of flowery perfume. But that plus two dollar each for the cover charge let us sit otherwise undisturbed.
What had drawn us in was the sound of music — folk singing, but not quite. Most of the folk songs popular at that time were newly invented or modernized to the point of being mere parodies of the real thing. I much preferred rock ’n’ roll over folk music back then anyway — and still do. Still, what caught my attention about this particular folk music was the liberal use of highly flavored words — the kind of language often heard wafting across the pond at Deer Park’s sawmill. The other noted thing was that these words were coming out of a young woman. For a kid fresh off the farm, this novelty had to be checked out.
The girl was backed up by two young fellows with acoustical guitars. I can’t remember anything else about them, and not much more about the girl — except that she was moderately slim by today’s standards, was wearing a darker colored shift ending mid-thigh, and that she wore tights under the shift — dancer’s tights as commonly associated with Beatnik women. Also, there was a hole worn through the right knee of those tights. I recall wondering if said hole was an indication of poverty, or a deliberate affectation.
I only recall one of her songs, and then only one line from that song. It seemed such an odd phrase — “Take a whiff on me.” When I finally thought to Google the phrase, I found it was the title to a song dating back to at least the mid-1930s. The “whiff” was referencing an invitation to snort a line of cocaine. So, although technically referred to as folk music, this definitely wasn’t one of my Grandpa’s folk songs.
Come to find out, one of the singers taking the stage at the Coffee and Confusion at about that time — early 1963 — was Janis Joplin. It would be nice to be able to say that I sat eight to ten feet away from the then unknown singer during her starving artist period. While it possibly was the legendary and ultimately tragic blues singer — such not being totally out of the question — the problem is that coffeehouse singers were about a dime a dozen back then. In fact, Coffee and Confusion reportedly held a folk Hootenanny every Sunday. So, though it’s remotely possible I was eye to eye with Janis Joplin, it’s just another of those unanswerable questions life likes to leave us as we go about our daily task of leaving life behind.
The audience seemed fairly normal, the one exception being a middle aged man dressed in sandals, blue jeans, black turtleneck sweater, black beret, and sporting a perfectly manicured goatee. Paying for his coffee, he joked with the waitress about how the establishment should be paying him for drawing in customers. People just looked, grinned, and shook their heads.
The second act was a young man doing rock ‘n’ roll parodies. I remember one set of lines. “I love your cheeks / I love your dimples / my love cries out / through every pimple.” Otherwise, everything about him is long lost.
Reading up on the Coffee and Confusion, it seems several years after we were there a young comedian from Los Angles spent a summer perfecting his act at the coffeehouse. In his autobiography Steve Martin recalled he was doing a set at the coffeehouse when — in order to save the tattered remains of his disintegrating act — he pulled a novelty through-the-head arrow from his bag of props and slipped it on. After that the arrow became a signature part of his stand-up.
On the late-night street once again, we walked down the hill toward Chinatown. Of a sudden Jimmy stopped and pointed to a decrepit looking café across the street. Just inside the window two men sat in animate conversation. The one Jimmy drew my attention to was probably in his mid-thirties, fairly husky, wearing what appeared to be a heavy, well soiled olive-drab jacket of some sort — possibly an old military fatigue jacket. He had a full beard and a full head of long hair — long shaggy hair hanging down passed his shoulders.
“Now that’s a real beatnik.” Jimmy said.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I objected. “That’s a bum! Well fed — but still just a bum!”
“Exactly,” Jimmy grinned. “That’s essentially what a lot of the Bohemians are — intellectual bums. They work or scam some money, then live as best they can while dabbling at their art or writing. All this other stuff is just the newspapers and movies making up stories.”
So, sadly enough, I finally saw my real live beatnik. But then, sitting on a Greyhound bus outbound toward the Golden Gate Bridge, I did get one final glimpse of a couple of San Francisco’s stereotypical Beatniks doubled up on a Vespa scooter. Buzzing down a side street, they were fully accoutered in their sandals, turtlenecks, berets — all the proper “togs,” as the official Beat lexicon would say. Though only the media’s distorted version, I decided the stereotypical version was the one I much preferred.
And yet, without the real Beats and all the various manifestations of bohemianism that came before — Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation being just one — the open displaying of Fifty Shades of Grey at Costco might not have been legal. The Book of the Month Club would have never offered Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as alternant selections. Henry Miller’s uglier works would have remained outlawed. And the censors would have continued being elated at their power over everyone else.
That has always struck me as the real purpose of censorship. It’s a tangible demonstration of power — a little game of self-gratifying sadism played out under the guise of protecting the public morals.
Noting the recent brain studies in which magnetic resonance imaging is used to chart the specific areas associated with certain tasks or emotions; I’m wondering what areas of a censor’s brain lights up when he or she has the pleasure of informing someone else that their words or depictions are being banned. I’m wondering if such studies would reveal a discernible pattern of common stimulation within everyone who takes delight at restraining others — be it with the silk ties described in Fifty Shades of Grey, the Velcro handcuffs available at most any erotic boutique, or the censorship laws conservatives in general are just itching to re-impose. I’m wondering if that would be the same area of the brain that lit up inside my Pentecostal aunt-by-marriage when she pinched my ear raw to teach me the proper fear of God.
I’m just a bit curious about all that.