Almost exactly seventy years ago, Alan Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’ created a howl of outrage from the establishment. His use of language and the lives and values portrayed in the poem were a challenge to the American dream and an elegy to those who lived beyond its pale; not least the musicians and writers who became known as the ‘Beat Generation’. Its publication led to a lengthy court case, with both the poet and his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti facing possible imprisonment.
In 1956, the same year that ‘Howl’ first appeared, Ginsberg’s friend Jack Kerouac was waiting for Viking Press to decide whether to publish ‘On the Road’. The son of French-Canadian migrants, Kerouac had been raised a Catholic but had spent years studying Buddhism and Daoism. Driven to distraction by the torment of uncertainty around whether his work would ever appear in print, Kerouac signed up with the National Park Service to become a summer fire marshal in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Kerouac’s journey to Desolation Peak was in the Daoist tradition of pilgrimage and at the mountain top, Kerouac was hoping to find the ‘void’, a sense of nothingness that would bring him relief from his demons. But, as we all know, the problem with travelling to get away, is that one can never leave one’s self behind. The solitude seems to have driven Kerouac to the edge of madness and after 63 days in the mountains, no peace was won, but not long afterwards, ‘On the Road’ was published, and went on to become a classic of 20th century literature.
Ginsberg and Kerouac were pioneers, setting out to live life and create work on their own terms. Their challenge to the values of the age set the tone for a generation of writers and musicians, the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan included. Here then are the headline acts, the legends in their own lifetimes. But behind every literary or artistic movement, every ‘scene’, every talent lies a committed producer or editor, agent, publisher or promoter, A&R person or bookseller.
Amongst the greatest of his generation in this regard was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, writer, publisher and founder of City Lights bookstore, who this week passed away aged 101. Without Ferlinghetti and his kind we would know no ‘Howl’, no ‘Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine’, no ‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road’…