The Lonely Beat Generation: Dawn of The New Journalism

Jack Keruoac: A Catalyst for Avant-Garde Writers

William Burroughs: The Portrait of an Anonymous Man

Allen Ginsberg: A Poetic Champion of Human and Civil Rights

Gregory Corso: Poetry to  Stimulate Individual Will

The Lonely Beat Generation: Dawn of The New Journalism

The City and Man: Origins of The New Journalism

It is neither self-effacing and depressing antiquarianism, nor self-effacing and exhilarating romanticism that compels us to turn with a renewed passionate interest in learning about and appreciating the origins of the New Journalism.  Our present world of public discourse has taken rigidly hostile polarized constructs of traditional Main-Stream Media versus the contemporary incarnation of New Media.  However, while the former has long been understood to focus largely upon the accumulation of power and wealth, the same has come to be the goal of new media organizations.  In fact, present-day new media organizations are made even more repugnant by their petty, envy-based sarcastic commentaries and idolatry of faux-celebrity life.  Further, whatever their seeming differences, both forms of media share in the adherence to vicious levels of social and political ideology, which strongly bias and distort the communications and news presented to the public.

Jack Kerouac: An Early Catalyst for Avant-Garde Writers

No man should go through life
without once experiencing healthy,
even bored solitude in the wilderness,
finding himself depending solely on himself
and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (1960)

Jack Kerouac’s (1922-1969) athletic talent led him to become a 100 meter hurdler on his Lowell (Mass.) high school track team, and his skills as a running back in football earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University.  He enrolled at Columbia University, but when his football scholarship didn’t work out, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, although he continued to live for a while on New York City’s Upper West Side.  It was during this time that he met many of the people with whom he was later to journey around the world.  This group later came to be known as the pioneers of the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs.

Nostalgia often is  to be the the main appeal of both Jack Kerouac and his 1957 groundbreaking, of-the-generation On the Road.  In reality, the characters in On the Road spent as little time on the road as they could.   Speed was essential.  The men rarely even had time to chase after the women they ran into, because they were always in a hurry to get to a city.  Kerouac’s story is soaked through with an aching sadness that comes from the certainty that this world of hobos, migrant workers, cowboys and crazy joyriders was dying.  But the sadness is not sentimental, because many of the characters in the book who inhabited that world would have been happy to see it go differently, or else were too drunk or forlorn to care.  They did not share the traditional literary man’s nostalgie de la boue. They were restless, lonely, lost, beat.  Readers can witness that painful sadness by reading a sampling of Kerouac’s personal journal entries between 1948, when the twenty-five-year-old writer had recently returned to New York from a cross-country trip, to 1950, when his first book, The Town and the City, was published.

There is a sense of something risky and exposed about Kerouac’s reading, just as there is about Kerouac’s prose. The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings.  On the Road is somewhat sub-canonical, but it’s also also a tour de force.  It is usually considered to be more a literary phenomenon than a work of literature.  On the other hand, it has had an influence that is equivalent to a work of literature.  Kerouac revealed how one could stretch a canvas across an entire continent. He made America a subject for literary fiction; he de-Europeanized the novel for American writers.  Had his publishers not insisted upon using pseudonyms for “characters” in the book, On the Road arguably could have been considered the first nonfiction novel.  As it finally emerged in publication, Kerouac described it as a narrative-novel.  Nevertheless, Kerouac’s book came out eight years before Capote’s In Cold Blood and twenty-three years before Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  It is certainly one of the leading literary sources for The New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies.  On the Road served as a major catalyst for the outburst of magazine pieces by writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, a surge of avant-garde articles which took America and its weirdness as its great subject.

Two films related to Kerouac’s work are presented below.  The first is Pull My Daisy, an experimental art movie about “The Beat Generation” that Kerouac wrote and narrated in 1958.  The second film is the 1994 biographical movie, Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats.

Pull My Daisy (1958): Full HD Version

Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (Full HD Version)

William S. Burroughs: Portrait of an Anonymous Man

William Seward Burroughs II (1914-1997) was a major figure in the inner-circle of the Beat Generation writers and a post-modern author who influenced popular culture as well as literature.  He is deemed one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the twentieth century.  Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays.  Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences.  Burroughs also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

After attending Harvard University, Burroughs became enamoured with contemporary counterculture, and fascinated by the underground society of drug addiction.   Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition that marked the last fifty years of his life, his first novel being Junky (1953).  His writings are often satirical and darkly humorous, based upon his socially critical observances and lifelong subversion to the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society.  In this regard, Burroughs is perhaps best known for his initially highly controversial third novel Naked Lunch (1959).  In 1983, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Despite his life of constant globe-trotting and public appearances, there was always something cold, remote and forbidding about Burrough’s personality.  This aspect of his life has perhaps been most clearly revealed by the state of his windowless New York City apartment, the former locker room of an 1880s YMCA  on the Bowery in New York City.  Burrough’s apartment, which he named The Bunker, has been preserved since his death in 1997, and a photographic exhibition of his unusual “stuff” can be viewed here.

A documentary film about William Burrough’s life is presented below.  The William S. Burroughs Tribute Documentary (1985) features Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Francis Bacon, Lauren Hutton, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, William S. Burroughs and others.

The William S. Burroughs Tribute Documentary (Full Version)

Allen Ginsberg: A Poetic Champion of Human and Civil Rights

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix.

Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956)

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet who vigorously opposed militarism, materialism and sexual repression.  In the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg was a central part of the inner-circle of The Beat Generation writers, who combined poetry, song, sex, wine and illicit drugs with passionate political ideas that championed personal freedoms.  Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl (1956) celebrated his fellow compatriots and excoriated what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States.

In Howl and in his other poetry, Ginsberg drew inspiration from the epic, free verse style of the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman.  Both men wrote passionately about the promise and betrayal of American democracy; the central importance of erotic experience; and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence.

Ginsberg’s book of poems, The Fall of America, won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974.  Other honors included the National Arts Club Gold Medal and his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both in 1979.  In 1995, Ginsberg was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992.

A taped recording of one of the original readings of Howl that Ginsberg gave at Reed College has recently been rediscovered and can be accessed on their multimedia website.

Posted below is a documentary film about Ginsberg, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (Trailer)

Gregory Corso: Poetry to  Stimulate Individual Will

Gregory Nunzio Corso (1930 –2001) was an American poet, the youngest of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers (along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs).  If Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were the Three Musketeers of the Beat movement, Corso could rightly have laid claim to being their D’Artagnan, a sort of junior partner.  As a late-comer to the group, Corso was accepted and deeply appreciated, but with less than complete parity.  After having been abandoned by his parents as a child, Corso had lived alone on the streets of Little Italy for years.  For warmth, he slept in subways in the winter, and then slept on rooftops during the summer, continuing to attend Catholic school, not telling authorities he was living on the street.

As a result of minor run-ins with the law, at the age of sixteen Corso was sent to Clinton Prison for three years.  While imprisoned, Corso studied Greek and Roman classics, consumed encyclopedias and dictionaries, and began writing poetry.  Upon his release from prison in 1951, twenty-one-year-old Gregory Corso joined the Beat inner-circle and was adopted by its co-leaders, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who saw in the young street-wise writer the  potential for expressing the poetic insights of a generation wholly separate from those preceding it.  For Corso, poetry became a vehicle for change, a way to redirect the malignant course of society by stimulating individual will.

In 1957, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky traveled to visit Burroughs in Morocco.  Corso, who at that time was already in Europe, joined them and then led them to Paris, introducing them to a Left Bank lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that was to become known as The Beat Hotel.  They were soon joined by William Burroughs and others.  It was a haven for young expatriate painters, writers and musicians.  A short documentary about the life of Gregory Corso, and another about The Beat Hotel, are presented below:

Gregory Corso: The Last Beat

The Beat Hotel: American Beats Exiled in Paris

Slide Show: The Beat Generation/Dawn of The New Journalism

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

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No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Billy Collins

U. S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003

Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

During an interview focusing upon our perceptions of the dead, Collins touched upon his portrayal of death in the poem No Time:

“The underlying theme of Western poetry is mortality. The theme of carpe diem asks us to seize the day because we have only a limited number of them. To see life through the lens of death is to approach the condition of gratitude for the gift, or simply the fact, of our existence. And as Wallace Stevens said, Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers….

We visit graves because they give the illusion that the person is somewhere, in some place. But like a mandala, the gravestoneitself is a focusing device. The treatment of the dead as if they were still alive is ancient. The Egyptians would entomb you with your favorite food, flowers, even pets (poor dears). In that way, maybe we are all in some form of hopeful denial.”

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

Animation by: Jeff Scher

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Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: Emergence of The New Journalism

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

Photographs of Jack Kerouac Taken by Allen Ginsberg

Jack Kerouac: Selected Biographic Notes

Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, who were natives of Québec, Canada. Like many others of their generation, the Kerouacs were part of the Quebec emigration to New England to find employment. Kerouac did not start to learn English until the age of six, and at home, he and his family spoke Quebec French. At an early age, he was profoundly affected by the death (from rheumatic fever, age nine) of his elder brother Gérard, an event later described in his novel Visions of Gerard.

Kerouac’s athletic talent led him to become a 100 meter hurdler on his local high school track team, and his skills as a running back in football earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Notre Dame and Columbia University. He enrolled at Columbia University after spending a year at The Horace Mann School, earning the required grades that were necessary to enroll at Columbia. Unfortunately, Kerouac broke a leg playing football during his freshman season, and he argued constantly with coach Lou Little who kept him benched.

When his football scholarship did not pan out, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, although he continued to live for a while on New York City’s Upper West Side with his girlfriend, Edie Parker. It was during this time that he met many of the people with whom he was later to journey around the world. This group later came to be known as the pioneers of the so-called Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs.

Silent Movie: Kerouac and The Beat Generation Friends

Kerouac joined the United States Merchant Marines in 1942 and in 1943 joined the United States Navy, but was honorably discharged during World War II on psychiatric grounds (he was of “indifferent disposition”). In between sea voyages, Kerouac stayed in New York with friends from Fordham University in The Bronx. Later, he lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, after they, too, moved to New York. He wrote his first novel, The Town and the City while living there. The Town and the City was published in 1950 under the name “John Kerouac,” and, though it earned him some respectable reviews, the book sold poorly. Heavily influenced by Kerouac’s reading of Thomas Wolfe, it reflected on the generational epic formula and the contrasts of small town life versus the multi-dimensional, and larger, city.

For the next six years, Kerouac wrote constantly but could not find a publisher. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled The Beat Generation and Gone on the Road, Kerouac wrote what is now known as On the Road in April, 1951 . The book was largely autobiographical, narrated from the point of view of the character Sal Paradise, describing Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady, the model for the character of Dean Moriarty. Part of the Kerouac mythology is that, fueled by Benzedrine and coffee, he completed the first version of the novel during a three week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose.

This session produced the now famous scroll of On the Road. In fact, according to his Columbia professor and mentor Mark Van Doren, he had outlined much of the work in his journals over several years. Most publishers rejected it due to its experimental writing style and its supportive tone towards minorities and marginalized social groups of the United States in the 1950s. In 1957, Viking Press purchased the novel, but it demanded major revisions.

He chronicled parts of his experiences with Buddhism, as well as some of his adventures with some of the San Francisco-area poets, in his book The Dharma Bums, set in California and published in 1958. The Dharma Bums, which some have called the sequel to On the Road, was written in Orlando, Florida during late 1957 through early 1958. Kerouac also wrote and narrated a “Beat” movie entitled Pull My Daisy in 1958.

Pull My Daisy (1958): Full HD Version

In July 1957, Kerouac moved to a small house on Clouser Ave. in the College Park section of Orlando, Florida to await the release of On the Road. A few weeks later, the review appeared in the New York Times proclaiming Kerouac the voice of a new generation. Kerouac was hailed as a major American writer. His friendship with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others, became a notorious representation of the Beat Generation. His fame ultimately came to be an unmanageable surge that would ultimately be his undoing. Kerouac’s novel is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation and Kerouac came to be called “the king of the beat generation,” a term that he never felt comfortable with, and once observed, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”

John Antonelli’s 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie began and ended with footage of Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1957. Kerouac appeared intelligent, but shy. “Are you nervous?” asked Steve Allen. “Naw,” said Kerouac, sweating and fiddling.

Kerouac Reading from On the Road: Steve Allen’s Tonight Show

Kerouac moved to Northport, New York in March 1958, six months after the release of On the Road, to care for his aging mother Gabrielle and to hide from his new-found celebrity. Some time later, he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, one day after being rushed with severe abdominal pain from his St. Petersburg home by ambulance to St. Anthony’s Hospital. His death, at the age of 47, resulted from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.

At the time of his death, he was living with his third wife Stella, and his mother Gabrielle. Kerouac is buried in his home town of Lowell and was honored posthumously with a Doctor of Letters degree from his hometown’s University of Massachusetts-Lowell on June 2, 2007.

Beat Generation Writers: The Men’s Room

Allen Ginsberg once observed that the social structure that was most true to 1096s and 1970s artists was the boy-gang. It’s a sentiment that Frank Sinatra would have appreciated. The time of Howl and On the Road was also the time othat Frank Sinatra sang for Only the Lonely and the original Ocean’s Eleven, and although by many measures a taste for the product of North Beach is incompatible with a taste for the product of Las Vegas, the Beat Movement writers and the Rat Pack entertainers were shapers of a similar sensibility. When On the Road came out, it was praised in The New York Times as the novel of the Beat Generation, equivalent in stature and significance to The Sun Also Rises, as the novel of the Lost Generation.

The book was a best-seller, and it made Kerouac, who had worked on it for ten years, a celebrity. It is sometimes said of Kerouac that fame killed him, that he was driven crazy by being continually addressed as the spokesman for a generation and by endless unwelcome requests to explain the meaning of the term Beat. In addition, after the success of On the Road, he continued to write at a manic pace, as he always had, but he became a suicidal alcoholic, and he died, of a hemorrhage caused by acute liver damage.

Beat is really old carnival workers’ slang. According to Beat Movement legend, Ginsberg and Kerouac picked it up from a character named Herbert Huncke, a gay street hustler and drug addict from Chicago who had begun hanging around Times Square in 1939. The word has nothing to do with music; instead it specifies a condition of being beaten down, poor, exhausted and at the bottom of the world. Kerouac soon began using the term himself. Beat Generation was one of his early titles for On the Road. After the book came out, he wrote a play called Beat Generation, an article for Esquire on The Philosophy of the Beat Generation, and another for Playboy on The Origins of the Beat Generation.

While the group of Beat Generation writers gained increasing public notice and popularity, at the same time they were caricatured and abused. In the literary world, academic critics, whose aesthetic was all about form and restraint, ignored them, and the New York intellectuals, whose ethic was all about complexity and responsibility, attacked them. Irony was the highbrow virtue of the day, and the Beats had none. This response probably did matter somewhat to Ginsberg and Kerouac. They were Columbia boys. They had genuine literary aspirations, and they wanted to be taken seriously. On the other hand, they could hardly have lived in hope of the approval of people like Diana Trilling and Norman Podhoretz.

Something about the Beats simply made people uncomfortable. For the nineteen-fifties images of the Beat, The Partisan Review’s bohemian nihilist and Hollywood’s hip hedonists, are almost complete inversions of the character types represented in On the Road. The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, or rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. Nor is the book an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys.

On the Road: Inception of The New Journalism

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of both Jack Kerouac and On the Road today, but it was also part of the book’s appeal in 1957. For it’s really not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties. In 1947, when Kerouac began his travels, there were three million miles of intercity roads in the United States and thirty-eight million registered vehicles. By the time that On the Road came out, there was roughly the same amount of highway, but there were thirty million more cars and trucks. And the construction of the federal highway system, which had been planned since 1944, was under way. The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving. There was little romance left in long car rides.

In reality, the characters in On the Road spent as short a time on the road as they could. They weren’t interested in exploring rural or small-town America. Speed was essential. The men rarely even had time to chase after the women they ran into, because they were always in a hurry to get to a city. A lot of the book takes place in cities, particularly New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but also Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City. Even there, the characters were always rushing around. The bits and pieces of America that the book captures are snapshots taken on the run, glimpses from the window of a speeding car. And they are carefully selected to represent a way of life that was coming to an end in the postwar boom, a way of life before televisions and washing machines and fast food, when millions of people lived patched-together existences and men wandered the country, following the seasons in search of work.

The sadness that soaks through Kerouac’s story comes from the certainty that this world of hobos, migrant workers, cowboys and crazy joyriders was dying. But the sadness is not sentimental, because many of the characters in the book who inhabited that world would have been happy to see it go or else were too drunk or forlorn to care. They did not share the literary man’s nostalgie de la boue. They were restless, lonely, lost, beat.

Yet, the car was the place to be. Why? The obvious answer is that nothing happens in the car. Everyone in On the Road had an irresistible urge to get to Denver or San Francisco or New York, because there would be work or friends or women there, but after they arrived, hopes started to unravel, and it was back into the car again. The characters couldn’t settle down except when they were nowhere in particular, between one destination and the next. But they wanted to settle down somewhere in particular.

“Beautiful” is a word that some women used to describe Kerouac. Before he became bloated by drink, he was rugged, too; he had been recruited to play football at Columbia and he had a husky baritone. He spoke with a Boston accent and he was excruciatingly self-conscious. That was one of the sources of his perpetual discomfort, but when he was sober it added to his appeal: he was virile and he was shy. In 1959, he appeared on television, on The Steve Allen Show. “Steverino” was a jazz buff who used to fiddle around on a piano while he interviewed his guests (an unbelievably annoying routine). He liked Kerouac, and Kerouac seemed less than usually guarded with him. After they chatted, a little awkwardly, two men in jackets, Kerouac read the last paragraph of On the Road, while Allen contributed background riffs on the piano.

There is something risky and exposed about Kerouac’s reading, as there is about Kerouac’s prose. The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings. On the Road is somewhat sub-canonical, but it’s also also a tour de force. It is usually considered to be more a literary phenomenon than a work of literature. On the other hand, it has had an influence that is equivalent to a work of literature. Kerouac revealed how one could stretch a canvas across an entire continent. He made America a subject for literary fiction; he de-Europeanized the novel for American writers. On the Road might well be considered the first nonfiction novel. Kerouac’s book came out eight years before Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is certainly one of the major literary sources of The New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. On the Road served as a catalyst for the outburst of magazine pieces by writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, a surge of avant-garde articles which took America and its weirdness as its great subject.

A More Personal Glimpse: Notes from Kerouac’s Journals

In 1998, Douglas Brinkley published an article in The New Yorker noting that Jack Kerouac began keeping journals as a fourteen-year-old boy, in 1936, and continued to do so until his death, at the age of forty-seven. The following entries span the years from 1948, when the twenty-five-year-old Kerouac had recently returned to New York from a cross-country trip, to 1950, when his first book, The Town and the City, was published. Here is a sampling of his journal entries between 1948 and 1950:

JANUARY 1, 1948. Queens, New York. Today, read my novel [“The Town and the City”] in its entirety. I see that it’s almost finished. What is my opinion? It is the sum of myself, as far as the written word can go, and my opinion of it is like my opinion of myself!—gleeful and affectionate one day, black with disgust the next. Wrote 2500 words, until interrupted by a visit from Allen Ginsberg, who came at four o’clock in the morning to tell me that he is going mad, but once and if cured he will communicate with other human beings as no one ever has—completely, sweetly, naturally. He described his terror and seemed on the verge of throwing a fit in my house. When he calmed down I read him parts of my novel and he leeringly announced that it was “greater than Melville, in a sense—the great American novel.” I did not believe a word he said.

Someday I will take off my own mask and tell all about Allen Ginsberg and what he is in the “real” flesh. It seems to me that he is just like any other human being and that this drives him to wit’s ends. How can I help a man who wants to be a monster one minute and a god the next?

APRIL 17, 1948. Went to N.Y., argued with a girl all night. Also, Ginsberg went mad and begged me to hit him—which spells the end as far as I’m concerned, since it’s hard enough to keep sane without visiting the asylum every week. He wanted to know “what else” I had to do in the world that didn’t include him. I told him I did have an unconscious desire to hit him but he would be glad later on that I did not.

I have been through with all that foolishness since the days I fought with Edie [Edith Parker, Kerouac’s first wife] and climbed trees with Lucien [Carr], but these Ginsbergs assume that no one else has seen their visions of cataclysmic emotion, and try to foist them on others. I have been a liar and a shifty weakling by pretending that I was the friend of these people—Ginsberg, Joan [Burroughs], Carr, Burroughs, [David] Kammerer even—when all the time I must have known that we disliked each other and were just grimacing incessantly in a comedy of malice. A man must recognize his limits or never be true.

JUNE 2, 1948. After supper Allen Ginsberg dropped in, bringing the remainder of the manuscript which, he said, ended so “big and profound.” He thinks I’m going to be a rich man now, but worries about what I’ll do with money; that is, he can’t picture me with money (nor can I). He thinks I’m a true Myshkin, bless his soul. . . . The madness has left Allen now and I like him as much as ever.

JUNE 3, 1948. I worked out an intricate mathematical thing which determines how assiduously I’m getting my novel typed and revised day after day. It’s too complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that yesterday I was batting .246, and after today’s work my “batting average” rose to .306. The point is, I’ve got to hit like a champion, I’ve got to catch up and stay with Ted Williams (currently hitting .392 in baseball). If I can catch him, June will be the final month of work on “Town and City.”

JUNE 17, 1948. Madly, painfully lonesome for a woman these evenings . . . and on I work. I see them walking outside and I go crazy. Why is it that a man trying to do big work, alone and poor, cannot find one woman who will give him her love and time? Someone like me, healthy, sexual, riven with desire for any pretty girl I see, yet unable to make love now, in youth, as they parade indifferently by my window—well, goddamit, it isn’t right! This experience is going to make me bitter, by God!

Went to bed with a .350 average.

JULY 3, 1948. Big party in Harlem, at Allen’s and Russell Durgin’s. I spent another three days without eating or sleeping to speak of, just drinking and squinting and sweating. There was a vivacious girl straight out of the twenties, red-haired, distraught, sexually frigid (I learned). I walked 3½ miles in a Second Avenue heat wave to her “streamlined Italian apartment,” where I lay on the floor looking up out of a dream. Seems like I had sensed it all before. There was misery, and the beautiful ugliness of people, and there was [Herbert] Huncke telling me that he had seen Edie in Detroit and told her that I still loved her. Do I love Edie still? The wife of my youth? Tonight I think so. In my phantasy of glee there is no sea-light and no beatness, just the wind blowing through the kitchen window on an October morning.

AUGUST 17, 1948. Babe Ruth died yesterday, and I ask myself, “Where is Babe Ruth’s father?” Who spawned this Bunyan? What man, where, what thoughts did he have? Nobody knows. This is an American mystery.

Told my mother she ought to go live down South with the family instead of spending all her time slaving in shoe factories. In Russia they slave for the State, here they slave for Expenses. People rush off to meaningless jobs day after day, you see them coughing in the subways at dawn. They squander their souls on things like “rent,” “decent clothes,” “gas and electricity,” “insurance,” behaving like peasants who have just come out of the fields and are so dreadful tickled because they can buy baubles and doodads in stores.

My life is going to be a farm where I’ll grow my food. I won’t do nothing but sit under a tree while my crops are growing, drink homemade wine, write novels to edify my soul, play with my kids, and thumb my nose at the coughing wretches. The next thing you know, they’ll all be marching off to some annihilating war which their leaders will start to keep up appearances. Shit on the Russians, shit on the Americans, shit on them all.

I have another novel in mind—“On the Road”—which I keep thinking about: two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, coming all the way back hopeful of something else.

SEPTEMBER 9, 1948. Got form-rejection card from Macmillan’s. I’m getting more confident and angrier each time something like this happens, because I know The Town and the City is a great book in its own awkward way. And I’m going to sell it. I’m ready for any battle there is. Even if I have to go off and starve on the road I won’t give up the notion that I should make a living from this book: I’m convinced that people themselves will like it whenever the wall of publishers and critics and editors is torn down. It is they who are my enemies, not “obscurity” or “poverty.”

JANUARY 3, 1949. San Francisco. The Saga of the Mist (New York to New Orleans). N.Y. across the tunnel to New Jersey—the “Jersey night” of Allen Ginsberg. We in the car jubilant, beating on the dashboard of the ’49 Hudson coupe . . . headed West. Haunted by something I have yet to remember. Neal [Cassady] and I and Louanne [Henderson] talking of the value of life as we speed along: “Whither goest thou America in thy shiny car at night?” Seldom had I been so glad. It was sweet to sit near Louanne. In the back seat Al and Rhoda made love. And Neal drove with the bebop music playing on the radio, huzzaing.

Neal got lost outside of Baltimore and wound up on a ridiculously narrow little tar road in the woods (he was trying to find a shortcut). “Doesn’t look like Route One,” he said ruefully. It seemed a very funny remark. Near Emporia, Va., we picked up a mad hitchhiker who said he was Jewish (Herbert Diamond) and made his living knocking at the doors of Jewish homes all over the country, demanding money. “I am a Jew!—give me money.” “What kicks!” cried Neal.

I drove in South Carolina, which was flat and dark in the night (with star-shiny roads, and Southern dullness somewhere around). Outside Mobile, Ala., we began to hear rumors of New Orleans and “chicken, jazz ’n’ gumbo,” bebop shows on the radio, and wild back-alley jazz; so we yelled happily in the car.

Smell the people!” said Neal at a filling station in Algiers, before going to Bill Burroughs’ house. I’ll never forget the wild expectancy of that moment—the rickety streets, the palms, the great late-afternoon clouds over the Mississippi, the girls going by, the children, the soft bandannas of air coming like odor, the smell of people and rivers.

God is what I love.

FEBRUARY 1, 1949. California, Richmond to Frisco. (Riding to Frisco from Richmond on a rainy night, in Hudson, sulking in back seat.)

Oh, the pangs of travel! The spirituality of hashish!

I saw that Neal—well, I saw Neal at the wheel of the car, a wild machinery of kicks and sniffs and maniacal laughter, a kind of human dog; and then I saw Allen Ginsberg as a seventeenth-century poet in dark vestments standing in a sky of Rembrandt darkness; then I myself, like Slim Gaillard, stuck my head out of the window with Billie Holiday eyes and offered my soul to the whole world—big sad eyes, like the whores in the Richmond mud-shack saloon. Saw how much genius I had, too. Saw how sullen, blank Louanne hated me. Saw how unimportant I was to them; and the stupidity of my designs on her, and my betrayal of all male friends.

FEBRUARY 6, 1949. Spokane. Portland to Butte. Two hobo panhandlers in back of bus on way out at midnight said they were bound for The Dalles—a small farming and lumber town—to beat a dollar or two. Drunk—“Goddamit, don’t get us thrown off at Hood River!

Beat the bus driver for a couple!

We rolled in the big darkness of the Columbia River Valley, in a blizzard. I woke up after a nap and had a chat with one of the hoboes. (Said he would be an old-time outlaw if J. Edgar Hoover had not made it against the law to steal. I lied and said I had driven a stolen car from N.Y. to Frisco.)

I woke up at Tonompah Falls: hundreds of feet high, a hooded phantom dropped water from his huge, icy forehead. I was scared because I could not see what was in the darkness up beyond the hood of the ice—what hairy horrors, what night?

The bus driver plunged along over mad ridges. Then northeast through Connell, Sprague, Cheney (wheat and cattle lands like East Wyoming), in a gale of blizzards, to Spokane.

FEBRUARY 7, 1949. Miles City. Visions of Montana. Coeur d’Alene to Miles City. We came along the waterbed of the Coeur d’Alene river, to Cataldo. I saw clusters of houses homesteading in the wild mountain holes. We rose to the heights in the snowy gray; below in the gulch one single shack light burned. Two boys in a car almost went off the ridge avoiding our bus.

In Butte I stored my bag in a locker. A drunken Indian wanted me to go drinking with him, but I cautiously declined. A short walk around the sloping streets (in below-zero weather at night) showed that everybody in Butte was drunk. This was a Sunday night—I hoped the saloons would stay open until I had seen my fill. They close at dawn, if at all. I walked into one great old-time saloon and had a giant beer. Another gambling saloon was indescribable: groups of sullen Indians (Blackfeet) drinking red whiskey in the john; hundreds of men of all kinds playing cards; and one old professional house gambler who tore my heart out because he reminded me so much of my father—big; green eyeshade; handkerchief protruding from back pocket; great rugged, pockmarked angelic face (unlike Pop’s)—and the asthmatic, laborious sadness of such men. I could not take my eyes off him. My whole concept of On the Road changed as I watched.

An old man with slitted eyes, called “John” by respectful men, coolly played cards till dawn; he has been playing cards in the Montana saloon-night of spittoons, smoke, and whiskey since 1880 (days of the winter cattle drive to Texas, and of Sitting Bull). Ah, dear Father.

BIGTIMBER. I saw old-timers sitting around in an old ramshackle inn (in the middle of the snowy prairie)—playing cards by old stoves, at noon. A boy of twenty, with one arm missing, sat in the middle of them. How sad!—and how beautiful he was because he was unable to work, and must sit forever with old-timers, and worry about his buddies punching cows and roistering outside. But how protected he is by Montana. Nowhere else in the world would I say it were at all beautiful for a young man to have but one arm. I shall never forget that boy, who seemed to realize that he was home.

In Billings I saw three of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in all my life, eating in a sort of high-school lunchroom with their grave boyfriends. You can have your Utopian orgies: I should prefer an orgy with the Montanans.

FEBRUARY 9, 1949. North Dakota. From Montana to Minnesota. The mad bus driver almost went off the road on a sudden low snowdrift. It didn’t faze him the least, till, a mile out of Dickinson, we came upon impassable drifts, and a traffic jam in the black Dakota midnight blasted by heath winds from the Saskatchewan Plain. There were lights, and many sheep-skinned men toiling with shovels, and confusion—and bitterest cold out there, 25° below, I judge conservatively. Another eastbound bus was stuck, and many cars. The cause of the congestion was a small panel truck carrying slot machines to Montana. Eager young men with shovels came from the little town of Dickinson, most of them wearing red baseball caps, led by the sheriff, a strong joyous boy of twenty-five or so. Some of the boys were fourteen, even twelve. I thought of their mothers and wives waiting at home with hot coffee, as though the traffic jam in the snow was an emergency touching Dickinson itself. Is this the “isolationist” Middle West? Where in the effete-thinking East would men work for others, for nothing, at midnight in howling, freezing gales?

We in the bus watched. Once in a while a boy came in to warm up. Finally the bus driver, a maniacal and good man, decided to pile on through. He gunned the Diesel Motor and the big bus went sloughing through drifts. We swerved into the panel truck: I believe we may have hit a jackpot. Then we swerved into a brand-new 1949 Ford. Wham! Wham! Finally, after an hour of travails, we were back on dry ground. In Dickinson, the café was crowded and full of Friday-night excitement about the snow jam. I wish that I had been born and raised in Dickinson, North Dakota.

The trip across sunny, flat Minnesota was uneventful. How dull it was to be in the East again: no more raw hopes; all was satisfied here.

FEBRUARY 25, 1949. New York. The sad fact about the modern American small city like Poughkeepsie is that it has none of the strength of the metropolis and all the ugly pettiness. Dismal streets, dismal lives. Thousands of drunkards in bars. But out of this wreckage rises a veritable Cleophus—the Negro I met there this weekend. The future of America lies in the Negro like Cleo . . . I know it now. It is the simplicity and raw strength, rising out of the American ground, that will save us.

APRIL 17, 1949. Waiting for word from Robert Giroux to begin revising T and C. I feel like working. Also, I like the idea that we’re going to “work in his office in the evenings”—with its coffee in cartons; in shirtsleeves (good Arrow shirts); maybe a pint of whiskey; chats; the big-city night of April and May outside the windows of Harcourt Brace, and old Broadway glowing.

Then finally the book will come out in print, in a big black volume, indicative of the darkness and solitary joy that went into its writing.

I will eventually be happy at the prospect of my worldly success.

Meanwhile, I have great ideas for my future Hollywood career. Imagine making Look Homeward, Angel. And Heart of Darkness, and A Passage to India.

APRIL 23, 1949. In the past week, Bill, Allen, and Huncke were all arrested and put in jail—Bill for narcotics, in New Orleans, the others for robbery and etc. in N.Y.

It’s about time for me to start working on On the Road in earnest. For the first time in ages, I want to start a new life.

We—the whole family [Kerouac; his mother; his sister Nin; and her husband, Paul]—are going to move out to Colorado within a year. And within two years I’m going to marry a young lady. My aim is to write, make money, and buy a big wheat farm.

This is the turning point, the end of my “youth” and the beginning of manhood. How sad.

JULY 4, 1949. Denver. Today was one of the saddest days I’ve ever seen. My eyes are pale from it. In the morning we drove my Ma to the depot, bringing the little baby [Kerouac’s nephew] in his diapers with us. A hot day. Sad, empty holiday streets in downtown Denver and no fireworks. In the depot we wheeled the baby around on marble floors. His yells mingled with the “roar of time” up in the dome. I checked my mother’s suitcase in anticipation of a send-off stroll to a bar, or something, but we only sat sadly. Poor Paul read a Mechanix magazine. Then the train came. As I write this, at midnight, she’s somewhere near Omaha.

In the afternoon Paul and Nin and the baby and I tried to make a go of it with a picnic at Berkeley Lake. But we only sat sadly under gray skies, and ate tasteless sandwiches.

At the fireworks at Denver U. Stadium great crowds had been waiting since twilight, sleepy children and all; yet no sooner did the shots begin in the sky than these unhappy people trailed home, before the end of the show, as though they were too unhappy to see what they had waited for.

AUGUST, 1949. I walk in darkness, and no one will help me but my own mad self. I want to communicate with Dostoyevski in heaven, and ask old Melville if he’s still discouraged, and Wolfe why he let himself die at thirty-eight. I don’t want to give up. I promise I shall never give up, and that I’ll die yelling and laughing.

The softball game in Denver was better than all this poor philosophizing. In a fever of sad understanding, I saw beyond envies such as these.

I had just seen Bob Giroux off on the airplane to N.Y., and walked and hitched back from the airport in a mammoth plains dusk, a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I arrived among the lights of Twenty-seventh and Welton, the Denver Negro-town.

With Giroux, at Central City, I had seen that my being a published writer was going to be merely a sad affair—not that he intended to show me that. I saw how sad he was, and therefore how the best and highest that the “world” has to offer was in fact empty, spiritless; because after all he is a great New Yorker, a man of affairs, a success at thirty-five, a famous young editor. I told him there were “no laurel wreaths,” i.e., the poet did not find ecstasies in worldly fame, nor in fortune, nor even in anything like acclaim or regard. He quite sensibly told me that the laurel wreath is worn only in the moment of writing.

But that night my dream of glory turned gray, because I saw that the best the “white world” has to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, music; not enough night.

I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot, red chili in paper containers. I bought some and ate it strolling in the dark, mysterious streets. I wished I was Negro, a Denver Mexican, or even a Jap, anything but a white man disillusioned by the best in his own “white world.” (And all my life I had white ambitions!)

I passed the dark porch steps of Mexican and Negro homes. There were soft voices, and occasionally the dusky leg of some mysterious, sensual girl. A group of Negro women came by and one of the younger ones detached herself from motherlike elders to come to me and say, “Hello, Eddy.”

But I knew damn well I wasn’t so fortunate as to be Eddy—some white kid who dug the colored girls down there. I was merely myself.

I was so sad—in the violet dark, strolling—wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-minded, ecstatic Negroes of America. All this reminded me of Neal and Louanne, who had been children here and nearby. How I yearned to be transformed into an Eddy, a Neal, a jazz musician, a nigger, a construction worker, a softball pitcher, anything in these wild, dark, humming streets of Denver night—anything but myself so pale and unhappy, so dim.

At Twenty-third and Welton the great softball game was going on under floodlights which practically illuminated the gas tank. What a cruel touch!—now it was the nostalgia of the Gas House Kids. A great eager crowd roared at every play. The strange young heroes, of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, Indian, were performing with utter seriousness. They were just sandlot kids in uniform, while I, in my college days, with my “white ambitions,” had to be a professional-type athlete. I hated myself thinking of it. Never in my life had I been innocent enough to play ball this way before all the families and girls of the neighborhood—no, I had to go and be a college punk, playing before coeds in stadiums, and join fraternities, and wear sports jackets instead of Levi’s and sweatshirts.

Some people are made to wish they were other than what they are, only so they may wish and wish and wish. This is my star. What had I done with my life, shutting off the doors to real, boyish, human joy like this, what had made me strive to be “different” from all this?

Now it was too late.

I walked away to the dumb downtown streets of Denver, for the trolley at Colfax and Broadway, where the big Capitol building is, with its lit-up dome and swarded lawns. I walked the pitch-black roads and came to the house I’d spent my $1000 on for nothing, where my sister and brother-in-law were sitting worrying about money and work and insurance and security and all that, in the white-tiled kitchen.

SEPTEMBER 21, 1949. New York. After a little work in the office Bob Giroux and I put on our tuxedos and went to the Ballets Russes at the Met. It is the most exquisite of the arts—one can die a strange little death after seeing the ballet for the first time. The girls en masse in blue light are like a vision; they all look Oriental, or Russian, too. Bob and I visited the great dancer, Leon Danielian, in his dressing room. Danielian sat in a chair, the old Death’s Head Impresario of the Ballet, looking like an ancient John Kingsland. Gore Vidal was there with his mother. Everybody keeps saying, “I like her better than I do Gore.” Our group consisted of John Kelly (a millionaire of the arts and Wall Street), and Gore Vidal and Mrs. Vidal, Danielian and his sister, Don Gaynor—who is like the sinister intellectual at parties in British films—and later John Latouche and Burgess Meredith (who is funny).

We spent $55 in the Blue Angel just for drinks and supper. I gunned the little French hat-check girl and made a date with her. Berthy’s her name—so great. But this evening I learned that I have to change now—being so much “in demand” it is impossible to accept all invitations to lunch, and equally impossible to try to communicate with everybody, as I’ve always done out of mere joy. Now I’ll have to start selecting. Isn’t that awful?

It appears that I am terrifically naïve. “Yes, yes!” I say. “Oh yes, I’ll call you!” And to top that off, running after every pretty girl I see (in my tuxedo), making dates that conflict with everything else—a bloody mess. Finally, I simply go home and sleep all day. They think I’m crazy.

Berthy is a sizzling little Parisienne. We will meet in Paris. She’s married to a New Yorker, and is soon divorcing him, and has cute little dark-eyed scruples that I want to devour out of sight.

One thing at a time.

NOVEMBER 30, 1949. People aren’t interested in facts, but in ejaculations. That is why straight naturalism fails to express life. Who wants Dos Passos’ old camera eye? Everybody wants to Go! So must the author, oblivious to all petty details, huffing and puffing in the heat of his fiery soul, go!

Novelists should write about rational people? Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey? Trilling pulled the most absurd irrational mask it has been my honor to observe: after Ginsberg was thrown out of college, and I had been mixed up in this downfall and barred from the Columbia campus, Trilling refused to recognize me on the street in the most farcical way, as if I’d suddenly acquired leprosy and it was his rational duty to himself as a Liberal Enlightener of Intellectuals to repair at a safe distance from the area of my septic running sores. From down the street I waved at him eagerly. He hurried on, deep in thought. Finally he came face to face with me at a drugstore counter behind which I was implacably washing dishes. There was nothing he could do; he forced a wan smile, paid for his coffee, hurriedly drank it. There was a crush at the door; he couldn’t get out fast enough.

I can take no crap from such men about my own work.

FEBRUARY 18, 1950. In twelve days my Town and City will be published and the reviews will appear. Will I be rich or poor? Will I be famous or forgotten? Am ready for this with my “philosophy of simplicity” (something which ties in a philosophy of poverty with inward joy, as I was in 1947 and 1948).

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 1950. My new plans for March: soon as I get my money, I’ll join the morning club at the Y and work out almost every weekday. Also, black coffee (no cream and sugar); chinning from the door (which has no real grip, so I can only do ten or eleven or twelve); and less sleep. I’ve been getting fat and lazy. Time for action, time for a new life, my real life. I’ll be twenty-eight in two weeks. Two meals a day instead of three. Much travelling. No stagnation. No more sorrows! No more metaphysical awe! Action . . . speed . . . grace . . . Go! Writing from true thoughts instead of stale rehashes. I’m going to express more and record less in On the Road.

—You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?

Slide Show: The Beats/A Lost Generation of Lonesome Travelers

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Passionate Reflections in Photography: An Exhibition of Visual Ritual and Spontaneity

 

Audio: Philip Glass/The Photographer

Susan Sontag: Photography by Annie Leibovitz

Susan Sontag: On Photography

“Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.

To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image., Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable, and get bought and sold; they are reproduced. Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging. They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, projected as slides. Newspapers and magazines feature them; cops alphabetize them; museums exhibit them; publishers compile them.

For many decades the book has been the most influential way of arranging (and usually miniaturizing) photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality — photographs are fragile objects, easily torn or mislaid — and a wider public. The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth object, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a painting does. Still, the book is not a wholly satisfactory scheme for putting groups of photographs into general circulation. The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph. Chris Marker’s film, Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966), a brilliantly orchestrated meditation on photographs of all sorts and themes, suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging (and enlarging) still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed; and there is a gain in visual legibility and emotional impact. But photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectable objects, as they still are when served up in books.

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something “out there,” just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutterbug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.

While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film — the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera. This is as evident in the 1840s and 1850s, photography’s glorious first two decades, as in all the succeeding decades, during which technology made possible an ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs. Even for such early masters as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images, the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.

That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.”

Susan Sontag

On Photography, 1977

Art is not separate from the world. The artist must serve two masters: The artist is responsible to and responsible for the integrity of his art as art, as a creative event in its own right; at the same time, he is responsible for himself and for his art as parts of the moment in the history of mankind in which he lives and in which he is attempting to become more fully alive, more fully human. The poet Robert Pinsky, in speaking of the responsibilities of the poet, and by implication the responsibilities of all artists, wrote that the poet needs not so much an audience, as to feel a need to answer, a promise to respond. The promise may be a contradiction, it may be unwanted, it may go unheeded … but it is owed, and the sense that it is owed is a basic requirement for the poet’s good feeling about the art. This need to answer, as firm as a borrowed object or a cash debt is the ground where the centaur walks.

The centaur, the artistic imagination, is not compromised by its responsibility to respond—it is safeguarded by it. Our imaginative conversation with that art safeguards us all.

Photography by Richard Avedon: ’60s Pop Stars to Modern Fashion Icons

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD AVEDON

 

Photography by Annie Leibovitz: Celebrity Photographer

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNIE LEIBOVITZ

 

Street Photographer Lee Balterman: Chicago in the 1940’s

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEE BALTERMAN

 

Photography by Henri Cartier-Masson: French Master of “Images on the Run”

“To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON

 

Photography by Harry Callahan: Minimalist Street Photography

PHOTOGRAPHY BY HARRY CALLAHAN

 

Photography by Robert Mapplethorpe: Searching for the Perfect Moment

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE

 

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Be Social:

Grace Paley, Celebrated Writer and Social Activist, Dies at 84

Grace Paley, Thetford Hill, Vermont

Grace Paley (megaphone) and Gloria Steinem (center)

Demonstrating for the Women of Iran, Who Demanded Their Rights in the 1979 Revolution

Margalit Fox reported the death of Grace Paley, renowned writer and social activist, in today’s edition of The New York Times:

“Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died on Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and also had an apartment in Manhattan.

Ms. Paley had been ill with breast cancer for some time, her literary agent, Elaine Markson, said yesterday.

Ms. Paley’s output was modest, some four dozen stories in three volumes: “The Little Disturbances of Man” (Doubleday, 1959); “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and “Later the Same Day” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985). But she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised by critics for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed at once to be surgically spare and almost unimaginably rich.

Her “Collected Stories,” published by Farrar, Straus in 1994, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (The collection was reissued by Farrar, Straus this year.) From 1986 to 1988, Ms. Paley was New York’s first official state author; she was also a past poet laureate of Vermont.

Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.

To read Ms. Paley’s fiction is to be awash in the shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit, with its wild onrushing joy and twilight melancholy. For her, cadence and character went hand in hand: her stories are marked by their minute attention to language, with its tonal rise and fall, hairpin rhetorical reversals and capacity for delicious hyperbolic understatement. Her stories, many of which are written in the first person and seem to start in mid-conversation, beg to be read aloud.

Some critics found Ms. Paley’s stories short on plot, and in fact much of what happens is that nothing much happens. Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end. Mothers gather in the park. But that was the point. In Ms. Paley’s best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that the text is propelled by an innate urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, “And then what happened?

Open Ms. Paley’s first collection, “The Little Disturbances of Man,” to the first story, “Goodbye and Good Luck”:

I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years. Who’s listening? Papa’s in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks — poor Rosie. …

Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.”

Hooked.”

Interested readers can access the full version of The New York Times article here.

The Washington Post published a detailed article today about Grace Paley’s death, which interested readers can access here.

Grace Paley: The 2007 Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture

In the video above, Grace Paley reads from her short fiction and poetry. Paley gave the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture: Celebrating the Legacy of Room 222 in April 2007. In the 1950s, visiting lecturer Robert Lowell taught poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck, among others, in Room 222 at 236 Bay State Road (Boston University). Paley is introduced by Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate.

Paley is known for her short fiction, her poems, and her political activism. She was the author of three books of short fiction: The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. A compilation of her previously published work, The Collected Stories, was reprinted this spring. She published three books of poetry, Leaning Forward, New and Collected Poems, and Begin Again: Collected Poems, and a book of short stories and poetry, Long Walks and Intimate Talk.

She received the Edith Wharton Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts. She was a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters and was named New York state’s first official writer.

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Celebrating The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show: Beaufort, South Carolina

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The Last Picture Show: Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to God, Science, Truth and Other Fictions

Introduction

The following remarks are from a speech given by Douglas Adams in 1998 at Cambridge University :

“So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!”

Is there an Artificial God?
Digital Biota 2
Magdelene College
Cambridge University
Douglas Adams, 1998

Link to the transcript of Douglas Adams’ lecture at Digital Biota 2.

Link to audio of Douglas Adams’ lecture: Mp3.

Link to Douglas Adams’ biographic notes.

Living with Uncertainty

I have attempted to address a couple of the main issues that seem to underlie Adams’ comments elsewhere, both from the perspective of our emotional lives, as well as with regard to our thought processes, especially from the vantage point of the nature of our scientific convictions (such as, for example, in the realm cyberculture or digital life).

When Adams reflects upon the realm of the unknown, he conveys the idea, both visualized and imagined, of being confronted by the prospect of finding “more and more unexpected properties [beginning] to emerge out of what we see happening.” It is an awareness that the modern condition no longer allows us to call upon religious, mysterious, and awe-inspiring forms of truth, upon authority founded in such revealed truth. One of the consequences of this disenchantment is that the ultimate and most sublime values have retired from public life, at best into the brotherliness of immediate personal relationships. At the same time we are required either to suffer a great deal more uncertainty or, more constructively, learn how to embrace it.

The Stare of the Other

With regard to emotional and/or interpersonal perspectives, one might metaphorically conceptualize interpersonal relationships as the recognition of and by the other, represented by the “stare” of the other. The stare is the other’s attempt to fix “me” in the present, to transform me into Being for others, establishing a sense of connection and attachment. In addition, the gaze of the other jolts one to realize the significance of one’s personal choices in determining the course of one’s life. In other words, while we may not know ahead of time how the course of our lives will turn out, it is not all simply a matter of fate.

In terms of more intimate interpersonal relationships, underlying current for many informed contemporary thinkers is that no one has access to ultimate truth. There are minor situational exceptions, of course, such as the reality that I have written this and that you are there reading it. On the other hand, it is still the case that there is no ultimate truth about the interaction between my writing and your reading of it, about my meaning and your own interpretation. So it is with “love,” or “being in love”: the paradoxical perspective offers celebration for the complexities that abound in our attempts to specify the particulars of those states.

Science, Theory and Truth

With the growing plurality of theoretical schools in the arts, social sciences and psychoanalysis (and many other fields), as well as the post-positivist turn in our thinking about theory itself and its relation to truth, there is a new urgency about our relation to the observational data of everyday life. On the one hand, we can no longer presume any definitively correct theoretical framework. Even if we are ourselves persuaded about the truth of our own particular perspective, we are forced to be modest about its claim on reality. This is the lesson of pluralism.

Conversely, we are increasingly forced to recognize that the facts, the data themselves, are always imbued with meaning. That is, there is no clear distinction to be made between facts and theories; there is no place to stand apart from our theories. If truth with a capital “T” is no longer attainable, even the particular local truths of a given situation are contingent and provisional, laced with ambiguity and uncertainty. Our interpretations rest on interpretations, rest on interpretations, rest on interpretations. This is the lesson of post-positivist science.

The emphasis upon the ambiguous and uncertain nature of our lives can vitalize and enrich our experiences of surprise. In other words, expanding our capacities to become engaged in depth with the ongoing events in our lives requires that we learn to become prepared to be unprepared for new experiences. This is an important characteristic of being open, or of openness. It is complemented by being prepared to make mistakes, no matter how diligently we attempt to receive the unknown. Here the stress is on having the flexibility to recover and re-find one’s bearings.

This being said, it is nevertheless very difficult fully to accept that we are, whether artists, scientists (or whatever mix) always taking temporary, limited and highly personal sightings in endlessly changing circumstances, sightings marked not only by new corrections but also by new errors. We can never know how to do that, but we can know that that is what we have to do.

Once one’s mind has been freed of its repetitive ruminations over what it is afraid to face, or its compulsive need to hang on to what it believes it knows, it becomes able to truly question the unknown that is actually there. There is a parallel shift from attempting to create meaning from reconstructions of the past to the realm of the “living moment” in which one is an inquiring subject. From this perspective, we are always asking questions. Our questions are always in search of other questions, and of the questions of others.

There are reasons why the unknown often is kept at bay in the present, reasons derived from old experience. If the notion of the dynamic unconscious is less viable as the crucial point of origin for repressed impulses, it is nonetheless true that there are dynamic processes that actively work to screen our perceptions and curtail our activities in order to protect us from encountering what past experience have made us afraid to know.

Further, the realm of the unknown is in itself is a source of fear. We may be able to contemplate the vastness of space with awe, for example, but when we actually venture into it we become acutely aware of needing to know more than we do. Our relation to unknown places demands upon us to know what we cannot know. It is not surprising that being able to tolerate this confrontation with the unknown often requires us temporarily to “stand back,” something analogous to creating a space in which to move. Such a space allows us to recover or develop the capacity to think about what has previously not been available for thought. For this to happen, an “opening” has to occur in the mind within which the new potential for thinking can occur.

“Space” is used a metaphor here, but as one of those metaphors which allows perspective to develop and reflection arise. If we can “stand back” from an initially overwhelming immediate experience, we are creating something that can be thought of as a “distance” that allows a new relationship between experience and thought. Or one might think of it in terms of time: a delay or a pause that occurs between the act and the thought, which makes it possible for us to listen and hear or feel ourselves in a new way.

Douglas Adams: Hyperland

Douglas Adams’ Hyperland: On Cyberculture and Digital Technology

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