Saturday, April 12, 2014

Myth Beats vs. Real: Author Day on Beat Street

Note: This column is reprinted from a column I wrote for Book Review Station last June.

Hemingway = Paris
Beats = Greenwich Village and San Francisco

Famous writers aren’t famous because of where they live. And they don’t always live where they were famous for living.

Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in Paris, Key West and lots of other places. Jack Kerouac started writing his novel On the Road at his parents’ home in Ozone Park, Queens. And though my fictional character Ruby thinks he wrote it on toilet paper, Jack’s manuscript was actually tracing paper that he pasted into a roll so he could write without paragraph breaks.

We like to think of artists living in little artists’ “pockets” and hanging out with other artists all the time. But how boring would that be, especially for the artist? The truth is that artists need to get out into the world if they’re going to write about it. That’s why Kerouac went across the country to write On the Road.

He said he was looking for God and found Him in the sky above San Francisco. He also found people of all sorts doing all sorts of things and wrote about them too. Jack Kerouac was not a Hollywood stereotype of someone in the Beat Generation, though he may have invented the term. Books about him say he was deeply connected to his Catholic roots, adored his mother and joined the military. He is also supposed to have smoked weed and drank but approved of Senator Joe McCarthy, the senator who created a rabidly anti-communist crusade in the 1950s.

So who was Kerouac? Does it matter? Who knows? I believe the only way to learn anything about an artist is to look at what he or she puts out into the world for you. My favorite Kerouac book is a slim novel called The Subterraneans, which I favor more than anything else he’s ever done. It’s about a failed romance, but it’s really about jazz and language; the words dance like song lyrics, and if I’m ever having trouble with songwriting, I open up The Subterraneans and read.

Kerouac was supposed to have originated the term “Beat” with a few friends and it was said to be about being beaten by the world and the rat race wheel of success; it’s also about withdrawing from the world. The hippie “movement” of the 1960s was supposed to have grown out of the Beat Generation and was also supposed to be about withdrawal— focusing on art, music and relationships more than material things.

I think both generations were really about locating the internal worlds we create in our heads—but that doesn’t mean people withdrew into Greenwich Village or San Francisco and hung out all day barefoot and did drugs. (Well, maybe sometimes). They also got up every day and wrote or sang or worked at jobs they hated so they could write or sing or paint or create something. They traveled all over the country and world to meet people who drove trucks, worked on farms or led strikes. They weren’t trying to be artists or heroes or any kind of Generation. They just wanted to be.

What is Ruby looking for throughout The Beat on Ruby’s Street? I don’t think she knows, exactly, but she loves the way poets in her neighborhood use language. I think that’s because she’s learning what all artists know; that art isn’t good for anything, it can’t be used for anything, it isn’t practical or helpful and it doesn’t owe anything to anyone. If it’s important at all, it’s because it might, possibly, maybe help viewers and readers save time when trying to figure out their own feelings or perceptions.

Being an artist, though, isn’t tied to any one place or time. (By the time I was tooling around Greenwich Village it was the post-punk era and God knows what that was.) I also don’t think artists think all that much about being in any special place or living any certain way. It’s about what you see, what you want, and what you do with it. Anywhere, anytime.

New York.
Rockford, Illinois.
Wherever you are. You’re out there.