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Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation

Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation

by Ronna C Johnson (Editor), Nancy M Grace (Editor)

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What do we know about the women who played an important role in creating the literature of the Beat Generation? Until recently, very little. Studies of the movement have effaced or excluded women writers, such as Elise Cowen, Joyce Johnson, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, and Diane Di Prima, each one a significant figure of the postwar Beat communities. Equally


What do we know about the women who played an important role in creating the literature of the Beat Generation? Until recently, very little. Studies of the movement have effaced or excluded women writers, such as Elise Cowen, Joyce Johnson, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, and Diane Di Prima, each one a significant figure of the postwar Beat communities. Equally free-thinking and innovative as the founding generation of men, women writers, fluent in Beat, hippie, and women's movement idioms, partook of and bridged two important countercultures of the American mid-century. Persistently foregrounding female experiences in the cold war 1950s and in the counterculture 1960s and in every decade up to the millennium, women writing Beat have brought nonconformity, skepticism, and gender dissent to postmodern culture and literary production in the United States and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This collection of scholarly essays builds on interest generated by two recent anthologies devoted to the writings of Beat women: Brenda Knight's Women of the Beat Generation and Richard Peabody's A Different Beat. Arguing that before these anthologies Beat women had been given short shrift, the editors have gathered together articles from a variety of critical perspectives that focus on the writings of Helen Adam, Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Elise Cowen, Brenda Frazer, Joanne Kyger, and Ann Waldman. Johnson (English and American studies, Tufts Univ.) and Grace (English, Coll. of Wooster) contend that despite "their de facto exclusion from discourses of Beat art and creativity, women were integral to Beat's development and indispensable to expressing its signature disdain of and challenge to establishment culture and conventions." A concluding essay by Tim Hunt (Kerouac's Crooked Road) highlights and ties together significant ideas expressed in individual essays. The questions presented here are of interest not just in relation to Beat literature but in the broader context of women's and cultural studies as well. While the essays presented are somewhat uneven, with some conclusions being more convincing than others (as in most such collections), this book will be useful for scholars and graduate students and will provide grist, no doubt, for the term paper mill. William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Rutgers University Press
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.95(d)

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Excerpt from Girls who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace

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Since its advent in the mid-1950s, Beat generation writing has been only partly seen. The category is typically equated with the three men considered to be the movement's principal literary figures-Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs-and what they are made to stand for: iconoclastic, freewheeling, masculinist community and dissent from both literary convention and conformist "lifestyle." Even those who have not read On the Road, "Howl," or Naked Lunch recognize this romantic configuration, in which Beat is equated with iconic male figures and their legendary literature. Most critical discussion has preserved this narrow identification of the Beat movement with its white male practitioners, rehearsing the worn dogma of their iconography or attending primarily to autobiographical interests, following the clichéd notion recycled by David Halberstam in his mass market history The Fifties (1993) that how Beat writers lived was more significant than what they wrote. 1 But this familiar approach is misleading and instantiates an incomplete account of Beat. It excludes numerous women Beat writers, who were radical exponents of Beat aesthetics and who collaborated in the cultural reforms and resistances Beat engaged.2 Although recent literary studies and anthologies of Beat have admitted a wider range of writers, most have not exceeded minimal recognition of those outside the well-known group of males.3 The exclusion of femaleBeat writers diminishes understanding of the Beat literary and cultural movement, creates insufficient representations of the field of Beat literature, and distorts views of the era during and after the Second World War when Beat emerged.4
The lacunae in representations of the Beat raise concerns about how to constitute the category of Beat; or, how to decide who are Beat writers. Identification as a Beat writer would seem to depend on style, technique, aesthetic, and philosophy. A consensus about these might run thus: Beat is spontaneous composition, direct expression of mind, no censorious revision, jazz-based improvisation; or factualism, cut-up, surrealism; or firstthought- best-thought, cataloguing piled-up images, following breath line, prophetic utterance. Yet, these literary processes and philosophies are as heterogeneous as the works of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg that they represent. So, too, not only does the work of most women Beat writers diverge-technically, stylistically, aesthetically-from that of the principal male Beats, it is also heterogeneous in itself, with considerable deviation in aesthetics, ranging from performance-based, spontaneous jazz poetics, to revolutionary, mystical, vernacular poetics, to traditional approaches to composition. From another perspective, Beat writing can be designated by its social and literary iconoclasm, freedom of sexual expression, drug use and experimentation, existential questioning and questing, but these elements also describe most Anglo American bohemias of the twentieth century. What is distinctively Beat is the historical moment and social context in which its iconoclasms were practiced, and the specific communities from which Beat praxis took shape: the way denizens of postwar-that is, post-Hiroshima, post-Auschwitz-Beat bohemian enclaves in Boston, New York, and San Francisco rejected cold war paranoias, button- down corporate conformities, consumer culture, sexual repression, and McCarthy-era gay bashing when it was far from common or safe to do so openly. Who are Beat writers was in significant ways decided by interpersonal associations and common experiences of the postwar, cold war zeitgeist because Beat writing is stylistically and technically too diverse to constitute a homogeneous aesthetic or literary philosophy. Beat writers are united fundamentally by their challenges to conservative postwar consumer culture and by their formative mutual associations; commonwealth and personal relations are integral to writers' identification as Beat. That is, social, artistic, personal, geographical links-literary camaraderies and life relations-underlie most writers' identification with Beat.
The Beat generation literary movement formed out of the postwar bohemian communities of Greenwich Village in New York City and North Beach in San Francisco. Writers, painters, and intellectuals of postwar New York have been linked to bohemians of the 1920s in Greenwich Village. The underground of hipsters Kerouac noticed in New York during the war (1959, 361) brought a harder-edged, existential element to the free sex and art scene in the Village. Beat has been called the New Bohemia (Gruen), the underground (Sukenick), and, simply, bohemia (Gold); but Kerouac, who recognized the hip tenor of the New Bohemians in the late 1940s, shows that cultural Beat is a hybrid of Greenwich Village bohemia and Times Square hipsters; of painters and poets, musicians and philosophers. The Beat literary movement emerged from and drew on this cultural hybridity. It arose concurrently with late abstract expressionism in painting and with bebop jazz, as well as with other literary schools of the fifties and sixties with which it overlaps. Writers associated with Beat, the Black Mountain College school, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the New York school knew and influenced each other, shared work, techniques, publications, galleries, lovers, lofts, bars, and world views while still maintaining specific aesthetic approaches and cultural stances that gave each movement a distinct identity.5 The postwar New Bohemia was characterized by a heterogeneous collection of artists, writers, and intellectuals, some of whom loosely sorted themselves-or have been sorted subsequently-into schools according to aesthetics and practices. Yet, identity with a school arises from and is sustained by bonds of community as much as by adherence to artistic principles or agreement on social and political matters; Michael Davidson's point that the "San Francisco Renaissance was diverse, relying for its unanimity on a spirit of camaraderie and fellow-feeling more than on shared aesthetic beliefs" (4) applies to bicoastal postwar literary and art movements across the board.
The criteria of camaraderie and community connection to identify artists' affiliations helps to name those Beats who have been elided from the category or even those who deny it, as do, perhaps not surprisingly, many women writers whose alliances and aesthetics otherwise strongly place them as Beat. Ginsberg saw the Beat generation literary movement as "a group of friends who had worked together on poetry, prose, and cultural conscience from the mid-forties until the term became popular nationally in the late fifties" (Waldman 1996, xiv). His genealogy lists well-known male Beats, as well as writers from the Black Mountain, New York, and San Francisco schools; he counted only two women, Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger, among the working "friends." Later Ginsberg reiterated that Beat artists are recognized by confraternity; he used the phrase "guilt by association" (Weinreich, 268), which suggests de facto belonging by way of confederation. In another instance, Ginsberg pointed to the social to identify Beat writers: they are "the group of people we knew at that time" (Peabody, 1).6 He revealed the relevance of the shared historical moment ("at that time"), the cold war era; of an association or "group" of individuals with common beliefs and interests; and the somewhat self-serving standard for inclusion, his recognition ("people we knew"), a subjective measure limited by sexism, for although they were there, in this assessment, Ginsberg did not find any women writers of "such power as Kerouac or Burroughs" (Peabody, 1) except di Prima, repeating the elision that has marked Beat women writers' beat condition. 7
Beat has in common with its affiliated literary schools and with the dominant culture from which all emerged unexamined assumptions of women's intellectual, creative, even sexual inferiority, and, in particular, the supposition that women could neither originate nor help to advance the aesthetic and artistic breakthroughs and innovations that galvanized the schools. Although Ginsberg was confident that "where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her" (Peabody, 1), this grudging concession rationalizes Beat's failure, except in a few, isolated instances, to support women writers or welcome them as movement artists, and perpetuates the patriarchal concept of the exceptional individual, which entails the use of specious standards of merit or "genius" to limit acknowledgment of persons outside the white male hegemonic norm. Ginsberg's assumption that there were no meritorious women Beat writers, or only one or two, underlies the chronic marginalization of women artists, which is so extreme that few if any have been recognized in rosters of postwar literary schools; Davidson finds that "American bohemia of the 1950s lacked all but the most perfunctory recognition of women as artists" (174). Moreover, Ginsberg places the burden for evincing literary significance onto the women themselves, refusing to be "responsible for the lack of outstanding genius in the women we knew" (Peabody, 1), as if genius was innate and personal, a matter of an individual's luck or diligence in cultivation, rather than a judgment produced by hegemonic social constructions and preferences (Battersby). Indeed, the Beat movement is notable for the considerable number of women writers who were part of the community yet obscured or ignored, for the degree to which women went unrecognized for their literary and cultural contributions, and for Beat's indifference to the kindred spirit of rebellion implicit in bohemian women's protofeminism: even as they did write, both privately and for publication, women Beat writers continued to be unacknowledged and excluded from historical concepts and literary considerations of the movement.

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