THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION is a very unusual new addition to the oeuvre of Beat writing. Based on a series of lectures that Allen Ginsberg gave at the Naropa Institute in Colorado and then at Brooklyn College, the book is many things at once: literary primer for those new to the Beats; unique and approachable personal account (at times similar to a memoir) by Ginsberg of the major figures and events of the movement; important new resource for academics and Beat enthusiasts. Because Ginsberg quotes at some length from the texts to which he refers, the book also serves as a piece of literary criticism and a kind of Beat reader – there are many important poems and passages from novels and criticism/articles in these pages.
Ginsberg begins the lectures with a definition of the “Beat Generation” – a phrase that, as he explains, has a convoluted origin story. Kerouac used the phrase once in the early 1950s to discount the idea of generations altogether (he was not part of the “lost generation” or “greatest generation”, just a “beat generation”, a kind of non-generation) but it was a 1952 article in the New York Times magazine that used the phrase and made it catch on. “Beat” could mean without money and a place to stay, or more simple, “tired, exhausted”, but also with a resonance of being “beaten down”, as well as a musical idea of the beat of drums – but these last two resonances are misunderstandings, according to Ginsberg. Kerouac unpacked the etymology of the word differently, he pointed out the root of “be-at”, as in “beatitude” or “beatific”. He expounded further: “the necessary beatness of darkness that proceeds opening up to light.” Ginsberg also defines the initial proponents of what would come to be thought of as Beat writing: himself, Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncket, John Clellon Holmes, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, as well as Neal Cassady and Carl Solomon, though they were not primarily known as writers. Other additions came later, as did the Beat’s broad influence on film, visual art and other media. Ginsberg ends the chapter explaining that the essence of the phrase “Beat Generation” can be found in a celebrated phrase of On the Road: “Everything belongs to me because I am poor.”
The book is digressive and very conversational and often intimate in tone – that much is clear from the first two sentences of the first full chapter, which give a good taste for the humorous tone of salaciousness the book sometimes takes: “One thing I’ll try to do is talk sequentially in such a way that it will make sense for scholars as well as for ourselves and record what I’m doing because I’m getting senile and I don’t remember very much any more. I can’t remember who fucked who, when, or who wrote what anymore, and this may be one of the last times I’ll actually be able to remember that and get it straight.”
Early in the book, Ginsberg spends quite a bit of time discussing the influence of music, particularly jazz, on the emerging Beat writers, something that is very interesting and under-referenced in the critical literature. He provides almost a Beat playlist for the reader: “Listen to Brahms’s Trio No. 1 and Brahms’s Sextet, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with the “Frère Jacques theme”, some forties music, Thelonius Monk’s “Round About Midnight” . . . some of the forties Dizzy Gillespie, like “Salt Peanuts”, “Opp Bob Sh’bam . . . “The Chase” by Dexter Gordron, and Wardell Gray . . . Lester Young . . . Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain . . .” (and the list goes on). He mentions the rhythm of bebop directly influencing the rhythm of Beat poetry and prosody. Indeed, he says that the phrase “salt peanuts, salt peanuts” marks the accenting of a lot of Keroauc’s prose in its noniambic accenting. And it wasn’t just the music, it was the whole zeitgeist in New York that profoundly marked the Beat movement – Ginsberg describes the Times Square scene in the 1940s, the mix of hustlers, drug pushers, layabouts and vagabonds and artists and writers. He quotes from Kerouac’s “New York Scenes”, written in response to an assignment from Esquire to pen a piece about the Broadway theater & entertainment scene — Esquire instead got a depiction of the realia of Times Square (“Emerging from the Seventh Avenue subway on 42nd Street, you pass the john, which is the beatest john in New York . . . past the new charcoal-fried-hamburger stand, Bible booths, operatic jukeboxes and a seedy underground used-magazine store next to a peanut-brittle store smelling of subway arcades . . .”) The phrase “beatnik” was used in this article but probably at the insistence of the Esquire editors who ended up liking this edgy piece. Literary influences are also discussed at some length, particularly the importance of Dostoevsky (and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment in particular) in the development of ideas of the atmosphere of Beats and the way their authors and characters saw their relationship with society and the world at large.
Later in the book, Ginsberg discusses his very intense personal relationship with Burroughs. Having fallen rather deeply in crush-obsession with Kerouac, he soon realizes that nothing romantic will happen between them, and Kerouac becomes more of a mentor figure, someone he looks up to like an older brother. His relationship with Burroughs is more direct, sexual, intense, but also with shadows of mentorship/fatherliness on Burroughs’s part. He recounts the story of David Kammerer, killed by Lucien Carr at the Columbia campus in 1946 and the inspiration for the Burroughs-Kerouac cowritten AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS, the second thing that Burroughs ever wrote (after his masterpiece anti-American poem “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”). The international side of Burroughs’s life (the importance of the scene in Tangier, his time at the Beat Hotel in Paris) also comes up in these chapters, as well as more unusual/personal things such as Ginsberg’s psychosexual analysis of Burroughs: “Burroughs is a homosexual who has one peculiar erotic situation. I thought it was rare, but he insisted it was not at all, but his favorite way of cumming is when he is screwed by a man . . . However, Burroughs is a very dignified, Harvard man, and this is not exactly a situation where he is in control . . . when he was younger, he found it demeaning, pretty much against the dignified outer mien that he had.”
Ginsberg goes into some detail about the importance of the cut-up to Beat aesthetics, focusing somewhat on Burroughs but also dealing with Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin, and others. He regrets not trying to cut up “Howl” and his own first reactions to the idea of the cut-up. He sees this search of knowledge, recreation through text as part of a Gnostic or Buddhist tradition of self-enlightenment. Ginsberg did occasionally dabble himself in using the method – in 1960 he cut up the two famous “Bay of Pigs” speeches of Khrushchev’s and Kennedy’s, and the result of his mixing was the simple, perfectly declarative phrase: “The purpose of these maneuvers is offensive weapons.”
Later chapters include a long literary analysis of Kerouac’s writings in On the Road and its road to publication (begun in 1951, published in 1957), a discussion of Gregory Corso’s contributions to Beat writing through his emblematic politlcal poetry, and then Ginsberg discusses his own poetry at some length. He talks about his influences (Kerouac, T.S. Eliot, John Donnne, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, metaphysical poetry) and analyses his own poetics, often discussing the importance of phonics and the collaborative nature of the creation of many of his poems. He approaches his oeuvre mostly chronologically so the reader gets a sense of the development of his concerns, aesthetic and otherwise, and his own peripatetic life. In later chapters, lesser-known figures like Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, and Peter Orlovsky also come under discussion.
As a whole, THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION provides a unique glimpse into a lost world where writing, for this group, was a mystical, hermeneutical process deeply connected to the visual arts and to the spiritualism of the East—a moment very much of its time, but one which changed the landscape of world literature forever.