Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Not About Anything

I have this idea of writers in the first half of the 20th century: completing their art, packaging a copy carefully, sending it off through the mail to a publishing house (or two or ten), and waiting to be discovered by an editor (or their assistant). By the 1960s, however, publishing had become an industry (small presses aside), where literary agents became the buffer between artists and the increasingly profit-searching publishing companies who drew a stern line between "publishable" and "marketable". How many amazing pieces of literature have been lost because they weren't deemed marketable? About as many pieces of trash published yearly because they will make money.

By 1964, the tide had definitely started taking that sharp turn from creative to commercial. One young writer had spent the previous year on a U.S. military base in Puerto Rico with a lot of time on his hands and a new typewriter. He believed in his novel so much, he only sent it to one publisher. An editor at that publishing house was impressed, amazed and very encouraging…at first. But under closer examination, he believed the novel had problems. It was a treasure of rich characters, but the plot was loose, as meandering as the Mississippi River as it flows past the French Quarter. The editor wanted to know the point of the novel, but the author conceded with no reservations: it wasn't about anything. Just life, just people, just a sense of place and time.

Ultimately, that wasn't enough for the editor; the novel was not published; and five years later, the author was found dead on the Gulf Coast, a hose tied from the tailpipe leading back into the car.

The fact that this eventually had a happy ending could never erase the tragedy of any artist whose work is rejected and they feel it is a personal sign from the gods. It's a modern-day miracle the author's mother found the manuscript ten years later and relentlessly bothered anyone and everyone who could recognize her son's talent. That she got the attention of an established Southern author was borne of luck and determination along the journey to the book's publication and subsequent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

As much as the world now celebrates A Confederacy of Dunces and its author, John Kennedy Toole, underneath remains a dark, cautionary tale about not only the harsh realities of making the transition from art to product, but also the sometimes (often) fragile states of the artists drowning in its wake. Artists are not only now required to be brilliant and talented, but they must also have amazing traits in self-marketing and business acumen, always be agreeble to alter their work to "appeal" to a wider audience. I suspect there are many brilliant novels sitting in drawers and boxes the world over, created by artists too sensitive, too hapless, not savvy enough to navigate the rivers of commercial art.

Or perhaps they don't want to. Perhaps the drive to create, as ceaseless as it can be, is strong enough that no one ever has to see the result. Some say writing is the purging of demons; once they have been purged, nothing more need be done with the project. If other people enjoy it - fine. If it can make money - all the better.

1964 drew a curtain on what was then known as the "literary establishment", probably the last era where the "writing life" was considered an admirable profession not only supported by a glamorous social network but also attached with some type of superior cachet. By the 1980s, hip lit was often nothing more than brief, staccato observation and blunt prose - worlds away from Toole's filigree of personality and description. It's tempting to believe had Toole lived today, he would have simply self-published on The world seems to have curiously reversed itself, where anyone can first publish, but they immediately still have to have gifts of promotion, networking and relentless self-esteem to get an audience. Ironically, Toole was just the sort of person who would have liked nothing better than to spend his nights creating and his days marketing - he would have been a 21st century literary superstar.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No One Behind the Wheel

On the road downward, an artist would be smart to pick up younger friends along the way…not necessarily the free spirits hitchhiking, but the ones who spend their weekends in car lots, inspecting the shiny new convertibles, knowing how good they'll look compared to the guy in his beat 50's wreck with all that mileage and all that baggage.

By 1964, Allen Ginsberg, recently lifechanged while padding around India, easily made friends with the hippies and the'd hold him high on their shoulders as they marched throughout the decade; William Burroughs, in another ten years, would make acolytes of the punks and they'd sit at his feet. Jack Kerouac did none of this. In 1964, booze-n-weed Jack despised the young acid tripping generation - the ones who'd hang an American flag on the wall as art, or worse - as a sofa cover. Jack would be damned sure to fold that American flag neatly and reverently. His former travel buddy, Neal Cassady, touched base one last time, driving the bus that helped usher in the 1960's (this is not metaphor; Neal was the one driving Ken Kesey's dayglo road trip bus, Further, as it made its way cross country on-the-road style.)

Kesey to Kerouac: your place in history is assured.
Kerouac: i know.

According to his letters, Kerouac wouldn't be a film with former friends Ginsberg and Gregory Corso because they were now "political fanatics". Jack wanted his writing to bring him back to a time and place where more conservative morals were respected. His former colleagues and their writing were a "betrayal of any truly 'beat' credo." and at their age, Jack saw them all as "frustrated hysterical provocateurs". Kerouac's back-to-basics autobiographical work did indeed go back to his childhood (Visions of Gerard - Gerard being his dead brother), and the critics were not kind to this elegy. Desolation Angels, although pieced together some years before, was still in the process of being "discovered" and would be released the following year.

During the summer of 1964, Jack went to live with his mother in once quiet St. Petersburg, FL. (Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally perpetuates the myth that the city was the "world's largest open-air mausoleum") Jack worried about his new address becoming public ("a 70-year old mother's house is not a PAD for krissakes!"), but still wrote that 1964 St. Petersburg life was all "baseball games, bars, pool games, beach parties…wild dances…" By Thanksgiving, he'd also be visiting St. Petersburg jail after urinating in the street.

Jack and his mother spent the days excelling at being functioning alcoholics, their states of mind further tested when Jack's sister died suddenly, giving Jack even more to ruminate about days rushing by, writing John Clellon Holmes about the "red-neoned funeral parlor" at the end of everyone's road. Photos of Jack from 1964 show the 42 year old looking some 15 years older. Kerouac couldn't last much longer like this - and he didn't - becoming yet another artist who drank themselves into an early grave. (His former muse, Neal Cassady, had already been a victim of the times a year and a half before Jack's final whiskey.) Was he a man out of time, unable to come to grips with a new generation who still carried dog-eared paperbacks of On the Road in their back pockets? Or had he run out of different versions of his life story in order to feel more relevant in a year of blunt hyperreal fiction like Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn?

His last years were spent with young hangers-on bilking him out of drink money and cheating at poolgames behind his back. Any one of these younger generation could have been the spark to bring him out of his post-hasbeen funk and into a newer understanding in a decade where the world was going wild. Instead, he bailed out without appointing a designated driver.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Getting Your Visions

In 1964, a promising novel was published based upon a young writers’ family tribulations in the Pacific Northwest; this is only important because it was his second published work and writers will usually use their early lives for their first novel. Overshadowing the reception of this novel was the journey the young writer took on his way across the country to New York. It could be considered post-Kerouac, taking that journey from west to east in as much the same way Kerouac described himself and Neal Cassady rolling down two-lane highways on an all-night benzedrine bender. However, in 1964, this entire experience would most likely be considered post-modern-Kerouac: not only did the young writer make the journey in a dolled-up school bus; not only did the young writer have the actual Neal Cassady at the wheel; but the young writer’s journey was also turned into a novel – sadly much better received than his own second novel, sadly because someone else wrote it.

It would not be the first nor last time celebrity overshadowed art. Ken Kesey was already famous when his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, arrived. Less a publicity stunt, perhaps, than a defense mechanism against facing the Great New York Literati, Kesey – with a busload of emotional support and performance art – became the subject of yet another hallmark of 1960s counterculture literature: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But before all of that, in 1964, Ken Kesey was well-known for his debut novel – a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that makes you believe you are actually there, only because Kesey had already been there – and had the great notion to put his observations down on paper.

The circumstances under which the actual writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest occurred is rife with nostalgic hipster mythology. All sources agree that Kesey was working at the same mental hospital he had earlier reported to for his volunteer drug research (doubtful the pay was as good); all agree his after-hours position was a prime boxseat in which to watch the drama of asylum life unfold; but some sources wonder if Kesey took the job precisely because he had access to more psychotropic drugs and ultimately wrote OFOTCN while under its influence. It's definitely Martin Torgoff's opinion: In Can't Find My Way Home - America in the Great Stoned Age, he imagines Kesey's position: "Being on the ward under the effects of LSD and mescaline had the effect of a veil being pulled back to reveal a darkness in the American Soul." It certainly does not diminish the impact of the novel to take into account the writer's state of mind - Kesey follows a long line of authors who have successfully mixed altered states with literature.

Unlike the baby boomers, Kesey grew up as part of the first postwar generation. They did not use their affluence to rebel as much as saw their affluence as a reward to conform. It all comes down to whether Kesey and his contemporaries actually thought themselves as hip or breaking out of some established mode of literature prevalent up to 1962, when OFOTCN was written. Norman Mailer had already come up with the eclectic hipster definition as someone possessing an "intense awareness" when he was a big part of the fledgling Village Voice. Growing up amid the Cold War and its dark twin, McCarthyism, would certainly be a spark to re-examine one's society - just as the generation before Kesey's did and just as the generation after Kesey's did. A fiery, instant annihilation via nuclear bomb may have been a novelty during Kesey's young adulthood, but writers throughout history have been keenly aware of how the end times are always right around the corner.

What literature from the 1950s would have appealed to or ignited Kesey? J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye may have seem too conservative, although Kesey must have appreciated that singular narrative voice. To be trapped in the mind and smell the smells of a jaded teenager must have made being trapped in the mind and smelling the smells of an overmedicated mental patient a distinct challenge. William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer are other examples of books Kesey had been exposed to that featured strong, psychologically-challenged narrators. If the literary world was taken aback with the sudden appearance of OFOTCN, it was because the subject matter was not usual for a young man's first novel. The accepted rite of passage in the 20th century was the thinly veiled memoir, because a young writer can only write what he knows and has seen in his life. (Kesey did write this novel, Zoo, but it has yet to be published.)

Postwar New York City was the undisputed capital of every slice of the culture pie except for film. The literary establishment oozed from all corners - universities, re-patriated Parisians, writers who were eaten up and spit out by the Hollywood studio system and who were begging to write for the theatre again. In New York in the 50's, Dan Wakefield makes it clear: "In New York the word was most honored, most powerful, most brilliantly imagined...gathered on one single island." Alcohol was the East Coast Literary Establishment's main vice, along with a haughty ability at self-serving debate. While movies in the 1950s were mostly selling fantasy, the giants of literature Kesey was exposed to were disavowing fantasy and embracing a startling blend of ultrarealism and psychoanalysis. (Theatre continued to vacillate between the eye candy of musicals and the taut electric current that can only be achieved by live theatre - the grittier the better.) Not only was writing a good outlet for anyone dissatisfied with their world (Kesey was also something of a sketch artist), writers had a certain leniency in society all artists shared. Creatives were allowed to be eccentric, where a mainstream citizen might easily, in the Post War era, be seen as a candidate for psychoanalysis, or worse, exile into a mental health facility.

In contrast to the East Coast, the California literary scene was newer, looser and decidedly anti-intellectual, easily adapting the latest Eastern philosophies into their art just as they would adapt the new Psychology. San Francisco's literary era was officially entered when Allen Ginsberg unveiled his syncopated performance of Howl in 1955, plunging poetry from something transcendent to an unrelenting indictment of society by bullet-pointing its lower depths. Ginsberg was wisely moving beyond the beat moniker to something closer to Zen prophet, leaving the movement he helped foster (literally playing nursemaid to many of the classics of his generation due to his patience, naivety and skill at working a room) to turn into stereotype. Kesey would not want to be associated with any long-in-the-tooth former torch, even if it did launch a certain zeitgeist, but he could have at least commended Ginsberg for going through the obscenity trial so later writers would not have to. Kesey would remain in synchronous orbit with the remains of the Beats up past the publication of OFOTCN when, one source claims, Neal Cassady – Jack Kerouac's sweaty muse – arrived fresh from prison on Kesey's doorstep. He had read Kesey's book, realized that somehow Kesey was writing about him when writing about Randall McMurphy, and ended up driving Kesey's bus (until he passed out in Mexico and died).

The beat generation gets a bad rap because few remember what flowered in their wake: the Village Voice, The Evergreen Reader and works published by Grove Press went a long way in helping new and raw voices like Kesey get a wide readership. The beats did not dwell much on the psychological in their work, they were concerned with the moment of experience. Writers who used the blank page as a form of self-analysis risked being put in the same suspicious light as psychiatrists themselves. In New York in the 50's, Dan Wakefield sets the stage for Kesey's later arena: "One of the most prevalent criticisms of psychiatry in the fifties was that it somehow led to conformity, that its goal was to "shrink" the patient to fit the mold of middle-class society." He goes on to point out that artists feared having their creativity drained away by modern psychiatry as much as homosexuals had to worry about being cured of their preferences.

Meanwhile Timothy Leary was at Harvard as a research psychologist specifically targeting his drug of choice, the hallucinogen psilocybin, to his most attentive guinea pigs, the artist. Leary cut a wide swath throughout most of the literary East Coast, converting many of the creatives (with the exception of Jack Kerouac, an especially mean drunk, even when tripping on Leary's mushrooms). Psychological began being traded for the psychedelic. While the government was using Kesey to further its own experiments in mind-control, Kesey was quick to realize these same drugs, in enlightened hands, could, as Ken Goffman defines in Counter Culture Through the Ages, "[fuel] the countercultural drive by illuminating utopian visions, inspiring artistic departures, and exposing consensus reality as a buffoon emperor with clay feet and minimal clothing." Leary himself would later describe LSD trips as analogous to the Tibetan Book of the Dead in its mystical properties.

If Kesey and his West Coast friends were looking for the mystical, it did not surface in his observations while working as a nurse's aide. Perhaps taking a (half) Native American as his storyteller says more about Kesey's quest for shamanic experiences with peyote and its natural properties – LSD was manufactured in a sterile lab. Kesey was raised in Oregon, where OFOTCN is set, and much of his youth was spent in the same wilderness Chief Bromden fondly recalls. Peyote, and its synthetic counterpart, mescaline, could have been brought to Kesey and his friends' attention in 1954 when Aldus Huxley's The Doors of Perception appeared. The connection between watching his friends blissed out on peyote and watching mental patients in a Demerol haze would not have been lost on him. He also experienced the double standard of living in a country whose government will simultaneously use drugs for their own devices while condemning and persecuting those who self medicate for recreational purposes.

A lot of mid-20th century American literature's purpose was to expose society's ills. Films were just coming to that same conclusion, American theatre had broken a lot of ground, but in 1962 a serious young writer knew the longform novel was the greatest weapon he could wield. Ken Kesey belongs to this cadre, often unrecognized because they do their best work alone, instead of capturing media attention by igniting protest or entering politics. Live entertainers like Lenny Bruce fired their vitriol directly at their audience - the delivery mattered as much as the material; Filmmakers and playwrights accepted that what they brought to the table visually or through the power of speech were the important channels in which to funnel their message; writers, however broad their pallet, have to make the visuals, the sounds, the speech, all work in their readers' heads. Therefore, add the novel to the list of potentially dangerous mind-altering experiences.


Works Cited

Boon, Marcus. The road of excess: a history of writers on drugs. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Faggen, Robert. Introduction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. by Ken Kesey. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.

Goffman, Ken. Counterculture through the ages: from Abraham to acid house. New York: Villard, 2004. Print.

Hughes, Jim. Altered states: creativity under the influence. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999. Print.

Kaplan, Fred M. 1959: the year everything changed. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Plant, Sadie. Writing on drugs . New York: Farrar, Straus, And Giroux, 2000. Print.

Torgoff, Martin. Can't find my way home: America in the great stoned age, 1945-2000. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Von Bergen, Julie. "Ken Kesey." Ken Kesey (2005): 1. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Feb. 2011.

Wakefield, Dan. New York in the fifties. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1992. Print.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Writing the truest sentence you know

Many readers learned about the American expatriates in 1920's Paris in 1964 when A Moveable Feast was posthumously published a few years after Ernest Hemingway's death. Like many young Americans born in the new century, Hemingway had witnessed the European devastation of World War I and the experience diverted both his path as an artist and his attitudes as a man. As some alcoholic depressive writers return to their past as a way of entertaining others and reinforcing their own self worth, one can do worse than the episodes chronicled and famous personalities exposed in A Moveable Feast. Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin makes a good point when dealing with any Hemingway writing touted to be truth, saying projects like "A Moveable Feast are barely more autobiographical than his fiction, and, in many ways, just as fictional." In other words, it's the same old problem with memoirs - there's little emotional distance to vet accuracy.

Some analysts claim Hemingway wrote these remembrances to get back at those he felt had slighted him in the years since he lived in Paris, but A Moveable Feast isn't as tough or mean-spirited as it could have been. Hemingway wasn't known as being particularly woman-friendly or gay friendly. (Even soft straight men like Fitzgerald generally worried Hemingway.) Luckily, as it was Paris in the 20s and not Berlin in the 20s, Hemingway had little to concern himself, masculinity flourished everywhere, including when socializing with women like Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. Men like Ezra Pound were able to barter mentoring Hemingway's literary ambitions in exchange for boxing lessons.

If Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Co. bookstore functioned as a sort of 1920s Paris internet, Gertrude Stein's salon was its Facebook. Anybody who was anybody (as long as they didn't piss off the hostess) showed up to be introduced to anybody who was anybody. Stein is credited with telling Hemingway to trade in his journalism experience for the world of fiction, but in reality, it was the vogue for many journalists in the new century to have a book or play on the back burner. During Hemingway's first months in Paris, he didn't have many nice things to say about the poseurs he was surrounded with, as if "the scum of Greenwich Village...has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles" in his new Paris café society.

Hemingway and wife Hadley weren't the first nor last Americans striking a Bohemian pose in Paris, but at least they could write home about all the cheap wine available - the U.S. was in the throes of prohibition, Europe was not. Hadley's fatal mistake was packing a year's worth (some say 3 years) of Hemingway writing into a suitcase and then losing it in a train station. Perhaps she was fed-up with the poverty-crying she endured from her groom, who said they were too poor to "afford a dog...or cat" and who told others he would duck into the Luxembourg Gardens to strangle pigeons for meals when he was "belly-empty, hollow-hungry".

Gertrude Stein – according to Hemingway, they were like brothers – convinced Hemingway to check out the bullfighting scene down in Spain. (This, apparently, he could afford.) Hemingway not only turned on some of his Paris friends to the spectacle, but also wound up writing all about them, and as is so often the case, not all the characters based on real-life friends were flattering. The Sun Also Rises can be considered a fictional account of Hemingway's Paris experience, written as it was happening, contrasted with the memoirs of A Moveable Feast, written some 30+ years after the fact. Not that his eye for sacrificing truth for a good plot wavered much in between those projects. Even though Hadley was with her husband during the real-life events in Spain, she was deleted from the novel so the Hemingway stand-in hero could be free to pursue another woman (Hadley divorced Hemingway around the time The Sun Also Rises was published. Coincidence?) Unflattering portrayals were the literary equivalent of brawling back in the early 20th century. Hemingway withered Gertrude Stein's reputation in A Moveable Feast as much as Stein has shot Hemingway down in her own The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Wife #2, Pauline, appeared around the time The Sun Also Rises was published. In fact, it looks like Hemingway often had a new wife whenever a major literary work of his completed. But first wife Hadley got the bulk of The Sun Also Rises money and Hemingway was back to the bottom rung financially if not for Pauline's help. She was the wife to lead him up to A Farewell to Arms and closed out Hemingway's Paris adventures for the Key West life.

All of this drama really stands as a testament to what happens to projects whose artist dies in the middle of its creation or original material is subsequently discovered (the original "scrolls" of Jack Kerouac's On the Road were recently unearthed and published). By the time of Hemingway's self-inflicted death in 1961, he was married to Mary, a journalist in her own right, whose job it became not only to coordinate the memoirs, but to give it its title – the publisher was just going to title it "Paris Sketches". In 2009 the controversy over a "new" edition of A Moveable Feast came to light when one of Pauline's grandsons didn't like how Pauline was portrayed (blaming her solely for breaking up Hemingway's marriage to Hadley, but otherwise removing her from the narrative) and he launched a campaign to have a different version of the book released. He even claimed that Mary herself wrote the original last chapter of the original publication, Hemingway's apology to Hadley. (Read a denunciation of the whole business by one of Hemingway's friends, A.E. Hotchner in the NY Times). It is also alleged that despite Mary's declaration that the book was completed before Hemingway died and that she didn't add a thing, the original material discovered shows she handled consideration alterations to an unfinished manuscript. In the end, no one will ever be sure whether Hemingway's words wound up being the truest words he knew.



Work Cited

Brenner, Gerry. "Are We Going to Hemingway's Feast?." American Literature 54.4 (1982): 528. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Jan. 2011.

Burke, David. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light. Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2008.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1988.

Hotchner, A.E. "Don't Touch 'A Moveable Feast'." New York Times. 20 July 2009.

Rich, Motoko. "Moveable Feast is Recast by Hemingway Grandson." New York Times. 28 June 2009.

Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. "Fact and Fiction in A Moveable Feast." Hemingway Review 3.2 (1984): 44. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Jan. 2011.

Wiser, William. The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties. G.K. Hall & Co., 1983.