M. is reading a biography of Allen Ginsberg (Dharma Lion by Michael Schumacher), which got us talking about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. We started watching videos to bring the people to life and see the connections, the tracks between. These threads of personal connection and influence, genre and tradition, are compelling. One startling thread, as I watched this stuff, was the still rich theme of America as a vast open space, the frontier, and the colonization of that space by driving over it (ah, America). Nary a mention of the natives.
This is Kerouac reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show. The sound track and clips from this film show up in almost all the other Kerouac videos.
And here is the famous 1968 interview with William F. Buckley. Kerouac is drunk. He died a year later.
And here’s Ginsberg’s gloss on that appearance. Incidentally, this is Ginsberg at his personable best. Amiable and loyal.
And here is some casual footage shot in 1959 in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and his family. There’s a fascinating story dating back to 1944 and before. William Burroughs’ friend David Kammerer, as I understand it, had a crush on Carr when Carr was twelve and in a Boy Scout troop Kammerer led. Kammerer essentially became a stalker. And in 1944 Carr stabbed him to death in Riverside Park and dumped the body in the river. Then he went to see Burroughs and tell him, and Burroughs said to go to the police, which he did. Carr did some time. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as accessories after the fact.
All handsome young people, even Ginsberg who looks raffish and brooding.
Time frame: Kerouac wrote an early draft of On the Road in the late 1940s. It was published in 1957.
And here’s a short documentary about Neal Cassady and Kerouac, beginning with an old Ginsberg interviewing Cassady in a bookstore.
And here’s a documentary about Cassady and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Cassady enlisted as the driver of the bus (obviously a bit hair-raising). This was 1964, a second chance at becoming a myth for Cassady, who wanted to be a writer but couldn’t. Fascinating how he became a figure of the imagination for two cultural movements, the Beats and the 60s Hippie movement. This video contains clips of a slightly demonic Hunter Thompson commenting on Cassady’s crystal meth addiction.
As a side note, Gordon Lish was teaching at a school in Burlingame, California, in the early 60s and publishing the experimental magazine Genesis West. Cassady and Kesey, among others, used to come around the the Lish house.
I like this connection because, of course, Lish was my editor for The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993) and my story “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814”, which appeared in The Quarterly, No. 13, in 1990. I started sending work to Lish as far back as the early 1980s when I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And, of course, through Lish, we arrive at the 80s, 90s and 2000s, a whole new generation of North American experimental prose. 
Here is Lish on those early relationships from an interview in the Paris Review:
How did you meet Ken Kesey?
Through his old wrestling coach, or English teacher, at Oregon, Philip Temko. We wrestled, Ken and I, out in front of a shack he had on Perry Lane, hard by Stanford, where he was a Stegner Fellow. Frances and I had a little bungalow on Concord Way in Burlingame and fell in with Ken through Temko and my search for Allan Temko, a writer I wanted to attract to the Chrysalis Review, a lit mag I was mounting at the time. So first I meet Kesey in San Jose at a romp Philip Temko was throwing. Met Neal there that night, too. Later on Kesey and I wrestled. He slaughtered me. This seemed to promote a friendship. Too, he was working on Cuckoo’s Nest, so there was the bughouse connection. Indeed, I was incarcerated twice—for two weeks in Florida and, later, for eight months up in White Plains. I could spend forever telling you tales about Kesey and Cassady. At the time I fell all over myself in devotion to Kesey’s writing. Yeah, I loved Kesey and his work. I loved the shit out of him, an utterly alive fellow, as was Cassady. But Cassady was gentle and dear and sensitive and kind. Kesey was anything but. He could be a pretty trying fellow and we became increasingly less palsy. There were all the kids he collected around his place in La Honda, that claque, and by the time Tom Wolfe turned up on the scene, I was plenty absent from it. Went up to Victoria, Canada, then to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then on to New York. I wouldn’t go along on either of the bus trips. Didn’t want to surrender myself to that prankstering bit, had Frances, the children, and a job I was going, presently, not to have. Ken kept saying, Come on, come on, come on, if you want to be my friend, come on, but I wouldn’t go. Yes, we had remarkable times. He died too young. I miss him all the time. Can’t say I didn’t love Ken, but with Neal the affection was far less troubled. No, no trouble at all.
After this, we decided to explore tangentially. We found a couple of documentaries about Black Mountain College (1933-1957), a John Dewey inspired college near Asheville heavily infiltrated by ex-Bauhaus artists and teachers escaping Hitler’s Germany. The connection for me was Charles Olson, whose what we would now call hybrid essays (I am beginning to shudder at the phrase) on history and projective verse also struck me at a vulnerable time, i.e. influenced me (I just checked my copy of the Selected Essays, bought in 1981 in Iowa City).
In this one there are some clips of Ed Sanders, who also appears in the Kerouac-William F. Buckley interview above, with an interesting bit of background in Ginsberg’s commentary following. Sanders is another of those trans-generational characters.
Then we thought to check out Goddard College (it was a night of tangents, all of which made sense at the time), the venerable experimental arts college in Vermont. It turns out that parallel to Black Mountain, the modern incarnation of Goddard was founded by another Thomas Dewey acolyte with a similar vision of the interpenetration of the humanities and arts as an exercise in soul creation and emancipation. Of course, the personal connection here is that Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I have taught on and off for a decade and a half, is an offshoot of Goddard, its egalitarian, counter-culture ethos very much an echo of Dewey and the days of vital experiment. At least these are the things that have always drawn me to the place.
I am writing this at the NC Bunker outside of Plainfield. Goddard College is just three miles down the hill on the other side of the village. Vermont College of Fine Arts is in Montpelier, about ten miles away.
But then we veered back to Charles Olson and started watching this documentary. It’s in six parts. You can just keep watching. Lovely to watch him lumbering about and to hear the legends of his marathon teaching sessions at Black Mountain. Also lovely to see this clips of Robin Blaser talking about him. As it happens, I interviewed Blaser in the early 90s when I had my radio show (another connection/influence — by the time I interviewed him he had long since taken up residence in British Columbia where he helped anchor the powerful Canadian wing of Black Mountain poetry).
This brings me back to the beginning, my note about the theme of America as place, as space, as mythic and local at once. You can hear it in Kerouac and you can hear it in Olson, especially the snippets from his book Call me Ishmael. I’m Canadian and I live here and now, with all its concomitant ironies and subversions, and these naive affirmations of love and ownership for the land, the sense of identity and language embedded in the land, America, make me edgy. They ring hollow, whereas as once they helped propel the careers of these authors, as rebellious and as experimental as they seemed. Perhaps it is this naive affirmation that so many Americans miss nowadays.
- There is a comical connection between Numéro Cinq and Burroughs who once threatened to shoot John Proctor (a boy at the time). John was one of the first group of writers on the masthead and he wrote a knowing little essay about the incident.↵
- We have a serious commitment to all things Lishian at Numéro Cinq: two strong essays on Lish and his school by Jason Lucarelli here and here, photos of Lish by Bill Hayward, and essays, reviews and interviews on/with Lish protégés — Victoria Redel here, here and here; Diane Williams, Greg Mulcahy here and here, and Gary Lutz. I’ll stop — there are more.↵
- Not coincidentally, our Contributing Editor Natalie Helberg won the Robin Blaser Award for Poetry a couple of years ago. There is, in fact, a strong, shared aesthetic at the back of the magazine.↵