Every group wishes they were someone else. And no one wishes it more than middle and upper class white kids. Submitted for your approval: The case of William S. Burroughs
While St. Louis MO isn’t the most hot hip happening place in the U.S. if you were in a wealthy family during the go go 1920s you were pretty lucky. And luck is boring it seems when you’re smart and privileged. Burroughs grows up and is so smart he gets an early entry into Harvard. And he meets up with another rich white kid who is similarly bored and drives from Boston to NYC every chance he gets. Finally meeting up with the criminal underbelly, the seedy side of mid-town Manhattan. Burroughs fellow traveler or more likely instigator in these reckless trips was Richard Stern of Kansas City MO. Apparently by Wikipedia accounts Richard liked to hang out. So Burroughs goes along and gets a taste for drugs, and vice. But that’s not where it ends, you cannot begin to pretend to be hoodlum if you only are passing through. Eventually Burroughs ends up meeting Herbert Huncke a real street hustler who made do with whatever was going on around Times Square and 42nd street. Herbert in terms of a literary character was the ‘other’. But even that gets somewhat confused when you look into his background. Herbert was for Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsburg the person who the aspired to be, the life lived in a truly ‘real’ way. Herbert was from Chicago, his Dad owned a manufacturing company. They were by all accounts middle class. But he was unhappy, and he ran away from home at an early age (around 12). And from then on he got to experience the U.S. in all its decrepit glory. He became a shill for a carnival hermaphrodite. The carny life then led to drugs and the drugs led to other things. By 1939 Herbert landed on Times Square, where he met Burroughs and the legend was born. The Beat lifestyle Herbert Huncke was living was not to be admired, aspired to, it was just getting by. Staying one step ahead of the law. Huncke was in jail for stealing at times making a friend a Rikers Island along the way. This was the story the rich white kids fell in love with, vicariously trying to emulate Huncke’s hard life. Try as they might to emulate (drugs, sex, road trips) they never quite achieved Huncke’s level of freedom and self-determination and beat-ness.
After Herbert Huncke a few more rough types came into the circle by degrees. Again drugs and sex all came along for the ride. Greg Corso and Neal Cassady both served time for crimes at different times. They never were violent types but still they had records and craved the action they found in the margins of society. These two guys had the charisma that held all the beat writers in awe. Everyone wanted to be those guys. And again it was the desire to become what they were not that seemed to draw them into that circle of friends. Kerouac and Ginsburg loved Corso and Cassady. Until I read wikipedia articles about this whole group and the order of events and meetings that brought them together, I never really understood how the Beat phenomenon came about. I’m sure the absolute disdain of society and creepiness of the lifestyles they chose drove them onward into embracing the criminal element. They tried very hard to be different, to not conform to what everyone thought they should want.
The dark side to all this is some people gave up their lies along the way. Two sad stories come out of this pursuit of the other, the deaths of David Kammerer and Jean Volmer. Kammerer’s story is odd in the extreme. He followed around a fellow student to Columbia U. Apparently infatuated with this young man, he waited patiently for the guy to reciprocate his feelings. One day they had words, Kammerer was repeatedly stabbed in the argument and Kerouac a friend to the younger man (the assaillant) helped him dump the body in the river and helped hide the murder weapon. What price the Beat Life? In another strange episode Burroughs was fleeing the law by living in Mexico City. He had been pursued on drug charges in Texas and Louisiana. He came very close to serving time at the Louisiana Angola State prison. But he skipped the country and his wife and kids followed down to Mexico City once he let them know his whereabouts. There Burroughs accidentally killed his wife but avoided prosecution by hiring the best lawyer in all of Mexico. The death was labeled an accident and the burial was very quick (to avoid a coroners inquest). Burroughs skipped out again and avoided prosecution.
In the end the Beats aren’t so much portrayed as rebels in the Wikipedia articles I read. They seem more like bored, privileged kids. Who after being given every advantage in life chose carefully the hardships they wanted to endure so they could get a taste of the hard life. And in so doing experience things that were ‘real’. The story has been told so many times after the Beats first met in 1944 in Manhattan, in the upper West Side apartment of Jean Volmer. From the hippies to the punks everyone wants to escape their privilege and congregate on the margins of society. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I feel a big joke has been played on us all in the press accounts and over promotion of these individuals. I for one consider it more a cautionary tale than an adventure.