‘The Typewriter is Holy’: The Beat Generation Put to Paper

Any author attempting to chronicle the peripatetic lives of the Beat Generation is confronted with two major difficulties. First, they must define exactly what the Beat Generation was and who it included. Second, they must contend with the impressionistic autobiographical nature of their subjects’ own material.

Bill Morgan worked as Allen Ginsberg’s archivist from the early ’80s until the poet’s death in 1997. He has addressed these two difficulties to craft a concise account of the Beat Generation as a whole, starting with the meeting of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac at Columbia University and ending with Ginsberg’s death.

Morgan defines the Beat Generation as a group of friends held together by Ginsberg. “The history of the Beat Generation is really the story of this one man’s desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him,” he writes. Morgan acknowledges that the major exponents of Beat literature — Ginsberg, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and so on — did not share a common literary style, philosophy or social theory: “We should think of the Beat Generation as a social circle created by Allen Ginsberg and his friends instead of a literary movement.”

At first this convenient definition holds up. The book opens with an overwhelming flurry of activity – road trips, sexual misadventures, even murders. Here, Ginsberg’s role as “the strongly cohesive glue” emerges. Morgan’s great success is the documentation of Ginsberg’s development from a shy and desperate young man, eager to please his charismatic peers, to a strong and assured figure, involved with developing the careers of his fellow artists. Burroughs, Kerouac and Neal Cassady — the real Dean Moriarty from On the Road — are far more than a supporting cast, but as their exuberance faded, Ginsberg’s grew. While the intellectual pursuits of the friends led to alcoholism, drug addiction and crime, Ginsberg found confidence in himself through his work.

The first half of the book covers the formative period of the Beat Generation culminating in the publication of Howl and Other Poems as part of Ferlinghetti’s City Lights series. Racing from murders to doomed relationships and road trips, from New York to San Francisco, Mexico City to Paris and Tangiers, it was a time of perpetual motion. Most of the work associated with the Beats was produced during this period or directly references it. Perhaps inevitably, Morgan struggles to maintain the momentum for the second half of the book, which focuses on Ginsberg’s growing influence on the public perception of his and his friends’ work. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady — always the core of the group — drifted apart as their commitments grew. Ginsberg embraced the added responsibility; his friends did not.

The physical detachment of the protagonists pushes the main flaw of Morgan’s book to the forefront. Though his attention to detail is admirable throughout, the lack of any critical assessment of the Beats’ work is conspicuous. This is obviously a conscious decision, and an understandable one given the wealth of comment on the Beats. But anyone familiar with On the Road or Howl (as readers inevitably will be) will feel there is greater reward in the original work, that the largely autobiographical work of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac in particular, may succeed better in defining the character, the physiognomy of the time and place, the Beats’s intellectual pursuits and their dynamic relationships. With that in mind, The Typewriter is Holy seems a half-way house between critical biographies of the Beats and the material on which they comment.

Those familiar with the work of the Beats will find little new in The Typewriter is Holy. Those familiar with only a handful of books and poems would be better served by reading more. Concise and well-crafted, Morgan has written an enjoyable and informative book but, perhaps, not a necessary one.

RATING 6 / 10