Little Murders: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

With the publication of his first novel, the Thomas Wolfe-inspired The Town and the City, six years ahead of him, Jack left New York City shortly after his release from jail, joining Parker and her family in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Burroughs returned home to St. Louis. But by October 1944 both men were living in New York once again, Burroughs, perhaps, for the stimulation he craved from total immersion in the gay and criminal underworld (Mike Evans writes in The Beats that Burroughs’s “interest in the criminal world was motivated by his long-held belief that only experiencing the downside of life without moral restriction could lead to true fulfillment”).

Kerouac returned to the vibrant city because the marriage to Edie collapsed after only a few weeks, and the prospect of working on a Michigan ball-bearing assembly line to repay the debt to Edie’s mother was almost too much to bear. Only a few months after returning to New York, Burroughs and Kerouac began working on the manuscript for And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Book: The Town and the City
US publication date: 1970-10
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780156907903
Length: 512
Price: $17.00

Author: William S. Burroughs
Book: Naked Lunch
US publication date: 2003-01
Publisher: Pgw
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780802140180
Length: 289
Price: $14.00

The Phallic Boy Scout Knife

This is all the stuff of literary legend, of course, and has been explored extensively by Beat era biographers, beginning with Ann Charters’s Kerouac: A Biography in 1975, followed by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s fascinating Rashomon-like oral history, Jack’s Book, in 1978, and Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel in 1979.

Long before the biographers resurrected the murder scandal, however, the Carr-Kammerer tale seized the fevered imagination of the intellectual underground. James Grauerholz, executor of the Burroughs estate, writes in the afterword to Hippos:

Allen Ginsberg was among the first to try his hand at making literary hay with the Carr-Kammerer story: in late 1944 Allen wrote many notes and chapter drafts in his journals for a work that he considered calling The Bloodsong. Ginsberg’s now-published journals include those writings, with many vivid scenes between him and Lucien and lively depictions of the Carr-Kammerer-Burroughs circle. Ginsberg’s reconstruction of the ultimate encounter between Lucien and Dave that night is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.

In November 1944, though, the assistant dean of Columbia, Nicholas McKnight, discouraged Ginsberg from continuing because the novel was “smutty” and because the school did not want more notoriety from the crime (which happened, almost literally, in their backyard). Grauerholz continues:

By fall 1944 Allen’s friend the student poet John Hollander had already written a “Dostoyevskian” story about the killing for the Columbia Spectator, and the juicy details proved irresistible to many other writers in those years. Some version of the affair turns up in novels and memoirs written in the 1940s, or later, by Chandler Brossard, William Gaddis, Alan Harrington, John Clellon Holmes, Anatole Broyard, Howard Mitcham, and even James Baldwin – who is believed to have used the characters for a story he called Ignorant Armies, a very early version of his gay-themed 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room.

It doesn’t require a long stretch of the imagination to suppose that many writers saw classic tragic elements to the story akin to the passionate entanglement of Verlaine and Rimbaud or even Romeo and Juliet, sprinkled with delicious Freudian morsels: the murder weapon was not only a knife (not quite as phallic as a handgun but writers work with what’s on their plate) but a Boy Scout knife (plenty of twisted conclusions to reach there). A stabbing, naturally, is about as phallic as you can get in terms of choosing a method of murder and one could reasonably argue that Carr, in killing his gay pursuer, Kammerer, was symbolically slaying his own deeply homosexual instincts. What journal-toting, ink-stained flinger of words from the intellectual underground could resist such a story?

By the time Burroughs and Kerouac formed the incident into fiction in early 1945, the story, under their collaborative guidance, became something different entirely: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, redolent with many of the themes that would preoccupy Burroughs’s later work, is a droll and matter-of-fact meditation on the casual nature of violence in modern society (emphasized by the almost shockingly cavalier manner in which the murder occurs in the third act of the Burroughs-Kerouac narrative arc) that carries with it all of the pathos of a violent three-strip Technicolor MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon from the 1940s, if the script had been provided by Kerouac and Burroughs. It’s no small accident that the title for the work derives from a 1940s news radio broadcast about a fatal circus fire.

“These horrific, absurd, grimly comic scenes were just the sort of thing that Burroughs found excruciatingly funny,” notes James Grauerholz.

Not long after completing the unpublished manuscript for Hippos, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg would go on to write and publish the three books that became the cornerstone for the Beat movement: Howl and Other Poems for Ginsberg (dedicated to Lucien Carr) in 1956, On the Road for Kerouac in 1957, and Naked Lunch for Burroughs in 1959.

The three men remained maladjusted iconoclasts their whole life, desperately avoiding the lures of the postwar lifestyle that falsely offered comfort, inner peace, a home in the suburbs and a two-car garage. They stayed on the margins and casually sidestepped the nasty pile-up that most certainly would emerge from the credit-driven postwar boom (Kerouac provides two moments in the novel that involve raging House and Senate debates on how to manage the economy and the nation’s future after hostilities cease).

Who knew it would take 65 years for the whole thing to come undone and then turn back on itself like a serpent engorging itself on its own tail? Here we are in 2009 reading headlines that recall the very same years that Burroughs and Kerouac recorded masterfully in this effort. Just this morning, before sitting down to complete this column, I scanned this sub-header in a New York Times front page story:

“In a bleaker assessment than those of most private forecasters, the World Bank predicted a shrinking of the global economy for the first time since World War II.”

Those last eight words are appearing in news stories about the economy with alarming frequency: For the first time since World War II.

An utterance by Phillip Tourian, the fictional version of Lucien Carr in Hippos, haunts me every time I hear those words: “You know, don’t you, that things drag along just so long and then something happens.”

Who knows where our modern day Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg are hiding, perhaps scribbling in journals in one of the homeless encampments that are growing outside of California’s state capitol in Sacramento, or tapping away at a laptop in the dim light of an abandoned home in New Orleans or standing in line with thousands of other hungry, hollow-eyed applicants for a slim handful of jobs on a federally-funded infrastructure project in Florida.

We are not exactly sailing into uncharted waters here, but until our new artists arrive to help us understand what we have done to ourselves, it would probably be best to heed the words of Henry Miller, a writer who wielded great influence on the Beats:

“I am against revolutions because they always involve a return to the status quo.”