Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhems by John Tytell
Reviewed by Joshua Lukasik
It would be dishonest to write a review on Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhems by John Tytell without confessing my irrational contempt for On the Road. Admittedly much of my disdain is founded on an ignorance quickly dispelled after reading Tytell’s book. As a writer in college, professors often championed Jack Kerouac’s prose as a feat of literature and human thought rivalled only by the moon landing–it sounded that grandiose to me. One of my classes attended a twenty-four hour marathon reading of On the Road, and visited the unfurled, sacrosanct scroll kept in a (bulletproof?) glass case–owned by the pill-popping Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
I imagine visiting Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square is vaguely similar.
Sarcasm aside, my own misguided notions and criticisms of the Beats are regrettably common and John Tytell’s work as a critic, writer, and literary biographer has covered subjects and writers too radical and riotous for the culture to swallow. He has written on the Beats in Naked Angels: Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation in 1976, and Paradise Outlaws: Remembering the Beats in 1999. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Erza Pound: The Solitary Volcano.
His first defense of the Beats: “The Beat Generation and the Continuing American Revolution” appeared in The American Scholar. In an interview with Michael Limnios, Tytell described the typical criticism of the Beats as the impetus to write Naked Angels: “I realized that much of the angry dismissal of the Beats by American literary critics was based on the most shallow misunderstanding, that the Beats were fuel for the culture wars that were emerging as a divisive factor in American life.”
In Writing Beat, Tytell reframes his previous scholarship on the Beats for a different purpose articulated in his prefatory note. He begins by exfoliating different layers of meaning from the word “beat”. He spells out the territory to be traversed in the proceeding chapters referring to “beat” not only as the referent for the prevailing attitudes and aesthetic sensibilities of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, but also Tytell’s “beat” as a non-fiction writer including the perils and travails of researching, writing, editing, and publishing books–not to mention dealing with other writers. Even deeper and more primal, “beat” as sound, pulse, rhythm beneath storytelling; or in the epigram, a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Urge and urge and urge/Always the procreant urge of the world.”
Each level of meaning throughout the book is explicated and expanded on within various forms of essay whether it’s personal memoir, literary history, criticism, lectures, et cetera. Tytell classifies his book as “hybrid memoir” which is inclusive enough to contain this motley of forms; redolent, I think, of the ethos described in David Shield’s Reality Hunger.
The prospective reader should not wait for a stale-old thesis to be stated and explicated into a conclusion. Rather, Tytell provides a comprehensive history of a given subject, then switches to memoir to describe an experience within the preceding context. The movement of perspective results in a parallax and reveals another vantage point.The form is repeated throughout the book: the history of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller parallaxed by Tytell’s brilliant interaction with Nin at a cocktail party; the history of Erza Pound’s infidelity and imagism parallaxed by Tytell’s travels to Venice and interactions with Pound’s mistress.
Tytell elevates succinctly written literary history into another dimension. He offers us the first-person experience of sitting in Ginsberg’s kitchen as he bakes apple pie at his Cherry Valley farm, talking to Carl Solomon over the phone, journeying through Mexico where Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were inspired to write Howl and Naked Lunch, trying to persuade the hostile Lucien Carr into talking about the origins of the Beats–Carr is the mutual friend who introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to Burroughs.
These glimpses are akin to what Ginsberg, in describing his photography, called “totemic moments”. Tytell writes:
“Ginsberg photographs illustrate the Beat priority on spontaneity, the expression of feeling with autobiographical immediacy. As Greenough so cogently observes, ‘they are as natural as talking or writing’…”
At Tytell’s best, the mixture of history and memoir allows readers to reach that level of immediacy.
At times the synthesizing of history and memoir collapses into plain juxtaposition, which is either a symptom of a lack of meaningful memoir, or doesn’t fit into the book’s framework. Tytell explains in the prefatory note some sections were written as reviews, articles, lectures, et cetera, and unfortunately they seem to diverge from the book’s general course. Bits of history, especially on the Beats, is often repeated throughout the book denoting it was written at an earlier time and not sufficiently weaved into the text.
I imagine a reader will find Writing Beat in searching for secondary literature on the Beat generation and find John Tytell a supreme source for historical context and interpretation. However, for me the most poignant parts of the book is Tytell’s wisdom and advice as a writer: on handling rejection, on listening and appreciating the advice of an editor, on the importance of travel and distance, how to (and also how not to) interview subjects, and so on.
Although this book may be classified as a hybrid memoir, my experience sifting through the pages transported me back to college, back to after class where I would be so inspired by a particular lecture that I would bother the professor to discuss it afterwards. Writing Beat offers a level of intimacy and time with a writer and teacher that rivals most pedagogy and does not require a payment of tuition or a classroom.
Vanderbilt University Press
(1st) edition November 17th, 2014