Lawrence Lipton, The Holy Barbarians (@ 1959, WH Allen 1960)
A young friend pressed this on us, saying it had changed her life. It’s an account of the community of ‘beats’ in West Venice in Southern California in the 1950s. Lawrence Lipton introduces himself as a veteran of earlier bohemian communities who aims to give us a portrait of this one as it develops. Wikipedia says he was a journalist, whose name is linked to the beatnik movement mainly because of this book, but all the same this is an insider’s account, or at least an account by someone with full access.
I can see why it made such an impression on a teenage girl in a country town with artistic yearnings. It’s about young people and young adults from an earlier era who challenged the society of their parents to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and so on, in what Lawrence Lipton calls Disaffiliation. It was interesting to me to see how much of what was novel, even heroic to the beats in the 50s (or at least to Lawrence Lipton reporting on them) was pretty commonplace for people in their 20s in Sydney in the 70s: relaxed sexual mores, jazz, marijuana …
The differences, though, are huge. The unquestioning acceptance of sexism is very in-your-face: women’s stories are told almost entirely in terms of their sexual behaviour and their relationships with men; at one point, being grandly inclusive, Lipton refers to citizenesses. African Americans are there, as Negro jazz musicians, the heroes of the beats but never really characters with their own stories. There is discussion of Marxism, but class is the elephant in the room, leaving the impression that this was a community of middle class white youth getting stoned and full of a sense of their own importance, choosing poverty but always with the possibility of asking their parents to bail them out, disengaging from politics but telling themselves that this was a mark of moral superiority.
Then there’s the language: even while professing a Zen rejection of dichotomies, the book assumes an apparently impermeable division between on one side the squares and on the other the hip, the cool, the beat. The squares might know about Taoism, for example, by reading and study, but the hip dig it. It’s awfully redolent of rigid high-school divisions between skaters, surfers, nerds, jocks, cool girls, etc.
Still, with some serious skipping, it’s an interesting journalistic account of an interesting moment in Western culture. It sent me off to YouTube to listen to Ginsberg perform ‘Howl‘, partly to check that the poem does refer to ‘angelheaded hipsters’ rather than the much more enigmatic ‘angleheaded hipsters’ mentioned by Lipton a number of times, but mainly because this book made me realise what a gap in my education it has been never to have heard him read it.
The book’s absolute highlight is not to do with the West Venice hipsters at all, but a marvellous account of a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, where a confrontation between a drunken Ginsberg and a drunken heckler escalates to the point where, provoking outrage among the square audience, Ginsberg strips naked, while Anais Nin – meeting Ginsberg for the first time – sits through it all unperturbed and regal. If you come across a copy I recommend you read pages 194–198. (It turns out I’m not alone in seeing this as the most interesting part of the book. At least two people have uploaded the passage, so you can read it here and here.)