Book Review: The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan

I have to confess to limited exposure to the group of writers that Bill Morgan refers to in this book as the Beat Generation. Whenever I heard the term, I always supposed that it depicted a national or international movement similar to the social upheaval that took place during the sixties and early seventies. In fact, according to Morgan, the Beat Generation was not a revolutionary artistic and social upheaval, but rather a small group of loose-living friends who promoted each other’s literary endeavors, primarily poetry.

The only beat writer I have read extensively is Jack Kerouac. I came across his novel On the Road in my late teens and it, along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the biography Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone, changed my life. These books all in their own ways helped me break loose from social and literary strictures and develop my own voice.

The Typewriter Is Holy starts off slowly as it builds up the backgrounds of the characters. It is also soon obvious that the writers Morgan highlights in this book are not exemplary people. With the exception of one seldom-mentioned African American poet and one seldom-mentioned female poet, the entire group of friends that constituted the Beat Generation consisted of white males, most of whom were misogynistic, dismissive, and even cruel towards women. They were drug addicts, alcoholics, self-centered, self-destructive, and irresponsible. The binding force that held them together, according to Morgan, was Allen Ginsberg, but the King of the Beats according to the media was Kerouac.

The most interesting parts of the book, for me at least, are when Morgan describes the efforts these writers made to write their works and get published. They had a lot to overcome, most of it self-inflicted or brought on by the bad examples and betrayals of their fellows. Kerouac achieved the greatest popular success, but some of the others also gained a wide readership, particularly Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

As mentioned above, Kerouac had a great influence on me at a germinal stage of my writing career. His spontaneous prose technique combined with autobiographical material was not new – Henry Miller, for instance, had done similar work decades before, but at the time of the Beats his works were still banned in the United States – but it liberated him to devise a style that fit his road adventures. Reading Kerouac and Miller in turn got me out on the road, not only in the United States but also in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and it also ignited my own experiments with spontaneous prose, or as I preferred to call it, jazz prose. You can read all about that in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Near the end of the book, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other proponents of psychedelics enter the picture as the Beat era winds down and the hippie era picks up steam. Some of the Beat writers begin to experiment with hallucinogens, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This book is interesting from the point of view of literary history, but watch out. There are no heroes in it. For the most part, the Beat Generation was lost, confused, drug-addled, liquor-soaked men who somehow in spite of it all managed to turn out some good literary work. I want to emphasize, though, that in my opinion whatever decent literature they wrote was in spite of the drugs and alcohol, not because of it. I wonder what literary marvels they might have produced if they had managed to keep their wits about them.

Despite my hesitations about recommending the book, one of my main complains is that it is too short. Morgan moves at breakneck speed through his narrative, sometimes dismissing in a paragraph sections that deserve chapters. With a slower pace, a biographer would not only be able to put the stories of the various characters into better historical context, but also explore more of the important peripheral characters that the fast-paced white men seem to continually leave by the wayside.

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