The Beats Left Algren Cold, Kerouac Especially

I once asked Nelson Algren what he thought of Naked Lunch. He was living in Hackensack, N.J., getting by on Social Security and whatever he won at Aqueduct. He still wrote the occasional book review and received small but steady royalties from his two most famous novels, The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, but his glory years were long past. He grinned at me as though he were being entertained by a wiseguy. I knew he had no love for any of the Beats. He had derided Jack Kerouac as a blowhard and Allen Ginsberg as a publicist — and he knew that I knew that. So his answer surprised me, because he meant it as praise. William Burroughs, he said, wrote “half of a good book.” I didn’t ask which half. I didn’t have to. I could easily guess. Algren had no use for cut-ups.

The other day I dug his review of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels out of the microfilm files at the New York Public Library. Kerouac’s prose left him cold, colder than cut-ups — colder even, if that were possible, than Kerouac’s unbearable Momism.
“His ice-cream cone
runneth over”

The New York Herald Tribune
Bookweek: May 16, 1965

The cultural references in the review are especially telling for the context they give, this one in particular: “no Congressional investigator is any more likely to ask anyone whether he knew Allen Ginsberg than he is to ask whether one knew Hugh Hefner.”

Algren had gone through a hellish period during the McCarthy era. He was under FBI surveillance. His passport was withheld by the State Department, which kept him from going to Paris to fuck Simone de Beauvoir at a crucial time in their affair. At one point he attempted suicide and committed himself to a mental ward (eventually fleeing out the window and down a fire escape in his hospital robe).

By the mid-’50s the establishment critics were crowing that Algren was a has-been, citing A Walk on the Wild SIde as evidence. A wronger call on that novel they could not have made, but it put a severe dent in his confidence. Having gained literary fame just before the Beats arrived, Algren might have felt upstaged. But I don’t think he would have minded had he believed their output merited their publicity.
(Crossposted at HuffPo)

Desolation Angels. By Jack Kerouac. Coward McCann, 366 pp. $5.95

His ice-cream cone runneth over
By Nelson Algren

The world serves no breakfast so tasteful as those beloved Ma used to make — “those charming little breakfasts and the way she used to sunnyside my eggs” — nor can the world brew tea the way beloved Ma once did.

Yet the world has its consolations: there are Mr. Goodbars and Mister Softies and Ritz crackers with peanut butter and “that marvelous pot of turnip greens, carrots and noodles and roast beef” which once made the author’s mouth water in Colorado. After all those Mister Softies I’m glad he finally got something substantial into his system — but when I pay a writer $5.95 for his book and all I find out is that he likes his mother, I’ve been flimflammed.

“Here at last,” the publisher of Desolation Angels proclaims, “is Kerouac’s exuberant uninhibited composite biography of the poets, artists and writers who ushered in the Literary Freedom Movement.” Ushers they were, sufficiently deft at handing out programs, but much too inhibited, as men, to have any use for freedom, and now that a single decade has reduced their “literature” to mere typing, we can see that the movement consisted only of typists in orbit about themselves.

Am I to be moved by a man who complains, “What is the use of anything?” if he himself declines to be used? Who has the right to be disappointed in the world before he has earned such right? “All my memories are bored,” he protests, but is not a man responsible for his own memories? Is it enough merely to rest one’s case calmly upon one’s presence in the world? Is it not necessary to take a firm hand to the shaping of one’s own life in order to become something more than a plant? And if a man declines to take such a hand, doesn’t he forfeit the right to have the world serve him his memories with their charming sunnysides up?

Kerouac’s America is one this reviewer has never seen, whose language he has never heard. It is a country in which, the author claims, he “can go down into the remaining years of my life knowing that outside of a few fights in bars started by drunks, I’ll not have a hair of my head harmed by Totalitarian cruelty.”

You’re putting us on. Where is this landscape of popsicle dreams, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, where jails are made of green peppermint sticks and farms grow licorice candy? Where is this valley that carries no echo save the evening tinkling of the Mister Softie man? What mountains are these the natives climb merely to fry potatoes? What strange tongue is spoken here that only Kerouac can translate?

“O carryall menaya but the weel may track the rattleburr, poniac the avoid devoidity runabout minavoid the crail-welking moon wrung salt up on the tide of comeon night” — Mr. Kerouac can catch the sounds of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Wolfe, e.e. cummings or Dylan Thomas. He can catch the sound of almost any writer you can name. Yet he is so far from being any writer you can name, I suspect he may not even be Kerouac.

“My eyes in my hand, welded to wheel to welded to whang” is not “the vibrating account of the birth of a style,” as the publisher claims. It is jargon. The style is the man and where a man’s treasure is, there his heart, his brain and his writing will be also. Kerouac’s prose is not prose: it is a form of self-indulgence. When he tells us that “the bullnecks of strong raft drivers the color of purple gold and kirtles of silk will carry us uncarried uncrossing crossable no cross voids to the ulum light,” he is exhibiting a flare for mindlessness which can appeal to none but the mindless.

The book, begun a decade ago, demonstrates the author’s faith, first stated at that time in his essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” in automatic writing. The emotional content of prose and its meaningfulness, the argument ran, were derived hypnotically. Whether he offered this out of mysticism or straight quackery I have no way of knowing: I do know that I avoid debate with people dealing with half a deck.

So kirtle me no strong raft drivers the color of purple gold. If your trade is a trumpet, blow it, and if your trade is prose, write it. But when a novelist becomes less aware of men and women than where “Ragamita’s lidded golden eyes opes to hold the gaze,” Ragamita don’t hold mine. Such a writer sustains the image of the artist as clown, goofnik, eccentric, lisping child of Norman Vincent Pealenik preferred by proprietors who fear the artist. That Time magazine cheered the clown show put on by the Beatniks came as no surprise.

The present volume is the terminal product of that show, which curiously paralleled the advent of the Playboy image. The Holy Barbarian and the key-holders of the bunny clubs were aspects of the same phenomenon: a country enjoying such a plenitude of physical luxuries, while enduring such a dearth of emotional necessities, that it could actually support infantilism as a trade. A common fear of women was shared by the young men in the arts and those in business who were drawn, respectively, to the Beatnik image and that of the bunny. For both needed tame enemies. Thus while the image devised for the young man of business, who needed reassurance about his sex, was that of a rabbit, the Holy Barbarians projected an image of martyred poverty. But they were neither hold nor barbaric, because it wasn’t Franciscan monks who devised their billing: it was the PR men of the new virginity.

The distinguishing characteristic of both innovations was the presumption that the whole meaning of living was in consumption. Personal comfort without personal involvement was man’s purpose. Thus both Beatnik and bunny-flower expressed their lives in the third person while demanding the reward of first-person living. The gesture, which both made, of non-conformity was therefore of no significance: no Congressional investigator is any more likely to ask anyone whether he knew Allen Ginsberg than he is to ask whether he know Hugh Hefner.

I don’t know what this book is. Despite the publisher’s claim, it is no nearer being a novel than Ho Chi Minh is to replacing Whitey Ford. What it appears to be is some sort of record of a man who lived so defensively in his youth that now, in his middle years, there is nothing to take home.

If this is so, it is the chronicle of a man waiting for death in his mother’s house no matter how far from home.

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  1. says

    If only writers today would express outrage similar to Algren’s at nonsense and mediocrity in the arts, we would live in world made livelier by thought and action.


    Algren’s review of Desolation Angels is a great find! “All my memories are bored,” he protests, but is not a man responsible for his own memories?” Algren nails Kerouac’s fatuousness.