For me, New York City in the late 1940s has always been a place of special resonance: a city experiencing post-war boom, ex-soldiers on the GI Bill, the bomb, bebop, and the early writings of the east coast Beats.
None of them knew it at the time, but Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and others were living lives that would one day become the stuff of legend-much of it self-created. The parties, relationships, visions and philosophy of the late 40s seeped deeply into their early works:
Burroughs transmuted his 103rd street lowlife into Junkie; Kerouac’s New York appeared in The Town and the City and On the Road; and Ginsberg’s Howl, though written much later, is full of references to the period. From the start, the Beats were all about mythologising their lives in their art.
But there was one writer who came at the scene from a particularly intellectual angle. John Clellon Holmes met Jack Kerouac in 1948, and his roman à clef Go is considered one of the first Beat novels. Holmes lived with his wife, Marian, in an apartment at 681 Lexington Avenue, and his pad would be the place where he and Jack Kerouac formulated the term ‘Beat Generation’.
Holmes died in 1988 after a life of writing and teaching, and now his younger sister, Liz Von Vogt-herself a writer of several novels-has written a memoir of the time. Excerpts were published by Beat Scene Press (and in Beat Scene 54), but now the book, 681 Lexington Avenue: A Beat Education in New York City 1947-1954 has been edited by Nancy Grace and published by Ten O’Clock Press / Greater Midwest Publishing.
I emailed Liz early this year, and we had an interesting conversation. She struck me as a determined, independent and no-nonsense woman. Liz has many vivid memories of the period-she and her mother lived upstairs from John-and her recollections shed fascinating light on the private lives of the proto-Beats.
In her book there are cameos from Lucien Carr, Alan Harrington, Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. But perhaps the most striking is the fourteen-year-old’s gushing impression of Jack Kerouac.
LJ: What were your first impressions of Kerouac?
LVV: My first and on-going impressions of Jack are in the chapbook. One thing to keep in mind is that I was a very callow teenager (14, 15, 16) in those years and felt basically out of the loop, my eager face at the window, longing to be part, knowing that I could never be-always too young and tagging along behind.
I don’t remember the first time I met Jack Kerouac. That is strange because I loved him right off, even if I can’t pinpoint when the “right off” was. I see him sitting in a straight chair in John’s apartment - afternoon. The chair is between a low bookcase by the couch and the kitchen table. I am on another couch, which forms a right angle with more couch, all with bookcases filling the walls above them. Across from me is the kitchen area - apartment fridge with hot plate and shelves. The phonograph is across from the couch near Jack and of course, a loud record is on, this one a mambo. John has been talking mambo to me and urging me to listen to Perez Prado - which of course, I have done and now have a growing twelve-pocket album of Prado, Puente, Pupi Campo, Tito Rodriguez, Machito and Dizzy. Jack has a saucepan upside down between his legs with the handle in his crotch and he is bongo-ing. He bobs his head a bit and looks around - at the music, at John bouncing near the player, at me. A lick of black hair falls to his forehead, his wide, fragile lips pucker out and then break into a smile, the eyes light up. They are sentient and intimate in a four-o’clock-shadowed face. Oh, yes, Jack’s eyes in those hot ‘40’s days-full of youth, vulnerable, asking for love and pain. Of course I loved him…
from Jack Kerouac at 681 Lexington Avenue (Beat Scene Press)
LJ: John’s 1952 essay ‘This is the Beat Generation‘ was tremendously important as a kind of ‘official’ announcement of this new generation. How was it received at the time? Reading it, did you think of yourself as part of that generation?
LVV: John’s article got a lot of play at the time-in the NY Times, after all. All my college friends read it, but when you read my memoir you’ll see that I made a nuisance of myself with them-going on and on about this great novelist brother of mine and his friend, Jack Kerouac.
My friends scoffed at John’s article and took a tone that was common among young intelligentsia of the time. They found it irresponsible and woefully out of touch with the world of ‘events’.
Many of my friends were left-wingers (some Communists) and believed in being committed to causes-many picketed the UN over the war in Korea-thinking we had no business going in there! Young people were far more political in those days-so the Beats often went against the grain of what many young people were concerned about.
But of course I was intrigued by John’s article and his thoughts which I listened to upstairs all the time. He had been left-wing too and political, but Jack’s crowd took him in the Beat direction and opened his eyes and mind to the wild creativity of the lifestyle and young writers he met-the possibility of sensual and spiritual renewal they offered.
LJ: I have the impression that, where the other major Beats were into excesses-of drink, drugs, sex, parties-John was very workmanlike in his approach to his craft. He seemed to be a very serious young man: writing was always the priority. Is that an accurate impression?
LVV: John was serious about craft, but so were Jack and Allen (who of course was political as you know). John struggled with writing-I think it was hard for him. He was a word-honer.
Often he would come over to my mother’s house next to his in Saybrook and sit talking for hours or the time of a pack of cigarettes-getting out all his latest thoughts in tortured monologues (I remember how in my 20s then I would try to avoid those times because I was breaking away from his really tyrannical intellectual hegemony)-then go home saying between clenched teeth he had to get back to work.
It was hard and much of this is in his journals-huge writer’s blocks that would last years. Think of it-there were six years between all his books. Jack wrote 11 books in five years!
John didn’t live their chaotic, drug-filled, wandering life-but my feeling is that he missed the stimulus of such living and the lack of it made him pull teeth over his limited experience to get into literature.
In his later years, John was seriously alcoholic and he and Jack became hardcore boozing buddies when Jack would come to Saybrook. [See Holmes, John Clellon, Visitor: Jack Kerouac in Old Saybrook (1981)]
LJ: Was fiction or non-fiction more important to him?
LVV: He always preferred fiction to non-fiction-wanted to be a great novelist-like the people he read and cohorted with in New York in the early days.
He rehashed for his novels and finally ended up mostly with essays and later with poetry-to him I imagine it was a comedown. But I can’t speak with real authority as we drifted apart in later years.
I was always far away. We crossed in Saybrook on vacations for me. When you read the memoir you will see how that all played out at the end and my thoughts on that period of his life.
LJ: Did you have a sense of the competitiveness between Kerouac and Holmes? What was their relationship like? John received a large advance for Go, (much larger than Kerouac did for The Town and the City) and some of Kerouac’s biographers suggest that he was upset that Holmes was mining the same vein for material. How did John respond to the success of On the Road in 1957?
LVV: As for John and Jack, again remember that I was so young and was not let into the ins and outs of their relationship. John loved On the Road and championed it always. I gather second-hand (like you) that they had resentments in the 50s, mostly on Jack’s part. [Some of Jack's letters suggest he was jealous of Holmes' financial success, but he also praises Go and his essay in the Times.] John always stuck by Kerouac.
But he did get tired of his career being tied to Beat coattails. I heard him complain about that after the New York years. And he’s never quite made it on his own as he would have preferred-wouldn’t we all?
LJ: John made you his literary executor. What do you think is his legacy as a writer? What influence (if any) did he have on you as a writer?
LVV: About John’s place in literature-hey, others will have to assess that-I’m not that totally my brother’s keeper. My own writing has never been even remotely influenced by his. I take a wholly different, ‘lighter’ tone. I find John’s writing to be almost totally lacking that quality-he tends to be portentous and without humor in his writing.
LJ: What made you decide to write the memoir?
LVV: Actually I have been writing for many years-John tried years ago to sell a manuscript of my essays to his agent. In the last ten years I have written six novels and finally in desperation published them as print-on-demand books. Amazon still lists them I think. The first one, The Adventures of Dorothy and Marian, is a roman à clef about that same period in the memoir from my mother’s point of view (and mine as counterpoint). And the last one, Cass Willey Leaves is a now story about a post-Beat life in NYC.
But it was an exciting time and I wanted to get out my little part of the story, because though I wasn’t a ‘member’ of the group, I’ve come to see how much influence their jazz and ‘digging’ approach to life had on me as I went into life. I lived a really beat life for all of my twenties-moving around from job to job, Midwest to East to Europe on my own, hand to mouth, my only constant companion a record player and jazz records-not even many books.
LJ: It’s been great to see so much work by female Beats come out in recent years. Carolyn Cassady and Joyce Johnson are veteran writers, but it’s been interesting to read the more recent memoirs of Edie Parker, Joan Haverty and others. Do you feel like you’re part of a tradition of female Beats?
LVV: I haven’t read any of the girl-writers you mention. I’m not into the genre in that depth. I’ve read everything of Jack’s and most of Allen’s poems, a little of Burroughs. They have influenced my writing much more than John’s kind of word-honing.
They are a great influence on American writing even if you don’t write like them. They freed us to find a voice and go with it-open the lines to the unconscious and let it rip. I write fast-like Kerouac said I guess, “First thought, best thought”.
I don’t do a hell of a lot of rewriting-when the spigot feels really open it feels like a travesty to work it-like working it to death.
LJ: A recurring theme in female Beat writing seems to be women working to support their husbands and lovers while they tried to write. I know, for example, that John’s wife Marian worked to support him while he was writing Go. What was it like to be a woman at the time? It almost seems like a double-edged sword-the liberation of working, but the burden of supporting a husband.
LVV: It was hard being a woman in those days I guess. Oh I know it was, but I didn’t feel too constrained. After all, I was in NY and I could do almost anything I pleased-drink in the bars, go to college, make my way, have affairs, travel.
And I lived single, really single, no significant others as they say, for at least ten years. I don’t regret a minute of it. But I didn’t feel the world sitting on me, though there was always the whispering, she’s over the hill, idea. My father never understood what was wrong with me-not married, wandering. But aside from him I didn’t feel much pressure, though it was there. I just lived too much on the margin to feel oppressed by sexism.
In the book’s introduction, Liz talks about the ‘versions’ of 681 Lexington Avenue: While Holmes’ Go was based on true events and influenced by his reading, and her novel The Adventures of Dorothy and Marian was a fictional telling from her mother’s perspective, 681 is a memoir, coloured by her impressions and recollections.
“But this is my emotional truth as far as I can resurrect it and connect it to the wider world of its time and place. And I hope that it records at least a part of others’ truths-others who made me so much of what I am, and to whom I live largely in gratitude.”
Von Vogt, Elizabeth, 681 Lexington Avenue: A Beat Education in New York City 1947-1954 (edited by Dr Nancy M. Grace), (Ten O’Clock Press / Greater Midwest Publishing) ISBN 9781590983010, pb, US$16.95. www.woosterbook.com
Von Vogt, Elizabeth, Jack Kerouac at 681 Lexington Avenue (Beat Scene Press)
Von Vogt, Elizabeth, The Adventures of Dorothy and Marian (Writers Club Press)
Holmes, John Clellon, Representative Men: The Biographical Essays of John Clellon Holmes (University of Arkansas Press)
Holmes, John Clellon, Passionate Opinions: The Cultural Essays of John Clellon Holmes (University of Arkansas Press)
Holmes, John Clellon, Go: A Novel (Thunders Mouth)