I've just finished reading Brenda Knight's Women of the Beat Generation (1996), an excellent book on women writers, muses, wives, and artists of the Beat Era. Knight's book along with an associated" Women of the Beat Generation Panel" at the San Francisco Book Festival on November 2, 1996, for the first time focused on these long neglected women.
Before reading this book I had already read three important memoirs by Beat generation women: Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters, about her years from 21 to 23 when she was writing her first novel and had a romance with Jack Kerouac; Hettie Jones's How I Became Hettie Jones largely about her romance and marriage with LeRoi Jones; and Diana di Prima's Recollections of My Life as a Woman, about her life as young poet, mother, and lover in the 1950s and 1960s. All three memoirs are superb works telling what it was like for young American woman coming of age in New York bohemia in the 1950s and 1960s. Di Prima's is really spectacular: I'd rank Di Prima's memoir along with Mother Jones's and Emma Goldman's autobiographies as the three classic tales about woman rebels in American literature.
Reading a few memoirs highlights three women's lives but not a generation.What Brenda Knight did wonderfully in her anthology was give a short biography of 27 women along with samples, for most of them, of their writing: Knight truly has produced a portrait of a whole generation.
She starts with a section titled "The Precusors" including poets Helen Adams, Josephine Miles, and Madeline Gleason, and fiction writer Jane Bowles. Poet Josephine Miles, the first female tenured English professor at UC Berkeley, is well-known as is Jane Bowles; the latter was the inspiration of her husband Paul Bowles' heroine in his novel The Sheltering Sky which was made into a few years ago into film, but the other two poets are not known at all. Adams, a Scottish immigrant, chanted her wonderful ballads that updated the traditional Scottish ballad to mid-20th century America, while Gleason organized in 1947 the San Francisco Festival of Poetry, the first such festival in the country, and wrote a musical verse exploring the realm between the divine and the commonplace. Both Adams and Gleason are fine poets deserving to be better known.
Knight's second section "The Muses" is largely about the wives of Beat generation men. Of the wives, four have written memoirs: Carolyn Cassady, Neil Cassady's wife; Edie Parker Kerouac, Kerouac's first wife; Joan Harvey Kerouac, his second wife; and Eileen Kaufman, Bob Kaufman's wife. Though all the memoirs give insight into these women's lives and their marriages, Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road is by far the finest written tale. After reading two excerpts from Cassady's work, I think Carolyn was the writer in the marriage, not Neil. Carolyn tells a tale of a heroic bohemian mother: she held the marriage together despite all Neil's abandonments, raised her three children, and worked full-time. Cassady's strength as well as her fine story telling ability shine through the excerpt of her work.
The third section "The Writers" has 15 women and their writing including, of course, excerpts from Joyce Johnson's and Hettie Jone's memoirs I had already discussed. As for the other prose writings, Bonnie Frazer (aka Bremser, poet Ray Bremser's ex-wife) had an excerpt from her harrowing memoir Troia: Mexican Memoirs about traveling peniless through Mexico with her husband and baby. Also, there is a sad but moving excerpt from the novel Trainsong by Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac's daughter. Jan Kerouac, who only published two novels before her tragic early death, seemed to be quite a good a writer as her father.
Of the poets, Knight has few of Diana di Prima's poems. Di Prima from adolescence on was fiercely dedicated to her writing and published her own work as well as other writers in the magazine she put out with LeRoi Jones in the 1950s. She lived a much more radical--both bohemain and political--life than her more conventional contempories Rich, Plath, and Sexton. Knight has included one of di Prima's Loba poems where she explores female Goddess energy in that epic book-long poem; critics should look again at Di Prima as I think she is a major mid-20th century feminist poet.
Knight includes six obscure women poets who deserve recognition. Elise Cowan, who was for a short time Alan Ginsberg's girlfriend, wrote a haunted poetry before her tragic suicide a 29. She like Di Prima in the 1950s lived on the edge in New York bohemia, but while diPrima was a tough survivor, Cowan's dark tormented visions echo through her amazing lyric poetry. While Cowan in her work did a dance with death, Joanna Kyger, who for a short time was married to Gary Snyder, was in her poetry fiercely dedicated to exploring spirituality, particulary Buddhism, as her ex-husband was. Joanna McClure was also married to a Beat poet: for many years she was wed to Michael McClure. McClure writes a short, lean lyric that can praise Sappho or wonder "How life can be so full at 52."
The next four poets weren't romantically linked to any Beat male. Instead Janine Pommy Vega has lived with as much risk and abandon as any male: her wild bohemian spirit pulsates through her long-lined poems. Holocaust survivor Ruth Weiss captures in her poetry the amazing tale of her escaping the Nazis; she writes poems to her women friends as well as was a pioneering jazz poet.
Mary Norbert Korte captures the moment she left the nunnery in her poem "Eddie May the cook Dreamed Sister Mary Ran Off with Alan Ginsberg" and later became a redwoods activist in Northern California recording her love of that land in amazing nature poems. Lenore Kandal's book of erotic poetry, The Love Book, provoked a raid by the police who declared it obscene. In the trial Kandel said wants to "express her beliefs that sexual acts between living persons are religious acts." Kandal's work did give women poets in the 1960s more freedom to explore the erotic.
Knight includes Anne Waldman, the only woman associated with the beats who has had a thriving national poetry career. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti published in the 1970s Waldman's book Fast Talking Woman he for the first time recognized a beat women poet writing strong feminist work. The value of Knight's work is she shows that Waldman wasn't alone: most of the other poets also explored female imagery in their work. Though the beat women were often seen as victims, Knight's anthology should correct that false impression. They were instead strong women, and many were strong writers.
Also, some critics have said that women of the beat generation did their strongest work in memoir, but memoirs, being more financially successful, were published first and received much larger audiences. If critics would look at the work of the poets as well as the memoir writers, they might find beat women produced an important body of poetry.
Knight includes also a short section on two women painters, Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown, who were associated with the beat generation in San Francisco both in their lives and their work. Both women were important painters and helped put the Bay Area in the map as a center of the visual artists. Though the anothology includes one illustration of DeFeo's massive painting "The Rose," I would have liked many more illustrations of the work by these two fascinating women.
All in all Women of the Beat Generation is a must read for anyone interested in women's writing, the beat generation, or 20th century American literature.