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Thoughts on the Literary West

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The West is many things—as expansive in context and meaning as the physical area that outlines its borders. It is, of course, a sizeable geographical region, but the West is also a mindset, an ideal, a way of living, a belief. And depending on what kind of filter is used in guiding our understanding of what the West is—whether that filter be informed by a specific personal, social economic, political or artistic set of principles (or all of these all at the same time)—our understanding of it naturally shifts to conform to our own sense of ourselves and what we personally value. I suppose this would be true of any place, that it is defined by the multitude of contexts that inhabit the area filtered through the hearts and minds of the people that live there. So, in this sense, the idea of the West gains an even more vital status as a living, breathing thing—alive with a myriad of adjoining connections, each in their own way adding to the massive palette that colors its various characteristics. From north to south, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego fall in line along the Pacific Ocean, while Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver and Montana span the West’s eastern “line” (even though that line is not at all well defined). The entirety of the area is bracketed by an ocean, majestic mountain ranges, deserts, canyons and forests—all of it is charged with an energy so unique that it became the source of inspiration for a small group of influential writers and poets in the 1940s and 1950s that traveled west and caused a paradigm shift in the literary landscape in America. 

In his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” It was an idea that was to become one of his lifelong guiding principles, as Whitman dedicated himself to poeticizing not only the very notion of a United States—and the meaning of its foundation as a democratic ideal—he poeticized himself and the people of the States as sharing in the creation of that ideal. Whitman writes in Democratic Vistas that “… democracy, this most alluring record, that it alone can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family.” Whitman, an East Coast poet born in Long Island, placed himself at the center of that family, that brotherhood.

It was an important change in American poetry from the postcolonial writing that came before Leaves of Grass. “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s most important poem, is a literary self-portrait that had not been so boldly presented in America before, as he fully reveals to the reader his total sense of himself as “the equitable man,” “the arbiter of the diverse,” “the equalizer of his age and land.” As a result, Whitman’s work always pushes toward a kind of grand equality of all things—a balance of man and woman, good and evil, body and soul, the living and the dead—and he himself becomes part of that natural balance. The famous first lines of “Song of Myself” proclaim Whitman’s unifying purpose: to announce himself as the artificer and to make his central point that all men and all women are equal.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

And then later in the poem, in a more declarative example of self-naming, Whitman boldly writes:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.

The effect of this perspective is that it is all-encompassing, interested in every region of the nation, every occupation, every animal, every city and town, every physical form and the potential in every soul. It’s a perspective that attempts to get at the idea of the totality of the United States as a source of creative motivation, however since the East was obviously more established and developed in Whitman’s day than the western region of America, it was the West that held the promise for finding new sources of inspiration to further Whitman’s idea of the United States as the greatest poem. In the first section of the poem “Starting from Paumanoak,” which begins, “Starting from fish-shape Paumanoak, where I was born,” Whitman moves the reader toward the West—referencing “a miner in California,” “Dakota’s woods,” “the flowing Missouri,” the “grazing plains“—ending the section with the following line: “Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.” 

It took roughly 100 years for Whitman’s influence on American writing to inspire a New World shift in the U.S. literary scene, and this shift was firmly rooted in the West. What inspired Jack Kerouac (born in Lowell, MA), Allen Ginsberg (born in Newark, NJ), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born in Yonkers, NY) and others from the East Coast to travel to the West was it’s freedom and openness, the kind of expansiveness that could lead to the possibility of a new form of creative expression—the “promise of a New World.” This time, rather than having one central voice represent the change as Whitman had done in 1855, there were several important writers in the 1950s that led the Beat Generation movement in the Bay Area region of California. “San Francisco was, in a way, a refuge for people from all over the country,” says Jonah Raskin. “In the ‘40s there was a substantial community of anarchists, pacifists, experimental poets. In part because it was far away from the East Coast centers of power and you could do things that you couldn’t do elsewhere, there was an invitation to experiment.”

The significance of that experimentation can be marked with specific date. It was the night of October 7, 1955, that Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary Synder and Allen Ginsberg each read a selection of their poems at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. It was Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl,” a poem that would not only change the face of American poetry, it would get the entire nation talking about the Beat Generation and the issue of obscenity in art. Just two years later in 1957, Ferlinghetti and Shigeyosi Murao, partners in City Lights that published “Howl,” were arrested by San Francisco police and brought up on obscenity charges. After a highly publicized trial, the publisher was exonerated and the poem was ruled to be not obscene. Judge Clayton W. Horn wrote in his judgment:

Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.” It was the same year Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published.

Suddenly thrust into the national conversation and having to justify their creative perspective not only on its literary merit, but on moral and ethical grounds as well, the Beats now found themselves in a position of having to explain their point of view. The nation was watching and wanted to know just who these writers were and what they believed in. While Ginsberg thought there was a nationwide misperception that “beat” meant “angry at the world,” Kerouac’s description of the Beat Generation connects back to a kind of Whitman-like reverence for all things, and the idea that the role of the artist is to seek beauty in the world and in oneself. In a March, 1958 article for Esquire titled “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac wrote:

The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I … in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word beat spoken in street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in cities in the down-town-city-night of postwar America—Beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction …. It never meant juvenile delinquents: it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization.

Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, also published in ’58, is perhaps his best expression of the Beat Generation lifestyle and how the West played an important role in its meaning. The book details Ray Smith’s (Kerouac) experiences in San Francisco, Marin County, Berkeley and the Sierra wilderness in the company of Japhy Ryder (poet Gary Snyder), who is described as a kind of icon for the Beat Generation. The character of Alvah Goldbook (Allen Ginsberg) describes Japhy in the following way: 

Japhy is really sharp—he’s really the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met. And what I love about him is he’s the big hero of the West Coast, do you realize I’ve been out here for two years now and hadn’t met anybody worth knowing really or anybody with any truly illuminated intelligence and was giving up hope for the West Coast? Be-sides all the background he has, in Oriental scholarship, Pound, taking peyote and seeing visions, his mountainclimbing and bhikkuing, wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture. 

Back to 1955. It was the year that Kerouac lived with Snyder in a small cabin in Mill Valley and became interested in the writings of D.T. Suzuki and the ways of Zen Buddhism, which Snyder was already well practiced in. That experience in ’55 became the outline for Dharma Bums, which ultimately is a book about the merging of East (“joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism”) and West (a seemingly endless land of possibility) and describes a new, Beat way of living—always seeking, as Ginsberg said, “a spontaneous affirmation, a joy of heart.” Kerouac describes this East-West merger in the words of Japhy Rider, who at one point says:

East’ll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the world down to everybody. 

This idea of spontaneous affirmation and joy that comes out of exploration also applies particularly well to the bicycle. It seems no accident that Japhy, who looks the part of a cyclist, being described by Kerouac as “wiry, suntanned, vigorous, open,” is the one character in Dharma Bums who rides a bike. It is the first thing Ray notices as he comes to visit Japhy for the first time: “Coughlin had given me the address and I came there, seeing first Japhy’s bicycle on the lawn in front of the big house out front (where his landlady lived).” We learn later that it’s a “pitiful English bicycle” that Japhy uses to travel “all up and down Berkeley all day,” nevertheless it’s the perfect means of seeing and experiencing the world at the right speed, height and depth for a young poet wanting to see the world in its constant flux. And so for Japhy, who moves through the West (“roaming,” “tramping,” “bumming,” “hitchhiking”) in order to experience the kind of poetic affirmation he desires, the bicycle becomes way more significant than simply a mode of transportation. What is important is the choice Japhy always makes: to be energetic and interested in the world. When we consciously make the choice to be active, to ride, and to therefore fully participate in and experience what is around us, that’s when our vision broadens and creativity opens. A quick exchange between Ray and Japhy nicely illustrates this point:

Japhy said “Why do you sit on your ass all day?”

“I practice do-nothing.”

“What’s the difference? Burn it, my Buddhism is activity,” said Japhy rushing off down the hill again. Then I could hear him sawing wood and whistling in the distance. He couldn’t stop jiggling for a minute.

From Issue 20. Buy it here.