Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Holy Typewriters

Beat scholar and archivist Bill Morgan, author of the year-by-year biography of Allen Ginsberg I Celebrate Myself: The Sometimes Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, has published a new book, The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.

Bill Morgan worked with Allen Ginsberg for many years as his archivist and as such has been intimately linked with Allen and all-things-Beat. I Celebrate Myself is a solid, well-researched biography (though not without occasional factual missteps), one that is a valuable tool for Ginsberg scholars writing about AG and other Beat story lines. The chronological framework allows users to quickly place Beat-related events on the time continuum of 20th century history. Morgan is not a great prose stylist - he's an archivist after all and his prose style reflects that; straightforward, matter-of-fact, a little wooden.

The title of his new work of literary history comes from the fifth line of the "Footnote to Howl" section of Howl: "The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!" An excellent selection.  AG's Howl alone could provide a thousand Beat titles given the many, many great phrases contained therein:

  • the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
  • eyeball kicks
  • the lamb stew of the imagination
  • a belt of marijuana for New York
  • goldhorn shadow of the band
  • cannibal dynamo
  • robot apartments
But what of the subtitle? The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. I can never help but raise my eyebrows at the assertion of completeness in any book title. Really? Complete? Nothing more to be discovered? Nothing left out? Seems unlikely.

And Uncensored? Shouldn't that go without saying? As many Beat enthusiasts know, censorship was one of the main issues that Ginsberg threw his considerable energy into confronting and rolling back. After all, Howl was censored, Naked Lunch was censored, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was censored. The issue of censorship was an enduring one for Ginsberg, right into the last years of his life when he fought the FCC ban on "indecent" language on the airwaves between set times of the day (a rule that effectively prevented Howl and other works from being broadcast, despite the fact that said works were/are considered masterpieces of 20th century literature). Who would conceive of writing a Censored history of the Beat Generation?

The last niggling problem I have with the title concerns the generic moniker Beat Generation, a label that, though instantly recognizable and widely used, remains somewhat un-defined. Who or what comprises the Beat Generation? When is someone a Beat and not a Hippie? Or a Beat and not a hipster? The term "generation" implies a time frame - what is it? 1939-1959? 1940s-1960s? What's a generation?

My issue isn't so much in Morgan's invoking the term Beat Generation, only with the premise that somehow a "complete" history of it can be laid out. I am eager to see how Morgan handles this, whether he actually endeavors to define or codify or, in the spirit of archival investigation, offer a chronological framework for this generation.

That said, Morgan deserves much praise for his ongoing scholarly efforts and the considerable amount of invaluable material he has amassed and made available for legions of Beat scholars and enthusiasts.

I'm looking forward to hearing him speak about The Typewriter is Holy at the Harvard Coop, Cambridge, MA, Tuesday evening May 11 at 7:00 pm.

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