Right of Reply: Michael Horovitz

An ex-beatnik answers Alex Webb's misrepresentation of Jack Kerouac and the Beats

ALLEN GINSBERG'S Howl, not On the Road, is the "central text of the Beats"; it was Ginsberg who created and sustained the Beat Generation, in the teeth of misgivings from most others conscripted to it - notably from Kerouac.

The original group including Corso, Snyder, Ferlinghetti and the gay or bisexual Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady and LeRoi Jones depicted and to some extent exercised macho attitudes to women - but so, remember, did most of the Western world at mid-century. Joyce Johnson's memoir of her scene with Kerouac, Minor Characters, shows how this boy-gang's breakdown of barriers and taboos did help women's liberation to ensue, and acknowledges the younger Kerouac's basic decency, comradeship and painstaking encouragement of her own writing.

Early Kerouac (the one who wrote the books) also understood blacks and jazz very well: his sound poetry and spontaneous prose, such as Old Angel Midnight and Mexico City Blues, are about as close to verbal bebop as anything apart from the scatting improvisations of Dizzy Gillespie and Slim Gaillard.

For a subtle, perceptive, musically disciplined, good-humoured, selfless and pure, yet humane love of black jazz, Philip Larkin never bettered On the Road's vignette of Lester Young: "That gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down half-way; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases."

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