Since finishing the MA I've read a lot about the Beats. The biographies are entranced by the writers' literary genius, and make their lifestyles seem great fun. Sometimes I want to read a book that's more balanced – their work may be great, but they left death and unhappiness in their wake. Burroughs shot his wife dead, his son destroyed two livers drinking himself to death; Kerouac too killed himself with drink, dead at 40. Howl, for all its power, is a poem of despair. The same openmindedness that allowed Burroughs to take staggering leaps of imagination also left him prone to grotesque errors such as his misogyny and (later recanted) support of scientology. Maybe every critical flattery, every collaboration by Burroughs with right-on acts like U2, REM and Kurt Cobain should come with an outline of his grotesque side to provide a sense of balance.
One of the most tragic figures in the Beat Generation was Joan Vollmer. Furiously smart, she was fated to die at 27, shot by Burroughs. I've been reading Jack's book, an oral biography of Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. This book has a sad glimpse of Vollmer during a period when she was addicted to benzedrine and barely sleeping. Helen Hinkle, wife of Al Hinkle, describes the scene:
"Joan, of course, never slept. And because the kids would be sleeping, and Bill would be sleeping for part of the night, she had to do something. There was a barren tree right outside the porch. The house was L-shaped and porched all-round, and there was this dead ghastly tree. It was just covered with lizards, and she used to rake the lizards off the tree at night. I don't think she killed them. Of course they went back. That was their home. It just gave her something to do at four o'clock in the morning in the moonlight"