Once upon a time in America the idea of studying literature at the university level, noted keynote speaker Ann Charters at a conference entitled “Whitman and the Beats” at Brooklyn’s St Francis College this past Spring, meant English literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, followed by an assortment of English Cavalier and Romantic era writers.
Somewhere beginning in the fifties, she says, that roster expanded to include not only English metaphysical poets but an increasingly broad range of American writers of the 19th Century and more ‘daringly’ for the time, 20th century modernists like Eliot, Stevens William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.
But it has not been until quite recent times, with the explosion of multiculturalism and an acceptance of non-academic or bohemian lit, that the grip of academia loosened to include the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other 50s counterculturalists.
So for Charters, who met Ginsberg in Berkeley in the 50s, at the very time he was creating such masterpieces as Howl, Sunflower Sutra and A Supermarket in California, last week’s conference bringing together scholars from across the nation to examine the relationship between the Beat writers and Walt Whitman was doubly satisfying. “When Allen was writing his poems in Berkeley that referenced Whitman, Walt was a mountain too vast to be seen,” she noted. “He put himself at Whitman’s feet. Like the other Beat writers, he was more inspired by Whitman then any other writer during that era.”
In stating it that way, Charters drew a thread through an astonishingly broad collections of papers presented this weekend at the small college by Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Walter Raubicheck of Pace College spoke on the ‘Vitalist’ philosophy mutually underpinning the writings of Gregory Corso and Whitman. Andrew Vogel of Kutztown University spoke on how the Beats used ‘bathos’ style humor to enunciate their Dystopian response to Whitman’s Utopian visions of a century previous. Matthew Koch from Texas Christian University examined postmodern Transcendentalism in Ginsberg as an echoing down the years of Whitman’s philosophy. Eric Keenaghan from SUNY Albany examined the social philosophy underpinning 19th century anarchist ideologiy, and how similar ideas are expressed in Whitman and the Beats.
And Tom Bierowski of Alvernia College tied Whitman’s idea of the expansive continent to the Devolution of the American Road, as exemplified in Kerouac’s “On The Road” and “Big Sur.”
From human sexuality to notions of power, politics and the ideal society, it was an embarassment of academic purposefulness offered up for authors who, fifty years ago, were rarely mentioned in the halls of universities, according to Charters – who first heard Howl read weeks after its first airing at the infamous Six Gallery reading, when she showed up at a Ginsberg reading on the arm of Peter Orlovsky.
“Peter told me Allen’s poem was as important as Leaves Of Grass,” she recalls. “At nineteen years old, I was indignant – I dismissed the notion as ridiculous.”
Fifty some odd years later, Charters is considered one of the premier proponents in academia of the literary importance of the Beats.
It all started in 1955 Berkeley, she declared in her address. “Allen lived at 101 Montgomery Street, and then moved to a cottage at 1612 Milvia Street in Berkeley,” she recalls. “He had been an author of short poems, influenced by Blake, and from there, William Carlos Williams. But it was there that he put himself at Whitman’s feet.”
The rest, as they say, is history – and increasingly, literary history.