Allen Ginsberg’s “Beat” Correspondence with Paul Bertram

Allen Ginsberg to Paul Bertram (1928-2013) , in 1947, from the Ginsberg-Bertram letters

Readers+Writers Journal, this week, announced the discovery (in a trove of newly-found letters and postcards from Allen to his life-long friend, Rutgers professor and Shakespearean scholar, Paul Bertram), of, arguably, the first known reference in the writings of the Beat Generation to the seminal term “Beat”.

Paul Bertram’s 1965 volume – Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen (Rutgers University Press)

Writing as early as July 14, 1947, (these are “among the earliest, if not the earliest collection of Ginsberg correspondence ever” appearing on the market), Ginsberg notes:
“I spent most of June in Texas with Joan Adams and Bill Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, amid scorpions, Armadillos, Bayoux, Spanish moss, Be-bop music, marijuana, Beat Texans, white trash and poon tang. Now I am in denver, broke hungry unemployed, depressed”

Herbert Huncke, 1947, New Waverly, Texas – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg – c. The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

As E.T.Carlton in her accompanying article points out – “Scholars generally date the first use of the word “Beat” (in writing) to November 1948, when writer John Clellon Holmes recorded in his diary a conversation between him and Jack Kerouac. Holmes later recounted the conversation in a 1952 article for the New York Times magazine entitled “This Is The Beat Generation”, quoting Kerouac as saying, “So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation”…The term “beat” was introduced by fellow writer and notorious [sic] junkie Herbert Huncke who learned it from the hustlers, carnies and members of the underworld he moved among in New York’s Times Square. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and others in their circle picked it up from him. It’s original meaning was negative and connoted being beaten down but Kerouac later appropriated the word to describe himself and others of his generation, giving it a more spiritual meaning…

As Kerouac wrote [in Esquire,March, 1958] in  “Aftermath – The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”, “..beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction”. The word came into general use [and abuse (sic)] in the 1950’s with the word “beatnik” used to describe a person who was artistically inclined and whose values were counter to the general culture. Mass media portrayals showed beatniks dressed in black turtleneck sweaters playing bongos and attending poetry readings..”

Beat Exploitation

“It’s the beat generation, it’s beat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s beng beat and down in the world and like old-time lowdown”

Brian Cassidy, the bookseller, responsible for the sale, notes:

“What the March 1947 letter just how early the term was in circulation among this core group of writers. While he does not use the word to refer to the group or the movement itself, what is clear is that Ginsberg is using the word as he and his circle originally meant it – “beat  down” or “worn out”. And it further cements the term’s association with Huncke.”

And again (regarding the sale): “I’m excited to be representing this collection on behalf of Bertram’s heirs” [Bertram died in 2013 and the letters were discovered a year after his death]..”These letters capture Ginsberg at a formative and significant time in his life..(A)s a specialist in the Beats, this is particularly fascinating to me. Moreover, as these were almost literally rescued from the trash, I’m especially proud to be part of saving these materials for later generations and scholars”

“These materials” consist of a total of three signed letters and eight postcards, the bulk of the correspondence written between 1946 and 1950. They cover, as Carlton explains, Allen’s “travels with the merchant marine, his earliest encounters with members of what would become the Beat movement, and his thoughts on writing and on music, including a list of his favorite jazz recordings” – ‘I have (as I told you last time) developed a terrific interest in this [1947] and last year’s jazz. I wish you would try to listen to them sympathetically – responsively”, he tells Bertram, “that is – without trying to fit them to a set of ideas about music until you like them for what they are without categorical or literary or sacramental classification..simply as significant noises…”

Carlton’s article teases us with a few other choice quotes – August, 1947, writing from Denver – “I have been working as a porter nights in a dept. store. I steal enough clothes and shoes to make it worth while. Also I’ve organized my work so as to have several hours free each night to listen to their phonograph records, so I picked up on the latest Bartok recordings which were new and quite exciting to me.”  The previous month, he notes the birth of William Burroughs’ Jr., mock-dismissively – “I think” she [Joan Adams] dropped the brat on a rude cot in her tumbledown shack in the backwoods.” –  and there’s this, three years later – from a postcard, dated March 8 – “I have been in a mental hospital – [Editorial note – Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute] – and have been very ill. That is why you have not heard from me. The Benzedrine [sic] is out of the question these days.”   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *