The Badass Women of the Beat Movement
Attempts to label or define the group of American writers commonly referred to as ‘the Beat Generation’ go against the grain of what the literary movement was about in general. Despite this, we can say that the Beats were pioneers of an instinctual, bohemian, experimental writing style and that in general, they wrote lyrical prose and poems about lives lived against the grain. Some of the most memorable works within this movement include the wandering vagabond tale of On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s radical uncompromising and political Howl and William Burroughs’ hedonistic and fast-living drug experimentation in Naked Lunch.
A counterculture movement that inflamed the minds of radical young men and women in the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats were dedicated to living lives outside of social norms and traditions. Yet, as in most literary movements, it is the names of men that predominantly come to mind when we think of the Beats. But this does not mean that women were not present and active within the Beat circles.
Many (largely white, American and middle-class) women left the stability of their homes and families to go ‘on the road’, devoting themselves to words and the nomadic lifestyle advocated by the Beats. Indeed, we may say that for women in the mid-20th century, the decision to abandon the gendered roles expected of them was a truly radical act. In any case, men did not have to shatter the same barriers women did when taking to the coasts of California or the chaos of Greenwich Village in New York City. As the critic Brenda Knight once commented:
In the ‘50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.
It is a sad statement of fact that the women of the Beat movement were not published as frequently as their male peers. It seems that despite the Beat ethos of rejecting gendered traditions and norms, women still occupied a reduced position within the movement. Misogyny within the Beats has been widely debated but it is perhaps Gary Snyder who put it best, that ‘Some were maybe a bit misogynistic – most just clueless.’
For those Beat women whose words were published, their work primarily comprised of revolutionary and mystical themes and was very performance-based. Indeed, Beat women’s work was arguably far more interested in ideals of nonconformity than male Beat writing. It is perhaps because women faced such adversity in their decision to embrace nonconformity that it became an important issue for them. One of the most significant poets who wrote during the heyday of the Beat movement was ruth weiss who, in her book Can’t Stop the Beat, documented her poetry and her experiences, illustrating how deeply the Beat movement was indebted to jazz music and visceral emotional femininity.
Similarly, Anne Waldman’s poetry has received wide acclaim. Mentored by the poet Allen Ginsberg, Waldman’s work reads like the words of a shaman. Fiercely and unapologetically feminine, Waldman’s poetry is stunningly experimental and radical. Fast Speaking Woman is an example of the breadth of her work, and we see her interests range from topics as diverse as Tibetan Buddhism to politics. Further, Waldman is well-known as a tasteful and committed editor, with her collection The Beat Book offering a fascinating overview of the movement in general, with a greater inclusion of women writers than most other Beat anthologies.
Despite the lack of Beat women writers being published when the movement was en vogue, in the years thereafter, it was women more than any other Beat participants who put pen to paper and produced memoirs of the experiences of this exciting literary era. The women of the Beat Movement dominate the memoir genre, offering multifaceted experiences of the life and times of the 1950s and early 1960s as well as an examination of the role of women within the group.
Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman is one of the best-known memoirs written by a woman involved in the Beat Movement. In this book, Di Prima writes of her Italian-American upbringing and the circumstances and decisions that led to her deciding to devote her life to poetry. DiPrima documents her involvement with the Beats in California and New York as well as her embracing of the hippie movement in later years. Evocative, passionate and deeply imaginative, Recollections of My Life as a Woman is a book of revelations. Interrogations of sexuality, experimentation, and adventure form the backbone of the work, highlighting Beat women as a truly transitional group between the domesticated women of the early twentieth century and the unabashed freedom that came in the 1960s.
Carolyn Cassady’s memoir, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg is another book that explores the inner lives of women against domineering male personalities. Wife to writer Neal Cassidy and depicted as ‘Camille’ in On the Road, Cassady’s memoir is a vivid recounting of the realities of living a nomadic bohemian Beat life. Alcoholism, drug addiction, affairs and abuse populate Cassady’s memoir. The difficulties and practicalities of coping with being a mother and part of a counterculture movement are revealed to be quite incompatible and Cassady illustrates the economic, mental and emotional difficulties of Beat life once the pens were put down.
Unlike Cassady and DiPrima, as a black woman, Hettie Jones not only had to break with gendered norms and traditions to participate in the Beat movement – she also suffered racial discrimination. How I Became Hettie Jones is a defiant and fascinating book recounting a truly remarkable life. Jones illustrates how the jazz and Beat movements communicated with one another, with artists and poets mutually inspiring each other in 1950s New York. She also devotes time to her marriage to the radical black poet, LeRoi Jones and his subsequent abandonment of their family – for Diane DiPrima – as well as meetings with Billie Holiday and James Baldwin to name but a few. The significance and passion of Jones’s words and work reverberate throughout the book, showing that while she is one of the lesser-known women associated with the Beat movement, her work is worth reading and knowing.
These memoirs, anthologies and poetry collections offer a glimmer into the world of the Beat movement and the vital presence of women within it. Although a little more difficult to find than the male writers of the group, women of the Beat movement were true radicals, vaulting misogyny in order to commit to their own passions and words.