“Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Such was the mantra of the beatniks. In 1952 ‘Go’ by John Clellon Holmes was published, capturing the spirit of a generation. Anastasia Grabova explores the lasting impact of this novel and the characters in it.
The 1950s. What a decade that was. It brought us Kerouac and On The Road, his manically typed reel of a manuscript describing in a youthful lyricism his journeys across the vast and varied country that is the US of A. It brought us Ginsberg who watched, as he would famously state, “the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness.” It brought us William Burroughs, whose influence would permeate popular culture itself; he has been cited by the likes of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Ian Curtis, J. G. Ballard, and Angela Carter as a major influence of their work.
These are the three most prominent writers that would form the core of what has come to be known as the Beat Generation. Loosely this ‘generation’ was really composed of a group of friends in 1950s New York. They were liberal, anti-material and experimental, approaching life with a new perspective. As writers Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs would each document their experiences in their respective novels. They rapidly gained prominence (thanks in part to the very public obscenity trials faced by the later two) and in turn influenced a whole new cultural movement, known as beatniks.
And then there was John Clellon Holmes, who was there to write about the
beginning of it all, in his 1952 novel, Go. In this wide-eyed, and very talkative group of bohemians Clellon Holmes was the everyman, the Joe Bloggs, exploring the beat generation from inside its catalytic epicentre and yet, as he pens the tale, touching
on themes of alienation, detachment and excess, a slightly sceptical and knowing hat is firmly on. And nowhere is this stance betrayed as obviously as in his writing style; descriptive, detailed, but lacking in the lyrical flow of the now revered Ginsberg and co. “That’s not writing, that’s typing” said Truman Capote of Kerouac, only further emphasising this rift between old and new, this decade as a turning point in both society and in writing.
In 1952 Clellon Holmes had an article published in the New York Times Magazine entitled This Is The Beat Generation. As the first to coin the term, Clellon Holmes was all too aware of the effect that WWII had on those who witnessed the consequence of global conflict; “Their own lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills (to which the war had adjusted them), led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later.” War is the reason that things have been shaken up and the mentality of a whole generation altered to live in the moment, to seek out the unconventional, tearing down the system by knocking down the white picket fences and building something more exciting in their place, something more suited to living in the moment. Is it any coincidence then that the birth of the teenager comes just after the untimely death of millions on the battlefront?
But the Beats aren’t quite the Buddy Holly generation. Most of them are much
too old to fall into the teen category. They are not the innocent young ‘uns opening their eyes to the wonders of the world for the first time. They have already sinned, some already tainted with a world-weariness, some already married and divorced. In the quest for new experiences, these underground cliques search out ways of getting their kicks in a series of all-night adventures. In this circle of friends, the aim is to cross boundaries. With hallucinations, thievery and admissions to psychiatric facilities occurring as often as the next party, the urge to experience as much as possible (‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ is the mantra) often gets out of hand.
There are two conflicting sides to the beat coin; exploration vs. destruction, hedonism vs. coolness. Paul Hobbes (the protagonist, based on Clellon Holmes himself) is fascinated by the novel concept of cool, his eyes drawn to those expressionless, seemingly apathetic characters. “Now everybody is acting cool,” he says. “Unemotional, withdrawn … What can one designate the moment that comes after ‘the end’ after all? I suppose it’s complete passivity, oblivion.”
Cool is an emotionless façade. It’s part and parcel of the new generation. Death of the old, stagnant, rigidity of thinking and the creation of something completely different; a concept of living that disregards all previous rules. Instead they are written afresh, mistaken ones undoubtedly made in the process. Despite being eager to embrace the more liberal attitudes floating round at the time, Hobbes and his wife Kathryn find it increasingly difficult to establish the ground rules for their loving marriage. Hobbes’ insistence that sex and love are two entirely different
things push Kathryn into the arms of Pasternak (based on our favourite typist, Kerouac), but lead inevitably to unshakable feelings of guilt.
Hobbes meanwhile pursues the concept of free love but fails to live up to his own idealistic vision of it when it comes to the crunch. Whilst both husband and wife discuss infidelity with an open mind, it still causes arguments. Eventually they find that moral lines, however much negotiated, cannot be drawn anew. The old boundaries of monogamy still exist boldly in the background. Still, in these discussions Clellon Holmes reveals the budding concepts that floated around at the time, blooming eventually to the beginning of a sexual revolution that would define the Sixties.
In many ways, as they clambered around for new rules and definitions in a freshly altered world these Beats were behaving just like teenagers (that either says something about them – unable to grow up – or, about kids today – growing up so fast). Or perhaps it is the novelty of a being able to do what your parents could not do when they were twenty; have house parties, get drunk and watch your apartment fill with strangers, each more bohemian than the last. All these things were brand-spanking new. These parties united a generation of artists and writers; most of the scenes in this book focus on interaction, on the dialogue, on people getting together, be it during memorable parties, scrambled phone conversations, chance meetings on Times Square, people-watching in bars, and unexpected knocks on the door. There is the distinct sense in this novel that being alone is to miss out on something.
The collective offers unparalleled experiences – opens up opportunities, and you never know who you might bump into and where this chance encounter will lead.
Essentially, it’s the spontaneity of the beat lifestyle that makes this book so interesting. Clellon Holmes was distinctly aware of the social changes occurring before his eyes, writing Go to record the ideals fostered by a generation. The events he describes are at once inspiring and frightening. His characters are in turn creative geniuses then incomprehensible madmen. That’s the New York that was. Over half a century has passed since the original beatniks walked its city streets, but the beat and everything this one word stands for, really does go on.