BY ANY MEASURE, they were a bizarre band—at once genius and junkie, cerebral and criminal, innocent and malevolent, loveable and lewd, spiritual and cynical. And they were crazy enough to invite all sorts of trouble, including the kind that produced rebel literature and helped to launch a cultural revolution in America.
Who were they? How did they live? What did they value? And how did their literature reflect all of that? In attempting to answer these questions, we were less concerned with media catchphrases than with what first fueled and then fired the artistic/cultural movement launched by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, and others.
In their lives and literature, they wove fact into fiction and then fiction back into fact—the facts of their lives. Any work that does justice to the heroes, heroines, and rogues of this generation of artists must weave their lives and literature together, if only because they did. The furious, defiant lines in "Howl," the wondrous scenes in On the Road, the despair in Junky, the unnerving satire of Naked Lunch, and the thrill in Go simply cannot be divorced from the ways that Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Lucien Carr, Bill Cannastra, and Herbert Huncke, among others, actually lived their lives.
To give the reader a truer feeling of their history, we cast our work in narrative form, offering anecdotal slices of their lives (from about 1944 to 1957), and present it as a montage of vivid snapshots. In that sense, portions of Mania are necessarily impressionistic. Still, these are impressions based on numerous documented sources. While there are, to be sure, other and more exhaustive ways to tell their story, we find this approach both more natural and contained. Our hope is that you can experience something of the remarkable and risky lives these men and women lived . . . and to experience it all without being overwhelmed by mountains of data.
We seek neither to demonize nor apologize for Ginsberg and his cohorts. While we tell their tales, we do not feel obliged to defend their darker sides. A sobering line by John Leland about this group bears repeating: "[They were] shaped by suicide, depression, psychosis, institutionalization, addiction, alcoholism, jail and early death." Indeed. If their story, as we tell it, seems at times to be cartoonish or unduly dark, that is because that is how they led their lives—not entirely, but quite often. Yes, there was more to the story, and we try to tell that by way of their amazing literary talents.
Still, very much like Kerouac, we admire those "who yearn for the impossible," who crave a life never lived, a reality never recognized, a love never pursued, a faith never finalized, and a world never imagined. Hence, we do not hesitate to fly their flags from time to time—flags of artistic creativity and personal freedom. Or to invoke another metaphor, we echo Douglas Brinkley's "manic desire to find the key to one's life meaning by putting the accelerator through the floorboard." So we are of two minds.
Freedom is always risky business. And once one tastes it, it is all too easy to get drunk under its influence. Those drawn to the free-spirited side of the human equation must be mindful of the ruinous potential in "the cannibalism of a lifeboat," as Kenneth Rexroth so vividly tagged it. And yet, one cannot ignore—and Rexroth could not—the vastness of the creative spirit launched by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Holmes, and their kind.
Whatever one makes of their spirit, its DNA traces can be found in everything from the lyrics of Bob Dylan to the music of Jim Morrison, the vitalizing spirit of the Baltimore folk singer Sonia Rutstein, the theatre of Stephen Sondheim, the photography of Annie Leibovitz, the novels of Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey, the short stories of T.C. Boyle, the essays of Susan Sontag, the journalism of Nat Hentoff, and the free-speech jurisprudence of Justice William O. Douglas. If you need more, lend your ears to John Turturro's recitation of "Howl," or Matt Dillon's reading of On the Road, or Dennis Hopper's belting out of Burroughs' lines. These experiences will, we think, move the matter of your being.
Our story culminates in a momentous poem—Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." That poem, in turn, is one born and bred in the real-life experiences of young men and women eager to test the limits of life, love, law, language, and every norm of normality. We picture their fast and fantastic stories largely through the filter of the history of "Howl" and those associated with its author.
"Howl" alone did not, of course, launch the revolution in American culture that produced some of the great creative lights of our time. Still, if one looks through the wide lens of its story as set out on our pages, there is much to witness—snapshots of the inexplicable spirit and spontaneity of a group of talented (and troubled) "angelheaded hipsters" who left an indelible mark on the American soul.
This chronicle opens with an unforgiveable killing, continues a few years later with an unusual car crash, and ends with an unexpected court verdict in a free-speech case. In between, the story is even more unbelieveable, though all true. It is, to borrow from author James L. Swanson, a story "far too incredible to have ever been made up." The wondrous and tragic stories that follow are their stories; the words are their words; and the mania of it all was their reality.
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