By Beth U
I’ve been reading bits of Beat memoir here and there. Recalling her coming-of-age during the Beat-era, writer Janine Pommy Vega describes her virginity as a “hindrance.” At 16, she and a friend staked out the Cedar Bar (the popular Beat hangout in Greenwich Village) to meet Gregory Corso. A few days later, they visit him and Peter Orlovsky in their shared apartment. As Vega waits to have sex with Orlovsky (a given for a female fan?), Corso takes her friend into another room. Vega and her girlfriend both sought sex as a bohemian rite-of-passage, as do girls of every generation. Through sex, usually with men, some Beat women rejected familial/marital ideals, and rebelled against the claustrophobia of white, middle-class propriety. In Vega’s recollection, hers was a choice and an act of independence, yet one expressed through men. And women were (are) not able to “get away with it” the same way men were (are).
In many Beat memoirs, women offer themselves and men consume them. Not always, and not to say that women didn’t experience pleasure, independence, and choice. Women fled convention and some male friends and lovers cheered them on. Some male artists encouraged female artists to publish stories and read poetry. But nearly all the (straight) female muses and writers I have read faced abortions alone, raised kids alone, went to jobs alone, paid rent alone, faced themselves alone when their partners proved more famous, and moved on alone. Some despaired alone when their male muses left the scene: poet Elise Cowen jumped to her death at age 29.
Elise Cowen moved to San Francisco from New York after her relationship with Allen Ginsburg ended. While Cowen was in San Francisco, a sailor named Frank Harris raped and murdered fellow Beat woman Connie Sublette in an alley. Later, recovering from an abortion that became a complete hysterectomy, Cowen moved back to New York and into Bellevue Hospital. Not long after, she threw herself through a closed window in her parents’ house. After her death, her family destroyed most of her writing.
It is no secret that these women artists were muses for some male Beats. However, I think for many of these women, male Beats were also muses to the kind of life they, as women, longed to live but rarely could, at least not completely. Given that women can not move in public space with the same safety afforded white men, and given that women, despite artistic output, were still expected to care-take men and children, women artists had less opportunity to “hit the road” than men. White men like Kerouac did, until the road ran out, usually into the arms of a woman who would feed and coddle him.
Very few of the Beat women who persevered to travel, write, perform or exhibit, to insist upon themselves as artists, enjoyed the same accolades or monetary reward as their male counterparts. It is difficult to find most publications (if there are any) from the “minor characters,” of the Beat scene, as writer Joyce Johnson ironically describes them. In her memoir of the same name (in which she describes her relationship with Jack Kerouac), Johnson summarizes what she felt many (white?) women Beats experienced. Her racist, classist & heterosexist assumptions are revealing in and of themselves:
“Those of us who flew out the door had no usable models for what we were doing. We did not want to be our mothers or our spinster schoolteachers or the hard-boiled career women depicted on screen. And no one had taught us how to be women artists or writers. We knew a little about Virginia Woolf, but did not find her relevant […] We knew nothing about the novelist Jean Rhys, an earlier runaway from respectability, dangerously adrift in the Parisian Bohemia of the 1920s; we might have identified with Rhys’s lack of confidence in her writing, found a warning to take to heart in the corrosive passivity of her relationship with men. Though no warning would have stopped us, so hungry were we to embrace life and all of reality. Even hardship was something to be savored. Naturally we fell in love with men who were rebels. We fell very quickly, believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures. We did not expect to be rebels all by ourselves; we did not count on loneliness. Once we had found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the old male/female rules.”
Perhaps American anthropologist, writer, and rebel Zora Neale Hurston would have proved a better muse for Beat women. A darling of the Harlem Renaissance and trained as an anthropologist by Franz Boaz at Colombia, Hurston didn’t tie her adventures to a man, but made her own. Starting in the 1920s, she drove all over the American south collecting and recording stories and conducting fieldwork. Hurston published numerous ethnographies and novels in her lifetime detailing humor, myths, and spiritual practices. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, opinions of prominent black male writers demonized Hurston’s perceived “folkloric” representations of black people. As a result, her writing and autobiographical material suffered imposed obscurity (later “rediscovered” thanks to Alice Walker). Hurston, like many women artists of every generation, died alone and in poverty. At least during her lifetime she “hit the road” on her own terms.