- Beat Transnationalism
(ABR Associate Editor)
246Pages; Print, $22.00
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Beat Cosmopolitanism would be a better title for this book. “Transnationalism” implies these days not just travelling to and/or living in other countries around the world, but an entire network of critical and theoretical conceptions, such as globalism, neoliberal economy, and so on, which this book does not engage. That said, the book does exemplify the Beat ethics of living in these other countries— mostly Mexico here—much as do the majority of their populations, rather than as in the usual fashion of elite cosmopolites, in high style of a different sort than simply taking drugs.
This book consists of previously unpublished letters of the author from Mexico where he was researching the Beats for his ground-breaking book on them, Naked Angels (1976), sent to his estranged wife, Mellon, back in 1974 New York City; and previously uncollected but recently published journalistic essays and short reviews about Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, as well as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bonnie Bremser, and contemporary Beat sympathizer and punk singer Patti Smith.
The letters, comprising the largest single chunk here, are heartfelt but hardly memorable. We feel the pain of the straining bond of the married couple, at least from Tytell’s side (there is none of her correspondence to him), so one may feel that the letters are included to make a bigger book out of the accompanying essays and reviews. This is not to say that the essays themselves are not worth collecting in a book. “The Mexican Magnet” is a superb forty page introduction to the strong allure and visceral pull of Mexico for what Tytell calls “The Triumvirate” of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Much of such attraction is of course financial, the cost of living is one fourth of that of the USA then, but it also the portrait of Mexico given in the fiction and non-fiction of D. H. Lawrence, which draws them. This is a useful reminder for Beat literary genealogy. Whitman, too, seems to descend to them via Lawrence instead of more directly, given the T .S. Eliot dominated modernist context immediately confronting them.
Similarly, “Howl @ 60,” “Ginsberg’s Farm,” among other informative, well-written essays, are worth the reading or re-reading, in this context of the Beats living, to varying and changing degrees of necessity and choice, the same way of life as the people of Mexico, Brazil, or Morocco. Even the most alienated from the human species, Burroughs, prefers their anarchic insect-and rat-infested world of hovels to the slick sanitized worlds of Western control. Unlike most of the partisans of the global South today, the Beats did not condescend, nor did they pretend to living the life—they were often deeply immersed in the struggles of the everyday, even when their specific focus was stimulating the Muse or feeding their habits.
One of the better occasional essays collected in the book is “Bonnie Bremser’s Mexico.” It does much to dispel the impression that the Beats had no women compatriots in their literary and personal adventures. But in doing so, Tytell does not pander to the standard expectations of feminist or leftist critics. He exemplifies how women writers of the Beat generation made their own beds, as it were, and often chose, in retrospect, to lie in them. Bremser’s memoir, For Love of Ray (1969), is the occasion of the essay, and Tytell lays out the sorry saga of her selling her body for money to live, both with her husband and daughter, and alone, with him in prison or on the run and their daughter given up for adoption. Tytell is excellent in tying the savage whirlwind of ultimately boring accounts of Bremser’s self-prostitution into the process of adoption. Although not finding any definite evidence that she gave up her daughter to a childless couple for the money she needed to...