“I think the Beats were extremely dysfunctional people who basically had no business raising children.” – Christina Mitchell, daughter of John Mitchell, entrepreneur who ran several Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1950s
This quote might seem a rather harsh criticism of a group of people widely considered among the most influential writers of the century, but when you look at their personal lives – frequently their subject matter – it makes a sad amount of sense. Men like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso were in no way Ward Cleaver types, but were independents, wanderers and frequent substance abusers, pursuing their own enlightenment and freedom over the stability of a normal life. Certainly they managed to raise a legion of spiritual children by inspiring thousands of youths to follow in their footsteps, but when it came to the very involved process of bringing a child to maturity they preferred to be somewhere else.
But despite the fact that so few of the Beats were equipped to be fathers, several of them managed to pass their genes onto the next generation – and in the cases of Kerouac and Burroughs, also managed to pass on the gift that made them famous. Like their fathers, Jan Kerouac and William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr. possessed a grasp of language and an interest in using their lives as subject material. However, they also wound up inheriting their addictive personalities and an energy level that would convert into self-destruction.
These next two installments of Back Shelf Review will fall into a subcategory dubbed “The Beat (Second) Generation,” examining the writings of the younger Kerouac and Burroughs. In addition to the obvious evaluation as to the pros and cons of their work, I’ll take a look at just how much of their fathers’ style they seem to have inherited and see where they differ for better or worse.
So, check back on August 18 for “Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac” and on August 25 for “Back Shelf Review: William S. (Billy) Burroughs Jr.”