Top 5 Women Writers of the Beat Generation
19th Nov 2014
Their books have been stuffed in the back pockets of teenagers and backpackers for generations. Hell, there’s even an entire museum dedicated to them. Beat women do appear in the history books, but only in relation to their male counterparts. There they are, in the background, set up as muses and lunatics and devotees, getting in the way of very important work and driving the men nuts, for better or for worse. Again, mightily unfair.
First, let’s not forget that the beat generation sprung forth in the 40’s and 50’s, a really crappy time to be a woman. In postwar America, as industry soared, there was an obsession with hard work and puritanism.
Women were meant to be childrearing housewives, chained to a kitchen baking buns. If you were a wee bit independent, a tad wayward, a little irregular, you’d either be locked up by your husband/father or incarcerated in a mental asylum. Anyone who risked this horror gets my vote.
Like the men, beat women enjoyed drinking and smoking and hedonism. They liked sex and they liked books. The difference is, by existing outside the realms of conservative society, the men were being revolutionary and heroic. The women were just being difficult.
In reality, these women were fierce, smart, ambitious, and restless. And they were awesome writers, too. They struggled to pay rent, raised kids, fought for acceptance, and still found time to write poetry, fiction, and memoir that has influenced other women writers for years to come.
So for the sake of giving them the respect they deserve, here’s an introduction to five of the most badass beat women…
1. Diane di Prima
Diane di Prima is probably the most widely know women writer of the beat generation. She was super smart, massively talented, and could hold her own amongst the men – so much so that Allen Ginsberg called her a ‘genius.’
She dropped out of a degree in physics and moved to Greenwich Village, to write and to involve herself in the literary scenes there. Incredibly prolific, she published forty-one books over her career, including Memoirs of a Beatnik, an erotic account of her life as a beat.
She was mates with Ezra Pound, set up her own press, and co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, which was brought up on obscenity charges for showing a film by Jean Genet.
She wrote thousands of poems, including the epic feminist poem Loba, and is recognised as a major influence, both to the beat generation and all that it spawned.
2. Joyce Johnson
When the beats surged into public consciousness during the 50’s, Joyce Johnson was involved with Kerouac. That’s pretty much what she’s remembered for, which is rubbish, because she was a successful writer and a vocal feminist. She wrote the first book to specifically focus on beat women, ironically named Minor Characters.
The book won a National Book Critics Circle award, and it recounts the battles of growing up a woman in the conservative fifties. In the book, she describes her friendship with other women involved in the beat scene, Elise Cowan and Hettie Jones, as well as her relationship with Kerouac.
Over her writing career, she’s written several novels, and articles for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.
3. Elise Cowen
Elise Cowan was a poet who suffered from severe mental health problems and, tragically, committed suicide without seeing any success. She wrote scores of poems and journals, but all except eighty-three poems, found in a box in a friend’s apartment, were destroyed by her family after her death.
She was an avid reader and hugely intelligent, but she had a difficult upbringing because her wealthy, conservative, and highly-strung parents were not at all down with her life choices.
She was admitted to a mental asylum, and when her parents signed her out, she jumped out of a window rather than have to conform to their illiberal lifestyle.
Elise had relationships with both men and women, including Allen Ginsberg. She was popular among the beats and had a close friendship with Joyce Johnson. After she died, they made sure her wonderfully spooky poetry was published and her voice was heard.
4. Anne Waldman
Anne Waldman was born into a super bohemian family in 1945, and was still young when she started hanging out with other beat writers. She called herself a second-generation beat, but her poetry is awesome and still, unlike a lot of other female poets of that time, widely available.
She made a name for herself as a spoken word poet; after joining a theatre company at the age of six she could totally rock a stage, and her fast-paced, lively poems are pretty much perfect to listen to.
In 1968, along with Allen Ginsberg, she founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets, which was set up to teach innovation and experimentation in writing. Her most well known work is probably Fast Speaking Woman, published by City Lights Books.
5. Hettie Jones
Hettie Jones was a writer of both poetry and prose, and, along with her then husband LeRoi Jones, founded Yugen magazine, which published the work of beat poets and writers.
The magazine was wildly popular amongst bohemian literature fans, and helped raise the profile of the beat generation. Due to her involvement with the magazine, Hettie became a crazy-good editor and found that editing helped her become a writer.
Although she didn’t publish anything when the beat movement was at its height, she later had successes with poetry, prose, and several notable children’s books.
In 1990, she published her memoir, How I became Hettie Jones. The book detailed her experiences in the throngs of the beat and jazz scenes of New York, and was released to critical acclaim.
There were, of course, loads of other influential and incredible women beatniks. Carolyn Cassidy, Neal Cassidy’s wife and lifelong muse. LuAnne Henderson (played by Kristen Stewart in the film of On the Road) who took off across America with the men and totally busted the mould of the austere 50’s woman.
Joan Vollmer, who practically kick-started the movement by hosting insane parties and debates in her pad (Vollmer was married to William Burroughs. They took a lot of heroin together until he disturbingly shot her in the head in a game of William Tell gone wrong). And renowned poet Denise Levertov has been consistently linked to the beats also.
If you’d like to read more about these women, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight (1996). Or follow the above links and get stuck into some truly brilliant memoirs and poetry.
Who’s your favourite woman writer from the Beat generation? Leave us your recommendations in the comments section below!