Alleycats and Beatsters, a collection of essays by British writer Kenton Crowther, explores what it means to be Beat, the nature of hipness, and the poets, writers and hipsters who orbited the Beats, either closely or from a distance.
This isn’t a series of formal essays, but rather Crowther’s considered thoughts and opinions based on his wide-ranging readings of the Beats and their contemporaries over a period of years, his knowledge of them, and his passion for their work.
The collection opens with “Tod & Buz: On the Route,” in which Crowther explores the success of, and recaps the 1960-64 TV show, “Route 66″ which sprung from the popularity of On the Road, and the resulting craze for all things Beat and “beatnik.” A buddy show, the two protagonists were on a never-ending tour across America, stopping at a different locale of the week, and often dealing with social issues of the time.
“A Thing Called Hip” asks, “What does it mean, being hip? Being Beat, a Beatnik?” Crowther takes us on a history of hipness, going back in time to identify Marc Antony, Akenaten (“you can see by the way he posed beside Nefertiti relaxing with his arm on the back of his throne”), Walt Whitman, and Henry Miller. He says that “With hipness there is the sense that the moment now is gold and time is best devoted to the individual, not taking anything else’s say-so You dig the now…”
Lord Buckley is “His Royal Hipness, “like a barker in a Western…or a demented boxing promoter…” and is likened to Lamont Cranston, the announcer of “The Shadow,” the radio show that gave inspiration to Kerouac’s Doctor Sax.
Next, Crowther takes a dive into “Jack’s Postbag,” as he consideres Kerouac’s Selected Letters 1957-1969 and what they reveal about the writer’s inner life, relationships, day-to-day life, aspirations, religion, writing career and frustrations (including, by the way, his contempt for the exploitative “Route 66.”)
In the author’s opinion, “To dive in and delve amongst these letters (probably the best way to read a book like this – with each screed being a time capsule and a small world in itself) is to taste again the authentic nervous joyout moment-to-moment flavour (call it Beat) that delighted so many in On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and others.” But he doesn’t enjoy everything here, calling the letters about religion “boring” and those to Neal Cassady “overdone, false and put-on.”
Crowther says, “You root for him, reading these letters—but then just as in the novels there is this sense of doom always present.”
“Ralph the Coffee Drunkard and ‘Beatnik Lite’” is about Canadian artist, writer & musician Ralph Alfonso, his publication “Ralph,” which included Alfonso’s beatnik-inspired writings and poetry, and his spoken word albums. Crowther points out that Ralph’s use of “Beat” is equated with “hip,” and that he “gives voice to a nostalgia for the 1950s rather than a Beat consciousness, because Beat in its time was of course right up to the moment and modern.”
“How Beat Can You Get” goes into the “British Beats” and British hipster culture. While the Beat Generation was mainly American, writers in other countries were sometimes associated with the group as well. Crowther lists the anthologies and magazines which included the “British Beats,” and their respective merits. He briefly discusses “home-grown hepcats” who are not primarily writers, such as Anthony Newley & Donovan Leitch and non-Beat (though still hep) writers Christopher Logue, and Alexander Trocchi. He then recalls the hipster slang of his schooldays in the 1950s and 60s and the personalities and motifs that he and his classmates considered hip at the time. then, we’re back to historical and literary-character hipness: Odysseus, Catullus, Sherlock Holmes (“has something of the hipster, he’s like Burroughs with his syringes”) and others.
The next essay is “Ginsberg: The Con-Man with the Dark Mind,” in which Crowther shares his thoughts on Ginsberg’s life and work; he recalls readings heard on the radio and attended in person, recounts the poet’s time as “King of May” in Prague and thereafter, gets a little into his sexual predilections. And, he offers criticism of Ginsberg’s writing style, while acknowledging his weight in both the literary world and the cultural revolution of the 1950s and 60s.
Alleycats and Beatsters finishes off with considerations of two writers who aren’t Beats, but whose names sometimes come up in loose connection with the Beat Generation: Charles Bukowski and Rod McKuen.
Bukowski is compared to Orpheus, who lived in the days when a poet was “a being who had snatched something from the gods’ picnic and brought it to earth,” and says his following is as enthusiastic as ever was any ancient Greek poet’s, or any modern-day rock star’s. He points out that what makes Buk’s work special is in his use of the language and his connection with readers. It’s a thoughtful essay that will likely make you want to delve into the nearest volume of Bukowski verse.
Crowther points out what there is to like about the work of Rod McKuen, a poet often maligned for his bestselling verse (“it’s all in the tradition of Propertius and Ovid and the other love elegists way back”). He claims the value of the boks in their relatability and imagery, their occasional perfect, shareable lines, and their value as gifts to lovers. McKuen’s residence in Beat-era San Francisco and his 1958 album, Beatsville are noted before concluding that he cannot be called a Beat.
I found Alleycats and Beatsters a fun and sometimes thought-provoking read. Crowther’s tone is casual and engaging; it’s easy to imagine yourself sipping a hot beverage while listening to him unfurl his stories and opinions all afternoon in the corner of some old coffeehouse. Some of the essays finish abruptly or could have been further fleshed out. Others start on one topic and then veer a little off course; maybe you could call that a hazard of its conversational tone. But despite some quirkiness, anyone interested in the Beats or 20th century literature or pop culture would likely find Alleycats and Beatsters an entertaining way to spend a few hours. Read it and be hip!