Memoirs of a Beatnik

by Diane di Prima
(1969)
   Diane di Prima has often called Memoirs of a Beatnik a “pot-boiler.” As fictionalized autobiography, Memoirs of a Beatnik is a mixture of life writing and erotic fiction through which di Prima explores life as bohemian poet and sexual adventurer in the cold-war 1950s. It was published in 1969 by Olympia Press—The Traveler’s Companion, Inc., reissued in 1988 by Last Gap Press, and reprinted in 1998 by Penguin Books.
   Although di Prima began her vocation as a poet long before meeting jack kerouac, allen ginsberg, and gregory corso, Memoirs of a Beatnik illustrates how her literary proclivities and her bohemian lifestyle situated her within the Beat Generation, shaping her poetic voice to become an important representation of Beat politics and aesthetics as well as an essential female perspective in this heavily male-dominated movement. Many readers have initially turned to Memoirs of a Beatnik, which has sold more than any of di Prima’s books, to gather primary historical material about the core male Beat figures and the Greenwich Village milieu. In this respect, Memoirs of a Beatnik, organized according to the movement of the seasons from 1953 through 1956, provides a valuable historical function. A reader can hear the authentic voices of Kerouac and Ginsberg discussing poetry and can find fascinating descriptions of the Village bar scene, lofts, and pads—Beat Bohemia in all its elegance and poverty. More importantly, however, Memoirs of a Beatnik speaks strongly for the rights of women to practice their art with the same freedom as men. Di Prima’s discussion of the “Rule of Cool” that transformed women into silent bystanders explains why so many of the women artists of the movement have long remained invisible. One also learns a great deal about di Prima herself: her study habits, her reading lists, her love of poetry, her correspondence and visit with Ezra Pound who was then at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the composition of her first collection of poems, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards. The book also records her memories of the significance of first reading Ginsberg’s “howl,” an experience through which she came to find her Beat kinsfolk.
   While Memoirs of a Beatnik stands as an essential historical document of Beat culture, as a book written for hire, its original function as part of the Olympia Press offerings was to provide sexual entertainment. As such, the text is often classified as erotica. It relies on fiction to explore sexual practices and mores, and as di Prima states in the afterword to the 1988 edition, most of the sex scenes are fabrications that were written to placate her Olympia publisher, Maurice Grodias, who kept returning her drafts with the editorial comment that “more sex” was needed. Di Prima complied, and the book follows the form of standard male-focused erotic fiction by using flashbacks and dreamscapes to introduce serial sex scenes. Plot and character are subordinate to long scenes of explicit sex, which feature the sexual vernacular, such as cocks, cum, prick, and fuck. A wide range of sexual acts is featured as well, including heterosexual and lesbian sex, rape, incest, and a stereotypic Beat orgy with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s lover. Ironically, this last scene is for many readers the least convincing sex scene in the book. The self that di Prima created, then, exists as a sex object and a male fantasy. For instance, the lesbian scenes act to trigger male sexual arousal, and the rape and incest scenes use the abuse of the female body for male sexual gratification, particularly as di Prima’s fictive persona at one point persuades herself that she enjoys the violation. As a feminist, however, di Prima used the book to critique the angel/whore image of women that characterizes much Beat literature authored by men. Many of the sex stories, while ratifying male power, also suggest that women can assert their sexual identity in ways that defy male power. Di Prima uses literary devices to reject the cultural mandate that a woman is defined in her relationship to a man. For instance, she refers to most of the males in the book by their first names only, thus stripping them of patriarchal heritage and their fuller identities as individuals. As narrator, she leaves whatever man she is with whenever she wants. She also concludes the memoir with what might be the most radical Beat scene ever written: a reversal of the masculine pattern of men on the road and women at home. Happily realizing that she is pregnant, the unmarried di Prima watches her lover leave for the day; then she serenely packs her books and prepares herself to head out with her unborn child into the unknown future.
   It is also important to understand that Memoirs of a Beatnik subverts not only stereotypic portraits of women and Beat writers but also subverts expectations of nonfiction prose. Most explicitly, di Prima does this by using and acknowledging the use of fiction in a genre that is grounded on an implicit reader–author contract of fidelity to historical truth. She also freely breaks the narrative voice to disrupt the chronological point of view, such as her diatribe against contraception (an antipill passage that in later editions she amends with a warning not to eschew contraception in a world plagued with AIDS) and an interactive passage in which the narrator directs readers to use a blank space that is provided to list their favorite kisses. The most dramatic device is the use of two subchapters that break the erotic and historical template, making explicit the relationship between fantasy and audience. The first describes a mid-November evening during which the narrator and her friends have a hot and wild Beat sex orgy; the subsequent subchapter exposes this as myth, revealing the reality to be a freezing apartment that is void of sex and is populated with cold noses, indifference, and boredom.
   By embracing and rejecting its erotic as well as historic content, Memoirs of a Beatnik stands as an important example of the experimental drive that characterizes both Beat literature and the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, suggesting that both erotic fiction and memoir, while having a place in both myth and reality, are not the primary substance by which either Beat or woman is defined.
 Bibliography
■ di Prima, Diane. “Pieces of a Song: Diane di Prima” Interview by Tony Moffeit. Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Nancy Grace and Ronna C. Johnson, 83–106. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004.
■ Friedman, Amy L. “ ‘I say my new name’: Women Writers of the Beat Generation.” In The Beat Generation Writers, edited by A. Robert Lee, 200–216. London: Pluto, 1996.
■ Grace, Nancy M. “Snapshots, Sandpaintings, and Celluloid: Life Writing of Women of the Beat Generation.” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 141–147. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
■ Kirschenbaum, Blossom S. “Diane di Prima: Extending La Famiglia.” MELUS 14, nos. 3–4 (Fall–Winter 1987): 53–67.
■ Libby, Anthony. “Diane di Prima: ‘Nothing Is Lost; It Shines In Our Eyes.’ ” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 45–68. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
■ McNeil, Helen. “The Archaeology of Gender in the Beat Movement.” In The Beat Generation Writers, edited by A. Robert Lee, 178–199. London: Pluto, 1996.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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