Go

by John Clellon Holmes
(1952)
   This first novel by John Clellon Holmes is also the first “Beat” novel ever published, a roman à clef with portraits of some of the most important Beats before they became famous in the mid-1950s. It introduced the label “Beat Generation” to readers. Rather than spontaneous sketches, Go delivers well-crafted portraits of jack kerouac (Gene Pasternak), allen ginsberg (David Stofsky), neal cassady (Hart Kennedy), and herbert huncke (Albert Ancke) as struggling artists and visionaries. Holmes portrays himself as Paul Hobbes, the Beat legend Bill Cannastra as Bill Agatson, and William S. Burroughs (offstage) as Will Dennison. The portrayal of Ginsberg is particularly interesting when examined alongside the poem “howl,” which depicts many of the same events found in Go. The novel was originally entitled “The Daybreak Boys,” the name of a 19th century New York gang, and was composed from 1949 to 1951. Gilbert Millstein, who would later write the famous review of Kerouac’s on tHe road that appeared in the New York Times, also praised Holmes’s novel in the Times, but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success and was more or less forgotten until the emergence of the Beats as a significant artistic movement.
   However, Millstein’s reading of the book prompted him to ask Holmes to define a word that was frequently used in the book—beat. Holmes’s “This is the Beat Generation,” first published in the New York Times Magazine on November 16, 1952, marks the first definition of the Beat Generation. In the article, Holmes credits Jack Kerouac for coming up with the label. Still, Go saw print long before Kerouac’s On the Road. Therefore, as Seymour Krim writes in his afterword for the republished edition of Go, “We’ve got to revise our opinions—the print assault of the Beat Generation was a joint charge, and John Clellon Holmes and his Go was every bit as important to commandeering the bourgeois printing presses as Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen G.’s [Ginsberg’s] Howl.” Holmes even suggested that the completion of Go was partially responsible for Kerouac’s On the Road: “Jack read Go over the two years during which I wrote it, two years during which he was unsuccessfully trying to get On the Road on the road, and it was after he finished reading my first draft in early March of 1951 that he began what would be the final, twenty-day version of his own book, completed in late April of that year. I don’t mean to suggest any influential connection between the two books (they rarely overlap in their material), but only to say that perhaps my rather darker view of ‘beat experience’ was a view he couldn’t share-that he found alien to his own perception—and that these objections may have provided him a needed impetus.” While On the Road is often characterized by naïveté, Go is cautious not to romanticize Beat indulgences. As James Atlas writes, “[W]hat distinguishes Go from Kerouac’s own hectic testimony is its sobriety.”
   The first part of the novel is called “The Days of Visitation” and begins with Gene Pasternak waking up at five in the afternoon in the Manhattan apartment of Paul and Kathryn Hobbes. The highly excited poet Stofsky bursts in on Hobbes and Pasternak, who are discussing Pasternak’s gloom about the fate of his unpublished novel (Kerouac’s The town and tHe city). Stofsky’s party in this section is based on Ginsberg’s 1948 July 4th party at his apartment in East Harlem. Kerouac first met Holmes at this party, and this party introduced Holmes to other Beats as well. Though he often focuses on his relationship with his first wife Marian (Kathryn in the novel), for much of Go, it is the relationships with Beat friends that drive the novel forward. Hobbes (whose name reflects his strongly rational approach to life) describes the Beat characters he meets through Pasternak and Stofsky as having a “thirsty avidity for raw experience” that distinguishes them from the typical intellectuals who are more interested in judging others than in actually living. Readers of Go generally find Stofsky to be the most interesting character in the book, and several scenes are devoted to him. In an early scene, Stofsky, acting like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel (Holmes says Dostoyevsky was a primary influence on Go), comes to Hobbes’s apartment to announce that he believes in God. He has come to this realization from reading William Blake’s poetry. Stofsky’s observation that “all systems are just mirrors” reflects the title of a collection of early poems by Ginsberg, Empty Mirror (1961). Later that evening, Hobbes finds himself in Agatson’s neighborhood and drops in on him at his loft. Holmes’s description of Agatson at home in his loft is the best account we have of the self-destructive Bill Cannastra’s lifestyle. Cannastra was one of Tennessee Williams’s lovers in the mid-1940s, and his wild behavior was notorious. Kathryn and Hobbes’s discussion of sex and infidelity in this section should be looked at in the light of the Kinsey sex survey-which revealed in frank terms the true sexual behavior of Americans behind closed doors—and Wilhelm Reich’s belief that orgasms were a healthy way of relieving stress and anxiety. As Hobbes says, justifying his wife’s hypothetical infidelity, “It would be better than frustration.”
   The second part of the book is called “Children in the Markets,” and as the title suggests it reveals the Beats as lost children in the overwhelming city. At a marijuana party, both Hobbes and Kathryn end up with other people. Kathryn goes off with Pasternak—although Holmes later said that an affair between Kerouac and his wife never happened. Twenty-five years after the book was published, he realized on rereading it that the Kathryn/Pasternak affair was his way of justifying his own adulterous relations in his first marriage-which, in the novel, are rendered only as a Platonic pen-pal relationship. Homosexuality is discussed somewhat more openly than infidelity. Stofsky’s description of his father’s repulsion over his confession that he is homosexual is an accurate portrayal of Louis Ginsberg’s reaction to his son’s similar confession: His father assumed that Ginsberg meant that he was a pederast.
   Hart Kennedy’s arrival is a highlight in this section. Kennedy gives the book its title as he sways to jazz music urging, “Go!” The Beats cruise Times Square looking for Ancke to buy some marijuana. Kennedy shares his philosophy that “Life is Holy” and, in general, sounds remarkably like Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s depiction of Neal Cassady in On the Road. Holmes stresses what Kerouac only suggests by showing Pasternak imitating Kennedy’s behavior and adopting Kennedy’s philosophy of life. Holmes also provides the most detailed account of Cassady’s brief stay in New York at the end of 1948 and beginning of 1949, before he went back out on the road to visit Burroughs in New Orleans. The party described in this section was based on a New Year’s Eve party thrown by Ginsberg. Kennedy’s ecstatic reaction to jazz at an after-hours club can be compared to Kerouac’s similar descriptions in On the Road. Both Kerouac and Holmes wished to write novels about jazz, and Holmes ended up actually writing The Horn.
   In Go, Hobbes listens with interest to Kennedy’s philosophy, but Kennedy’s moral relativism does not appeal to Hobbes’s strong sense of morality. Later, Stofsky accuses Hobbes of being a “liberal” in the sense that Columbia professor Lionel Trilling uses the term in The Liberal Imagination: someone who values important ideas more than men. Another chapter centering on morality concerns Ancke’s theft of some valuable books owned by a friend of Stofsky’s from Columbia. Kathryn, observing how Kennedy lives off Dinah’s salary says, “That’s the beat generation for you!” Holmes also provides an interesting description of how Kennedy survived in New York by shoplifting food. There is a particularly unflattering scene when Kennedy gets into a fight with Dinah and hits her in the face—in the process breaking his thumb, just as Neal Cassady broke his thumb in a fight with Luanne Henderson in San Francisco. Such scenes reveal that Holmes was not afraid to be critical of the Beats in this novel and seldom romanticized their actions.
   Holmes’s novel—once the identities of the real-life characters is decoded—is thus an invaluable account of the complicated relationships among the Beats. It is a fascinating account of the Beats’ experiments with alternative lifestyles. After sleeping with Kathryn, Pasternak goes “on the road” with Kennedy to visit Dennison. Kathryn visits her mother, and Hobbes, stung by his wife’s recent infidelity (in spite of his professed immunity to such feelings), tries to pay her back by having sex with a woman named Estelle. They party at the Go Hole, and Holmes, a very astute cultural observer, captures the moment when “hot” jazz gave way to a “cool” attitude. Kerouac describes a similar change in the underground atmosphere in The suBterraneans. Hobbes is impotent with Estelle, and after Kathryn discovers some love letters to another woman, she threatens to leave him. The third and final section of Go is called “Hell,” which reflects where Hobbes feels the antics of the Beats are leading. A key subplot of this section involves Stofsky allowing a group of criminals to stash stolen goods in his apartment. (In real life, and under similar circumstances, Ginsberg was arrested for possession of stolen goods.) Holmes’s account of Ginsberg’s arrest was the only such literary account available to his friends in 1952, for Ginsberg was institutionalized and subsequently “reformed” for a time. carolyn cassady remembers reading Go and learning the details of what happened. Huncke’s account of the events can be found in The eveninG sun turned crimson. Stofsky’s dream of talking with God is reflected in poems from this time, which are filled with his yearning to actually see and know God. This desire is still present in later poems where the desire is occasionally somewhat fulfilled.
   When Pasternak returns from San Francisco, another key moment in Beat history is depicted. Kerouac’s novel The Town and the City was accepted for publication on the very same day that Holmes’s first novel (still unpublished) was rejected. As Holmes says, “The day when Pasternak’s novel is accepted and Hobbes’ is rejected happened precisely as it is reported here—one of the odd coincidences that characterized my friendship with Kerouac.” Ironically, Kerouac’s enthusiasm about actually being able to make a living as a writer would be reversed by the time Go appeared in print in 1952. By then, Kerouac had three books rejected for publication (including On the Road) and would not be in print again for another five years. In yet another party description, Hobbes, Pasternak, and Kathryn go to Agatson’s loft to celebrate his self-proclaimed last birthday. Agatson’s self-destructive antics match eyewitness accounts of Cannastra’s behavior. A phone call interrupts the party, and they learn that Stofsky and the others have been arrested. Agatson does not care and takes to the street in search of more beer. Holmes’s detailed description of the car wreck that led to the arrest of Ginsberg and Huncke might have come from Ginsberg himself or, perhaps, from a copy of the account of those events that Ginsberg wrote for his lawyer. As Holmes portrays Stofsky here, he is beginning to wonder whether or not Ancke, Winnie, and Little Rock were really the types Blake had in mind when he valorized the “naked and outcast.” Holmes shrewdly locates Stofsky’s motivation for associating with these criminals in his desperate need for love that his own mother was never able to give him (see “Kaddish,” by Ginsberg). In the end, it appears that Stofsky was destined to go through his masochistic punishment.
   Ginsberg may well have courted such a disaster: As he told Tom Clark in the Paris Review interview, his Blake vision instructed him to pass through “the Gates of Wrath” (in Blake’s poem “Morning”) to come out the other side into a higher state of consciousness. His arrest and subsequent trial and institutionalization were those “gates.” If the novel truly reflects reality, Holmes might have got the story of the arrest from Ginsberg while he was on parole awaiting trial. Stofsky tells Hobbes that the newspaper accounts of his adventure were inaccurate; accounts of the Ginsberg fiasco were printed in the April 23 edition of several New York newspapers, including the Daily Mirror, Herald Tribune, World-Telegram, New York Times, and Daily News. Lionel Trilling, called Bernard here, is the Columbia professor who agreed to write Ginsberg a character letter. Stofsky says the conditions of writing such a letter were that he swear allegiance to “society”-the liberal society that Trilling described in his famous book, The Liberal Imagination. Hobbes’s reaction is one of horror: Stofsky is being strongarmed into renouncing his own beliefs by a member of the so-called intellectual establishment. Burroughs’s reaction to these events was similar. “Howl,” written seven years later, can be seen as a repudiation of the “society” Trilling forced Ginsberg to join.
   The novel ends with a depiction of one of the key events in the early history of the Beats—the death of Bill Cannastra. As Pasternak says in the novel, he had been with Agatson the night before until they were thrown out of a bar for fighting. In fact, Kerouac, Lucien Carr, and Cannastra were involved in a bar fight on October 12, 1950. Kerouac lost track of the drunken group later that night, but Carr and Cannastra continued drinking until early the next morning. They ran out of money and decided to take the subway to Carr’s apartment. As the subway train began to move, Cannastra thought he saw a friend on the platform and he impulsively stuck his head (and most of his body) out of the train’s window. He realized too late that he was stuck and yelled for help, but his head was smashed against a subway pillar and his body was dragged beneath the train. Cannastra’s death was a shock and a warning. As Ginsberg wrote to Cassady, “Everybody . . . got all big theories and week-long drunks, everybody’s pride was beaten for a week. As in Greek tragedy, the purging of pity and terror.” Go is the only Beat work to feature Cannastra as a central character.
   In Go, Hobbes struggles to make sense of Agatson’s death, seeing in Agatson a “hopelessness” that could only lead to an ironic view of the world and thus to violence and self-destruction. His life (and death) reveals a “faithlessness” and spiritual poverty that Hobbes sees in all of the Beats to a greater or lesser degree. Agatson’s death thus characterizes the early Beats as existentialists to a greater degree than Holmes would admit in his subsequent article about the Beats, “This is the Beat Generation,” in which he claims Beat has a strong spiritual dimension and is not a nihilistic or existential philosophy. This is in fact true to the extent that Hobbes himself is no existentialist at the end of the novel. He renounces “the death of hope,” and on the ferry ride back to the city, he comforts Kathryn and looks into the distance for a “home” he cannot quite see.
   Rob Johnson and Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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