Thursday, March 31, 2005

Interviews and the Question of Oppression

Some of the critical literature portrays Beat women as oppressed by Beat men, such as this by Alix Kates Shulman (“Women Writers in the Beat Generation,” Moody Street Irregulars 28; Fall 1994):

“Young Fifties women fleeing to bohemia to live as rebels and hoping as much as the men to escape sexual repression and stultifying convention, found themselves unsuspectingly rushing into the arms of their enemies. At the very cultural moment when women most urgently needed the power and perspective of feminism, bohemia itself, once a refuge, turned out to be a blockhouse of misogyny.” (p.4)

I think it’s important to read interviews with Beat women because they don’t tend to view themselves as victims, even if their memoirs reveal that many Beat men had very little respect for women, treated them as helpmates, and were generally dismissive of their literary and other contributions. Beat Down to Your Soul reprints the text of a 1996 panel discussion with Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Eileen Kaufman, and Joanna McClure. Moderated by Ann Charters, the panel was held at the San Francisco Book Festival. Charters specifically asks the participants whether they view themselves as victims. Johnson’s response is typical:

“I think what a lot of younger women don’t understand is that at that time, in the late fifties, it was an enormous thing for a young woman who wasn’t married to leave home, support herself, have her own apartment, have a sex life. This was before the pill, when having sex was like Russian roulette, really. It wasn’t the moment then to try to transform relationships with men. Just to get your foot out the door into the world as an independent person was just such an enormous thing.” (p.629)

The interviews in Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers are refreshing because they focus not only on these women’s place during the fleeting 50s and 60s but their continued lives as writers, their inspiration, craft, etc. Hettie Jones turns the “victim” notion on its head when she says that she was trying in her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, to show that Beat women were the predecessors to the later women’s movement. Shulman slams the fifties for being unprogressive when it came to women, pointing out that previous decades had produced notable bohemian women such as Emma Goldman and Edna St. Vincent Millay. So it’s interesting that Diane di Prima speaks of the fifties as a time not “right for my kind of activism” (p.101) but draws a linear progression between her anarchist grandfather who was a friend of Emma Goldman’s and her own activism in the 1960s.

I’m interested to get my hands on a videorecording of a 1994 panel at New York University entitled “Women and the Beats,” featuring Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, and Jan Kerouac (Jack Kerouac’s daughter who died in 1996 of kidney disease). I wonder what light it might shed on the “victim” question.

Also, in November 1996 San Jose State University Center for Literary Arts and the literature department of UC-Santa Cruz hosted a two-day series titled "Fast Speaking Women: A Celebration of the Women of the Beat Generation." Featured participants were Anne Walman, Janine Pommy Vega, Joanne Kyger, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, and Joanna McClure. I definitely have to investigate whether there’s any documentation of this event.

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