Thursday, April 14, 2005

Jews and Counter Culture

Has anyone ever written about the fact that many of the Beat women were Jewish? ruth weiss, Elise Cowen, Hettie (Cohen) Jones, Joyce (Glassman) Johnson. There were others, too: Liza Williams, who changed her name from Liz Lehrman and was a lover of Lucien Carr, and Ann Charters, Beat biographer.

I’m not referring here to issues of religion and spirituality. The Beats, both male and female, were affiliated most closely with Buddhism. However, it does strike me as notable that, during an era now known for its strictures around gender relations, marriage, sexuality, femininity, and domesticity, many of the women breaking the mold were Jews. This may be a reflection of class as much as of ethnicity. The Beats were, after all, mostly middle class men rebelling against a post-war materialist culture. They all flirted with working-class identities, but Neal Cassady was the only one who lived it, and it was partly for this that he was idealized by the others.

Many of the women were the same. Their families were respectable middle-class families. What strikes me as interesting is that the Jewish families, having only recently obtained their middle-class status and still living in a distinctly anti-Semitic country, had a lot more to lose with their daughters’ rebellions. And this makes their rebellions all the more profound. According to Joyce Johnson, who writes in Minor Characters of her friendship with Elise Cowen, Cowen’s parents had (at least created the semblance of) the perfect home and perfect marriage, and they felt that their daughter was the only thing sullying it. They were so appalled at the revelations of bisexuality in her poetry that they burned the majority of her manuscripts after her suicide. Hettie Cohen’s family completely disowned her when she took up with the black LeRoi Jones.

Johnson briefly touches on anti-Semitism in Minor Characters. Cowen’s work is mostly lost to us and/or unpublished, so it’s hard to say what she dealt with in her writing. Her friend, Leo Skir, is in possession of all that’s left. He lent several unpublished poems to Women of the Beat Generation, including one entitled “Teacher—Your Body My Kabbalah.” However, this poem may reflect more her obsession with Ginsberg than her own tackling of spirituality. ruth weiss stands apart from the others, being a generation older and a refugee from Germany: her family escaped Berlin in 1936 on one of the last trains to Vienna. weiss definitely writes about this experience in her poems, such as in Single Out, excerpted in Women of the Beat Generation. Hettie Jones is the only one who substantively tackles her Jewish identity, both in her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, and in her poetry. Take a look at this poem:

having an argument with him, her boyfriend, he said
when you grow up you’ll go to live in Mamaroneck
with Marjorie Morningstar
and she couldn’t envision it. When he insisted
she grew afraid—what did he know?
(Drive 13)

Ronna C. Johnson discusses this poem in Breaking the Rule of Cool: “In this recognition of the threat of white middle-class women’s suffocating fate, defined in the allusion to Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar, bohemia seems to be a sole and redemptive alternative.” (p. 31)

Jews have a long history of advocating for socialism, labor rights, anarchism. The Beats were certainly no political group, but the rebellion involved in getting there--in dropping out of college (Joyce Johnson failed her graduation from Barnard by one gym class), taking drugs, going on the road, exploring your sexuality, pursuing a literary life--meant giving up family and security and all of those things that new immigrants work so hard to obtain. Perhaps it’s simplistic to project this history onto these women, but I haven’t been able to find anything written on the subject, so I thought I’d throw it out there as a potential paper topic.

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