Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Interview with Bill Morgan on "The Typewriter is Holy"

(Bill Morgan)

In his new book “The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation” (Free Press, 320 pp., $28), the editor and archivist Bill Morgan has written a fast-paced, rollicking story of the Beat writers, from the meeting of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University in the mid-1940s to Ginsberg’s publication of “Howl” in San Francisco in 1956 and the death of Kerouac in 1969.

Morgan, one of America’s foremost experts on the Beats, goes from the New York roots of the Beats to Ginsberg, Kerouac and their motley crews’ travels through San Francisco, Mexico, Paris and Tangier, Morocco. Morgan explores the great Beat con men — Herbert Huncke, who turned Burroughs and other Beats onto hard drugs, and Neal Cassady, the car thief who inspired Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Morgan writes about poets Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and many others, their triumphant readings, the censorship battles and the radical ideas that inspired the turmoil of the 1960s.

Morgan, 61, wrote “I Celebrate Myself,” a biography of Ginsberg, and edited the just published “Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters.” Morgan spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Bennington, Vt.

Q. How did your relationship with the Beats start?

A. I was in college in the 1960s. I was assigned to do a bibliography on a living writer. I picked the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books. My teacher wanted to publish it. I wrote Ferlinghetti with more questions. He wrote me back, saying he was too busy to answer questions, but I could come to San Francisco and he’d answer questions at the breakfast table. He introduced me to Allen Ginsberg.

When I moved to New York in the 1970s, I became Allen’s archivist until he died 20 years later.

Q. You’ve written a quick-moving, concise book on the Beats. Why did you think it was necessary?

A. I wrote it because, surprisingly, there is not an introductory text that covers the Beat Generation. There are a lot of detailed books — there must be 25 biographies of Kerouac, several Beat encyclopedias and every other kind of book, but no introductory one. I wanted to write a book that would introduce people to all the characters, then you could go and read a biography of Ferlinghetti or Gary Snyder.

Q. What was Ginsberg’s relationship with New Jersey?

A. Ginsberg was born in Newark, and that was the time that his mother started to show signs of severe mental illness. They moved to Paterson. His father taught at Paterson High School and was a local poet. He loved New Jersey and Paterson and always went back there. A service area should be named for Ginsberg on the Jersey Turnpike. There’s already one for Joyce Kilmer and one for Walt Whitman.

Q. Would it be fair to say that Ginsberg was the public-relations person for the Beat Generation?

A. I don’t think its wrong to say that, and I don’t think it’s a negative. Allen had many jobs in market research.

All his friends were writers and wanted to be published. They’d have a better chance if they worked together as the Beat Generation. He tried to push all his friends into heaven at once, and maybe to too great an extent. People started focusing on the Beat Generation and lost track of the individuals. They were a group of friends more than a literary movement. The friendships were cemented by Ginsberg.

Q. Toward the end of your book, by the 1980s, the elderly Beats slide into respectability and acceptance, and even academic jobs. What happened?

A. As they got older, health insurance became important. Most of them never sold out. They still held the radical beliefs that got them in trouble in the first place. After the 1960s, it was American society that changed to be more accepting of the Beats.

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger, July 2010)

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