Sunday, September 18, 2011
Sam and Ann Charters on John Clellon Holmes, Novelist and Great Beat Observer
In a booze-soaked conversation in New York City in 1948, two aspiring novelists named Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes brainstormed the term “Beat Generation” for their small group of disaffected misfits, youths and writers. Holmes went on to write “Go,” a book that many see as the first Beat novel, while Kerouac eventually published “On the Road,” an autobiographical fiction that changed American literature and launched a new generation of rebels.
In their euphoric and brutal new biography “Brother Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation”(University Press of Mississippi, $35), Beat biographers Ann and Samuel Charters explore the intimate friendship and parallel lives of the two novelists. For three years, the two men met every day to drink and fight over literature. By the 1960s, both men had descended into full-throttle alcoholism, and were on the long road to drinking themselves to death. In “Brother Souls,” the Charters have restored John Clellon Holmes to his role as the great observer and commentator on the Beat Generation.
Ann Charters, 74, has written and edited numerous books on the Beats. Her husband Samuel Charters, 81, is a renowned music historian. They gave a joint telephone interview to freelance writer Dylan Foley from their home in Storrs, Connecticut.
Q. Why did you decide to write this book as a biography of Holmes and Kerouac’s friendship?
A.(Ann Charters): We were first going to write a book about John, but I talked to my editor at Penguin and he said that there would never be any interest by a commercial publisher in a book on John Clellon Holmes. Sam and I had done a rough draft by then, and thought maybe we should make it a double biography. Writing a book about John and Jack’s friendship seemed to be the most important thing we could do for John, to stress the place he had in their friendship and to show that there was a way to write about Kerouac as a writer, and not just his personality.
(Brother-Souls by Ann and Samuel Charters)
Q. From 1948 to 1951, Kerouac and Holmes were together almost every day in New York, fighting and talking about writing. How did this work?
A. (Ann Charters): They were temperamentally so different, but they had this strange spiritual affinity. John really need Jack’s energy and his spontaneous responses. With Jack, what he wanted from John was to talk about writing, about prose, plot and characters, and the social scene they were both in.
(Sam Charters): These were two men with very strong egos, but they did not let their egos interfere with what they were trying to find together as writers.
Q. What was Holmes’ role as an observer and commentator on the Beats in the 1940s and 1950s?
A.(Ann Charters): John was rational and disengaged in an interesting way. and this was something that Kerouac and the others recognized. The Beats were really crazy. John, on the other hand, wasn’t involved in exotic drugs and he wasn’t gay. For John, unfortunately, alcohol was his drug of choice.
Q. Both Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes had horrible descents into alcoholism. Holmes and his wife Shirley also went through a brutal period of sexual experimentation. Was this difficult to write about?
A. (Sam Charters): Their alcoholism and Holmes’ sexual self-destructiveness was very hard for me to deal with emotionally. You are always exposed when you are writing. You are really on the edge. I had to go to the hospital twice for pure, raw stress, to deal with these things I found so disturbing. I would turn on the computer and feel nauseous, because I knew it was going to be hell, pure hell.
(Ann Charters): We wouldn’t have written about John’s sexual compulsions if he hadn’t prepared his journals for publication. We couldn’t just skip it. I don’t think John ever felt much guilt over goading his wife into sexual experimentation.
(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2011)