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Beat Soundtrack #6: Nancy Grace
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
Nancy Grace is author of Jack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination (a Choice 100 book award winner), editor of The Beats: A Teaching Companion, and co-editor of Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, Breaking the Rule of Cool: Reading and Interviewing Women Beat Writers (a Choice 100 book award winner), and The Transnational Beat Generation. She is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Beat Studies and has also published essays on Diane di Prima, William S. Burroughs, and other Beat writers. She is also the Virginia Myers Professor of English (emerita) at The College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, USA.
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them? Do you have a favourite text, novel or poetry?
Honestly, I can’t remember when I first read On the Road, but Kerouac’s novel was my introduction to the Beats, and it still remains my favourite. I loved his voice, pure and simple – sweet, charming, naïve, honest, child-like, wise, funny, kind, daring, hope-filled, awe-struck and vulnerable. I’ve, of course, read and enjoyed many novels and poetry written by women, most especially Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, along with Beat women writers such as Hettie Jones, Janine Pommy Vega, and Diane di Prima, but it’s Kerouac’s voice that resonated most closely with my own, so I’ve long felt him to be a kindred spirit and one of great perseverance.
Later, when I was in graduate school, I realised how little critical work existed on the Beat writers, so I rather made it my mission to learn as much as I could about them and write about them. I also rather liked the fact that they were outsiders and by writing about them I was expressing the outside/outrider part of myself as well. Fortunately, I found some senior scholars who appreciated Beat writing and encouraged me to continue that work. For instance, at The Ohio State University, I wrote my dissertation on the feminised male character in twentieth-century fiction and focused on James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow and Jack Kerouac. Not one member of my committee found it odd to include Kerouac, so onward I went. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with many others of my generation who wanted to pursue that academic Beat path.
What is the relationship between the Beat writers and music? How do you think that literary scene and musical sound connect(ed)?
Certainly, with Kerouac and others, it was jazz, and a lot has been written about that, quite reasonably so. And understanding of the deep historical connection between music, poetry, and history drove Beats such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ed Sanders to link music and literature and history. I think Sanders is the one who has probably most clearly articulated that link, especially in Investigative Poetry, The Z-D Generation, and his essay in Disembodied Poetics (eds. Waldman and Schelling).
As a researcher and writer how have you been shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
This question fascinates me, since a major argument for the place of literature in education and culture in general is that it makes us better people, it teaches us to be more empathetic, more humble, to cross or mend divisive boundaries. Here, I’m thinking of Martha Nussbaum, in particular. In my own case, Beat writing has always affirmed for me the human need to pursue big questions about self, others and the universe, so I turned informally to philosophy to take on that task in my own small way. I can’t say that Beat literature ever sent me ‘on the road’, though. I’m just not that kind of traveller, although I have made it out of North America several times. But their spiritual quests, and again Kerouac is my touchstone, have encouraged me to spend time thinking. Thinking. Thinking. Coming to understand thinking as doing and the essence of being, and to explore tiny crevices of thought through whatever art forms I’m best suited. So, I’ve dabbled in poetry (I’m not a good poet, by any means), painting and fabric art. They all have led me to balance my world of words with other ways of knowing.
This connects to the Beat mantra to be kind to others, to create a community of kindness no matter how small that community may be. That can also be a most challenging mission, and we see by reading Beat literature (e.g., Kerouac (Dharma Bums), Ginsberg, Hettie Jones, Gary Snyder) that we often fail in our efforts to be kind, but that shouldn’t and often doesn’t stop us from focusing on that work. Acts of kindness are the Sartreian act of humanist connection, of becoming the other if for only a moment and thus in essence acting for and with others. It was Beat writing in general that led me to spend time with Sartre’s Existentialism as Humanism, which I still find to be one of the most important texts I’ve ever read.
Beat writing, and here I am reminded of the women writers, but also Kerouac, speaks to the necessity of finding one’s own path, no matter how difficult that may be—and it’s often extremely difficult, depending on one’s personal circumstances. They provided models for me of people who made a life as an outsider and sometimes as an insider/outsider, paid the price, but endeavoured to persevere. Whenever I return to Beat writing, I appreciate being reminded of that wisdom.
Finally, Beat writing is responsible for my interest in jazz, which I began to develop when I was writing my dissertation in the 1980s. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are the two that I still most enjoy, and all because of the Beats. In my book, Jack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination, I write extensively about JK and jazz, and I found that research to be illuminating with respect to a number of artistic media. For instance, I learned how spontaneity and improvisation, when done well, are based on deep learning and practice, much like writing, athletics, acting, etc.
Which musical artists from whichever era appear to make links with the Beat Generation – and how?
Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, of course, come to mind immediately. Jim Morrison, too, especially via Michael McClure. Nirvana. Folk connections – Arlo Guthrie (the narrative song), which we can also connect to American folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I suspect that some of Kerouac’s musicality comes from the American folk story/song tradition as well, which connects with his fondness for humour (that Duluoz persona has both a French fairy tale quality and a Mark Twain-ish naïveté). I’ve written about that as well, but there’s so much more to be done with the topic, and I trust that young scholars will pick that up for us.
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunklel, Joni Mitchell, Moody Blues, Kris Kristofferson, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, The Animals (especially ‘The House of the Rising Sun’), and Steely Dan. I also love Pure Prairie League, CCR, and a number of other bluesy folk groups. With respect to poetry as music, I adore Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking’; its soaring, melancholy lyrics are ethereal. On a different point along the musical spectrum, I’m in love with Dvorak’s New World Symphony and The Planet Suite for Large Orchestra Opus 32 by Holst. Beat connections? The lost soul, the damaged soul, the repentant soul, the fight for freedom, love of the environment, an affinity for the downtrodden, and a magnificent belief in the glory of the universe.