Thursday, May 11, 2006
Author Steve Edington Sees “The Beat Face of God.”
Steve Edington is the author of “The Beat Face of God,” a book that explores the spiritual aspects of the “Beat” generation of writers who emerged on the American literary landscape in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Among the poets and writers in this rebel group of writers were Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few. Edington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and “Beat” Generation Scholar, argues that these writers were religious, but not in the conventional sense. I spoke with Edington on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: You are a minister. How does being a religious leader fit with your love of “Beat” literature that often glorifies drugs, promiscuity, and things not usually associated with the religious life?
Steve Edington: Writing the book was a way to bring together two of the worlds I move around in. Unitarian Universalist is a very liberal form of Protestantism. My other interest was with the “Beats” that I had since I was in theological school in the 1960’s. The way I saw them coming together is a theme in the book. A colleague of mine offered this thought and definition of the nature of religion: “It’s our human response to the reality of being alive and knowing we will die.” It is a way we find meaning and purpose in death and life in the face of our mortality. I really took a look at the writing of the “Beats,” and decided this is what they were really trying to do. This was beyond some of the more self-destructive behaviors that they were engaged in. Jack Kerouac said that the “Beat” generation was a religious generation. When Kerouac was on the “Steve Allen Show” and was asked why he wrote: “On The Road,” he said: “Well, I wrote the book because we all are going to die.” This caught a lot of people off-guard. What he really meant by that harks back to the definition we discussed. There are two sides to “On the Road.” One is the America of the 1940’s, and the other is the soul of Kerouac, in the person of Sal Paradise ( a character in “On the Road”). He was trying to answer the question: “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” Kerouac said on a radio show: “I want God to show his face,” hence the title of the book.
DH: So you choose to concentrate on the positive spiritual quest of the “Beats.” You don’t advocate all the other stuff attributed to the “Beats,” like using drugs, etc…?
SE: I have a twenty-two year old son. I have tried to give him an appreciation of these people. I would not want him to live the life that some of these people lived. Interesting. He has one more year of college to go. He and his friend want to drive across country this summer. How can I say, no? He has been hearing about “On the Road,” all his life, and now he wants to do his own road trip. I would never be an advocate for these people’s self-destructive behavior. I would ask that people try to look at what they were searching for. Try to find some meaning in life. The “Beats” tried to find meaning against the backdrop of cultural conformity.
DH: Were “Beat” generation writers like Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, religious people?
SE: I would say so. Kerouac was a life-long Catholic. He was born a Catholic and he had a Catholic burial. He tried to embrace his Catholicism, later her embraced Buddhism. Kerouac was very captivated by the concept of the tortured Jesus. There was something about that suffering that really attracted him and caused him a lot of trouble.
DH: Did Ginsberg wrestle with his Judaism?
SE: Ginsberg went easier with his Judaism than Kerouac did with his Catholicism. I don’t think Ginsberg ever renounced his Judaism, he just sort of added Buddhism on to it. His poem “Kaddish” ( Kaddish being a Jewish prayer for the dead), is an incredibly moving poem. His poem “Howl,” is a walk through the demonic in search for the holy. The “Beats” they felt were walking through the demonic aspects of the society they were in. They were in the end looking for a divine dimension to life.
DH: In 1948, Jack Kerouac, the author of “On the Road,” wrote: “In America today there is a claw hanging over our brains, which must be pushed aside or else it will clutch and strangle our real selves. Is that still true today?
SE: My last chapter of my book is built around this quote. That grabbed me. I thought: "What was the claw he saw in 1948, and what is the claw right now? Some of the claws today are consumerism and anti-terrorism.
The Backdrop the “Beats,” were writing against was a country that wanted to get back to normal after the Depression and Second World War. The “Beats” were what I call “holy misfits.” They were the people that could not fit to where the culture was going at the time.
DH: Who are the “Beats” today?
SE: I find the “Beats” on a local level. I don’t know of any big names. Young poets find their own venues. Places like “Squawk” or “Stone Soup Poets.” I see the new “Beats” at mostly smaller venues like these. I can them at the poetry slams we have at the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Mass.
DH: Can you tell me about the “Scroll” that will be exhibited at the Kerouac Festival in the summer of 2007?
SE: What is referred to as the scroll is a 120 foot roll of paper that Kerouac wrote the original manuscript of “On the Road.” on. I believe that was in April of 1950. Kerouac was a “stream of consciousness” writer, and didn’t want to break his chain of thought. He could type so fast and he didn’t want to stop to change paper.
The scroll will be on display in Lowell at the “Blue Cotton Mill Museum,” in Lowell. For more information go to: http://cultureiscool.com/
DH: Who has the best archive of “Beat” literature?
SE: Stanford University has the Ginsberg archive. The New York Public Library has the Kerouac archive. Stanford paid Ginsberg a million dollars for his papers before he died.
DH: Which “Beat writer speaks to you the loudest?
SE: On the East Coast-- Kerouac. On the West Coast-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti is a businessman/poet, as he needs to be to run the “City Lights” bookstore in San Francisco. He has become the grand old man of the “Beats,” and is now in his 80’s. He is an amazing guy. He was in World War ll, and his transformation came (according to him), when he was stationed in Nagasaki shortly after the Atomic Bomb was dropped. He realized the potential destructiveness of humans. My main “Beat,” now is Ferlinghetti. His poetry is wonderful. It has a whimsical quality—but it will zap you too.
DH: Is the “Beat” body of literature best read when you are young?
SE: In a way it is. I first read ‘On the Road” when I was in my early twenties. You read it in different stages in your life and you see different things. You read it later and you see a counterpoint to the joy and excitement—an undertone of sadness and tragedy.
Kerouac picked up on this in his twenties. He was able to write on all levels.
--------------- Doug Holder