Authors: Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover

Publisher: Top Five Books (February 28, 2013)

ISBN: 193893802X


Over the years, I've accumulated a veritable library of books, films, and CDs by, for, and about The Beats. Beyond editions of long unpublished manuscripts like Jack Kerouac's The Sea is My Brother (2010) or the Kerouac/Burroughs And the Hippos Boiled in Their Tanks (2008), I thought everything we'd ever need to know about Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and their circles was pretty much well documented and on the record.

So what surprised me most about Mania by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover was their fresh take on the darker forces that drove the Beats from essentially being social misfits and criminals into cultural icons that spearheaded a literary movement. Appropriately, the impressionistic biography opens with Beat friend Lucien Carr stabbing David Kammerer to death, the first of a series of illegal activities that put the Beat mindset outside the norm. For example, friends of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs included junkie Herbert Huncke who introduced heroin and grand larceny to the young college gang. In addition, the hard-living Bill Cannastra and Neal Cassady were also all about pushing life to the limits with drink, sex, and drugs.

The Beats, of course, lionized and mythologized these characters as well as each other. For example, Allen Ginsberg looked at mental illness, and the associations it had with homosexuality in the late 1950s, when he dedicated his Howl to his fellow asylum inmate Carl Solomon. Of the main group, no one crossed the line harder than William Burroughs who fled to Mexico to avoid drug prosecution where he shot his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer Adams, in the forehead while playing a "William Tell" game. Legal issues spilled over into the publications of their boundary-pushing verse and novels, as in the obscenity case the government brought against Ginsberg's Howl and his publisher, fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

 In short, Collins and Skover have brought together the elements that defined the "mania" of the Beats—the acts of civil disobedience, those of social defiance, those of perceived mental illness, those of overt criminality, and those that were milestones in both literature and popular culture. Still, Collins and Skover aren't really presenting anything in their main text that is unknown by anyone who's kept up with Beat scholarship. It's how they've assembled the material to emphasize the various aspects of the "mania" that sheds new light into the decades old story.

 In many ways, both then and now, the Beats would be seen by many as outrageous reprobates who should be incarcerated or in rehab, not on the best-seller lists or taught in college classrooms. Whether you see the Beats as cultural heroes, overrated literary figures, or strange predecessors to the counter-culture of the 1960s, Mania is a well-researched study well worth the time of readers already familiar with the Beats or new generations who have yet to meet the gang that started so much.

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