Beat Generation Memorabilia: 10 Remarkable Items
The Beat Generation was the rag-tag group of writers who set off in search of alternative ways of living in the post-war America of the 1950s, fuelled by jazz, drugs and danger.
Despite their rejection of materialism, the wayward writers have left behind a trail of remarkable collectibles. Here are ten historic items that tell the story...
Allen Ginsberg – On Neal Cassidy’s Ashes – $1,250
An unpublished poem sent to a student, On Neal Cassidy’s [sic] Ashes is a heart-wrenching dirge to poet Allen Ginsberg’s first love, Neal Cassady, the author who inspired so many beat writers and those after them.
The typically personal poem was written in 1968, and is signed by Ginsberg, who has also added his drawing of Buddha’s footprint at the bottom.
William Burroughs – morphine vial - $1,320
This empty vial is a simple reminder of the vice that engulfed the life and writing of William S Burroughs – morphine. An empty bottle bearing his prescription, it was filled with dirt from his gravesite and a shell casing fired from his shotgun. A remarkable and unique collectible.
Tom Wolfe – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test - $7,200
While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest writer Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac may not have seen eye-to-eye, Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters” were the natural heirs to the Beat generation mantle.
Their adventures on the bus Furthur, driven by the Beat’s Neal Cassady, are recorded in Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which had a similar effect on the hippies of the 1960s as On the Road did on the disillusioned youth of post-war America.
This first edition was signed by almost every member of the Merry Pranksters, as well as Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey. Also adding their names are other important characters from the counterculture movement, members of bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and legendary Rolling Stone magazine editor Ben Fong-Torres, among others.
Jack Kerouac – Hermes 3000 typewriter - $22,500
Kerouac’s fierce passion for the written word led him to draw comparisons between the clacking of typewriter keys and the freeform bebop jazz with which he was infatuated. This typewriter, a manual Hermes 3000, was his last, bought in 1966 and used until his death in 1969.
Accompanying the piece was an August 1966 letter to his agent, Sterling Lord, in which he asks: “How do you like my new typewriter?” before going on to complain about his lack of money – a characteristic of his life that continued even as he found fame.
Jack Kerouac – On the Road first edition – $33,972
Like Ginsberg’s Howl, for Carl Solomon, On the Road was a seminal novel of the Beat Generation, a semi-autobiographical work charting Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s travels through small town America.
Hailed by the New York Times as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is," this inscribed copy was made out to author Kerouac by the inspiration for main character Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady, and was also signed by Allen Ginsberg.
It sold through PBA Galleries in October 2013.
Jack Kerouac - letter to Marlon Brando -**** $33,600
In 2005, Christie’s sold the personal property of Marlon Brando. Among his possessions was a bold letter from Jack Kerouac, suggesting the actor not only buy his book, On the Road, but also make a movie of it.
The author envisaged himself in the lead role, while Brando would play Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). “Visualize the beautiful shots [that] could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield,” Kerouac wrote.
Sadly, the film was never made, but the big screen adaptation of Kerouac’s great work was released in 2012, starring Kristen Steward, Garrett Hedlung and Sam Riley.
Allen Ginsberg – photographs of Kerouac, Cassidy, Orlovsky – $35,000
Allen Ginsberg took this arresting collection of photographs between 1953 and 1957, capturing three of the most important figures in the Beat generation at the height of their powers.
They were consigned to a Christie’s auction from the collection of Jerry Aronson, a filmmaker who documented Ginsberg’s life after spending more than 25 years with the Beat writers.
**Allen Ginsberg – Howl, for Carl Solomon – $118,750 **
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for Carl Solomon was the call to arms of the Beat Generation, encapsulating the restless jazz-filled lives of those included in the movement. A controversial publication on release due to draconian obscenity laws, it has come to be recognised as one of the most important poems of all time.
This copy is one of 25 that Ginsberg had specially printed for his close friends. Inscribed by Ginsberg, legendary publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Marthe Rexroth - the poet to whom it was given, who was present at Ginsberg’s first reading - it came to auction at Christie’s in December 2013.
**Jack Kerouac – The Dharma Bums scroll – $130,700 **
In 1956, Jack Kerouac took to the North Cascades National Park as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, where he would spend several months in almost complete isolation on a supposed spiritual journey.
The result was The Dharma Bums, another semi-autobiographical novel from Kerouac that serves as a precursor to the consciousness-exploring works of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey in the 1960s.
The scroll is one continuous typescript of the book, with countless revisions and notations by Kerouac, and unlike the example for On the Road (below), is in near perfect condition.
Jack Kerouac – On the Road scroll – $2.4m
The writing process of 1957's On the Road is almost as famous as its content, with Jack Kerouac holing up for three straight weeks, high on amphetamines and caffeine and typing the piece on one continuous 120-ft roll of paper.
The resulting scroll, which has sustained some damage since its creation (including being eaten by a Beat writer's dog) was sold for $2.4m in 2001 at Christie’s to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. It has since gone on to tour the world, sating the protests of those who opposed the sale.
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