Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Beats return to Wyoming and Colorado

Jack Kerouac was born in 1922, the year before my father, Tom Shay, arrived on the planet. They couldn’t have been less alike, although they might have shared an interesting conversation about Catholicism (said Kerouac: "I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic") during one of Jack’s forays to Denver, my father’s hometown. Who knows? Maybe they ran into each other during Jack’s first trip to Denver in the summer of 1947. My father a college student on the G.I. Bill, rolling around downtown with his buddies, making up for lost time. Jack bumping into Tom at some watering hole and saying, "Excuse me, pal, but I’m on the road and in a hurry." My father replying: "What’s the rush, future famous writer?"

Kerouac was always in a hurry, flinging himself from place to place. He documented everything, a writer always taking notes as the world flew by. He sojourned to most states in the West, even lived in Denver for a time with his mother, sister and brother-in-law. A good boy, Jack was, always trying to take care of his mother but usually hitting her up for cash. He was a reckless and irresponsible young man. He treated his women badly, drank too much, and jumped from job to job. My father would not have approved. Kerouac’s life during the formative years of his writing career is explored in the book, "Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road" (Thunder's Mouth Press) by Paul Maher Jr. I’m reading it now, and it traces the writer’s physical journey and his development as a writer.

Kerouac left us with all this great writing. And he documented an era in American letters that is now legendary. The Beats. So famous now that we don’t even need their first names: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. You can find them all in the canon of university English departments. And then there’s the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, which celebrates The Beat Era with a conference each summer.

Who would have though that Denver would be a way station on the Beatnik Highway? The Queen City of the Plains, an overgrown cowtown, just a distant smudge on the horizon when viewed from Greenwich Village or from North Beach? But it was Neal Cassady’s town, which was what drew the writers, smitten with this wild son of a drunk who grew up on Larimer Street’s skid row. Cassady was kind of a symbol of Denver’s wild side, the town that started as a gold camp (without the gold) and then a raucous pioneer town with a heady supply of bars and brothels. During the 1940s and '50s, the city had a lively jazz scene.

The Beat history of Colorado and Wyoming is being explored this summer when the Wyoming Humanities Council presents "On the Road: 50 Years of the Beatniks." It includes a book discussion series focusing on Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. There also will be a poetry slam tour of Casper, Cheyenne and Lusk conducted by UW poet and professor Craig Arnold, and a bus trip on June 22 to visit beat locales in Denver. Host sites also will screen B movies from the era. Jenny Ingram at the WCH points out that "the beatniks belong to the history of our region. Thirty pages into ‘On the Road,’ Jack Kerouac visits Cheyenne Frontier Days." In the book, CFD gets a different name. Says Montana Slim: "Hells Bells! It’s Wild West Week!"

The Humanities Council's summer programs are free and open to the public. They are sponsored by the We the People initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more info about the schedule, contact Ingram at jingram@uwyo.edu or visit www.uwyo.edu/humanities.

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