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The Beat Generation's Saddest Moment

Ah, so here it is: one of the saddest meltdowns in literary history: Jack Kerouac on William Buckley's Firing Line. And it's caught on tape forever. Bravo! Or not.

Well, anyway, most people familiar with Beat Lore know the story. Jack was incredibly drunk, acting like a buffoon and saying crazy things like the reason we were fighting the Vietnam War was so that the Vietnamese could get jeeps into their country. Kerouac was there to discuss politics, something he obviously knew nothing about. But, more importantly, it was a subject he found repellant and preferred not discussing at all. During one of the few lucid moments on the program, Kerouac explains that, to him, the Beat movement meant "beatitude," and he wasn't at all happy with what he saw as a spiritual movement being dragged into politics.

There's an especially sad moment where Kerouac points out angrily that Allen Ginsberg, by now a chubby and bearded Hippie, is sitting in the audience. Ginsberg was an important transitional figure between the Beats and the Hippies. He took the Beat spiritual ethos and tried to marry it with far-left politics. I think that for Kerouac, what this meant was that Ginsberg was betraying his own movement.

There's sadness on all levels when you watch this show, but for me the most heartbreaking thing is that for all Kerouac's blustering and stammering and idiocy, he's actually making a point, and a good one, about how his original ideas were being betrayed. To a man whose voice meant so much to him, being silenced must have been painful indeed. He would die of alcoholism a year after this show was taped.


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