The Portable Beat Reader Characters

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The Portable Beat Reader Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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Neal Cassadyappears in Parts 1, 2, and 5

Neal Cassady is the most important of all the Beats because he is the inspiration for so many of the famous Beat works of literature. Most obviously, Cassady is the basis for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," but Casady appears in numerous other works. In "Howl," Allen Ginsberg refers to him as the "secret hero" of the poem, and Cassady is the major character in the excerpt from John Clellon Holmes' "Go." Although Cassady never finishes a book, he writes part of his autobiography and numerous letters. Kerouac credits the so-called "Joan Anderson" letter from Cassady for teaching him the key elements of spontaneous prose.

Cassady is born in 1926 and he is raised by his alcoholic father on the streets of Denver from the age of ten. Cassady spends most of his adolescence in and out of reform schools and jail because he frequently steals cars to pick up girls and joyride. In 1947, Cassady moves to New York City where he meets Kerouac and Ginsberg. Ginsberg and Cassady become lovers for a time, and Cassady travels across the country and into Mexico with Kerouac. Later in his life, Cassady drives the bus Furthur for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Cassady dies in 1968 of exposure after passing out next to the train tracks in the Mexican desert. In all descriptions, Cassady is portrayed as a fast talking man with almost super human driving skills and a near boundless enthusiasm for life.

Jack Kerouacappears in Parts 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and Appendix

Jack Kerouac is the best known chronicler of the Beat Generation, primarily in his book "On the Road," which documents his travels across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady. Kerouac is the author of numerous other works including "The Dharma Bums" about the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder and a slightly fictionalized biography of Neal Cassady "Visions of Cody." Kerouac is born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 and moved to New York City in 1940 to attend Columbia University.

While at Columbia, Kerouac meets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs who both encourage Kerouac in his literary endeavors. Kerouac writes ferociously throughout the 1940s but only publishes a single book—"The Town and the City"—a somewhat fictionalized account of Kerouac's own childhood in Lowell.

In 1947, Kerouac meets Neal Cassady, who serves as the inspiration for much of Kerouac's work from that point onward. Kerouac is in many ways the opposite of the talkative and self-confident Cassady. Kerouac is often withdrawn, suffers from long bouts of depression, and is awkward with women. Although Kerouac marries twice, the most important woman in his is life is undoubtedly his mother who he lives with off and on until his death.

Kerouac drinks heavily his entire adult life and suffers from severe alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver for the last decade. In 1969, Kerouac dies from a hemorrhage in his liver.

Allen Ginsbergappears in Parts 1, 3, 4, 6, and Appendix

Allen Ginsberg is the most important poet of the Beat Generation, primarily known for his poem "Howl." Ginsberg is born into a Jewish family in 1926 and grows up in Paterson, New Jersey. Ginsberg's father Louis is a poet and his mother Naomi is an active member of the Communist Party. When Ginsberg is an adolescent, his mother has a mental breakdown and is forced to live in a mental institution for several years. Ginsberg writes about the experience and living with his mentally ill mother after her death in the poem "Kaddish." Ginsberg attends Columbia University beginning in 1944, where he meets Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

In 1947, Ginsberg meets Neal Cassady and falls in love with him; the two carry on a love affair for a period of time before Cassady breaks it off. In 1948, Ginsberg experiences a vision of William Blake reading poetry to him, which convinces Ginsberg to write poetry for a living. Ginsberg moves to Berkeley, California in the early-1950s and becomes a leading voice in the San Francisco Renaissance along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Ginsberg meets Peter Orlovsky in California, and the two become lovers and remain together until Ginsberg's death.

On October 7, 1955, Ginsberg reads "Howl" for the first time at the famous Six Gallery Reading, and this establishes his reputation as the leading Beat poet. "Howl" is later banned due to its obscenity, but Ginsberg wins the trial and the charges are overturned. Although Ginsberg's poetry may seem vulgar or disgusting at times, it is almost always happy and optimistic.

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs is born in Saint Louis in 1914, heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company fortune. Burroughs attends college at Harvard and graduates in 1936. During World War II, Burroughs moves to New York City with his friend from Saint Louis Lucien Carr. In New York, Burroughs meets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Huncke, who introduces Burroughs to morphine and heroin. Burroughs is soon an opiate addict and writes his first published book, "Junky," about his experiences with the drugs.

Burroughs moves with his common law wife Joan Vollmer to Texas to raise marijuana but is arrested after police find a letter from Allen Ginsberg concerning the crop. Burroughs flees to Mexico where he accidentally kills Vollmer in a William Tell act. This forces Burroughs to flee again, this time to South America, where he spends most of his time searching for a hallucinogenic plant called Yage. His South American experiences are described in "The Yage Letters." In the early-1950s, Burroughs moves to Tangier, Morocco where he writes his most famous work "Naked Lunch" using his "cut-up" method to rearrange words into new sentences. Burroughs is by far the most cynical and pessimistic of the Beats in his writing, but he lives longer than almost any of them, dying in 1997 at age 83.

Gregory Corsoappears in Parts 1 and 6

Gregory Corso is a major Beat poet and also the basis for Jack Kerouac's romantic rival in his novel "The Subterraneans." Corso is born in 1930 in Greenwich Village and spends much of his youth in foster care and a home for juvenile delinquents after he steals a radio at 12. Corso meets Ginsberg in 1950, and Ginsberg encourages Corso in his writing. Corso publishes his first book of poems—"The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems"—in 1955. The collection includes "I Am 25," Corso's attack on older and more tradition bound poets.

Gary Snyderappears in Parts 3 and 6

Gary Snyder is one of the major poets to emerge out of the San Francisco Renaissance in the mid-1950s. Snyder is also well known for his study of Zen Buddhism, especially the Zen Buddhism of Japan where he lived for a time as a monk. Snyder is born in 1930 in San Francisco but is raised in Washington and Oregon. Snyder is an avid mountain climber and spends many summers working as a lookout on mountains across the Northwest. Snyder is immortalized as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums."

Herbert Hunckeappears in Part 1

Herbert Huncke is not primarily known as a writer but for his impact on other Beats. Huncke meets William S. Burroughs in 1944 and introduces him to heroin and the New York City underworld. Burroughs sees Huncke as the original hipster and something of an inverse role-model. Burroughs introduces Huncke to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who both encourage Huncke to write. Huncke's stories focus on the strange people Huncke meets in his experience using drugs, going to jail, trying to quit in rehabilitation, etc. Kerouac credits Huncke with originating the term "beat" as the Beats use it.

John Clellon Holmesappears in Part 1 and Appendix

John Clellon Holmes is the author of the of the 1952 book "Go" that chronicles the lives of many of the New York Beats including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, and Holmes himself. Before the publication of Kerouac's "On the Road," Holmes is considered the primary voice of the Beat Generation. Holmes claims that his own writing is not about trying to capture an entire generation but attempting to work through his own shortcomings. However, Holmes still sees the Beat Generation as a positive force in history.

Lawrence Ferlinghettiappears in Parts 3 and 6

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance and the founder of City Lights bookstore in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. City Lights is the primary outlet for Beat authors in the 1950s and 1960s, and it publishes Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1957. Ferlinghetti is brought to trial on obscenity charges for publishing the poem in 1957 but is found not guilty when the poem is determined not to be obscene. Ferlinghetti's own poetry often centers on his left wing politics.

Michael McClureappears in Parts 3, 5, and 6

McClure is a San Francisco Renaissance poet, and his poems are typically about nature and psychedelic drug experiences. McClure also writes one of the more famous accounts of the Six Gallery reading. McClure publishes his autobiography as a novel entitled "The Mad Cub" in 1970, and is disappointed that the book is marketed as the misadventures of a very foolish person.

Kenneth Rexrothappears in Part 3

Kenneth Rexroth is a San Francisco poet from the generation before the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth is instrumental in spotting the talented young poets that would eventually lead the renaissance, however. Rexroth's poetry is often very political, reflecting his anarchist beliefs.

Carl Solomonappears in Part 1

Carl Solomon is a minor Beat writer but is a major influence on Allen Ginsberg. Solomon meets Ginsberg in an insane asylum where they are both voluntary patients, and the two of them become quick friends. Ginsberg devotes "Howl" to Solomon and refers to him repeatedly in the third section of the poem.

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