Mania: the Lives, Literature, and Law of the Beats Foreword

Publication year2013
CitationVol. 37 No. 01



Mania: The Lives, Literature, and Law of the Beats Foreword

Ronald K.L. Collins(fn*) & David M. Skover (fn*)

The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live.

- Jack Kerouac

Contrary to popular opinion, the 1960s really began in '50s. Before there was Bob Dylan, there was Allen Ginsberg. Before there was Ken Kesey, there was Jack Kerouac. Before there were the hippies, there were the Beats.

The Beats introduced the counter-culture to twentieth century America. They were the first to break away from Eisenhower conformity, from the era of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. With them came an infusion of rebel spirit-a spirit that hearkened back to Walt Whitman- in their lives, literature, and law.

Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution (Top Five Books, 2013) focuses on the apprentice years of the major Beat writers from 1944 to 1957-the years in which they experimented with drink, drugs, sex, and jazz, and succeeded in weaving the madness of their lives into the majesty of their literature. They created some of the twentieth century's most enduring literary and poetic works, bringing their countercultural ethos into the mainstream and becoming stars in the process.

Moreover, their literature spawned a remarkable chapter in American obscenity law. The prosecution of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem, Howl, was the last of its kind in this nation; and the prosecution of William Burroughs's Naked Lunch is one of the last times that a novel was charged as obscene. The First Amendment victory in the Howl obscenity case further secured the freedom of Beat poets and authors to write their life experiences into literature using the vernacular and vulgarity of their times. Mania recounts in colorful detail the histories of the government's attempts to ban those creative works.

Although extensively researched and documented, Mania is a narrative telling of the Beat story as it was lived-uninhibited, unapologetic, and unpredictable. Their reality was very much informed by criminals, drug addicts, sexual deviants, and other free-spirited types. That reality could also be very cruel when it came to the lesser lights in their lives, particularly the women in their inner circle. The world of the major Beats was unquestionably male-centered, and the women with whom they consorted were never the prime movers of their destinies. Along the way, some of those people were killed, some committed suicide, some were institutionalized, some went bankrupt, and some were just made miserable. Unlike other Beat biographies, Mania bluntly portrays these cruel and reckless antics, yet its account neither condemns nor glorifies the wild excesses of the Beats.

Four key Beat figures drive the narrative. First and foremost, there is Allen Ginsberg, who penned utopian and dystopian poetic visions of life. His most significant contribution, of course, was his 1956 epic poem, Howl, which was unorthodox in its style, its substance, and its cultural message. Stylistically, the poem broke away from rhymed verse and took its expressive cue from freewheeling jazz. Substantively, it introduced themes that were overtly political, psychological, and sexual-and did so with striking candor and vulgarity. Culturally, it traded in taboos: nothing was off the table, whether the violence of war, the brutality of bigotry, or the exaltation of homosexuality.

Second, of course, is Jack Kerouac, who offered his readers a literary roadmap for how to live. His 1957 novel, On the Road (with millions of copies sold in at least thirty foreign translations) presented a new vision of America that broke away from the stifling norms of the post-World War II years. It counseled us to look inward (and discover ourselves) and then move outward (and experience life, literally on the road).

The next central player is William Burroughs, a master of literary realism. The Harvard-educated scion of a famous and wealthy family, he was nonetheless obsessively drawn to the seedy, gritty, and criminal side of life. His first novel, Junky (1953), graphically depicted the horrific existence of drug addicts, and his second, Naked Lunch (1959), showcased what Burroughs called "the most horrible things I can think of," revealing the agonies of drug hallucinations and the depravities of sexual deviancy.

Finally, there is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet-publisher and the First Amendment hero of our work. Of all of our subjects, Ferlinghetti is the only one who was truly not maniacal. He foresaw the extraordinary potential of Ginsberg's Howl as early as 1955; transformed that potential into reality by publishing the poem; sold the poem in his now-celebrated bookstore, City Lights; and successfully defended the poem with a glorious First Amendment victory when he was prosecuted in the 1957 Howl obscenity trial.

The publication of Mania was celebrated by a full-day Symposium, sponsored by Seattle University School of Law on April 5, 2013. The morning panel, titled "Weaving Lives into Literature," explored the literary side of Mania. After introductory comments by Ronald Collins, three distinguished scholars spoke on the contemporary importance of the Beats (Matt Theado, one of America's most famous Beat scholars), the roles and ruins of the Beat women (Jean Stefancic, a noted writer on law reform, social change, and legal scholarship), and the Beats as the romanticized prototype of reckless male youth (Richard Delgado, the extraordinarily prolific authority on racial justice in America and a recognized figure within the Law & Literature movement). The afternoon panel, "The Law of How l ," examined the legal side of Mania. After David Skover introduced this topic, two remarkable presenters spoke about the vicissitudes and victories of poetry on trial (Albert Bendich, who was co-counsel for the defense in the Howl trial, People v. Ferlinghetti) and the continuing censorship of Howl and other works under broadcast indecency regulations (Nadine Strossen, the immediate past president of the American Civil Liberties Union). Their illuminating remarks follow, along with more complete biographical information on them.

We are very fortunate-as are all Beat enthusiasts-to have the printed record of this extraordinary event preserved in the pages of this Symposium issue. Our gratitude goes to Dean Annette Clark, the faculty and staff of the Seattle University School of Law, the board and members of the Seattle University Law Review -and, of course, our eloquent colleagues and friends whose erudite presentations contributed to a much fuller understanding of the literary and legal significance of the Beats.


"Mania is a stunning and chilling portrait of rebellious youth gone mad. The story descends into a nether world of heroes and anti-heroes, killers and creators, junkies and geniuses. Collins and Skover, through a thrilling narrative and unprecedented research, reveal how a misfit band of brothers, dreamers, and vagabonds broke old ties, abandoned families, and lived by their own rules to concoct an ecstatic and uninhibited vision of literary modernism. From the macabre killing that opens the book to the grand free speech victory at its climax, Mania is both a celebratory and cautionary tale of American revolt. A remarkable achievement!"

-- James L. Swanson, N.Y. Times best-selling author of Bloody Crimes and Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer .

"Collins and Skover have worked extensively through the available re-sources that detail the true stories they bring to literary life. In fact, they have put together the most comprehensively researched account that I have seen of the apprentice years of the Beat writers. Their book will become the go-to account of the composition of their key works, the ground-breaking legal issues that resulted, and their continuing cultural aftermath."

-- Professor Matt Theado, author of Understanding Jack Kerouac and The Beats, and keynote speaker at the 2007 Kerouac Conference.

"This book makes an important and lively contribution to the literature. The authors' narrative is unique and their amazing attention to detail illuminates many dark areas in Beat history. Mania also solidifies the importance of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," not only for 20th-century poetry but for its impact on America's political, cultural, and legal climate as well. A book long overdue."

-- Paul Maher, author of Jack Kerouac's American Journey and Kerouac: His Life & Work and editor of Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac .

"The scope and depth of the research in this book is most impressive as is the quality of analysis and understanding of the main issues. Responsibly scholarly, Collins and Skover's engaging book reveals a full appreciation of their subject."

-- Al Bendich, ACLU attorney acting as co-counsel for Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1957 "Howl" trial.

"Mania is the most detailed, accurate documentation I have so far encountered of the roots and early development of the Beat Generation. Presented in a gripping, easily-readable writing style, the book breaks new ground in its well-documented explanation of the lives and motivations of all the main characters involved in this cultural and literary revolution. Mania makes...

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