Four years before Jack Kerouac published “The Town and the City,” nine years before William S. Burroughs published “Junky,” and 12 years before Allen Ginsberg published “Howl,” the founders of the Beat generation were thrust under a different spotlight—as accomplices to a murder.
In the early hours of Aug. 13, 1944, Lucien Carr, their friend and Ginsberg’s Columbia classmate, stabbed David Kammerer in Riverside Park with his Boy Scout knife, weighed him down with rocks, and dumped his body in the Hudson. Two days later, Carr turned himself in, and Kerouac and Burroughs were booked as material witnesses with bail set at $2,500.
This episode—and the year leading up to it—is the subject of a new, much-hyped film, “Kill Your Darlings,” which is now playing at the Lower East Side’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Allen Ginsberg—another effort to escape the shadow of teen wizard Harry Potter—will undoubtedly draw a large crowd. But for Columbia students, this film has a resonance outside of its casting. Though the Beats are now cemented in literary history as architects of 20th-century counterculture, in 1944, they were hardly distanced from our own collegiate experience.
The story that director John Krokidas tells is the genesis of the Beats and the coming of age of Allen Ginsberg. Yet with a single panning shot of Low Steps, the film suggests something more: Our campus was the impetus for a cultural revolution.
THE NIGHT IN QUESTION
It was the kind of crime story that news outlets love.
On the one hand, there was Carr, the young, beautiful intellectual, toting his copy of W.B. Yeats’ “A Vision” to his hearings. Indeed, Ginsberg invoked Yeats in his description of Carr: “the most angelic-looking kid I ever saw, with blond hair, pale and ‘hollow of cheek as though he drank the wind and took a mess of shadows for his meat.’” Kerouac was more blunt: Carr “is the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to.”
In contrast, Kammerer was portrayed in media coverage as a clear predator. The 35-year-old open homosexual had trailed Carr for years, beginning as his Boy Scout leader in St. Louis and possibly gifting him the same knife that reappeared one dark night in Riverside Park. It was a long road to that night, though. In the eight years after St. Louis, Kammerer followed Carr to Andover, Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago, and, finally, Columbia.
To an intensely homophobic public, the case was relatively cut and dry: Yes, Carr had killed Kammerer, but his offense was excusable. The heterosexual man had acted in self-defense. Carr pleaded and was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter, under the dated defense of an “honor-slaying.” He served only two years upstate at Elmira Correctional Facility, and he went on to have a long and industrious career as a newsman at United Press International.
But the facts of the case don’t adequately explain the circumstances of what a Spectator editorial in 1944 described as a “strange case.”
The Editorial Board wrote:
“The University community has been hit by the terrible nearness of the Lucien Carr case, and its whisperings and its terror are justifiably incoherent. Brutality, no matter what its source may be, has no place in a University. When it occurs, nobody can understand why. Columbia and Columbia College men knew Lucien Carr; he was one of us. Like the rest of the University world, we are completely mystified at what happened. We only know that there is a complexity to the background of the case that will defy ordinary police and legal investigations. The search for motive will dig deep into the more hidden areas of the intellectual world. What it will reveal may not be pleasant to the humdrum and ordinary society outside. But that the evidence derived from so strange a case will be immensely important that society will not be able to deny.”
Though the members of the Editorial Board were ostensibly referring to the question of homosexuality in foretelling the case’s impact on society, they also alluded to the impact it would have on the Beats’ literary legacy.
“It’s all out there,” Krokidas told Spectator. “It’s in every biography, but it’s usually a small paragraph or sentence. If you keep doing your research online, you can find accounts from David Kammerer’s friends saying that there’s so much more to this relationship than you can find in the books.”
As Krokidas implies, it’s a hidden story. And from a historical perspective, it was a suppressed one.
After his incarceration, Carr distanced himself from the movement he had helped to build. Ginsberg dedicated his first edition of “Howl” to Carr, who requested the dedication be removed from all subsequent editions. More significantly, he suppressed the publication of Burroughs and Kerouac’s novel centered on the murder, “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” for nearly 50 years. When a section was leaked to New York Magazine in 1976, Burroughs sued the magazine for copyright infringement to placate the angry Carr.
This lost first book of the Beat generation is a myth. In the initial writing of their film script, Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn tried to get special permission to read the book and were denied. It seemed the story was not meant to be told.
After Carr’s death in 2008, it was finally released. As James Grauerholz, bibliographer and literary executor of Burroughs’ estate, reflected in its afterword, “They are all gone away now: Dave, Jack, Allen, Bill—and Lucien, too, three years ago, in 2005 … so here are your Hippos, ready at long last to come to the boil.”
It isn’t their best work. Written a year after the murder, the book lacks the sophistication and the distinctive voices and styles of their later creations. In his review of “Hippos,” a New York Times critic caustically remarked that the best thing about the book was its gruesome title. But the book, and this moment, has significance more symbolic than literary.
“For me, at the heart of this movie is … also the drama and the conflict of what you have to go through in order to become yourself,” Krokidas said. “The fancy way of saying this is, it‘s about the emotional violence that comes with the birth of a self. For me, the murder is just a literal interpretation of that violence, of that death that needs to happen in order for one to be reborn.”
THE MAKING OF THE BEATS
Krokidas’ metaphorical interpretation of the murder isn’t far from the historical facts. The year he chose to set the film—the year of the murder—was also when his cast of characters found one another.
Central to this process was Carr. When he arrived at Columbia as a student in 1943, Kammerer followed, taking an apartment downtown in Greenwich Village. With Kammerer came Burroughs, a childhood friend from Carr’s and Kammerer’s native St. Louis. Ginsberg met Carr wandering down the hall in their dorm at Union Theological Seminary. Kerouac, the final piece of the puzzle, met Carr at the popular West End Bar (now Havana Central, stripped of its dive-y roots).
However, these people were not yet the Beats that history has come to know.
Burroughs, the oldest at 29, had finished his Harvard education. Though already an avid reader and thinker, he was not yet a writer. As Steven Watson explains in his book, “The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960,” Burroughs “was paralyzed in the act of writing,” traumatized by his own homophobia. He committed his feelings to a high school diary, but consumed by ignominy, he grew to hate the sight of his words on a page, causing a fitful writer’s block that lasted until he found his Columbia comrades.
At 21, Kerouac was perhaps the wildest: He’d dropped out of Columbia a year earlier, done a brief stint as a seaman abroad, and—as he is often quoted as saying—written half a million words.
As for Ginsberg, the 17-year-old didn’t even want to be a writer; he arrived as a first-year at Columbia in 1943 with the intention of studying law. The fresh-faced, shy student, already nicknamed “The Professor” by middle and high school classmates, was a diligent, studious pupil, eager to fit in.
Carr was the hub who bound them all together: As Ginsberg once said, “All our intelligence was in him.” Carr spun a seductive yarn, charming the would-be Beats with abstract musings on literature, sex, and art. “Know these words and you speak the Carr language: fruit, phallus, clitoris, cacoethes, feces, foetus, womb, Rimbaud,” Ginsberg joked.
But though Carr had the idea, he lacked the skill to write the words himself. Ginsberg wrote in his journal, “He [Carr] must prove that he is a genius. He cannot do so in creative labor—for he has not the patience, says he, nor the time, says he, nor the occasion, says he. None of these reasons is correct. He seems not to have the talent.”
These economically and socially disparate men came together for one central reason: because Lucien Carr convinced them that they had something to say.
ONLY AT COLUMBIA
This story isn’t just “the Columbia murder that gave birth to the Beats.” Because even if they hadn’t begun writing, the idea of the Beats, the “New Vision,” was formed before the murder took place. Though “Beat” has been defined many different ways since it was appropriated for this literary movement, its originator, Beat writer Herbert Huncke, meant it simply: “I mean beat. The world against me.”
This is where the significance of Columbia emerges. Although, as Krokidas intonates, the Beats evoke a search for meaning that’s universal among 20-somethings, it’s also a particularly “Columbian” struggle.
In the autobiographical novel “Vanity of Duluoz,” Kerouac writes of his time here: “I had the room all to myself, on the second floor, overlooking to my greatest delight, besides the Van Am Quadrangle, the library itself, the new one, with its stone frieze running around entire with the names engraved in stone forever: ‘Goethe … Voltaire … Shakespeare … Moliere … Dante.’ That was more like it. Lighting my fragrant pipe at 8 p.m., I’d open the pages of my homework, turn on station WQXR for the continual classical music, and sit there, in the golden glow of my lamp, in a sweater, sigh and say, ‘Well now I’m a collegian at last.’”
This blissful rapture, which has gripped many a pretentious Columbian since, soon turned to disillusionment, all thanks to the difficulty of reading “Homer’s Iliad in three days and then the Odyssey in three more.”
What was the Beats’ “New Vision”? It was an intellectual synthesis of everything that they didn’t find on the frieze of Butler: Yeats, Auden, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Joyce.
“It was a very rich reading list, which we were not getting in college, just the opposite of college, because college was the American Empire, and this was the decline of Empire,” Ginsberg explained in a 1995 interview. “To put it right down very much on the ground, it comes out of Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West,’ which speaks of the end of the culture and the beginning of the high civilization … the new vision assumed the death of square morality and replaced that meaning with belief in creativity.”
In positioning themselves in opposition to the Western canon, Ginsberg and Kerouac distanced themselves from their own academic background. This is hardly a controversial conclusion for a movement of rebels: Burroughs condemned his Harvard education frankly, saying later, “It didn’t mean a fucking thing.”
However, rhetoric doesn’t always match reality. The truth of the matter is that Carr and Ginsberg attended Columbia at a special point in the University’s history. With the onslaught of World War II, the faculty and student body were diminished. In a strange way, this created an unparalleled environment for people like the Beats.
“A lot of faculty got relocated during the war, particularly in engineering and the sciences,” Robert McCaughey, a Barnard professor and specialist in the University’s history, said. “But if you were of a certain age and had a family, exempt from the draft and not particularly interested in signing on with one of the civilian agencies in Washington, you would stay here.”
The war was a call to action for many academics, even in the social sciences. Historians worked with the State Department and linguists provided military translation services, for example.
“But, I think, if you get all of them out of there, it’s the social historians and the literary critics who are left on their own,” McCaughey added. “So having a few bright students in your class would be a sort of salvation. And it would be good for the bright students.”
Ginsberg was one such student. In his time at Columbia, he cultivated relationships with Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and other greats of the English department. Diana Trilling, Lionel’s wife, said that Ginsberg had two goals in mind: “the wish to shock his teacher and the wish to meet the teacher on equal ground.”
Inadvertently, Diana Trilling might have recognized the duality of the entire Beat generation: They were a group of young people who were simultaneously subversive and rigorous thinkers and hoped to be taken seriously. The same immature young man who would get a year’s suspension for writing “BUTLER HAS NO BALLS” on his dorm window was also the author of academically rich and referential poems.
The academic Mark Schechner perhaps said it best: “For Ginsberg to become Ginsberg he needed both Herbert Huncke and Lionel Trilling, Neal Cassady and Mark Van Doren, William Burroughs and Columbia, marijuana and William Blake.”
Ultimately, Carr only lit the fire.
“The great irony is that the person who started this revolution and gave them the idea that they could be great after this [the murder] happened wanted nothing to do with it anymore,” Krokidas said.
Though he continued to correspond with and see his literary friends, Carr abandoned Rimbaud and his status as muse, replaced by the eccentric Carl Solomon and the erratic Neal Cassady. It seemed that his lifelong struggle with substance abuse was the only vestige of his Beat identity.
“When I met him he was a hard-drinking, hardworking journalist,” Joseph Gambardello, a co-worker from United Press International, told the New York Times in April. “The person I had read about with Kerouac and Ginsberg didn’t exist anymore.”
At the time of the murder, Ginsberg worried that Kammerer’s death and Carr’s incarceration would signify an ending: He wrote, “And now, this curtain has been rung down! Everything I have loved of the past year has fled into the past. My world is no longer the same.”
Such a concern seems unfathomable to the modern reader. In the test of time, these misfits have endured as the literary heroes of rebellious intellectuals. Burroughs wasn’t merely being cutting when he wrote that “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes.” The Beats have become aspirational characters: The reader wants the depth of Ginsberg, the guilelessness of Kerouac, and the biting wit of Burroughs.
Perhaps the greatest gift of “Kill Your Darlings” is the reminder that they were once as lost and purposeless as the rest of us, a product of the amazing set of circumstances they endured.
“Kill Your Darlings” is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Tickets are $13.50 and $9, respectively.