On the Road Again with Herbert Gold
Fifty years ago today, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, a drug and jazz-fueled novel chronicling what came to be known as the Rucksack Revolution. In artistic terms, of course, it inspired the Beat movement, whose resonances (coffeehouses, Greenwich Village, … Read More
Fifty years ago today, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, a drug and jazz-fueled novel chronicling what came to be known as the Rucksack Revolution. In artistic terms, of course, it inspired the Beat movement, whose resonances (coffeehouses, Greenwich Village, Ethan Hawke) are still very much with us. Fortunately, some of the old Beats are, too.
Throughout his career, Herbert Gold has taken a slightly different road by defending tradition while promoting rebellion. He believes in family, literacy, and moral decency, but also free love, midnight tokes, and madman writing binges. Like Whitman, Gold contradicts himself and contains multitudes: he's the missing link between your grandparents’ dry-goods store and your painter uncle's third floor walk-up on Delancey Street.
As one of the first Jews to bypass Columbia University's notorious quota system, Gold befriended that other Beat icon Allen Ginsberg, who introduced him to Kerouac, then a young football recruit. Ginsberg wanted his new friends to hit it off, but as Gold recalls, Keruoac dismissed him almost immediately as a "smart kike." Gold earned a reputation for calling Kerouac out on his anti-Semitic and increasingly right-wing attitudes, and he was one of the first critics to lament Ginsberg's later work, which he felt was unbecoming of the poet's early, more focused promise.
As a critic, Gold would also spot the unmistakably Jewish resonance of the wild new style of 50's storytelling, practically writing the stage entrance for Norman Mailer: "The hipster-writer is a perennially perverse bar mitzvah boy, proudly announcing, 'Today I am a madman. Now give me the fountain pen.'"
Gold's own moment of fortune and fame came with the publication of his fourth novel, Fathers, which explores the relationship between his early bohemianism and his immigrant father's life in America. Part hipster diatribe, part coming-of-age autobiography, it became a bestseller and for a while made Gold a household name.
Now, at 83, Gold is as candid as ever. From Cleveland and New York to San Francisco and Haiti, he's kept his rucksack at the ready, remembering his Pentateuch and youthful madness while frantically waving his pen in the air.
Well, I describe myself as an old beatnik. I live less elegantly than my kids do. That's kind of my style—the sort of postwar graduate-student style. But I always liked a lot of stuff about the Beat period and the Beat people. I enjoyed the sexual freedom. I wasn't interested in being gay or bisexual, but I enjoyed the sense that you knew you could go ahead and do it. I didn't take a lot of drugs, but I was happy to smoke a joint now and then. I liked the music. You know, this sounds like a white guy talking about how he likes Miles Davis.
ON BREAKING THE COLOR LINE AT HARPER'S:
My first published story was plucked out of the slush pile at Harper's Bazaar. At that period, they didn't publish people like me. The editor, Mary Louise Aswell, asked me to change my name. I was a student at Columbia at the time, and you know what a thrill to get a story in a national magazine! She suggested that I add a u—that I call myself Herbert Gould, which didn't sound so explicitly Jewish. You know, there are Goulds who are not actually Jewish. Anyway, I agreed to do that because I was young and ambitious. But I came back to my dorm at Columbia feeling incredibly guilty and horrible. I called her the next morning and said I wanted my real name used. And she said, "We don't publish Jewish names in Harper's Bazaar." It wasn't her prejudice; it was company policy. But she was sympathetic with me and said OK. And the story was published in Harper's Bazaar under my real name, in the Christmas issue, which had 400 pages. But it was left out of the table of contents.
Once, at a restaurant in Paris, I saw Allen take out and play this funny little instrument. He sang this Buddhist country-rock song that went, "Eat when you eat, drink when you drink, fuck when you fuck, die when you die." There was something comical about his take on life. In fact, I think parts of his poetry that people take seriously are meant as comedy. Of course, he was also very much in earnest about his love life and about his various passions. When Sonny Barger, who was head of the Hell's Angels, sent a telegram to Nixon offering the services of the Angels as guerillas in Vietnam, Allen said he was gonna organize—and this is the phrase he used; I want to quote it exactly—“a disciplined corps of trained fairies to unzip the flies of the Hell’s Angels and blow them into peacefulness.” Well, it was very funny. And at the same time, there was a certain element of seriousness because he thought that if the Hell’s Angels only got good sex, they would relax—it was that kind of humor, what the carnies called “kidding on the square.”
ON TACKLING THE BEAT GENERATION'S DUMB JOCK:
I knew Kerouac through Ginsberg at Columbia when I was a student. When I first saw him, he was just a jock. He was given a football scholarship to Columbia. I don't remember how I first met him, but I know that Allen kept wanting me to be friends with him. Allen was like a mother hen; he wanted all his friends to be friends and he was trying to make us a Kerouac clique. He and I argued about only three things: We argued about his sexuality (not that I objected to his being gay, it was just that he wanted to convert me at that time); we argued about Saint Theresa, whom he followed; and we argued about Kerouac. Kerouac was a creep from the beginning, but I think his antisemitism didn't come out then because he was self-serving. He accepted all the help from Allen that he could. And he and Allen were briefly lovers. Poor guy died at, what was it, 47 or 48, and he was an old man when he died. And his becoming antisemitic developed along with his obesity and his alcoholism and his general falling apart, along with his becoming a right-winger. Remember, he supported the war in Vietnam. And he supported Nixon. I think his mind was pretty much gone.
The ethical standing of being Jewish appeals to me. I think Jews have something special to give. I do accept the idea, not that we're chosen by God to be wonderful, but that Jews have a mission to do certain things which are of virtue in the world and of help in the world. I think it comes down to the fact that heaven is very weak in the Jewish tradition. What happens when we die is we're buried and then when the Messiah comes we all come back to life. But we have to make it on Earth as it is; that's where our work should be done and where we're to enjoy life and where we're to make our memories and experience. It's one of the reasons so many Jews—all over the world but particularly in America—have become novelists. Because what the word novel means is new; a novel is news of the world. And we've had this traditional need to see the world as it is, and to do good for the world.