Interview: Feeling Beatific—Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum/Beatmobile

Jerry and Estelle Cimino are on the road, spreading the Beat Gospel to the world. As founders of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, they’ve made a mission of keeping the artistic and literary tradition of the Beat Generation alive. Briefly, for the uninitiated, the Beats were a largely literary movement of the 1950s that has since influenced innumerable artists, musicians, directors, and performers, as well as writers and poets. While there’s no specific Beat style—Jack Kerouac’s poetical quasi-fictional travelogues and memoirs don’t resemble William S. Burroughs’ fever dream texts about drug addiction and chatty anuses—common themes of sexual exploration, mysticism, improvisation, and rejection of conformity arise in their works.

Jerry Cimino with composer and musician David Amram

In 2003, the Ciminos founded an earlier, smaller version of the museum in Monterey, California. Shortly after, they encountered John Allen Cassady, son of original Beat Neal Cassady, who accompanied author/highway saint Kerouac on several cross-country trips in the 40s, which Kerouac captured in his most famous book On the Road. Cassady and Cimino developed a show together, picked up an Airstream RV they named the Beatmobile, and drove across the US sharing the Beats’ story with the young folk. After returning to California and establishing a temporary Beat Museum in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, the Ciminos moved to their latest location at 540 Broadway, SF, catercorner to Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. With their latest tour, the Ciminos celebrate Kerouac’s centenary. Their next stop is in Chicago, on Monday, September 12, 6 p.m., at the American Writers Museum (180 N. Michigan Avenue, 2nd Floor). I asked Jerry Cimino about the museum, the event, and what the Beats still have to say to us.

Jack Kerouac tends to be the face of the Beats, but there’s more to the movement than being on the road and jazzy prose. How do you explain the Beats to today’s audience?

The themes of the Beat Generation are timeless. Every new generation rediscovers them because the themes are universal to youth—searching, questing, experimentation. Trying to figure out who you are and how you want to live your life. The Beats wrote about all aspects of their lives, warts and all, and in many ways their writings and their own life stories can been seen as a roadmap for young people on how—or how not—to live their own lives.

And not all of the Beats were writers. Of course, it was the writers and the poets who became famous, but many members of the Beat Generation were involved in other artistic endeavors—singers, dancers, painters, filmmakers. They were friends, challenging each other, and supporting each other‘s endeavors. 

The big three, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg seem to persist through their influence on writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative types. What figures in the movement don’t get their due?

There were literally hundreds of people who could be considered original Beats before they later collectively became known as the Beatniks. But it was especially the women who did not get their due. Society greatly limited women to traditional female roles in the 1950s, and because of the attitudes of the era, their writing and art wasn’t taken seriously—especially not by the publishing establishment. Instead, they were girlfriends, wives, mothers, and caregivers.

Gregory Corso was once asked at a conference, “Where were the women?” Now, Corso was not always a serious guy, often sarcastically cracking jokes, but this time he answered in earnest: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the 50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.” And indeed there’s been a great deal of renewed interest in the lives and work of the Beat women.

During this national tour, my wife gives a multimedia presentation on this very topic, titled “Women of the Beat Generation” where she describes all of this in detail.

You’re coming to Chicago to speak at the American Writers Museum. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco get most of the attention as Beat centers. Beyond Burroughs and Ginsberg at the 1968 DNC and Cassady and Kerouac returning a smashed-up Cadillac to the guy who hired them to drive it across the country, did Chicago ever see any Beat activity?

Well, sure. Every city in America, every city in the world was influenced by the counterculture of the 1950s. We know them as the Beat Generation, but that was simply a term coined by the circle in New York to describe their generation. The reality was that the era following WWII saw a tremendous outpouring of creativity, especially centered in major cities, and Chicago was certainly no exception. Chicago’s jazz and blues scene of course is legendary, and Ruth Weiss, for one, credits her introduction to poetry and jazz to a community called the Artists Circle. Herbert Huncke, another key figure on the early Beat scene, grew up in Towertown, and poets like Kenneth Rexroth spent considerable time in Chicago. It was also where William Burroughs worked as an exterminator, and where the Chicago Review became infamously embroiled in the censorship of excerpts from his novel Naked Lunch.

Some of the Beats’ work and actions haven’t aged well. How do you address these things and what good can we still draw from the literary movement?

A lot of things in society from 70 years ago haven’t aged well. While Kerouac and the Beats were in some ways quite forward-thinking, they were nonetheless products of their time. In 2022, some people think the language is out of date, or the Beats weren’t “woke” enough. It’s true, some of the language they used, including common terms that were spoken in dialogue from that era, can cause offense in today’s world. But in my opinion you can’t judge 1950s terminology and usage by 2022 standards. That’s intellectually lazy, and you’re robbing yourself and others of the rich history of the past, including lessons learned.

Dead authors are often accused of cultural appropriation, misogyny, and other ills of society. That’s quite common, but all they were doing was reflecting the times they lived in with their writing. I would argue the Beats were some of the more progressive people of their day in their attitudes and actions. They were outspokenly in favor of racial equality, gender equality, and the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ folks. They were also some of the earliest voices of concern for the environment. The fact is, the Beat Generation has been at the forefront of every progressive cultural shift since WWII—and America is still debating these very issues 70 years later.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked?

The reason we’re doing this tour is because 2022 is Jack Kerouac’s centennial year. He was born on March 12, 1922, and we’re driving from California to Jack’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, to celebrate his life and work with other Kerouac fans from all over the world. We’re also raising awareness of our campaign to purchase a new building in San Francisco, as a permanent home for the Beat Museum. We’ve been in operation for 20 years, leasing a storefront space this entire time. Now we believe it’s important to ensure that the Beat Museum will exist in perpetuity, that our collections and archives will be preserved and made available to the public, and most importantly, that we’ll be able to keep telling the story of the Beat Generation. People can read all about that at our website: kerouac.com.

More information about Kerouac @ 100: The Man vs. The Myth at the American Writers Museum, can be found at the AWS site.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.

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