ABR reader expert on Beat Generation of writers

Nov. 28, 2011 at 5:28 a.m.
Updated Nov. 29, 2011 at 5:29 a.m.

Just after John Tytell was born in Belgium in 1939, the Nazi invasion forced his family to flee to New York.

Years later, Tytell would be solidified as a literary critic of a group of writers he said were crucial in American life after World War II.

Growing up and studying in New York City, Tytell had the idea to explore a group of American writers who had been mostly disparaged after their post-war works. The writers - most notably Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac - were part of the Beat Generation, which extolled a counter-culture of nonconformity and creativity.

"They saw issues invisible to most of us at the time," Tytell said. "They were artists that were neglected in their own culture. I thought they needed to be rectified. That's the job of the critic."

Tytell's book about the Beat Generation, "Naked Angels," was printed in 1976 and hasn't stopped printing since. It's been called the definitive history of that generation of writers and has been printed in several languages and countries.

Tytell will bring his knowledge of contemporary American literature to UHV as its American Book Review speaker on Thursday.

Along with his personal stories of Beat Generation writers, Tytell will debut a 5,000-word piece on the dynamic between writers and editors, which will be part of a future book, he said.

"Many of these stories have never been told," he said, relaying a tale about a dynamic blowout Jack Kerouac once had with an editor.

He'll also talk about the man Tytell considers to be the most important editor in the 20th century, Ezra Pound.

"He introduced everybody to modern writing, and he showed them how to do it," Tytell said.

Pound, whose students included T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, is a controversial figure in American literature with a mixed legacy, as the United States found him guilty of treason in World War II.

Tytell, though, identifies with what he calls a natural activity for him - teaching writers.

He's taught 49 years at Queens College, and teaches graduate courses at NYU. Tytell has written six books - all published by major commercial houses - and articles for Vanity Fair, The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines.

Along the way, he continues to bring attention and understanding to his first intrigue - beat writers.

"Sometimes the truth-sayers aren't nice," Tytell said about the generation. "Sometimes the nice guys are the biggest liars on the planet."

So where does Tytell himself fall in that spectrum?

"I try to wear a tie to class," was all he would quip.



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