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ABR reader expert on Beat Generation of writers

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


Here's an excerpt from a chapter titled "John Tytell and Allen Ginsberg, picking vegetables, 1973" in a book he created with his wife, photographer Mellon Tytell, who captured pictures of the beat writers.

"Ginsberg invited me to his farm in Cherry Valley, just south of Cooperstown, for a week around Labor Day in 1973. Mellon and I drove there from Vermont in an Austin Mini, a tiny, square breadbox of a car, which we had reupholstered in a yellow fabric with purple polka dots. The car featured thirteen upside-down American flag decals decorating a dent in the rear. The cockeyed flags were a statement of sorts, and they got us stopped occasionally by police.

The first thing Allen asked me as I emerged from my car was whether we had met previously. If there was a touch of suspicion in his query, I understood that it came from an ancient antipathy between the artist and the biographer, who so often represents a betrayal by oversimplifying the poet's pure vision.

I see a familial resemblance in the photograph, and the beards, as in an old Smith Brothers advertisement for Jewish cough syrup, do look similar, untripped and earthy in the untrammeled spirit still evident in the early 1970s. If I seem placid and self-contained, that was merely an exhausted pose for the click of the shutter.

Full of excitement and curiosity, I released a lot of energy bending and stooping in the vegetable patch that week, picking beans and tomatoes with Allen. I had a little notebook in my back pocket in which I would scribble with dirt-soaked fingers while Allen answered some of my questions about Beat history or Burroughs's and Kerouac's fiction.

There was something unpretentious and natural about the process. My purpose was intellectual, the discovery of a literary dynamic that had occurred decades earlier, which was already filtered and perhaps fogged by memory and time. History could nourish the imagination, and aesthetics seemed more exotic than the squash and cucumbers at my feet. Harvesting the vegetables, however, grounded me, a reminder of the real work ahead."


WHAT: ABR presents John Tytell

WHEN: Noon Thursday

WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium of UHV University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

COST: Free to the public, and light refreshments will be served.

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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