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One point of concern is Watson's often overzealous descriptions of Beat sexuality. While sexual liberalism was certainly a significant tenet of Beat existence, it was not, in my estimation, the raison d'etre for Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, etc. It could be argued that Neil Cassady illuminated the sexual experience for core Beats, but his contribution as an iconic figure should not be devalued by presenting him as merely the sexual driving force of the Beats. Moreover, Watons implies that Ginsberg's homosexuality was the primary facet of his literary development. This is more than debatable. Certainly, Ginsberg's supernatural visions of Blake and his relationship with his mother served a much more profound purpose.
Though Watson should be commended for his thoroughness, the result at times is an overemphasis on the sexual side of the Beats. In Watson's book, this serves to lessen the importance of the Beats' dramatic contributions to literature and poetry.
1. It deals with many of the 'Beats' rather than focusing, as is typical, on Kerouac and Ginsberg and forgetting the rest of them. It provides an illuminating portrait of Burroughs (who is definately a key figure), Neal Cassidy (who is also), and alot of the girls, etc. who were around them. 2. It provides reading lists, etc. of what they were reading. This is HUGE if you want to understand the bitterness/despair that is found in Burroughs and Ginsberg... as well as insight into how they interpretted their life and times (i.e. because they read these books, they in a dialogic sense would interpret things along such-and-such lines.... as a psychologist would interpret a 'vision of God' one way and a believer a second.... 3. Lots of minutia/trivia that is just fun.
It's a really good book and more stimulating than one would expect from a book that is in the shape of a square. It would not suffice as a literary biography of any of the authors contained in the 'movement' nor could it supplant any social history book. But, it suppliments them and is fun to read: sort of an academic version of 'Seventeen' at points. I really love this book. I'd definately recommend this book to anyone who wants to become first among their band of friends if all their friends want to do is read a little bit of 'On the Road' and 'Howl' (and then think they know about this time period....
You really can't go wrong with this book, rather this will be your first introduction to the Beats or your a veteran of Beat lore, you will definitely gain something from reading this text. This book also includes an awesome year to year run down of important events in the Beat movement shown in correlation with important social and political events of the time. If you enjoy this book you may want to check out 'Rolling Stone's Book of the Beats' also, another great addition to the Beat fan's bookshelf.
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But the result is that one does not get enough of anything, and too much of what you didn't buy the book for. Chick Austin, Muriel Draper, and the others may have provided physical settings relevant to the gestation of FOUR SAINTS, but they did not CREATE the piece. As such, the lingering over their particular biographies is excessive in a book purportedly devoted to the birth of the opera. Too often we get lists of celebrities present at this gathering or another, complete with fawning descriptions of what they were wearing and how they decorated their rooms -- but this stems from a fan's love of a period, not a chronicling of FOUR SAINTS itself.
Thus while we read through elegant page after page gushing about Mrs. Harrison Williams and Lucius Beebe, by the end we have little idea of what went on on stage in the opera, what more than a few of the lyrics were, or how the music sounded. If it is vital for us to know how Julien Levy founded his art gallery blow by blow, why so little info on black theatre in New York before and after FOUR SAINTS? Why spend a paragraph following up on, say, Alfred Barr after SAINTS but only brief mention of what happened to any of the SAINTS cast members? This is a book about art museums mispackaged as one about the theatre.
This book is a bit of a cynical hoax. You can just feel the editor "shaping" a book about largely forgotten arts administrators and critics, the parties they went to, who they slept with, and how openly, via hanging it all on an opera which fascinates in legend because of combining a black cast with Gertrude Stein's lyrics. In the end, this book is a collection of well-written personality sketches of pictorial artists and their patrons. The author clearly has but subsidiary interest in music or theatre -- fatal in a book purporting to be about an opera.
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