University of California at Berkeley

A Bancroft Exhibit Lights Up the Beats

Rediscoving the 'Lost Generation' of Poets and Authors From the 1950s

 by Fernando Quintero

If Jack Kerouac were alive today to see the Bancroft Library's latest major exhibit "Ferlinghetti, City Lights and the Beats in San Francisco," he would likely have snapped his fingers, banged on his bongos, and said, "Cool, man."

The exhibit, running now through Nov. 30, highlights the role of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco in bringing Beat writers such as Kerouac to the public's attention.

Anthony Bliss, exhibit curator, said the show's aim was to introduce the major players of the Beat era, many of whom are still active in the Bay Area.

This group of writers who emerged during the 1950s rebelled against conventional attitudes, dress and speech largely as an expression of social disillusionment.

The Bancroft Library exhibit gallery is packed with manuscripts, correspondence, books, art work and photographs of the Beat era, mostly from the library's own collections.

In addition to Kerouac, the exhibit features other poets and authors: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman, Diane Di Prima, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Joanne Kyger and the lower-cased ruth weiss.

The Bancroft Library holds the archives for the City Lights bookstore and publishing company, which played a major role in publishing Beat writers.

"We're known for our collection of gold rush, expansion era materials," said Bliss. "Many people are unaware of our large poetry archives. My hope is that people will come by and do research on this wealth of material. Our whole idea is to get people excited about our collections and to stimulate curiosity."

"Precursors" to the Beat era such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and William Everson are also featured. These writers were instrumental in creating an artistic foundation for Beat writers.

Photographs by Bay Area photographers Jerry Stoll and James O. Mitchell evoke moody images of the Beat era and San Francisco's North Beach in the 1950s.

Bliss acknowledged it was somewhat ironic that an exhibition on the Beat movement, which sought to "de-academise" poetry and fiction, is held in such an academic setting as the Bancroft Library.

"Inevitably, it becomes history. Sooner or later, it becomes fodder for libraries and museums," said Bliss. "There have been some raised eyebrows over the appropriateness of having an exhibition on the Beat movement in a major university library."

Dean Smith, pictorial assistant at the library who helped gather materials for the exhibition, said certain attitudes about the Beat movement still prevail.

"People either feel strongly in favor of having an exhibition on the Beats, or they strongly oppose it, asking us how we can showcase the works of a bunch of criminals and drug addicts," Smith said.

So far, the show has received favorable reviews, especially from students.

"It became very clear to us that Berkeley students are really interested in the Beat era, and we're not just talking English majors," Bliss said. "If I wasn't aware of a '50s renaissance taking place before, I certainly am aware of it now."

The Bancroft Library exhibit gallery is free and open during regular library hours. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.


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