Healthy Bohemianism

The 1955 Six Gallery reading was at the top of bohemianism.                                       It was “brave and honest”, to borrow Tennessee Williams’s phrase, in a coward and insincere society and it marked the start of a cultural revolution that would sweep across America in the 1960s. The Six Gallery reading was useful to create the conditions for the San Francisco protests. In America in the twentieth century, there was no public poetry reading that was a bigger bombshell than the Six Gallery reading. It launched Allen Ginsberg, Phil Whalen, Michael McClure and Jack Kerouac. After the Six Gallery readings, poetry readings became regular cultural events not only in this country, but also all over the world. “If there had not been a Six Gallery reading, there would not have been an ongoing Beat Generation”, McClure said. Allen manifested his socialism, Snyder manifested his Buddhist anarchism and McClure manifested his biological and anti-political anarchist stance. The Six Gallery reading was a group of underground poets and writers from the East Cost  (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti) and from the West Coast (Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia). The Six Gallery reading was a crucial moment when the world of dissident, non-conformist American writers defied the chilly climate of the Cold War and came out into the open. The voices that had been ignored and repressed came to the surface and started to be considered at large. San Francisco was described as a mad city, inhabited by insane people. For Kerouac, it was a mad city with mad people, and he loved it for its madness. San Francisco gave Kerouac the courage to write San Francisco Blues. It generates a sense of freedom that wasn’t found elsewhere in the United States in the era of the Cold War. Anarchists, socialists, communists and pacifists took part in the political and cultural life of San Francisco. The Mattachine Society was the first American gay organization, founded by Henry Hay to protect and improve the rights of homosexuals.

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It aimed at educating homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples; it also assisted gays who were victimized daily as a result of oppression. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, followed by a demand of freedom and equality for American blacks.

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Chicago teenager Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, and during that same year his courageous mother spoke on television and described to the world the horrors of racism and the cruelty of segregation. America was beginning to wake up. There were clear signs in the Cold War culture and sounds of liberation in rock’n’roll, in Hollywood movies and in plays like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. In San Francisco, at least, society war ready for cultural breakthroughs like the Six Gallery reading. And the event happened in large part because Ginsberg made it possible. Wally Hedrick, a painter and a veteran of the Korean War, approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at Six Gallery. Initially, Ginsberg refused, but once he’d written a rough draft of Howl, he changed his mind, as he put it. A reading would provide a chance both for his birth as a poet and for the birth of the Beat Generation, which had been slowly germinating for years.

 

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