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The Beats in Mexico

by David Stephen Calonne (Rutgers University Press, 2022)

Review by Daniel Rey

For the writers of the Beat Generation, Mexico was an escape. With the mid-twentieth century United States mired in consumerism, waging wars in East Asia, and persecuting suspected communists at home, the Beat writers looked over the border for the authenticity, inspiration and freedom denied in their homeland. 

In The Beats in Mexico, David Stephen Calonne provides a literary critic’s reading of the countercultural movement’s relationship with the country whose rich culture was slowly gaining appreciation in the US. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, excavations of ancient cities highlighted the technical superiority of civilisations such as the Maya and the Culhua-Mexica (Aztec) over their European contemporaries. Once the Mexican section of the Pan-American Highway was completed in 1950, it was easy for car-wielding gringos to see that splendour for themselves.   

‘Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life,’ writes Jack Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise in that emblematic Beat text, On the Road (1957). ‘We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.’ Here was a place where ‘time sheds its constraining feel’. Sick of the pace of New York, Kerouac had been travelling to Mexico since 1949. A year before the publication of On the Road, he wrote that he wanted to ‘found a kind of monastery in the plateau country outside Mexico City’. Like many Beats, Kerouac saw Mexico as a place for spiritual renewal.

This spiritual renewal regularly included narcotics. As privileged foreigners, the Beats’ drug use in Mexico did not come with the judicial risk carried in the US. What is more, as Calonne writes, smoking marijuana or ingesting the psychoactive elements of indigenous plants such as peyote gave many of the Beats ‘another avenue of ‘escape’, or ‘entrance’ from/into the self’. They believed hallucinogenic drugs supplied a deeper understanding of the ancient traditions of indigenous, shamanic Mexico – an ideal antidote to the commotion and commercialism of the US. 

Mexico’s archaeological sites served as muses. As Allen Ginsberg noted, ‘While I was in Chichen Itza and Palenque, cities of the old Maya empire on the Yucatan peninsula, I thought that [it] would be interesting to treat them as if they were the great ruins of Greece that Shelley and Keats wrote about. Why couldn’t Americans use those Central American ruins for the same nostalgia and classical reference, the same sense of the eternal, time in eternity?’ 

Ginsberg followed through with the idea in ‘Siesta in Xbalba’ (1956), a long poem whose misspelled title refers to the Maya underworld, Xibalba: 

‘Pale Uxmal,/unhistoric, like a dream,/Tuluum [sic] shimmering on the coast in ruins;/Chichen Itza naked/constructed on a plain;/Palenque, broken chapels in the green/basement of a mount;/lone Kabah by the highway;/Piedras Negras buried again/by dark archaeologists;/Yaxchilan/resurrected in the wild,/and all the limbo of Xbalba still unknown.’

Whereas Ginsberg was a literary-adventure tourist, other Beats had a much better knowledge of the country. Mexico recurs in the work of William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, while Philip Lamantia translated poetry from its colonial era. But the Beat with the deepest connection was Margaret Randall. Randall moved to Mexico City in 1961, where she translated Beat work into Spanish and established a bilingual magazine, El Corno Emplumado (The Feathered Horn). The magazine, which received a third of its funding from the Mexican government, was a pan-American melting pot that facilitated the interchange of literary ideas across the continent. It was forced to close in 1969 after its sharp criticism of the Massacre of Tlatelolco, when the Mexican Armed Forces fired on protestors. After eight years immersed in the history, mythology and poetry of Mexico, Randall was forced to leave. In her poem, ‘Feet Still Run: Tlatelolco, October 2, 1968’, she writes: 

‘Se les paso la mano I heard someone say,/they went too far: irony as release/as if anyone believed/they’d fired to disperse the crowd./It was early. We didn’t know/the number of victims,/didn’t know we would never know/who died that day./White arm bands moving through the crowd,/bullets shattering air/over Aztec stone, between colonial walls/and modern apartment blocks.’ 

Randall’s poem is an important counterweight to the adventurism of some of the other Beats who, in their idealisation of Mexico, choose platitude over complexity.

Calonne’s own attitude to the Beats is rather like Randall’s attitude to Mexico – he examines the source material thoroughly and is admiring rather than adulatory. It is a shame his book forgoes Spanish diacritical marks, and that his misspellings include the name of the pre-eminent writer of the Spanish colonial world – Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz – but it is testament to Calonne’s skills as a literary critic that these lapses are tolerable. His detailed study demonstrates that though their work on Mexico was sometimes naïve, the Beats were not callous appropriators – they were well-meaning apologists.