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Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Beats in Chicago

Like how a Chicagoan coined the term “Beat,” and other things you could learn at the Newberry Library this month.

Left: The entrance of Dil Pickle, a once-popular Bohemian coffee shop in Chicago; Right: Kenneth Rexroth, one of the great Chicago figures of the Beat era   Photos: Public Domain (l.); Walter Lehrman Collection © Utah State University

The Beat Generation and its cadre of radical writers and thinkers are more often associated with New York and San Francisco, but they also had a deep and enduring relationship with Chicago.

A seminar course at Newberry Library starting later this month (seats are still available) will tell the lesser-known stories of Beats who spent time in this city. Taught by John Suiter, a photographer and author of Poets on the Peaks, the course will uncover how several Beats—known and unknown—honed their outspoken, radical, and spiritual approach to life here.

Here, Suiter shares some of the ways the movement influenced Chicago, and how Chicago influenced the movement.

How poets and radicals wandered Gold Coast

The now middle-class, immaculately groomed park known as Washington Square used to be called Bughouse Square, a place where radical workers, union men, poets, and pariahs went to earn their daily bread shouting, debating, and reading poetry to a motley assembly of wanderers.

Kenneth Rexroth, one of the great Chicago figures of the Beat era, said during the 1920s that you could start outside the Newberry Library and soap box your way south through Tower Town, a Bohemian strip marked by the water tower on Michigan Avenue, while earning enough for your beer and bed at the end of the night.

Not far south from Bughouse Square, your politicized hobo could step into Tooker Alley off North Dearborn Street and sit down to drink at the Dil Pickle, a radical coffee shop, or head even further south to hear poetry read over jazz at The Green Mask, a club Rexroth claimed he managed for a time with the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

How a lost figure in the Beat Generation hated Chicago

Wild, almost-forgotten characters like Lew Welch, who wrote a poem that made him the anti-Carl Sandburg, are brought back to life in Suiter’s course. 

Welch was a Mad Men-esque character of the era, spending nearly five years as an ad copy writer at the headquarters of Montgomery Ward on Chicago Avenue along the Chicago River, before he got fed up. Don’t read Welch’s “Chicago Poem” if you are looking to enhance your civic pride.

Welch eventually left the city and wandered out to San Francisco. He walked out of a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains one day and never returned. His body never was found.

How a leading figure in the Beat Generation exterminated bugs in Chicago

In the late 1930s, before he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in New York and wrote Naked Lunch, a young William S. Burroughs came to Chicago to study at the Institute of General Semantics, which was a kind of forerunner to Scientology that claimed to teach techniques for quieting the mind.

Burroughs worked as an investigator for an insurance company while flopping at Mrs. Hattie Murphy’s rooming house at 4144 North Kenmore Avenue. Later he became a bug exterminator at Nueva Fumigation Company, 2947-49 North Oakley Avenue, a dead end next to the river. Decades later he called it AJ Cohen Exterminators in his book of short stories, “Exterminator!”

How a campus magazine fought for freedom of speech

Allen Ginsberg reads “Howl.” Photo: Walter Lehrman Collection © Utah State University”

After Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” was first performed in San Francisco in 1955, word spread across the country about the burgeoning movement and the poets as. Two young editors at The Chicago Literary Review, a campus magazine out of the University of Chicago, decided they would dedicate several issues to the Beats. This did not go well.

Conservative forces at the university, railing against the “obscene” Beats, put pressure on the magazine to publish something “innocuous” instead. Rather than cede control to the university, the editors broke away and formed an independent magazine called Big Table. Later, they were hauled into federal court on obscenity charges. Ginsberg and poet Gregory Corso drummed up money for their defense. The court in Chicago would rule in favor of the Beat movement, clearing the path for future publication and fame.

How a Chicagoan named the movement

Herbert Huncke was a junkie, wanderer, and seer of ecstatic visions who grew up in the Bohemian Tower Town in Chicago. Kerouac met Huncke in Times Square in the early 1940s and quickly recognized him as one of their own.

“When I first saw the Hipsters creeping around Times Square in 1944 I didn’t like them either,” Kerouac wrote of the encounter. “One of them, Huncke of Chicago, came up to me and said, ‘Man I’m beat.’ I knew right away what he meant somehow.”

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