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Lew Welch and The Beat Generation

“Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation,” by Aram Saroyan, William Marrow and Co. NY, 1979

Lew Welch was born in 1926, the grandson of a prominent Phoenix surgeon who died in a tragic car accident before Lew was born. Lew’s mother, now a beautiful heiress, married a good looking athletic farm boy from Kansas who disappeared most of the time. Thus the life long search for the absentee-father that seemed to haunt so many of the Beat Generation, Kerouac, Cassidy and Welch in particular resulting in bouts of depression and booze…and eventually death. In 1971 at the age of 45, Lew left a note in his pick-up and took a long walk into the mountains with a silver Smith and Wesson revolver and never returned. His body was never found.

Lew Welch is probably the least known of the major players in the Beat Generation mainly because he was never a part of the New York scene, just San Francisco. Some critics consider him the best poet of the San Francisco Renaissance. His language was clear, direct and made sense to everyday people. More than the others, he had read all the poets from Homer to Shakespeare to Whitman and had well thought out critical opinions on all of them. He was almost but not quite a scholar. In the same poem or in the same conversation he would use stereotypes for woman or derogatory slang for gays. Sometimes all the pieces just didn’t seem to fit.

Something that most people who read the Beat poets and writers. miss is the yearning for a return to nature. Just re-read the last page of “On The Road.” The great American Continent lies before for you. Both Kerouac and Snyder spent months practicing Zen in the wilderness while working on fire watch towers. Ginsberg and Rexroth both signed up for long stints in the merchant marine. You are never closer to the forces of nature then on the ocean. We usually see the Beat Generation as a post-war urban reaction to American society. In New York that was so true but on the West Coast it was different. Lew Welch was a part of that. His Chicago poem is a tragic example. As a Chicagoan I can vouch that there is so much so wrong with that poem. The alcoholic haze in which he lived in Chicago kept him from experiencing the vibrant energy of my amazing hometown. His depression was only relieved by an escape to the north woods in Wisconsin. His West Coast soul was very out of place in the Mid-West. Back in California, success, depression and booze took its toll. When Lew took that last long walk into the mountains with the Smith and Wesson, he was returning to the source. He was going home.

But what about this book? It is the only commercially published biography of Lew Welch. (There are a few academic biographies published by universities.) The title “Genesis Angels” and the use of the word “Saga” in the subtitle promise a lot more than the text delivers. It is a series of short vignettes on the lives of the major Beats alternating to show their relationship to each other punctuated by Aram Saroyan’s observations cloaked in trendy language that attempt to capture the mood of the Beat Generation. I wasn’t very impressed but in the books defense, Gary Snyder who was a roommate and close friend of Welch describes the book as “accurate.” It is worth a read but only for its insights into a very remarkable bunch of poets and writers…

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