Political Outlaws: Beat Cowboys

While the use of the American Western outlaw in Hollywood shifted in the 1950s, according to Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America,1 away from a socially conscious rebel to a psychopath, Jack Kerouac, the so-called father of the Beat Generation, used an older, pre-Cold War depiction of the American Western outlaw to characterize his heroes, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, in “the Bible of the Beat Generation,” On the Road (written in 1951 and published in 1957). The pre-Cold War outlaw Westerns, writes Slotkin, “celebrated the careers of famous western outlaws, particularly those associated with Jesse James and his gang. They adopted the historicizing narrative, iconographic devices, and historical referents of the ‘progressive’ epic but exposed them to criticism by showing how progress can lead to injustice, oppression, and crime.”2 On the Road can be read as assault on what some historians have called the Eisenhower-era containment culture, partially, by identifying its heroes with Western outlaws. Slotkin explains the Hollywood shift during the Cold War as “a self-protective gesture at a time when the postwar ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood made political statements of any kind potentially dangerous.”3 Kerouac’s embrace of the social bandit, like Albert Camus’s defense of the rebel during the same era, can be seen as a political gesture away from the dichotomy of the conservative capitalist against the revolutionary communist, helping to open the political space of the outlaw rebel.

In his first journey West, Sal writes, “the first cowboy I saw, walking along the bleak walls of the wholesale meat warehouses in a ten-gallon hat and Texas boots, looked like any beat character of the brickwall dawns of the East except for the getup.”4 In their last journey together, Sal and Dean cross into Mexico taking “ ‘the route of old American outlaws who used to skip over the border and go down to old Monterrey, so if you’ll look out on that graying desert and picture the ghost of an old Tombstone hellcat making his lonely exile gallop into the unknown . . . ”5 Acting out a Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid fantasy, Sal and Dean imagine going to South America in search of freedom. On the Road can be read as a text of resistance to the containment culture and one of the initial catalysts of the 1960’s counterculture. Slotkin reminds us of the tradition of using the American Western outlaw as a symbol of social justice: “[Woody] Guthrie made the most extensive use of frontier motifs and cowboy ballads, particularly in the series of songs he wrote about western outlaws, in which Belle Starr, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James figure as social bandits. In ‘Jesus Christ’ he even sets a depiction of Jesus as social revolutionary to the ‘Ballad of Jesse James’.”6 By signifying on the same Western outlaws Guthrie wrote about, Beat writers like Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Michael McClure, Ed Dorn, and Brenda Frazer follow in Guthries footsteps as using the Western outlaw as a political symbol.

Others have made the connection between Beat writers and American Western outlaws. LeRoi Jones, the most celebrated African-American artist associated with the Beat Generation, was a central figure in the Beat movement based in Greenwich Village, publishing the magazine Yugen (1958–62) with his wife Hettie Jones and the magazine Floating Bear (1961–63) with Diane di Prima. He defended attacks on Jack Kerouac’s prose by equating the writing style with a Hollywood portrayal of Billy the Kid:

In one scene of the old Howard Hughes’ film Outlaw, the hero, Billy the Kid, whips out his gun, and from the hip shoots a hole through a thin reed (to make a whistle 25 yards away). The astonished heroine asks Billy how he does this without even aiming. Billy replies, “I aim before I pull out the gun.” I think this is also true, not only of Kerouac’s writing, but of any good writer whose work is largely spontaneous.7

Yet after a trip to Cuba in 1960 to see Fidel Castro, Jones began to question his involvement with the Beats. He was attacked by Latin American intellectuals for his lack of politics. “And I could see, had seen,” he writes in his autobiography, “people my own age involved in actual change, revolution.”8 Jones astutely perceived that the Beats were not revolutionaries, but he falsely equated a lack of a revolutionary stance with a lack of politics. He writes, “The rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics. Drugs, juvenile delinquency, complete isolation from the vapid mores of the country, a few current ways out.”9 Yet the Beats were not revolutionaries because they were lazy or immature; they chose not to be revolutionaries because they did not believe in the stance of the revolutionary. Jones, during his early revolutionary period, is a quintessential example of the revolutionary who believes one must either be for or against a revolution. The mistake Jones makes is that he believes the rebel does not have legitimate political grounding. After the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones left his Jewish wife and their two daughters and moved out of Greenwich Village, becoming a black nationalist in Harlem, where he changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. Defending the Beats from Jones’s claim that they were “bourgeois individualists,” his estranged wife, Hettie Jones, writes, “The Beats, remembered as apolitical, were simply a growing consciousness.”10

Drawn to the possibilities of becoming rebels rather than revolutionaries, the Beats were avatars of a Zeitgeist emerging from the trauma of the Second World War. Historical and popular-cultural contingencies made the figure of the outlaw attractive to the Beat writers, who found themselves needing to fill the void usually occupied by more traditional political symbols. The outlaw, or rebel, as Albert Camus would call this political stance, has a logic that in recent times has not been addressed and needs to be understood to ascertain the richness of Beat politics.

The original dust jacket of Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1988) features a photograph of Burroughs wearing a trench coat and fedora and holding a gun. He looks more like a film noir gangster or a private detectivethan a fiction writer, and this photograph captures what Morgan’s book exposes: Burroughs often crossed the line between a metaphorical “outlaw” of notorious literature and an actual outlaw running from the law.11 Burroughs counters, “Ted Morgan’s biography starts with a basic misconception: Literary Outlaw. To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of. I never had such a base.”12 According to Burroughs, rather than rejecting the middle-class society that upholds the law, he found himself a priori alienated from that society. It was in an effort to find somewhere to belong, rather than a desire to remove himself from the middle class, that led him into the realm of outlawry. Yet Burroughs does not recognize the significance of Morgan’s observation. What is truly perceptive in Morgan’s analysis is that it illuminates Burroughs’s affiliation with a new breed of artist emerging from the trauma of the Second World War. These artists recognized the outlaw as a spiritual forebear to a political attitude spawned by the excesses of Western civilization. Late in his life, while working on the novel The Place of Dead Roads (1984), Burroughs began to identify himself with the American Western outlaw. In the popular imagination, the American Western outlaw is best represented by the legends surrounding Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Burroughs’s own criminal life gave him a strong psychic connection to the outlaws of the Old West, yet he was relatively late in using a Western motif in his work. Other writers associated with the Beat Generation had used a Western motif effectively before, most notably Michael McClure in his play The Beard (1965), Brenda Frazer in her memoir published under the name Bonnie Bremser entitled Troia: Mexican Memoirs, and Edward Dorn in his epic poem Gunslinger (1975). A complex combination of cultural mechanisms provide the context for the Beats’ embrace of the American Western outlaw: the influence of Hollywood and radio from the 1920s to the 1950s; the appeal of the Robin Hood figure, mediated in America through the Western outlaw; the Western outlaw’s significance as a masculine symbol; the ability of Anglo-Americans to identify racially with the Western outlaw; and, perhaps most importantly, the appeal of what Camus would call the “rebel” emerging from the political debates of the Cold War.

Many of the Beats were literally outlaws in some capacity at various points in their lives. Beat scholar John Tytell writes, “The Beats were transgressors, and, in fact, on different occasions Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg each faced criminal charges. Often defining themselves through impulsive acts, they were all outlaws, libertarians, pursuing the compulsions of private vision in spite of social sanction and law.”13 Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested in August 1944 as material witnesses for the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Burroughs was arrested again in 1946 for forging prescriptions in New York. He moved to Texas and was arrested for indecent exposure in 1948. After moving to Louisiana, he fled an impending court appearance for drug possession in New Orleans and settled in Mexico City. In September 1951 he accidentally shot and killed his wife and, when his lawyer fled after becoming himself a potential murder suspect, Burroughs broke his probation by leaving Mexico and eventually made his way to Tangier. While only sixteen, Gregory Corso was sent to prison for robbery in 1947. Ginsberg was arrested in April 1949 as an accomplice to theft and avoided prison by being sent to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, an experience that would inspire his masterpiece “Howl.” In the 1950s, Herbert Huncke, who had been in and out of jails as a youth, was in and out of New York State Prisons. Neal Cassady, who as a teenager was supposedly arrested ten times and served over a year in jail, was arrested for possession of marijuana in April 1958. So to some degree the Beats’ attraction to outlaws can be explained by empathy for those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. But the Beats’ attraction to the outlaw as a symbol had much more to do with the politics of Cold War than with their lives of crime. Despite their penchant for lawlessness, the Beats were not revolutionaries calling for an end to the American way of life. They demanded that America live up to its promises of freedom and democracy. As Beat art scholar Lisa Phillips asserts, “They knew that you could love your country and still be a rebel.”14

Camus15 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, the same year Kerouac published On the Road. Though neither author was overtly influenced by the other, both expressed similar conceptions of a post-W.W.II existential dilemma: the inability to embrace collective political organizations. Camus’s L’homme révolté, translated as The Rebel, originally published in 1951, the same year Kerouac completed the manuscript of On the Road, established a theory of rebellion that echoed the unarticulated ideological stance of the Beat writers. There is no mention of the burgeoning American Beat culture in Camus’s book, and there is no evidence that any of the Beat writers were directly influenced by Camus’s argument, but The Rebel stands as a beacon of the concerns shared by intellectuals and artists on both sides of the Atlantic. Capturing the Zeitgeist of the generation, Camus spoke for those disillusioned with organized politics following the Second World War. Arguing against the opinion that “the rebel is nothing if he is not a revolutionary,”16 Camus attempted to articulate the stance of the rebel. This stance would be the same one taken by the Beat writers, and was pivotal in the Beats embracing the American Western outlaw as a political symbol.

After the Second World War, the Beat writers found themselves in what Foucault would have called a new episteme where there was more confusion than clarity over political and cultural issues. The Holocaust and the destruction of most of Europe had thrown into question the value of high culture and Western superiority. The Bomb, the military-industrial-complex, and the straitjacket of suburbia made it impossible for the Beat writers to embrace 1950s American nationalism. The Cold War made organized politics suspect. Radical capitalists and communists alike demanded sides be taken and lines drawn. Yet the Beats, like Camus, neither conservatives nor revolutionaries, took the stance of the rebel. The rebel, in the sense that the Beats and Camus were rebels, is a reformer rather than a destroyer. Historian E. J. Hobsbawm explains, “Reformists accept the general framework of an institution or social arrangement, but consider it capable of improvement or, where abuses have crept in, reform; revolutionaries insist that it must be fundamentally transformed, or replaced.”17 All revolutionaries are reformers and rebels in some capacity, but the true revolutionary fights for the destruction of an institution rather than its evolution. As Hobsbawm argues, between the true reformist and the true revolutionary “a wide variety of positions may be occupied.”18 Yet often these positions are denied in the name of political expediency.

Frequently discussions of political action are reduced to dichotomous paradigms. Proponents of radical ideology often demand overt political commitments as signs of solidarity and reprimand those viewed as indecisive as quietists. This strategy can be rhetorically effective. Demanding that one is either for or against a cause, essentially eliminating any middle ground, makes sides of an issue more readily discernible for proponents and detractors, and allies can be coerced into more militant positions. Yet a great deal of political movement is also lost. Threatened by a perceived extremism, some withdraw from political positions they find sympathetic and others choose allegiance with positions that are not closer to their hearts and minds but seem less threatening. Depending upon the circumstances, any of us might at one time or another hold a conservative position or a revolutionary position, yet denying a third and equally politically tenable option, a rebellious position, is to fall into the dichotomous trap set up by radicals at extreme positions on both sides of an argument. The rebellious position allows for a greater degree of movement in any debate and helps resist the potential for dichotomous discourses. The Beat movement, like Camus, promoted the rebellious position as a survival tactic. In order to survive in a world where radicals on both sides were equally dangerous, the only option was to create a new space for the rebel to dwell. Despite many radical arguments to the contrary, the rebel is a highly politicized subject position that is not quietist. The rebel might not have a solution, but the rebel is also certainly not willing to be part of the problem.

“The rebel,” according to Camus, “in the etymological sense, does a complete turnabout.”19 The slave faces the master, the workers unite against the corporation, the mortgaged farmer draws a gun in the bank. There is a breakdown between roles when the oppressed party no longer accepts the conditions of the relationship. Yet the rebellious slave does not want to become the master, the rebellious workers do not want to become the corporation, and the farmer turned outlaw does not want to become a banker. The rebel wants the cessation of an injustice, not its perpetuation in a different form. Camus writes, “He is not only the slave against the master, but also man against the world of master and slave.”20 This is not to say that Camus’s rebel has a clear understanding of what it would take to eliminate “the world of master and slave,” only that the rebel no longer tolerates it or any variation of it. On the other hand, according to Camus, the revolutionary, though often unwittingly, perpetuates the state of affairs that have instigated the agitation. “In theory,” argues Camus, “the word revolution retains the meaning that it has in astronomy. It is a movement that describes a complete circle, that leads from one form of government to another after a complete transition.”21 The table simply turns. The slave is now master. Rather than a transformation, or even a reformation, what exists is a mirror reflection of the previous condition. Slave is now master and master is now slave, but the condition of slavery still exists. According to Camus, “Total revolution ends by demanding   . . . the control of the world” (107). Rather than eliminating injustice, quite often, according to Camus, the revolutionary brings an increase of injustice. Camus argues, “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”22 While Camus equates the rebel with limitation and moderation, he equates the revolutionary with excess. This is the crucial difference: excess drives the revolutionary to lose sight of the original goal of justice, while the rebel is able to maintain focus on justice through moderation.

It is important to remember that Camus wrote this extended essay during the Cold War when many of his intellectual peers were concerned about revolutionary communism. Camus’s work is a book of caution. It looks at humankind’s mistakes in the past and calls for the desire for justice to overpower the urge toward resentment. Camus’s argument may have flaws, but he did successfully imagine a space that was not necessarily conservative and not necessarily revolutionary. This space is similar to the space the Beats created for themselves. It was from this space that the Beats were able to recognize the symbolic significance of the American Western outlaw.

Explaining the mythic image of Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road and the “secret hero” for several of Ginsberg’s poems, Gary Snyder states, “what got Kerouac and Ginsberg about Cassady was the energy of the archetypal West, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing.”23 Homonymously, Cassady’s name evokes both the virtuous cowboy Hopalong Cassidy and the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy. In the imaginations of Kerouac and Ginsberg, fueled by the Westerns of radio and cinema from the ’20s and ’30s, Cassady was the avatar of the American frontier. The American West represented for these East Coast Beats a place of vitality devoid of the decadence and pessimism that Kerouac felt had spread like a disease across the Atlantic from the charred ruins of Europe. Having grown up with the pervasive presence of big screen archetypes and metanarratives, the Beat Generation writers found their pantheon of heroic prototypes more readily in radio serials and Hollywood films than in the Greek mythology that had inspired many high modernist writers, and the most popular genre during the Beats’ childhoods was the Western. For Kerouac, Cassady was an apparition of the silver screen cowboy that mesmerized him in small movie houses as a child in Lowell, Massachusetts and became part of the imaginary coterie that kept him company, along with the dark radio hero The Shadow, in solitary fantasies in the backyards, playgrounds, and sidestreets of his hometown. “My first impression of Dean [the character based on Cassady],” Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s persona in On the Road, tells his readers, “was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West.”24 Throughout Kerouac’s fiction and poetry, he imagines himself and his friends living through a movie that he is transcribing from the memories that are projected in his mind. In his poem Mexico City Blues (1959), Kerouac describes consciousness as, “nothing there but the picture / in the movie in your mind.”25 In The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960), he writes, “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody, which is what everything is.”26 When he first saw Cassady the movie rolling in his mind was a Gene Autry Western.

From 1937 until 1943 Autry was the Western’s biggest box-office draw.27 Autry had taken the reins from Tom Mix, who had established the white hat, virtuous cowboy in 1917 as the central hero of American Westerns, which would last until the appearance of the gunslinger as the dominant hero in the 1950s.28 According to film historian Edward Buscombe:

In Gene Autry’s world the cowboy hero: 1) Never takes unfair advantage. 2) Never goes back on his word. 3) Always tells the truth. 4) Is always gentle to old people, children and animals. 5) Is never racially or religiously intolerant. 6) Always helps people in distress. 7) Never smokes and drinks. 8) Is always clean in thought, word, deed and personal grooming. 9) Respects women and the nation’s laws. 10) Is a patriot (above all).29

This code of conduct was not exactly followed by Cassady or the fictional Dean Moriarty. Both occasionally took unfair advantage, went back on their words, lied to get out of tough situations, smoked, drank, were dirty in thought, word, deed, and grooming, and were not always respectful of women. Yet both were often depicted as gentle, tolerant, kind to those in need, admired by men, loved by women, and patriotic in the sense that, like Autry, they embodied a certain spirit that was unequivocally American.

What Cassady and Moriarty more closely resembled was “the Western bad man as hero.” Published in 1957, the same year as On the Road, Mody C. Boatright’s “The Western Bad Man as Hero,” praised by historian Kent Ladd Steckmesser as “a classic analysis,” defined the pattern of this historical and fictional type: an Anglo-American from a respectable but not wealthy family who had an unfortunate childhood, who started a life of crime under extreme provocation, fights the enemies of the people, is tender and generous and atones for misdeeds. Many of the Beat writers fall into this pattern themselves and certainly Cassady did. Though Irish American, Cassady’s ethnicity did not overtly displace him from mainstream America. His father was a barber who became an alcoholic. Cassady lived in flophouses and supposedly begged for change on the streets with his father from the time he was six. Without any money, young Cassady was forced into a life of crime to survive. Yet he was an enthusiastic learner and also sympathized with the downtrodden masses of the Great Depression and ethnic minorities. His acts of tenderness and generosity became legendary, and he would eventually spend years in prison, thus atoning for his misdeeds. Boatright explains the fascination the public has of these types of characters:

Speculation as to why the myth takes this form rather than some other, to what extent it is national and to what universal, might follow. At any rate it is a pattern imposed by the popular mind—that is, the mind of the American middle class—upon a protypical historical character in order to make his career emotionally intelligible in terms of American culture. The mind sees no problem in a character almost wholly evil; it accepts the villain. It sees no problem, either, in a character in the main good. But a character who commits offenses against life and property, two things sacred in our culture, and who yet manifests traits of goodness, seems to require explanation. This simplified explanation is the myth of the Western bad man.30

Kerouac, probably unconsciously, created Dean Moriarty as a Western bad man hero, but this type of character would have been familiar to him because it circulated in American culture long before he sat down to write about Cassady. Though he calls him “a young Gene Autry,” Kerouac’s depiction is much closer to the reckless outlaw hero Snyder recognized as the “cowboy crashing.”  In Visions of Cody (1972), what Tim Hunt convincingly argues is the fifth and final version of On the Road, Kerouac depicts Cassady, now called Cody Pomeroy, more as the “Good Badman” than he had done in On the Road. Cassady is still compared to Gene Autry, but Kerouac adds, “Cody was dishonest looking, a thief . . . not only a thief, maybe a real angry murderer in the night.”31 Such a description helps place Cassady more into the role of the “Good Badman” than the virtuous cowboy.

The conflation of the virtuous Western cowboy and the outlaw hero seems a paradox, but both have similar codes of honor. The good cowboy upholds a law that is recognized as just, while the outlaw hero breaks laws that are recognized as unjust. Both fulfill the audience’s expectations that the hero will do the right thing. It is interesting to note that most historians of cinema cite The Great Train Robbery (1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter as the first Western film.32 From the start, the Western was conceived as a look at the exploits of outlaws. It is even more surprising to learn that the first Western heroes from 1910–1917 were not white-hatted cowboys like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, but outlaws like Broncho Billy and William S. Hart, “Good Badmen” who followed moral codes. Though their popularity has not equaled that of the virtuous cowboy, the Good Badman has been present throughout the history of the Western. And the Western has been one of the most pervasive cultural forces in America, especially during the adolescence of many of the Beat writers born between 1914 (Burroughs) and 1939 (Frazer). From 1926 to 1967 around a quarter of all Hollywood films were Westerns.33 Like Camus’s rebel, the Good Badman of Westerns is concerned with creating limitations, being moderate, and ultimately striving toward justice. In a world lacking moral role models and controlled by corrupt governments, the Good Badman became an important example of a figure that retained a code of conduct despite the injustices of the world. The importance of Hollywood on the minds of the Beat writers, possibly the first generation incapable of imagining the world without cinema, should not be underestimated. “Without Hollywood,” argues Steckmesser, “the Western hero might not have become the dominant figure in American legend.”34

Though Hollywood played a vital role shaping the Weltanschauung of the Beats, radio serials would be the most influential factor in preparing the Beats to embrace the American Western outlaw. Like the Good Badmen of Western films, the Good Badmen of the radio fit into Camus’s conception of the rebel: they were removed from society, they lived by their own moral codes, they were not excessive, they had limitations, they practiced moderation, they were ultimately reformers rather than revolutionaries, and they fought for justice. Radio historian Gerald Nachman feels, “Nothing that today’s hard-breathing Hollywood wizards can concoct is able to impress those of us for whom the pinnacle of virtual reality was reached half a century ago with The Shadow.35 The Shadow first intrigued listeners in 1931 and continued to thrill audiences until 1954. From the ’30s to the early ’50s The Shadow was the highest-rated dramatic program in the country.36 Just as there were competing discourses in Hollywood between the virtuous cowboy and the Good Badman, on the radio there were models of sparkling virtue like Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry and there were also dark heroes like The Shadow.37 With Orson Welles providing the voice of The Shadow and his alter-ego Lamont Cranston, children were tantalized by a new knowledge of the dark recesses of the soul: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” The Shadow was Kerouac’s favorite radio hero as a child and part of the inspiration for his novel Doctor Sax (1959). The opening lines of LeRoi Jones’s “In Memory of Radio” (1961) reads, “Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston? / (Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.”38 In a time when criminals seemed to gain increasing power after the period of Prohibition (1920–33), it seemed that the world needed a hero dark and a tough enough to compete. According to John Clellon Holmes, the night Kerouac named his generation “Beat,” Kerouac “laughed a conspiratorial, the-Shadow-knows kind of laugh at his own words and at the look on my face.”39

Like The Shadow, the Lone Ranger displayed a darkness that made him also a Good Badman. The outlaw mask on the Lone Ranger set him apart from traditional virtuous cowboys. Nachman writes, “Other heroes wore masks (Zorro, Batman), and others bent the law for their own purposes (various Robin Hoods), but none in Western lore had near the appeal of a ‘lone ranger’.40 The Lone Ranger is arguably the most influential radio show in the history of American pop culture. Playing at times to twelve million listeners a week, The Lone Ranger aired from 1933 to 1955. According to John G. Cawelti, The Lone Ranger is a perfect example of how Westerns dramatize the conflict between the adolescent desire to join the adult world and the adolescent fear of the adult world. He writes:

Let me support this contention by considering some of the central elements of the Lone Ranger, which is a supreme example of the kind of Western specifically created for and extremely successful with children. First, the hero is a masked man, who conceals his true identity and constantly turns up in disguises, almost invariably as bearded older figures such as an old prospector. This kind of hero and this sort of behavior express a fascination with the problem of social roles and an attempt to create a person who can put roles on and off like disguises. Moreover, the fact that the Lone Ranger not only moves in and out of disguises, but also in and out of society might be interpreted as another symbolic expression of the conflict between a fascination with the adult world and a real hesitation to become committed to it.41

For the Beats, this adolescent hesitation to commit to adult society was paralleled by their adult hesitation to commit to American society. Viewing society as corrupt and hypocritical, many Beat writers sought refuge in bohemian settings in New York, San Francisco, Paris, and exotic locales like Mexico City and Tangier. In a sense, these communities, removed from society, could be read metaphorically as “Sherwood Forests,” where Good Badmen lived in retreat from the corruption of society.

R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor argue, “The ability of children throughout the world to identify with the forest outlaw hero-figure is now, as it has been for many years, the most important single reason for [Robin Hood’s] immortality.”42 Like the Lone Ranger, Robin Hood fits into Cawelti’s pattern for a hero adolescents are attracted to because of the conflicts between the adolescent and adult worlds. Robin Hood is able to retreat with his “merry men” into the adolescent world of Sherwood Forest, and when he chooses to visit the adult world he puts on a disguise. Robin Hood is also the most recognized model of the Good Badman. Dobson and Taylor feel, “as a rudimentary symbol of protest against a corrupt ruler or form of government, Robin Hood’s attributes were certainly not unique. The fact remains that the hero of the English greenwood has outlasted all his rivals to become the ideal standard by which all outlaws, real and imaginary, past and future, tend to be assessed.”43 Robin Hood has the attributes of Camus’s rebel, but this does not help explain his popularity. What makes Robin Hood particularly important is that he epitomizes the Good Badman. Trying to explain the Robin Hood phenomenon, Dobson and Taylor write:

From the viewpoint of the inhabitants of modern industrialized societies the deeds of Robin Hood are too circumscribed to solve complex social problems, while he himself is perhaps too simplistic a hero to engage deeply the sympathies of a modern adult audience. Yet for centuries Robin Hood was a real hero to simple and unlettered people: his perennial popularity shows that, transcending its historical context, his myth had in it some element of universal appeal. This we may possibly ascribe to ‘a dream of justice’ latent in all peoples at all stages of historical development, allied to the fact that with the passage of time the land of Robin Hood came to hold its own particular brand of nostalgia. It became a ‘spiritual Indian territory’, an escape from the monotony of the urbanized present into a medieval ‘Sherwood’ that was itself largely the creation of the ballad writers and never really existed elsewhere.44

Robin Hood would have a tremendous impact on the shaping of the American Western outlaw. The outlaw hero would become, like Robin Hood, a symbol of justice in an unjust world, a figure removed from the monotony of urbanization fighting for the maintenance of frontier existence. According to Steckmesser, Robin Hood is the model for the “good outlaw”:

1) Robin Hood goes to the woods not because of selfish desire for plunder, or because he is a social misfit. Oh no! He goes rather because of his passion for justice at a time of great injustice. 2) He administers a kind of “practical socialism” by robbing the haves and (by implication) giving to the have-nots. 3) He’s no mad-dog psychopath, but an attractive person, jolly and virtuous. 4) He is a trickster, able to outwit the Sheriff at every turn. 5) He can only be brought down by treachery. Such is the portrait of the archetypal “good outlaw” for hundreds of years to come.45

The legends of the American Western outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid fit into this pattern. “The most familiar characterization of our American outlaws” writes Steckmesser, “is that they are ‘Robin Hoods.’”46 Kerouac, aware of the tradition of American Robin Hood outlaws, writes in Visions of Cody that he imagined Cassady’s crimes as “Robin Hood-type theft.”47

Using Robin Hood as an archetype, Hobsbawm established a theory of the “social bandit” that attempts to explain this phenomenon in Europe. Hobsbawm’s theory of the “social bandit” is one of the most seminal studies of outlawry. He separates the outlaw into two extremes. The first group consists of those who fought with and for their families. “At the other extreme,” argues Hobsbawm, “we have the classical Robin Hood who was and is essentially a peasant rebelling against landlords, usurers, and other representatives of what Thomas More called the ‘conspiracy of the rich.’”48 The social bandit resembles Camus’s rebel in that both are not revolutionaries but reformers working with a sense of justice and a code of honor. According to Hobsbawm, “Social banditry, a universal and virtually unchanging phenomenon, is little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs. Its ambitions are modest: a traditional world in which men are justly dealt with, not a new and perfect world.”49 Without strict organization, no clear ideology, no aspirations of creating a utopia, and a strong sense of justice and moderation, Camus’s rebel could be called a Hobsbawmian social bandit.

Historian Richard White applied Hobsbawm’s theory of social bandits to American Western outlaws. White argues that Hobsbawm’s explanation of European bandits does not work with the James-Younger gang because they were not peasants nor champions of traditional society. While White makes a strong argument about the gang coming from the social elite of the Confederacy, it should be noted that the gang in legend was conceived as upholding traditional internal Southern values, such as loyalty, chivalry, and honor (though in such equations slavery and elitism were latent), that were being undermined by the industrial North’s external social relationships defined economically. Arguing against the James-Younger gang as an agrarian rebellion, White places too much emphasis on the historical outlaws rather than on their legends, which had a much greater impact on the American imagination. Yet White does present an interesting alternative explanation for American social banditry. He explains:

It begins with the peculiar social conditions of western Missouri in the 1860s and 1870s and Oklahoma in the 1890s that allowed social bandits to emerge as variants of the widespread extralegal organizations already common in the West. The exceptional situations prevailing in both Missouri and Oklahoma encouraged popular identification with the outlaws whom local people supported not because of their crimes but rather because of certain culturally defined masculine virtues the outlaws embodied. In each locale there were good reasons to value such virtues. This emphasis on the bandits as symbols of masculinity, in turn, made them accessible to the larger culture at a time when masculinity itself was being widely worried over and glorified. The bandit’s virtues made him a cultural hero and embarked him on a posthumous career (of a very conservative sort) which is far from over yet.50

The appeal of the James-Younger gang, according to White, rests in its ability as strong, protective, and vengeful outlaws to embody certain masculine virtues. Rather than admiring the outlaws for their victory over corruption, White believes society admires them as a reflection of society’s own defeat and failure to reconcile contradictory societal demands. “The position of the Western hero,” writes White, “reflects the paradoxical position most Americans occupy in an industrialized capitalist society. The traits and acts of the outlaw become symbols of the larger, structural oppositions—oppositions of law and justice, individualism and community, nature and civilization—never adequately reconciled in American life.”51

White is not alone in emphasizing concerns over masculinity when dealing with various forms of Westerns in the popular imagination. In his analysis of the pulp Western, which he argues is “predominantly a masculine form”52 at the height of its popularity in the ’30s and ’40s, Cawelti notes that it typically played a crucial psychological function for its audience. Cawelti believes, “one of the major organizing principles of the Western is to so characterize the villains that the hero is both intellectually and emotionally justified in destroying them. Thus, it can be argued that the Western’s narrative pattern works out and resolves the tension between a strong need for aggression and a sense of ambiguity and guilt about violence.”53 Cawelti associates this narrative pattern with the Oedipus complex, and suggests that it appeals to those groups which emphasize masculine dominance. Western films have also been analyzed under the rubric of masculinity. According to Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns as a genre play an important part in American culture’s grappling with the conception of masculinity:

What actually brings them together into the narrative we recognize as a Western are a set of problems recurring in endless combination: the problem of progress, envisioned as a passing of frontiers; the problem of law or justice, enacted in a conflict of vengeance and social control; the problem of violence, in acknowledging its value yet honoring occasions when it can be controlled; and subsuming all, the problem of what it means to be a man, as aging victim in progress, embodiment of honor, champion of justice in an unjust world.54

Masculinity and gender related issues are often at the heart of Beat texts using the symbol of the American Western outlaw: Frazer affirms herself as a Belle Starresque outlaw woman in the highly masculinized Beat world, McClure exposes gender as a construction that can prohibit solidarity between men (represented by Billy the Kid) and women (represented by Jean Harlow), Dorn playful manipulates the historical and legendary gunslinger’s stereotypical masculinity, and Burroughs’s creates a masculine homosexual Western outlaw.

Yet an equally important issue to be noted in any discussion of the Beats’ fascination with the American Western outlaw is race. It must be emphasized that many of the Beats were not Anglo-Americans nor did they identify with mainstream white America, but the American Western outlaw can certainly be seen as a Anglo-American contruct. Paul I. Wellman’s important study A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (1961), where he traces an unbroken genealogical line of American outlawry from the Confederate guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill to Pretty Boy Floyd, unwittingly suggests why the Western outlaw might be admired by Anglo-Americans in the late twentieth century. “Crime, to the city gangster,” writes Wellman:

is a business, a cold-blooded, cruel, cowardly, inhuman business—in which, for example, the operation of “dope pushers” creating new narcotics addicts among adolescents with the endless misery that follows, merely to widen the market for illegally smuggled heroin, is only a single phase, but a typical one. I have no desire to glorify any criminal, but the outlaw of the West was less despicable than the city “hood” of the present. He at least took his risks, and he did not prey on children and the helpless.55

Though he does not explicitly state it, Wellman’s words infer that the Anglo-American outlaw of the nineteenth century was more courageous and respectable than the Italian-American mobster and the ethnic gangs of the twentieth century plaguing American cities with “dope.” Wellman writes, “Let it be noted that the names of the men in these pages are, with few exceptions, not ‘foreign’ names. Quantrill, James, Younger, Dalton, Doolin, Cook, Callahan, Adams, Spencer, Nash, Floyd—they are ‘American’ names, that is, names of families of the old American stock.”56 Calling these men “restless spirits, far-ranging and daring,” Wellman emphasizes that they were not the “products of congested cities, where the foreign-born were segregated in slums,” but “the product of farms, frontier towns, or the cattle range.”57 Though again it is not overtly stated, Wellman certainly infers that these Anglo-American country boys are essentially a different breed than the “foreign-born” of the cities producing despicable and cowardly criminals. For the Anglo-American Beats attracted to the virtuous Good Badmen embodying the spirit of Camus’s rebel, the American Western outlaw offered them a model that they could racially identify with while still rejecting the mainstream Anglo-American society. They did not share Wellman’s aversion to drugs, but the Anglo-American Beats did come from the same cultural background that romanticized the Anglo-American Western outlaw. While many of the Beats who were not African American more closely aligned themselves with African-American culture than mainstream white culture, they were excluded from fully joining the ranks of African Americans, but could find historical precedent in whites rejecting mainstream white culture in the American Western outlaw. This may seem inconsistent in regard to the Anglo-Beats’ racial politics, but their responsiveness to the Western outlaw was not mutually exclusive from their identification with black culture.

Norman Mailer, in his notorious 1957 essay “The White Negro,” articulated the desire of many white Americans to remove themselves from mainstream society after the trauma of the Second World War. He writes:

Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city . . . .58

Faced with this existential dilemma, Mailer suggests turning to African Americans as a model of a people who have always been forced to exist under similar traumatic conditions. There are many problems with Mailer’s analysis, not the least of which is his essentializing of African Americans and equating them with psychopaths, but the essay is a representation of the allure of both racial otherness and the outlaw for white Americans facing a historical crisis. Mailer calls the African American a “sexual outlaw” and a “psychic outlaw.” Without the ability to change skin color, the white hipster chooses to identify with the underworld of the African American. “So there was a new breed of adventurers,” writes Mailer, “urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”59 Many of the Beats did not fit comfortably in either mainstream white America or in the African-American hipster world depicted by Mailer. As African-American Beat poet Ted Joans succinctly writes, “I know a man who’s neither white nor black / And his name is Jack Kerouac.”60

The stance of the rebel provided a space for the Beat writers who did not accept mainstream white America nor the revolutionary black nationalism occupied by LeRoi Jones. The Beats were not “bourgeois individualists,” as Jones would later stigmatize them. Their politics were more social than individual. “The rebel . . . limits himself, as a matter of principle,” writes Camus, “to refusing to be humiliated without asking that others should be.”61 And the Beats were this type of rebel—a social rebel fighting for a communal justice. Camus’s reworking of Descartes, “I rebel—therefore we exist,”62 could easily stand as the slogan for the Beat Generation. Camus argues, “Rebellion’s demand is unity; historical revolution’s demand is totality.”63 Perhaps a better word than the translator’s “unity” is “solidarity,” as Gloria Anzaldúa suggests, because of the implications of unity being controlled by a central consciousness, and I believe Camus would have agreed on this point if he had heard Anzaldúa’s argument. For Camus, the rebel believes in justice through reform, and avoids the desire for control which is the fate of the revolutionary. The Beat writers, believing in a similar conception of the rebel, saw the American Western outlaw as a useful symbol for their political stance.

It must be emphasized that the Good Badman image of the American Western outlaw is a construction. Historians on the subject easily prove how such Good Badmen cannot be readily found in history. These figures have been usually constructed by Easterners longing for such heroes to help rejuvenate their faith in justice in an unjust world. In his analysis of those responsible for the creation of the Western hero, Steckmesser concludes, “It is also significant that most of the legend makers were Easterners, or if they lived in the West, they had been reared and educated in the East.”64 According to the Western film scholar Mitchell, “the Western has so little to do with an actual West that it might better be thought of as its own epitaph, written by an exuberant East encroaching on the possibilities already foreclosed because represented in terms of a West that ‘no longer exists,’ never did, never could.”65 The West is a production of popular culture more than historical veracity. The Beats become part of this tradition of legend makers when they perpetuate the myth of the Good Badman in their use of the American Western outlaw, but they also reform the image of the Western outlaw by making it a politically charged symbol.

While the American Western outlaw is not the most pervasive figure in Beat literature (that distinction would probably go to the jazz musician), the figure of the Western outlaw helps elucidate the politics of the Beat movement. The Old West outlaw is a particularly significant symbol to the Beats because this Good Badman embodied a political position the Beats chose to occupy themselves. Unlike such high modernists as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who found inspiration in the myths and folklore of Europe, the Beats, following such “low” modernists as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, reveled in the myths and folklore of America. The mythic outlaw gang, perhaps best romanticized in popular depictions of the James-Younger gang, reflected ideals of camaraderie, brotherhood, and loyalty. This was the type of social organization Ginsberg had in mind when he wrote in his journal, “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.”66 The code of honor such outlaw gangs lived by in radio shows, movies, and pulp novels from the ’20s to the ’50s helped create the outlaw gang in the imaginations of the Beats in their adolescence. Bob Dylan writes, “To live outside the law you must be honest” (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”), and I think the Beats would agree. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, each generation inherits the ideas of “the outlaws of the generation before,”67 but the Beats also inherited a symbolic kinship with the outlaws from the century before. Certainly the Beats are not the only group of writers fascinated by the American Western outlaw, but this particular group of writers were able in various forms to use the American Western outlaw as a political symbol.


1  Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

2  Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 293.

3  Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 381.

4  Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957; New York: Penguin, 1991), 19.

5  Kerouac, On the Road , 276–77.

6  Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 281.

7  Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones], “Letter to the Evergreen Review About Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose,” in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1992), 351–52.

8  Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (New York: Freundlich, 1984), 164.

9  Amiri Baraka, “Cuba Libre,” in Home: Social Essays (New York: Morrow, 1966), 61.

10  Hettie Jones, How I Became Hettie Jones (New York: Grove, 1997), 127.

11  Henry Miller thought of himself as an outlaw writer, signing a photograph to Anaïs Nin, “compliments of gangster-author Henry V. Miller,” but he was never really a fugitive from the law as Burroughs had been. For Miller, the extent of his infamy was the banning of his work, but Burroughs had been, at various times in his life, an actual criminal.

12  William S. Burroughs, My Education: A Book of Dreams (New York: Viking, 1995), 7.

13  John Tytell, Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), 34–35.

14  Lisa Phillips Lisa. “Beat Culture: America Revisioned,” in Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965. ed. Lisa Phillips (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995), 28.

15  Camus’s tragic death in an automobile accident in January 1960, like that of James Dean in September 1955, helped insure him a place as a countercultural icon in the 1960s.

16  Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, 1956), 249.

17  E.J. Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), 10–11.

18  Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, 12.

19  Camus, The Rebel, 14.

20  Camus, The Rebel, 284.

21  Camus, The Rebel, 106.

22  Camus, The Rebel, 177.

23  Qtd. in Ann Charters, ed. The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1992), 189.

24  Kerouac, On the Road, 5.

25  Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues (New York: Grove Weidenfeld 1990), 67.

26  Jack Kerouac, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (San Francisco: City Lights, 1994), 26.

27  Edward Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western (London: BFI, 1993), 38.

28  Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western, 30.

29  Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western, 35–36.

30  Mody C. Boatright, “The Western Bad Man as Hero,” in Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, XXVII., ed. Mody C. Boatright, Wilson M. Hudson, and Allen Maxwell (Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1957), 104.

31  Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody (New York: Penguin, 1993), 338.

32  Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western, 22.

33  Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western, 35.

34  Kent Ladd Steckmesser, The Western Hero in History and Legend (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 248.

35  Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 11.

36  Nachman, Raised on Radio, 309.

37  The Batman, created by Bob Kane, first appeared in 1939 and was inspired by The Shadow as well as the movie The Bat Whispers (1930) and Bela Lugosi. It is important to note that the original Batman evaded police who pursued him for his vigilante crimes. Unlike the unequivocally righteous and uncomplicated Superman, who first appeared in 1938, Batman had a dark psychological element to his personality which made the boundary between him and his evil foes occasionally difficult to determine.

38  Amiri Baraka, “In Memory of Radio,” in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1992), 340.

39  Qtd. in Charters, The Portable Beat Reader, 55.

40  Nachman, Raised on Radio, 197.

41  John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1999), 82.

42  R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor, “The Legend Since the Middle Ages,” in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 177.

43  Dobson and Taylor, “The Legend Since the Middle Ages,” 182.

44  Dobson and Taylor, “The Legend Since the Middle Ages,” 183–84.

45  Kent Ladd Steckmesser, Western Outlaws: The Good Badman in Fact, Film, and Folklore (Claremont, CA: Regina, 1983), 3.

46  Kent Ladd Steckmesser, “Robin Hood and the American Outlaw: A Note on History and Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore 79 (1966): 348.

47  Kerouac, Visions of Cody, 339.

48  Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, 4.

49  Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, 5.

50  Richard White, “Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border: American Social Bandits,” The Western Historical Quarterly 12 (1981): 397.

51  White, “Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border,” 407.

52  Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 13.

53  Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 14.

54  Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3.

55  Paul I. Wellman, A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), 14.

56  Wellman, A Dynasty of Western Outlaws, 14.

57  Wellman, A Dynasty of Western Outlaws, 14.

58  Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” 1957, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1992), 583.

59  Mailer, “The White Negro,” 587.

60  Qtd. In Richard Meltzer, “Another Superficial Piece About 158 Beatnik Books,” in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture, ed. Holly George-Warren (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 86.

61  Camus, The Rebel, 18.

62  Camus, The Rebel, 22.

63  Camus, The Rebel, 251.

64  Kent Ladd Steckmesser, The Western Hero in History and Legend (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 246.

65  Mitchell, Westerns, 6.

66  Qtd. in Steve Watson, The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960 (New York: Pantheon, 1995), 57.

67  F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation,” Esquire 70, no. 4 (October 1968): 119.


Kurt Hemmer is Associate Professor of English at Harper College, Palatine, IL, USA.  He received his PhD in American literature at Washington State University.  His article “The Prostitute Speaks: Brenda Frazer’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs” was published in Paradoxa 18: Fifties Fictions (2003).  He wrote the award-winning documentaries As We Cover the Streets: Janine Pommy Vega (Harper, 2003) and Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure (Harper, 2005), both produced by Tom Knoff.  He is also the editor of the Encyclopedia of Beat Literature (Facts On File, 2007).

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