Saturday, 29 January 2011

Literary style

About two years ago, I came across a book entitled Tales of Beatnik Glory (by Ed Sanders) in a secondhand bookstore. I bought it on an impulse, not knowing anything about its author but being quite intrigued by its cover and the Allen Ginsberg and W. S. Burroughs reviews.
It ended up uncovering me a large part of the New York beatnik underground of the late fifties and early sixties, the end and height of this movement; Tales unveiled the lifestyle, the language, and the musical inclinations of a whole artistic group.
Ed Sanders, "the bridge between the beatnik and the hippie generations", was (and is still) part of the band The Fugs, one of the most ridiculously irreverencious bands I have heard from this era so far. Ridiculous, but amazing at the same time as listening to them proves to be a real eye-opener when it comes to consider what rebellion and activism meant at the time.

Most of the stories Tales contains often describe the life of extravagant artists, some taking themselves too seriously, others not enough; one of my favourites is this man who spends thirty minutes in his bath every morning wearing scuba diving apparatus. One odd thing Sanders captures very well, to my delight, is the importance so many of his characters put on style, providing very inspiring, detailed, and often tongue-in-cheek descriptions. I thought I'd share them with you:

Being & Nothingness

"The day they met she was dressed Being & Nothingness ballerina beat. Her long blond tresses were pulled back into a bun, and there were wonderful golden bangs in front. She wore black dancer's stockings and black high-heel spikes with those stylish spear-toes. Her brown leather vest, with laces up the sides, was the rage of Bleecker Street, worn over a tight black turtleneck with no brassiere, the ultimate of boldness in 1959. Her eyes were Nefertiti'd with great Juliette Greco streaks of kohl and lots of green eyeshadow." (p. 4)

From Madame Braznick

"Louise liked to wear long-sleeved blouses with drawstrings at the sleeves and at the neck. Discovering Ukrainian clothing, as made by craftspeople of the Lower East Side, was a joy. She must have ordered ten of those blouses, many of them sewn with flowered patterns, from Madame Braznick, a manufacturer of dancing boots and Ukrainian attire on East 7th Street. [...] She bought an armload of canvas and extra supplies and a pair of red dancing boots from Madame Braznick." (p. 94-98)


  1. geat post!
    i need to hunt down this book!
    i fell in love with the beats in highschool...nd that feeling lingers...;)

  2. I love the collages you put together to illustrate the descriptions. The clothing descriptions in books that stood out for me are the ones in "I Capture the Castle"; anyone in Hemingway's books but Brett in "The Sun Also Rises" sounded like a sharp dresser; "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt. A whole series of posts waiting to happen...

  3. If Jane: Oh, the Beats... Sometimes I go through phases when they're all I want to read. If you haven't already read it, I would really recommend Harvey Pekar's graphic novel "The Beats", it's very well researched and interesting!
    Lin: I'm glad to see you like them, I'm planning on making 'literary style' posts a semi-regular feature on the blog. It's funny you're mentioning Brett because I was thinking about how well her physical characteristics and style were described as I was making these! I will definitely put her on my list, and I will keep in mind your other suggestions for my future readings!

  4. I've never been fully aware of literary descriptions of dress, but your post's made me think about it more. I'm always amazed at how much thought goes into creating a character, right down to their tights and shoes. Love the first outfit too!

  5. oh my this was one of the most beloved books in my early days of college when i had fallen for a treehugger who introduced me to the beats and it was gary sander who unlocked that world to me.

    its such a great read.

  6. I knew Madame Braznick, and I owned two pair of her husband's amazing boots. (You found a good likeness of Ukrainian boots, except that Fedor Braznick's had Cuban heels of stacked brown leather). His boots were the stuff of legend, he had made dance-footwear for ballet companies and Broadway show companies all up and down the East Coast. They were lovely people, and I think they found their "cult status" among the ethnically-inclined beats/hippies a little bewildering.


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