Friday, February 18, 2011

Faulty Memory Syndrome - A Note on an Interview with Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun, man of letters, fixer.

We were glancing over an old (more than 10-years-old) interview we stumbled upon with scholar/teacher/cultural historian Jacques Barzun, "The Man Who Knew Too Much". It appeared in October 2000 in the Austin Chronicle and can be read in its entirety here

In the course of the conversation, the subject turns to Allen

Interviewer: Since you were in Columbia in the Fifties, you were also at the center of the Beats, since they all went there.

Jacques Barzun: Allen Ginsberg was a student of Lionel (Trilling)’s
and of mine, not in our joint course (a seminal “great books” 
seminar), but separately. But we joined together to save him
from the penalties of the law, because he was involved in a very bad 
affair with an older man who seduced him sexually and used him to help
dispose of the corpse of a man that this fellow had killed. Poor Allen, aged 17 or 18, helped to dump this body into the Hudson River. 
Well, was he in trouble there! With the help of the dean of the college (Columbia)-- who also knew Allen, the dean, Lionel, and 
I waited on the district attorney who fortunately was a Columbia 
graduate and we said, "This youth is really innocent, although he 
committed an awful blunder and he's also very gifted in the English 
Department." We didn't say he was a poet or that might have queered 
his chances! And that it would be a catastrophe to turn him over to a criminal court and put him in jail. We had to go again to a judge in 
Brooklyn, I think, because Allen came from Brooklyn or something. 
Anyway, the district attorney wasn't enough, so we went to a second hearing, which was much more sticky. But Allen was let off.

All sorts of bells went off when we read this, so we turned to our resident Ginsberg scholar, Bill Morgan, who provided this necessary, and interesting, corrective:

“This question about the Jacques Barzun comments is a good example of what any biographer has to be very careful about -- memory. I have no doubt that Barzun was being completely honest in his answers to the questions about Allen, but his memory here fails him badly. It does make you wonder how often something is repeated that was incorrectly remembered by someone else. That's why the voices of the last survivors becomes suspect in my mind. For example, why are the memories of Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, David Amram, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and all, considered to be the "true stories." There is no substitute for actual first-hand documents written at the time of events, and even those can be incorrect, misleading, or outright fabrications, as well. Oral histories are often entertaining, but I try not to put too much stock in them. The Barzun is a good example of the type, and, like I said, I am quite certain he wasn't trying to invent stories or gild the lily.

First of all, the question asked is misleading:

“Since you were in Columbia in the Fifties, you were also at the center of the Beats, since they all went there”.

Barzun was Allen's teacher during the ‘Forties, not the ‘fifties. By the ‘fifties, Allen had already graduated and moved on in his life. Saying Barzun was "in" Columbia makes it sound like he was a student, and saying "you were also at the center of the Beats, since they all went there" doesn't seem accurate. I don't think Barzun was at the center of the group and "all" the Beats certainly didn't go there.

Then, as to Barzun’s reply

This is a case of having many memories blend together after the passage of 50 or 60 years. Allen was a student of both Trilling and Barzun. Allen said in 1949 that he had studied History with Barzun. We could find out the names of the course or courses through his college transcript. But from here on out, Barzun's recollections are not accurate. I believe that he probably did, like Trilling, try to help whenever Allen was in trouble. Barzun saying that Allen was seduced by an older man (meaning, I assume, Lucien Carr) is not true. I think here he was thinking of the fact that Lucien was being pursued (and seduced?) by David Kammerer, who was considerably older than Lucien. At the time, Carr killed Kammerer, Allen was still a virgin and hadn't had sex with anyone. Allen did not help dispose of the corpse, Lucien did all that himself. Kerouac helped dispose of the murder weapon, but Allen wasn't involved in that, and in fact he was never charged as a material witness in the case, as both Kerouac and Burroughs were. The body did end up in the Hudson River, and Allen had just turned 18 at the time, so that part is correct. It really wasn't Allen who was in trouble at that time, but Lucien, Jack, and William, although you could certainly say that Allen was upset and worried about the situation. So it might be that Barzun helped with the district attorney on Carr's behalf, (and I recall hearing that the D.A. was a Columbia grad, but that might be my own poor memory). Barzun also seems to be mixing that 1944 story up with the later April 1949 case where Allen gets involved with Huncke, Little Jack Melody, and Vicki Russell and their burglaries. Those three were stealing and storing the stolen goods in Allen's apartment when they were all arrested after a car chase and crash in Bayside, Queens. And so, although Allen didn't "come from Brooklyn" it might have been that they had to appear in a court in Queens, or Brooklyn, on Allen's behalf in that case. It was then that Trilling, Van Doren, and probably Barzun helped by getting Allen posted to the mental hospital instead of jail, and there Allen met Carl Solomon and the rest of the history takes place. Technically Allen wasn't "let off" but instead spent much of the next year in the psychiatric hospital.

May we go on?

“You knew he was a poet even back then?”.

Allen was writing poetry in the mid-forties, but he wasn't only interested in poetry at that time, so probably Barzun wouldn't have thought of him as a poet that early.

Did he send you "Howl"?

No, I don't think he did…?

I'd be surprised if Allen didn't send a copy of Howl to Barzun. He sent copies to Van Doren, Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, who were all his teachers, too. Not to mention T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Pound, Eberhart, W.C. Williams, and Charlie Chaplin !

He sent me a letter from India, where I think he got a fellowship to spend a year or so...

Needless to say, Allen never got a “fellowship” to go to India, he just went on his own. I don't think he ever got any type of fellowship in his life and certainly not to go to India. I've never seen the letter to Barzun that he mentions, but I'd like to. I certainly don't believe that Allen would have written to him hoping to get a job for a "wonderful guru." This was a decade before he became interested in Buddhist practice, etc., so it certainly didn't have anything to do with Trungpa...

So, I've gone on much too long, but wanted to show how memory plays tricks on honest people. Don't believe all you read in the papers (or online)!


  1. Faulty memory... I always thought that Allen received some kind of grant (?) (a Guggenheim?) to travel around US in '66. The whole crew got to Wichita and everyone went up to Lawrence and Nebraska for readings including Charley. The tape recorder Allen was using was supposedly a gift from Dylan. We all used to go have breakfast at 3am at the Eaton Hotel cafe. Robert Frank filmed much of that including the portrait of Carry Nation in the lobby, I believe although I've never seen it. So maybe my memory is of something that doesn't exist...
    Pamela Beach Plymell

  2. Hey Pam, I don't think he got a fellowship for that crosscountry trip. Dylan gave him the money to buy the Uher recorder that he used during that trip, so you could consider that a grant. Those readings you refer to were attended by huge crowds,and mentioned in all the biographies so no faulty memory there! He actually did get the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship Grant in 1987.