Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 'Lost' Kerouac/Burroughs Novel Surfaces

George Kimball writing in the Boston Phoenix documents the long, strange journey of a book co-authored by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

Kimball's article is a delicious read all unto itself as he illuminates the history of the authors and main characters as well as a back-story that has kept this book from being published for decades.

English teachers studying the Beat genre will welcome this peek into the earliest writings and adventures of America's literary giants.

From the article,
More artifact than art
That a tale so fascinating to the press might also lend itself to dramatic adaptation occurred to many. In his introduction to Hippos, Grauerholz notes that, over the years, recognizable aspects of the Carr-Kammerer killing have cropped up “in novels and memoirs . . . by Chandler Brossard, William Gaddis, Alan Harrington, John Clellon Holmes, Anatole Broyard, Howard Mitcham, and even James Baldwin.”

Ginsberg, in a school project, was the first of the inner circle to attempt a fictional treatment, but when word of The Bloodsong, Ginsberg’s work-in-progress for a Columbia creative-writing class, reached the university administration, the future poet was summoned to the dean’s office and threatened with expulsion lest he further damage Columbia’s already-sullied reputation with his “smutty” novel.

Ginsberg dutifully discontinued his project, and Kerouac and Burroughs commenced writing And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks shortly thereafter. (The title was a touch of quintessentially Burroughsian whimsy, appropriated from a radio broadcast describing a circus fire.) The two alternated chapters in a curious format that led to a sometimes-bewildering three levels of authorship.

The chapters are pseudonymously narrated by “Will Dennison” (the Burroughs narrator) and “Mike Ryko” (the Kerouac narrator), and when the book made the rounds of publishing houses in 1945, the author credits read “by William Lee and John Kerouac” — the same bylines that would grace the first published work of each, Burroughs’s Junky (1953) and Kerouac’s earlier conventional mainstream novel The Town and the City (1950). Not until they followed Ginsberg’s Howl with their own respective signature works, Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), did they become Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

The publishing world reacted with sublime indifference to the Hippos manuscript, which after numerous rejections was eventually stowed away under a floorboard in the home of Kerouac’s mother, and the unread book assumed a certain legendary underground cachet. (I had heard about it even before Kerouac’s death, and that was 40 years ago.)


An excerpt from the book can be found here.

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