If I neglected to tell you that Naples Biblioteca Nazionale has an American section, I apologize. This is certainly something I should have mentioned before now. Run by Lucia Marinelli, it opened in 1963 with a collection supplied by United States Information Service (USIS) to “spread the knowledge of American culture in postwar Europe.”
Today the collection includes volumes on American literature, art, history, sociology, and more as well as a collection of American weekly magazines. Not only that, Lucia organizes an English language Book club that meets weekly on Saturday mornings. Typically drawn from the American classics, this years’ book is John Steinback’s the Grapes of Wrath.
In one of those strange confluence of events type of situations Lucia managed to arrange a lecture by the well known, highly respected author Bill Morgan, the foremost chronicler of the Beat Generation and archivist and bibliographer to the glue that held them together, Allen Ginsberg.
Working for the man who gave the world Howl for some 20 years until his death in 1997, Bill had a front row seat to the workings of Allen’s mind and a back stage pass to Allen’s inner circle, the Beats. Men like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady, just to name a few.
A group of disenfranchised writers and poets that came together after WWII in NYC and later made their way to San Francisco picking up members along the way, they were the precursor to the Beatniks of the 50s and the catalyst for social movement of the 60s.
As Ginsberg’s archivist, Bill was responsible for cataloging, organizing and safeguarding every piece of paper in Ginsberg’s extensive collection. Most of these papers are now in the Stanford University Library thanks to Bill’s hard work and dedication. A librarian by training, he also worked with other Beat writers to get their work into collections.
To some degree however, Bill’s work has only just begun.
Today at 4:30 pm in the Venezuelan section of the library, Lucia Marinelli of the American Section of Biblioteca Nazionale will host Bill Morgan and his lecture based on his book The Typewriter is Holy where he will talk about the history of the Beat generation and give a general overview of the movement. Bill will also give this lecture at the University of Salerno tomorrow.
In another confluence of events, I was lucky enough to sit down with Bill yesterday over a caffè and find out more about the Beats and Bill’s latest project.
Of course my main question was, what if anything did the Beats have to do with Italy or for that matter, Naples?
Bill’s biography of Allen Ginsberg, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsbergwas translated into Italian and published in Italy in 2010 as Io celebro me stesso: La vita quasi private di Allen Ginsberg.
But as Bill explained, the Beats were well known in Italy long before that, brought to the Italian public by Fernanda Pivano, known to most simply as Nanda. Called the “Italian Voice of the Beat Generation,” the author, journalist and translator from Milan got her start translating part of the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.
She had already translated Ernest Hemingway and she really liked the Beat writers when Kerouac was first published. She got his books and then decided she would translate him. From his work she met Allen Ginsberg and then once she knew Allen, she knew everyone. That’s been my claim to fame. Since I worked for Allen for twenty years, through him, I met everyone.
Fernanda even played the gracious translator to a visibly drunk Jack Kerouac as he made his way from Milan to Rome to Naples on a 1966 book tour arranged by his publisher Mondadori for the Italian publication of his Big Sur.
These are the places, these are the stories that Bill Morgan is now in search of. As Bill explained, biographically, it is important to see and experience first hand the locations where the person lived, traveled and worked.
They always wrote about what they were experiencing… When the Beats went places, that’s what they wrote about…. When Kerouac went to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for example, he wrote about that and you can go there and the curtains that are in one of the little chapels in Saint Patrick’s are the same curtains as he describes in his writing fifty years ago. As far as travel writing, there’s nothing better. And almost all of the beats were that way, writing about what they saw.
This concept that is not new to Bill.
I’ve done a series of books, three books so far and this would be the fourth one. Kind of a tour guide to where the Beats lived and wrote and died, the first one was New York City, and that was where they met as a group in the 1940s (Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City, City Lights, 1997).
And then I did a guide on San Francisco (these are all published by City Lights) and of course that’s where they came together in the 50s and became famous (The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour, City Lights, 2003).
Then last year I published the whole Beats in America, so I kind of documented, especially Kerouac’s On the Road trips and where they all lived and where born and that kind of thing because they came from everywhere (Beat Atlas: A State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America, City Lights Publishers, 2011).
And then I thought that was probably the end of it. But as I went around talking about that book, people would ask questions about when is the world book going to be done. I thought that was kind of a joke until it dawned on me that these people went everywhere and City Lights was interested in it so just a week or two ago I made an arrangement with them to write the fourth book which would be a worldwide guide.
So did any of the Beats make their way to Naples? Certainly not to the extent they spent time in other places in Italy and the world, but yes, much to my surprise and excitement they did.
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso found their way to Naples as did Harold Norse, who as Bill explained worked for the USIS and lived here for a couple of years. In fact, he lived in my old neighborhood of Posillipo and wrote the poem Classic Frieze in a Garage that makes reference not only to his home in Posillipo but to other locations in Naples Bill is hoping to uncover.
Unfortunately however, as Bill explains, the impressions they left behind were not always favorable. Kerouac’s drunken renditions of Frank Sinatra songs at the Otto Jazz Club in the Vomero or Amiri Baraka’s reading his poem Somebody Blew up America at Teatro del Parco dei Camaldoli written after 9/11 and asserting that it was a Jewish conspiracy, left an indelible if less than flattering impression.
Bill shared a bit more with me about some of the Beats places here in Naples, but I won’t give anything away until his research is complete. Having already traveled to India, Tangier and Mexico as part of his research for Ginsberg’s biography I Celebrate Myself, he is just beginning his research here, starting in Naples first and next traveling to Rome.
I can’t wait to see what he learns and am looking forward to reading about the places he finds and the stories he uncovers as he traces the footsteps of the Beats in Naples, in Italy and in the world.