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Behind the Beat
Remembering "Neurotica," the short-lived journal of the Beats.

James Campbell

The Beat Generation writers are unusual among literary gangs in never having had a little magazine of their own through which to distribute their early work. At the beginning of 1950, Ginsberg had still to publish in anything other than a student journal; Kerouac, though he had a novel waiting to come out, had to date published nothing of a literary nature at all, while Burroughs, age 35, did not even consider himself a writer.

The closest there was to a beat magazine (thought it could only be seen that way in retrospect) in the late 1940s and early ’50s was a slim, eccentric journal whose contributors moved among the bases of art, sex, and neuroticism. Neurotica was owned and edited by a young gallery owner from St. Louis, like Burroughs, called Jay Landesman. In the first issue, Spring 1948, he set out the magazine’s aims:

Neurotica is a literary exposition, defense, and correlation of the problems and personalities that in our culture are defined as "neurotic."

It is said that if you tie a piece of red cloth to a gull’s leg its fellow-gulls will peck it to pieces: and Neurotica wishes to draw an analog to this observation and the plight of today’s creative "anxious" man.

We are interested in exploring the creativeness of this man who has been forced to live underground.

The magazine’s most prolific contributor was a maverick psychologist called Gershon Legman, described by John Clellon Holmes, who was a friend of Landesman and provided the conduit for beatness, as a "small belligerent facsimile of Balzac." The general theme of Legman’s articles for Neurotica was that the American public’s increasing appetite for violence and sadism in fiction (Legman did not condescend to study film) stemmed directly from the puritanical suppression of the libido in everyday life.

Legman made his debut in Neurotica 3, with "The Psychopathology of the Comics," which examined the aggressive nature of children’s comic books. In the next issue he published "Institutionalized Lynch: The anatomy of a murder-mystery." In three separate columns, he listed the instances of "Sadism," "Sadism and Sex," and "Sex," as they occurred in the action of a best-selling novel, The Strange Woman, (1941) by Ben Ames Williams. Legman worked on the principle that, as the law tolerated no general description of sex, the result was the "mundane substitute for sex"–i.e., sadism:

Murder having replaced sex in the popular arts, the glorification of one requires the degradation of the other ... so that we are faced in our culture by the insurmountable schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder–a crime, in fact–is, on paper, the best-seller of all time.

Taking a fifty-page sample of The Strange Woman, Legman found ten examples of "Sadism" ("Woman listens ‘with pent breath’ to details of whipping a man ... Did he bleed," etc.), ten examples of "Sadism and Sex" ("her knotted fists beat at him in passionate ecstasies"), and a single evocation of "Sex," with that being a "nebulous description of a coitus."

The early issues of Neurotica contained articles which combined a serious intellectual tone with a tendency to titillate, such as a piece on prostitution as a force for social good, by Rudolph Friedmann (in the way that books on spanking and bondage were often written by someone with a medical practitioner’s initials after his or her name, Friedmann was said to have "worked in connection with educational activities in London"), another on homosexuals who marry, by Nathaniel Thornton ("Professor Thornton teaches abnormal psychology"). Other articles covered fetishists such as "Jack the Snipper," who secretly cut off locks of ladies’ hair in cinemas, and the bar as a pick-up place. In Neurotica 2, there was a very short story, "Tea for Two," by Holmes (signed simply "Clellon Holmes"), a limbering-up exercise for the novel he was planning to write about the scene, and the first appearance in the pages of the magazine of a writer defined (even self-defined) as "beat":

This is a local fable and the boy is Beeker. This guy was a Pekoe-man, and he blew himself out of the coils of a trumpet every night. He came on for culture, not for loot; so he passed the marihuana to his cohorts when the need was near. This tea-dispensing on the cuff brought in enough for bills, and the lad was living in a new era.

There were few journals in 1948 which were willing to publish a sympathetic portrait of a drug-pusher, and there were even fewer editors who would risk confrontation with the law by printing the word "fuck," which appeared in Neurotica 5 (Autumn 1949), and led to the banning of the issue by the Post Office. The same issue included an article by Marshall McLuhan, in which he wrote that "Time, Life, and Fortune (the New Yorker can be thrown in with them) are the American Bloomsbury, our psychological bureaucracy, inhabited by well-paid artist-apes."

Ginsberg’s first contribution to a magazine with a nationwide circulation appeared in Neurotica 6 (Spring 1950), by which time the magazine had adopted a furtive beat identity. Ginsberg’s brief "Song: Fie My Fum" was not likely to advance by much the editor’s avowed cause of describing "a neurotic society from the inside"; nevertheless, it was the right kind of verse for the venue, with its playful sexual content: "Say my oops, Ope my shell, Roll my bones, Ring my bell ..." The contributor’s note informed readers that "Allen Ginsberg recently recovered from a serious illness." There was also an article on homosexuality and art, a dissertation of "Afro-Cuban rumba" by the white Negro Anatole Broyard, and a short piece on literary parties by the up-and-coming novelist Chandler Brossard, who was soon to set himself up as Broyard’s nemesis, exposing him as a black man passing for white. The longest and most serious contribution to Neurotica 6 was "Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a shock patient" by Carl Goy, the pseudonym of Ginsberg’s new friend in the Columbia PI, Carl Solomon: The testimony that follows is that of an eye-witness, one who has undergone insulin shock treatment and has slept through fifty comas:

Upon being strapped into my insulin bed, I would at once break off my usual stream of puns and hysterical chatter. I would stare at the bulge I made beneath the canvas restraining sheet, and my body, insulin-packed, would become to me an enormous concrete pun with infinite levels of association, and thereby a means of surmounting association with things, much as the verbal puns had surmounted the meaning of words....

Each coma is utterly incomparable to that of the previous day. Lacking a time-sense and inhabiting all of these universes at one and the same time, my condition was one of omnipresence of being everywhere at no time.

Neurotica published only three more issues, before coming to an end in another battle with the law, over an article by Legman on–what could be more fitting?–the castration complex.


This article was excerpted from This is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris.

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review



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