Fictionalized Memories of Balto’s Beatnik Era

by John Goodspeed

Baltimore: A Novel by Harrison Edward Livingstone. Baltimore: the Conservatory Press. Illustrated. 467 pages. $27. ISBN 0-941401-09-X
     Harrison Livingstone has come up with a novel about Baltimore which, despite a few shortcomings, reproduces--more accurately than I have ever seen it done--the character and behavior of a group of artists who flourished (more or less) in that benighted city in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
     That period fell in the middle of my 1951-1967 tenure as a daily columnist on the Baltimore Evening Sun (R.l.P.), and I knew most of the painters and sculptors Livingstone mentions by name in Baltimore. Two or three of them became fairly famous. I occasionally drank with some of them in a favorite saloon of the time--Martick's.
     I cannot say that these fellows -- all men--talked and drank and created art and carried on with women (and girls) exactly as Livingstone's characters do. I can say I saw some of them behave in very similar fashion and nothing they say or do in the novel, under their real names or otherwise, surprises me.
     These were Baltimore's ‘beatniks’ (although one of them, a half-generation older and probably the best known, may be more accurately labelled by the earlier term, ‘Bohemian’). Most of them thought of themselves as social radicals. I think most of them sincerely admired the irresponsible bums on the move in the rambling fiction of Jack Kerouac, the pathetic bums on city streets in the howling poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and the cacophonic shriek of John Coltrane's “new-thing” jazz sax. Beatniks were supposed to admire all of that.
     Personally I never liked any of that--maybe because I am also a half-generation older than beatniks and generally prefer clear fiction, mature poetry and hot jazz. As for art, many of the serious painters and sculptors in Baltimore at that time were “magic” or straight representational realists, but several were radically abstract-expressionist, admired the so called action painting of Jackson Pollock, and produced pictures that always reminded me of Depression-era kitchen linoleum.
     All beatniks, of course, like the Bohemians before them and more numerous hippies who followed, were thoroughly opposed to the Establishment. The characters in Baltimore call it the Power Structure. Most of the villains in the novel are WASP lawyers.
     Free Love: As for romance, I’m fairly sure, although I could not prove it in court, that many of these beatnik artists--and maybe some of their wives and girlfriends--believed in “free love” (to employ the Bohemian term for sexual promiscuity). Several vivid scenes in Baltimore, all involving characters with names I think are fictitious, describe, and definitely do not denounce, adultery, incest, lesbianism and intercourse between middle-aged men and aggressive, well-developed girls aged 14 or so.
     These were the years before AIDS was detected in this country but after gonorrhea and syphilis were believed to be conquered, and sex between consenting people (not necessarily adults) was true love, according to the beatniks--although not necessarily if the lovers were both male. Some of Kerouac’s male idols were homosexual, but Baltimore beatniks were macho.
     That, at any rate, is the message in Baltimore as I read it--and as I remember the beatniks I knew in Martick’s.
     Livingstone’s new novel is (somewhat romantically) “dedicated to the Baltimore artists who took their own lives.” I knew three of the four he names who did it by shooting themselves in the head. One did it on the Eastern Shore, and one of the other suicides spent part of his childhood on the Shore and occasionally returned after he grew up, presumably to escape Establishment persecution in Baltimore.
     Better than Kerouac? Livingstone is a talented writer, considerably better than Kerouac in my opinion. His spelling in Baltimore should have been corrected more rigorously, and I saw one factual error in it: Vice President Spiro Agnew never went to jail as specified. Charged with taking bribes when he was governor of Maryland, Ted (as Marylanders called him then) wound up with a verdict equivalent to guilty but without a prison sentence.
     Fine descriptions: Livingstone has written three previous novels, a collection of poems, and four books about the Kennedy assassination (which he believes was perpetrated by a right-wing conspiracy). His Baltimore is a big, sweeping, uncompromising, basically beatnik novel. It includes several beautiful descriptions--of the city’s rooftops, of historic Mt. Vernon Place, of the Belvedere Owl Bar, the Valley Inn, the Hunt Cup and, of course, Martick’s, Leon’s, the Mt. Royal Tavern and lesser, grungier saloons des artistes. To this longtime Baltimore resident (1941-1990), Livingstone’s Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin and its denizens in their fading heyday are much more colorful, certainly more interesting, than the same city and similar denizens are in Anne Tyler’s novels.
     Livingstone is also the publisher of Baltimore--a self-promotion no longer considered a vanity in a good writer. As it probably never should have been. Another good Baltimore writer, Upton Sinclair, long ago published some of the first books he wrote.
     A pitiful character: One character in Livingstone’s novel is a somewhat pitiful Baltimore writer who has repeatedly sued a publisher who has refused to publish his work as written, threatened him with blacklisting and bribed a judge to rule against him. This character’s whining may get on your nerves--as it did mine--and his courtroom torment goes on too long, in my opinion. Never mind that, though. If you want to know what the artistic heart and soul (and groin) of the Largest Unknown City in America was like just before it began its slide to ruin, this is the novel for you.
John Goodspeed now lives on the Eastern Shore. This review, originally published in the Easton Star-Democrat, is reprinted with permission of the author.

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This story was published on Mar. 3, 1999.