Back Beat

By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  October 24, 2008

The story preoccupied the New York tabloids for weeks, not because of the fame of the principals, whose renown was still more than a decade away, but because “The Columbia Murder,” with its elements of sexual obsession and its Ivy League motif, provided the properly salacious ingredients to make it juicy front-page fodder.

Carr’s defense was essentially the one suggested by Burroughs, and he wound up doing only two years in a state reformatory in Elmira. Only years later did it come to light that, while his relationship with Kammerer was almost certainly unconsummated, he had engaged in sexual hijinks with other men, including Ginsberg. This revelation appears to have been a source of deep humiliation for the hard-boiled newspaperman. (When Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, it was originally dedicated “to Lucien Carr,” who requested that his name be omitted from subsequent editions.) And it was out of respect for Carr that the publication of Hippos was not contemplated until the killer was safely buried under ground.

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.)

Kerouac, who periodically attempted to revive interest in Hippos, was wont to describe it as if it were a suppressed masterpiece, but then Jack thought every first draft he ever wrote was a masterpiece, and many of them weren’t. (If nothing else, last year’s publication of The Scroll has validated the role of Malcolm Cowley; Kerouac claimed Cowley’s revisions of On the Road had done grievous harm to the work’s intended “spontaneity,” but a comparison of the two pretty conclusively establishes that the Viking editor made it a much better book.)

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