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The Beats: Many have Kansas roots

George Laughead, Jr.

I grew up in Dodge City. My father grew up here and my grandfather was on the first city commission, so I have deep roots.  Part of living in southwest Kansas was that we had dozens of buses and trains going to all sorts of places back when I was a kid.  Thus we had a paperback bookstore very early and it had a lot of books.

In that bookstore, I found a book called The Beats edited by Seymour Krim. It had come out in 1960.  In 1963, I stole a copy of it. Because I was 13, the owner wouldn’t sell me one. 

This started my relationship with “the Beats” and little did I know at that time how many of them were from Kansas and how it would follow on me as I moved from Dodge to Lawrence and later living a decade in Boston and a decade in Kansas City and now back to Kansas and Dodge and Lawrence.

I bought the book – or stole it, excuse me.  I wanted to do book reports for my junior high book reports on Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs, but the sweet ninth grade English teacher, bright wife of a Methodist minister, fought me all the way, but finally allowed me to use Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind,” so the Beats started effecting me in 1963.

November 21, 1963, I turned 14 and my family went to Garden City to watch Benny Goodman in a concert.  The next day, November 22, 1963, sometime around noon, John Kennedy was dead.   So that changed our lives.  That changed lives for everyone.  And I was still reading the Beats.  I still turned to it. 

Later I would get to know William Burroughs because he’d moved to Kansas. He lived in Lawrence.  Because of a student that I had in a class that I taught that used a book Burroughs in 1970 at the University of Kansas. William signed my book that I had had all those years.  I was rolling joints for him in his bedroom. 

And through all this, I got to know Charley Plymell who was born in Holcomb; and Bob Branaman who was from Wichita; and Roxie Powell from Ulysses; and then the poet Michael McClure who was from Marysville.  In Lawrence, George Kimball and Jim McCrary and Grist Magazine and S.Clay Wilson and John Fowler who owned the book store.  All of these people were associated with the Beats.  A huge number of the Beats were from the Midwest and Kansas, in particular.  In fact, of the living ones, most of them. 

In fact, when the book store The Abington closed in 1968, it was kind of the end of an era and then the hippies took over.  So, I have been involved with the Beats in my travels.  They have caused me to want to know more about the world. They’ve pushed me intellectually.  They helped me as a quiet kid and a reader and with early tremblings of what was later the gay part of my life, they helped me to survive in Dodge City.

Thank you for your time.