I have always been troubled at the reaction of Ginsberg and the other Beats, namely Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, to the murder and especially their defense of the murderer, their friend Lucien Carr, and their collective throwing under the bus of the victim of the crime, David Kammerer, who was also their friend, and whom Carr and his lawyers condemned as an obsessed homosexual stalker.
Countless queer men and women have been the victims of bigotry and abuse, including violence and even murder. Often, the perpetrators of the crimes have undertaken to make the victims "responsible" for the crimes they were victims of.
Why would the Beats, most of whom were queer or bi, perpetuate these homophobic tropes and defend a gay basher and killer?
Nearly as troubling to me was that when I discussed the case recently with friends, several of the younger ones had absolutely no idea who Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and The Beats were.
These were intelligent, well-informed young people I was speaking to, yet somehow, they had never read any of the Beat classics, or even heard of them.
I think it is safe to say that practically any young person in the 1950's, 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, would have been familiar with the Beats, that crazy group of writers and poets who coalessed around Columbia University in New York City in the 1940's. Anyone interested in poetry or prose, especially those who tended toward rebel/Outsider perspectives in politics, lifestyle, culture, and sexuality, would have read the seminal Beat works such as Ginsberg's classic 1956 poem Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, dragging themselves through the angry, negro streets at dawn, searching for a fix
...as well as Kerouac's novel, which launched a million hitchhikers in search of America, 1957's On The Road, and Burroughs 1959 junkie bible Naked Lunch.
How was it that in the past few years, the Beats have slipped from their former prominence in rebel arts and letters? Would it be too trite to blame video gamer culture for these challenging yet highly approachable works being passed over?
There was the hope perhaps, that this new film could reignite interest in the Beats, and maybe even give David Kammerer some of the justice he had been denied since the day of his death, nearly 70 years ago.
The casting of the excellent Michael C. Hall, lauded for his roles in Six Feet Under and Dexter, as Kammerer, was promising, but, sad to say, the film falls far short of the mark. Radcliffe is great as Ginsberg, and kudos to him for taking on such a challenging role, instead of just coasting on his Harry Potter rep. Little known actor Dane de Haan was compelling as the murderer Carr, but Jack Kerouac comes off as a dumb jock, showing none of his sensitivity and insight, and Kammerer is a sweaty, stalk-ey mess throughout the film. We have no idea why anyone in their right mind would want to having anything at all to do with him.
I found myself reading articles online about the case, and decided to read the novel that Kerouac and Burroughs co-wrote in 1945 about the murder And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. It was published for the first time in 2008, in deference to the feelings of Carr, who died in 2005 (and whose son, Caleb Carr, wrote The Alienist, which also features a gay monster who "deserves" to be destroyed - like father, like son).
I found a copy of Hippos on Amazon for under $3 and ordered it. After reading it, I wished they had based the film directly on that book. I also read Bloodsong, the novel Ginsberg (primarily known for writing poetry) started but never finished about the murder, which can be found in the collection of Ginsberg's early journals and poems called The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice. I looked at several Beat bios and studies as well.
Remarkably, they all echoed the Beat party line on the murder, practically verbatim.
The "conventional wisdom" about the case is fatally flawed, so to speak. In my opinion, Kammerer did not deserve to be murdered. Lucien Carr was responsible for his death, and paid the very small price of two years confinement for his crime. Carr spent the rest of his life trying to cover up his crime, and when it was exposed, always tried to place the onus of the crime on his victim, Kammerer. And it was wrong for the Beats to go along with Carr's continued (character) assassination of Kammerer.
I found myself asking, "Why do they keep killing David Kammerer?"
Burroughs and Kerouac
Dane Dehaan as Carr in "Kill Your Darlings"
Actors playing Burroughs, Ginsberg, Carr, and Kerouac in the film
Kerouac and Carr
Burroughs, Carr, and Ginsberg (after Carr was released from jail)
"New York Times" article on the case
Michael C. Hall doing his sweaty, creepy best at playing Kammerer in the film