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Blows Like a Horn

Blows Like a Horn

Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of U.S. Culture

Preston Whaley, Jr.

ISBN 9780674013117

Publication date: 07/27/2004

Reopening the canons of the Beat Generation, Blows Like a Horn traces the creative counterculture movement as it cooked in the heat of Bay Area streets and exploded into spectacles, such as the scandal of the Howl trial and the pop culture joke of beatnik caricatures. Preston Whaley shows Beat artists riding the glossy exteriors of late modernism like a wave. Participants such as Lawrence Lipton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and at great personal cost, even Jack Kerouac, defied the traditional pride of avant-garde anonymity. They were ambitious to change the culture and used mass-mediated scandal, fame, and distortion to attract knowing consumers to their poetry and prose.

Blows Like a Horn follows the Beats as they tweaked the volume of excluded American voices. It watches vernacular energies marching through Beat texts on their migration from shadowy urban corners and rural backwoods to a fertile, new hyper-reality, where they warped into stereotypes. Some audiences were fooled. Others discovered truths and were changed.

Mirroring the music of the era, the book breaks new ground in showing how jazz, much more than an ambient soundtrack, shaped the very structures of Beat art and social life. Jazz, an American hybrid—shot through with an earned-in-the-woodshed, African American style of spontaneous intelligence—also gave Beat poetry its velocity and charisma. Blows Like a Horn plumbs the actions and the art of celebrated and arcane Beat writers, from Allen Ginsberg to ruth weiss. The poetry, the music, the style—all of these helped transform U.S. culture in ways that are still with us.


  • Looking at the interface between literature and jazz, Whaley focuses on the development of the Beat scene and the social and economic factors that fed it. ‘Immediacy of emotion’ is what he finds central to—and prizes in—both the poetry and music that came of age in the Beat period. A rich sense of political history enhances Whaley’s analysis and his writing on jazz is as knowledgeable as his grasp of the literature of the period. He discusses such major figures in the movement as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, offering particularly original and compelling studies of the often-disparaged film version of Kerouac’s Subterraneans and of Kerouac’s posthumous novel, Visions of Cody. Equally valuable is discussion of less-known personalities (ruth weiss, Bob Kaufman) and the personal and social infighting in the Beat subculture… Written in a clear and forceful style…this volume deserves a long life.

    —B. Wallenstein, Choice


  • Preston Whaley, Jr., is a freelance scholar, writer, and musician living in Florida.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 0-11/16 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press