The St. Louis Clique: Burroughs, Kammerer, and Carr

By Griffin, Dustin | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The St. Louis Clique: Burroughs, Kammerer, and Carr


Griffin, Dustin, Journal of Beat Studies


"The whole thing really begins in St. Louis." That's what Jack Kerouac said in a 1960 interview about the beginnings of what was later known as the "Beat Generation" (Aronowitz). Most accounts of the origin of the Beats focus on the meeting of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in New York in early 1944, but Kerouac said it in fact began with the "St. Louis clique."' By that term he meant three friends-all of whom had grown up in St. Louis-who brought Kerouac and Ginsberg together: William S. Burroughs, David Kämmerer, and the much younger Lucien Carr. Burroughs, then 30, would go on to write Junky (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), and many other novels. Kämmerer, 33, had taught English at Washington University in St. Louis for a couple of years. Carr, 19, was a sophomore at Columbia University. Ginsberg later said that "Lu" Carr-who introduced Ginsberg, his floor-mate in a Columbia dorm, and later Kerouac, to his St. Louis friends-was "the glue."2

"The St. Louis clique" ended abruptly early on August 14, 1944, when after a night of drinking, Carr stabbed Kämmerer to death on the banks of the Hudson River near Columbia, reportedly (according to Carr) after the older man had made an unwanted sexual advance. Both Burroughs and Kerouac were called as material witnesses. As Ginsberg wrote in his journal the next day, "The libertine circle is destroyed with the death of Kämmerer" {Martyrdom 63). Amonth later Carr pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

The killing3 of Kämmerer is an oft-told tale.4 It received another fictionalized telling last year in the independent movie Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas from a screenplay by Krokidas and his Yale roommate Austin Bunn, and starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg is the central figure, with the entire story told from his point of view. Burroughs and Kämmerer play secondary roles. The presentation of Carr is not flattering, and his account of the killing is called into question. The appearance of the filmed version of the story, which includes some invented episodes, makes it timely to take a closer look at the verifiable facts in the case.

All printed accounts of the killing derive ultimately from the same sources, primarily the contemporary newspaper reports-eight stories about the killing of Kämmerer appeared in the New York Times from August 17 through October 10, 1944. The other major sources for the story of the "St. Louis clique" in 1944 are Ginsberg's journals from that period, but they have less evidentiary value: he tended to write his journals as if they were on their way to being fiction.5 Kerouac wrote several accounts of the episode, including his novel The Vanity of Duluoz (1968), but they too were fictionalized and lack documentary status. Equally fictionalized is the novel he and Burroughs composed about the event, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, written in 1945 but not published until 2008. The account in Joyce Johnson's recent biography of Kerouac, The Voice Is All (2012), is colored by its point of view: it looks at the St. Louis trio through the eyes of Kerouac and Ginsberg.6 Ted Morgan's 1988 biography of Burroughs, though largely an imaginative reconstruction of events (and dialogue), was at least based on 100 hours of interviews with Burroughs in the 1980s. The story as told in Barry Miles' Call Me Burroughs: A Life, published earlier this year, like that in his earlier William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible (1992), depends on Ginsberg's journals, the memories of Lucien Carr (not a disinterested witness), and interviews with Burroughs some forty years after the event. Miles also candidly concedes that Burroughs was not always a reliable reporter on his own past (see, for example, Call Me 175, 633). There are also a few memoirs with brief, and usually tendentious, sketches of Carr and Kämmerer. Journalists and bloggers depend on these few primary sources and continue to retell the story, playing up the more sensational elements of sexuality. …

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