How A Generation of "Beat" Writers Burnt Out on Speed

By Nicolas Rasmussen 09/22/11

Back in the sixties, a slew of star writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs radically increased their output by consuming vast amounts of of speed. But eventually the drug did them more harm than good.

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Back in the 1940's, precious few white college boys would have been taking in the emerging music scene that was unfolding in Harlem jazz clubs, but one exception was Jack Kerouac, a confused college Freshman who was attending Columbia University on a football scholarship. After dropping out of school in 1941, working in a series of odd jobs, plus two stints in the Merchant Marine and one in the Navy (ending with a psychiatric discharge), Kerouac returned to New York in late 1943. He now was intent on becoming a  writer, looking for a radically “New Vision,” a fresh form of feeling and expression that veered then-beyond social conventions. His girlfriend, Edie Parker, and a sometime student named Joan Vollmer shared an apartment near Columbia, the hub of a literary circle that included an eager-eyed, gangly Columbia freshman named Allen Ginsberg. Another member of the circle was a slim and worldly thirty-year-old sporting well pressed but unremarkable suits, who knew a lot about psychology, philosophy, and criticism. He also knew a lot about the Times Square underworld, where, as a modern literary Decadent, he was learning how to roll drunks, fence stolen goods, and buy narcotics. His name was William Burroughs, and he became something of a mentor to Ginsberg and Kerouac, while the keen youngsters inspired him to put ink to paper.

Kerouac took so much amphetamine when he first discovered the inhaler high that he lost most of his hair and his legs swelled up with thrombophlebitis. 

By the end of 1944, Kerouac had split with Parker and was spending most of his time with Burroughs and Vollmer at the apartment they now shared on 115th Street, soon to be joined by Ginsberg. Vickie Russell, who roomed with one of Burroughs’s junkie friends, introduced Benzedrine Inhalers to the 115th Street circle one day in 1945, when Burroughs and Kerouac dropped by her place looking for drugs. They all caught a taxi to search for heroin dealers near Times Square, and on the way she produced three inhalers, cracked them open, and fed each the contents of a whole tube. “I got so high, with her, on Benzedrine,” Kerouac recalled, “that I didn’t know where I was, and I said, ‘Are we in St. Petersburg, Russia?’ [...] She says: ‘You’re buzzing, ba-by!’ We get in the [subway] train [...] and we’re all standing, holding onto the straps, talking and you know we are all buzzing and she’s explaining to us what it is to be high and all the time we are digging everybody in the car, with all those bright lights, and she’s telling us how to dig them.”

Kerouac felt something profound that day, a new way to experience the world more immediately and less filtered by stereotypes, and a new way to experience companionship, too (it made him feel much closer to Burroughs, and he ended up spending twenty-four passionate hours in bed with Russell).

Joan Vollmer, who was growing ever closer to Burroughs, acquired a heavy Benzedrine Inhaler habit. Soon the amphetamine made her mentally unbalanced so that she sometimes really did not know her friends and surroundings. For Kerouac, however, the power of an amphetamine buzz to turn the familiar strange opened doors to the “New Vision” in literature that he and Ginsberg sought. Part of the inspiration was from bebop. Although the intellectual sophistication of the music seems to have been lost on Kerouac and friends, who like many white critics tended to see it as a “primitive” Africa-inspired genre, they admired the free play of spontaneous sound and wanted to emulate it in writing. As Kerouac explained, the “tenor man drawing breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, til he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement’s been made…that’s how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind.”

Benzedrine was just as essential as jazz; the drug became a sacrament, the inspiration of a new, spontaneous way of writing that blasted the mind free of convention and communicated raw physical and emotional experience. Kerouac took so much amphetamine when he first discovered the inhaler high that he lost most of his hair and his legs swelled up with thrombophlebitis. As he wrote to Ginsberg in November of 1945, “Benny [Benzedrine] has made me see a lot. The process of intensifying awareness naturally leads to an overflow of old notions, and voila, new material wells up like water forming its proper level, and makes itself evident at the brim of consciousness. Brand new water! The art of my past is all farce, or at least mostly.” Not just any drug would do. It was the particular quality of amphetamine, the acceleration of thought and feeling, that helped him plumb his unconscious and live “in the Now.” 

Ginsberg used Benzedrine in the same way, questing for “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” as he would put it in his brilliant poem “Howl” (although his greatest vision came from reading William Blake without benefit of drugs, in 1948). But, like bebop, Benzedrine used as an instrument for experiments in consciousness was not for everyone; one needed a taste for high seriousness. As the character Hart Kennedy explains in Go by John Clennon Holmes—the other novelist who, with Kerouac, came to define the literary style that came to be known as “Beat”—he preferred the relaxing effects of marijuana. “When I was on benny…I got all mean and compulsive, you know? Always worried and hung up. Sure, I was a real big serious intellectual then, toting books around all the time, thinking in all those big psycho-logical terms and every- thing.” This was no mere recreational drug to the Beatniks. 

However the deadly, diabolical side of speed also showed itself to these early pioneers of high-dose amphetamine abuse, even within the circle that invented the Beat lifestyle. At 115th Street, in 1945 and early 1946, Joan Vollmer was eating a Benzedrine Inhaler a day, and taking Benzedrine tablets, too. Her skin was covered with sores, which she attributed to mutations from atomic testing. She often heard the old couple in the apartment beneath discussing her and her friends, calling her a whore and the others drug fiends. One day, she heard them having a terrible quarrel and sent Ginsberg and Kerouac down- stairs to prevent the man from killing his wife. Nobody, in fact, was home. In 1946, while Burroughs was on four months’ probation in St. Louis, Vollmer started taking more Benzedrine and ended up in Bellevue Hospital as the institution’s first female case of amphetamine psychosis. Paranoid auditory hallucinations are a typical symptom. 

Burroughs came to rescue Vollmer and took her with him to a farm he had bought in Texas, where he was trying to grow marijuana. Though pregnant, she was soon back on Benzedrine, up to two inhalers a day, which she was now injecting. In August 1947, when Ginsberg and Cassady arrived for a visit, the recently born baby, William Burroughs Jr., appeared to be suffering amphetamine withdrawal. (Speed and alcohol would keep William Junior’s brilliant literary career, and his life, short. As his friend John Steinbeck Jr. aptly put it, “Billy had a few strikes against him to be sure. He had tried to grow his fetal brain cells in a swirl of Benzedrine-eucalyptus amniotic fluid from her habit of shooting the soakings of nose inhalers. The first liver cell he ever owned was put to indentured servitude even as it tried to mesoderm its way into mere helpfulness.”)

Two summers later, in 1949, when Cassady and Kerouac came to visit Burroughs and Vollmer, now living in a suburb of New Orleans, she was using three Benzedrine Inhaler tubes a day, and her “face, once plump and Germanic and pretty, had become stony and red and gaunt,” as Kerouac relates in On the Road. She was compulsively scrubbing their decaying shack while toddler Billy ran around naked, shitting on the floor, and at night she tried to clean lizards out of trees with a rake. Burroughs did a lot of target practice around the house, firing his handguns at the many empty inhalers. Two years later, Burroughs accidentally shot Vollmer dead in a drinking game in Mexico City, where the couple had moved to escape the “drag”—the oppressive atmosphere—of the United States. If it is fair to say that drugs caused her untimely death, then Joan Vollmer was killed by amphetamine inhalers, even if Burroughs pulled the trigger. While still gaining status as a mainstream psychiatric medicine, behind the scenes amphetamine would soon be claiming many more lives, as the prevalence of its use swelled still further. 

Excerpted from On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine by Nicolas Rasmussen with permission by the publisher. Nicolas Rasmussen is Associate Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and is also the author of Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960.

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Nicolas Rasmussen is Associate Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and is also the author of Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960and, On Speed: From Benzedrine to Adderall.