Who Is Rollo Greb in “On the Road”?

6 Feb


Some names are practically synonymous with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs, and Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg, for sure.

But what about Rollo Greb? Who was he?

The character Rollo Greb in On the Road was based on Alan Ansen. Kerouac renamed him in other books. He was Irwin Swenson in Visions of Cody and Book of Dreams, Austin Bromberg in Big Sur, and Amadeus Baroque (love that name!) in Doctor Sax. Burroughs called him AJ in Naked Lunch and Port of Saints. Gregory Corso named him Dad Deform in American Express. (See Beat Book Covers’ excellent character key.)

But who was he in real life?

Born on January 23, 1922, and raised on Long Island, Ansen attended Harvard University, which incidentally was also William S. Burroughs’ alma mater.

After college and back in New York City, in 1948, Ansen became a research assistant/secretary to W. H. Auden. The English poet had come over to the US with author Christopher Isherwood (The Berlin Stories) in the first month of 1939. Auden dedicated his 1950 book of lectures The Enchafèd Flood to Ansen. Based on the notes he took while working with the poet, Ansen published Table Talk of W. H. Auden. Here’s the write up on Amazon:

In New York, between 1946 and 1948, the scholar and poet Alan Ansen made rapid notes of Auden’s inimitable conversation. This book is a record of Auden’s private, offhand and sometimes wayward remarks and opinions about art, literature, music, politics, religion and sexuality.


Sounds like a must read! I’m adding it to my Goodreads list.

By the time Ansen was working for Auden, Kerouac was already in the early stages of the work that would become On the Road. Poet Ted Joans went so far as to say:

Without Alan Ansen there would be no William Burroughs.

Ansen himself went on to become a poet and playwright, but never reached the same heights of fame that his mentor and Beat contemporaries did.

If you’re looking to read one of Ansen’s works, Contact High is a good place to start. Here’s the copy from Barnes & Noble:

“Alan Ansen’s first book,” James Merrill has noted, “Disorderly Houses (1961), dedicated to both W. H. Auden and William Burroughs, was also his last to be published commercially. Since then this prolific and unpredictable poet’s work has been available only in editions of his own devising, distributed to friends at his own caprice. As one of the happy few, I can report that his gifts remain as brightly unnerving as ever.”
Though perhaps best known as the model for some of the most flamboyant characters in Beat fiction (Rollo Greb in Kerouac’s On the Road, A. J. in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Dad Deform in Corso’s American Express) and as Auden’s secretary (he helped Auden with the syllabification of The Age of Anxiety), Alan Ansen is an accomplished poet in his own right. Having affinities with both the Beats and the New York school of poets, Ansen fuses Beat sensibility with formalist rigor. Contact Highs is the first comprehensive collection of his poetry, and includes a biographical introduction, an afterword by poet Rachel Hadas, and a bibliography of Ansen’s elusive works.

“Alan Ansen occupies a specialized evolutionary niche in twentieth-century letters, and his poetry has unjustly been too long obscured by its unfashionable classicism and its author’s self-effacing stance towards a poetic career. His writings achieve the scarcely possible: transmuting existence into life.” (William Burroughs)

“Ansen is the most delicate hippopotamus of poets with his monstrous classical versifications—he gets conversational fatness ‘into stricter order’ by use of weird echosyllabics, polyphony, strict rhymeless pindarics, self-annihilating sestinas, mono-amphisbaenic and echo rhyme, skeltonics, versicles & alcaics coherent Palindromes & such like master eccentricities—a hangup on Forms which interestingly pushes academic models beyond polite limits into the area of lunatic personal genius—This is an amazing book, with many sad poems.” (Allen Ginsberg)

“Whatever the styles, the cadences are powerfully relentless and informed by an intellectual complexity rare today. As witty as O’Hara, Ansen also plunges into the depths of the human condition. This may be one of the more significant poetry publications of the decade; four stars.” (Library Journal)

“[Contact Highs] careens in voice from a tone of bravado—an unwavering insistence on seeing the universe in all its mockery and injustice—to one of unabashed tenderness. And such conflict implies the poetry’s central tension: a desire to be immersed in life’s drama, rather than merely to judge it. Ansen . . . is a vivid creator of worlds with words, but never too sober in his verbal wizardry. Sly and wild in the manner of Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg, the poet marries exultant anarchy to traditional forms. Dismissing ‘shameless lyrists’ who ‘warble their hearts’ content,’ like an ‘eerie oddity’ Ansen ‘retails his uniqueness’ with some bitterness but more brio, and many readers will be grateful.” (Publishers Weekly 10-20-89)

“Ansen’s poetry . . . joins Apollonian reserve and formal skill to Dionysiac drug taking and homoeroticism. Between those poles, however, he creates a space of truly living poetry. Recommended.” (Booklist 10-1-89)

“Beautifully wrought formal (though outrageous) verses. . . . His poems speak for themselves, combining playfulness with astonishing erudition, in the fashion of the better poets of what was in my mind ‘the Ginsberg nucleus.'” (Carl Solomon, American Book Review Nov-Dec 90)

Just goes to show you, just because the other characters in On the Road became more notorious doesn’t mean the lesser-known characters aren’t equally as fascinating.

“That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you – that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out, he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock back and forth. Man, he’s the end! You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it.”

~On the Road


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