Lew Welch, an early but lesser-known member of the Beat Generation, was born Lewis Barrett Welch, Jr., in Phoenix, Arizona on August 16, 1926. He was raised by a single mother in various towns near San Diego but attended junior high and high school in Palo Alto, California. Shortly after graduating from high school, Welch enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age seventeen, enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley as an engineering major, then was called to active duty in the Air Force in January 1947, but was discharged in November. He next enrolled at Stockton Junior College, where he developed an interest in the works of Gertrude Stein. He transferred to Reed College in 1948, where he began to write poetry and became friends and roommates with fellow future Beat poets, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. While at Reed, Welch completed a thesis on Stein which William Carlos Williams, whom Welch, Snyder, and Whalen met during a reading by the elder poet, encouraged Welch to publish. The thesis, titled How I Read Gertrude Stein (Grey Fox Press, 1993), was published posthumously. In 1951, Welch enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago to study philosophy and, later, English, but dropped out. Welch lived in New York and Chicago before settling back in San Francisco, where he focused on writing poetry.
Welch published his first chapbook, Wobbly Rock (Auerhahn Press, 1960), soon after studying Zen Buddhism, which was an influence on this debut work, under Snyder’s tutelage. Wobbly Rock includes Welch’s first experiments with koans. He achieved increasing public recognition as a poet in the mid-1960s, after having published work in Poetry magazine and in the anthology The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (University of California Press, 1960), edited by Donald Allen, who later became Welch’s literary executor. In 1965, Welch released Hermit Poems (Four Seasons Foundation). A year earlier, on June 12, Welch participated in the San Francisco “Freeway Reading” alongside Snyder and Whalen. The event, like the Six Gallery Reading, was a touchstone for public awareness about Beat literature. Welch’s final collection, The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings (Sand Dollar), was released in 1970. Ring of Bone (City Lights Publishers, 2012), edited by Allen, provides Welch’s collected works. Welch’s voluminous correspondence with Snyder and Whalen was published posthumously as I Remain, The Letters of Lew Welch & Correspondence of His Friends, Volume One: 1949–1960 (Grey Fox Press, 1980). Welch was also influenced by the Chinese poets Li Po and Hanshan and was the inspiration for the character of David Wain in Kerouac’s novel Big Sur.
Welch had numerous jobs throughout his life. Before enrolling at Stockton, he worked as a mechanic and as a salesperson at a men’s haberdashery. In Chicago, he worked as an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward before being fired in 1958 after a transfer to Oakland. In the Bay Area, while living in the East-West House, a San Francisco commune, he worked as a cab driver, a dock worker, and a longshoreman’s clerk. Welch then moved into an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabin on the Salmon River in California, where he supposedly completed Hermit Poems. He also taught poetry workshops for five years in the University of California Extension Program in San Francisco.
Welch, who struggled with alcoholism and mental health problems for much of his life, likely committed suicide on May 23, 1971 in North San Juan, California near Snyder’s home. His body was never found.